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Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolutions for me and that special someone.

I resolve to:
  1. Start fewer land wars in Asia. (someone)
  2. Work harder in 2007. (me)
  3. Love my children more. (me)
  4. Work with people who disagree with me. (someone)
  5. Help my students more. (me)
  6. Stop killing people. (someone)
  7. Teach better than ever. (me)
  8. Stop borrowing to pay for stupid larks. (mostly someone)
  9. Love my neighbor. (both of us but especially someone)
  10. To believe in evolution, global warming and other scientific facts. (someone)
  11. To stop torturing people. (someone)
  12. To write more. (me)
  13. To read more. (someone)
  14. To rely on facts not guts. (someone)

I wish for
Peace and good will to all
children and men and women;
people and dogs and cats and
members of all species, discovered or not.
Humans of all stripes to work together to stop rampant destruction, bloodshed, torture, rape and murder.
The end of hunger, thirst, starvation, illness, and preventable diseases.
Proper education for all.
Love for all and the end of hate.
Family, friends, happiness and good fortune in the New Year.
Finally, I wish for my own personal peace and calm.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Peace Through War: Bush Admin Thinking

Top secret poop on current Bush administration thinking on various topics:

Iraq: Peace through War

Working with Congress: Cooperation through Intransigence

CIA Intelligence: Intelligence through Ignorance. Hey, we don't need no stinking CIA intelligence reports. Either before Iraq OR before 9-11. Don't need 'em after either.

Full Employment at Minimum Wage should make up for the inflationary pressures of too few people chasing too many jobs.

Leaving children behind: Giving new meaning to Free Education: Don't fund our schools.

Kill, Kill, Kill Saddam

Scene: Arlo is jumping up on the psychiatrists desk and shouting, "kill, kill, kill." The sergeant comes in and says, "You're our boy."

Now the powers that be want to kill Saddam as fast as possible. First it was in 30 days, now it is this weekend. As if killing someone were the way to peace? As if Saddam mattered to anybody currently shooting weapons in Iraq? Or is this supposed to be a deterrent to the next Saddam Hussein? Three words: Shah of Iraq.

What's the hurry? Saddam ain't goin' no-where. Or, maybe they're afraid he will go somewhere. After the Americans all leave, someone or ones might kill him themselves, or let him go free. I doubt there'll be much continuity in the Iraqi prison system over the next ten years.

Do the powers-that-be (PTB) need to kill him now to permit withdrawal of the American troops and let total anarchy descend?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Los Angeles Times had a great article on atheism at the link. "10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism". You have to register, but it is free. After about 2 weeks, the link will probably disappear, even if you register.

The article is by Sam Harris, author of a pair of books with titles sounding like defenses of atheism.

It's a good article, providing short rebuttals to many (most?) of the silly claims made about and against atheism and atheists.

Several points rang true for me. "Atheists are dogmatic." And "Atheists are arrogant." Hah. This is a case of projection. As a scientist, it is important to say "I don't know" when I do not know something. Believing in some created story about how the world came in to being, one that contradicts the commonly observed laws of nature is dogmatic. Saying that one does not know is hardly dogmatic. Insisting that you have the one true belief is arrogant.

"Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society." I don't know about the 'extremely' part.

As someone who got beat up by the catholic neighbor kids on occasion during grade school, I never quite fathomed the idea of religion as automatically being beneficial. Religion, while used to bring a small group of people closer, tends to separate larger groups. The conservative and dogmatic religious people of this world, whether found in the United States, the middle east or elsewhere are responsible for quite a bit of misery in this world. In the US, most of the home grown terrorism of the late 20th and early 21st century comes from right wing religious (and some non-religious) people as well. Not many atheists are currently going around setting off bombs, though that might have been different in the 1960's or so.

"Atheism provides no basis for morality." I find the golden rule "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" a useful adage for behavior. As a simple example, if you hit someone, they may hit you back, or worse, steal your toy from you. And not only is that someone's life a little more miserable, so is yours. For me to enjoy life, it is important to treat others well. I enjoy the relative safety and freedom of modern society. I imagine society, with some ups and downs, may eventually become even better, but right now is pretty good. But if I and everyone else went about damaging property, hurting people, stealing, things, this society would collapse. My kids would be hurt. If they were not directly hurt, society would be much poorer, and my kids would be poorer, with concomitant less chances of enjoying life, of reproducing, and so on.

The basis of morality in religion seems to be a kind of "be nice or else" threat. The threat is that "god'll get you" if you're not. Or, if your particular god of the moment is a nice beneficent god, then "god won't give you any nice toys when you die".

A cute point that Harris made is a quote "As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "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." " Here here. In the past, I've turned this around to ask why you don't believe in gods like Zeus, Hera, Odin, Thor, Atlas, Hercules, Isis, Yahweh, Allah, Shang Ti, Shen, Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ekam, Akal Purakh, Ek Onkar, Aten, Ahura Mazda, Mithras, Xwede, Cao Dai, Jeebo, Jengu, Frige, Anshu. Ok, I'll stop.

Jared Diamond in his books has described how every little village and valley in the interior of Papua New Guinea (I think, pardon if in error), had a different culture, religion and language. Why aren't any of these religions the "right" religion? Or some of the other top ten most popular belief systems "correct"?

In a related vein, why do we use "mythology" to refer to the belief systems of other religions, particularly dead religions. This should be used to refer to the belief systems of currently popular religions. And the associated implication that these belief systems are not actually true, but are just stories should be carried along as well.

Thanks to Wikipedia article "Names of Gods" for the names here. See also this article for the last few and a bazillion more.

content starts again!

Lost the password, or couldn't figure it out, or forgot the login name, or didn't understand what to enter, so couldn't get here to post. Seems like forever. But I'm back, hopefully with something interesting to say.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wasting Time on the Internet: In My Dreams

Woke up to the alarm Saturday morning. Had a few minutes before needing to crawl out of bed. I plopped the pillows against the wall and sat up. Of course I fell immediately back asleep. A dream set in. I won't tell you about hanging out with the three gay guys (this was in no way a sexual dream, so who knows why I cared they were gay.). We were driving around Washington DC looking for a parking space after leaving a conference. If we found a parking space, the joke was we'd have to buy a new car to go somewhere because the parking space was just too valuable.

We made it to one guy's apartment -- his family owned the entire building. It was not very interesting on one side, but on the other side it looked out on a combined Burger King - Disney amusment complex. BK was on the left, Disney on the right. There were two towers, a smaller one at BK and a larger as part of the Disney complex. Each tower had a Disney character in it. Snow White was in the Disney tower. The characters were dancing -- think go-go dancers but in full Disney costume.

In the guy's apartment, we went to the computer room. I logged on to the internet, and started spinning off window after window. The other guys gabbed for a while, then decided to leave. I said, sure, I'll go. I closed a few windows, but something caught my eye and I surfed a little more. I'm coming I said. After a bit, one of them came back up to see what I was doing. So I closed the rest of the windows, and was about to shut off the computer, when I woke up. I jumped out of bed with three minutes left to get ready.

Even in my dreams I'm now wasting time surfing the internet. And it is interfering with my other activities.

There must be a web-addiction-while-sleeping (WAWS) meeting somewhere. Maybe on-line?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Research is an Attitude

I do research for a living. It is sometimes a little hard to explain to people what research is. After all, many people can go a lifetime without running into valid research.

  • Porcupine quills cure cancer (okay, not porcupine quills, but peach pits);
  • Vitamin C cures the common cold (an otherwise good scientist goes slightly off his rocker, and everyone follows suit in the face of overwhelming evidence against the hypothesis);
  • aliens abducted my mother (and every other supermarket checkout headline);
  • Vitamin E halts aging (last study I read about found it slightly harmful in large doses).
  • The latest activities of Brangelina, Britney, Paris, Bennifer, Julia, Bruce, Nicolle, Tom, Mel.
What is research? It is curiousity. It is an attitude towards facts and towards life. It is the finding out of 'things', the discovering of how things work, why something is done, why someone behaves in a certain manner. Is a given fact actually true? It is the discovering of
  • explanations;
  • rules;
  • laws;
  • how to achieve something new;
  • what happens if you do something a different way.
Here is an example involving curiousity more than research. In my neighborhood, rubber hoses have been stapled down on the street and connected to a small box on the sidewalk. The obvious questions are
  • What are the hoses?
  • What are they doing there?
  • Why are they there?
Some less obvious questions are:
  • Who put the hoses there?
  • How long will they be there?
  • Can I remove them?
  • Can I move them?
  • Are there any consequences to them being there?
  • Will there be more?
  • Can they damage my car?
Lots of questions. Research starts with curiousity. The more questions the merrier, as long as they don't get overwhelming.

What are the hoses? I believe I know that they are for counting the number of cars going by. In research, it is important to identify what you know already, and also to know how certain something is. I believe this, but it is knowledge from my childhood, not from being told by the owner of the hoses.

What are the hoses doing there? Measuring traffic. In a few places, there are a pair of hoses close by. That could be used to measure speed, for example, because the traffic engineers know the distance between the hoses. Actual speeds of cars is useful for setting speed limits, and knowing whether drivers are treating a road as unsafe. The impact of a stop sign is determined partly by the speeds that cars go past the intersection.

Why are they there? Well, obviously somebody or someone wants to consider changing the traffic signs: speed signs, presence of two or four stop signs, perhaps a cross walk.

Bringing other information to bear is important in research. I know that this street has recently been extended. It used to go nowhere, but now it is a through street. Many houses have been built along the road. Traffic patterns must be different from when the street was originally marked. I know people often complain about hazardous traffic conditions in our neighborhood (though I don't know of any complaints about this street), and this street is more hazardous than many, because cars park on both sides of the street, it is busy, and it is not particularly wide. When someone opens a car door on the street side, pulls out of a driveway or parking space onto the road, or when the trash truck or mailman stop their vehicles, an unsafe condition is created. Pedestrians are at risk because the street turns, and they cannot be seen. Skateboarders occasionally pull directly out into traffic along the street.

Making suppositions can be fun and useful. I conclude from this information that traffic changes may be warranted, and due to the many hoses placed, that quite a number of changes are under consideration. Possibilities include four way stops, speed limit changes, and I bet parking restrictions on one side of the street (boy would that be unpopular for residents!) are options I would consider.

But be aware that these are suppositions, and not facts!

What is the truth? How can I proceed? There are several possible actions I could take here:
  • Someone knows about those hoses, just not me. Research includes getting information from other people or sources when you do not know yourself. This may be considered spreading information around, rather than discovering something totally new. On the other hand, it is new to me, and for me that is research.
    • I could ask city traffic engineers (probably best);
    • I could ask a traffic engineer not connected with these hoses;
    • I could look up about traffic management in books or the web.
  • I could collect more data. In this situation, if I wait, the hoses will disappear, and traffic changes will or will not occur. If after six months or a year no changes have occurred, then I conclude that no changes were warranted. Personally, my bet is something will change.
Suppose I wait, and eventually traffic changes occur. It is important to understand that I have learned something. This is support for my suppositions. It suggests that my suppositions are sensible. It does not guarantee their truth, but it increases the probability of their truth. Compared to other possible explanations about the hoses, (residents gathering evidence for the city, aliens, act of God), my explanations are more plausible.

Aliens and acts of God would predict destruction of the street as equally likely as traffic changes, or straightening the street, or permanent hail storms. If those happened, my suppositions would be discredited, and the aliens/act of God hypothesis would be indicated, though not proven!

Residents directly installing the hoses seems implausible -- the hoses are specialized equipment, carefully and systematically installed, not someone's expensive play toys. Seems unlikely to me, though this could also lead to traffic pattern changes.

In summary: when I see new data (traffic changes, or no changes or miraculous straightening of curvy roads) I will change my opinions. Traffic changes increases the probability of my suppositions, and the resident hypothesis. But the resident hypothesis was implausible to begin with. No changes means I learn nothing and am left with my suppositions, because they seem most likely to me in the first place. Straightening the roads will cause me to either reread HG Wells, or start going to church, synagogue or mosque, depending on the decorations of the newly straightened road.

Research is an attitude. It is a way of thinking about the world, always looking, seeing, observing. It is about thinking of the whys, wherefores, whats and hows of the world

  • Why things are the way they are,
  • What are they in the first place??
  • How they came to be?
  • Wherefore will happen next because the world is the way it is right now?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Single massive asteroid wiped out dinosaurs: study

London, Rooters -- Scientists today revealed the results of an extensive survey regarding the events surrounding the extinction of the dinosaurs. Creatures surveyed admitted 79% to 15% that a single asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs. The remaining 6% of creatures responding said either "I don't know" or "Baa" or "how the +bleep+ would I know?". The 15% denyers claimed either multiple asteroid strikes, hand of god, will of the people, act of nature, too much smoking among the youth, and poor urban planning that was just "ruining the neighborhood".

The study used a probability sample of 1001 dinosaurs that were alive at the time of the sample. Unfortunately, due to missing data, lack of response even to multiple callbacks, moved address with no forwarding information, inability to speak either English or Spanish, scientists were forced to expand the eligible pool of participants to include currently extant lizards, birds, dalmatians and small mammals, all of whom were closely related to and descended from species extant at the time of the event.

Dr. Loren Ingalls, PhD, MD, MPH, chief scientist at the National Institutes of BioInfoTechnoDigiCracy and lead author of the study said, "We were happy to get a sufficient sample size so as to answer these important questions about the early evolutionary development of our planet from a time before most of us were born."

He continued: "Evolutionary survey sampling is a science in its infancy. This study gives a taste of the power of the method, and we look forward to further bombshell results in the future."

Other experts surveyed about the study were more sanguine, a few were whiny, but most were dry, only a few questioned were sec on the study. Dr. Haggis O'Tartand of the Harvard Advanced Institute for Renewable Studies (HAIRS) said, "While this is an interesting study, it is hardly conclusive. More studies of this type are needed before confidence can be placed in their repeatability." Professor O. R. Acle of the University of Michigan Consortium for Research into Environmental and Evolutionary Processes complained that, "[T]he methodology needs to be validated by actual surveys of real dinosaurs actually alive during the hypothesized event. This descendant of dinosaur has not been tested against other methodologies."

Ingalls, in defending the study methodology pointed out the results were in startlingly close agreement with physical and geological studies on the events of the era, even agreeing with the best current dating of the asteroid strike occurring 65million years ago. "In fact, our study pinpointed the date as closer to 65,250,907 years ago. Several creatures stated that it was on a Thursday, although this was disputed by one Rhinocerous who said it was the previous Friday, but others pointed out that that was the day of the tailgate party before the big game, and the Rhino's ancesters had had a bit too much to drink, and hadn't woken up until just after the asteroid strike.

The article is scheduled to be published in Science! the Journal! and will be posted on-line in abbreviated form immediately as corrected page proofs are received. Hollywood has already bought rights to the article, and rumors of a Broadway spectacular tentatively titled "Asteroid" are rumored to be in the works.

This article featured reporting by Simon BarSinister in
England and Sheila Coudenbee in a Pickle.