Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ron Amundson is my hero.

You know how as you teach a class there's a tendency for your syllabus to get longer and longer? This isn't because you're teaching more material (probably) but because you're slipping in additional notes for your students. Fun things like, "Late work will be accepted only with an adequate excuse. Being a member of the football team and playing an away game on the due date is an adequate excuse. Playing football on the game cube is not." Well, I now have a new goal in my life that is related to this tendency.

Somehow, someway, I want to find an excuse to include a disclaimer as cool at the one Ronald Amundson uses:


“Metaphysics” as a field of study within the academic area of Philosophy is very
different from “Metaphysics” as the label of a bookshelf in Border’s Books. This is a
Philosophy course. It is not about what Border’s Books calls Metaphysics.

The popular (Border’s Books) understanding of Metaphysics is that it is the study
of paranormal phenomena, such as extrasensory perception, out-of-body travel,
reincarnation, and auras. None of these topics will be seriously discussed in this
It doesn’t much matter what my opinions are about the matter, but you may want
to know. I believe in science. I do not believe in pseudoscience. I believe that no one has
extra-sensory perception (even though perception is a very complicated and interesting
thing). I do not believe in reincarnation, or in out-of-body travel. In fact I have published
articles in anti-paranormal journals, and I’m somewhat famous for my skeptical
refutation of the paranormal Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon. (See my web page for
details if you’re interested.)

I do not believe that I’m any more narrow-minded than the next person on these
topics. But if you are a fan of paranormal phenomenon, you will probably consider me to
be very narrow-minded. That’s ok with me -- you have a right to consider me narrowminded
if you want to. But the important thing is this: You should not take this course
because you expect to study astrology, ESP, and so on. I will not ask my students to study
topics that I consider foolish, and I consider astrology, etc., very foolish.


So if you signed up for the course because you are interested in the supernatural
or paranormal, please drop the course. You will not be able to pass the course by
concentrating your attention on the paranormal, and trying to prove its existence to me.
Many people have tried. None of them has passed the course. Please don’t add your
student record to the gruesome list of people who believed that they could convince
Amundson that they possessed ESP.

I have had some bad experiences on this topic. Some very sincere students have
gotten angry and even belligerant because I required them to study and write about
theories that they disagreed with. I am teaching this course the way the American
Philosophical Association affirms is the academically responsible way to teach
Metaphysics. Please, if that is not a course that you want to take, do not take this one. [emphasis and formatting as original as my intrinsic laziness permits]

Quite aside from the humor of imagining a very earnest undergraduate arguing the paranormal with a philosophy professor- particularly a very unwilling philosophy professor- I just have to love that disclaimer. It's direct, it's honest, it's helpful, and I bet it gets ignored all the time.

Ron Amundson, I salute you!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"I may be a colossally ignorant jackass, but..."

During one of my recent wanderings on the old interwebs I came across an article/editorial/bewildering rant over on the illustrious The rant in question, titled "Atheism- A Godless Delusion," is authored by one Phil Harris, a man whose lone qualification as a pundit appears to be his total lack of expertise in anything. No, seriously, that's how Townhall explains it in his biography:

There is a tendency for people to seek out experts on various subjects as they hope to develop informed opinions about current events in society and government, war and peace, or any number of subjects. Often times, expert opinions are as varied as the flakes in a snowstorm. In the end, sometimes, ya just gotta know what Phil thinks.

So, basically, Phil Harris appears to be qualified as a pundit in much the same sense as Joe the Plumber is qualified to be a war correspondent. He essentially belongs to the "Aw, shucks" school of journalism that I have learned to detest* because it substitutes knee-jerk reactionism for compassion, reason and intelligent debate. In any case, Phil's piece is essentially a rant against atheism. Moreover, it is so indescribably bad that it is effectively its own counter-argument. Given that I sometimes enjoy shooting fish in a barrel strapped to the end of my shotgun with duct tape, I have decided to reproduce his "essay" here for your enjoyment with occasional added commentary.

Let's begin:

Throughout the ages, a single question hangs on the face of mankind like a hairy wart on the end of the nose. Each of us will live our lives, raise our children, and then lay down to die with this question asked, but never answered.

Who am I, and why am I here?

Amusingly, if you believe the bible, quite a few people got a pretty direct answer to this question back in the day. I'm just sayin. More pertinent, however, Phil looks to be setting up the old false dichotomy between the atheist "I don't know why we're here" answer and the theist "We're here because [insert book] says that [insert god] wants us to [insert random commandment]." The problem, of course, is that the meaning of life really can't be revealed by completing a mad lib. And even if it could, there is no evidence that any particular set of entires is correct. A choice between an admission of ignorance and an answer produced by fiat is no choice at all.

It is a question that Richard Dawkins and other rejectionists can never answer through the scientific method; although, they claim all mysteries of the Universe would surely be unraveled given enough time and study. In a rather perverse twist, it is those who believe that life continues that are assured to know all there is to know, while those who reject life beyond death will simply evaporate, along with the composite chemicals that give the illusion of self, knowledge, and consciousness.

Okay, first, "rejectionists"? Seriously? Is that a dig? Because we don't "reject" a god or gods, we just don't believe they exist. Hell, everyone is a rejectionist from the perspective of someone of a different faith. You're an Allah rejectionist and a Vishnu rejectionist to name a few. Stop being juvenile.** Second, Dawkins doesn't claim all mysteries will be unravelled through science, but he does argue that a lot can be. Third, belief that life continues beyond death does not, in fact, guarantee that it does anymore than believing in bigfoot guarantees that there's an enormous primate roaming around the Pacific northwest. As it happens, if I'm right, then we will all cease to exist at death and, thus, those who know the most will be those who learn it while alive, not those who expect to cheat off the big kid's test after death. Lastly: dude! Did you just refer to god's divine plan as "perverse"? Wicked burn!

Am I simply a clump of molecules, arranged in a complex fashion after billions of years of trial, error, and happenstance? This raises more questions for me than I had before, such as these:

I don't know about the clump of molecules thing but I'm absolutely convinced that you are a shitacular writer. That said, your strawman argument displeases the Dauphin of All Socio-Blogging. Given a certain set of physical laws, the formation of particular structures (e.g. planets) is inevitable and therefore entirely unsurprising. And while evolution would not always produce humans even given the same starting conditions, it is far from a random process deserving the label "happenstance."

Given that some concoction of chemicals accidently, and astoundingly became arranged in such a fashion that the spark of life came into existence, then…

Accidentally? Hardly- look to those physical laws again. And "spark of life"? You do realize that I'm an atheist, not a vitalist, right? There is no spark of life.

…what additionally came into existence (chemically), to cause these innate compounds to seek their own survival, diversification, self improvement via evolutionary processes, self-discovery, and an insatiable awareness and curiosity about the environment and Universe?

So... you want me to specify a chemical compound that gave other chemical compounds will and the ability to plan? You do realize that evolutionary theory does not, in any way whatsoever, imply that chemicals have will, right? No, of course you don't, because your familiarity with modern science could be charitably described as "laughable." Evolution does not work because organisms are actively trying to evolve, it works because they are trying to survive- knowingly or not- and some of them are better at it than others.

It is amazing to realize that such an incredible chemical accident occurred on a planet that hangs in an orbit so precisely tuned distance-wise to the Sun. How fortunate that this same planet includes physical systems of weather and climate that insure fresh water cycles in such a way to support life of all types.

This is obviously intended to be a reference to the rare Earth hypothesis yet, amusingly, you're doing an incredibly shitty job of summing it up. You do realize that if conditions weren't correct for us to exist on Earth, we wouldn't be here to take note of that fact, right? So, really, within the context of evolution it's unsurprising that we're adapted for the world we evolved on. Yet, at the same time, note that we're not perfectly adapted to this planet. If it was really tailor-made for us, why the hell isn't it just perfect? Yes, yes, I know: original sin. You seriously find that a compelling answer? Really?

How incredible to note, that distinct clumps of "living" molecules have somehow colluded to assign life-sustaining roles to each other, such as the idea that plant life should process carbon-dioxide into oxygen, which is necessary for animal life, which in turn exhales carbon-dioxide. That animal life should consume plant life, and then excrete the digested plant life, which in turn would provide nutrients for new plant life.

Good lord. So you think that at some point in the past plants and animals got together and assigned roles?! So, you're imagining something like this:

Cow: "Okay, cereals, we can absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide but you have to absorb that CO2 and then produce O2. Can you do that?"

Wheat: "It'll take some convincing- corn wants us to absorb CO2 and produce sulfuric acid- but barley and oats are onboard with O2. Thing is, if you fuckers are going to eat us, we need something in return!"

Cow: "How about we produce natural fertilizer from your masticated corpses that will nourish your offspring?"

Wheat: "Fine. Done!"

Cow: "Great! Let's make an ecosystem!"

Based on this logic, isn't it amazing that smallpox and humans got together and decided who would infect whom? How about that amazing collaboration between garbagemen and homeless people? Seriously, Phil, I can point out your stupid all day.

The ridiculous caricatures of "God" that Dawkins and devout atheists stand up for the purpose of knocking them down have no chance when compared to these ingenious chemical compounds.

He said... "ridiculous caricature." Irony meter... overloading! Emergency! Emergency!

I may not hold the educational credentials of the likes of Dawkins, but I am intelligent, open minded, scientifically curious, and mindful of how little is truly known about the Universe we live in, despite the considerable knowledge that has been accumulated.

"I may not hold them fancy learnin' degrees or know nothin about science, but I know science is bunk because some unknown guys thousands of years ago wrote a book about stuff." Riiiiight. I would be more swayed by his rhetoric here if his preceding arguments didn't make it clear that he knows absolutely nothing about modern science. Phil makes Ken Ham look like a fucking Nobel laureate.

I can understand how one might look at all that is wrong in the world, and wonder how there could be a God looking on, seemingly uncaring and unwilling to stop the suffering. It is also easy to look at the behavior of mankind in the name of religion, or with religion as the excuse for unspeakable deeds and wonder how there is any goodness to be worshiped. Of course, this gives mankind a pass and places the blame for atrocious behavior at the foot of God instead.

Excellent. The thorny theological and philosophical problem of evil solved by victim-blaming. Out of curiosity: how do you deal with suffering in the animal kingdom? When a lion kills and eats a gazelle, is that our fault?

The fallacy of such thinking lies in the assumption that God is misbehaving according to some Book of Proper God Behavior that I or anyone else is privy to. Must we believe that if God is real, that God is manipulating life on Earth, as if playing some kind of video game?

Seriously? Are you suggesting that torture is okay for god because god is... you know... god? The problem isn't that god can't do whatever he wants, the problem is that we're supposed to believe he's all powerful, omniscient, infinitely good, and yet that suffering exists in abundance. That seems a little weird to just about all of us. Secondly, of course your god doesn't have to be actively manipulating the world- you could be a deist- but that doesn't explain why he chose to permit bad things to exist in the first place.

This clump of self-aware chemical compounds will continue to believe that there is more to the story of life and the Universe, than an unbridled, unstoppable run of chemical reactions. In fact, until Richard Dawkins can demonstrate the acquired ability to mix up a batch of molecules and produce a single blade of grass that is eager to join the evolutionary process, then I will take by faith that God does exist.

"Until a known person can demonstrate the ability to do a very difficult thing, I will assume that something with no evidence whatsoever is true." Fine: until such time as Phil Harris can build a space elevator using nothing but a socket wrench and a hammer, I will take it on faith that he's secretly homosexual.***

I will also take great interest in scientific discovery about the world and Universe I live in. One can appreciate both the scientific method and have a faith based view at the same time. Academics that have devoted themselves to eradicate religious views and those who hold them have absolutely no scientific basis on which to stand. Indeed, their willingness to claim otherwise should provide good reason for caution when considering any work they produce.

Actually, I agree that one can have religious faith and be a scientist at the same time, though I confess I don't know precisely what is meant by "faith-based view." I also agree that science cannot disprove god but, really, how the hell can anything disprove god? Finally: I think you meant, "eradicating."

My mother and my daughter no longer inhabit this world, and I have no reason to believe that the persons they were, simply vanished due to the dissolution of their chemical processes. There is a spark beyond chemistry that is life and person, and whatever it is will exist despite the protestations and ridicule from Richard Dawkins and those who find comfort in utter nothingness.

I'm sorry for your loss but your arguments are so absurd as to verge on insulting. Hell, come to think of it, there wasn't a single developed argument anywhere in that. There wasn't even a thesis statement, although I'm pretty sure you intended it to be some variant of "Atheists are teh stoopid."

If believing in god means I have to be like Phil, I'm pretty happy to be an atheist.

* I think Ian Spiegelman puts it best: "I'd rather a thousand science books a year come out than to see one more of these 'I'm a just a blue collar guy but I know what's up' books come out. They are a fucking cancer. The writer who says he's just blue collar and doesn't know much but he knows *this much* is a wicked little coward who should be ridiculed until he needs a hospital."

** It is rarely, if ever, a good sign when I tell someone to stop being juvenile. It's like Hitler telling you that you're too evil for his taste.

*** As a side note: this is not a dig at homosexuals, I just wanted something equally impossible to disprove but that wasn't metaphysical. I frankly think I set the bar lower for Harris because we know that homosexuals exist. God, we ain't so sure about.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Breaking News: Shocking new research about vaccine safety!

As part of my longstanding interest in vaccines I recently became aware of a shocking new study that evaluates the link between thimerosol and autism. As you will recall, some organizations have long claimed that thimerosol in vaccines is a causal factor in the development of autism and other nervous disorders. Alas, they have claimed, research examining the effect of thimerosol on brain development has been lacking.

To help correct this, Italian researchers recently analyzed data deriving from thousands of babies who received a whooping cough (i.e. pertussis) vaccine in the 1990's. Unusually, the children received two different versions of the vaccine, one of which had double the amount of thimerosol as the other one. Additionally, the administration of the two versions was randomized such that exogeneous factors such as family background, social class, region, and so forth could not play a role. After allowing ten years, researchers administered 24 measures of brain function to the children and yielded this shocking result:

Ten years later, 1,403 of those children took a battery of brain function tests. Researchers found small differences in only two of 24 measurements and those "might be attributable to chance," they wrote in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, which was released Monday.

Only one case of autism was found, and that was in the group that got the lower level of thimerosal.


"Put together with the evidence of all the other studies, this tells us there is no reason to worry about the effect of thimerosal in vaccines," said the new study's lead author, Dr. Alberto Tozzi of Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome.


"It's yet another well done, peer-reviewed research study that has demonstrated there is no risk of any neurodevelopmental outcomes associated with thimerosal in vaccines," said epidemiologist Jennifer Pinto-Martin of the University of Pennsylvania.

"This becomes the fourth study to look for subtle signs of mercury toxicity and show the answer was 'no,'" said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the author of a book on autism research and the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine.

But what about those two indicators out of twenty-four that were different? Is autism hiding in there?


The children received either 62.5 micrograms or 137.5 micrograms of ethyl mercury from all their shots during their first year of life. Thimerosal breaks down as ethyl mercury in the body. Before the reduction of thimerosal in the United States, the maximum exposure for infants was 187.5 micrograms of ethyl mercury.

The researchers found the children in both groups scored, on average, in the normal range on 11 tests of memory, attention, motor skills and other brain functions.

Those 11 tests included 24 measured outcomes. Small, but statistical differences were found for only two of those areas, and only for girls. The girls with higher exposure scored worse on a finger-tapping test with their dominant hands, and on a vocabulary test in which they were asked to name common objects.

There was no difference in boys on those outcomes or others. Researchers also found no difference in tic disorders. And the one autism case found in the lower-intake group was likely a chance finding, Tozzi said. [emphasis added]

And this pattern of results is important because autism is more common among boys yet they didn't show even trivial differences as a result of exposure to thimerosol. This earth-shattering finding is entirely consistent with reams of earlier shocking research demonstrating no link whatsoever between thimerosol in vaccines and brain disorders. This, further, is in agreement with yet more shocking research showing that vaccines themselves don't cause autism whether thimerosol is present or not. This leads us to the completely surprising conclusion that vaccines are, indeed, safe. In a heart-stopping turn it appears that thousands of doctors and multiple national health agencies who have been standing behind vaccines for years know exactly what they're talking about.

Despite these surprising results, however, parents remain cautious, declining to use proven, safe medical treatments to protect their children against known threats because they fear a repeatedly disproven link between those treatments and a different disorder. And, as a result, children are sickening and dying:

A childhood illness that has mostly been curbed through vaccinations has killed one child and sickened four others in Minnesota, health officials said Friday.

The five children were infected with a bacterial infection known as Hib: Haemophilus influenzae type b.

Three of the affected children had not received any vaccinations, including the 7-month-old who died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The situation is of concern," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the CDC. "It could be happening elsewhere, and of course it's tragic that one of the children actually died from a preventable disease."

Hib primarily affects infants and children under 5 years of age. The vaccine prevents pneumonia, epiglottitis (severe throat infection) and meningitis, which is an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord, caused by the bacteria.

One in 20 children infected with Hib dies, according to the CDC. And survivors of the disease can become deaf; 10 to 30 percent have permanent brain damage.

Stay tuned to Total Drek for updates on this fast developing story!

Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Yes, it might be interpreted as mean. Yes, it's because I don't know how else to drive the point home that every bit of reputable scientific evidence demonstrates without question that vaccines are safe. Please don't endanger your children and others by not vaccinating your kids. Please don't take medical advice from a nudie model over respected physicians.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

As it turns out, Mr. Peabody is a neo-con.

Many of you, whether you admit it or not, have probably been wondering how Andrew Schlafly, king loser of Conservapedia, is dealing with the election of Barack Obama. Indeed, thus far the transition seems to have been a little traumatic for the little tyke and I doubt that things are going to improve any. Still, even I hadn't anticipated how hard Schlafly would take things.

Those who follow the den of madness the way I do realize that most of the day yesterday Conservapedia was down, as in offline. Not responding to inquiries. There was an almost palpable sense of relief stemming from the legions dozens of home schoolers who could go a day without being hosed down with the raw sewage of Schlaflyan "learning." Yet, the reason for Conservapedia's withdrawal was not apparent from the apologetic message on the site:

"Maintenance," eh? What could that possibly mean? Well, as it happens, Conservapedia came back online last night. Only there have been some... changes. Particularly, you should note that today is Tuesday, the 27th of January. Yet, when one examined the "recent changes" page, things looked a bit... off:

Indeed, it would appear that as of the 26th of January, the most recent change was made... on the 19th of January? Really? A week of editing has just vanished? Not only that, but this morning, things seem to be trending further in that direction:

Yes, you read that right; the last change was made... on the 28th of November 2008?! Folks, there is only one possible conclusion: Andrew Schlafly is attempting to go back in time to when Barack Obama was not president and conservatives* had not been utterly repudiated by the masses. My best guess at this point is that he'll keep going until Reagan is in office. It's anyone's guess how he managed this feat but sources place Schlafly in the company of an anthropomorphic talking dog just prior to Conservapedia's departure:

So what will he do once he reaches this promised land? Well, my best guess is that he's going to go all terminator on Barack Obama, who was all of six when Reagan started his presidency. I suspect a six year old Barack is about a match for an adult Andrew Schlafly. I would say we should send our own agent back in time to save Barack Obama- I imagine Sarah Silverman would have more than enough fighting skills to kick Schlafly's ass- but, really, I think that would be overkill.

I mean, hell, Schlafly's failed at everything else he's ever attempted. Why start worrying now?

* Why is it that when I do a google image search for "Conservative," this pops up?

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Monday, January 26, 2009


In mathematical modeling these is this little thing known as "identifiability." While it sounds, and is, highly technical, the basic idea is actually quite simple. In order for some model to produce a single unique answer in response to a set of data, we must impose certain constraints on it. These constraints, usually in the form of one or more assumptions, give the model a foundation or starting place from which it can do its magic. A useful analogy is to a game of sudoku- in order to figure out the complete table of values, you need those starting numbers. Without them, there are a very large number of possible configurations that would yield a solution or, in other words, it is those starting numbers that make a single unique solution identifiable.

This issue of identifiability has been on my mind of late because I've been thinking about Intelligent Design. For those who have been living in a dank cave without means of communication, intelligent design or ID is a supposed scientific theory that is essentially nothing more than Paley's famous watchmaker analogy embedded in a meaningless soup of pseudo-mathematical mumbo-jumbo. In accordance with my interest in the intelligent design nonsense I keep an eye on Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski and recently it featured a post which I find rather interesting.

The title was "Life on Mars, ID, and a prediction." Since a lot of you probably don't think about this as much as I do, I should mention a few things. First, this post on Uncommon Descent is discussing the recent evidence for the current, or past, existence of bacteria on the planet Mars. Second, intelligent design has often been observed to be non-scientific and, particularly, of being unable to yield a viable prediction. Of particular importance, it has often been claimed that ID cannot produce useful predictions without saying something about the nature of the designer. This last point the ID folks disagree with strongly, claiming that they are only "detecting design" and say nothing about its origins. So, the mention of a "prediction" is important for the ID folk because successfully generating predictions would be a major step towards legitimacy. Or, in shorthand, if scientific theories produce predictions, and ID produces a prediction, ID is science! Dembski wins!!!1!

Are we all clear on this?

Good. So, what is this prediction? Well, let's take a look:

So what does this mean for ID? Well, it means that those ID supporters who put stock in the notion of panspermia and directed panspermia are looking good. ID supporters like myself, UD author Doctor (MD) David Cook, and NASA physicist Rob Sheldon (see papers 45 and 46), are some of those. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the discoverers of the DNA double helix Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel who authored articles and a book about directed panspermia.

I will now make a prediction from an ID perspective. Any living organisms found on Mars will be based on DNA and ribosomes essentially identical to what all life on earth utilizes. This is because life, even the simplest forms, is too complex to have originated in our solar system very early in its history. Wherever it came from, and however it got here, it was the same basic structural form that landed in all places - Earth, Mars, and wherever else in our solar system it may have found suitable conditions.

Right. So the prediction embedded in there is: if life is discovered on Mars then it will be based on DNA and related structures that are clearly related to what we have on Earth. This is, indeed, a prediction. However, there are two serious problems here- one empirical and one deeply theoretical.

The empirical problem is simply that this ID "prediction" is not unique. That is to say that if we were to rely on a model in which life emerged naturally on either Mars or Earth it is entirely reasonable to think that cross-contamination may have occurred. Likewise, Earth and Mars have reasonably similar sizes (Mars is smaller), reasonably similar compositions, and are in the same solar system. If life appeared both places independently, it did so under very similar conditions and thus may have similar structures. I suspect that there would be differences in the DNA, but the emergence of DNA on both worlds would not be totally shocking. So, in short, this ID prediction does not allow us to distinguish it from other theories. This is important because it means that even if there were support for this prediction, it would not support ID. By analogy, if police officers break into a room and find a woman holding a gun with a man bleeding from a stomach wound, they can be reasonably sure that she shot him. That information, however, is consistent with an accident, self-defense, and attempted murder. Without more information, they cannot distinguish between those options. Or, put differently, the theory is not identifiable based on the observation.

The theoretical issue involves the author's placing of constraints on the model. Specifically, he remarks: means that those ID supporters who put stock in the notion of panspermia and directed panspermia are looking good.

Panspermia, of course, is the notion that life arrived on Earth from extraterrestrial sources- for example bacterial spores drifting through space. Directed panspermia, likewise, is the notion that some intelligent agent deliberately spread such spores to generate life elsewhere. Now, the author doesn't indicate that this is a constraint but it functions as one. Specifically, it acts as a constraint because now we know something about the designer, and thus can generate predictions. So, for example, if non-directed panspermia is responsible for the emergence of life on Earth, then it is reasonable to think that both the Earth and Mars would have been exposed to the same spores. Likewise with directed panspermia- even if the directing agent visited us, it seems likely that they would have used life based on the same principles for the seeding of both worlds. In either case, by knowing something about the "designer" we know something about the mechanics of propagation and can therefore judge likelihood.

But now, let's think about what ID actually clams: that it doesn't say anything about the designer. The designer could be an alien race, spreading itself through directed panspermia or it could be an almighty god. But for just a moment, assume that it is an almighty god. What predictions does that generate? Well... none. The problem is that an omnipotent, omniscient, immaterial being can, presumably, do whatever it wants however it wants. If it chose to put life on Earth and Mars using the same type of stuff (i.e. DNA), it could. If it wanted to use totally different stuff, it could. If it wanted to create a really, really old looking universe in an advanced state, it could. If it wanted to create a young universe and actually let it age naturally, that would be okay too. The point is, this type of designer is consistent with any type of observation and, as such, no observation can be said to uniquely or definitively provide support for it. By extension, any time ID is used without a specific non-deity based designer being posited, the approach is always unidentifiable and therefore useless. ID without a designer is like Sudoku without starting numbers: pointless and entirely unsatisfying.

So does this mean that ID as specified in the post I refer to is identifiable? Well, no, it's not. There's actually nothing in the above prediction that is unique to ID or even requires an intelligent designer. Undirected panspermia doesn't involve any intelligent agency and, even if some intelligent civilization tried to spread life around the universe, they could easily have just loaded naturally-occurring bacteria on to rockets and fired it off. While intelligent agency, in that case, would have been involved in getting life to Earth, the life was not itself intelligently designed. The example of an ID prediction is, in fact, little more than a half-assed panspermia prediction.

What this example does do, however, is show that ID is entirely incorrect about not requiring a designer. In an ironic twist, when an ID proponent tried to derive a prediction, the very first thing he did was impose a constraint to try and make the theoretical model identifiable and, as it happens, that constraint was to specify the nature of the designer. In trying to prove that ID is scientific, the ID folks simply demonstrated that without specifying a designer, their perspective cannot generate useful predictions.*

Better luck next time, I guess.

* As it happens, it needs more than just a specified designer to produce useful predictions, but that's not the point right now.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

This is for you, Soc Shrine.

The monks over on The Soc Shrine recently asked for my opinion on the whole "Obama didn't say the oath of office right" thing. It goes without saying that asking for my opinion is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Nonetheless, I do have a response for them.

While I was busy yesterday with dryer repair and other more work-related tasks that kept me away from blogging, I did hear an NPR story on Obama's do-over with the oath of office. This triggered a conversation with my wife that went something like this:

Drek: Goddamnit! I know he had to do that, but I really wish he hadn't.

Drek's Wife: Why?

Drek: Because now Andrew Schlafly is going to be posting some headline like, "Obama took the oath of office a second time in private; was it using a Koran?" Because, you'll recall, Obama is a secret Muslim.

Drek's Wife: Sigh Yeah. You're probably right.

The sigh is because my wife has learned to fear my occasional rants about Conservapedia. Addictions are always hardest on the ones we love.

Anyway, yep, as suspected, I did not have long to wait:

Or, in plain text:

Barack Obama did not use a Bible when he took his real oath in private.

Amusingly, Conservapedia now seems consumed with the issue of whether or not his style of dance indicates he's a secret Muslim or, alternatively, if his supposed lack of a bible at the second ceremony reveals the "un-christian character" of his staffers.

Honestly, though, even I can't stomach those assholes right now. So if you want to know more, you're on your own.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A horse of a different color.

A long time ago I wrote a post dealing with a detestable little tactic deployed to infringe on women's reproductive rights. Specifically, I wrote about the moves by some pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control medication because it was against their own morality. My position at the time was that, while I disagreed with what these pharmacists were doing, I didn't believe it was criminal behavior. I instead considered it to be civil disobedience- a type of protest on a par with sit-ins at lunch counters- and argued that while it was reasonable and appropriate to remove these persons as unable to perform their job duties, the manner of their protest was a long honored part of American democracy. I was not, of course, insensitive to the hardships this would impose on women in the meantime, but I find it difficult to adjudicate between two people's legitimate claim on their own civil rights.

Since then, I have on several occasions written about various issues surrounding the birth control and abortion debates, mostly supporting women's free access to both. Indeed, I got rather a bit wound up about the South Dakota abortion ban- particularly their bogus and thoroughly insulting "exemption" from it. Likewise I got pretty annoyed when a rape victim, who was arrested for unrelated reasons, was denied the morning after pill because the jail worker had moral objections to it. And if you've been paying attention, you've probably figured out that I am both pro-choice and pro-birth control. I actually think that for the long-term survival and well-being of the human race, birth control rates up there with fire and vaccines as truly outstanding inventions.

Given this background, you will doubtless not be surprised to learn that I am rather irritated over news of a law suit being brought over an intrauterine device (IUD). Specifically, the user of the IUD is suing both a family health clinic (Presbyterian Health Services Rio Rancho Family Health Center) and a nurse practitioner (Sylvia Olona) employed therein for removing her IUD without permission. But, unfortunately, it doesn't stop there:

"As Defendant Olona began the procedure, (the plaintiff) felt Olona pull on the strings of the IUD. (The plaintiff) felt a distinct pulling on the strings followed by a sharp pain in her uterus similar to a very strong menstrual cramp.

"As that happened, Defendant Olona stated, 'Uh oh, I accidentally pulled out your IUD. I gently tugged and out it came.'


"Olona then stated, 'having the IUD come out was a good thing.' She asked (the plaintiff) if she wanted to hear her 'take' on the situation. Without receiving a response, Defendant Olona stated, 'I personally do not like IUDs. I feel they are a type of abortion. I don't know how you feel about abortion, but I am against them. What the IUD does is take the fertilized egg and pushes it out of the uterus.'

"Defendant Olona stated, 'Everyone in the office always laughs and tells me I pull these out on purpose because I am against them, but it's not true, they accidentally come out when I tug.'


"Defendant Olona told (the plaintiff) that is was better that she did not have the IUD because she could now use a "non-abortion" form of contraception. Defendant Olona suggested the deprovera (depo) [sic] shot or the pill, and made clear that she would not insert a new IUD."

So, we have a bit of a situation here. At a minimum this Olona appears to be incompetent to deal with IUDs and, thus, should have been kept away from cases involving them by her employers. In the event that her employers could not do this, she should have kept herself away from these cases. And, of course, this assumes that her repeated extraction of IUDs is accidental. If we assume that such is the case then we have an instance of clear medical negligence from both parties since, really, if someone were always transfusing the wrong type of blood into patients by accident, a hospital employing that person would be liable if they didn't, you know, keep that person away from blood transfusions.

But oddly I, and presumably the plaintiff, am more than a little skeptical about the "accident" explanation. There's an old saying that goes something like, "Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action." I'm not labeling Olona an enemy, but the meaning of the saying can be summed up as: beyond a certain point a strong pattern suggests intention.* Plus, you know, the prepared speech about how IUDs are abortion kinda suggests intention as well. It really does strongly appear as though the defendant deliberately removed the plaintiff's IUD against her wishes because the IUD conflicted with the defendant's ethical beliefs. And this is a problem.

See, here's the thing, with the pharmacists I supported their right to refuse to dispense medication though I did not in any way argue that they should be immune to firing over their decision. In that case, I was saying that a professional shouldn't necessarily have to provide a good that they find morally objectionable. This, however, is not a comparable case. If Olona has a problem with IUDs, the responsible thing to do would be to refuse to assist the plaintiff in the first place. In the event that she decided to help the plaintiff, it was her duty to do so correctly. Her behavior is not civil disobedience, it is just plain malpractice.** Consider equivalent cases: a pharmacist agrees to dispense birth control but, because he or she disagrees with it, instead provides placebos. Is this civil disobedience? No, it is cowardice masquerading as an ethical decision. How would we react if a white supremacist administered abortifacient agents to pregnant black women because he or she believed that African Americans shouldn't reproduce? Why, then, would we ever tolerate this sort of behavior? If a woman chooses to use an IUD, that is her right and her decision. If you find IUDs morally objectionable, don't use one. If you're a nurse and you find them objectionable, recuse yourself or get a new job but do not make reproductive decisions for others.

You're not god and I doubt your god would approve of you acting like you are.

* For any intelligent design advocates in the audience, no, this is not an instance of design detection. Infering intention from an organism about which much is known under a very delimited set of circumstances is quite a bit different from that nonsense that Wild Bill peddles.

** Most likely the case whether this stems from deliberate action or negligence.

Hat-tip to feministe.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Does it hurt being that stupid?

As many of you know today is the day that Barack Obama is to be inaugurated as the fourty-fourth President of the United States. As you might guess I am quite excited, both because the previous President is out of office and because I honestly think President Obama is exactly what we need right now. Granted, I think the hype about Obama is seriously overblown- particularly the reports that he plans to walk across the surface of the Potomac, casting bread and fishes into the crowd with a compressed air gun as he goes- but nonetheless, I am excited.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of other people are less than excited. There are, after all, an awful lot of Republicans who voted for the other guy and are not thrilled to see Obama take the oath of office. Yet, as is usually the case in elections, while they are disappointed, I think the majority are respectful of the process and hope that President Obama carries his duties with the grace and skill of our best presidents. Others, however, are not so respectful and, particularly, are a little obsessed with the process of the inauguration itself. I refer specifically to the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, which describes itself as:

...a not-for-profit 501(c) (3) Education Corporation whose purpose it is to become the first-in-mind champion of Christian religious liberty, domestically and internationally, and a national clearing house and first line of response to anti-Christian defamation, bigotry, and discrimination.

The CADC will work constructively to advance a robust religious liberty in public opinion and policy so that Christians everywhere might fulfill their biblical duties to God and neighbor; to proclaim and to live out the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the whole counsel of the Word of God.

The CADC will respond in the media to attacks by any individual person or groups of persons, institutions, or nations that defame and /or discriminate against Christ, Christianity, the Holy Bible, Christian churches and institutions, Christian individuals, and Christian leaders.

And based on that description, I have absolutely no problem with them whatsoever. Despite the fact (or, indeed, because of the fact) that I am a damn dirty atheist, I actually have a great appreciation for religious freedom. People should be free to worship whatever god or gods they choose- or no god at all- without fear of persecution for their beliefs. Unfortunately, however, while the CADC's mission sounds like something I could get behind, their definition of "anti-Christian defamation, bigotry, and discrimination" is a tad broad. Particularly, take a look at this helpful news release about Obama's inauguration which warns not to let your children watch. Why? Oh, you have to see it to believe it:

National events ought to unify and elevate the nation by celebrating what is virtuous, such as God and patriotism. Obama is making a terrible mistake by polluting his inaugural events with sexual sin. Some one ought to remind him that he wasn’t elected mayor of Sodom.

It then proceeds to rant about the role of Bishop Gene Robinson, who they refer to as a flagrant homosexual who, "...would rather destroy his denomination than repent of his sin." They're also rather ticked off that Robinson would have the nerve to make his prayer non-denominational out of respect for the non-Christians in the United States. Next up, we have a complaint about the participation of a gay man's chorus:

And if you thought that leaving Judeo-Christian values out of the prayer wasn't statement enough to Christians -- for your entertainment pleasure, Robinson will be appearing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D. C. which forces all Christians around the world to compromise their character if they want to watch the inauguration.

So, evidently if you're Christian even listening to someone of a different sexual orientation sing is a sin? This begs the question, how the hell can Christians ever listen to music, given that it's difficult to tell when someone is gay? I mean, hell, Christian faith doesn't seem to guarantee to the contrary. And what's with the photograph? Is this the planned costuming for the inaugural performance? In Washington D.C.? In January?!

And, after some bitching and moaning about a gay marching band, we get to this warning:

On this historic occasion of the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, I must unfortunately recommend that you keep the kids away from the TV and pray that God will not rain fire and brimstone down on Washington DC.

Because, yeah, god really seems to still be in the rain of fire and brimstone business. It's been, what, four thousand years since the last time? Better pray hard!

Not content to stop there the Christian Anti-Defamation League has issued an update to their original warning. Amusingly, it is mostly commenting that- as it turns out- the inaugural has so far not been a non-stop public gay orgy. Color me surprised. Strangely, however, they also remark on the sheer horror of Gene Robinson's prayer, which apparently made the audacious assertion that homosexuals are people too:

In a galling act of reckless boldness, Robinson prayed that tolerance be replaced with genuine respect for all people. This is madness. Some people rightly do not deserve to be respected because they act in wicked and disrespectful ways. [emphasis added]

Yes, indeed, it is clearly madness for a religious leader to pray that all people receive genuine respect. Who would ever suggest that?

They then conclude with this reasoned commentary:

Obama ought to be ashamed. The fact that he isn’t sends a troubling message. His promises of political payback to radical homosexual groups seem likely to be carried out. He has already appointed many open homosexuals to his administration and has promised to pervert the military with open homosexuality. Those who voted for Obama share in the guilt of his “Obama-nations.”

But you know what the funniest part of all this is? After all those admonitions not to let your children watch the inaugural and assertions that a Christian couldn't watch a gay chorus without compromising his or her principles, the bottom of the update has an embedded YouTube video of Robinson's prayer.

I shit thee not:

For those who want to spend more time with CADC, I highly recommend their article on the Top 10 Instances of Christian Basing in America in 2008. Amusingly, there are eleven. Less amusingly but unsurprisingly, only one consists of any actual violence, the rest are just people talking. Hell, number ten comes from Jack Black's amusing Prop 8- The Musical. In perfect honesty, if Prop. 8- The Musical makes your top ten list, you're doing okay.

As you might guess, I find myself irritated at this group that refers to itself as being Anti-Defamation. There is a role for such groups but, really, it is not defamation whenever someone does something that you don't agree with. I, as it happens, really wish that religion were not going to be a part of the inauguration at all but it isn't defamation that it is. It isn't defamation against atheists when people go to church. And it isn't being anti-defamation when you defame the hell out of everyone except your own group.

The ironic thing here is that I am not Christian and, indeed, dislike a great deal of Christian theology and doctrine. I find that I am unfortunately willing to believe the worst about Christians and must remind myself sometimes that the great majority are good and decent people. My long friendship with my erstwhile co-blogger Slag is helpful in this regard. Yet, even with my relatively negative view of Christianity, what I find sad is that even I read the venomous rant from CADC and find myself thinking, "Good god. This is insulting to Christianity." All religions have their problems and Christianity has some legitimate grievances to be laid at its feet but, that said, CADC does more to defame the religion they claim to profess than I would have believed possible.

There is Christianity, and then there's whatever the hell CADC practices.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Wait, what?

Like many other academics I spend a certain amount of my time begging for a handout writing grant proposals. I have been successful with some, been rejected with others, and feel like I have at least a passing familiarity with how the game is played. That is, I thought I did until receiving my most recent grant decision:*

Proposal Title: Give me money so I can do research and finish grad school: A quantitative research study.

Evaluation Precise: This proposal is well-written, well-reasoned and presents a new research idea. The substance of the proposal fits with the grant program's mission and has significant potential to advance knowledge. The primary problem with the proposal is that it is formatted with 1" margins and is in Times New Roman font. While not mentioned in the grant program guidelines, 0.5" margins with Courier font gives a more serious impression. This grant program is highly competitive and author(s) should make every effort to demonstrate the regard they have for it.

Decision: Reject.

Okay. Right. If anybody needs me, I'll be in the corner whacking myself in the face with a hammer.

* Shortened and paraphrased to protect everyone's anonymity though, I concede, I have not exaggerated the absurdity in the slightest.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Well, this is pretty exciting!

As many of you know I am something of a space nut and, as such, am intrigued by pretty much everything that has to do with the space program. Moreover, I've been like this for a very, very long time. In high school my physics teacher once played a game of name-the-planet/moon with me. I did very, very well although I concede that on some occasions I was aided by the fact that we only have so many pictures of certain astronomical bodies. I mean, seriously, how often do you think we've been in a position to photograph Miranda,* anyway? In any case, I have a fondness for space.

I also, as it happens, have a fondness for attempts to find life in space. While I am generally troubled by the Fermi paradox,** I love the SETI program and got so excited over the possibility of fossil bacteria in a meteorite that I lost a pen-pal. No, really, I did. Turned out my pen-pal was of the view that god wouldn't have created life anywhere else, so claims to the contrary were an affront to god. Not sure what to say except that if god had wanted us to think that we weren't the only life in the universe, he probably shouldn't have let those extraterrestrial bacteria get fossilized.*** Oops.

So, given all this, you can imagine my excitement at the recent news that we may just have discovered strong evidence for life on the planet Mars. No, I'm not kidding. Researchers at NASA have announced the discovery of significant amounts of methane in the atmosphere of the planet Mars. And while methane can be produced by both life and natural geologic processes, Mars appears to be geologically dead. Additionally, methane is rapidly broken down by sunlight so it isn't just that methane is in Mars' atmosphere, but that it is being continually replenished by some source:

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom -- is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means."


"On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon," said Mumma.

"Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons," said Mumma.

"Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth," noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. "If life ever existed on Mars, it's reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Should we uncork the champagne? No, probably not, given that methane produced by geological processes could have been trapped until now in ice or below the surface. Thus, even if Mars is currently geologically dead, it could still be slowly outgassing accumulated methane. At the same time, this is exciting news and gives us new hope that the red planet may not actually be a dead planet.

* It's a moon of the planet Uranus. Uranus and Neptune really don't get the sort of props they deserve as gas giants, seeing as how they're almost always outshone by Jupiter and Saturn.

** If you're not troubled by the Fermi paradox, you haven't thought about it long enough.

*** Actually I was more polite than that but, really, what do you say when someone rejects physical evidence with blind faith?

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

The joy of emergent behavior.

As an undergraduate I took a lot of psychology and sociology classes. In some ways that has proven helpful to me as it gives me a broad perspective on human behavior. In other ways, however, it left me conflicted. I say "conflicted" because psychologists sometimes have a rather prickly attitude towards sociology- namely they have been known to claim that sociology is just applied psychology.

This perspective can be thought of as an extreme form of reductionism. For the uninitiated, "reductionism" can mean either an approach to understanding complex phenomena by reducing them to interactions of their parts or a philosophical position that complex phenomena are nothing but interactions of less complex parts. The former position is pragmatic, asserting that it's easier to understand each part in an engine on its own before trying to grasp how they all fit together. The latter position is much more aggressive, in effect claiming that there is no ineffable something about the engine as a whole that is not resident in its components. Or, put more simply, it is the perspective that the whole is not, and cannot be, more than the sum of its parts.

In sociology the phrase "reductionistic" is most often used in a derogatory manner, indicating that another researcher is trying to break things down to an absurd degree. Nevertheless, reductionism in its first meaning is effectively indispensable to the scientific enterprise. The reason is simple: if complex phenomena cannot be broken down into their sub-parts and understood as interactions between them, then we have no choice but to study the phenomenon as a whole. And since it is, as we specified earlier, complex, this is really difficult, if not impossible. So, science generally takes a chance and makes a pragmatic assumption that most complex things can be studied as interactions between simpler pieces.

Now, the reductionistic argument about sociology from psychology is that social behavior is nothing more or less than individual psychology writ large. Society is just an interaction of lots of individuals and can be understood by just applying psychological knowledge to large groups. In effect, we can understand a group by modeling every member. Sociologists, as you might guess from our apparent dislike of "reductionism" (despite the fact that we use it as much as anyone), argue that social phenomena are not entirely reducible to individual behaviors and, as such, sociology is more than just population psychology. Is this correct? Is society really defined by something that only becomes relevant at a level beyond the individual? And if so, what is this ineffable something that kicks in?

My own view is that the answer is a variant of "kinda sorta". On the one hand, I do think that social behavior is reducible to lots and lots of individual behavior. On the other hand, however, I think that modeling social behavior like that makes about as much sense as trying to predict the flow of a river by modeling each individual water molecule. In one sense, yes, if you modeled them all very precisely you would build up essentially the same picture, but it's simpler and more direct to model it more abstractly as a fluid. You still predict the eddies and whorls- the emergent behaviors of the system whose appearance is not intuitively obvious from the rules governing the sub-parts- but you don't waste your time on a lot of extraneous forces whose impact on overall flow is minimal. And this is the key to sociology: it is in many ways the study of behaviors that emerge at the group level, but aren't intuitively obvious from just studying the individual. A mob is not just a whole bunch of more or less reasonable people in the same place at the same time.

And oddly enough I'm reminded of this back-and-forth discussion by recent news that communicable disease has once more penetrated into a new corner of human life. I don't refer to sexual activity, or public restrooms, or even the handsets of public telephones.* No, I'm referring to something much more fascinating than that: World of Warcraft.

As reported by the BBC it appears that the popular MMORPG** has seen the emergence of something very much like a highly virulent, extremely lethal plague:

To give these powerful characters more of a challenge, Blizzard regularly introduces new places to explore in the online world.

In the last week, it added the Zul'Gurub dungeon which gave players a chance to confront and kill the fearsome Hakkar - the god of Blood.

In his death throes Hakkar hits foes with a "corrupted blood" infection that can instantly kill weaker characters.

The infection was only supposed to affect those in the immediate vicinity of Hakkar's corpse but some players found a way to transfer it to other areas of the game by infecting an in-game virtual pet with it.

This pet was then unleashed in the orc capital city of Ogrimmar and proved hugely effective as the Corrupted Blood plague spread from player to player.

Although computer controlled characters did not contract the plague, they are said to have acted as "carriers" and infected player-controlled characters they encountered.


Luckily the death of a character in World of Warcraft is not final so all those killed were soon resurrected.

Blizzard tried to control the plague by staging rolling re-starts of all the servers supporting the Warcraft realms and applying quick fixes.

However, there are reports that this has not solved all the problems and that isolated pockets of plague are breaking out again.

And this, to me, sums up the whole danger of relying too much on reductionism. Fundamentally, what's happening can be thought of as nothing more than the interaction of a variety of programs. Yet, at the same time, this interaction has produced effects far beyond what any designers anticipated and may be extremely difficult to correct. The plague-like behavior of this element of the game is real and, despite its origins in smaller interactions, it nevertheless has massive effects at a higher level. Moreover, modeling those effects is more appropriately done by infectious disease specialists than computer programmers, despite the fact that it is, ultimately, a software issue. Reductionism is important, without it we couldn't do our work, but often it pays not to reduce things too much.

And as long as we're on the subject, people, PLEASE don't handle strange pets in Ogrimmar. You do NOT know where they've been!

* If I recall, Douglas Adams sometimes mentioned telephone sanitation specialists as particularly undesirable occupations.

** MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game which, in turn, can be taken as a code phrase for, "That thing that keeps me from finishing graduate school."

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Irony: You is doing it right.

Here's a riddle: why is it that workshops to teach you how to manage your time always seem to tell you two hours worth of material in four hours?

And for bonus points: why haven't I learned that the best use of my time is almost never to listen to someone tell me how to get the best use of my time?

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interestingly, I don't like either food.

The Scene: Drek and his wife are lying in bed after the morning alarm has gone off. Both remain rather sleepy.

Drek's Wife: Hey.

Drek: Hey. How did you sleep?

Drek's Wife: Pretty well. How about you?

Drek: I had some weird dreams.

Drek's Wife: How weird?

Drek: I dreamt that I had to fight a man eating chicken McNugget with... well... I think it was a McGriddle.

Drek's Wife: That sounds unhealthy.

Drek: Yeah.

Drek's Wife: So, did you win?

Drek: No, the McNugget was winning.

Drek's Wife: ...

Drek's Wife: Oh you mean- !

Drek: Yeah. It was a man-eating chicken McNugget, not a man eating a chicken McNugget.

Drek's Wife: Oh!

Drek: Although I think you'd have to say it was still pretty unhealthy.

Drek's Wife: True.

Drek: Unconsciousness is a time of wonder for me.

Drek's Wife: Anything else?

Drek: My father told you a Spiro Agnew joke involving the bible.

Drek's Wife: Funny?

Drek: No.

Drek's Wife: Okay then. Good morning!

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Monday, January 12, 2009

I'm told that there's a war on Christmas.

In the interest of exploring this alleged war I took a few pictures during my recent winter break:

Yeah, about that war? As it turns out? Christmas is winning.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

So that's... inexplicable.

A blog I occasionally read by the name of Friendly Atheist* recently related a rather fascinating little tale. Specifically the author tells of a female friend of his who is making use of a dating website. In her profile she mentioned that she is an atheist and, believe it or not, earned the following response:

My God, what’s the world coming to when girls with angelic countenances like yours turn out to be atheists? Me, I still believe that there’s good and evil, and since those concepts are rendered meaningless in an atheistic framework, I’m not willing to make that tremendous leap of faith, especially into such a pessimistic world view. (Not to mention, it kind of ruins Christmas — and why would anyone choose to believe something that ruins Christmas? That just seems so needlessly cruel to oneself.)

Oh well — take care, best wishes in your life, and you’ve got great cheekbones.


Now, the thing is I don't really have a problem with the fact that this "Jack" is discriminating based on religious belief- not least because religion is something of an important issue between romantic partners. I have had my own experience with this from the opposite side, which I will now relate because I have nothing better to talk about.

When I was in college I once attended an event advertised as a "Lord, Liar or Lunatic" debate about Jesus. I went more or less because I figured that few, if any, atheists would be there (given how we dislike absurd false trichotomies) and somebody had to carry the torch. This "debate" turned out to be a sermon delivered by a local fundamentalist preacher and, since I went to college in the south, it was a work of absolute "genius." At the conclusion we had a chance to ask questions and mine was simple: how do we know that god is just? The answer was so incredibly stupid that I remember it verbatim: "When I look at the world I don't see very much justice. And if justice doesn't come from the world it must come from outside the world. And if it comes from outside the world it must come from god. Therefore, god is just. Next question?"

I'll give you a moment or two for your brains to stop seizing from the absurdity of that. Ready? Okay.

Now flash forward about a year. There happened to be a young lady on whom I had something of a crush. Noticing she was about near the student union one day I walked over to chat, only to discover that she was in the process of staffing a table for a campus ministry. Not such a big deal, I'm used to being in the religious minority and have long been realistic about that. In the process of chatting, however, she learned that I had attended the "Lord, Liar or Lunatic" event from the previous year and remarked: "Oh, wasn't he just incredible? He made such good arguments!"

And that was the moment I politely disagreed, excused myself, and got over my crush. It wasn't that I thought she was stupid, or unattractive, or even mean, it was just that our views on something that was obviously important to each of us (atheism for me, Christianity for her) were so very different that resolving them would be next to impossible.** So, I don't really have a philosophical problem with someone being hesitant to date someone of another faith if religion is important to them. It's really no different than not dating someone who doesn't want children if you're certain that you do.

What amazes me, however, is not that Jack decided not to date our nameless atheist, but that he felt compelled to e-mail her for the express purpose of telling her that he wouldn't be dating her and why. And you have to love the reasons why. Atheism as a pessimistic worldview? Not really. Good and evil meaningless? In a metaphysical sense, yes, but not in a human sense. And what to make of that Christmas remark? As though she would say, "My god, he's right! Sure the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving deity is virtually impossible to defend on any sort of a rational basis but I can't ruin Christmas!"

I know many faiths are supposed to proselytize, but when exactly did that get translated to mean, "Insult people who aren't bothering you"?

* For the occasional intolerant spazzes who drop by my blog: no, "friendly atheist" is not an oxymoron.

** Interestingly enough, the lovely woman who would eventually become my wife was, for a number of years in her youth, a born-again Christian. Fortunately for us both she recovered, but we sometimes joke that had we met a certain number of years earlier, we would not have gotten along quite so famously.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Total Drek One Sentence Movie Reviews: Part Deux!

Welcome back to our highly irregular feature, the Total Drek Once Sentence Movie Reviews! Today we will be waving various appendages skywards or Earthwards to indicate our fondness for particular movies. And since this isn't a video blog, you'll just have to imagine the appendage of your preference. Let's get started.

August Rush

Run Time: 113 minutes.

Price: Available from for a mere $12.99, plus shipping and handling.

Genre: Heartwarming family movie.*

One sentence review: It's Rain Man meets A.I., only with less Wapner and more implied pedophilia.**

Live Free or Die Hard

Run time: 129 minutes.

Price: Available from for $16.49, plus shipping and handling.

Genre: Cop/Action Movie.

One sentence review: Bruce Willis saves us from internet supervillains thanks to a heaping glass of metamucil.

Love and Other Disasters

Run time: 90 minutes.

Price: Available from for $14.99, plus shipping and handling.

Genre: Romantic comedy.

One sentence review: One word in the title says it all (Hint: Not "love").***

For bonus points, interested readers can guess which of these movies were selected by me, and which were selected by my wife.

* Assuming, of course, your family is okay with depictions of casual sex and illegitimate birth.

** Readers should probably note that I regard A.I. as one of the worst big budget movies I've ever seen. I would say one of the worst movies except that I've actually seen Plan 9 from Outer Space. Even worse, I was sober at the time.

*** I like to sum up the motivation for the making of the movie Wild Things by imagining a production assistant coming into an office and exclaiming, "Hey! We can get Denise Richards to take off her shirt! Let's make a movie!" I think something similar happened here with Brittany Murphy, only the producers didn't read the fine-print in her contract before signing.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The words, there are none.

Longtime readers know that I am something of an addict when it comes to Conservapedia. I have been trying to master my addiction of late- and my recent break from blogging helped- but I nonetheless find that I always end up drifting back to that particular vortex of madness.* During a recent foray I ran across something that's just... well... uh... I honestly don't know what to say:

Or, in primitive human speech:

Insight of the day: the Gospels do not use the secular concept of the "past", and neither did Jesus. See Disputed Biblical Translations.

So... what? The concept of a time before now is... secular? Things get even weirder if you follow the link to the Conservapedia article on the word "past":

Or, to quote the article in its entirety:

Past is having existed or taken place in a period before the present.
The concept the "past" is not used in the entire Gospels, not once. Jesus never used an equivalent term.

Now, I know I'm just an atheist and therefore closed to the wonders of religion but... uh... what the fuck is Schlafly's point? Is he suggesting that the concept of a time before right now is a liberal lie? An atheistic conspiracy? And given that they don't seem to have a problem with the future does that mean that time never moves? Or does god just erase the past once it's no longer the present? What would that even mean?! Once something happens god makes it so that it never happened but other things will happen in the future but, after that, they will never have happened? Huh?! The universe has anterograde amnesia?

Maybe it's just that Jesus never used the word "past" because the concept is so fucking obvious he didn't think he needed to mention, for the benefit of his slower followers, that everything doesn't happen at once?

* Interested-verging-on-obsessed readers should note that Schlafly and I recently exchanged words somewhere on Conservapedia. Happy hunting!

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

For the next year I will be receiving foreign dignitaries on the poop deck.*

Longtime readers of this blog are no doubt aware that blogging is a largely thankless task. You write, and you write, and you write and what do you get for it? Some comments, contact with some really awesome people, and the attention of trolls. On the whole, not a trade that is worth it to everyone. Longtime readers of this blog who have a lot of time on their hands** may also follow other blogs in the sociology blogosphere, including my other hangout,, and various and sundry other blogs. The truly dedicated among you may read The Soc Shrine, an enigmatic blog that claims to be dedicated to, "Preserving the wit and wisdom of the soc blogger." With a mission statement like that, you can bet that I am not mentioned often as I am lacking in both.

Or that's what you'd think, anyway. As it turns out I am mentioned every now and then by the TSS folks, who have for some time been referring to me as Reverend Drek. For those who don't pay attention, I've remarked on this before. In any case, given that they have dedicated themselves to producing a sort of socioblogging digest, the TSS monks recently held some kind of vote for the best post of 2008. The list of nominees was quite impressive and even I managed to pop up once or twice. Given the overwhelming might of certain other blogs, I went away for my holiday vacation in the expectation that I should just be proud to be nominated.

Yeah, well, as it turns out I won the damned thing. My post on Mary Tocco has earned me the 2008 TSS Best Blogging cup as well as a very touching commendation from TSS. And to be honest, if the commendation is meant sarcastically, I like it even better:

The TSS Best of 2008 Winner: You don’t know Drek. The Dawkins of Socblogdom. Keeping all on the Golden Road of Enlightenment. Consistently brings The Drek down on all species of superstition and irrationality even when, every other day now and then, it demands he go to irrational lengths. See also Drek’s fine long-running series on “Conservapedia.” By a less-than-comfortable margin of 1.61%, Rev. Drek takes The Cup. Considering, in full, his impressive body of work, our only regret is that they didn’t have blogs when we were grad students.

Rev. Drek will immediately assume the title of D.O.A.S.B. (Dauphin of All SocBloggers) and has full rights to The Cup until 1 January 2010. Our heartiest congratulations to our winner and to all of this year’s nominees! [formatting as original as my intrinsic laziness permits]

So it would appear that for the next 12 months I have the right to be known as the Dolphin Dauphin of All SocBloggers. As if my ego needed any more stroking. I'd like to say I'll be a gracious D.O.A.S.B. but I think we all know that's unlikely to be the case. I'd especially like to extend my best wishes to those losers at orgtheory. They thought that producing consistently good posts for months on end would earn them the title but, hey, apparently all it takes is one absurdly long post, the production of which reduced you to nearly incoherent rage for weeks on end. Noobs.

What will my reign as D.O.A.S.B. include? Well, first, I will not require but do invite you all to refer to me as "Your Majesty" or "The Very Reverend Drek" for the duration. Second... yeah, nothing really. The King, as they say, is far from dead and as such I have no real duties. Well, except for drinking and wenching. I don't do the former and my wife wouldn't like the latter. So, I'll try to keep myself busy with the usual drek.

Enjoy, or not. Whatever. But it should be an interesting year.

* See, "poop deck" is a part of a ship, but it's funny because it has the word "poop" in it.

** The correlation between those groups is, I suspect, greater than 0.90.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Testing, testing...

Hey kids. Doubtless some of you have been wondering about my extended absence. Is Drek dead? Is he going to stop blogging? Is he going to stop blogging because he's dead? Yes, I can always count on my loyal readers for enthusiasm.

As a matter of fact, however, my absence was due to a combination of factors. The first were holidays spent at the home of a family member of my wife. I rather like this family member but during our visit she decided without warning that she was uncomfortable with other people using her computer and ended up in something of a tussle with yours truly. The former was an issue because my wife and I did not travel with a laptop this time around while the latter was, I am happy to say, strictly verbal in nature. And no, the tussle did not precede or relate to the restrictions on computer usage. So, for a not inconsiderable period of time, blogging simply was not an option.

And for a while after that I was simply tired and decided, "The hell with it."

Sadly for some of you, however, I fully intend to return to blogging. Look for a hopefully more-or-less normal schedule this week and in following weeks. And, if you just can't live without a little Drek, check out my recent commentary over on Scatterplot.

It's a bad sign, folks: upon my return I posted on Scatterplot before posting here. Yikes.

If any of you have comments waiting to be cleared or have written blog posts I simply have to see... well... I'll get to you eventually, I promise.

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