Measured Against Reality

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Great Debate

I just got back from the Hitchens debate. I have to say, Hitchens is a wonderful speaker, incredibly articulate and a masterful wordsmith, and still clever and funny. His ability to speak on the fly is something to behold. However, he did nothing to endear himself to his opponents, calling them names (albeit only deserved ones) and using colorful language (at one point saying that if someone told him to sacrifice his daughter he could only reply, "Fuck you", which must have gone over great with the people in the churches the debate was broadcast into).

And, as anticipated, the moderators were incredibly biased. Ben Stein was openly antagonistic toward Hitchens, and Hitchens didn't mind at all (one presumes he gets it all the time). They also could have controlled the debate much better, it reminded me of the most recent Democratic debate, where there was more talking between the debaters than question-answering. The few questions that were asked of the debaters were tremendously inane creationist claptrap, almost verbatim out of the Index of Creationist Claims. It would have been really nice to have a question that was antagonistic toward Mr Richards (the Theist).

All that said, I think Hitchens could have done a better job. One of Richards's key points was that the universe had a beginning, that it came from nothing, and must therefore have a cause. Besides being readily refutable philosophically, we don't even know it's true. I think if Hitchens had pointed all that out, then repeatedly stress (although he did stress it once early) that God is a shitty explanation for this anyway, "I don't know" is a far better answer, that Richards would have been blown out of the water.

In fact, I would have stressed the atheist's uncertainty, and the beauty in that uncertainty. I know it's not terribly persuasive to someone who has committed to Theism, but neither is anything else, and I think that the openness of our minds, and our ability to say, "I don't know", are two things that should be stated at every opportunity.

I have only one last criticism of Hitchens, the debate was only 105 minutes (90 "televised", the rest Q&A with the audience), and expecting extensive coverage of all the issues is absurd. However, dismantling Intelligent Design can be done in that time (especially since Hitchens definitely got more than his fair share). Sticking to the topic (which Richards correctly criticized Hitchens for not doing) would have been more effective than tangents that, while true critiques of religious, were a bit misplaced. But perhaps that is an unavoidable consequence of the way his mind works.

That said, he was great, and I would have paid to listen to him. Plus he gave autographs afterward, and personalized them too (something Richard Dawkins did not do, but Dawkins had a considerable line to deal with, while Hitchens had only a handful of fans). If you have the chance to listen to him, whether in a speech or in a debate, even one totally stacked against him, you should absolutely do it. It was well-worth the hardship I now have doing the work I need to get done for tomorrow.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Physics Dorkiness + Politics = Awesome

I just have to share this fun bit of Physics dorkiness my friend overheard:

Holy shit, I just overheard someone here at SLAC say, "The democrats are separated by hyperfine structure."

Hyperfine structure is a splitting of the Hydrogen atom's energy level degeneracies by the interaction of the electron's dipole moment with the proton's. It's an incredibly weak effect, a jump between energy levels split this way gives off a photon with energy on the order of 10^-6 eV, which is quite small. The joke being that the Democratic candidates are damn near identical.

What's better about the joke is that it would have totally gone over my friend's (and my) head just a few weeks ago

Thursday, January 24, 2008


In the two weeks since I last tallied my preferences, I've decided to support Barack Obama. I'm going to be honest, because there is so little separating the Democratic candidates in terms of their positions (at least that they admit), this is more of a "gut feel" choice, he just feels better.

But, being only 20, this is the first time I've really felt attached to a politician, the first time I've followed votes coming in and followed the polls week-to-week. And the lead-up to February 5th (when I, along with much of the country, will vote), I am filled with a sense of dread. After Iowa there was an optimism, that he could pull this off, that Hillary wouldn't win and give us four more years (while she wouldn't be as catastrophic as Bush, she wouldn't be great, and I'll stand by the prediction), but following New Hampshire and Nevada, his huge deficit in national and local polls, her huge leads among older whites, the news that Edwards voters tend to prefer Hillary, it all wears on a supporter's soul.

I suppose it's better for me than my roommate, who is visibly disturbed by each loss, each poll. This primary season is like watching a 2-month-long football game, and my team has been trailing since

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hitchens and other thoughts

I found out two things today, one good, one bad.

The good thing is that Christopher Hitchens is coming to Stanford. He's debating some IDiot, I frankly don't care who it is, and the thing is being moderated by Ben Stein (truly an impartial moderator). I have no idea why he agreed to be moderated by someone on the record as being pro-ID, I guess he's just cocky.

The bad thing is who's hosting the debate. It's the Stanford Review, a conservative paper, a group called, "Vox Clara: A Journal of Christian Thought at Stanford", that I've never heard of before, and the IDEA Club at Stanford. The bad thing is that last bit, "IDEA Club" means Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness, and is pretty clearly a pro-ID group (given that webpage, I can't find anything specific about Stanford's chapter). I'm incredibly disheartened by this news, I would have hoped my beloved university would be a bastion of intelligence and clear-thinking, yet we have people who actually believe this utter garbage here. It's intellectual diarrhea, and I would have hoped that our student body would be better than this.

Perhaps I should start an anti-ID group, bring down Dawkins or Miller to give a talk or two...

[Which reminds me, Francis Collins is giving a talk at some point too, but it costs money and I'm not paying to hear his inconsistencies and utter lack of clear thinking.]

On another semi-related note, on the way to pick up the Hitchens tickets, I noticed that some group had turned a grassy area in the middle of campus into a mock graveyard, decrying those "Who have been killed by Roe v Wade." In case you didn't know, this is the 35th anniversary of that historic decision. This also saddened me a bit, but since abortion is something that legitimate people can disagree about, it's not as bad as having an ID club. But I still have to wonder what these people want our country to be like, Saudi Arabia? I'm still fond of the question, "Well, if we outlaw abortion, what would we do to people who break the law?" I think it's important to ask, "What would we do to doctors who perform them, and women who seek them?" And these spawn more questions, "What about if a woman gets one in a country where it isn't illegal? What about forcing a miscarriage, something like riding a horse (prescribed by Roman doctors for unwanted children)?" I think that, even if you don't like the idea of abortion, you have to admit that these are sticky questions.

But then again, there are lots of things that seem clear to me that aren't so apparent to others

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Free Speech Day

Apparently today is freedom of speech day. Enjoy the freedom you have, and thank those who fight for it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Toilets, the next Al-Qaeda?

The NY Times has a great article on the fear of terrorism. I particularly like this statistic:

Although it’s impossible to calculate the pain that terrorist attacks inflict on victims and society, when statisticians look at cold numbers, they have variously estimated the chances of the average person dying in America at the hands of international terrorists to be comparable to the risk of dying from eating peanuts, being struck by an asteroid or drowning in a toilet.

I knew that the odds of dying in a terrorist attack were infinitesimal, but I didn't know they were drowning-in-a-toilet low. I didn't even realize that people died from drowning in toilets. What a terrible way to go.

Read the article, especially if you're in any way afraid of terrorism.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hooray hyperbole!

Want to know how to be a bad journalist? Write a sentence like this:

After 9/11, the US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund...

So after 9/11, the CIA went back in time two years to set up a venture capital fund? Now that's news!

This comes from this article on Facebook, which is essentially one long rant about how Facebook's neocon libertarian Stanford-grad overlords are stealing all your "ID information" and personal preferences, and how evil ads are. For the second complaint, I have only three words: Firefox, and Adblock Plus. Seriously, you'll never see an ad online again (it's awesome!). As for the first complaint, I'm seriously mystified as to what "ID information" they're taking, since you only need to supply (at most) an e-mail address, a name, and birthday, and neither of those need to be real. They're not taking Social Security Number, Credit Card Numbers, or Driver's License Numbers, or anything else even remotely useful. So Facebook has my name, oh no! I'm sure that information isn't already in the hands of hundreds of companies.

The sad thing is that the article starts with legitimate complaints; that rather than bringing people together, "social networking" sites like Facebook drive us apart. Personally, I believe in using Facebook as a way to contact people who don't like to use other methods (some people don't like being available via phone or Instant Messaging, sometimes I understand the feeling), and Facebook provides a nice way to contact someone that feels more personal than e-mail. It's also good for uploading photos, since it's close to impossible to find a good free photo host any more.

I think there are people who take the thing too seriously, who spend lots of time on it or obsess over it, but I have yet to meet one of them. Everyone I know uses it the same way I do, the way it was originally intended to be used: as a tool that makes certain aspects of your social life easier. Are some companies/evil-neocon-libertarian-VCs benefiting from this? Maybe, but just in case I'll tell them my favorite flavor of gum is garlic.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Funny/scary religion quotes

Here's a funny list of quotes from Christian chat rooms. Some of them are hysterical (either for stupidity or unintentional irony), some are incredibly depressing, some are infuriating; so it's pretty representative of religion in general.

Here's one particularly terrible quote:

Seriously, does anybody ever cry at an Atheist's funeral?

I mean, since Atheists have no value whatsoever as human
beings (they're not even human, but only inhuman animals),
since Atheists are nothing but miserable Liars, Cowards
and Murderers, after all, why would anybody in their
right mind weep over the dead rotting corpse, or bone
chips and ashes (that get mixed together with those of
others from the crematory) of a worthless dead Atheist?

And what epitaph do you engrave on an Atheist's grave
marker? "Here lies the only good Atheist, which is a
dead Atheist". What else is there say? Nothing at all.
No last words, no last rites, no flowers, no anything.

Every time an Atheist dies, the world is better off as
a result of that dead Atheist being dead, & its damned
God-forsaken soul burning in the fiery pits of Hades. :)

Which begs another related question, do Atheists cry at
funerals? If so, why? Since Atheists hate God, and they
hate Family, and they hate Country, who are they crying
for? It is true: The only good Atheist is a dead Atheist.

I won't even bother answering the questions, since their answers are obvious to anyone with a brain. I just wanted to point out that I have never in my life heard that kind of sentiment expressed by an atheist about anyone. I guess Freud was right about projection, because there is no shortage of it in these messages (and in my experience with the religious in general). Hatred, ignorance, fear, and intolerance are all projected onto atheists (as well as other groups). It's a very sad state of affairs, I can only hope that one day people will be educated enough to spot these projections.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Help restore science funding

Via ZapperZ comes this fantastic form for contacting your congress-critters about the tragedy that is this year's science funding. It's done through the APS, so you might need to modify the text of the letters a bit (I changed "scientist" to "student of science", for example), but I highly recommend that you do this. Without funding, science will simply cease to happen, and that's something we cannot afford.

In case you're not familiar with the situation, in the recently-passed Omnibus Spending bill, there were severe cuts to science funding, especially at large facilities (such as Fermilab and SLAC). These large projects are crucial, and without them we lose competitive advantage to other countries as well as put good scientists (and post-docs, and grad students) out of work, and we also miss out on the opportunity to make new discoveries. Large projects are the future of physics, as we probe more deeply into the structure and composition of the universe, more expensive machines are simply a necessity.

Here's the text of the letter:

As a scientist, I write to draw your attention to the devastating blows basic research received in the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008. The funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE) in the bill will cause irreparable harm.

I urge you to rectify the damage by providing emergency supplemental appropriations for FY08 and sustaining the American Competitiveness Initiative in your FY09 request.

The cuts to our nation's scientific facilities and to university research force industry to look abroad for scientific talent and facilities; they tell students to avoid science and engineering fields or to pursue those fields abroad; and they lay off scientific staff whose expertise will be permanently lost.

For America's long-term economic prospects and our children's future, the 2008 budget ignores the urgent calls found in such reports as "Rising above the Gathering Storm" to address our competitiveness and innovation challenges. Instead of increasing the investments so critical to our innovation economy, the bill you signed into law has slashed vital fields of science.

Furthermore, as we as a nation strive to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, mitigate global warming and put a lid on escalating energy costs, the 2008 budget abandons the long-term transformational research that is necessary to achieve all these essential goals. The bill is bad for our energy future and economic future.

The White House and Congress both recognized the importance of basic research, particularly in the physical sciences, and incorporated increases for research funding at key agencies into their budgetary actions this past summer. The broadly supported increases acknowledge the strong connection between basic research and economic growth, a connection that other countries have also accepted and are acting upon vigorously.

The bipartisan support for such research, expressed in the America COMPETES Act, represents a strong federal commitment to the principle that science and technology are central to the future of our nation. However, such support is not represented in the final 2008 Budget.

Distressing News from my Hometown

Via Ed Brayton comes this stunning piece of news, School district plans chip to track students:

A tech company with ties to a school district plans to test a tracking system by putting computer chips on grade-schoolers' backpacks, an experiment the ACLU ripped Monday as invasive and unnecessary.

The pilot program set to start next week in the Middletown school district would have about 80 children put tags containing radio frequency identification chips, or RFID chips, on their schoolbags. It would also equip two buses with global positioning systems, or GPS devices.

The school and parents will be able to track students on the bus, and the district hopes the program will improve busing efficiency, Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger said. The devices are intended to record only when students enter and exit the bus, and the GPS would show where the bus was on it's route.

On the plus side, parents can opt out (but I think these things should usually be opt-in).

I have a feeling that this kind of thing will become more and more common (sort of like that South Park Episode where the parents all freak out over child abduction and place trackers on everyone). It's a beautiful combination of technology, insane and inane parental and administrator fear, and a hyperbolic media.

But what really struck me is that this is happening in Middletown RI. I went to one of the schools where this is likely taking place (the article didn't mention specific schools, but I went to elementary school there for a year, before moving one town over to Portsmouth). One reason I can safely call this insane is that Aquidneck Island is incredibly safe, I haven't heard of a single case of a missing child the entire time I've been there. In fact, car accidents are the cause of nearly every childhood death I've ever heard of in the area. Granted, I could be missing something, but the point remains that this is very, very far from a high-crime or high-danger area.

Beyond all that, one must ask, "Is this a necessary use, or even a good use, of taxpayer money?" I think there's no rational argument for answering "Yes". We've survived just fine for a long time without needing to Lo-Jack our children, and exercising a modicum of parental responsibility would likely be far more effective anyway.

But we're not rational creatures (not fully, anyway), and fear of disasters, no matter how unlikely, will usually trump sound judgment in the long run. It's hard to take a good look at the current state of our country, with all of its hyper-inflated fears, and come to a different conclusion. Maybe GPS-tracked children is our future, but I certainly hope not.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

My thoughts on the candidates

I've been following this election fairly closely, mostly because it feels quite important (though I'm not entirely sure if it is). And because we're quite in the thick of things with the New Hampshire primary being later today and Iowa already done, I thought I'd give my opinions of the candidates.

First, the Republicans, and first of them, Ron Paul. Since I've self-identified as libertarian and can still be fairly accurately identified as one, one would assume that I like him. There are things I admire about him, but he has huge problems. For one he can't possibly win, but that's beside the point. He also denies evolution, has a sketchy stance on abortion, and I'm not fond of his immigration beliefs. And he takes libertarianism to impractical places; most of the stuff he says he'd want to do just wouldn't be possible, and I'm not entirely convinced some of it is wise. That's why I don't like Ron Paul.

As for the rest, Huckabee is an idiot, and just about the worst possible candidate. Giuliani is also terrible, his ideas about executive power are just absurd. Romney is the definition of a person who'll do/say anything to get power. The only one that's even respectable is McCain, and he's switched stances to pander as well as made extremely hypocritical statements. Besides that, his policy stances aren't anything to be happy about: at this point supporting the Iraq war is just lunacy.

As for the Democrats, the closest one to my actual beliefs is Kucinich, but since he has no shot I'll stick to the main three. Honestly, I know very little about each of them, somehow that information just doesn't get into my news sources. Nonetheless, I'll jot down some thoughts. Hillary seems like she just wants power, she's been a bit too supportive of Bush insanity in the past, and frankly I don't trust her. Obama seems genuine, as does his talk about change, even if it is vague. He has made statements supportive of science, and as far as I've heard he has few terrible policies (although the NY Times editorial page has complained about his health care proposal several times, I'd imagine anything that would get passed would be about the same regardless of the President). Finally, Edwards also seems to genuinely want some kind of change, and he certainly talks the talk about being above corporate influence, but who really knows if he is? At the very least, he's more savvy than four years ago, and would probably fair better than Kerry in the games leading up to the general election.

So who do I support? I'll vote for whoever the Democrats put forward, but right now I'm hoping that'll be Obama or Edwards. In fact, and Obama/Edwards ticket would be fairly attractive to me, with either of them in either role. But it's so hard to predict, based on platitudes and inanities and very, very little substantive discussion, who is actually right for the job and what will happen under their leadership. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Bible reader kicked off bus

Bobby Henderson of FSM fame has this delightful comment about a woman who was kicked off of a bus for reading the Bible loudly:

A note to the Bus Lady: That’s not persecution. Persecution would have been if the rest of the bus was full of Muslim and Hindu passengers, all reading their religious texts loudly, and you - and only you - were kicked off the bus for reading aloud from your Christian Bible. What happened is that you were being rude and insensitive to the other passengers, wanted special treatment, and were rejected.

I've always thought that it absurd when religious people are denied special treatment then claim discrimination. I wonder if they really are convinced that they deserve the special treatment, that it's really their right, or if they're simply making a calculation that our sensitivity about religion means that religious claims for special treatment are frequently honored. In simpler terms, I wonder if these people are arrogant, obtuse, and idiotic, or arrogant, intelligent, and calculating. In all honesty, I suspect the former in the vast majority of cases, and the latter in the cases of powerful and political people. At any rate, it's far from the traits that their religion supposedly honors, but those are quite obviously a charade that even church officials don't take seriously.