Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dinosaurs, Documentaries, and Sex

I watched a little bit of the documentary “Walking With Dinosaurs” yesterday. It’s a really good documentary, if you get a chance to watch it, you should.

But I noticed that it tended to say things that we probably couldn’t know. Like how long early mammals stayed with their young, or that they mated for life. How can we possibly know if something that lived 200 million years ago mated for life? I don’t see how the fossils could tell us that, and it’s not the kind of thing where comparisons to living animals would be particularly applicable. Even if they were comparing to modern animals, what reptiles mate for life? None I know of.

In my experience documentaries tend to present speculation as fact far more often than they should. I’ve seen entire History Channel documentaries that are nothing more than rampant speculation presented as though it’s good history, and it’s just irresponsible. I realize that controversy sells, but some people don’t have the background to realize how stupid the hypotheses they’re presenting actually are, and the producers should at least present the more traditional view (which has the evidence for it). But I’ve complained about this before.

Speaking of positions that have evidence, here’s an article about Dinosaur sex. This is one of those things that we can’t completely determine with just bones. But we’re nearly positive that Dinosaurs would reproduce similarly to birds and reptiles, lining up openings called cloaca.

But as the article points out, these openings would be tiny, even on huge dinosaurs. Positioning two smalls holes right on top of each other when tails and legs the size of trees - and about as maneuverable - are in the way would be no small task. In the words of L. Beverly Halstead, a paleontologist, "Their mating had to be done with great delicacy and great precision. It must have been utterly charming to watch, quite unlike our own species."

The article goes into some more specific detail. It’s about dinosaurs and sex, so you know it’s a worthwhile read.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Richard Dawkins Book Reading

Richard Dawkins came to Menlo Park yesterday, to read a bit from his book, field some questions, and sign books. It was quite crowded, I was actually a bit surprised by how many people came out to see him. I was even more surprised when he said that his reception in the US has been very positive. I can’t believe he hasn’t been protested.

I was actually a bit disappointed with what he had to say, it wasn’t much new stuff. He did have one point that has been made before, but that I’d like to reiterate.

You are profoundly lucky to be here. Of all the consciousnesses that genes and environment could produce, nearly none will ever see the light of day. The particular combination that makes you you is fantastically unlikely, and the number of things that had to go the way they did is staggering.

Of course, you are here, and maybe it could have been no other way (we’ll never know). But this life is incredibly precious. A person will get one hundred years alive, if they’re lucky, an eye-blink in terms of the universe’s, our planet’s, even our species’ history. But it’s the only eye-blink you’ll get. Make the most of it. Try your best to live so that as you die, you feel you couldn’t have done better. It’s all you can do.

Besides that I kind of got the feeling that Dawkins is getting tired. He didn’t seem as energetic or as enthusiastic as he does in interviews. Or maybe he just doesn’t really want to be a pseudo-celebrity, signing books for fans. I can’t really tell, and I might be plain wrong.

He also made a point about how questions like, “raping women would propagate my genes better than not, so shouldn’t I do it?” come from a very naive understanding of Darwinism. One day I plan to go into it, but it’s a fairly well-covered topic, (there’s a lack-luster treatment of it here). The short answer is that “is does not imply ought”, and the longer answer involves the fact that humans evolved as social animals, and as such have to be able to cooperate in groups, where antisocial behavior wouldn’t be (as) tolerated.

When Dawkins answered it he went into the fact that selfish genes fit with altruism because in social groups many of the animals you encounter will be related to you, and you’ll encounter them over and over. Both of these things lead to cooperation. But it’s much simpler to say that social animals will evolve to be able to work together, which means that they’ll need the traits that we see as positive, and will tend to lose the negative ones, which is exactly why we see altruism, kindness, and charity as good and rape, murder, and theft as bad. The fact that this is compatible with the “gene’s eye view” of evolution is entirely incidental, and Dawkins’s answer suffered because of the fact that he brought it back to his theory (regardless of how good that theory is).

Reading this you might think I was entirely disappointed, which isn’t true at all, Dawkins is still a good speaker, and a great biologist and atheist. If anything, the fact that I’ve watched his shows and read his books simply means that I’ve heard it all before. If he’s coming to a city near you any time soon, I’d recommend going and having a listen.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dodder, the plant that smells

There is a remarkable plant called the dodder. It’s a parasitic vine that attaches itself to other plants and inserts growths called haustoria that absorb nutrients from the host. It then loses its roots and become wholly dependent on the host plant to survive.

While that’s interesting, it’s not the most interesting thing about this plant. For a while no one was entirely sure how the dodder actually located its prey. As it turns out, the dodder can accomplish this using smell.

Consuelo De Moraes and Mark Mescher lead a study that determined this. They found that the dodder will grow toward a tomato’s scent, regardless of whether it’s actually a plant or just a piece of rubber.

Plants never cease to amaze me. Actually, life and evolution never cease to amaze me. If anything, the fact that plants are so radically different from animals, and yet are capable of many of the same things is a testament to the capabilities of evolution. Time and time again, we see the same strategies evolve in different circumstances from different starting lines, such as plants that can “smell” or eat, or the dozens of times the eye has evolved. Evolution is a very powerful force.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogging Scholarship: Why I Blog

The other day Pharyngula linked to the Blogging Scholarship. Since I am a student, and a blogger, and could use $5,000 (or at least a little exposure for the blog), I entered. My "essay", which was really just a blog post, would make a perfect blog post (imagine that). It's below.

But also, if you're a student blogger, check this thing out. The deadline is pretty soon, but it was only announced a few days ago, I think it had a deadline of a week. So enter!


I started blogging because I wanted to be able to write and have other people read it. I had, and still have, high hopes for my blog becoming one that many people enjoy reading. Gaining readership is a slow and arduous process, and writing a short essay every day can be difficult, especially given all of the constraints on my time.

Despite all of the hardships, the responses from readers certainly makes it worthwhile. I had one commenter share the story of husband’s death from lung cancer, and how their atheism allowed them to be close and gave her more comfort than other widows she knew. Her story nearly brought a tear to my eye, and I would have never heard it without my post and the discussions in the comments. While not as dramatic, the comments that simply say, “Nice blog!” or, “Great post!” are just as rewarding. Getting one of those can make my day.

Most people say that they blog for themselves only. I don’t understand this sentiment, and that’s why the leather-bound journal in my desk contains almost no writing. I blog not only because I enjoy writing, but because I enjoy seeing a post on Fark or Digg or Reddit, and because I enjoy getting those comments. But it is emphatically not just about me: it’s about anyone who reads and likes my writing. It might sound silly, but if my words can make someone else happy, even just one person, then I’m happy.

That’s why I blog.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Digging for Holes in Einstein

I’m in a class called, “Foundations of Modern Physics”, which is essentially an introduction to special relativity and quantum physics. It’s interesting material, and I could probably get a lot of posts from that alone.

But that’s not important. What I want to talk about now is my professor. Whenever he gets to a subject that he won’t take the time to prove, or a postulate that’s not entirely clear why it’s true, he makes a big point about not taking his word for it. He doesn’t say, “Well, Einstein said it was true, so it must be.” He tells you to examine the evidence for yourself; to make sure that the postulate is valid; to find places where the text (or his lecture) is glossing over something, or making bad assumptions; to look for holes in the material.

I think that is fantastic, because that’s how science is. You’re not just memorizing facts that other people have gathered. You’re looking at their evidence, seeing the conclusions they drew, and evaluating them for yourself. Much of the time (for older physics, at least) you can even do their experiments. Even the most advance fields are within reach to someone who’s determined.

And that is precisely why science works. Even if someone made up data, falsified conclusion, fabricated evidence, we’d find out. Eventually someone would look at their data and their conclusions and say “This doesn’t add up.” It’s very difficult to defraud scientists for very long.

Scientists don’t get everything right, either. Sometimes a theory has to be scrapped because of new evidence. But again, that’s the beauty of it. No conclusion is permanent, everything can be changed, as long as there’s evidence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that nothing can be proven, many theories are so accurate at predicting the world that any replacement would have to nearly fully include them (such as General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, or the Standard Model). The phrase that pops into my head to describe scientific proof is “Beyond a reasonable doubt”, although most theories are well beyond reasonable doubts.

Science may not be perfect, but as the shirt I’m wearing right now says, “It works, bitches.”


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Poor Ford

Ford recently posted a $5.8 billion third quarter loss. That is a staggering amount of money. I can’t even begin to fathom how a company could lose that much money. Either cars are quite unprofitable, or Ford is poorly managed to a ridiculous degree.

To get some perspective on that staggering amount of money, I did some basic math. Ford lost:

  • $64 million a day
  • $2.69 million an hour
  • $44,000 a minute
  • $745.88 a second

In the time that it takes you to read this sentence, Ford will lose about five thousand dollars. If, by magic, Ford’s losses for the next minute were transferred to my bank account, it would pay for a year of school.

To be fair, Ford is not the worst. In one quarter in 2003, AOL Time Warner posted a $45 billion loss, and they had a $100 billion total loss. They were, almost literally, hemorrhaging money at $3,171 a second. At that rate, they would pay for my entire education in less than a minute.

However, to be entirely fair, the US Government is, quite possibly, the king of spending more than they earn. The largest single-year budget deficit I could find was $477 billion dollars. That’s $15,126 a second, or my entire education in 12 seconds. This year is better, (if over 200 billion is really better), but in the time it took to write this sentence, the government lost $100,000.

Maybe the executives at Ford aren’t in as much trouble as I thought.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Biblical Changes

This article raises an interesting point about the Bible: it has changed a lot over the years. Which is to be expected, in the times of hand-copying all works did. One book I’ve read (I think it was The Ancestor’s Tale) even used different copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to illustrate how mutation works.

But back to the point: the Bible changes. The percentage of Americans who believe that the Bible is literally true is large, but hard to pin down. I’ve seen numbers as high as 60% and as low as 10%, which raises a bunch of questions about those polls, but they’re beside the point. I’m curious as to how those people, however numerous, would respond to the fact that the Bible is different, in some cases very different, now than it was two-thousand years ago.

Because I can only see three possibilities:

  1. God inspired the Bible then inspired the changes.
  2. God inspired the Bible but men changed it.
  3. Men created the Bible and men changed it.

None of those possibilities bode well for literalists. The first is the best, but why would God change the book that he wrote? Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t make much sense. If God is perfect then why would his works need editing? Possibility two is worse, given that it means that man messed up what God wrote, but the basic message is probably still there. This is still problematic, because why wouldn’t God stop man from mangling his works?

The third possibility is the absolute worst, since it takes God completely out of the equation, and makes the Bible no more important than The Epic of Gilgamesh or the proverbs of Ahikar the Wise, or Moby Dick (the first two were picked as they predate the parts of the Bible to which they bear striking resemblance). This is also the most plausible, and it’s the conclusion that most Biblical scholars, like Bart D. Ehrman, reach. Ehrman wrote a book called Misquoting Jesus about this very topic.

The Bible is undoubtedly an important book, but not because it’s the word of God.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gay Animals

I found this article to be quite interesting. Not because I didn’t know that animals exhibited homosexual tendencies, but because of this:

One radical Christian said organisers of the exhibition – partly funded by the Norwegian Government – should "burn in hell", Mr Soeli said.

It seems to me that gay animals throw the assertion that homosexuality is unnatural right out the window. I’ve never heard of a theology that grants animals free will (a right reserved solely for humans because we’re so special), so how can they choose to be gay? They’re just doing what’s natural to them, and in some cases, that means homosexuality.

So anyone who declares the fact that homosexuality is perfectly natural has to burn in hell for the heinous crime of exposing the hatred and idiocy of the bigots. Personally, I’d like to see more exhibits like these, as well as more education about the research in genetic/environmental causes of homosexuality (for instance, every older brother you have multiplies your odds of being gay by four-thirds. I guess younger siblings just choose to be gay more often).

One of my high school teachers told the class a story about a gay friend of hers. He could remember when he was five, playing with two neighbors, a boy and a girl, and he had a crush on the boy. Taking this story at face value, how could a five year old boy have a crush on another boy without naturally preferring boys? Like gay animals, it doesn’t make sense unless homosexuality is natural for some people.

Which leads me to my conclusion: homosexuality is natural for some people. Even if you don’t happen to like it, live and let live. It’s that simple.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Free Will and Useless Philosophy

Here is a good example of why I think that philosophy is useless.

Free will is a problem that has pretty much always been around. It certainly does feel like I’m choosing the words that I’m typing right now, but there have always been reasons to think that we aren’t totally in control. First it was gods, then Newtonian science, and now the probabilistic quantum mechanical science. There have always been arguments for us not having free will, and the persistent feeling that we do have it.

So really, what difference does it make? Right now we have absolutely no way of deciding one way or another, so why spend energy trying to think our way to a solution? Thought won’t get us there, but one day medical science just might. Until then, it’s just a waste of time on a subject that doesn’t matter.

That’s not to say that I don’t think we should work on hard problems, but I’m nearly certain that it’s going to be science that tackles them, and it’s usually pretty clear what science is capable of tackling at any given point. Consciousness and free will are far off; the Higgs particle probably isn’t.

Do I have free will? It seems like it, but even if I don’t, I really don’t care.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cotard's Delusion

Yesterday I wrote about Capgras Syndrome, and today I want to talk about another very interesting and similar mental disorder, called the Cotard delusion.

In this disorder, nothing at all arouses any kind of emotional response. Sights, smells, sounds, touches, and tastes have no impact. As with Capgras, the brain has to make sense of this bewildering lack of emotion, and it does in it a very strange way: the patient believes that they are, in fact, dead. Being dead is the only way to feel nothing, so given complete apathy to everything, the brain concludes that it must be dead.

Once convinced of being dead, it is nearly totally impossible to use logic to convince the person that they’re alive. For example, they’ll admit that dead people don’t bleed, but if you prick them with a needle, they’ll say that dead people must bleed. No evidence, no matter how damning to their belief, will make them see the truth.

This boggles my mind. Imagine a life without any emotional response to anything. Even if you knew that you were alive, it certainly must feel like death. I’m curious about how many sufferers end up killing themselves (although if they already think they’re dead, perhaps they feel no need). What an unfortunate condition.

Besides being quite bizarre, this also teaches something about how the brain works. Once it has become convinced of a version of reality, it is nearly impossible to convince it otherwise. Although I doubt that anyone needed convincing of that little fact; we all have personal experience with it. Interesting, nonetheless.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Capgras Syndrome

There’s an interesting mental disorder called Capgras syndrome. It’s a rare mental disorder usually suffered by people who have had strokes or head trauma.

These people claim that everyone they know is not actually that person and has been replaced by an imposter. For example, after suffering the trauma, the sufferer wakes up and sees their family in their room. But the patient says that none of them are their family, they have all been replaced by look-alikes. One is quoted as saying, “Doctor, this woman looks exactly like my mother but she isn’t, she’s an imposter.” There is even one case where a sufferer made this claim of his pet poodle. However, if they hear a familiar voice on the phone, they immediately recognize it and suffer no delusions about imposters. The disorder is linked solely to visual areas.

Why does this happen? The best hypothesis is that the connection between the visual areas of the brain and emotional response centers (the amygdala and the limbic system) has been cut by the trauma.

When you see a familiar face, you have some kind of emotional response to it. According to this hypothesis, patients with Capgras don’t feel anything, which leads them to the conclusion that the person can’t be the one they know.

The nice thing about this hypothesis (unlike Freudian ones) is that it’s testable. When shown pictures of loved ones, normal people have large galvanic skin response. Capgras suffers don’t, exactly as you’d suspect if they lacked emotional responses to visual stimuli.

What I find interesting is that when the brain receives no emotional response to a stimulus to which it used to respond, it assumes the stimulus is a fake. It’s the only conclusion that the brain can draw given the facts. The brain is quite a remarkable organ.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Contextual Memory

Yesterday’s post reminded me of a psychological phenomenon involving facial recognition. After I became aware of it, I noticed that it happened to me rather frequently. I bet you’ll notice it too.

It turns out that facial recognition (and probably all forms of recognition) are partly contextual. That is, you recognize things more readily when they’re in their proper context.

When I was in high school I worked at a grocery store, and I would frequently see people who I knew I recognized, but couldn’t figure out why. They were almost all people from my school who I had never seen outside of school before. My brain had associated them with school, and out of context it couldn’t quite process them right.

This is probably related to the fact that memory has a contextual basis, and sensory input that you experienced during the “recording” of a memory can often cause you to remember it. Smells are particularly powerful at bringing back memories, although images (think about the attachment to photographs and family albums), sounds (music especially), even tactile sensations can all do it. This powerful association between memory and context is probably the cause of contextual recognition.

There might be an evolutionary reason, though. Perhaps recognizing an object, animal, or person based on your surroundings helps to filter information (like thinking someone/thing is someone/thing that it isn’t). It could also speeds up recognition by providing additional criteria to narrow the search. I find neither of these convincing, and can’t come up with any other benefits.

Whatever the reason, this effect is real. Now you’ll notice it all the time, too. Glad I could be of service.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Seeing Faces

I found this site interesting. Not because I happen to find ghosts interesting, they’re a ridiculous and fairly easily refuted superstition, but rather because pictures like those demonstrate how good the human brain is at picking out faces. So good, in fact, that we tend to see them where the don’t exist.

For a good example, look at all of the “apparitions” of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on different objects, from toast to tortillas. I remember seeing one where a shadow falling across some rocks supposedly looked like JFK, but at another time it was clearly just a pile of rocks. The infamous “Mars Face” is another example. The point is that we have this built-in face recognition software, and because false positives are much better than false negatives, we tend to see faces where there aren’t any.

Most of those ghost pictures are just shadows falling in a strange way. I find it funny how some people see what is quite easily explained by shadows, grainy film, and a misfire in a our face detection software, and jump to the conclusion that it’s a ghost.

The same can be said of our ability to detect intention. Because we live among agents that have intentions, we have to be able to infer what those intentions are. We can get false positives from nature, infer design or intent where there isn’t any. There are some interesting consequences of this, but that’s for another post.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Equivalence Principle

The equivalence principle, which is the foundation of general relativity, says that a gravitational field that accelerates an object at rate g is equivalent to applying an acceleration of -g to the object.

For instance, standing on the ground on Earth is the same as being on a platform in space accelerating at 9.8 m/s^2. (If you doubt it, think about being in an elevator. As the elevator is accelerating up, you can feel it pushing up on you. If you stand on a scale while this happens, it will read you gaining weight. The acceleration due to gravity and due to the elevator are impossible to tell apart).

This concept is very simple, and it makes sense. It also has dramatic consequences for the world in which we live.

One of these can be called “falling photons”. Think about the room accelerating at 9.8m/s^2, and think about shining a laser pointer across that room. What will happen? As the photons travel, the room will be accelerating upward, which means that the photons appear (to someone in the room) to arc down. Because of the equivalence principle, we know that this happens in gravitational fields too.

This effect was one of the first predictions of general relativity to be confirmed. The position of light from distant stars was measured during an eclipse and found to be different from measurements made while the stars were in plain view.

There are many other spectacular consequences of general relativity, most of which have been confirmed: time is slower in stronger gravitational fields; light is red-shifted (its frequency shortened) when traveling against a gravitational field; and black holes exist, objects so massive that past a certain point (the event horizon), not even light can escape their gravity.

Einstein figured this all out by simply thinking about gravity and the equivalence principle. The math gets very complicated, but the core concept is so simple it can be entirely explained in one sentence: gravitational fields are equivalent to accelerating reference frames. That’s good physics.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What Will We Do When The Plastic Runs Out?

We’re running out of oil. Everyone knows it, and when most people think about they imagine a world without gasoline, without diesel fuel, and without oil to heat their homes. Granted, these are all problems, but there’s another one, just as big, that’s less commonly discussed:

What are we going to do about plastics?

Almost all of our plastic comes from petroleum byproducts. The following is a partial list:

  • Polyethylene, the most common plastic that’s found in grocery bags, shampoo bottles, toys, even Kevlar vests. Anything with the number 1 in the recycling symbol is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

  • Polyvinyl chlorate, PVC, is in everything. It’s your plumbing, it’s in your raincoat, and it’s in medical equipment. Chances are if an object ever touches water, it’s got some PVC in it.

  • Polypropylene is a hard plastic, used in food packaging, reusable containers, loudspeakers, and automotive parts.

  • Polystyrene is the plastic in Styrofoam, as well as biomedical research equipment and explosives.

Looking around my desk, the only objects I see that doesn’t have some kind of plastic in them are made entirely of metal. Notebooks, books, pens, the laptop I’m using to write this, all of the cars I can see out of the window, nearly everything uses plastic. Without plastics, our lives would be much more difficult.

Fortunately, as with the impending energy crisis, scientists are working on alternatives. One possible replacement for petroleum is common sugar. Unfortunately, as with energy, while petroleum remains cheap alternatives aren’t being as vigorously pursued as they could be. The problem with plastic is even more dire, as it receives relatively little attention, despite being an absolute necessity in our modern world.

How will plastics fare when the oil wells run dry? It’s hard to say at this point. There are certainly other ways to synthesize them, and most can be recycled. But without intense research, we might not be able to do either effectively enough to meet our needs. On the other hand, all we need to find is a way to synthesize the polymers from something other than petroleum, which is within our reach. From there, ramping the process up for production would just be a matter of time.

Our distant future may find plastic in short supply, a precious commodity. Or it may continue to be cheap, strong, and durable: a staple of modern living. Only time will tell.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Six More Commonly Believed Things That Are False

A few weeks ago I did a post, Six Commonly Believed Things That Are False. One commenter asked for more, and after a few weeks of keeping my eyes and ears open, here it is, “Six More Commonly Believed Thing That Are False”.

1) Medieval people thought that the Earth was Flat

Yes, I know I did this one last time. But I got so many responses from people who disagreed that I had to do it again. This time, I’m just going to quote from Wikipedia:

The late development of European vernacular languages also provides some evidence to the contention that the spherical shape of the Earth was common knowledge outside academic circles. At the time, scholarly work was typically written in Latin. Works written in a native dialect or language (such as Italian or German) were generally intended for a wider audience.

Dante's Divine Comedy, the last great work of literature of the Middle Ages, written in Italian, portrays Earth as a sphere. Also, the Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1120), an important manual for the instruction of lesser clergy which was translated into Middle English, Old French, Middle High German, Old Russian, Middle Dutch, Old Norse, Icelandic, Spanish, and several Italian dialects, explicitly refers to a spherical Earth. Likewise, the fact that Bertold von Regensburg (mid-13th century) used the spherical Earth as a sermon illustration shows that he could assume this knowledge among his congregation. The sermon was held in the vernacular German, and thus was not intended for a learned audience.

Reinhard Krüger, a professor for Romance literature at the University of Stuttgart (Germany), has discovered more than 100 medieval Latin and vernacular writers from the late antiquity to the 15th century who were all convinced that the earth was round like a ball.

Is that enough evidence that even common people knew that the Earth was round? Because I certainly think it is. Granted, we’ll never be able to know if everyone thought the earth was round or flat. But every bit of evidence I’ve ever seen has said that people thought it was round, and none of the detractors last time produced a shred saying that they didn’t. So as far as I’m concerned, this is case closed.

2) Spacecraft heat up on re-entry because of the friction of the atmosphere.

I’m going to admit it, this I thought this for a long time. But it turns out that friction has almost nothing to do with the heating of spacecraft upon reentry. It’s nearly entirely due to the compression of the air in front of the craft, which heats the air and the craft.

At speeds exceeding the speed of sound a shock wave builds up, and the spacecraft cannot push it out of the way fast enough, which causes it to compress and heat adiabatically. It’s essentially the same principle that makes a bicycle tire or pump get hot as they’re inflated.

This is why the space shuttle’s nose is blunt, it moves the shockwave further back, causing it to heat the craft less.

3) Men have one less rib than women.

No they don’t. The origin of this one is obvious, Genesis 2:21-22, “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

The ancient Hebrews would surely have known that men and women had the same number of ribs. An interesting explanation I’ve heard for this passage is that the original writers didn’t mean rib.

As it turns out, most animals have a bone in their penis to aid with erections, but humans don’t. (The most likely reason for this is so that unhealthy males are less likely to reproduce, which is advantageous for females. Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen has a more detailed discussion of it).

The Hebrews almost certainly realized this difference, and their explanation is now in Genesis. Of course that’s only a hypothesis, but it’s far superior to the one that the Hebrews thought men were missing a rib.

4) 21 Grams

There’s a popular myth that the body loses 21 grams when we die, and this is widely used as evidence for some kind of soul. Unfortunately for those people, it’s not true

This myth started with Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who conducted some experiments in 1907 that came to this stunning conclusion. But his methods were flawed, his results were inconsistent, his samples were too small, and his ability to measure was not nearly accurate. It is almost a case study in how not to conduct science. Besides, in nearly a century his results have not been repeated. It seems that this is one of those things that people just want to believe, truth be damned.

5) The “Rule of Thumb”

It’s commonly thought that the phrase “rule of thumb” refers to an English law that stated that a man could beat his wife with anything thinner than the width of his thumb. This was stated in the movie Boondock Saints. The problem is that there’s no evidence of this origin, and it appears to have been claimed as common law to justify later lax attitudes toward domestic violence.

The truth is that no one really does know where it originated. Some claim that the most likely origin is from carpenters, who were so skilled that they didn’t use any form of measurement other than the ones immediately on hand. According to one post here, “they measured, not by a rule(r) of wood, but by rule of thumb.” But another further down the page claims that this is mistaken, and that the term originates with using the width of the thumb as an inch in the cloth trade. Yet another claims the measurement origin, citing the Swedish “tum”, meaning inch, which derives from “tumme”, meaning thumb.

The only thing that legal experts seem to agree on is that the phrase almost certainly didn’t begin with domestic abuse in English common law.

6) Eating chocolate leads to acne.

There’s no evidence to suggest that chocolate leads to acne, (although poor diet may), and plenty of evidence saying that it doesn’t. According to Dr. Jerome Shupack, a professor of clinical dermatology at New York University School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, the medical community has known conclusively for over twenty years that chocolate has no effect on acne.

Dr. Shupack suggests that this myth may have gotten started because chocolate contains theobromine, which is similar to iodine. "There are some people who are sensitive to iodine whose skin breaks out when exposed to it," says Shupack. "Somewhere way back when, some dermatologist, aware that the theobromine in chocolate is similar to iodine, put one and one together and got three." Another possible origin is that someone noticed that kids eat more chocolate than adults and get more acne than adults, and linked the two.

However it got started, this factoid isn’t true.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Does Religion Benefit Society?

In my travels I’ve come across the claim that the United States would be much better if everyone was a Christian (or sometimes it’s just some kind of theist) many times. I haven’t seen any polls done on that belief, but based on my experience I bet a good number of people hold it.

Which I why I found this study to be so interesting. It’s titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies (say that ten times fast), from the Journal of Society and Religion. Gregory S. Paul analyzed a whole boatload of data on nearly every indicator for societal health, from violence to STDs, from nearly every first-world country, and compared that to the country’s religiosity. Lets see what he found.

For starters, almost everyone knows that the US is pretty religious. But just in case you didn’t: “[T]he United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds.” The polls I’ve read vary, but it’s usually between 80 and 90 percent of people believing in a god of some form, with over half taking the Bible literally (although this study says 30%), and a solid majority attending regular services (although this study says 40%). Like I said, polls vary, but the numbers are in that range.

One good indicator of societal health is murder rates. People in a healthy society don’t kill each other. Plus, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill”, so if people take the Bible seriously (as a large number of Americans do), we should have lower murder rates. This is not the case: “[T]he U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard.” We’re not the only one, either: “Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm.”

High religiosity doesn’t help our kids much either, we have far more school shootings and the same teen suicide rates as the other Western democracies. How about violent crime? The story is a little bit better here: “Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime, and are often lower in this regard.” Well, that’s some good news. Kind of.

How do we fare with teenage pregnancy? After all, every religion I know of preaches abstinence until marriage, so shouldn’t religion decrease teenage pregnancy? Well, no: “Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies… but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest.” As you would expect with this data, we also have poor STD rates: “[R]ates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies... The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates.”

But surely we get less abortions. We have the largest percentage of people who believe in God, and quite a large number of (generally religious) pro-lifers, so we must kill less babies? Right? Again, no: “Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution.”

It’s pretty clear that high religiosity doesn’t help out our society very much. But that’s not the end of it, we even tend to die sooner than other democracies: “Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief.”

To sum up:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.
Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards.

Because I’m pretty sure that some people will protest, I want to point out a few things. First, I don’t think religious people are bad, and this study does not make that claim. Second, I’m not saying that religion makes society bad. As I’ve said before, correlation does not mean causation. It could very well be that there is something else underlying this trend; the US is different enough from Europe where that’s entirely possible. However, it would be very, very difficult for the claim that religion makes societies better to be true. As Mr. Paul says:

The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

Also, don’t write this off as only one study, especially without looking through his references (which I deleted from the quotes, there were quite a few). Even dismissing this one, I’ve read others (such as one here, although it’s a bit buried), and I’ve seen a good portion of the data. It would be almost impossible for religion to make society as a whole better given the fact that secular Europe beats us in every measure of societal health. However, I doubt that anyone who has made this claim will be influenced by studies like this one. Which is unfortunate, because the sooner we move past the ridiculous claim that more religion is what we need, we might actually be able to work on improving our society. I’m not holding my breath.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

My Politics

I think that it’s a good idea to get my politics down, just so it’s clear what they are and I can have a quick reference to point to in the future. Plus it never hurts to have a little discussion on political philosophies.

In one word, I’m a libertarian. As far as I know, it’s the best fit between an established party and my beliefs. I used to call myself a conservative, but in reality I was a social liberal and an economic conservative, and that’s really a libertarian. I also used to call myself a Republican, but then I realized that the parts of the conservative agenda I support don’t get supported by Republicans, and vice-versa. So if I have to pick between a Democratic candidate and a Republican candidate, I’d lean toward the Democrat (but they’re not all good either).

Getting more specific, I believe that if someone wants to do something that doesn’t harms anyone else, even if it harms himself, he should be able to do it. Whether he wants to marry another man, do drugs, gamble his money away, devote his entire life to Jesus or Thor or Isis, or even euthanize himself, if it harms no one else, then he should be able to do it.

I’m also a passionate defender of free speech. I think you should be able to say whatever you want, and I do mean whatever you want. Interfering with someone else’s right of free speech - like running up on the stage to disrupt a speaker with whom you disagree, or stealing a bunch of newspapers because you don’t like an article or picture in it – should be very stringently punished. I think we should take that crime as seriously as we do theft and assault.

I also think that government should be as small as possible to do its duty. Our government is orders of magnitude too bloated right now, and it shows. It’s inefficient, inept, and lazy. We need to strip off the excess and get it lean again. That’s a difficult job, and I’m afraid that the trend to larger government we’ve had for the past century is not going to stop.

What is the government’s duty? To protect its citizens at home and abroad without encroaching on their freedoms, to educate its citizens, and to serve the needs of its citizens. Those are also fairly broad. By protection I don’t simply mean from terrorists or war, I also mean from each other, from greedy businesses, and from anything that seeks to harm them, physically or financially. I think that our government has forgotten that its duty is to its citizens, and that is its only duty.

That was pretty quick and broad, if you’re dying to know what I think of specific issues feel free to ask (or tell me how you feel, ‘sall good).

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Comment Policy

I have decided that it is time for me to establish a comments policy. I probably should have done this earlier, but I didn’t, so here it is.

I moderate comments. I do this for two reasons, the first is so that I know when I get comments and what has been said, the second is so that anything that I find too egregious and offensive won’t be posted. Because of this, it can take some time for comments to appear. I do have things to (like sleeping, eating, class, etc) that cause me to be away from my computer for extended periods, during which comments won’t show up. This is unavoidable, and I don’t think it’s too big of a problem.

You probably noticed that I said I screen for offensive things, and you might be wondering what exactly qualifies. The honest answer is “I don’t know”, and I haven’t yet rejected a single comment (except for duplicate comments, just to prevent two copies from showing up). I’m a big proponent of free speech and saying whatever the hell you want, but I think that deliberate hatred wouldn’t get through. Just speaking your mind will never get you blocked, no matter how much I disagree with you.

You might have also noticed that I said I like to know when I get comments. It also gives me a good chance to read the comment, which I like to do (I read every comment, no matter how poor the spelling, grammar, arguments, or how much I disagree. The only thing that will get me is if it’s long and I’m busy). So yes, I do read every comment I get.

I also feel like I need to explain when I respond to comments. One blogger I read said that he is pretty “hands-off” with his comments, and that’s what I’m going for. I’m not going to respond to every single comment (which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate comments, I do). The reasoning behind that is simple: it would take far too much time, I like my original post to speak for itself, and I have very little patience for going back and forth between two people who will obviously never agree. I do respond, and fairly frequently, but I have a loose policy of “once per commenter per post”, and I usually only respond for things I deem urgent.

That being said, if you really do want a personal response from me my E-mail address is posted in the sidebar, I will definitely respond to any E-mail I get. I’m also fairly sure that putting that address on the web has made it a huge spam target, I’ve gotten a crazy amount of those Nigerian scams, and filters don’t seem to handle them well. Oh well, I want the address to be easily clickable (the sacrifices I make!). So again, if you have anything you really want me to respond to, just use the E-mail, I promise I’ll respond.

I think that about covers it, if you have any question, comments, or concerns, just comment!

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Philosophy Friday: Existentialism

For the second Philosophy Friday I’m going to talk about Existentialism.

Now, some background explanation. Whenever I write about something, I research it, even if that means just consulting Wikipedia or Google. With existentialism that was quite tricky. I couldn’t get a very consistent definition of it. This one is fairly typical: “Existentialism is a philosophical movement that views the individual, the self, the individual's experience, and the uniqueness therein as the basis for understanding the nature of human existence. The philosophy generally reflects a belief in freedom and accepts the consequences of individual actions, while acknowledging the responsibility attendant to the making of choices.”

But that’s not how it’s normally used (at least in my experience). Most people think of existentialism as the philosophy that our existence is all there is; that we’re adrift in the void, living meaningless, purposeless lives, doomed from birth to die, and after death we cease to be. That is the existentialism I know and love.

You might be wondering, “How can you possibly love that concept?” Some people might answer that it frees me from any moral obligations, but that’s not it at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

I love it because it means that this life is entirely what you make of it. For two examples of what I mean in cartoon form, see here and here. I really love that second one.

Back to what I mean in non-comic form, enjoying life and being a good person should be plenty purpose for anyone. What else can we really do? Sure, when we die we probably cease to be (just like before we were born), but what does that have to do with life? If anything, that just convinces me more to enjoy what little time I have, and try to leave the largest possible positive footprint I can.

When the sun finally gives out its last ray of light, and the earth is encompassed by absolute blackness, none of it will matter. But it means the world now. Carpe Diem.

That’s my take on existentialism.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Menstruation Should Be Illegal

One of the things that really gets me about people who refuse to allow federal funding for stem cell research is how inane their arguments really are, and how they’re blocking one of the most promising medical research avenues available today.

Arguments usually go something like this: “research using human embryos [is] ‘gravely immoral,’ because removing cells kills an unborn child.” Very frequently they say that the embryos have “potential” for human life.

Remember, this “unborn child” is a zygote, at this point called a blastocyst. It has no nerves, no blood vessels, no bones, no skin. It doesn’t even have a placenta. It can’t feel pain, move, or survive on its own. It’s as sentient as the bacteria on your keyboard.

In order for an externally fertilized embryo to turn into an actual baby (as in, one with a brain and a heart that’s capable of feeling anything or doing anything), it needs to be implanted in the uterine wall and actually carry to term, something which only has a 20-30% chance of happening, even given that 5 embryos may be implanted, and those were only the ones judged “best” (the others are destroyed). In short, for every externally fertilized embryo that does get turned into a baby, about nine don’t (that’s being conservative, it’s probably higher).

Well, you know what, each egg has potential for life, all it needs to do is be penetrated by a sperm, implant in the uterine wall, not spontaneously abort or miscarry (which there’s a 50% chance of). The odds of any one egg coming to term, as long as the ovulating women has sex at the right time, are about as good as those with IV Fertilization (provided, of course, that there are no problems of the kind that lead to IV Fertilization being necessary).

Since there’s just as much “potential” for a single egg to come to term as an externally-fertilized embryo, logically we should ban menstruation as immoral. Women of the earth, lend me your eggs, I mean, ears! Every time you menstruate, you murder a potential child! You must stop this indiscriminant killing! Each egg is precious, it carries with it the potential to make a human, for all it needs is sperm! Indeed, every sperm is sacred, and male masturbation kills thousands of potential children, and should thusly be outlawed!

I can find no logically consistent way to be against stem-cell research and not against menstruation or male masturbation. In all three cases, the only thing that’s destroyed is a lump of cells: unconscious, unfeeling cells incapable of living on their own. Eggs, sperm, and blastocysts can eventually turn into a human, but the odds are low and special circumstances must be met.

Embryonic stem cells are a very promising area of research, and blocking that research is almost certainly killing more people than will ever be born of the blastocysts destroyed, and every day more eggs and sperm that could become children are lost. Which of those three things is the greatest tragedy? I know my answer, what’s yours?

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Readily Available Pornography Decreases Rape?

There’s an article from a few weeks back called “Pornography has its benefits”. It details the research of Northwestern University Law Professor Anthony D’amato, who has “crunched the numbers” and concluded:

The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85 per cent in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence.

According to his number crunching, between 1980 and 2004 the four states with the lowest internet access rates had a 53% increase in rape, while the four states with the highest internet access experienced a 27% decrease.

The article also says that the same trend has happened in Australia.

The general trends don’t really surprise me. In the US, violent crime has been decreasing on the whole for a while. While I was researching drug incarceration rates and violent crime among children, I noticed that the per-capita violent crime is indeed lowering.

But this is a case of “correlation does not equal causation.” It’s most likely due to something else, such as better education or socioeconomic status being correlated with internet access and with lower violent crime. Internet pornography may very well do something to prevent rape, but I’d have to see much better data to be convinced of it (and it sounds like Professor D’amato wasn’t making that claim, just pointing out that it may be true).

However, this does mean one thing: internet pornography almost definitely does not increase rape. It would be pretty hard to maintain that pornography increases rape with that data. It’s exactly the opposite trend you’d expect. Of course, exposure to pornography may still increase the odds of someone raping, but it is very, very unlikely, and would have to be a small increase. Also, pornography may well induce some individuals to rape, but I’ve seen no proof of that either, and it’s also very unlikely.

In short, pornography is almost certainly not increasing violent crimes. Of course, wingnuts will still claim that it does, but that’s another story altogether.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

You're a Racist

Right now I’m expecting most of the people who read the title of this post to say, “I’m not a racist!” If you had that reaction, go play around on this site for a bit. Take some of the tests, especially the race-related ones.

In case you don’t want to take the test, what it’s looking for is a difference in reaction times (and error rates) when you’re asked to identify “good” and “bad” words as well as “black” and “white” faces (or something similar). These experiments have been around for a while, and they all come to the conclusion (at least every one I’ve read) that people are inherently racist, associating their group with the “good” words and out-groups with the “bad” words.

This should be no surprise, for any examination of history or contemporary politics shows us that xenophobia reigns supreme, at least generally. Foreigners are barbarians, to be used only to improve one groups lot in life, or perhaps slaughtered wholesale. Admittedly, as we’ve become more educated and interconnected, racism and fear of out-groups has been pushed back. But it hasn’t been pushed all that far, we’ve got plenty left to do.

Inherent racism makes even more sense from a Darwinian perspective. Genes that promote kindness to kin and wariness of aliens will do better in the gene pool than other competing genes (if you’re not convinced, remember that a gene in me has a decent chance of being in my family, and in tribes almost everyone is family). Functionally, this would establish a behavior that goes something like, “treat people who look like me well, but be wary of people who don’t.”

That hypothesis is nothing new, but I think it’s worthwhile to remind people that we’re all naturally racist (even if only a bit), and that there’s no need for us to actually be racist. We may have evolved to prefer people who look like us and discriminate against those who don’t, but we’ve also evolved to the point where we can look at that intrinsic behavior and tell that it’s wrong. This extends past simple race distinctions, into any kind of “otherness”. We can’t live in a functional society where anyone is discriminated against simply for being what they are and cannot help being.

Remember, we might be inherently racist, but we shouldn’t act like it.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Sprint Customer Service

I recently got a new phone, the “Blade”, (Sprint’s Razr), and in the process of playing with it I was trying to find out how to set uploaded media as ringtones. I became pretty sure that I couldn’t, and so I wanted to see if Sprint would take requests to add good ones for download (the defaults are all pretty bad, and I’m not interested in any that they have right now). I contacted Customer Service, with what I thought was a very simple request. It follows:

Is there any way to request ringtones? None of the songs I'd like to have as ringtones are available. Also, is there any way to set songs that are in media as ringtones on the A-900? I've looked, and it doesn't seem to be possible, which is quite disappointing as there's not nearly enough memory for the phone to be a decent MP3 player, nullifying the point of being able to put songs on it at all. (Also, the A-900's main competitor, the Razr, is capable of doing this).

The response I got was:

Thank you for contacting Sprint together with Nextel. I will be happy to assist you regarding ringers.

There are two ways to download games, ringers, or screen savers to your PCS phone.

The first is through the Sprint website:

1. Log on to "", select My PCS Wireless in the Manage accounts drop down.
2. Enter your PCS Phone Number and password and click 'Log in'
3. Click on the 'Content Catalog' hyperlink under the section 'Get Games, Ringers, Screen Savers and More ' to search for the game, ringer, or screen saver
4. Click on the desired feature and select the 'Buy it now' button
5. The item will be saved in your 'Content Manager' but not on your handset
6. Use your PCS Vision device to access the Web
7. Select 'My Content Manager' from the drop down menu on the Vision home page
8. Find the item that was purchased and scroll to the bottom and select 'Download'
9. The item will now be saved to your PCS Vision device in the Downloads' menu.

The second way is through the PCS Vision Phone:

1. Use your PCS Vision device to access the Web
2. Select the category of the item you wish to download and select 'Go'
3. Search for your item and select it
4. Select 'Buy' to purchase the item
5. Select 'Download'
6. The item will now be saved to your PCS Vision device in the Downloads' menu.

Thank you for contacting us, and we look forward to serving you.

Sprint together with Nextel
"Where our customers come first!"

I thought, “Well, that’s fair. I suppose that most people who contact them don’t bother to search their site and FAQs for this stuff. I’ll just make my question absolutely clear. So I sent this reply:

I knew that. I was asking if I request downloads that aren't currently available in the catalog.

I got this the next day:

Thank you for replying back.

You can download any ringers which are available on the Sprint website or your content catalog.

Further, to set songs as ringtones, on your phone, please check the userguide of your phone.

Thank you for contacting us, and we look forward to serving you.

Sprint together with Nextel
"Where our customers come first!"

At this point, I am rather frustrated. I could not think of any way to articulate my question any more clearly, and it was starting to seem that this person was either not reading my E-mails or simply an idiot. I responded, being as polite and clear as I could manage:

I know that. Is there a way to request new tones. As in, ones you don't currently offer. If you don't do that, it's fine, please just say so instead of telling me something I already know twice.

The next day I received:

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for replying back.

I have forwarded your valuable feedback to the appropriate department so that immediate necessary actions can be taken against it and better customer service could be provided to our customers.

Thank you for contacting us, and we look forward to serving you.

Sprint together with Nextel
"Where our customers come first!"

It’s been a few weeks, and haven’t gotten any more replies.

I don’t think my question was that difficult; I don’t think it should have been hard to answer. But I find it very ironic that their footer says “Where our customers come first”, yet they can’t even be bothered to read, comprehend, and answer a simple question. I guess that’s just how cell phone companies operate.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Cargo Cults

Cargo Cults are possibly the most interesting thing I have ever heard about in the field of anthropology.

What happened was during the nineteenth century and up until World War Two, native islanders in the Pacific would see the white people with things. But they never built these things, and when they broke they were sent off somewhere and were replaced (in cargo). As humans naturally do when they don’t understand something, they assumed that the cargo was supernatural.

The natives also noticed that the whites never seemed to do any real work, (at least by their standards). But they did see them do other odd things:

They built tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down – and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too much do these things.

There are many different cults, as many as 67 totally independent from each other.

One particularly interesting one comes from the island Tanna in the country now known as Vanuatu. According to legends (which, of course, vary), John Frum was a short man with a high voice and bleached hair who wore a coat with shining metal buttons. He turned the local people against the missionaries, and made strange prophecies (some of which bear remarkable resemblance to Biblical prophecy, most likely do to the Christian influence from Missionaries). He foretold his own return, with bountiful cargo and a new currency. The local people quickly spent all of their money and refused to work, sending the economy tumbling.

But nothing the government did (including arresting cult leaders) stopped the cult. The local churches and schools stood empty, deserted by the natives.

The arrival of American troops did not help the situation (as John Frum was rumored to be King of America). The presence of black troops “as richly endowed with cargo as the white soldiers” sent excitement throughout the island.

The day of the apocalypse was imminent. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the arrival of John Frum. One of the leaders said that John Frum would be coming from America by aeroplane and hundreds of men began to clear the bush in the center of the island so that the plane might have an airstrip on which to land.

The airstrip even had a control tower made of bamboo, complete with controllers wearing wooden headphones. Fake planes stood on the runway to make it look more real.

David Attenborough (the anthropologists whose book Quest in Paradise contains most of this information) traveled to Tanna in the 1950’s and met with the high priest of John Frum, a man named Nambas. Nambas claimed to have a “radio” that belonged to John, which was an old woman with a wire wrapped around her who would go into a trance a speak gibberish, which Nambas interpreted. Naturally, the “radio” foretold the arrival of the Anthropologists, and they couldn’t see it.

The islanders believe that John Frum will return on the 15th of February, and gather dutifully on that date every year, anticipating and welcoming his return. Attenborough asked one native, called Sam, “It is nineteen years since John say that the cargo will come. He promise and he promise, but still the cargo does not come. Isn’t nineteen years a long time to wait?” Sam replied, “If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an’ ‘e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.”

The religion still exists today, and no one really understands how it was founded, despite it being about 70 years ago. That the true beginnings of a religion less than a century old could be lost to myth testifies to how easily this occurs. For example, no documents exist that mentions anyone by the name of “John Frum” in the area. Wikipedia hypothesizes that John Frum could be a modification of the way some GIs introduced themselves, as “John from America”. But really, it doesn’t matter to its followers if anything in the religion is true.

I found this whole thing (which I read about in Richard Dawkins’ newest book, The God Delusion) to be an intensely interesting bit of history. It may very well represent ways that religions get started, if at least their ability to spread and to obscure their origins. It’s also a testament to the way the human mind attributes to the supernatural those things it doesn’t understand. There is much we can learn from these little cults.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

50 Phrases That Kill Creativity

A few days ago in my “Visual Thinking” class we were talking about thinking, and thinking about thinking, and how to produce good ideas. The instructor handed out a list called “Fifty Phrases That Kill Creativity”. The list, and the message along with it, follows.

This is an interesting list I picked up someplace and modified for use in some presentations I do on creativity. These are typical phrases you’ll hear in committee, staff and other supposed “brainstorming” sessions that end up going awry. These phrases eventually stifle any creative thinking in a group, because they destroy the part of brainstorming that allows good ideas to sprout from the offbeat or “bad” idea. People end up thinking alike, and/or stop contributing to the group because they can’t be free to come up with idea that don’t get shot down. I encourage people to take this list with them into meetings, so they can be the creativity cops, so to speak.

  • Our place is different
  • We tried that before.
  • It costs too much.
  • That's not my job.
  • They're too busy to do that.
  • We don't have the time.
  • Not enough help.
  • It's too radical a change.
  • The staff will never buy it.
  • It's against company policy.
  • The union will scream.
  • That will run up our overhead.
  • We don't have the authority.
  • Let's get back to reality
  • That's not our problem.
  • I don't like the idea.
  • I'm not saying you're wrong but...
  • You're two years ahead of your time.
  • Now's not the right time.
  • It isn't in the budget.
  • Can't teach an old dog new tricks.
  • Good thought, but impractical.
  • Let's give it more thought.
  • We'll be the laughingstock of the industry.
  • Not that again.
  • Where'd you dig that one up?
  • We did alright without it before.
  • It's never been tried.
  • Let's put that one on the back burner for now.
  • Let's form a committee.
  • It won't work in our place.
  • The executive committee will never go for it.
  • I don't see the connection.
  • Let's all sleep on it.
  • It can't be done.
  • It's too much trouble to change.
  • It won't pay for itself.
  • It's impossible.
  • I know a person who tried it and got fired.
  • We've always done it this way.
  • We'd lose money in the long run.
  • Don't rock the boat.
  • That's what we can expect from the staff.
  • Has anyone else ever tried it?
  • Let's look into it further.
  • We'll have to answer to the stockholders.
  • Quit dreaming.
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • That's too much ivory tower.
  • It's too much work.

    -Dave Dufour, Act II Associates, Inc.

    All of these phrases keep the status quo intact, and make sure that nothing truly unique can ever result from any kind of brainstorming session. So if you hear someone say one, gently remind them that you’re supposed to be thinking of something new, and shooting down ideas will never help that happen.

    Happy innovating!

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  • Friday, October 06, 2006

    Philosophy Friday - Materialism

    I’ve decided that I’m going to start doing something called “Philosophy Friday”, where I right about some philosophical idea that interests me, a brief history of the idea, and why I like it. Today, the first philosophy Friday, will be about materialism.

    Materialism holds than the only thing that exists is matter, and everything action in the universe is governed by matter and the forces between it. More basically, it says that anything that has any effect on anything in the universe (or the universe itself) is material, and subject to the laws of nature.

    The first philosopher to detail materialism was Lucretius, working off of the work by Democritus and Epicurus (among others). He wrote that all that exists is matter and void, and that everything is the result of motions and conglomerations of base particles (named “atoms” by Democritus). This would prove to be remarkably prescient.

    Materialism is also one of those words that can have heavy overtones, some people use it almost as a slur, as if the world being material is an inherently bad thing. Wikipedia says, “Materialism has frequently been understood to designate an entire scientific, rationalistic world view, particularly by religious thinkers opposed to it, who regard it as a spiritually empty religion.” I’ve found that much anti-evolution propaganda uses in this way (although this is based on only a few pamphlets).

    One of the things that lead to be believe that materialism is correct (besides being the most parsimonious hypothesis for how the world works) is a fairly simple thought experiment (that might not remain a thought experiment for much longer). Imagine that every single molecule, every single atom, every single quark and electron have been copied exactly. All umpteen trillion of them. Their quantum states and positions relative to each other have been completely and accurately measured, and faithfully reproduced. Imagine that you had been duplicated, “quantum Xeroxed”, so to speak.

    What would the resulting duplicate be? Would it be you? It would have your face, your heart, your brain, your stomach, your bones, your scars, your lunch in its stomach, your neurons in its brain, even your bacteria in its mouth. Would it have your thoughts? Your memories? Your opinions? Would it think like you? Would it be possible to tell the difference between the you and it?

    To me, it seems impossible that it wouldn’t have your memories and opinions along with your lunch in its stomach. Which means that dualism is wrong, and materialism is the most plausible philosophical stance. But this thought experiment is one of the best ways I’ve found of examining whether the universe is monist or dualist, because they both predict different outcomes (although I’m not exactly certain what a dualist would expect to happen). But since this is based only upon what you think would happen, it’s really only a gauge of what you personally perceive about the world around you, I’ve just found that, when materialism is presented like this, people find it more plausible.

    Thus concludes the first Philosophy Friday.

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    Thursday, October 05, 2006

    State of the Blog Address

    On this day two months ago I started a blogger blog. All I wanted was to have some place to write my thoughts where they could be viewed by the public, a place where I could talk about whatever I wanted, whatever interested me, and people who were also interested in it could read it.

    Even in most hopeful moments did I think that I’d attract well over 125,000 different pairs of eyes from nearly 150 different countries, or rise to a Technorati rank of 29,000. I never would have thought that I’d be Farked, Dugg, Reddited, appear in a dozen different carnivals, and blogs and websites too numerous to mention.

    I never anticipated all of the wonderful comments and backlinks I’ve gotten, from people who genuinely enjoyed what I had written. In my life I have experienced nothing quite like it when I get that comment notification in the mail and it opens “Great post”, or while perusing my Google Analytics list of referrers, I find a blogger who enjoyed what I wrote so much that they glowingly recommend it to their readers. What more can a blogger want?

    It’s only been two months, and I plan on keeping this up for a while. In the future I’m going to try to stick to my name, posting on irreverent things that just pop into my head, as well as the serious stuff and news that’s been my more typical fare. Hopefully, things will only get better from here.

    Wednesday, October 04, 2006

    My Favorite Argument For Atheism

    My favorite argument for atheism can be summed up in one Bertrand Russell quote, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    Throughout human history, there have been too many gods to count. Why, exactly, is any current religion better than the Greeks’, Romans’, Vikings’, Zoroastrians’, Celts’, Mayans’, or Incans’ religion? And why is any current religion better than any other?

    Personal revelation has to be out, because for every person who believes that Zeus spoke to him there will be one who thinks Buddha came to him, and another who will go to his death knowing that Allah talks him. Who is right? Better yet, if god exists as any religion today says he does, why does he appear differently to different people (although most often in the guise of the culturally-prevalent religion)? Does god get a kick out of appearing before a young Muslim man as Allah, who then blows up a bus full of Jewish people to whom he had revealed himself as Yahweh? Why don’t all personal revelations come from the same god?

    The most parsimonious hypothesis is that God does not exist, and there are simply complex phenomena at the heart of revelations. For instance, epileptics are, on average, far more religious than non-epileptics. Perhaps the brain of an epileptic is especially vulnerable to revelation. Further evidence for this hypothesis are the experiments where electromagnetism is used to induce revelation (There’s also a nice list of articles on the so-called “God Module” in the brain here).

    But at the heart of Russell’s statement is that believers will dismiss offhand all religions except their own, which they almost never begin to consider as being wrong. From the outside, all those other religions just look like silly myths and superstitions, but from the inside it’s harder to see that. Who knows, after taking a good, hard, honest look at your own, maybe you’ll start to see the same silly myths and superstitions.

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    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Were Not Atheists

    Some people claim that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were atheists, and they were very bad people, therefore atheism is bad (or some equally specious conclusion). One of the biggest problems with that is that none of those people were really atheists.

    Hitler will be first because he’s the easiest. In Mein Kampf and later in a speech at the Reichstag he said, "... I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord's work." Oh, but he was just using that for rhetorical purposes, he didn’t actually believe it, right? Wrong, he’s also said, "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so." (Both from here.)

    Hitler was also a staunch creationist, "Human culture and civilization on this continent are inseparably bound up with the presence of the Aryan. If he dies out or declines, the dark veils of an age without culture will again descend on this globe. The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer seems in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise." Any claims that Hitler was inspired by Evolution are mere propaganda attempts to make Evolution look bad.

    Besides all of this, it’s quite easy to make a really strong case that, if not for Christianity and its irrational hatred of the Jews up until the middle of the Twentieth Century, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. Sam Harris does a wonderful job in Chapter 3 of his book, The End of Faith, and there’s plenty available online, such as here. For some perspective on Nazis, here’s a discussion on books they had banned or burned.

    Stalin and Mao are a bit tougher to crack, mainly because there’s no quotations attributable to them either way (at least that I can find, if you know of a reliable source for some, feel free to tell me). But most people seem to assume that because they abolished religion, they must be atheists. In fact, they abolished religion so that they could establish cults of personality, and become gods themselves. They did what they needed to in order to get more power, and religion was a rival power source, which is why they abolished it. Stalin actually reinstated the church after Hitler invaded, because he thought it would help him (from here). Religion simply got in their way, and they eliminated anything and anyone that got in their way.

    Even if any of these people were atheists, what would it say about atheists or atheism in general? I’ve never heard an atheist make the claim that because Hitler was a Catholic, Catholicism and Catholics are evil, which is exactly the way people use the Stalin/Hitler/Mao/whoever argument. I would contend that it is far easier to manipulate religion and use it for evil than it is for atheism, mainly because religions are actually organized and unite people with a common belief system, while atheism is unorganized and typically disunited. Religion’s potential for evil is therefore greater, but no more necessary than atheism being evil.

    However, put up against each other, religion beats atheism by several orders of magnitude in number of people killed. But that’s another story.

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    Monday, October 02, 2006

    Internet Gambling and the War on Sin

    A few days ago a bill passed that would “outlaw” internet gambling. I put outlaw in quotes because, in reality, it just means you need to take one more additional step to gamble online illegally (and that’s worst case scenario). But nevertheless a provision that attempts to outlaw internet gambling was stuck onto a completely unrelated port security bill and passed.

    But when I was reading about it I was struck by the parallel with drugs. Online gambling could generate billions in federal revenue if it was regulated; drugs could too. Enforcing the online gambling bill is going to cost far more money than it would ever be worth; the enforcement of drug laws does too. Internet gambling doesn’t hurt anyone except the person who’s doing it, who is an adult who wants to gamble, and even then they could benefit; recreational use of drugs (when not under prohibition) doesn’t hurt anyone except the person who’s doing it, who is an adult who wants to use drugs, and even then they could benefit.

    So why on Earth are these things illegal? For the same reason that amendments to ban homosexual marriage come up year after year, for the reason that kids are taught inane “abstinence only” lessons in schools, and for the same reason that OTC birth control is fought everywhere on every level: the Christian “War on Sin”.

    The absolutely insane, destructive, divisive, and despicable. Rather than being governed by rational policies intended to make things as good as possible for as many people as possible we pass repugnant legislation that harms good, honest people just to appease the moral crusaders. People of reason have got to stand and put an end to this, or soon we’ll be living in a full-fledged theocracy.

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    Sunday, October 01, 2006

    The Power of Faith

    This is probably the best YouTube video I’ve ever seen. The use of “Mad World” in the background is perfect. We live in the maddest of all possible worlds. Or so it sometimes seems.

    This made me think about how much I agree with Bertrand Russell when he said, “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.” An honest look at historical and contemporary events shows that religion has had far more negative consequences than positive ones. All of the hope and charity and love that would have been there without religion is far outweighed by the blood of innumerable innocents that wouldn’t have spilt without religion.

    Diderot had it right when he said, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." Here’s to that day.

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