Measured Against Reality

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Quote

"A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes that he has got the biggest piece." -Paul Gauguin.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Competing Hypotheses

I have a couple of stories to share that involve critical thinking and testing hypotheses against evidence. The only necessary background is that I'm currently working at a summer camp on the Stanford campus, and we just switched from session 1 to session 2, which involved a new group of kids and a new meal card (as well as some other changes).

Early in this session, one of the campers developed what seemed to be a bad sunburn on his face. The thing is that it had clearly delineated lines along his jaw, and that it was only on his face. This almost immediately suggests that it was something else, but he insisted that he wasn't allergic to anything and that it had to be a sunburn. While talking with the camp nurse, she mentioned that soaps or acne cream can cause a nearly identical reaction as a sunburn. When I told the camper, he revealed that he had, indeed, used some acne cream early in the camp, and had stopped using it since.

He's still wearing his big floppy hat.

I didn't realize that we needed new meal cards until about the third day, and so the dining hall staff just let me in (they knew my camp had paid for me). The funny thing was that people who had gotten their new meal card (which was all 500 people in the camp except me) couldn't be scanned either (that's why it took me so long to get the new one). When I got the new one, it didn't work either. But the critical difference is that before it was scanning and was invalid, and this one just wasn't scanning, it had been demagnetized. In fact, all of them had been demagnetized.

This wasn't a mystery, it was blatantly obvious. What was the bad hypothesis was last night, a dining hall worker insisted that all the cards were demagnetized by keys rubbing up against them. This despite the fact that brand new cards didn't scan (not even after having it for less than six hours), not everyone has keys near them, that the old cards worked fine all session while undergoing the same treatment, and there's no reasonable explanation for why keys scratching the magnetic strip would demagnetize it, and certainly not one that happened unfailing 500 separate times. I argued with the kid but decided that he was too set with his nonsense hypothesis to let go of it, despite the fact that there were better ones (the dining hall screwed up and never magnetized them in the first place is my favorite).

That really amazed me, and I don't really know why. I've met all kinds of people who believe all kinds of crazy things that they don't bother to think through all the way, but that this kid was so convinced that he had the answer to something so trivial and was unwilling to consider (more plausible) alternatives just stunned me.

I don't know what I'm going to do when I meet another person who believes in UFOs or bigfoot or the moon landing was faked or...

I just wish that there was some kind of critical thinking education in this damn country/world. It would be a much better place.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I'm currently reading The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, and he described an "experiment" where he put an abandoned car both in the Bronx and in Palo Alto. The one in the Bronx was vandalized immediately and repeatedly, and the one in Palo Alto wasn't touched (except when someone closed the hood while it was raining, lest the engine get wet). Three people even called the police to report the car as being possibly stolen when Zimbardo drove it away.

His commentary on this "experiment" (it was really a case study, which isn't an experiment) is interesting:

Any setting that cloaks people in anonymity reduces their sense of personal accountability and civic responsibility for their actions. We see this in many institutional settings, such as our schools and jobs, the military, and prisons.

I think he forgot to add "the Internet". This sounds exactly like the constant cries of well-meaning citizens that the internet doesn't foster civil discourse because the anonymity removes people from responsibility for their actions (in this case words). I've never really given much credit to this argument, but there might be something to it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Maybe childhood isn't a sex crime?

A little bit of good news in the case I mentioned earlier, but not nearly enough to convince me that this country might regain its sanity. We seriously need to round up all these people who bring felony sex offender charges against children and lock them up, because they're the danger to society.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Here's something that I've never really understood: Why is it, if heaven is eternal and this life is only a passageway to it (Pascal's "infinite reward"), that Christians care so much about life? It really doesn't make any sense.

It seems to me that the best thing to do to someone, in Christian theology, would be to kill them, that way they get to heaven sooner. I realize that's stupid and no one believes it, but I wonder why.

It also seems like they should support abortion and all that wonderful embryo-destroying stuff, (unless, of course, the "soul" needs to be baptized to be saved, or some other ritualistic thing). Those little piles of cells incapable of life on their own wouldn't even really have to start living, and they'd get straight to heaven! (Actually, I wonder what a blastocyst soul in heaven would look like, hmmm.) Or maybe god sends blastocysts to hell. Who really knows? (I bet someone thinks they do!)

I'm sure that someone's come up with a solution to this, and it's probably over 500 years old (because I know that the older an idea is, the more respect we should give it!). But really, it doesn't matter, because it would undoubtedly be something so silly and asinine that I'd have to laugh (just like the rest of theology).


Monday, July 23, 2007

"Childhood now a sex crime"

What is wrong with the people in this country?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Constitution has never greatly bothered...

"...[T]he Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime President."

-Attorney General Francis Biddle, about Executive Order no. 9066 ordering the internment of the Japanese. As quoted in Perilous Times by Geoffrey Stone.

I thought that it was an interesting quote. Incidentally, a full review of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism will be coming when I finish it, but in short it covers the treatment of the First Amendment during wartime from 1798 to 2004 (when it was published). It is a fantastic book.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Canon

A few science bloggers (PZ Myers and Chad Orzel) have reviewed The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. I also recently read it, and would like to offer a review.

I thought it was a fantastic book. I really like her style of writing, which Chad aptly describes as breezy. She tries to throw fun references in, and sometimes has some wordplay that made me laugh (but I'm a sucker for wordplay). The chapter on probability alone is worth the cost of the book, because no one really understands probability, and everyone should. It matters much more than most people seem to think.

The rest of the book is a basic overview of science (as well as why science is important), and if you're anything like me you'll know pretty much everything in it. But it's still a great read, and it never hurts to cover the basics of topics that you're not all that familiar with. She covers Physics, Evolutionary Biology, Microbiology, Chemistry, and Astrophysics, doing a good overview of each as well as explaining why each is important (which is a crucial thing to do).

Chad said that it would make a good gift for a humanities type family member, but I think that it's the kind of book anyone who isn't interested in science but hasn't given it a shot should read, or for anyone who likes science and wants a well-written, charming, and enjoyable book to enjoy for a few days (I finished it in one, but I didn't put it down). In short, I'd call this one a must-read.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Interesting Scam E-mail

Perhaps I'm behind the times, but I just got an incredibly interesting scam e-mail (you know, one of those Nigerian 410 deelies). Here it is:

Dear Brother/Sister's in Lord Christ Jesus. Calvary greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,I am former Mr Ahmedaliza Wasilat ,now Mr Christain Davis,,I am now a new Christian convert,suffering from long time cancer of the heart. From all indications, my condition is really deteriorating and is quite obvious that I may not live more than six months, because the cancer stage has gotten to a very severe stage.My late wife was killed during the Gulf war, and during the period of our marriage we had a son who was also killed in a cold blood during the Gulf war.My late wife was very wealthy and after her death,I inherited all our business and wealth. My personal physician told me that I may not live for more than six months and I am so scared about this. So, I now decided to divide part of this wealth, by contributing to the development of evangelism in Africa,America, Europe and Asian Countries. This mission which will no doubt be tasking had made me to recenlty relocated to Israel,where I live presently. I selected your church after visiting the website for this purpose and prayed over it, I am willing to donate the sum of $19.500,000.00 Million US Dollars to your Church/Ministry for the development of evangelism and also as aids for the less privileged around you.

Please note that, this fund is lying in a Security Company in Europe and the company has branches, therefore my lawyer will file an immediate application for the transfer of the money in the name of your ministry. Please, do not reply me if you have the intention of using this fund for personal use other than enhancement of evangelism.Lastly, I want you/your ministry to be praying for me as regards my entire life and my health because I have come to find out since my spiritual birth lately that wealth acquisition without Jesus Christ in one's life is vanity upon vanity. If you have to die says the keep fit and i will give you the crown of life. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the sweet fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. If your are interested do reach my Attorney he lives in England London.
His Particulars are

Telephone Number at: 00447031922887
Email at:

Thanks for your assistance
Yours in Christ

I really love that they play up the Jesus part so much. I have to wonder if this is more likely to work in America than the "I'm rich and dying please help me!" ones. For some strange reason I think that it will (the strange reason being how easy it is to separate a Christian from his money using religion). Maybe one day we'll know if this letter works better, but I sincerely hope it doesn't (no one, not even someone dumb and gullible enough to fall for this, deserves to have their life savings stolen. Plus I don't want them in my inbox anymore, and that won't happen until they stop working).

In related news, I apparently won the UK lottery and Microsoft wants to give me money. I'm a lucky guy!

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Saturday, July 07, 2007


Lately I've been doing a lot of reading, some of which I had postponed from last summer. So I thought I would give some short recommendations for anyone who's looking for some good books.

The first is God on Trial: Dispatches from America's Religious Battlefields, by Peter Irons. Ed Brayton recommended this one, and I have to say, it was quite fantastic. It's a summary of some recent church-state separation cases, featuring detailed analysis of the cases as well as interviews with some lead players. It also has a good overview of the precedent surrounding the establishment clause from historical and judicial perspectives. It's remarkably well-written and thoroughly enjoyable, I highly recommend it.

Next is The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma by Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart. This book is a bit on the technical side, but it really helped my understanding of how life works, to put it bluntly. The authors develop their theory of "facilitated variation", which is essentially the idea that the way organisms develop is highly constrained (and hence basically unchanged across phyla), but this constraint actually allows more variation in body plans: the highly constrained development plan deconstrains development. If you're interested in learning about this kind of thing, it's a very accessible and interesting book.

Now we have Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development by Christiane Nusslein-Volhard. This book is dense. It's really short but packed with information. Because of that it can be quite hard to read. That said, you probably won't find a better survey of modern evolutionary development. If you're interesting in how you got from an egg and a sperm to a full-grown human, this book is for you.

Finally we have Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett. I got this one last year, and never bothered to read it. And honestly, I wasn't missing much. I'm not entirely sure why it's so widely acknowledged, since I have to yet to read a chapter and not wonder, "Did he even say anything during that whole chapter?" I have yet to discover a thesis, and he just mulls around considering hypotheses without actually deciding anything. In other words, it's perfectly obvious that Dennett is a philosopher.

That being said, he does throw out an awful lot of information, and I could just be missing the central driving force (or it just hasn't become apparent to me yet, I haven't finished the book). Dennett is a skilled writer and intensely knowledgeable, so if you're looking for a book that really does attempt to dispassionately investigate religion, buy this book.

That's all for now, but my stock of books is pretty much out, and I'll need more. If you have any recommendations, please leave them in the comments!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

On this fourth of July, this is all I care to say:

"It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government."

--Thomas Paine

I think that's all that needs to be said.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Some insightful comments

I'm currently reading, God on Trial: Dispatches from America's Religious Battlefields. It's tremendously good, and I'll have more on it later, but I wanted to share this one part. It's from an interview with Dave Howe, the plaintiff in a suit against a posting of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse in Kentucky. He says:

Looking back on this case, I'd do it again. And I may, now that I know what they're posting down there in the courthouse. But with the Supreme Court the way it is now, with Justice O'Connor gone, it's tipped the other way, and that's kind of discouraging. What really galls me, I think, is this attitude of, Our country, our legal system, was founded on the Ten Commandments. That is not true; it's patently offensive to me that they insist that this is the case. There is absolutely no historical basis for it, and I defy anyone to show me law in any state that tells us we have to worship a God! The prohibitions in the Ten Commandments, like murder, adultery, perjury, theft--that's common law! It's been common law since the get-go; you wouldn't have a civilization without it. Where did they come up with this? And this is ignored by the justices. There's a couple of those guys who really push me the wrong way, and how they got to be Supreme Court justices is beyond me. But as they say, excrement occurs.

Some of the quotations from Scalia made me wonder how he manages to put on his robes in the morning, they were so idiotic. But that's for another post.