Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nobody called, nobody wanted me

I forgot to turn on my cell phone yesterday.
Then, when I remembered
I had forgotten to turn it on,
I still didn’t turn it on
Until this evening.
But, nobody had called for me

No voicemails, no text messages.
Not even a list of missed calls.

I guess I’ll survive.

Do I have a choice?
Well, it seems pretty stupid otherwise.

I never thought I would appreciate
The wireless link to the outside world.

But, sometimes it relieves a bit of loneliness;
Is there anything so bad about that?
After all, farmers a century ago led our nation in suicides
Before the wireless waves of radio
Relieved the mind-numbing, stupefying tedium
Of life after dark
In the not-so-idyllic rural heartland.

So, before we overl8y bemoan
The electricity-gobbling technology of modern life,
Let us remember that many would-be Luddites
Actually do not want to make too far a trip
Back into the oh-so-idyllicized past.

Talk of carbon taxes, or traded caps,
Can be a time for reflection
At just what price we paid for our modern era,
And just what we have been paying to escape.

(It still would be nice, though,
To escape the sense, the expectation,
Of on-demand availability
Others may have of us now.
Or that we have of ourselves.)

-- Dec. 31, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

NY Phil revolts against Gilbert Kaplan

The grande dame of the nation’s symphonies has said “ the emperor has no clothes” on amateur orchestra conductor Gilbert Kaplan, who conducts only the Mahler 2nd and has parlayed himself into an expert, or self-alleged expert, on interpreting the symphony.

NY Phil musicians are doubly pissed, because Kaplan got the gig to conduct the “Resurrection” on the 100th anniversary of Mahler debuting it in America, with the same orchestra.

In fact, trombonist David Finlayson filleted and gutted Kaplan on his blog.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy 238th, Ludwig!

My musical playlist suggestion?

Here in the States, where much of country is hit by winter weather today, the Choral Fantasy. Sprightly vocal music without Christmas connections.

Then, to honor "a great man," the funeral march from the 12th Piano Sonata. Then, all of "Moonlight." Add a late-era quartet, perhaps the C-sharp minor or the Serioso.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


The last time I was in Starbucks,
I saw a quite curvaceous woman.
Judging by the degree of her shapeliness,
The neighborhood of Dallas we were in,
And some other, lesser signs.
I guessed her shapeliness had been shaped
With some sort of professional, plasticene help.
I immediately thought of Colin Powell
And his famous “Pottery Barn rule”:
“You touch, you break, you buy.”
Touch those breasts and break — what?
As I write these words, I reflect on that.
Break, or brake, an illusion? A dream? A fantasy?
And whose? Hers? Mine? A generic male’s?
Perhaps all, simmering together in a stew
Of mutual self-deceit —
Her illusion of what the surgery does for her.
My illusion of what her breasts could do for me.
Male generality’s illusion about her attractiveness.
I get to the counter; the barista takes my order.
I steal a last sideways glance while awaiting my half-caf.
The usual. No illusions about Starbucks coffee.
Or about me being all that much less plasticene
Than two D-cups briefly seen while window shopping Silicone Barn.
What’s broken?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Only in Sweden, eh? – virtual reality body-swaps

No sir, or madam, I kid you not. Using closed-circuit TV and well-known psychological and physical illusions, Swedish researchers have shown it is possible to make people like you and me think we’re in another body, even a body of the opposite sex.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pumpkin bread – cooking, Gadfly-style

5.5 cups whole wheat flour
1.5 cups multigrain whole-grain flour (Good local health grocery has this here; it’s a mix of whole wheat, whole oat, brown rice, barley, rye, triticale flour, flaxseed flour and soy flour; it adds the additional protein profile of soy flour and flaxseed flour, too)
(If you insist on using white flour, I can’t be responsible! ....)
1/3 cup pecan meal
1/4 cup flaxseed meal (non-essential)
6 tablespoons wheat gluten (used extra here than I normally do, with the pumpkin)
2 packs rapid-rise dry yeast
1/4 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp ground cloves
1 tbsp cardamom
1/2 sugar (turbinado plus conventional brown here)

Liquid ingredients
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup margarine, melted
1/2 cup fat-free half-and-half
1 egg plus one extra white
1/8 cup honey

Mix all the dry stuff together while yeast is in warm water to start
rise. Add in liquid ingredients.

Add in one can of canned pumpkin.

Finish kneading. (I do NOT use a bread machine!)

After first rise, separate into loaves.

After second rise, bake!

400F, about 55 minutes.

It’s rich, with the butter plus half-and-half, even if fat-free, but tasty. It’s on the mild side as far as spiciness; add another tbsp. each of cinnamon and clove, plus an extra half teaspoon of cardamom, or half a teaspoon of ginger, for more flavor.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stuart Kauffman erects anti-reductionistic straw man

Kauffman, the former long-term scholar at the Santa Fe Institute, says we need spirituality to exorcise the demons of reductionism from science.

Here’s one example:
To take one example, I argue that the evolutionary emergence of the human heart cannot be deduced from physics. That doesn't mean it breaks any laws of physics. But there's no way of getting from physics to the emergence of hearts in the evolution of the biosphere.

Contrary to Kauffman playing pin-the-reductionistic-tail on Steve Weinberg, though, no mainstream scientist has tried to get evolutionary biology deduced from quantum physics. That’s what Dan Dennett calls “greedy reductionism,” not reductionism.

Then, Kauffman goes well beyond that nonsense to the major leagues of creating straw men. He claims that, in essence, we can’t appreciate value, can’t have a sense of aesthetics or awe at the world, etc., with a reductionistic stance.

This is the typical canard repeated, nay thrust at, atheists by theists. Coming out of the mouth of a professed atheist like Kaufmann, it’s disconcerting at the least and off-putting at the most. Even more than that, is his insistence that we should use the word “God” to discuss this non-reductionistic aesthetics or, as I will call it …

Stuart Kauffman’s metaphysics. Proof?

Kauffman goes Paul Tillich at the end of the interview:
Not that there's a supernatural god. I think that there’s something else. I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it's God enough for me, and I think it’s God enough for many of us if we think about it.

Ridiculous. But not the first time I’ve heard such stuff out of the mouth of a professed philosopher.

Friday, November 14, 2008



Love is not beauty.
Love is not sex.
Beauty is formed in the eye of a loving beholder.
But itself cannot create love instead of lust.
Love is more than sex, and extends and exists beyond it;
And even better without it at times.

Beauty is not sex.
Beauty is not love.
Many people, at swingers’ parties and clubs
Have engaged in sex when not beautiful, or with those not beautiful
And many beautiful people either cannot or will not
Find or give love.

Sex is not love.
Sex is not beauty.
As John Holmes said, without love
Sex is but mutual masturbation.
And we have plenty of mutual masturbators, as well as solo ones,
In our world.
And sex doesn’t make me, or a partner
Any more beautiful in and of itself.

— Nov. 10, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The sun set
An hour earlier today
Than yesterday.
The leaves turned redder,
Or browner in this dry year,
And my hike ended at late dusk.
The time that flees is mine
More than the thirst-unquenched oak’s.
But the wrath that could be mine
At passed days and lost opportunities —
As the change of time reminds me
Of the change of life —
Is not, on many days, is not.
An emotional detachment often plays
In the pensively introspective
Key of B minor.
Tempus fugit, dies irae.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Are your mom and dad fighting inside your brain?

No, I’m not talking Freudian psychology. Nor gestalt, nor modern humanistic or self-actualization theories.

I’m talking about the latest theory on the heritability of mental illness.

Bernard Crespi and Christopher Badcock claim this:
An evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.

My first thought? It may not be Freudianism, but it carries as much sexual stereotyping baggage as Freud did.

That said, the story notes that their work leans heavily on David Haig. A decade ago, he argued that pregnancy was in part a biological struggle for resources between the mother and unborn child, with natural selection favoring mothers who could limit the nutritional “vampirism” of fetusus and fathers whose offspring were greedy as they could be in the womb.

So, Crespi and Babcock aren’t totally barking up the wrong tree.

But, beyond their sexist-sounding take on mental illness, they seem to have a black-and-white view of genetic and epigenetic effects, too, which leads them into their one-axis view of all mental health conditions.

So, right now, if mom and dad are fighting inside you, they are more likely to be fighting inside your mind rather than in genetic or epigenetic coding in your brain.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Genes — the 1 percent ‘solution’

Individualized genetic medicine? Not so fast there

Yes, that’s right.

The “binary” bits alleged to be the centerpiece of human heredity, beloved of evolutionary biologists, population geneticists, and above all, capital-letter Evolutionary Psychologists, in reality are only the 1 percent solution of heritability. Elementary!

As to WHY the gene is only the “1 percent solution,” here’s the details of the latest research.

First, one strand of DNA may code for several different proteins. (In a process known as alternative splicing, a cell can select different combinations of exons to make different transcripts, the story notes.)

Second, said “gene” can combine with several other different genes, in different situations, to produce yet more different proteins.

Third, genes often encode for RNA, not proteins.

So, throw out the 1 gene = 1 protein idea.

Beyond that, “genes” may make up as little as 1 percent of DNA. “Junk DNA,” which more and more is proving itself to be anything but junk, makes up much of the remainder.

And, non-coding introns can lie in the middle of a stretch of DNA that makes up a single coding exon.

Also, some DNA, such as methyl caps, and histones, controls whether or not an exon can even be expressed, or how. They’re part of “epigenetic marks,” an area of DNA far more poorly understood than genes, as traditionally described. And, it gets fun with them:
When an embryo begins to develop, the epigenetic marks that have accumulated on both parents’ DNA are stripped away. The cells add a fresh set of epigenetic marks in the same pattern that its parents had when they were embryos.

This process turns out to be very delicate. If an embryo experiences certain kinds of stress, it may fail to lay down the right epigenetic marks.

But, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, epigenetic marks can be inherited.

And, in a bit of quasi-Lamarckianism (though not quite as much so as prions), it takes RNA to guide these markers to the right spot on DNA.

And, if that’s not enough, studies of micro-RNA and half a dozen other “non-basic RNAs” show even more the role RNA plays, no subservience to DNA involved, in cellular development

So, this all his tie-ins for our commercial, chemical modern world.

Very preliminary research indicates that chemicals that appear to cause “genetic” damage may well be causing epigenetic damage instead.

That, in turn, throw the whole biotech tout sheet of “the promise of genetic medicine” into a big kink.

And, we haven’t even talked about the amount of viral DNA stuck inside yours and mine.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Liberal ignorance about ev psych raises its political head

Well, I haven’t had to shoot down any right-wing eugenicists or sexists in a while. No, now it’s a mainstream liberal wanting to refight Richard Lewontin’s political ax-grinding against E.O. Wilson 30-plus years ago. Hilzoy, co-host of Washington Monthly these days, bemoans, and Atlantic Monthly putting Wilson’s “The Biological Basis of Morality” online. (Thanks, Atlantic — it’s bookmarked!) And, it’s right here for you.

First, comes the snideness, hinting that Wilson is little more than an Alan Sokol with his spoof on PC lit crit. I never did tackle that in my back-and-forth with her, but to me, that was sign No. 1 we were going to get a political discussion of Wilson, not a scientific one, or even a philosophical one.

Next, comes the politically driven non-skeptical liberal approach of putting John Rawls and his ideas of “justice as fairness” and “distributive justice” on a pedestal, clueless that Walter Kaufmann blew Rawls out of the water 40 years ago, before Wilson ever tackled him scientifically. (Hilzoy rejects the idea, but she’s not read Walter Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice,” which does just that.)

Third is the omission of the fact that Wilson was the target of a politically-inspired, not scientifically-motivated, vendetta after publishing “Sociobiology” in 1976.

So, here’s selected passages from the long earful I gave her:
First, I don't KNOW if this is the case with Hilz in person, and I've distinguished that sociobiology, while in some sense a godfather to ev psych, is not exactly the same....


I get the feeling that for many here, Wilson is all about "what's wrong with 'reductionistic science.' "

First, read Dan Dennett and distinguish between reductionism and greedy reductionism.

Second, given that Wilson started writing about this 30 years or so ago, Hilz, I assumed you had an ax to grind. I looked at what I saw was the most logical ax.

Third, many non-skeptical liberals put Rawls on a pedestal. That's why I pointed out Rawls has been shot down from within the world of philosophy. Based on this post, I'm also inferring you're one of those non-skeptical liberals.

Kaufmann does an excellent job of showing that distributive justice, a horse ridden hard by Rawls, actually isn't just.

He then goes beyond that, in "Without Guilt and Justice," and notes that justice is NOT some Platonic ideal but very much a socially based convention. And, on that grounds, Rawls IS a transcendentalist, so you got that part of your critique wrong. (And, I've read Rawls as well as Kaufmann, and Kaufmann's right. From a somewhat different angle, Dennett also pokes holes in Rawls.)

Third, you opened the snideness door yourself, with the Sokol crack, Hilz, and I'm just firing back.

More seriously,though, try reading more of Rawls, more skeptically, as well as some critiques of him.

(So), Rawls was wrong, justice is not fairness. He was a transcendentalist for offering that claim without empirical evidence. (One need not be religious to be a transcendentalist.)

From this, it is arguable that there is no such thing as a just society. Some societies may be more just, others less just. But, to claim justice as perfection is another transcendentalist claim from where I sit.

Next, just because I reject Rawls as a political philosopher on ethics doesn’t mean I have to accept Nozick, and I don’t.

But, on Wilson at this point…

If there are no transcendent principles which we can label “justice” then we had better find some empirical underpinnings lest we enter a Hobbsian world.

From here, sociobiology says, evolutionary biology is the logical place to start looking for empirical underpinnings, along with empirical causes, etc.

That said, Wilson has himself pulled back from stronger statements of later Ev Psychers and even some ev psycher. He is definitely NOT a “œnature = destiny”� person.

Next, let’s look at the “other side of the street.”

It’s not as if Gould and Lewontin were free from bias in their critiques of Wilson. (And a s left-liberal Green voter, don’t try to claim I’m politically biased from the right.

Next, if you’ll Wiki, the word ‘sociobiology’ was around 30 years before Wilson’s book of that name.

And, as Wiki also notes on the article of that name, Wilson himself has been a noted liberal, and visible one, on many issues.

OK, more on what Wilson actually says.

First, “contrivance of the mind” does not necessarily mean “conscious contrivance.”� In the case of ev psych, or its sociobiology godparent, it explicitly does NOT mean that.

Second, as for the “naturalistic mind,”� what’s wrong with that? Although I disagree with Steve Pinker on a lot, to the degree the human mind is not only from the brain, but has been influenced by the evolution of the brain, he’s right — deal with it. Live with it.

Finally, an aside … I didn’t start reopening one side of a 30 Years War, Hilz, which is what your post seems like from here; if my inferences on any of your reasons for this post are wrong, maybe you should articulate them. Maybe you should have done so in the first place.

As for the “dumping water” incident, it was stupid, childish and reinforcing of the “liberal academia” �stereotypes of many conservatives, many of whom themselves didn’t like Wilson’s ideas.

And, that war was politicized from the start. John Maynard Smith, a dean of evolutionary biology at the time Wilson’s book came out, expected them:
“It was also absolutely obvious to me--I cannot believe Wilson didn't know--that this was going to provoke great hostility from American Marxists, and Marxists everywhere.”

But, it apparently has no problem finding resources and agents to investigation ACORN.

Of course, it’s not all the FBI’s fault. It’s been asking for more money to investigate financial crime since 2004, but our MBA president just hasn’t been forthcoming. According to former law enforcement officials, that would be anti-business and “overdeterrence.”

In fact, Hilz said she considered her post the equivalent of the water dumping, so I know that I can’t go anywhere with her on scientific grounds, and given the starry eyes for Rawls, not far on philosophical grounds.

As I also told her, I don’t care if Rawls is the most influential political philosopher (in the U.S., or the western democracies) of the last 50 years. Karl Marx was the most influential single political philospher for the world as a whole for most the 20th century, so appeals to the crowd don’t fly.

Beyond that, I think Hilzoy has another assumption that lies behind her post.

And, that is?

That only conservatives can politicize science.

And that just ain't so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A new era in textual criticism — Presidential linguistics

But, with a caveat

Having taken a graduate school class in textual criticism — heck, having started a petition drive to get my divinity school to offer it — I find stories like this just fascinating.

However, reading on further, I find it somewhat questionable as well, in one specific area — see at the bottom.

It’s about James W. Pennebaker and some of his groundbreaking work with modern textual criticism of both oral and written content. For example, he analyzed the communications of Osama bin Laden vs. his putative No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, and finds shifts in vocabulary by Zawahiri indicating he might be trying to reposition his relationship with bin Laden, research supported by social psychologists.

Now, his blog, Pennebaker examines linguistics and the current presidential race.

That said, scientifically, those ruminations have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Because this isn’t even a single-blinded study of two unknown orators, but the known speeches and statements of McCain and Obama, whatever political bias Pennebaker has is theoretically being infused into his blog observations.

And, I make that statement without seeing what political leanings he might have.

Now, this isn’t quite in the realm of bad science. But, to the degree that Pennebaker may project his findings as having some sort of scientific sheen, it IS shoddy science.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bonobos busted making war as well as love

Many researchers (Frans de Waal comes immediately to mind) have long suspected that frequent bonobo copulation in zoos was a stress response as much as anything else. Well, bonobos making war — even females certainly provides indirect confirmation to that idea.

Now, I don’t doubt that bonobos are nonetheless, more peaceful than common chimpanzees, on whom they were found hunting. But, the “free love primate” is dead.

And, thank doorknob for that. From where I sit, this idea was a cross-species version of psychological projectionism.

And, in terms of evolutionary psychology, it was probably a dangerous idea, too.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Some conservatives really ARE really, really crazy

The latest proof the “secular apocalypse” is here? Parents believing the Fisher-Price Little Mommy Cuddle ‘n Coo doll says “Islam is the light.”

Other people claim it says “Satan is King.”

I think I’ll go to my nearest Target and see if one says: “Sarah Palin is smart.”

Then, I’ll KNOW it’s a plot.

This is just the aural equivalent of pareidolia.

Next: Face of Sarah Palin seen in a tortilla.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bach until you drop, rapper!

That was the stance of Champaign County (Ohio) Municipal Court Judge Susan Fornof-Lippencott, when she offered a lower fine amount to Andrew Vactor, convicted of playing rap music too loud on his car stereo, in exchange for him listening to classical music for 20 hours.

We need more judges like this, with creative sentencing to fit the offense.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A poetic riffing on Ed Abbey


Written within the mindset, and through the eyes and viewpoint of, Ed Abbey, as a reflection on the 40th anniversary of “Desert Solitaire.”

Goddam people.
Goddam stupid people questions.
Get the goddam fuck out of MY ARCHES.
I ought to shoot you.
Or sic one of my snakes on you.
Or bury you
Beneath blown-up rubble
From a destroyed Glen Canyon Dam.

Ahh, juniper.
Growing twisted and crazy,
Just like me.
That’s why I like you,
You slow-growing, stubbornly living
Anarchic bastard like me.

Ohh, the desert stars,
With a trace of moon,
And no goddam people.
Just enough waxing moon
For a nighttime hike
Through Fiery Furnace,
Then back home —
The red rock home, not the trailer one —
To bask in fading heat.

Goddam, Bates!
What’s this talk?
A National Park now?
Wasn’t Canyonlands enough?
I guess not.
Did Proudhon write about Park envy?

Maybe we need to blow up some park roads
When we blow up that goddam dam.

Moab, Utah, gateway to Arches National Park, or the former Arches National Monument Munnymint of Ed Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” will be the sight of the Confluence Literary Festival Oct. 14-19. The “confluence” comes from the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in Canyonlands National Park, west and southwest of Moab and another favorite tramping ground of Abbey, given that Lake Powell almost laps at its southwest corner.

The conference will have some heavy Western literary hitters, including Doug Peacock, Abbey’s model for Hayduke in the “Monkey Wrench Gang,” official Abbey biographer Jack Loeffler, and Craig Childs.

Abbey wrote “Desert Solitaire” in 1968, based on his experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Refresh your mind with new Skeptic’s Circle

The latest issue of Skeptic’s Circle is now up, hosted by skepticism’s own secular patron saint, Bob Carroll, creator of the Skeptic’s Dictionary. A good variety of posts, including by yours truly, are on this week’s biweekly cycle.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Imagine there was a Jesus born 100 years early

Let’s say there was a “Jesus,” but it was the Yeshua put to death as a Pharisaic religious and political rebel by Hasmonean king Alexandar Jannai in the 70s BCE, per the Jewish historian Josephus.

Huh, you may say, if you’re not familiar with this.

But, if there is any sort of Jesus of history behind both the Christian gospels and rabbinic legends, he may have lived 100 years earlier than claimed. Wiki has a brief synopsis here.

Then, per Rodney Stark’s theory that Christianity, without miracles, and based on the 175-year history of the Mormons, could grow at 40 percent a year, with a starting point of 100 Christians at the time of Jesus the Pharisee’s death, we would have had about 12,000 at the time of the great fire of Rome in 64 CE.

Stark’s book that explains his growth rate idea in more detail is here.

Given that Rome’s population was about 1/50th of the empire, this would have put about 240 Christians in Rome. That would have been 1/5,000th of the city’s population, or 0.05 percent. Would that have been enough to catch Nero’s eye, whether or not they were actually troublemakers?

Per the original view of when Jesus lived, and Stark’s theory of Christian growth, the empire would have had about 1,500 Christians at the time of the fire of Rome. A mere 30 Roman Christians probably wouldn’t have been enough to draw a letter from the apostle Paul. It certainly, as 1/40,000th of the city’s population, would have been below Nero’s notice.

See this June 2008 blog post for thoughts on how a newly-discovered Jordanian building, alleged to be a Christian church and alleged to date from the middle of the first century CE, would support my contention, setting aside obvious Jordanian tourism reasons to stretch the truth here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Evolutionary Psychology the new sexism, or the new Social Darwinism?

Note – per a blog post earlier this week, I once again have clearly explained the difference between Evolutionary Psychology and scientifically investigatable evolutionary psychology.

Here’s the link to my evolutionary psychology label; a few of the more illustrative individual posts. Several of these are especially illustrative of how Ev Psych approaches, if not goes beyond sexism … and no, you Ev Psychers, not just beyond a social construct called sexism, but, beyond sexism.
Women’s improvement in gaming refutes Ev Psych;
Ev Psych claims for sarcasm are “stretched” (mainly by ignoring cultural evolution);
The stereotypical male-female math gap can be reversed;
Susan Pinker plays wrongly plays down workplace sex discrimination;
Definitional questions EvPsych, and, to a lesser degree, ev psych, leave undefined;
The core of the differences between Ev Psych and ev psych.
Some serious snark about Ev Psych riffing on Leibnitz’s “best of all possible adaptationist worlds”;

And,finally, David Buller’s seminal article on the subject at Scientific American. (To you Ev Psychers who dismiss him as “just a philosopher, what do you do with Dan Dennett, then?)

Read his book, too.

Or, a decent but not really good read is Richard Francis’ “Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions.”

On the flip side, in this post about behavioral economics, among several posts, you’ll see how I praise evolutionary psychology. Just not Evolutionary Psychology.

Do NOT e-mail me, or comment to this post, that I am against evolutionary psychology, lowercase, until you’re read that post, at least, and perhaps others on my blog in general.

That said, I do propose that capital-letter Evolutionary Psychology does threaten to become the new Social Darwinism, and with a political bias to it, too, at least in some cases.

Steve Pinker admitted as much, near the end of “The Blank Slate.”

He told political liberals that they needed to accept the reality of what he said was “evolutionary psychology” (and what I say is Evolutionary Psychology), deal with it as best they could, and adjust their political prescriptions accordingly. Pretty political to me.

The other reason I think that threatens to be Social Darwinism is its focus on sexual differences. By arguing that men have dominated societies in the past (not true, as far as I can see, before the invention of agriculture), capital-letter Ev Psychers give the appearance, at least, of telling women today to accept the glass ceiling, accept secondary status in society, and deal with it – because it’s all normal.

And, if you’re not prepare to describe why you personally, if you do, focus so much of your ev psych discussion, or especially, your Ev Psych discussion, on sexual selection issues, move on. Because that WILL be part of the dialog and investigation from my end.

A book with a few thoughts on that is Robert Sapolsky’s “Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals.”

In fact, let me excerpt a few sex-specific comments from my Amazon review of Sapolsky, by page number:
63. In a study with ducks, with attractive males, it actually appears that the female invests more energy in the egg, laying a larger egg when impregnated by an attractive male. (The egg size is under female control.)
Both of these should put some question to old stereotypes about peacock tails being signs of fitness and so increasing mating, etc. At the least, they should caution us to look for more nuanced explanations.

177. In many species, females in some way manipulate alpha-male type males into fighting over them, to go off and mate with more "nice guy" types.

Some more food for thought.

And, I’m not going to even bother linking to the recent story showing girls do as well on math as boys, which undercuts one of Ev Psychers’ favorite male-female difference talking points.

Beyond that, with true, lower-case ev psych, there’s plenty of things to talk about in the evolution of the human mind, not the “male” or “female” mind.

I mean, look at Scott Atran’s “In Gods We Trust.”

There’s books on behavioral economics; the effect of evolutionary psychology on Homo economics is certainly not small. (Don’t forget to allow for cultural evolution here, too, though.)

Enough said.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Atheists who willingly defend misleading language are a pox

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the latest Pew Research Poll on American religious beliefs, noting this absurdity, among other things:
Americans are so religiously and metaphysically STUPID, on average, that one out of five Americans who claim to be religiously unaffiliated and atheist claim to also believe in a divinity. Half of agnostics in that group make the same claim. ...

Hey, idiots. If you believe something, you can’t agnostic about it!

But, all is not well in atheist land.

Apparently, some people, some atheists, want to defend the use of misleading language, specifically, the illogical phrase “agnostic theism.” It’s a bad enough phrase in general, but in response to a blog post, and an original story, that both talked about “theism,” “agnosticism” and “atheism” all as belief states, it’s off-putting to say the least.

Said people also either did not read the linked story, or else did not see that “agnosticism” was clearly talking about a belief state, not factual/empirical/evidentiary knowledge.

So, to them, db0, Adrian and Austin, I reply:
I stand by the original post, and I stand by saying that you’re using misleading language. You, too, Austin.

It’s clear that I, and the NYTimes linked story (did YOU ever look at that, db, if we want to talk about following links) were talking about beliefs (or, my alternative phrase, influenced by Dan Dennett, of “metaphysical stances,”) all along, and not knowledge.

So, Austin, I never conflated the two. In a follow-up comment on my blog post, I said, if you can get Bob Carroll of The Skeptic’s Dictionary to prove me wrong, I’d listen.

Well, I went ahead and did my own research:
First, in hardcopy, my “Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion," by William L. Reese, says this under “agnosticism”:
It is usually applied, however, principally, to suspension of belief with respect to God. (Emphasis added.)

Now, Bob Carroll does use the word “knowledge,” but as subordinate to “belief”:
Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God is impossible.

Note the definition is about belief, again.

Nothing about knowledge, empirical evidence, etc. That’s why I said I’ve never conflated belief and knowledge; in making reference to metaphysical states, I've been referring to belief all the time.

Ditto on the Pew poll.

And, per that definition, let me rephrase my original critique”

Phrases like “agnostic theism” or “theistic agnosticism” in that both the governing noun and the adjective talk about states of belief, or metaphysical stances, to use my phrase ...


You have incompatible belief states being smashed together.

I don't care if “agnostic theism” has 5,000 Google hits, either. I don’t even care if there’s a website called (No, I refuse to give it a hyperlink.)

That’s just further proof of the Pew poll. And, beyond that, neither Reese nor Carroll use either that phrase or “theistic agnosticism.”

And, as I said earlier, Austin, I don’t even care if you’re the atheism “guide” for

Thank doorknob there’s only 5,000 deluded Google hits, too. (Even more fortunately, the equally oxymoronic “theistic agnosticism” has less than 500 hits.)

Next, to tackle this linguistic oxymoron from another angle, let me go to a comment I made on the original post:
Re the Wiki link on agnostic theism that (db0) posts, let’s carefully analyze the English language used here.

“Theism” is the noun. Nouns always take precedence over adjectives like “agnostic.”

For example, you can have simple noun-verb, or N-V, sentences. You cannot have a noun-adjective, or N-Adj, sentence.

The reverse also holds true. You CANNOT be an agnostic, as a primary belief state, and modify it with “theistic,” either.

Let me explain this once more, in terms of color (or colour).

There's a difference between “reddish-orange” and “orangish-red.” And db0 started talking about reddish-orange, then posted a link to orangish-red.

But I will get beyond that

As for db0’s implication that many people in the UK may understand “atheism” to mean “irreligious,” well, then obviously a bunch of people in the UK are as stupid as they are here. Maybe the equivalent of Pew should poll them. And, I’ll call irreligious people in the UK who call themselves “atheists” idiots, too, db0. Give me e-mail addresses, and I'll even e-mail them that.

Ditto for agnostics using misleading language, or atheists who abet them.

And, as for db0 criticising me (spelled the UK way as a grace note), well, instead, he should have taken my article as it read and corrected stupid people on his and Adrian’s side of the pond.

And, per that definition, let me rephrase my original critique of all of you:

Phrases like “agnostic theism” or “theistic agnosticism” in that both the governing noun and the adjective talk about states of belief, or metaphysical stances, to use my phrase ...


Merriam-Webster also agrees with me on the use of “agnosticism.”, especially in its first listed definition, agrees as well.

Wittgenstein would be turning over in his grave, if he could.

If I were dead, and could turn over in my grave, I definitely would, too. Db and Austin, I am still angry at both of you for criticizing my use of agnostic, when both of you are wrong.

Also, as I e-mailed Austin, I stand by my psychological observation that “agnostic theism” is an attempt to give an intellectual gloss to theistic beliefs.

And, Adrian or anyone else who, after accepting the apology I offered to db, still wants to delink my blog because I criticize your use of language?

Be my guest.

And no, I don’t expect any of you gents, nor others who may be reading your blog posts commenting about mine, to apologize, or apologise, for using imprecise, and yes, misleading, language.


Per the old saying, “More’s the pity.”

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dying-and-rising savior-god an ancient Jewish tenet

Or so a brief tablet, with 87 lines of Hebrew text, pictured by the New York Times at right, would indicate.

We’re only eight years into the 21st century, but this may last the next 92 as the most significant find in biblical archaeology.
Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

As the story notes, nobody has yet challenged the authenticity of the tablet, dated so far to the late first century BCE. (Why does the NYT use the anachronistic, for academia, and for New York City’s large Jewish population, for that matter, of “BC”?) Chemical analysis, though not yet released, appears to confirm that.

If so, it would be the first pre-Jesus (assuming that such a person as Yeshua bar Yusuf actually existed) text to speak of a dying-and-rising Jewish messianic figure.

As the article notes, modern critical New Testament scholarship assumes that Jesus’ own statements about dying and rising in three days are later additions. Maybe they’re not.

That then said, what’s the provenance of this text, other than starting as some sort of gloss on passages from Zechariah and Daniel? Can it be connected to any particular movement in Second Temple Judaism at that time?

It would seem to fit with scrolls associated with Qumran, as this “Dead Sea scroll on stone,” from what is extant, takes the form of an apocalypse revealed by the angel Gabriel.

Other questions abound, too.

Why was the Simon of this scroll supposed to die? His death, at least from the story, isn’t mentioned as atoning, unlike Jesus claimed for himself.

And, despite the efforts of Jewish leaders from Ezra through the Pharisees, and of course running through the Maccabees, to “purify” Judaism, what does this say about other “outside” ideas running around Judea at this time?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Science roundup — Greenland, Mercury, Pompeii, Mexico, West Nile, pulsars, sweat

Greenland glacier melt not as fast as fearedNot that this gives George W. Bush, or Chinese President Hu Jintao, a reprieve in the global warming court of world opinion. Iconic images of rapid-flowing Greenland glacial meltwater are a summer-only phenomenon. On the other hand, isn’t that a “duh” finding, to some degree?
Pulsars confirm general relativityTwin pulsars orbiting one another confirm the theory.
Volcanism on MercuryThe MESSENGER spacecraft from NASA says volcanism played a key part in shaping Mercury’s surface. It also says the planet is shrinking faster than expected, in just two of several interesting discoveries already made.
Pompeii at risk againNo, Vesuvius is not about to blow its top again. Instead, the Italian government needs to put a crowbar in its wallet to adequately fund maintenance of the historic site.
Mexican cave openedArchaeologists have started to explore a Mexican cave found 30 years ago and kept sealed since then.
New West Nile strainAnd it could do better in the U.S. than the older strain, and even push West Nile into Canada.
Don’t sweat summer outInstead, get used to it and adapt. Agreed. I exercise outdoors, pretty briskly, three days a week in Dallas summers.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Strad by any other name wood still sound as dense

For years going on to decades, various theories have abounded about why a Stradivarius had its special sound — the type of wood, the exact chemical nature of the varnish, etc.

Now, a Dutch doctor and an Arkansas violin maker, using a CT scanner, think they have the answer — it’s the density of the wood.

Their full paper is at Public Library of Science.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Larry Summers and Steve Pinker listen up!

That male-female math gap?

It appears to be reversible. The quasi-metaphysical Evolutionary Psychology, as opposed to the actually scientific evolutionary psychology, takes another body blow.

Here’s the details of the latest research:
• Girls are as good at math as boys given the proper environment.
• Males may have an edge in spatial thinking abilities, which are useful in math — and this advantage may be very ancient, evolutionarily speaking.
• Deep-rooted though this difference may be, females can surmount it with just a little work.

More proof of this gap being at least in fair part environmentally based?
“The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities,” said Paola Sapienza of The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, summarizing the results of a new study published in the May 30 issue of the research journal Science.

And, another study notes that the spatial cognition differences, to the degree they have a real gender basis, can also be surmounted. (In other words, Pinker, Summer, et al, environment trumps “raw genes” again. Try reading somebody like Matt Ridley.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In the top 1,500!

I am, that is. Among Amazon book reviewers. So, if you want to see what I like and dislike, beyond a few reviews I’ve recently posted on the blog, click the link!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Will the real Friedrich Schiller please exhume himself?

For almost a century, since a second skull was exhumed from a mass grave where German poet Freidrich Schiller was buried, German scientists and historians have debated which skull is genuine.

Now we have the DNA answer: Neither one.

Why I won't be renewing my DSO season tickets

First, even among “warhorse” composers, the DSO had neglected a number of them for years if not decades.

When is the last time it played a Chopin piano concerto? A Schubert symphony besides the Unfinished? Much by von Weber or Franck? A Verdi overture or two?

Amongst modern Americans, but of the no-longer-living, there’s PLENTY of folks besides Barber. That includes Roger Sessions, William Schumann, Walter Piston and Alan Hovhaness off the top of my head.

As for 20th-century composers, besides my beloved Alfred Schnittke, the DSO is out of the loop on Nikolai Myaskovsky, Ernst Krenek, Paul Hindemith, and at least a snippet of Stockhausen, among others.

As for stuff to retire for at least five years?

Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations. If you must hear some variations on the Paganini Caprice, try Szymanowski’s.

Pictures at an Exhibition. If you most play it, use somebody’s orchestration besides Ravel’s. Try Stokowski’s for the lush Romantic sound. Or Sarasate for a more modern version than Ravel.

Brahms First Symphony. If you need Brahms, when was the last time his Second, not first, Piano Concerto was done here.

And, ticket prices continue to go up faster than at least the nominal rate of inflation. The Pick Four deal from this year didn’t get offered for 2008-09 or I might have sprung. Unfortunately, the Fort Worth Symphony doesn’t offer a smaller package than the full-season 10-concert deal.

They could stand to add two performances, as their rep continues to grow, and make it a 12-concert season with two split packages.

Oh, beyond that, though, and back to Dallas.

Audience behavior, such as coughing (by people who apparently think the cough drops in the lobby aren’t for them), shuffling of feet, etc., is getting worse, I think. How about adding this to the “turn off your cell phone” announcements?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Here’s my theory on the ‘enigma’ of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Having just gotten home from my final concert of this year’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra season, where Enigma was on the program, I offer these thoughts.

It’s a homage to, or reflection upon, rather than calling it a variation on, the Dies Irae opening.

Of course, in addition to some differences in note intervals, it’s in a major key.

That’s why each individual variation is named after a friend of Elgar’s. Rather than a reflection on their deaths, or last judgments, though, it’s a reflection on their lives, with the “positive” angle of the major key.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Haiku homage to Hume

Fleeting sensations
Momentary thought patterns
Consciousness wisps.

Like smoke, nothing is
Apprehendable; like fog,

The wisps come and go
With no quantum gap between;
I can’t find myself.

Psychologist Hume
Metaphysician Descartes
A Scottish triumph.

With no I to think
Or outreason the Frenchman
What ‘Hume’ really won?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ayala to IDers – ‘God is the greatest abortionist’

Francisco Ayala, one of the world’s greatest evolutionary biologists, AND one of the most renowned biological scientists openly defending the compatibility of evolution and religious belief, has been a busy man with the controversy over “Expelled.”

And, he’s not afraid to be as blunt with IDers as Richard Dawkins:
In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.”
Ayala also offers his take on the “teach the controversy,” or similar statements, espoused by many evolution doubters from President Bush on down, as well as evolution denialists:
He dismisses the argument that it is only fair to teach both sides of the evolution/creationism controversy. “We don’t teach alchemy along with chemistry,” he said. “We don’t teach witchcraft along with medicine. We don’t teach astrology with astronomy.”
Ayala’s work on behalf of evolutionary biology is greatly appreciated.

But, his comments also underscore part of why I became an atheist.

If you accept the idea that God, in the Western monotheistic version, cannot be “all,” how much of a “less than all” do you accept and still find worthy of the label “God,” as far as powers or skills of design?

Or, second question – how much below “less than all” do you get until you recognize that your “God” is nothing but a “god of the gaps” and that these gaps have been being closed by both science and philosophy for 300 years or more?

Or transferring this issue beyond what philosophers call “natural evil” to “moral evil,” how much “inhumanity” (the older Mark Twain would say it’s quite human) do you accept as the production, whether active or passive, of a “morally less than all” divinity before junking the idea entirely?

And, that said, at the end of the NYT story, Ayala himself refuses to discuss whether he is still a religious believer or not.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Language can shape our perception of the world

This has been a back-and-forth in both philosophy and psychology ever since Benjamin Whorf mythically claimed the Eskimos had 100 different words for snow. (He didn’t, actually.) For a long time, in relatively recent years, well, ever since the discovery of DNA and the crumbling of Skinnerian behavioralism, Whorf’s ideas were cast by the wayside.

But now, a Cornell researcher has partially resurrected them.

At least with color discrimination, Gary Lupyan says a specific language background does make a difference:
Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.

This fits well with the general idea of “man the category-making creature.”

But, not everybody is ready to buy into even a limited version of Whorfian linguistics redivivus.

On the contrary side? Evolutionary Psychologist (yes, with the double capital letters, see my tages) Steve Pinker. (That, of course, means there’s a good chance the theorizing is right and he’s wrong.)
This separation of language and thought is emphasized in a recent book by Steven Pinker, at Harvard University, a skeptic of “neo-whorfianism.” In “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” Pinker explores the complicated ways that language and thought relate to each other. He cautions against confusing the “many ways in which language connects to thought.” “Language surely affects thought,” he writes, but he argues that there is little evidence for the claims that language can force people to have particular thoughts or make it impossible for them to think in certain ways. With numbers, the importance of language evidence is much clearer. It appears that the ability to count is necessary to deal with large, specific numbers. And the only way to count past a certain point is with language.

He’s overstating the case. Lupyan didn’t say anything about forcing. Rather, as with human genes, we might say that in certain categories of reasoning, one language may create a predisposition (and perhaps no more than a mild one) toward reasoning in one way rather than another.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Darwinism looks to explain collective behavior

Wired has a great article on what the next frontier, or hurdle if you will, is for the explanatory power of modern neo-Darwinism — the development of groups and collectives. This includes bees in a hive, ants in a colony, bacteria in a collective, and even more complex things such as the vast array of bacteria that make up 90 percent of the cells in our own “human” bodies.

The main question is, how can neo-Darwinian theory as currently constituted explain these developments of evolutionary biology — if it can?

Down in front, creationists and IDers. Wired is a serious magazine and isn’t asking for “explanations” from you.

But, some of the evolutionary biologists quoted in the story say that something, either a greatly modified neo-Darwinianism or else some appended theory of emergent properties, based on things like chaos theory, complexity theory, and the “tipping points” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is going to be needed to do the trick.
”There’s nothing wrong with neo-Darwinian evolution in its own right,” Carl Woese said, “but it’s not large enough to encompass what we know now.”

Woese’s specialty is bacteria, and he’s not afraid of bold theories that turn conventional scientific wisdom on its head. In 1977, he and colleague George Fox rearranged the animal kingdom from five branches into three, two of which comprise microbes.

Microbes make up much of Earth’s biomass, and they also cast into relief the shortcomings of neo-Darwinian evolution. A bucket of seawater can contain 60,000 bacterial species, and to Woese, these must be seen as a collective rather than as disparate units.

At the collective level, said Woese, bacteria exhibit patterns of organization and behavior that emerge suddenly, at tipping points of population variation and density called “saltations.” Natural selection still favors — or disfavors — the ultimate outcome of these jumps, but the jumps themselves seem to defy explanation solely through genetic changes or individual properties.

Such jumps don’t just call into question whether evolution is capable of producing sudden rather than gradual change. That debate raged during the later stages of the last century, but has been largely settled in favor of what paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould termed punctuated equilibrium. By contrast, Woese invokes yet-to-be-quantified rules of complexity and emergence. These, he said, may also explain other exceptional jumps, such as the transition from protein fragments to single cells and from single-celled organisms to multicellular ones.

Contrary to IDers, creationists, or New Agers, etc., Woese works with rules that have a basis in science and/or mathematics, rules that are ultimately testable through construction of hypotheses.

Part of the issue hinges on debate over an idea stated most forcefully by philosopher Daniel Dennett: Is neo-Darwinism algorithmic or not? I am guessing Woese would either say “I don’t know,” or “possibly not.” Other evolutionary biologists might agree with Dennett, yet others might reject his claim forcefully.
”Selection probably happens at all scales, from gene to individual to species to collection of species to ecosystem to we don’t even know what,” said Maya Paczuski, head of the Complexity Science Group at the University of Calgary.

Paczuski’s group sees evolution as taking place at all these levels, with what happens in ecosystems rippling down to individuals, back up to populations, across to other populations, and so on — all simultaneously, and in tandem with the mysterious dynamics of networked complexity.

But does it all happen mechanically? Or does evolution obey some larger imperative?

University of Nevada evolutionary biologist Guy Hoelzer calls that imperative biospheric self-organization. "The idea of evolution is embedded within self-organization,” he said. “It coordinates the ecological roles of species so that ecosystems persist and process a great deal of energy.”

I, too, doubt Dennett’s idea, though as a scientific layperson (but not a philosophical one), I don’t think I have enough of a scientific background to be able to reject it forcefully. I do think that, to some degree, the developmental processes we eventually discover in the emergent properties of biological groups, collectives and ecosystems will show enough discontinuity with neo-Darwinism to be likely to develop as separate subfield within evolutionary biology.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Irony alert – New York Philharmonic

The NYPhil is tonight, on its national concert broadcast series, playing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” as conducted a few years ago by Kurt Mazur.

But… Easter was last week. And… Passover hasn’t yet happened.

Will we get Stravinsky’s “Abraham and Isaac” next week? The NYPhil may not even have played that in the past 20 years for all I know.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Illiterate science journalism at Morning News confuses nature and nurture

In a health story today at The Dallas Morning News, (don’t forget the initial capital!) freelancer (I’m sorry, “special contributor”) Elsa K. Simcik made a whopper of a mistake on nature vs. nurture. She says:
Reed also didn't realize that being African-American automatically put her at high risk for developing colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society Web site, “African-Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States.”

Yes, but there is NO definite evidence linking anything genetic in African-Americans to the higher colon cancer rates, therefore, Martha Reed was NOT “automatically” anything.

There are a variety of environmental risk factors, to be sure. Lower screening rates and detection often being in more advanced states of cancer both contribute to the higher fatality rate. Traditional black foods, higher in saturated fats and lower in fiber, are certainly likely contributory to higher rates of occurrence.

BUT … those are all “nature” factors, not “nurture” ones.

As for claims of genetic-driven difference, all of them are weak at this stage, and even if they do pan out with more research, nonetheless, their effects will be seen as much smaller than the environmentally-caused ones.

I know the Snooze got rid of its fantastic science editor, Tom Siegfried, in what seems like an eon ago. But, that’s not an excuse for not having at least a staff writer with some science writing doing this story.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Science briefs – when Stonehenge and why our blind eyes but not baseball managers?

When was Stonehenge built and why?

The latest research team that plans to tackle details of the when believe it has an answer on the why: a health spa.
“This was a place of healing, for the soul and the body,” said Tim Darvill, (archaeology professor at Bournemouth University). “The Presili Hills is a magical place. The stones from there are regarded as having healing properties.”

I’m a bit leery of how Darvill uses the word “magical”; it halfway sounds like he believes in it and is ready to consecrate the beliefs of neo-Druids, other neo-pagans and various other, undifferentiated, New Agers.

Miss three changes in the “six changes” puzzle?

Maybe you’re not alone, whether it’s something like that, or more commonly, not a quiz, but an altered photo where you’re not told of any specific type or number of changes. Our brainpower may just not have the resources to keep up with modern demands on our eyes. Beyond that, such “top-down” viewings aren’t qualia, percepts or whatever other philosophical terms you prefer — they’ve been extensively massaged en route through the brain until the point “we” view “them,” whoever “we” and “they” are.

Can you measure a baseball manager?

Going beyond Billy Beane’s “Moneyball,” Sabermetrics or anything else, mathematician Steve Wang says you can, by doing an analysis of human faces. But Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta has a caveat:
Managers’ tendencies were often a reflection more of the players on the roster than of the manager’s personal inclinations. While the Mets speedster José Reyes cannot decide to hit 50 home runs and the Red Sox slugger David Ortiz cannot will himself to 50 stolen bases, managers can and will shape their decisions around the tools at their disposal.

Good point. As a St. Louis Cardinals’ fan, I expect to see a different Tony La Russa face this year, at least until Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter are back on the roster.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ten items to change the world? I think not

The new issue of Time touts what it claims as 10 items to change the world’s future.

Color me skeptical.

First, the list in general sounds like kinder, gentler American exceptionalism in some ways.

Second, some, like the “new austerity,” have been heralded, prophesized or dreaded in print for 20 years or more, as Time itself knows. Thank St. Alan of Greenspan for “bubbling” off that new austerity to the next generation, and expect Americans to keep trying that for as long as they can.

Third, most people will NOT be doing handstands over the elimination of customer service, item No. 2 on the list. Self-serve grocery checkouts offer an example. We didn’t get a discount when stores went to this; instead, Kroger, et al, just pocketed more money. At the same time, the kiosks don’t always work perfectly.

As far as phone-based customer service, what, are we going to work entirely with computer voice-activated programs over the telephone, or keystrokes online?

And, some are just over-hyped, such as “Re-Judaizing Jesus,” which isn’t a “future” thing at all, but simply the latest evolution of a hermeneutic that is more than 30 years old.

As far as this one actually changing anything, fuhgeddaboudit. Christian Righters still cozy up to Israel just because they believe in a literal millennium, Jews have not suddenly cozied up to Jesus, and Muslim fundamentalism has been on the rise.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nice guys win while clueless guys remain clueless

Two interesting, but not exactly earthshaking, studies on human psychology out there, one about “guys” as humans in general, and how being nice does “win” in the game of life, while the other quantifies what most women have long said, that guys are clueless about “reading” them.

First, the “nice guys” story. Researchers found that, after a while, the negative reinforcement of punishment loses its psychological reinforcement. The research involved multiple rounds of the prisoners’ dilemma game, with a higher-than-normal punishment level.

The reason I say this one isn’t totally earthshaking is the some part of the principle behind this has long been exemplified in the “good cop, bad cop” scheme. However, this goes beyond “good cop, bad cop” in cooperation vs. punishment between equals.

Perhaps semi-equals who run free-world situations, like tyrannical bosses, will sit up and take notice.

The second study?

Researchers found that men misread women’s friendliness as sexual signals.

Well, that’s the “no duh” insight of the year, right?

But, it also found that men misread women’s sexual signals as not being about sex but just friendship.

In other words, men misreading women isn’t related to male libido and sex focus, just to men not being so observant.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pharyngula gets creationist movie boot and lies

Sic simper creationist openmindedness to science, eh?

P.Z. Myers, the well-known Pharyngula of evolutionary biology blogging fame, was barred from attending a creationist film in Minneapolis with even better-known evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins got in, and Myers didn’t, and things got fun after that:
The movie the two scientists wanted to see was “Expelled,” whose online trailer asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Dr. Myers asserts that he was unfairly barred from the film, in which both he and Dr. Dawkins appear, and that Dr. Dawkins would have been, too, if people running the screening had realized who he was — a world leader in the field of evolutionary biology.

Given that Myers teaches at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and is a well-known gadfly to Minnesota creationists, I’m going to believe him and NOT the “Expelled” spokesperson.

But, please, first, a tip of the hat to the irony of creationists making a movie called “Expelled,” then giving Myers the boot. Now, the creationist spin on the moment:
Mark Mathis, a producer of the film who attended the screening, said that “of course” he had recognized Dr. Dawkins, but allowed him to attend because “he has handled himself fairly honorably, he is a guest in our country and I had to presume he had flown a long way to see the film.”

Actually, Dr. Myers and Dr. Dawkins said in interviews that they had long planned to be in Minneapolis this week to attend a convention of atheists. Dr. Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, is on the convention program.

So, no, Dawkins didn’t fly all the way from Britain just for this film. Lie No. 1.

Second, anybody who has read “The God Delusion” knows that, while Dawkins didn’t write a Christopher Hitchens diatribe, he pulled no punches. So, the “handled himself fairly honorably” is a dig at Myers, a pretense of not having read Dawkins, and Lie No. 2.
And both (scientists) had earlier complained that they originally agreed to appear in the movie — then called “Crossroads” — because producers told them it would be an examination of religion and science, not a defense of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. People who have seen the movie say it also suggests that there is a link between the theory of evolution and ideas like Nazism, something Dr. Dawkins called “a major outrage.”

In an interview, Dr. Myers said he registered himself and “guests” on a Web site for the film’s screening. A security guard pulled him out of the line but admitted his wife, daughter and guests — including Dr. Dawkins, who, Dr. Myers said, no one seemed to recognize. Dr. Dawkins, who like everyone was asked to present identification, said he offered his British passport, which lists him as Clinton Richard Dawkins.

Lie No. 1 gets further confirmation; Dawkins wasn’t recognized because of the “Clinton” as his actual first name.

But wait, Lie No. 3 is just around the corner:
Mr. Mathis said in an interview that he had confronted Dr. Dawkins in the question and answer period after the screening and that Dr. Dawkins withered. “These people who own the academic establishment and who have great friends in the media — they are not accustomed to having a level, open playing field,” Mr. Mathis said. “I watched a man who has been a large figure, an imposing figure, I watched this man shrink in front of my eyes.”

Needless to say, Dawkins and Myers have an entirely different recollection.

Texas follows bad California law creates public health risks

Child Protective Services is needed instead of this stupid law

Nine of 12 California children who recently got measles did so because their parents refused to vaccinate them, and had the right to do so under a California law that lets parents opt school-age children out of vaccinations.

And, Texas joins California among 20 states that allow personal exemptions, beyond religious-grounds objections:
“I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good,” said Sybil Carlson, whose 6-year-old son goes to school with several of the children hit by the measles outbreak here. The boy is immunized against some diseases but not measles, Ms. Carlson said, while his 3-year-old brother has had just one shot, protecting him against meningitis.

And, she does so willingly:
Carlson said she understood what was at stake. “I cannot deny that my child can put someone else at risk,” she said.

Worst of all, she illustrates the dark side of the Internet — too often, it’s about what could at best be called “knowledge” or “information,” but certainly not wisdom, and “information” that fuels preconceptions:
“When I began to read about vaccines and how they work,” she said, “I saw medical studies, not given to use by the mainstream media, connecting them with neurological disorders, asthma and immunology.”

In other words, “they,” whomever “they” are, are blocking us average citizens from knowing the medical truth.
Sybil Carlson isn’t the most nutbar parent in the deck, though:
Some parents of unvaccinated children go to great lengths to expose their children to childhood diseases to help them build natural immunities.

In the wake of last month’s outbreak, Linda Palmer considered sending her son to a measles party to contract the virus. Several years ago, the boy, now 12, contracted chicken pox when Palmer had him attend a gathering of children with that virus.

“It is a very common thing in the natural-health oriented world,” Ms. Palmer said of the parties.

Where is Child Protective Services, or the California equivalent, when you need them? Seriously. I’m not hyperbolizing.

Shroud of Turin believers grasp at straws again

Yes, naïve or, more often, self-delusional Shroud sympaticos are once again making the claims that 1988 radiocarbon tests were inaccurate. Please. We’ve heard this before.

The Today Show piece is one-sided in not quoting a single Shroud skeptic to refute those claims, the claims about “ancient Mediterranean pollen grains,” that too much handling of the Shroud threw off radiocarbon calculations, that there actually is blood on the Shroud (there isn’t, at least none that’s been identified) and more.

Of course, that’s nothing new either. American TV trots out gullibility-driven twaddle like this around Christian religious holidays, as do major newsmagazines.

See Skeptic’s Dictionary for the truth about all these claims.
The suggestions that modern biological contaminants were sufficient to modernize the date are also ridiculous. A weight of 20th century carbon equaling nearly two times the weight of the Shroud carbon itself would be required to change a 1st century date to the 14th century. Besides this, the linen cloth samples were very carefully cleaned before analysis at each of the C-dating laboratories.

But, Shroud sympaticos will continue to bring up new red herrings, as Bob Carroll notes at Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Science news roundup – more ‘little people,’ Alpha Centauri, moths

More “little people” found in Melanesia

A new set of small-stature human skeletons, similar to the “Flores people,” have been found in Palau. Researchers say they have a variety of cranial and facial features, some similar to Homo sapiens and others to Homo floresiensis, which is sure to stir the debate pot as to just what has been discovered both on Indonesia’s Flores Islands and at Palau. Biggest difference is that “Palau man” doesn’t have the small brain of the Flores folk, which could add credence to the idea that those people suffered from severe iodine deficiency.

Is extra-solar life that close

Some astronomers think it is – as close as Alpha Centauri B. Statistical calculations say planets should have formed around the star. Now, I don’t know how being part of a triple-star system would affect the development of life there, if there is a planet that is habitable. That said, I’ll stick by my extremely conservative estimate on the Drake number for our galaxy.

Moths remember caterpillar life?

Simple Pavlovian avoidant conditioning says yes.

Jesus was black, eh, Rev. Wright?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I’m sure that finding is earthshaking news to legions of New Testament scholars from around the world.

Beyond the other racial stuff from Barack Obama’s pastor, what I most loathe is the pseudoscientific “black Jesus” crap from Wright. And that’s what it is.

And, Republicans who want to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters have new ammunition to fire.

Jesus was not Caucasian, contrary to 19th-century paintings and what is likely still a fair-sized swath of white Christian belief today, and he likely was pretty swarthy, but he wasn’t from sub-Saharan Africa, either, Rev. Wright.

Pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and the like are a sure political turn-off for me.

Native Americans arrival dated earlier

“Clovis-only” theory of Indians gets death blow

A new review in Science strongly confirms that the first “Native Americans” got to the New World at least 16,000 years ago. It would seem that nobody but old-school crabbed anthropologists could still defend the Clovis theory
A new review published in the research journal Science contends that that the first Americans had their roots in southern Siberia, ventured across the Bering land bridge probably around 22,000 years ago, and migrated down into the Americas as early as 16,000 years ago.

In the paper, Ted Goebel of Texas A&M University and colleagues argue that the latter date is when an ice-free corridor in Canada opened and enabled the migration.

The new account is bolstered by genetic evidence and the discovery of new archaeological sites and more accurate dates for old sites, according to the researchers.

Genetic evidence, they wrote, points to a founding population of less than 5,000 people at the beginning of the second migration in Canada.

Moreover, they added, archaeological evidence suggests the Clovis culture may have been relative latecomers to the Americas or descendants of earlier Paleo-Indian populations represented at archaeological sites such as Monte Verde in Chile. That site is thought to have been occupied 14,600 years ago.

This squares with my belief that a multiple-migrations theory of population of the Americas is more likely than a one-movement theory, with the likely exception of Inuit/Aleut, and perhaps Na-Dene. Along with that, this would seem to favor “splitters” rather than “lumpers” among linguists.

Anybody who has looked carefully at the phenotypic variety among Native Americans, trying to focus on those with little admixture from Caucasian or African backgrounds, and the phenotypic variety among east Asians, probably has an instinctual leaning toward multiple migrations, too, IMO.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chris Hedges calls strawman ‘New Atheists’

First, he apparently think Chris Hitchens’ political beliefs apply to all New Atheists, assuming that Salon is correct when it says he says they are:
Conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America's role in world politics.

To be honest, Hitchens is the only New Atheist I’ve heard express ANY political opinion beyond worrying about the Bush Administration’s, or some states’, folding, spindling and mutilating of the First Amendment through faith-based programs getting government money, school boards and state boards of education trying to teach intelligent design, etc. Hedges says Harris, in his first book, talks about a nuclear first strike on the Arab world, but you don’t have to be a neocon to believe in that – which I don’t, anyway.

Dawkins, and Dan Dennett, who apparently doesn’t even draw Hedges’ eye, are about as apolitical, otherwise, as you can get.

As for claims that New Atheists are secular utopians, some may be, others certainly aren’t.

That said, I will agree that Harris is intellectually shallow, and Hitchens is a performer.

Again, though, “New Atheists” are a lot more than these two.

It’s hard to believe that “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” with its shallow diatribes, was written by the author of “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”

But, Chris Hedges, that’s OK. We don’t believe in you as a serious writer anymore, either. Maybe you’re dying for a war addiction fix or something.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

‘Pavarotti’ is pronounced with a short ‘o’

Scott Cantrell, classical music critic at The Dallas Morning News, bitched about pronunciation issue among announcers at WRR-101 a couple of years ago, in an in-depth profile. Unfortunately, Karen Moyer wasn’t yet at the station to get her hand slapped.

For some reason, she seems to believe that “Pavarotti” is pronounced with a long “o.” And, she makes things even worse by mispronouncing his name with an attempt at an Italian accent.

What makes it worse is that she not only knows classical music, she’s actually sung opera.

Pinkers – like brother like sister in quasi-junk science

It appears Susan Pinker is just as much a died-in-the-wool “naturist” on evolutionary psychology issues as is her better-known brother, Steven.

Specifically, in a new book, it’s the difference between boys and girls at school, followed by men and women at work, that gets her research psychologist’s explanation of being all about hormonal-generated differences in male and female brains.

The facts of difference are unarguable today. In school, boys are truant more, cause more disciplinary problems, perform lower on standardized tests, etc. But, they’re still the leaders in the business world. And, glass ceilings aside, women in the business world generally indicate higher degrees of job satisfaction, Emily Bazelon notes.

Pinker rejects the idea that much of this is due to the “glass ceiling” effect in the business world. She does admit there is some sexual bias, but says its effect is minuscule:
To support this, Pinker quotes a female Ivy League law professor: “I am very skeptical of the notion that society discourages talented women from becoming scientists,” the professor writes. “My experience, at least from the educational phase of my life, is that the very opposite is true.” If women aren’t racing to the upper echelons of science, government and the corporate world despite decades of efforts to woo them, Pinker argues, then it must be because they are wired to resist the demands at the top of those fields.

Now, Clarence Thomas would claim that society doesn’t hold black men down, either, and would cite his own academic experience, without talking 5 seconds about how much he benefited from affirmative action. So, without knowing who this professor is and how she got to where she is, I can’t even begin to dissect her statement.

Beyond that, Bazelon does her own takedown on Pinker and that pesky “glass ceiling”:
Pinker also skips past an answer to the book’s central question that may have more explanatory power than her other arguments, even if it’s more prosaic and familiar to many a parent. Boys lag dramatically behind girls in terms of psychological development and physical resilience and then start to catch up as teenagers, as a long-running and well-known study Pinker cites documented. Maybe after a few years as girls’ developmental equals, boys are ready to compete in the work force — and then zoom ahead as cultural norms and discrimination push women back. After all, why would girls’ hard-wired predilection against competition stay on ice while they blithely sweep all the academic honors and then kick in only at work?

I don’t reject sexual dimorphism in the human brain, at all. But, as Matt Ridley put it in his excellent book by that title, I affirm the reality of “nature via nurture” and it is obvious neither Pinker sibling does.

Fortunately, the pendulum of scientific study, even in molecular biology and genetics, as we learn more about how much “junk DNA” is actually regulatory sequences which control the expression of codons, regulatory sequences affected by cellular environment.

Let me take this opportunity to remind readers of the difference between evolutionary psychology and Evolutionary Psychology, too.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Science roundup: old Grand Canyon, ringed Saturn moon, hereditary happiness

Grand Canyon 3x older than thought

The western section, at least, of the Grand Canyon has been redated to an age of 17 million years, or three times older than the previous 6my estimate. Scientists from the University of New Mexico used uranium-lead radioactive dating to get new ages for sediments on Grand Canyon cave walls.

Ring around Rhea

Evidence from the Cassini spacecraft appears to show a ring around Saturn’s second-largest moon, which lies within the planet’s magnetic field.

Happiness propensity strongly hereditary

In what is somewhat of a “no-duh” report, given the amount of research on the heritability of depression and other mental health issues, British and Australian researchers claim about half of a tendency toward happiness is heritable.

That said, the story needs a couple of caveats.

First, note that I said “tendency toward happiness,” and “happiness propensity” in the subhead.. The actual story, showing that even AP or big newspaper writers who cover science stories oversimplify human biology pieces into “nature vs. nurture” rather than “nature via nurture” for the true pattern of how genes and environment interact.

Also, on personality traits, we know that maternal stresses can affect the prenatal womb environment enough to cause a propensity toward anxiety, among other things. And, no personality assessment today is able to factor out this environmental influence in order to not falsely ascribe its effect to genetics. Of course, identical twins are in the same womb; a fair amount even share at least the same placenta and some even share the same amniotic sac, depending on how late after fertilization the original zygote divided. So, at least part of that claimed “50 percent genetic” isn’t so; 40-45 percent is more likely the reality, which is still big.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Science journalists get depression wrong by dissing SSRIs

A set of psychology researchers say that media use of “chemical imbalance” to describe depression is scientifically inaccurate.
However, the researchers then have to follow up on the overhyped recent Public Library of Science report and claim, as does the author of the World Science story, that modern anti-depressants really don’t work:
The drugs, known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs, recently turned out to be largely ineffective.

Boy, that’s wrong in several ways. First, the PLoS story only claimed that antidepressants were relatively ineffective in mild or moderate depression, not all depressions.

Second, the PLoS authors overstated their case. From the study:
On average, the SSRIs improved the HRSD score of patients by 1.8 points more than the placebo, whereas NICE has defined a significant clinical benefit for antidepressants as a drug–placebo difference in the improvement of the HRSD score of 3 points.

That may not be great effectiveness, but it’s nowhere near “largely ineffective.” And, since milder depressions are usually likely to ring up lower diagnostic scores, the numeric steps of improvement, by HRSD scores, that provide relief, will be lesser anyway.

So, perhaps science journalists aren’t so great about writing about depression, either.

Journalists get depression wrong with ‘chemical imbalance’ meme

No, I still don’t believe memes exist, at least not in a strong sense, but the word is a handy catch-all. Anyway, that’s besides the point.

A set of psychology researchers say that media use of “chemical imbalance” to describe depression is scientifically inaccurate. Rightly, they note that the idea comes from classical Greece’s concept of the four “humors” in the body.

Reverse evolution DOES happen

Or so it would appear. Turkish scientist Uner Tan, who first announced this idea two years ago, has now been vindicated in his pronouncement that such a genetic retrogression was possible.

And, in apparently being proven right, he has overcome the shameful cultural imperialism of a renowned British scientist that I described when Tan first announced his startling findings.

To go back, in 2006, Tan announced he had found an apparent case of “reverse evolution” in a few Anatolian peasant families walking on all fours. While ideas of retrograde evolution had already been in the air, it had never been considered a realistic thing to happen among Homo sapiens, let alone the idea of proving it genetically.

Well, the new news is that, as linked above, Tan has found just such a genetic cause. He had, back in 2006, said that with colleagues, he mapped the defect to a region of the genome called chromosome 17p, a site of some of the biggest genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees. As World-Science noted, researchers have also recently linked bipedalism to 17p.

Here is where the cultural imperialism I referenced before comes in. Tan made this claim about what happened after he announced his discovery:
He claims that after he invited (British scientists) to study the syndrome with him in Turkey, they “stole” his credit for discovering it, sold the story for an upcoming BBC documentary and — worst — paid the victims’ family to stop cooperating with him and other researchers.

Chief offender? Internationally renowned psychologist and cognitive scientist Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey then, essentially, threw Tan under the bus, calling his theories “bizarre” after basically bribing the families not to cooperate with Tan any more. This was instead of supporting the research of Tan, which might be more difficult in a primarily Muslim country, albeit a secular state.

Well, now, Tan has the last laugh, or the last research triumph, over Humphrey. Tan and colleagues have identified a gene linked to the condition, which they call Unertan syndrome. And, they’re being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which World Science says is one of the three most prestigious scientific journals, according to Thompson Scientific. In other words, it ranks right behind Science and Nature. Take THAT, Nick Humphrey:
The new paper, co-authored with six of Tan’s colleagues including his wife, Meliha, reports that a responsible mutation has been found in two of four families that by now have turned up affected by “Unertan syndrome.”

“Human molecular genetics in Turkey is ‘on the map’ with this elegant analysis,” said Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington and an editor of the Proceedings.

Some scientists claim that the move to bipedalism involved many genes, therefore reverse evolution in walking wasn’t likely. Tan says, on the contrary, he thinks multiple genes may be involved with at least some of the afflicted people he has studied.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Is Frank Drake right about an intelligent galaxy?

Write your own Drake equations and make your guess on intelligent life in other solar systems!

Those of you familiar with the SETI project will love this. MSNBC lets you fill in your own guesstimates on the parameters of the Drake equations.

I tried it more than once. The first time, I got a Drake number of “1,” meaning I believe we’re all alone in this galaxy. The second time, being much less conservative, my calculations returned an estimate of 7,650 planets, still below Drake’s current guesstimate of 10,000.

While my “1” may be low, I think it’s a lot closer to the truth than 7,650, let alone 10,000; a third calculation gave me a Drake number of 988. I think Drake and some other people like him are somewhat of what I’ll call “secular salvationists,” wanting science to provide a quasi-metaphysical jolt to life on mundane Tellus Mater. In any case, I think they are WAY too optimistic.

The main bottleneck I see is on Drake point 3, how many planets in a solar system are habitable by virtue of having liquid water. I think that number is less than one per average solar system, something like 0.7 or so. I see lesser bottlenecks in the likelihood of life to develop, point 4, and that life to develop to our level of intelligence or more, point 5.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A new take on what Bach looked like

Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, head of Scotland’s first forensic art unit, set up at Dundee University in 2005, has used state-of-the-art technology to recreate the head of the musical master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here’s the result, with details of the process below: