Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year, Everybody

I'm heading out for the evening. Everyone, stay safe, designate drivers, etc. etc.
See you in the new year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Complexity and Memetic Illness

Michael Chrichton gave a lecture last month entitled Fear, Complexity, Environmental Management in the 21st Century. He mostly decries the concept that the world is linear rather than complex. The illusion that the world is linearly predictable has given rise to many doomsaying predictions over the years.

The part of the lecture that I want to look at describes the impact on people's health that dire predictions can cause. From UN data regarding the Chenobyl disaster:
But most troubling of all, according to the UN report in 2005, is that "the largest public health problem created by the accident" is the "damaging psychological impact [due] to a lack of accurate information…[manifesting] as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state."

In other words, the greatest damage to the people of Chernobyl was caused by bad information. These people weren’t blighted by radiation so much as by terrifying but false information. We ought to ponder, for a minute, exactly what that implies. We demand strict controls on radiation because it is such a health hazard. But Chernobyl suggests that false information can be a health hazard as damaging as radiation. I am not saying radiation is not a threat. I am not saying Chernobyl was not a genuinely serious event.

Chrichton draws a parallel, potentially identical, mechanism with ancient beliefs in curses:
In fact, we need to recognize that this kind of human response is well-documented. Authoritatively telling people they are going to die can in itself be fatal.

You may know that Australian aborigines fear a curse called “pointing the bone.” A shaman shakes a bone at a person, and sings a song, and soon after, the person dies. This is a specific example of a phenomenon generally referred to as “hex death”—a person is cursed by an authority figure, and then dies. According to medical studies, the person generally dies of dehydration, implying they just give up. But the progression is very erratic, and shock symptoms may play a part, suggesting adrenal effects of fright and hopelessness.

Yet this deadly curse is nothing but information. And it can be undone with information.

A person's mind and body are far from distinct. They share a deep system of positive and negative feedback systems. Doctors tell of patients who just give up and die, while others never seem to give up. It is as if the mind provides the thumb to the scales, or sometimes even a fist to one of the plates. What I find interesting is the idea that the mind can be a pathway for ideas to alter body function. Maybe the holistic medicine movement may be on to something in theory. Get some rigor in the process, and we may start to see real effects.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Watching Evolution Happen

Science Magazine has announced its BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR, studies of short generation species undergoing evolutionary speciation. The cases described are fascinating.

Stick this in your ID pipe and smoke it. [/gloat]

Monday, December 26, 2005

Light Blogging Ahead

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to be going out of my mind for a while. In addition to writing for Two Fisted Tales of Magic and my regular role-playing game group, I was gifted with Myst V. I anticipate the insanity to be enjoyable.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hung Up on Randomness

Via Orack Knows, we have a link to La Shawn Barber’s Corner where La Shawn bemoans the court ruling that Intelligent Design does not belong in a science classroom. La Shawn posts the following:
“[C]omplex design is random—didn’t you know that?” — James White

Just took a look at the site linked to in the above quote, and it is clear that Mr. White is hardly a neutral commenter on the concept of evolution. Where he goes wrong in this one statement is that evolution is only half-random. Mutations happen when they happen, but natural selection is no more random than a football game, the best team wins. In fact, if you go with Robert Wright's view from Non-Zero then you can see that complexity is a highly successful method of survival in and of itself. From that point of view, not only is complexity not extraordinary, it would take a miracle for it not to happen.

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” — Charles Darwin

When natural selection selects, it isn't looking for perfection. All that is necessary is that it is better. And that definition of better is not very picky. To use the football analogy, natural selection only cares about who wins. Blowout or squeaker matters not, there is no point spread in evolution. So if a proto-eye can only tell what direction light is coming from, it is still better off than those eyes that can't. When it comes to the evolution of the eye, the half-eyed man still rules the blind.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, a federal court has decided that it is unconstitutional to teach Intelligent Design, the audacious claim that precious life didn’t emerge by chance — out of some primordial muck, randomly evolving from single-celled organisms, which are themselves astoundingly complex beyond our meager understanding, into thinking human beings — but from an Intelligent Being who designed it all, from the entire universe, including planet Earth, which happens to be PERFECTLY suited for life, down to the irreducibly complex eye, breathtakingly stupendous in its design and function.

I won't belabor the chance/randomness misunderstanding any further. The first point I will belabor is that La Shawn is very precisely stating the Strong Anthropic Principle, much as I had pointed out below. The problem with teaching it in science class is that it is a why question, whereas science is about the how. And even then, science is not certain about all the how's. That does not mean that those who wish for the deity to be involved should rush in. That leads to the trap of the God-of-the-gaps.

She also says something that I think is very enlightening about the entire debate. The idea that the world is perfectly designed for our life is precisely the opposite view taken by evolutionists. For evolutionists, life is perfectly adapted for our world. I'll leave it here for now to come back later for this idea in more detail.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Old Power, New Purpose

One thing I like to say is that one should not give power to the government that you wouldn't want the next president to have. Don't know who that next president is and don't know if you can trust him? Well, too bad.

That is the case with the NSA wiretap story. Evidently, this power had been recognized as Constitutional for the executive to monitor non-purely domestic communications:
In the Supreme Court's 1972 Keith decision holding that the president does not have inherent authority to order wiretapping without warrants to combat domestic threats, the court said explicitly that it was not questioning the president's authority to take such action in response to threats from abroad.

Four federal courts of appeal subsequently faced the issue squarely and held that the president has inherent authority to authorize wiretapping for foreign intelligence purposes without judicial warrant.

The only thing that really seems all that different in this case is that we know that this particular administration was using that authority. I leave it to your particular sense of cynicism as to whether you think that previous presidents did the same. I also leave it to you to decide if more of this might have helped prevent previous attacks, or if there were potential attacks that never happened because of this.

Link via Instapundit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dover ID Requirement Struck Down/A Way Out for ID

Judge rules against 'intelligent design' in science class

Something I did not know about this school board (in that this is the one that had almost complete turnover of 8 of 9 members in the last election): the original vote to require teaching intelligent design was 6-3 in favor. Sounds like at least 2 board members who didn't deserve the bounce got it anyway.

There is a curious theory regarding intelligent design, and that is that it would be better as a religious theory if it did not confine itself to the study of life. If life is studied as part of the physical science whole, then one could argue that the whole, including the process of evolution, was intelligently designed. It would then be part of the Strong Anthropic Principle, which holds that the physical constants of the world are as they are so that intelligent life could come about. Follow that up with infinite control of the initial conditions, and a sufficient intelligence could guarantee human kind coming about. Such control would be the miracle of miracles, but then, what would a God be for?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Objectivity can get ugly

Coming off of that last post, I got hit by an idea. Snide references aside, it has been some time since the divine ahah settled upon me.

Someone might say that the majority of people in America are Christian, and therefore we should eschew Happy Holidays in favor of Merry Christmas. I thought next, just because the majority favors calling the accoutrements of the season “Christmas” X, it doesn’t mean that the primacy of old pagan claims to the symbolism can be ignored.

The thought carried on to Intelligent Design and the scientific method, particularly when pro-ID’ers use the issue to run for school boards. And without further ado, here’s the thought:

Just because a majority wants an idea to be true, that does not mean that idea is a fact. Popular opinion has no role in the scientific method.

This applies equally well to any findings that there may be racial differences in physiology, or any other finding that might violate the sacred precepts of political correctness.

Just Be Merry, Dammit

Too bad the War on Christmas seems to be petering out, or never really started.

Anyway, if you are still looking for a side to take, try this one: start calling it a Yule Tree, or wish people a Happy Solstice (Dec. 22). Just be sure to remind folks that if there is a war on Christmas that Christmas is really an occupier of this particular patch of calendar territory.

This post brought to you by the Holiday Agent Provocateur.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Score One for Doonesbury

Today's comic.

Link via Balloon Juice

2nd Blogiversary

Today is two years since I started this thing. I certainly hope to keep going so long as interesting topics in the areas of science, philosophy, and politics keep up. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Patriot Act Shot Down

While I am not entirely happy with the methodology (inability to overcome a threatened filibuster), I certainly am glad that the Patriot Act reauthorization failed to pass the Senate. Mission creep was starting to set in. Call this one a victory for the concept of sunset clauses.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Talk About High on Life

I didn't know there was such a thing as the 'brain's own cannabis'. The subject of the story is an experimental anti-depressant that increased levels of endocannabinoids by blocking their decomposition. This definitely gets filed under "more please". Now if science can come up with the 'brains own Twinkies', we'd be all set.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From

Via Castle Argghhh!

Good on this pilot for getting himself and passengers down safely. In the meantime of the getting down, I would not have wanted to have been on that chopper.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Blind Watchmaker's Revenge

Does God have backaches? Did Jesus ever need to have his wisdom teeth pulled? If you do believe that God made us in His image, then one would think that he would have the same physical maladies that we do. Particularly the ones that could be described as fundamental design flaws, as described in Incompetent Design Theory. The article discusses the skeletal system primarily, but the interviewee, Prof. Don Wise, makes a very salient point about the eye:
Intelligent designers and, in fact, everybody from the creationists and so on back to the beginning of the last century used to talk about the wonderful design of the eye—which somehow has all your receptor cells behind a membrane curtain!

The following ditty sums up the theory quite succinctly:
Sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic")
My bones proclaim a story of incompetent design.
My back still hurts, my sinus clogs, my teeth just won’t align.
If I had drawn the blueprint, I would cer-tain-ly resign.
Incompetent Design!
Evo-Evo-Evo-lution! Design is but a mere illusion.
Darwin sparked our revolution. Science SHALL prevail!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Just How Curious is George?

Epidemiologists have identified a potential path for interspecies communication of disease via performing monkeys. Just remember, that the limelights of showbiz can blind even the most serious minded primate over into unsafe behavior. And who knows who that monkey had been climbing on previously.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What He Said

"Society is something emergent that occurs when people interact with each other, you cannot point at it and you cannot owe it anything. When any politician says the word 'society', you can be damn sure what he really means is 'the state'.
- Perry de Havilland"
I've been having a running discussion with a friend about whether society really exists or not. He claims there is, and I say that it is nothing more than an aggragate of individuals. I hold that my view is actually stricter than his. If so much as one individual has his personal rights violated, then one's action should be curtailed. Drive recklessly? No go, as you don't know if you will run into (figurative or literal) someone on the street.

My friend then says that what I am talking about, the unknown other, is society. My response is that when one invokes "society", it carries the implication of everyone else. It is fundamentally impossible then to effect society, and hence it becomes a non-entity, at least on the first order of interaction. Beyond the first order, the responsibility an individual has decreases rapidly as predictability becomes more and more tenuous. Someone, somewhere, is driving recklessly. Is that person harming you as you read this? If not, then the society that person is threatening does not include you. If yes, then I hope you're the passenger because you shouldn't be reading blogs while driving.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Short Lesson in Natural Selection

The Intelligent Design Debate is still going strong, darn it. One of the big points of distate in evolution is the nature of random mutation. What the randomness qualm misses is the non-random nature of natural selection.

Case in point: my hunting ground has rabbits that are slow enough for me to run down and catch, and when I catch them I eat them, killing the rabbit in the process. Now suppose that one of the rabbits has developed a random tick that makes it faster, be it longer legs, faster reflexes, or even sharper senses to see me coming from farther away. Either way, I won't catch that one, but I will still be dining on slow rabbit. My "selection" is not random, and after several generations, the local breed of rabbit is going to have the "faster than an out of shape human" quality. Once that happens, my progeny are going to have to develop the in shape quality or the hunting tool quality to keep up.

In the first instance, I have had a hand in the evolution of the rabbit. In the second, the rabbit has had a paw in the evolution of humans. Yet another idea for ID'ers to choke on.