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On Francis Collins
Jul 29, 2009, 9:44 pm by Zach
Paul sent me a link to this NY Times article about Obama's pick for national director of the NIH, Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. Most non-scientists are probably pretty in the dark about the NIH, but it's a Very Big Deal. They head up lots of biomedical research and are responsible for giving out lots of grant money to scientists across the US.
Collins is a Christian and a scientist. Without knowing much about him, I'm sure most liberals would roll their eyes and consider this a step backwards. Collins is actually pretty good about separating religion from science. In fact, I'd say he's a great model for demonstrating how the two need not be mutually exclusive. He doesn't promote "intelligent design" and his CV is pretty impressive. He headed up the National Human Genome Research Institute, which will prove to be an invaluable tool for treating genetic diseases. I actually met him once at a lecture at SMU when I was in high school and he was a great speaker.
However, as outlined in the NY Times article, he has said some things that make people like me cringe--that at some point in our evolution, god inserted a soul. Of course, no science can prove this. The nature of science is to answer how, when and what, but never why. Collins has said, however, “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence”, which any scientist would agree with.
The question remains as to whether or not someone who is religious can ever be a truly good scientist. To say not would be as intolerant as the religious right is known to be. Logically, science and religion answer different questions (or different sides of similar questions), and a truly great scientist's work would never be swayed by their spiritual beliefs. Historically, this is almost never true. Lots of us hope that Collins is level-headed enough and will make a great director of the NIH, but part of us worries that NIH funding might change directions and support scientists who hold his religious beliefs. I personally don't think this will happen. I think he will end up doing a great job. Your thoughts?
One thing we can all agree on, though, is homeboy needs a new haircut. Do he and Bill Gates see the same barber? Damn!
Jury Rights, or The disappearance of the Jury Veto
Jul 27, 2009, 9:37 am by Paul Stiverson
Jury duty is arguably the only civic duty that any American is still obligated or compelled to perform. Despite the enormous privilege of a system which ensures the right to a trial by jury, people dread jury duty. I can fully appreciate why, who wants to take a day off of work to hear the gory, or worse the mundane, details of somebody else’s alleged wrongdoings. (There are better things anybody could be doing, like watching that marathon of CSI: Miami) They make you sit in an uncomfortable chair, the lunch they feed you isn’t going to come from the deli you like and will probably have Mayo on it despite your explicit instructions. Typically the result of whatever trial you are hearing will not affect you, your family, or society as a whole, in the least. To top it all off you have to pay attention ALL DAY, and they aren’t even going to pay you a fair wage for your day of work.
I understand not wanting the burden of jury duty, because as a juror you are typically not asked to actually weigh in on the case, you are given the evidence and asked to determine who is telling the truth. In most criminal trials there is a pretty strict guideline as to the decisions of the jury. The judge, or some other authority, tells you the letter of the law that should be adhered to. He says, “There are three criteria which need to be met for the defendant to be guilty, if these three criteria are met in your estimation then you must deliver a guilty verdict.” There is no room for their opinion on whether delivering a guilty verdict is actually delivering justice to the defendant. The jury is restricted to judging the facts, not the law, or so they think.
It is actually well within the rights of the jury to offer their opinion on the law itself.1 It is the juries’ unique right to say, in spite of the evidence of crime, that the accused is not guilty. Not guilty because the law itself is not fair. The jury is legally protected in their decisions, they cannot be punished for not executing the letter of the law. When this awesome responsibility is re-integrated2 into jury duty, then it will cease being a boring obligation that deserves to be unquestionably shirked. It will once again become a obligation that should be honored, because it could allow you to issue a referendum on the laws we live by.
Before you pass off this idea as ridiculous please consider the following hypothetical. You are asked to serve on a jury for a prostitution case, and throughout the trial it is made completely clear that the defendant did sell sexual favors thus roundly violated the law. It also becomes clear that the defendant was sold into slavery to pay off a family debt, and if the defendant refused her “Owners’” command to work the streets then she and her family would surely face bodily harm, however the law doesn’t regard coercion as justification. As a juror, do you think that convicting the defendant would be just?
The ‘Jury Veto’ is an extremely useful tool for jurors to offer a dissenting opinion on the law itself, and while their veto doesn’t actually remove or revise the law it does provide justice in the case they are hearing. The fact is that public opinion can be gauged based on these jury vetoes, and the legislature can change the law to reflect the will of the people (see prohibition, some 60% of cases involving alcohol during prohibition showed evidence of a jury veto).
- State of Georgia v. Brailsford (U.S. Supreme Court, 1794), Sparf and Hansen v. U. S (U.S. Supreme Court, 1895), Also protected under the Constitution of the state of Texas.
- It never actually left, however it is not discussed in the courtroom. If jurors don’t know about their rights then they cannot be exercised.
Jimmy Carter, Fuck Yeah!
Jul 24, 2009, 9:36 am by Paul Stiverson
I happened across an article that I found interesting and I want to share it with you all.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States of America, has always been a man of extraordinary character. He recently decided to speak out in protest against the Southern Baptist Church for their passive mistreatment of women, saying the following:
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
He is bravely making the connection between the global mistreatment of women to patriarchy within his own social circle. I, for one, am extremely glad to see somebody in the public eye that is willing to execute this necessary criticism; I am especially glad to see that it was executed by the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps his bravery will embolden others to say what needs to be said.
How to Make Public Transit More Appealing
Jul 13, 2009, 8:36 pm by Paul Stiverson
In the Bay Area there is a pretty reasonable system of public transit which consists of several independently operated, yet inter-connected, systems. These systems consist of trains, busses, electric bus lines, a high-speed rubber on concrete rail-type of thing (BART), and a subway in San Francisco. They connect the Bay Area nearly completely, effectively connecting each city that comprises the Bay Area. Despite the connectivity public transit is (in general) not a feasible means of travel because it can take a prohibitively long time to travel between two points. The problem is exacerbated by the independence of each system, they are pretty well coordinated, but there is always a small layover when changing systems. Let’s look at an example: traveling from where I am staying to the San Francisco Airport.
To make this trip I will board the Caltrain in Mountain View, the station is less than a mile from my residence so walking is not a problem. I will ride northbound until I reach the Millbrae Station where I will transfer to the BART which I will ride to San Bruno, and change trams to finally reach SFO. By all rights this is a pretty easy system to use, only changing rides twice during the 25 mile journey. The problem is that it will take nearly an hour and a half to make the trip (with transfer times). The longest leg of the journey is on Caltrain, it is 24 miles, and it could take up to 50 minutes. The reason that it could take so long is not that the train is slow—it moves at a respectable pace—but that there are 11 stops to make along the way. There are morning and evening commuter runs that skip most of the stops cutting the transit time to just under 30 minutes, so options are available to speed up the trip, but in general there will be a great deal of time wasted stopping and starting.
The long trip duration generally makes public transit a less attractive option than driving.
Presently plans are in the works to build a high speed rail (~200MPH!) connecting all of California with a primary line between Los Angeles and Sacramento, and I can’t help but think that—despite the speeds—the trips could still take quite a long time because of all the stops. Reducing the number of stops would make the trip faster and therefore better, but it reduces connectivity and thus would make the system overall less appealing for the taxpayer who is paying for the initial investment. It is possible to run a skip-stop schedule, wherein certain stops are skipped at certain parts of the day, but that makes the schedule complicated and limits the robustness of the system.
The solution to this problem is not to skip stops, but instead to prevent everybody from stopping at every stop. Instead of making the entire train stop at every station, let a specified number of cars stop. Imagine the following scenario: There is a train line running between Houston and San Antonio1, along the route it passes through College Station and Austin (~300 miles). The train leaves Houston with six cars and a primary engine, as the train approaches College Station the last car will separate and switch onto a deceleration track that intersects with the station. Somewhat before this a single car will depart from the College Station station on an acceleration track which will intersect with the main track. The car that left College Station will become the lead car of the main train. Likewise, as the train nears Austin two cars will separate and enter a deceleration track. Only those passengers who wish to debark need to stop, the rest of the train can keep a-rolling on down to San Antone’.2,3
This method of operation alleviates several problems other than wasted passenger time. First it saves energy since most of the train is not stopping and starting. Second it will reduce congestion and confusion in each station, all the people who are departing will be on a train car before the people arriving from Houston even enter the station. The system will remove the need for stop-skipping and therefore reduce the number of trains that will need to be run per day. Each car will be parked at a station for some period of time during the day, and thus can easily be cleaned by a janitorial crew without having to work at night or inconvenience any travelers. Also, the train at large will not need to pass through each city along the way, thus the primary route can be optimized. Further, adding stops to the trip could be done without requiring a significant change to the overall infrastructure.
With proper engineering the cars themselves can be completely passive (with the exception of a fail-safe braking system), the track can slow the car and collect the energy of stopping with some regenerative system, that energy can then be used for accelerating the next car that will depart. A certain amount of energy will (of course) need to be added to the system to account for inefficiencies, but overall energy will be conserved. Along the primary route the engine will be able to maintain a relatively constant speed and thus its operation can be optimized as well.
This system will have its difficulties in timing and general execution, but it seems that the benefits could out-weigh the challenges. The scale of the system is really not a concern, meaning that a similar tactic could be used for area-wide transit at lower speeds so long as people have sufficient time to travel between cars to make their stop.
I welcome your comments and criticisms of the proposed.
- I’m going to use Texas because more of my readers know the geography of Texas than California.
- Travelling at 200mph by train the trip from Houston to San Antonio would take a little over one and a half hours (accounting for acceleration and deceleration) even with the ‘stops’ in College Station and Austin, by car on I-10 the same trip would easily take an hour more than that.
- I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car!
Religion in Iowa Schools
Jul 12, 2009, 2:38 am by Paul Stiverson
There has been a recent proposal in an Iowa school district proposing to allow prayer as an option in commencement exercises, it would also call for the creation of two new elective courses: “The Bible in History and Literature,” and “Critique of Darwinism, A Scientific Approach.” The proposal would also permit teachers to answer questions about their religious beliefs, as well as allowing students to distribute religious materials. The stated purpose of the proposal is to educate about religious faith, and to promote dialog. I cannot say that I am completely opposed to such a measure, if it were enacted it could actually benefit students by allowing for real and diverse religious expression. The proposal clearly states that “[The] School will not discriminate against private religious expression,” so if there are teachers of varying religious backgrounds then it could elucidate the fact that not everybody is a Christian, and it could give refuge to students who are exploring or questioning their own religious beliefs. The proposal would also allow distribution of dissenting literature thus allowing students to inform their classmates about other religions.
Some other folks have said that this proposal is a thinly veiled attempt at thrusting the Christian notion of god back at the fragile and impressionable minds of our youth, complaining that the district is not calling for the creation of any other “The [religious text] in History and Literature” classes. I do agree with them that the classes being added are somewhat one sided, but I don’t think that the critics have considered all aspects of the proposal. The proposal is very clear in its anti-discrimination verbiage, so—while there might not be any classes—there will be discussion of the spiritual alternatives to Christianity. If the proposal is intended as an endorsement of Christianity (I certainly believe this is the case), then it will backfire the first time a student hands out anti-Christian (or non pro-Christian) literature. Handing out this literature—or the refusal to allow it to be distributed—could spark a debate of a much larger scope than just the district. If this proposal is just an attempt to re-enroll god in Iowa schools (if it should pass) then it will quickly be found out and eradicated, but not without shining a national spotlight on how not-far we have come since Scopes. If the proposal’s intentions are true then it is a positive step.
I hope the proposal does pass, and I hope that there are non-Christians who are ready to walk through the flames—so to speak—to endorse their beliefs. If there are then the debate on religion in the public sphere might finally be coming to a head, and the public discourse on religion could get very interesting in the next few months.
Jul 10, 2009, 1:17 pm by Lew
I saw this and I thought of paul. this matters.
Texans for Kinky
Jul 9, 2009, 9:27 am by Paul Stiverson
Those of you who know me personally know that I was an ardent supporter of Kinky Friedman during his run for Governor of the great state of Texas in 2006. He was running as an independent, and he came in dead last. He has announced that he plans to run in the upcoming gubernatorial election, but this time as a Democrat, which I think is where he should be to offset some goober like Chris Bell from stepping in and not even trying to run a campaign against Rick Perry (as happened in ’06).
I believed then, as I do now, that our state needs somebody like Kinky in the Governor’s Mansion. We need Kinky because he is not from the political institution, and he can break up the cronyism that has plagued our government for the last decade. In these tough times we need somebody who will actually stand up for the working poor and offer them the support (not necessarily monetary) that they need. We need somebody who will place education in the forefront and pull us up from the bottom 5% in education quality. We need somebody who will re-instate funding for those who care for the mentally and physically handicapped. We need somebody who will speak for needs of every Texan. We need a rebel to bring back the international glory and mystique that Texas once held.
Don’t get me wrong, I think he was better as an Independent, but he can win as a Democrat. Afterall, it isn’t the label that is important, it is the man. And, friends, Kinky is the man for this time and place.
You’re out of time.
Jul 8, 2009, 9:34 am by Paul Stiverson
Unless you have been inhabiting a small crevasse under a large rock you have surely heard, over and over again, that Michael Jackson (a rather famous pop singer!) has died. Upon hearing the news I must say that I was not entirely surprised or grief-stricken, but I did fully expect to be bludgeoned from every media outlet for at least three days. Boy, was I wrong. For the last twelve days I have not been able to turn on a television without hearing at least some mention of the death of the king of pop. If not about the details surrounding his death, than about his links to other celebrities (or pseudo-celebrities), or his will and who will care for his children. Most recently MSNBC has pre-empted their evening programming to show the public memorial service from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. While I fully admit that Michael Jackson was an American pop-culture icon I cannot fathom that he should deserve to so fully dominate the news cycle. I can only think of one reason why he should, and it is quite… sinister.
I claim that the only way that MJ could so receive so much attention is if at least one major news outlet is in on a conspiracy to fake Michael Jackson’s death. The reason for this fakery is necessary is for a major comeback scheme that MJ himself masterminded over 25 years ago. That’s right, in about a month CNN or some other outlet will take a shortcut through the cemetery that holds Jackson’s grave, illustrating how many people are making the pilgrimage to see his final resting place when the unimaginable, nay, the impossible will happen.
ZOMBIE DANCE PARTY!
We are all fighting for our lives inside a killer thriller tonight. You will be missed, Michael.
Paul’s Psycho Theater (Part 2)
Jul 1, 2009, 8:38 am by Paul Stiverson
A bunch of other interns and I were wanting to go to this event, a speech of some sort honoring some guy. The speech was taking place down toward San Jose, about 12 miles away from where we all were. Despite the fact that I have a car we decided that it would be fun to “Borrow” the keynote speaker’s RV to get to the speech. We found it and broke in, but as soon as we started driving we were found out by the cops who started chasing us immediately. Thankfully we were better drivers than they (somehow we knew all the roads really well and traffic wasn’t a problem), and we made it to the event unscathed. Evading the cops was really way too easy, it was like running from the cops in GTA (1.5~2.5 star level), but their cars were slower than our RV. I’m not really sure what or where this event was, but it took place in a lecture hall sort of place, think Blocker 102, but longer. We were seated near the back, and inexplicably the speaker was seated back there as well, he was actually planning on delivering the speech from the back. It was a clever ruse, lets see if it works out for him.
The speech started with something of an introduction where the guy’s credentials were delivered, I remember clearly that he did his undergraduate work at Berkeley, and his graduate work at Stanford. Toward the end of the introduction I made some smart-ass remark, and the speaker—being seated the row behind me—heard and was taken aback. He decided to punish me by making me introduce him, I simply recited the previous introduction, but was tripped up on a few details. I was really trying very hard to remember all his bona fides (and make all the same jokes as the unseen speaker), but drew a blank on a few minor details. The speech ended pretty abruptly after that and we all headed outside.
As we left the lecture hall (I remember talking to another intern about the speaker having done his undergrad at Berkeley and his graduate work at Stanford, but it took me 3 tries to say it right) I suggested that we distance ourselves from the quote-unquote Scene of the Crime, also known as the RV we had previously stolen. My cohorts looked over the area and decided that there were no cops about, despite the fact that stereotypical swat and surveillance vans were circling the area. I decided I wanted nothing to do with their foolishness and that I would find my own ride home rather than go to jail. As I walked away from them I saw them open the RV door and lo, cops come piling out arresting them all immediately. One of my fellow interns immediately cracks, and I see him point at me, I think to myself “Oh shit, I’m fucked” and start signaling to other people as if I know them. A cop walks up to me and asks me to step aside with him to answer some questions. At this point I realize that I am carrying a green army laundry bag over my shoulder and that I certainly look suspicious, I also realize that I need to crap really badly.
I asked the cops if they were going to detain me, they said no, I ask them if I’m free to go, and they say no. Seemed like a contradiction. I told them that I really had to poop, and that I remembered there being a public restroom nearby. The let me leave to crap on my promise to return immediately, I left my duffel bag with them because I really didn’t feel like carrying it anymore. As I walked away I told them, that is still my property, and it would still be a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights if you searched it without my permission—apparently I’m a lawyer in my sleep. I scampered in the direction of the bathroom. What I found was the weirdest part of my dream, and I someday have to build it. (If you are still reading then this next paragraph is your reward)
The bathroom that I found was really more like a locker-room for giants. It was about half the size of a city block, and it had all sorts of high-school locker room types of stuff, but at a ridiculous scale. I found the stalls, they were 15ft tall and blue, the bluest blue I had ever seen. Also the stalls were about 100ft long and 20ft wide, I opened the absurdly sized door and made my way down the long corridor to the most amazingly convoluted toilet I have ever conceived of. Let me see if I can adequately describe it: There was a big blue cube, it was taller than me, but when I jumped up I could see the hole (where the poop goes). From this blue cube two arms extended (toward the door), they were hinged to the cube, and they had an elbow in the middle. At the end of the arm there was a stainless steel seat (3ft, square), but notably there was no hole in the seat (for the poop to fall through). Below the seat there was a foot-rest, or perhaps it was a stirrup (where your feet would go while you poop). I think that you were supposed to sit on the seat (which would have been a feat considering it was at shoulder height), which then moved you into position over the toilet tank over which you poop. Bizarre design, but intriguing. (In case the description didn’t work for you there is a drawing below) [The more I think about it the more I think it was a trap. If I had sat on the seat it would have just dropped me into the shit-hole. I’m really glad I decided against it.]
Needless to say there was no way for me to poop anywhere in that bathroom, so I needed to venture further into the unknown to find a place to poop, I saw a mall down the street and headed for it. It is well past midnight at this point so there is nothing open, but I manage to get inside the mall and begin fruitlessly looking for a toilet. I’m not sure how long I wandered around the mall, but it was a while. When I finally exited I was carrying shopping bags: paper in my left hand, plastic in my right. There had to have been 50lbs of stuff in those bags, but I wasn’t really sure what that stuff might have been. I walked through the parking lot, still looking for a toilet, but slightly concerned that the cops would be looking for me by now and thinking that I should probably get back to where I had left them (so I could collect my duffel bag).
I saw a convertible driving toward me, in it were two ladies. When it pulled up beside me I realized that there were two more ladies crammed in behind the front row of seats. I asked them where the theater was (that is where the speech was held apparently), and they didn’t know. The did describe—in great detail—the political dealings of the area, about how the director of Ames was lobbying for blah, blah, blah. I asked them where I might find a bathroom and they prattled on about nothing useful or interesting (typical womanly behavior, am I right? HIGH FIVE!). I decided to take my leave of them, which my mind mistook for wanting to wake up. Lying in bed I realized that I really did have to (and still do need to) poop.
I’ll see you in the next installment of Paul’s Psycho Theater.