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If you say I descended from a monkey I’ll throw my poop at you.

Sep 1, 2009, 3:25 pm by Paul Stiverson

I just finished watching an interview (it is about 67 minutes long split into 7 parts), wherein Richard Dawkins interviews Wendy Wright (perhaps a mismatching of wits). Dawkins puts her on the ropes pretty quickly, but in one of her jabs back at Dawkins, Wright asks, “Why is it so important to you that everyone believe in evolution?” She goes on “You seem to almost feel like it is dangerous for people to believe that human beings were created individually and with a distinctness, and created by a creator.” I would reply to Wright that it is absolutely not the case that it is dangerous for people to believe in a creator, but that it cannot be viewed as anything but dangerous for so many people to be able to deny the mountain of evidence supporting evolution. It isn’t dangerous in the sense that evolution might get mad and destroy us all, but instead that lacking the critical and abstract thinking skills required to process and potentially rebut the evidence presented is the danger. I am referring to the ability of Wright to ignore any evidence given by saying that it is insignificant in validating macro-evolution (evolution from one species to another).

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the willing and gleeful ignorance of the deeply religious, within the first two pages of the bible god damned man for finding knowledge that he (god) did not impart. Genesis 2:16–17 says “And the lord god commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’” We all know the story: serpent convinces Eve to try a bit, Eve convinces Adam to try a bit, both are then ashamed of their nudity (neither dies that day, thus god is a liar), and the jig is up when god tootles back and casts the two from Eden (also god invents labor pains, and thorny bushes, and introduces a bunch of anti-feminist sentiment into the world… yayy god.). Given the troubles that the tree of knowledge caused for mankind, I can see why Christians are so apt to avoid seeking new knowledge when it comes to the creation story.

When presented with the various steps between ape an man which are present in the fossil record, Wendy claimed that the evidence is not material. As though the only way to “prove” evolution is to witness one species being born of another, this is as absurd as the “If man evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?” argument. She claimed that if evolution were true then there would be an abundance of evolutionary evidence from pond scum up to humans, showing each discreet step in-between. Such a stance shows a lack of understanding in the scientific process and in the nature of scientific research. Despite her scientific shortcomings she insists that teachers should be allowed to “Teach the Controversy” of evolution, and present the shortcomings of Darwinism as well as present the evidence of intelligent design. I really do question the origin (and existence) of any evidence of intelligent design (considering it is purely a matter of faith). It is true that the picture painted by evolutionary scientists is incomplete, and there is still much work to be done to reach the absolute fact of our evolution, but to my knowledge there is very little evidence of a divine creator (please, before you comment, the bible doesn’t qualify as scientific evidence).

Perhaps I’m being too rough on Mrs. Wright. She claims to respect us (by virtue of being evolutionists) and just wants the same from us, “I don't think that there should be as much dissension between our camps, that we can come to respect one another—in fact we do, we respect evolutionists for their beliefs—we would hope that there would be as much respect on the evolutionists part toward us.” It is difficult for me to feign respect for people who challenge widely accepted principles on faith and without evidence. I do appreciate skepticism of evidence because it is essential to the expansion of knowledge, but I refuse to show respect to the ignorant simply because they believe they are right. When Dawkins essentially called her (and her colleagues) ignorant, Wright replied, “It probably would be helpful to the dialog if the evolutionists were not so demeaning and degrading to others.” Which is true, but there really isn’t much of a dialog occurring when one side says “Here’s some dang ol’ evidence”, and the other side covers their ears.

When you hear Mrs. Wright’s reasoning behind rejecting Darwinism you find that it has nothing at all to do with science: “A philosophy that is drawn out of Darwinism would be extremely brutal, and in fact has been… Recognizing that there is a loving creator helps to build a society that is more than just livable but pleasant.” She is right and Dawkins acknowledges that, noting that if our societal structure was built entirely on constant competition for the scarce resources we require then it wouldn’t make for a very pleasant existence. However, the fact of the matter is that the sort of society we would like to live in today has little bearing on how we as a species came into existence. Further, to say that we should stop seeking the facts of our creation (be it through evolution or otherwise) because of the societal implications of those facts is ludicrous.

If you want to believe that we humans were created by god, or even that a duck shat us all out into our mothers’ tummies, then you are welcome to do so. I have no call to stop you, nor would I care to stop you. However, I do have a problem with people who attempt to undermine scientific fact to protect whatever mental illusions they wish to maintain.

preview

Aug 6, 2009, 2:05 pm by Lew

I am preparing a rebuttal to the following. Professor Cress covered this and I will try to not step on his toes. I am still doing some reading to build my argument. In the mean time I wanted to post these so y'all could mull them over.

What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:
Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

On Francis Collins

Jul 29, 2009, 9:44 pm by Zach

Francis Collins, Director NIHPaul 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!

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.

Notes:

  1. I’m going to use Texas because more of my readers know the geography of Texas than California.
  2. 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.
  3. I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car!

Axioms: Meta-Nature's Candy

Feb 24, 2009, 11:16 pm by Paul Stiverson

The following is a guest post made by my roommate, Tim.

Sometimes in philosophy and math, it becomes requisite to acknowledge that certain "facts" are unverifiable. Assumptions are made, and arguments use these assumptions as a starting point. There's not a question of them being right or wrong, as they're either "self-evident" or just light from the proverbial void. I point this out in reference to a statement that "2+2=4" is "always completely verifiable". It's not that it's a bad assumption to make, but it's being somewhat abused to make a point about morality or birth control... or something.

Let's start with what doesn't have anything to do with scientific fact (in this case, because it isn't scientific). Firstly, the afore-mentioned "2+2=4" is a special instance of what is called the law of identity (e.g. a = a). For certain arguments, this so-called law has been used as the assumption upon which various blitheringly stupid arguments have been made (see: Ayn Rand). Basically, science doesn't enter into it. Science is all about figuring things out based on empirical observation (called "a posteriori" knowledge), and the law of identity is self-asserting, not based on experience (called "a priori" knowledge), but draws its truth value from the claim itself. 2+2=4 is neither a scientific claim nor a scientific fact.

That being said, let's talk about another thing that doesn't have anything to do with scientific fact (in this case, because it isn't fact). It's true that scientists of a sort became aware of a possible health danger exists in the consumption of eggs. Researchers (people who experiment and analyze results) discovered a link between the amount and type of cholesterol in egg yolks and a dangerous increase in LDL cholesterol levels in the human blood stream. The researchers in question work in biomedical science, which at this point is far softer science than something like chemistry, making it particularly difficult to verify the veracity of claims made. At very best, there was fairly compelling evidence that the assertion could be true. The link was popularized, and many people did accept as "gospel truth" that "eggs gon' kill us". This speaks more to the fickleness of the general populus and less to the claims made by "science". As happens with things that may or may not be true, studies have been done that suggest the exact opposite; that eggs in fact lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. The absolute truth of the matter is arguably difficult to pin down, and as long as people keep immediately believing anything published on paper, people will continue to scapegoat "science" for giving us lowly commoners "facts" that later end up not being true. To clarify, the Houston Chronicle's "health" section doesn't count as science, as far as any vaguely accurate definition is concerned.

Now, let's change things up completely and talk about why scientific fact doesn't have anything to do with what was said (in this case, because the term "scientific fact" doesn't make a damned bit of sense). The "facts" (I'm just going to discuss the laws of thermodynamics as the strongest possible objection to my own argument) that science currently possesses are very strong, but no matter how strong they contend to be, there's an implicit assumption that they are correct and that they are just so compelling that they're almost certainly true. I'm not going to disagree, as they are very, very compelling. Despite that opinion/fact, there are various contingencies in which science's strongest facts manage to be actively false (e.g. our context isn't as clear as it seems, there are forces at work we just flatly can't currently see... There are more. But don't take my word for it!).

I've managed to pretty bluntly avoid my real problem with the obviously referent argument. The morality/ethics/religion/science battle royale being waged earlier was convoluted enough that I'm not sure that any of the parties involved were necessarily sure what was even being argued. But I suppose that's content for another headache.

I suppose it's pointless to mention that THIS MATTERS.

Array Brownies

Jan 23, 2009, 2:01 pm by Lew

array cake get!Yesterday was my bday and for the occasion my fiancee made me a delicious and hilarious microarray brownie cake. if you are a bio nerd this is funny. if not then it is jargon. i wanted to share though.

planet blu-ray

Dec 27, 2008, 1:29 am by Lew

that's sir david I learned two things recently. The first is that blu-ray is totally worth it and that if you are making a documentary you either need to have someone who speaks English with an accent or you need James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. There are no other Americans who can narrate for a damn. I got a blu-ray player for Christmas and the planet earth bbc discs. The difference is amazing. I did not think the vhs to dvd jump was a big deal, the picture is comparable. Watching a wolf take down a caribou in hd is amazing. I like nature films and this is the best non-Jacques Cousteau series I have seen. Cousteau may lack hd but the weird places he went and the drama he brings more than makes up for it. Now if they could do his movies on blu-ray I would probably sell a testicle to see them. This tangents to my other point. David Attenborough narrates planet earth. I watched a (regular def) documentary by Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques) and it was good. But it was narrated by just regular American dude. Why the hell didn’t Jean-Michel narrate? He is franco-american he was born to narrate. Documentaries either need the authenticity and exotic quality of accented English or the gravity of james earl jones, otherwise it just footage of outside with dudes chattering.

flu vaccine II

Dec 9, 2008, 2:15 pm by Lew

Here is a nice citation about mass flu vaccination Over the last seven years Ontario gave free influenza vaccinations to everyone over 6 months old. The rest of Canada, like the USA, continued population targeted vaccinations. In Ontario the number of influenza related deaths and hospital visits went down dramatically compared to the rest of the country.

The Effect of Universal Influenza Immunization on Mortality and Health Care Use

The results of this large-scale natural experiment suggest that universal

vaccination may be an effective public health measure for reducing the annual

burden of influenza.

I can't find the link but the cdc is adding people 6 months to 18 years old to the targeted vaccination group. Not because they are vulnerable but because school children are a major vector pool for influenza.

flu vaccine

Nov 4, 2008, 12:25 pm by Lew

get vaccinatedI the flu vaccine today. If you don't get vaccinated you are a jerk. If you aren't part of the solution you are a vector. Oh and go vote while you are out.

Witchcraft!

Oct 25, 2008, 2:36 pm by Zach

Teenage Mutant Ninja PoodleWhile looking at this picture, I got to thinking about Sarah Palin. Look at this poor dog. Forced to look like a ninja turtle. Not just any ninja turtle, but Leonardo, the de facto leader of the group. This poor poodle doesn't look too happy about that. I doubt he feels equipped or ready to handle a leadership position, but, well, here he is, like it or not. There's a pit bull lipstick joke here somewhere.

This morning I saw this video of Mrs. Palin talking about how silly it is for scientists to get funding to study something as silly as "fruit fly research in Paris, France," all the while doing that folksy little headcocking business. Way to play to the uneducated hicks who make up the vast majority of your voting base, ma'am. I also saw a clip somewhere of John McCain saying he wanted to end funding silly projects like "black bear DEE ENN AY" (with strategic pauses between DEE, ENN and AY to highlight the notion that it's all just made up hoo-ha).

It really grinds my fucking gears when people think any research that isn't directly related to CANCER or something is stupid and a huge waste of money and effort. As if all scientists (especially biologists) are just a bunch of crazy kooks in lab coats, drunk on lab-grade ethanol, laughing in a menacing manner and studying bear DEE ENN AY. Give me a cotton pickin' break.

Vote Democrat, if only for the reason that the Republicans want to squash funding for research they don't understand.

Also, happy birthday, Paul.

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