Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
- Douglas Adams

I Knew It!

Now I have science justifying my prejudices:

Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

Hey, it’s science, and you know you can’t fight science! Since all of the above apply to me, I must be a genius. Score!

Seriously though, I wouldn’t read too much into a single study. There could be other factors at work or a mere coincidence. Still, it’s interesting to see someone noticed a correlation. I invite you to make your own conclusions.

On a side note, how long until Fox News throws a temper tantrum about this one?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wherein I Lament the Idiocy of an Elected Official

Think Progress had a mildly disturbing quote from Representative Steve King (R-IA) the other day. When asked if he thought the attack on the Austin, Texas IRS building was motivated by the overwhelming anti-tax rhetoric from the Right, he replied:

I think if we’d abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn’t have a target for his airplane. And I’m still for abolishing the IRS, I’ve been for it for thirty years and I’m for a national sales tax. [...] It’s sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.

Ignoring the fact that he completely dodged the question and saw some sort of justification for the crime, I wonder if Rep. King has ever really thought this out during his "thirty years" of being for the abolition of the IRS. Even if there were a national sales tax, there would need to be some government entity that has to oversee the collection of those taxes. Maybe there's something I'm missing, but I hope he's really not that stupid. Then again, the anti-tax believers have never been amongst those I would consider rational.

On a side note, tax revenue still has to come from somewhere if we want to have a functioning government, whether it's from income taxes, a value added tax, or a sales tax. Besides, I seriously doubt shifting the mode of taxation would do anything to change the irrational tax hatred that dominates the Right. They seem to believe cutting taxes are a magical cure that will allow the ever-benevolent market to save us from all of our problems. It's a pipe dream. Now, I don't enjoy paying taxes anymore than the next person, but it's a price I willingly pay to ensure we still have a generally functional, modern nation where we're not completely at the mercy of those with the most money...some of the time...maybe. Okay, now I'm just depressed. Better work on my novel and imagine happier places.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Suppose I Had a Victory of Sorts

I'm afraid my IM discussions with my Christian coworker have gone about as far as they're likely to go. Last night, the Christian started making liberal use of entirely capitalized sentences and then turned openly conceited. It seems he's reached the end of his patience.

One of our primary points of contention, and the one we always came back to was whether or not thoughts arise from purely physical processes. I know little about neuroscience, so it was a difficult subject for me to argue. Of course, my coworker knows even less about it, so that was a moot point. Anyway, I maintain that thoughts are the result of physical processes, and I feel the evidence fully supports it. The Christian obviously feels differently. Even when I point out that specific portions of the brain show electrical activity during thought formation or that damage to specific regions will render a person unable to feel the emotions or thoughts generated by that area, the Christian insists that the evidence is only correlation, not evidence of origin:

but if you cannot explain physically where a thought comes from originally (NOT HOW IT'S EXPRESSED) then should you hold to your materialistic beliefs or look for another explanation?

In response, I pointed out that we simply don't understand the workings of the brain well enough yet to properly "read" thoughts. Why dismiss a possible and explanation before it's falsified, especially when there's a strong correlation? In response, the Christian accuses me of taking it on faith that we will eventually be able to read thoughts simply because I have an irrational belief in materialism. As he says it, we can't completely explain the origin of thoughts now, so there's no reason to assume natural causes. We automatically have to go with the supernatural.

While the fact that I have a "belief" in naturalism is certainly true, we can only build judgments based on our beliefs and experiences, I feel the history of science shows that you can't assume anything is unknowable, especially when natural causes have explained so much already. Just because people couldn't imagine or even measure the presence of relativity before the 20th century doesn't mean it wasn't a property of the universe.

Nevertheless, the Christian went into a diatribe that one must consider the supernatural for things we cannot measure, such as thoughts. Really, it was nothing more than a "god of the gaps" argument dressed up in a way that sounded philosophically pleasing enough to make his faith sound science-based. When I pointed the obvious fact that his insistence on the supernatural is wholly dependent on his preferred beliefs, he threw the following down:

philosophical naturalism... not science. I'm honestly kinda disappointed you won't consider intelligent causes

Despite the gross misunderstanding of science, the Christian's declaration of his superiority kind of pissed me off. I didn't say anything about it, and just let him continue on his tirade for a while. I made a couple of attempts to further explain my argument, but the Christian was pretty much done with the debate at that point and decided to call it a night shortly after that. I never expected any sort of victory. We view the world in fundamentally different ways, which means we will never agree on certain aspects.

Nevertheless, the fact that I kept it cool and reasoned, while he was the one to make it personal gives me a small degree of satisfaction. No, it won't change a damn thing, but I'll take it. Still, I think I'm about done talking with him about religion. Now that he's made his disdain open, I see little reason to continue.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

"The authors of the gospels were unlettered and ignorant men and the teachings of Jesus have come to us mutilated, misstated and unintelligible."

- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, February 18, 2010

At Least They Picked the Least Useful Means Possible

John Avlon from The Daily Beast has a good article on the current Right-Wing Christian fad, "Imprecatory Prayers". This particular prayer comes from Psalm 109 of the Old Testament, which details the prayer necessary to encourage God to kill someone who has wronged you. Psalm 109:8-9 says: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." Yeah, very Christian.

Is this really how these clowns want America to be seen? Just because someone not from your party of choice won an election, does that mean he now deserves to die? Of course, all the pastors pushing these downright ghoulish views are also committed Birthers. Pastor Wiley Drake of California recently said:

“I’m known as a birther, you know. I don’t believe Obama was born in this country. He’s an illegal alien and so forth. And so I began to pray what the Bible teaches us to pray and that is imprecatory prayer. An imprecatory prayer is very strong. Imprecatory prayer in Psalms 109, for example, says if you have an evil leader above you, you pray that Satan will stand by his side and you ask God to make his children fatherless and his wife a widow and that his time in office be short… Other Psalms say when they speak evil, God will break out their teeth and when they run to do destruction God will break their legs.”

Let's say Obama was actually ineligible for President...would that be reason enough for him to die? What has he done that is so terrible? He's been more or less a centrist for his entire first year. I really don't get it. Then again I don't believe fairy tales are real, so that might have something to do with it.

Then there's Pastor Steven L. Anderson of Arizona. He's just full of Christian charity:

“I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don’t like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don’t like his policies. No, I hate him … I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to Hell.”

Again, what in the hell did President Obama ever do to you Pastor Anderson? Seriously, what is it about Conservative Christianity? They define themselves entirely by what they hate: gays, abortion, liberals, taxes, Muslims, Obama, affordable health care, etc. Where's the love that is supposedly the focus of Christianity? I'm really not seeing it. If nothing else, this is a prime example of people using religion to further their own personal beliefs and views. Why should we believe anything these hate mongers have to say?

I recommend you check out the whole article.

Thanks to Ed Brayton.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Some Random Thoughts About Avatar

I finally saw Avatar last night. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed it...with a few minor caveats.

First, the story was pretty unoriginal, being little more than Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, et cetera repackaged with aliens. Nevertheless, I don't mind familiar stories if they're told well, and I feel this one was told well. James Cameron made a good choice devoting so much time (almost 2 hours) developing the Na'vi culture, and making it something I cared about as a viewer. Once the inevitable conflict with the human colonists began, I was fully engaged in the story and cared very much about the outcome. Plus, it made the final triumph that much more satisfying. It's something any good story should do. Sure, it was nothing new and totally predictable. But with proper development, it doesn't matter.

Then there were the visuals. Simply incredible. I've often read and agree that science fiction isn't about character development or even's about the setting. It's about transporting people to new worlds and making them consider the possibilities. In this regard, Avatar was a smashing success in my book. Though the characters were mostly one dimension and the plot was nothing new, Pandora was an incredible world filled with wonder and possibility. Just the kind of thing I want to see in science fiction. Plus, I love movies with cool creatures, and Avatar was chock full of incredibly well imagined and awesome-looking lifeforms.

For one last quibble, I'm really disappointed the Na'vi were humanoids. I understand why from a story-teller's viewpoint. Make them too alien, and human audiences wouldn't connect, thereby destroying the story's impact. However, the Na'vi share no characteristics with the surrounding wildlife. They weren't hexapods, they didn't have four eyes, and they had hair. It seems they would share more features with their fellow creatures if they were actually native to Pandora (maybe they aren' for thought).

Also, I found the Eywa concept cool, in that all the lifeforms on the planet are linked together, creating a sort of planetary sentience and consciousness. It might seem far fetched, but it's similar to the Gaia hypothesis, which has been around for a while. Though I doubt there's anything like it on Earth, you never know what might be out there amongst the stars, waiting to be discovered. Maybe there's nothing exactly like what was imagined in Avatar, but there could be planet-wide neural networks out there, formed by lifeforms we can't imagine, creating intelligences with perceptions we can't begin to fathom. See? That's what good science fiction should do.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Quote of the Week

To celebrate Charles Darwin's 201st birthday, felt the following is an appropriate quote to mark the occasion:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

- Charles Darwin, from the closing of Origin of Species, First Edition

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Case Study of Religious Blinders at Work

I was having lunch today with a bunch of my coworkers, and the topic drifted into the subject of religion (I promise, I didn't do it).  The group consisted of three agnostics (including myself), a Catholic, a liberal Christian, and my boss, who is a Mormon.

Overall, the discussion was a refreshing, open exchange of ideas.  No one was out to hurt anyone else's feelings, and everybody kept it respectful.  However, I found one moment particularly eye-opening when we entered the subject of how religions start.  My boss said something along the lines of, "Islam is obviously fake.  Muhammad just went to his cave and borrowed ideas from Christianity and Judaism, and then added his own twist to it."  Now, I more or less agree with this statement, but I was completely blown away by the mental blinders at work here.  As I said earlier, my boss is a Mormon.  Joseph Smith was an obvious charlatan who created a faith with parts of Christianity and Judaism before adding his own twist to it.  I wonder if my boss even noticed the parallel.  I kind of wish I had pointed it out, but I figured that wouldn't be the best idea.

Still, the whole thing blew me away.  It's amazing how easily the human mind adapts itself to sectarian religious belief.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We Now Know (Some) Dinosaurs' Colors

I find this very cool because most assumed it would be impossible to know dinosaurs' actual colors. However, over the past two weeks, that has changed. Two separate teams of paleontologists, studying the incredibly well-preserved feathers of dinosaurs found in the Liaoning Province of China, have announced the first scientific determinations of dinosaur color.

The first study, published in the journal Nature, concerns the thin feathery filaments covering the turkey-sized Sinosauropteryx (pictured left). The research team was able to locate fossilized melanosomes, the same cellular structures that give modern birds their feather colorations. After studying these melanosomes, the paleontologists were able to determine that the Sinosauropteryx's feathers were a light brown in color.

Another study published this week in Science goes even further. Using more advanced techniques, the paleontological team behind the study analyzed the entire color scheme of the chicken-sized Anchiornis, and were able to create a full body rendering of the creature when it was alive (pictured below).

Just looking at the stark color differences between these two dinosaurs means there must have been incredible color diversity amongst all dinosaurs, just like modern birds. Sure, this technique won't help us with non-feathered dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus or Edmontosaurus, but these studies do show that we should never say never. Who knows what science may uncover.

Sinosauropteryx illustration courtesy of James Robbins. Anchiornis illustration courtesy of Michael DiGiorgio.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The End of Constellation

One of the big news items of the day is that President Obama's proposed budget for FY 2011 includes a cancellation of NASA's Constellation program. The program was meant to create a multipurpose vehicle that would replace the soon to be retired space shuttles. Additionally, Constellation was meant to carry astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars by 2020. While disappointing, I think cancelling this program is for the best.

With the nation's fiscal woes, NASA's budget isn't going to grow much larger (although the 2011 budget does propose a slight increase). Cost overruns for Constellation would have cut into the rest of NASA's budget, thereby forcing the agency to sacrifice more and more worthy projects in the name of manned space flight. Don't get me wrong, I think it would be incredible to send people to Mars. But is it worth it? Look at just some of the incredible work being done by unmanned probes: Cassini has been sending us breathtaking images and measurements of Saturn and its moons. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been tottering about Mars for the past 6 years (Spirit recently became stuck, but it can still conduct scientific measurements from where it's at). Kepler might locate other Earth-like worlds around other stars. New Horizons will provide us with our first up-close images of Pluto. And that doesn't even touch on NASA's aeronautical and meteorological research. All told, these sorts of missions provide far more data and benefit than sending a handful of people to the Moon and Mars for brief periods of time.

Sure, the shuttles are nearing their retirement, so NASA won't be able to send humans into space by itself. However, without the huge money hole of the shuttle, NASA can shift funding towards unmanned exploration of more places, finding more efficient means of carrying humans to the stars, and understanding our own planet better. Once space travel becomes more cost effective, or we find something we truly must see first hand (alien life, perhaps), then it will be worth the cost of sending people. Until then, let's cast a wide net and examine as much as we can with our available resources.

I Don't Think This Ended Well

A couple days ago I came across the following question on Yahoo! Answers. Bethany wrote:

My 17 year old son has been very secretive with me lately, recently he has started to refuse to go to church with the family and tonight when I was going through his room I found a magazine with naked men in it. He obviously has a girlfriend that he is hiding from me that brought that magazine into my home and I am afraid they are having intercourse and I am greatly concerned that he is going to get her pregnant.

What should I do about this?

Done laughing? Sure...a secret girlfriend is definitely the explanation. Of course, those posting answers immediately pointed out the obvious: her son is most likely gay. Apparently, Bethany didn't like that answer so much, and felt compelled to add this addition:

He is not a homosexual, we have taught him from the bible and he has learned though our church that this is not in God's plan. I will not teach him about condoms, that is unacceptable, we have always taught him about abstinence and that is what God and his future wife expects from him.

I want to speak to our pastor about this but I am very afraid of what he would think we are teaching our son if he things we are allowing him to sneak a girl into his bedroom. That is clearly inappropriate and we are good parents, I am very afraid what he will think of us.

Got to love it when a parent tries to force feed her child religious beliefs. I feel sorry for Bethany's son. Instead of finding acceptance from his parents, they're going to bludgeon him with religion and try to keep him ignorant of human sexuality. No wonder the kid stopped going to church.

The simple fact is, no human behavior exists strictly one way or another. Instead, the behaviors of individuals within a population fall on a bell curve. Why would sexuality be any different? It easily explains why there are homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals with the majority of the population falling on the heterosexual end.

Sure, Bethany's son might have been taught that homosexuality is "wrong", but that can't change the way his brain has been wired to operate. No amount of teaching can change that. It's like choosing your intelligence. An individual simply has no control over it. Of course, Fundamental Christians will never accept it. They believe that the mind is not linked to the physical structure of the brain and that the consciousness (read: soul) is free to seek forgiveness or sin. Therefore, they simply cannot accept that being gay is not a choice dependent on physical factors.

It doesn't help that Bethany's entire post is filled with an air of outright fear regarding sex. Her biggest worry is that her son is having sex, but she won't teach anything about condoms. No wonder she immediately blocks out the idea of her son being gay. She can't handle the thought of him having sex with a woman...that he might want to try sex with another man is just too much for Bethany to handle. I just hope this didn't result in another gay teenager estranged from his parents because of their rigid adherence to ancient myths.

By the way, I love how Bethany is terrified of what her pastor thinks about the whole thing. Sheesh. Living in reality is so much easier.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book of the Month: Collapse

The February book of the month is Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  For anyone who is concerned about sustainability or simply wants to know why we should care about the health of the environment, this book is a perfect starting point.

Collapse comes in four main parts, starting with the changing situation in modern Montana.  Though traditionally individualist in culture, Montana's increasing population is forcing the need for proper land management.  This provides an easy to relate to example for why some cultures resist change even in the face of obvious problems.  More than anything, people do not like change or it may be in their short term interest to resist doing so.

The next part is an in depth analysis of several societies throughout history, both successful and otherwise, that draws on the lessons from Montana.  Diamond starts with several ancient societies that have collapsed, including the Easter Island culture, the Chaco Canyon culture, the Mayans, and the Greenland Norse.  Throughout, Diamond demonstrates how deforestation and the resulting soil erosion caused each society's population to collapse due to lack of a fuel source and severely decreased crop yields.  Then Diamond points out the societies who have staved off ecological disaster, including Tokugawa Japan and the peoples of the New Guinea highlands.  In contrast to the failed societies, these ones recognized the impending danger of deforestation and took drastic measures to stop it in their lands.  Japan, for instance, is now the most heavily forested country in the world thanks to these measures.

Part three is a survey of several modern societies threatened with collapse.  Most frightening was the discussion of China, which could be looking at a major ecological disaster in the not too distant future.  With its massive and still growing population, China needs ever more agricultural land to support itself.  However, rapid deforestation is accelerating desertification, which destroys large swaths of China's farmland every year.  In addition are China's dwindling sources of fresh water and pollution from its rapid industrial growth.  For China to avoid disaster, it must face these problems sooner rather than later.  And if you think it's just China's problem, consider the pollution runoff that enters the oceans, not to mention the danger of over one billion people starving in a collapsing state that possesses nuclear weapons.

Part Four is a slight change of pace and looks at the economic realities that either enhance or diminish a modern society's tendency to adopt sustainable practices.  In a clear, nonpolitical manner, Diamond points out that businesses exist to make money, and will only accept sustainable practices if it is advantageous for them to do so.  More importantly, people need a source of income, and corporations are the primary income providers for the world.  Their existence allows us to enjoy a higher standard of living.  However, that doesn't mean they should not be regulated.  Otherwise, they can become a far greater harm than they are worth.

This brings us to Diamond's final point: the public is ultimately responsible for how the businesses of their society operate.  Sure, corporations can utilize incredibly unethical practices, but if the public is apathetic towards these transgressions, then their businesses will be too.  However, the public can demand government regulation against unsustainable practices and can prefer to buy products that exhibit responsible stewardship, making environmentally-friendly business the more profitable choice for corporations.  At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your political ideology is.  If we don't take effective action that acknowledges economic realities, then we could find ourselves in the same position as the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree on his island, wondering why his crops no longer grew fast enough to sustain him.  Unlike the Easter Islander, there are no other human societies beyond Earth to carry on our species.  If we want to survive, then we must learn to live within what our planet can provide.

However, this only touches the surface of the wealth of information conveyed within Collapse.  If this topic interests you, pick up a copy to get a better idea of the ecological challenges facing our society and how others have successfully solved them.