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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not the approach I would have selected.

Regular readers of this blog no doubt realize that I am a Stata whore.* For those who don't know, Stata is a statistical software package much beloved by a variety of social and physical scientists. It has many advantages including the ability to craft intricate programs, a simple interface, and extensive help features.

There are a number of other stats packages that compete with Stata, including the underpowered and occasionally inscrutable SPSS and the flexible, powerful, but nearly homicidally impenetrable SAS. SAS is, indeed, the bitch queen of the statistical software world, having been developed from modest FORTRAN and Kobol beginnings to become a relatively modern approach to processing data. Unfortunately a lot of that early history is still lingering in SAS's design such that it reminds me of nothing so much as an apartment in Venice. Sure it has electric lights and air conditioning, but since you're basically working with a foundation older than you, there are just some real constraints on what you can do.

I bring all this up because, occasionally, as I go about my day, I will run into an advertisement for SAS. It is, apparently, in wide use among corporate clients or else it would like to be. Now, selling a stats package is unlikely to ever be a glamorous task- certainly not one that lends itself to a soundtrack by Foghat or the use of swimsuit models- but every now and then it gets a little bizarre. This is one of those times. I recently encountered the following ad for SAS:

For those who don't want to read it completely, we have an advertisement for an advanced stats package that relies on the basic assertion that we are not limited by the reproductive system common to mackeral. So, in other words, "Buy SAS because you aren't a fish."

I don't have a problem with this, per se, but does anyone else think that the advertising firm responsible for this is just kinda running out of good idea?

* A trait I share with Jeremy.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

The New Dairy...

The Scene: Drek and his Wife are having breakfast in their apartment. Drek is using a napkin to clean a rivulet of milk from the side and mouth of the jug.

D's Wife: Hey! Don't use that napkin for the- !

Drek: (looks up)

D's Wife: You touched it to the mouth of the jug! You don't know where the outside of that has been!

Drek: True. That said, I doubt that there's some sort of dangerous milk-jug-borne pathogen wandering loose out there.

D's Wife: (sighing) Yeah, you're right. Still, you don't know what could have gotten on there. You don't know what has touched it.

Drek: Well, that's tr-

D's Wife: I mean, it could have salmonella on it! It's a CHICKEN PRODUCT!

Drek: ...

Drek: What the hell kind of milk do you drink?! Because I only drink milk from mammals.

D's Wife: (laughing) Yes. Yes. You're right. I knew that.

Drek: This is so going in the blog.

D's Wife: NO! That would be mean.

Drek: Oh, hush. You're smarter than I am, anyway. Let me have my little victory.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Like spitting into the wind.

Many of you are probably already familiar with cartoonist Scott Adams, the man responsible for the Dilbert comic strip that has grown to such popularity. Indeed, as the son of an engineer, it would be difficult for me to not be familiar with the strip as my father thinks that it is absolutely hysterical. For those who are not as familiar, Dilbert follows the exploits of the eponymous engineer and his menagerie of friends, sentient animals, and associates in what can only be described as the company from hell. It is also, as a side note, a company that I would have vastly preferred to my previous employment. What you may not know is that Scott Adams is, among other things, a rather prominent evolution opponent. No, seriously. This doesn't surprise me too much, really, since he's trained as an engineer and engineers generally view problems as soluble using planned, designed action.* As such, the quasi-random mutation walk followed by fierce selection of options just seems... wrong to them somehow.** Previously Adams had limited himself to lampooning evolution, albeit poorly, on his blog. Now, however, he has upped the ante somewhat:

Now, I'm a proponent of free speech so I have no problem with this cartoon being aired, but I do think it's a shame that it has to depict evolution in such an inaccurate light. Archaeologists, anthropologists and biologists have many different lines of evidence supporting evolution. That our understanding of how evolution works has changed somewhat over the years doesn't mean that the entire concept is wrong. If it did, then the shift from Newtonian physics to Relativistic physics would have forced us to throw the concept of physical law out the window.

And despite the poor quality of Adams' arguments, I guess I just think it's a shame that he's making them via such a powerful medium. How many hours in the classroom will it take to counteract this brief two minutes of animated propaganda?

Too many, I'm afraid.

* I find this humorous, really, given that genetic algorithms are gaining in popularity as a way to design products.

** Some of them, anyway. I don't want to imply that all engineers are automatically anti-evolution.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The joys of pet ownership...

My Sainted Fiancee and I have what you might call a menagerie of animals. Specifically, we have a hyper little dog and two rather quirky cats living with us in a comparatively small apartment. This would not be so bad except that, proving once more that my life is never easy, the cats and the dog do not as yet get along. This is not to say that the dog wants to harm the cats in any way, but rather that she is so eager to play with them and learn their deepest feline mysteries that she cannot restrain herself. Or, put more bluntly, if something three times my body weight insisted on trying to stick its nose up my ass, I'd probably be a smidge wary too.

Sadly enough for us, however, this is not the full extent of our animal problems. I have mentioned my dog's issues previously, indeed perhaps in too much detail, and need not belabor them here, but the cats are themselves rather troublesome. The orange cat is in most respects a sweet animal but he has a pathological hatred of all houseplants. Any plants he discovers that are small and frail enough are swiftly removed from their rich earth and deposited... somewhere else. It's often a mystery where as he drops them when he grows bored of carrying them around. Since our orange cat has an attention span measurable in picoseconds, that's usually not far from the pot but there are occasional outliers. With larger houseplants he doesn't remove them from the earth but rather contents himself with making war upon all of their leaves and stems. This has given us a rich assortment of pots of dirt that contain no apparent trace of foliage. Quite the decorative coup, believe you me.

The gray cat, on the other hand, doesn't destroy things and has less of a tendency to get into mischief. Indeed, he is a very sweet critter and often crawls up into available laps in the hope of extensive petting. This would be entirely good were it not for a slight drawback: he kind of smells. More accurately, he smells in a way that Tycho and Gabe correctly describe as "relentless." Other cat owners may well understand the horror of which I speak. This odor is not present all the time- most of the time he smells fine- but on those occasions when he does stink, it is as of death. I will go to rather extreme lengths to avoid him at such times despite my Sainted Fiancee's protestations that it isn't his fault. Perhaps not, but that doesn't improve the scent.

So why am I spending so much time discussing the failings of my pets? Well, partly because I have nothing better to talk about right now and am swamped by a project. More importantly, however, it is because I think they are an important metaphor for how we feel about others. Nobody is perfect, everyone has their flaws but, much like pets, we love them anyway. Even more, sometimes we love others as much because of their flaws as because of their virtues. My dog may be annoyingly enthusiastic, but I treasure her zest for life. My orange cat may denude domesticated plants, but he is also a curious and endearing critter. The gray cat may smell but... uh... really, I could do without the stench, but otherwise he's a great cat.

With so many different forces telling us that we aren't good enough, I guess sometimes it's good to stop and remember the immense human capacity to love despite, and because of, imperfection.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Trend toward Boobless

Knowing how fond Drek is of boobs, I can't let this story go by without pointing it out here.
More women with breast cancer are choosing to have their healthy breast surgically removed along with their affected breast, a new study has found. Almost 5 percent of patients decided to have the radical procedure in 2003, up from just under 2 percent in 1998.
The women who choose this procedure are basically deciding to reduce their risk for recurrences of breast cancer to almost (but not quite) zero. For them, having boobs is not as important as not having to go through the misery of cancer treatment or the risk of dying from the disease.

I don't want to make light of the struggle with life-threatening cancer or the horrible side effects of cancer treatment, but I am intrigued by the sociological lesson that might be buried in this story. To that end, I wonder what portion of these women undergo breast reconstruction vs. remaining flat-chested. Is this just a result of improvements in fake boobs? Or maybe more women feel implants are safe now. Or maybe more women are just saying to hell with reconstruction and getting tattoos. Probably some of each.

Good news - Dumbledore is gay!

Yesterday, my hot Belgian wife sent me a link to this Retuers article (article has book 7 SPOILERS) in which J.K. Rowling reveals that beloved Hogwarts school headmaster Albus Dumbledore is gay. The article says that Rowling revealed this during a speech at Carnegie Hall, and that when the audience heard this, they fell silent, then broke into wild applause.

The article quotes Rowling as saying that this revelation provides some insight into why Dumbledore does some of the things he does in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The HBW thinks that this provides some of the character depth missing from that book.

Personally, I can just imagine Rowling sitting down with a cup of tea and thinking, "All right, the American religious right already hates me... I wonder what I could do to really, really piss them off?" Alternatively, I can imagine her thinking, "The world is right on the brink of finally accepting gay people... what can I do to help that process along?" Rowling has described the series as "a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry." Not a bad legacy for a series of books to have!

The amazing thing is that, with the incredible popularity of the Harry Potter series, I think Dumbledore's coming out might have more of a positive impact on people's attitudes toward gay people than the coming out of any actual, non-fictional person. If we ever needed more proof of the power of fiction to change society, this just might be it.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Sociology is Better Now

A couple weeks ago, Fabio Rojas posted a provocative claim on, that the heavy theoretical lifting of sociology was mostly done in the 1970s. (See also here, here, a critical response from Jeremy Freese here). Though I'm sure that none of the fine folks at intended to say that they wished we could go back to those times, I'm surprised that the conversation about Big Theory in the golden age never got around to touching on an important issue: the exclusivity of academics in this, our supposed hey day.

Is it just us whiny feminists who bring up the fact that women were barely included back then, let alone people of color? Is it passé to bring up that maybe the big ideas with big explanations for big phenomena didn't always cover all of the people they claimed to?

And what about all the great work since 1980? You know, just about the entire body of scholarship in the sociology of gender, for example (yo! shout out to West and Zimmerman 1987). And, Tearoom Trade notwithstanding, we didn't have much idea about the sociology of sexualities until after 1980 (word up to Simon and Gagnon 1986!). The intersectional studies of race, class and gender dates back only to the early 1990s (Patricia Hill Collins 1992 in the house!).

All of these post-1980 ideas seem big to me, not to mention worthy of taking up in new studies today. Of course, social problems folks would argue that how ideas come to be understood as Big or Influential or even Public Sociology is a function of social processes laden with power relations. Nonetheless, each of these fields has been very public in its engagement with contemporary issues, communication with broad audiences, and even policy implications.

Somehow, though, we want public sociology to speak to people, but not about issues of gender, race, or sexuality. That just brings the reputation of the field down ("victim sociology" anyone?). We want both status and public engagement. I find this debate about the status of sociology tiring. I don't want to go back to 1970s. In 1971, the ASA was still meeting at hotels that excluded women from their bars at certain times of the day.

By not talking about academic exclusion of the past, the conversation about what has happened since the 1970s is too nostalgic. As excluded groups have made challenges and worked their way into sociology, the theories produced within the discipline have become better: more astute, more reflective of lived realities. That this has also meant less cohesion and parsimony doesn't bother me much. I would argue that the world is a complex place; how we think about it should reflect that complexity. Sociology today is nowhere near perfect, but I think it's better now than then.

Dep't of I Could'a Fuckin' Told You That!

Or, in journalese:
Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: when anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable (Leadership and Organisational Development Journal)
This demands an episode of The Office along the lines of It Hits the Fan (iTMS)— Michael gets it as a news-of-the-weird e-mail forward, Angela goes apeshit, the rest just writes itself — but it'll never happen thanks to killjoy asswipes who think swearing on TV is bad.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Economies of Fun

Here's a little gem from Charlie Stross's Halting State, which ought to return Stross to the Hugo Award ballot where he wuz robbed in this year's voting.
We [*] manage [virtual] economies in order to maximize player draw... Imaginary worlds with millions of players don't quite obey the same economic rules as the real world — or I guess they obey them differently, because rather than running on money, games run on fun...

[Y]ou can't tax [players] or make money decay, because that would be No Fun, and if the game stops being Fun, why play? That's the difference between in-game economics and the National Bank — the bank doesn't have to worry about whether we're enjoying ourselves.
(Stross has the prologue and first three chapters up at his blog, if you want a more extended taste.)

Following the discussion that arose from Slag's Second Life post, I've occasionally kept up with Warren Ellis's SL blog; a recent dispatch says that discussion in Ellis's virtual salon revolves around
Second Life Sketches [Ellis's blog title], frightening places they’ve found, and current system failures…
Maybe Linden Lab needs to work on the "fun" part? Stross drops SL as a contemporary reference point for his 2017 online world, which is a bigger risk to Halting State's future intelligibility [**] than somewhat more extensive references to Teh Google. SL has been suffering a 'growth recession' of sorts, ostensibly as SL's developer tries to digest the surge of new users from last year's hype.

In an "I can't believe someone hasn't patented this" move [***], Stross solves a class of SL problems — sims bog down when they're not empty — for 2017's online games via distributed computing: players hand over CPU cycles to the games when they sign up, hence no server upgrade lags. (Similar to Vernor Vinge's Hugo-winning Rainbows End, complications ensue when the cryptographic systems that maintain causality and prevent cheating are unexpectedly compromised.)

If there is an Iron Law of computer games, it's not only that they have to be Fun, but also that somewhat novel fun be regularly introduced into the proceedings, hence game sequelitis. (Not that I'm necessarily complaining, as long as someone deigns to bring the Beyond the Sword expansion pack for Civ IV to the Mac.) Even the best designers may be fallible — take Civ IV's aerial and naval bombardment models, please! — and most games may suck, but the best of them are quite successful at separating us from real time and money. [****]

Beyond the time-honored appeal of virtual sex of every imaginable form, even if your imagination has been formed in the Downbelow of Babylon 5 fan fiction [*****], SL purports to harness the forces of the unrestrained free market. The interesting question is whether that's efficient or even effective at supplying Fun. Some of the cross-life business opportunities, like virtual parties thrown to market real-world products, seem to be No Fun with a thin veneer of Fun applied, as long as corporate image preservation means no launch orgies for the virtual Acura RDX. And some of Ellis's dispatches suggest that blowing away millennia of social conventions and replacing them with the Rules of Whatever Asshole Happens To Be Occupying This Patch of Virtual Land highlights the potential conflict between Someone's Idea of Fun and Mass Fun. Maybe to rephrase Slag's question, do people really want a 'metaverse,' or just RPGs?

[*] A fictional economic consultancy in the novel.

[**] Depends on how well Google preserves the mountain of Web content through eras of blog deletions, server database corruptions, Wikipedia editing wars, etc.

[***] Maybe they have, but I don't have time for a patent search.

[****] Arguably the best feature of Civ IV is including a clock in full-screen mode, which has offered me non-trivial assistance in preventing the game from taking over First Life.

[*****] Now I have to shake off the thought of "hot Shadow-on-Vorlon action."

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

As I'm sure you know, our esteemed Drek has recently been on a one-sociologist crusade to point out the craziness and bias of those bunch of whiners at Conservapedia. It's so much fun that even I have started getting in on the act.

In line with all this, I thought I would check out what would no doubt be the perfect storm of Conservapedia bias: Bill Clinton. Let's skip over the section on early scandals that describes the Whitewater "scandal," for which Clinton was never indicted. Let's instead focus on the section Cruise Missiles to manipulate opinion polls, which is important enough that it's worth reprinting here.

Cruise missiles to manipulate opinion polls

Suspicions often arose during Clinton's tenure about the timing of cruise missile attacks to manipulate public sympathy at crucial points when his approval ratings sagged. On several occasions [17] generally when the approval ratings dipped to 47%, surprise cruise missile attacks[18] were launched which resulted in a 10 point gain in the public opinion polls. Nick Gillespie of Reason remarked,

Consider, for instance, the relative lack of scrutiny accorded the August 20 cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan … immediately after the bombing, polls showed that close to half of all Americans thought the missile strikes were meant to divert attention from the president's sex life… the Sudanese bombing suggests something else as well: If and when the public's and the media's attention shifts from the president's sex life to wider-ranging inquiries about how he makes deadly serious policy decisions…"[19]

[criticism of Violence Against Women Act cut to save space]

Clinton left office with an approval rating of 65%, the highest of any modern president, and remains the only modern president to leave office with a higher approval rating than he had when he took office.

Allow me to point out something here.


These missile attacks were ordered in response to Al Qaeda's coordinated bomb attacks of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania!!!!! Sudan was chosen as a target because we had good intelligence that Osama bin Freakin' Laden was there!!!!! These missile attacks were targeting a known terrorist who three years later would carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history!!!!!

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what Conservapedia might have said about these cruise missiles if a Republican had won the 1996 election.

But that didn't happen, so nine years after the missiles, here is what Conservapedia has to say about them: "If and when the public's and the media's attention shifts from the president's sex life to wider-ranging inquiries about how he makes deadly serious policy decisions..."

Ladies and gentlemen, if Conservapedia is where people are getting their information (and it is), then it is an even bigger danger than it first seems.

[The title comes from a quote in one of my favorite books ever, by the way.]


Monday, October 15, 2007


I've missed you guys. Have you missed my warbling?

Since I've spoken with you all, I've written my dissertation, acquired a job, and moved across the country. Due to the vagaries of the job market, I'm shocked to look around and find myself knee-deep in the kudzu of the small town deep south.

To be fair, it's beautiful down here, it’s still fairly warm, and everyone I've met has been gracious and helpful. Actually I have few complaints. Well, that's not quite right. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

I’ve begun a daily regimen of gnashing teeth. Every morning I open the local newspaper and find that I am in fact in Republican Baptist World. In this land, the war in Iraq is going well (the surge was an accepted success). In this land, the main worry is apparently how to keep the disloyal democrats from undermining Bush’s successes. The first time I opened the paper, I saw four letters to the editor published and ALL of them were Republican apologists. If you remember my previous rants, you might know there were few things that got under my collar quite as much as the ascendancy of the religious right and the consolidation of media. Well, now I'm faced with both together. I know I should just stop reading it, but I’ve decided instead to wage my own insurgency within, and hopefully bring you along for the entertainment value.
So, I’ll be writing my own letters to the editor to try (perhaps in vain) to provide the locals another perspective. And I’d love to enlist the help and advice of Drek and his readers, if they’re inclined. Consider me a missionary among the heathens (I suppose taking on such a role is incredibly egotistical and foolhardy, but that never seemed to stop them).

This week, its all out gay-bashing. I would never have believed they'd print the kind of stuff they print down here. Allow me to reprint a full on op-ed piece for your amazement written by a professor at a local bible college about the important news issue: whether homosexuality is a “sin”. Then a short letter to the editor from a local woman less than a week after. Well, finally, I couldn’t take it any more and I actually sent in my own letter, which I provide below. The trick was to keep it under 250 words. Tell me what you think…. Did I go over the line or miss an obvious point to make? I’ll let you know if they publish it.

It's time to end using sophistry to invalidate the Truth
By Ward xxxxxxx

Recently, The ********* News printed a guest column titled, "It's time to end using religion to validate bigotry." I could not agree more with the article's title and initial paragraphs recounting examples of bigotry promoted through "religion." "Religion" has often been the tool evil men use to perpetrate their evil upon others -- it was through "religion," after all, that evil men demanded that the sinless Jesus be crucified! Noteworthy, however, is that the column made no mention of any religion other than Christianity -- not Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, and the like -- all which have fostered more than enough of their own religious bigotry. While the author wanted us to "reflect on and discuss the misuse of religion to victimize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," would it not be fair for him to point out that Islamists, for example, put all such people to death? Nevertheless, that is not why I am writing.
I am writing because the author stated, "After a careful study, I concluded that the Bible does not say homosexuality is a sin. ... In fact, there was no understanding of homosexuality in biblical times." He continued, "To be gay is neither a curse nor a sin" and concluded that "to be homosexual or bisexual is as much a blessing as to be heterosexual." In other words, he has declared that the Bible does not say what it really says! This is pure sophistry.
Some believe Scripture does not categorize the homosexual lifestyle as sinful; others maintain that Scripture clearly and repeatedly declares it to be sinful. Which is correct? Let the Bible "speak" for itself. Old Testament: Genesis 13:12-13 --"The men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly," "their sin is very grievous" (18:20), and in 19:4ff., they demanded that Lot "bring (the two men) out unto us, that we may know (have sex with) them" -- and God "rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire" (see Jude 8: Sodom's men, "giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire"); Leviticus 18:22 -- "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." God declares that this defiles the participants and that He will judge it (see 20:13); Deuteronomy 23:17-18 --"There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite (Hebrew qadesh, male cult prostitute) of the sons of Israel ... both these are abomination unto the Lord"; and 1 Kings 14:24 --"There were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel" (see also 15:12; 22:46; and 2 Kings 23:7).
New Testament: 1 Timothy 1:10 -- "(The law is made for) the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, ... for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai, technical Greek term for those who sodomize other men)"; Romans 1:18-27, 32 -- Of those suppressing God's Truth, Paul wrote, "(God) gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves ... (that are) vile affections. ... (Men) burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error. ... Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them"; 1 Corinthians 6:9 -- "Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (malakoi, technical Greek term for males in the passive role in homosexual sex, those who are sodomized), nor abusers of themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai, technical Greek term for those who sodomize other men) ... shall inherit the kingdom of God."
The Bible unequivocally teaches that homosexual sex is sinful. It is one of many kinds of sin people commit and God will judge. Nevertheless, sinners who repent will receive mercy, not judgment. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 proves that reality, for after listing various sins -- including homosexual sin -- Paul affirmed that "such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God"!
Persuading others that the Bible says differently is pure sophistry.
And it's time to end using sophistry to invalidate the Truth.

Can you believe the hypocrisy of his labeling their points sophistry? Now the letter to the editor.

The Bible is clear: Homosexuality a sin

I think it is pathetic the way the group "Faith in America" is distorting Christianity to fit their agenda. In their ads, they claim certain Christian groups are against equal rights for gay and lesbian groups and this somehow does not measure up to God's standards.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat, Christ condemned homosexuality as a sin, period. This is stated in Leviticus 18:22. We are also warned against such acts in Romans 2:27, 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
If we are Christians and truly follow the teachings of Christ, we must recognize homosexuality for what it is, a sin. This does not mean homosexuality is greater or worse than any other sin. This does not mean that I do not love and respect everyone regardless of differences.
This does not mean I am a bigot. It means I am siding with Christ and am calling homosexuality what it is -- a sin. That's the standard I want to instill in my children.

Hm. Maybe she took Ward’s class? Here’s the letter I sent:

In the past week two separate editorialists, including a (*local college*) professor, have referred to ludicrous Leviticus and its friends in support of their views that homosexuality is a “sin” -- proving that when real wisdom fails, there is always a passage of biblical text you can find that says what you want it to.
Sadly some people need so badly to feel simplistic certainty that they close their eyes to all color and context. The Old Testament, we know, arises out of a bronze/iron age culture halfway around the world. Naturally, its authors succumb to the prejudices of their times in, among other things, their outright embracing of slavery, polygamy, child abuse, animal sacrifice, and even genocide. Seemingly, our current wisdom has
supplanted theirs in other important areas…. Yet many are still delighted to accept their ancient homophobia. I would suppose this comes out of an unquestioning devotion to “the Word,” except I notice that the Faithful regularly eat shrimp (Lev. 10:10), go to church wearing glasses (Lev. 21:20), have contact with menstruating women (Lev. 15:19-24) toil on Sundays (Exo. 35:2), and wear wool-cotton blends (Deut. 22:11). It’s curious.
As ever, when someone quotes a religious text in judgment, we learn far more about
the quoter than their God. Shame on the (newspaper) for devoting so much space to those who espouse their own prejudices through their decontextualized logic and selective Bible readings. Readers now have seemingly been offered God’s own authority to stigmatize and marginalize gay people.

Writing from the front lines…

A plea for assistance- twenty-first century style

Last week I suggested that Total Drek was embarking upon a new endeavour: the offering of poorly considered advice. At the time I rather expected that this offer would become little more than an excuse for mirth. So, you can imagine my surprise when, very soon thereafter, someone took me up on my offer. Specifically a young graduate student who asks to be called "Jaine" left a comment in response to my earlier post giving advice to grad students. This comment is, effectively, a request for advice about a serious situation brewing in her department. I have corresponded with Jaine a little bit via e-mail but I am far from arrogant enough to think that I have all the answers. So, I asked and Jaine has given me permission to reproduce her comment here, as a post, so that it can receive consideration from a wider audience.

A few ground rules: both graduate students and faculty wander past here* and both types of perspectives are probably valid. That said, I am particularly appreciative of the faculty who are nice enough to offer advice. Secondly, Jaine is obviously concerned so she deserves serious responses. At the same time, folks who are embedded in a situation may not always see it objectively. If you think Jaine needs to calm down, it's okay to say so, but do so constructively. Otherwise, anything goes.

And so, without further ado, Jaine:

2nd year grad student here, and I could use a little advice about how to/whether to proceed with voicing concerns to my departmental chair.

The dept. got rid of comprehensive exams last year and replaced them with annual student evaluations. Evaluations are supposed to be objective, but they are not. We're now evaluated on personal grounds (e.g., appearance).

This year, the dept. watered down the curriculum more by getting rid of the thesis option for the MA. We were not even notified about the change. I have a lot of concerns about that--one of the more personal ones being that when I apply for the Ph.D. program, I will potentially be up against persons from other, better MA programs who actually got to complete a thesis. On the flip side, I worry that if I choose to go and apply elsewhere, admissions committees will laugh at my "master's paper."

Besides the curriculum, I've recently become aware that our grad studies director has a habit of manipulating grad school policies/deadlines in an effort to crack the whip and instill fear in students. Students are currently being threatened about losing funding and being removed from the program, and the reasoning for all of that is based on manipulated policies and new, undocumented departmental policies.

I have been told that this kind of stuff doesn't happen so much in graduate departments. And I want to raise the issues, but fear reprisal from both the grad studies director and the department chair. It is my belief that the department is trampling on the well-being of students as well as our futures. It's also my belief that graduate education takes enough toll on students without the added stress of the abuses of power currently going unchecked.

Without getting into any further details, I'd like to ask those of you with knowledge of grad school politics if voicing concerns is too risky of an action to consider?

So? What does everyone think? Operators, as they say, are standing by.

* For reasons that continue to elude me.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Congratulations.... the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and to British author Doris Lessing for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. These two awards, taken together, show an amazing level of support for science and the scientific way of thinking.

Lessing's prize is the first time I am aware of that the Academy has recognized a science fiction writer with the world's most prestigious literary award. Lessing's most famous science fiction work is the Canopus in Argos series, which deals with the evolution of societies at various stages of development. I haven't read the series, but now that the Academy has recognized a science fiction author, I will now proudly buy the first book in the series. Lessing writes that "science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time,*" and I agree 1,000,000%.

The peace prize has been similarly awarded on behalf of science. (I can only imagine the amount of whining that's going on in the right-wing blogosphere about now.) Lately, the Academy has been awarding the prize not just to traditional mediators and peacemakers, but also to those groups that fight the underlying causes of strife. They made this clear in last year's award to Muhammad Yunus and his organization Grameen Bank for their efforts to extend microcredit (small loans, sometimes as small as a few dollars of local currency) to poor people in developing countries. The academy reasoned that since microcredit had the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty, and poverty is a fundamental cause of war, microcredit could help a great deal in avoiding future wars.

The same could be said of groups that are trying to prevent the potential environmental catastrophe of global warming. Global warming may lead to floods and droughts that will leave millions homeless, vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations and warlord armies. By pointing out the dangers of global warming, the IPCC and Gore are doing their part to promote peace.

Two of the most prestigious awards in the world, recognizing both science and science fiction. In the U.S., we often feel besieged by forces allied against science, but we should take heart in the recognitions that science has just received.

*In an interview published on her web site

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

CSI: evolution

One of the favorite arguments of anti-evolution types is that no one was there in the supposed last several million years when evolution was supposed to be happening, no one can prove that evolution is actually the mechanism for the life that we see today. In essence: No one was there, so we can't claim to understand it.

Of course, creationists immediately do claim to understand it - they say, without physical evidence to prove it, that all living things were created by God.

That enormous, deliberate confusion is not what I am posting about today, however. I wanted to raise an important objection to this argument, one that I have never heard phrased this way before.

Here is how the Alabama Board of Education phrased it in a disclaimer that appeared as a sticker in high school biology textbooks used in Alabama:

This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory, which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans.

No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact.

The word evolution may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species. (White moths, for example, may evolve into gray moths). This process is micro evolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing into another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macro evolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.

There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life, which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, known as the Cambrian Explosion? Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record in a long time? Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record? How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body? Study hard and keep an open mind. Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth.

By the way, when Oklahoma was considering adopting the same disclaimer, biology professor (and devout Catholic) Kenneth Miller of Brown University did an excellent job debunking it. The fundamental objection here is that because no one was there, we don't know what really happened.

We may think this is a ridiculous objection - and we would be right - but we have to take it seriously. Millions of people believe this about evolution, and it is our duty to show them why it is a ridiculous objection.

When I hear this objection, I like to ask people a question. Do you watch crime shows like CSI? The detectives were not there when the crime was committed. So how do they know who is guilty? (Alternatively, you can ask them about real crimes. Pick your favorite serial killer, and ask 'How do you know that he killed all those people, if no one was there when it happened?'.)

The detectives figure out who committed the crime by carefully studying the crime scene. They take photos and fingerprints, and try to reconstruct the suspect's movements. They look for people who had the motive and opportunity to commit the crime. They construct an EVIDENCE-BASED THEORY* to explain the crime.

Research into biology fits much the same pattern. Researchers study the scene (the fossil record) looking for clues (fossils), and compare what they saw at the scene to what they can see today (modern organisms). They construct an evidence-based theory (evolution) to explain the evidence they saw. Over time, more and more evidence has come in, and it has always been consistent with the theory. If evidence ever comes in that is not consistent with the theory, they'll rethink the theory. But so far, nothing explains living things in the world we live in like evolution does.

Many scientists and supporters of science have bravely defended evolution in the face of anger and threats from the other side. But I've never heard the analogy between evolution research and crime scene investigation made in quite the way I've just made it. Hopefully it can be an addition to the debate that will resonate with some people.

Remember, as Drek said earlier: When science supporters fight back, we win every time.

*Incidentally, I'm convinced that part of the trouble people have with the word "theory" is how it is used in detective shows on TV. In many shows, about 2/3 of the way through, someone says "I have a theory" - and more often than not, it turns out to be wrong.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ah, that brings back memories.

A colleague of mine recently let me know that a momentous event has taken place: he has had his first journal submission rejected. This news, as it happens, really takes me back.

I remember my own first response from a journal as though it were yesterday. The suspense, the anticipation, the yearning for it to happen! And then- then- the day arrived. I hurriedly opened the letter and discovered in that moment that, in fact, I was destined for a long string of disappointing failures. It also became apparent that some people hate my work so much that they would kill me just to watch me die. So, you know, more than anything it reminded me of dating in high school.

My colleague is, of course, responding to the news pretty much the way we all do. He's even debating his possible future- be it a continuation in sociology, a change to a related field, or even conquest and feudal domination of his own principality. In response to all this I can only say:

Huzzah, my friend, huzzah! Welcome to that ancient and honorable club of scholars who have been politely informed by their peers that they do, in fact, suck shit through a tube. This may be your first rejection, and it won't be your last, but it is all the same a beginning. This is how many of us start and it is the membership fee into a club that includes your entire discipline. Welcome to that sacred siblinghood of scholars who have been dissed by journals.

Look up, my comrade, because now the worst is behind you.*

* Not counting the dissertation itself which, as far as I can tell, is universal in its inspiration of self-loathing and despair, or the tenure process, which is sufficiently stress-inducing as to be lethal to the average human being. Only academics whose egos have been sufficiently toughened by piles of journal rejections are prepared to withstand is depredations.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

You ask, Total Drek Answers!

As a blogger I am sometimes turned to as an authority on various matters. This surprises me since my very first blog post explicitly rejects the idea that I have useful things to say, but there you are. Strangely, the most common inquiry is: "What would happen if a classics professor applied for a vanity license plate?" To my great surprise, I can now provide an answer:

If you didn't already, make sure you take note of the model of the car. It makes the humor so very much better.

When you're this creative, I suspect you are never lacking for amusement.

Frankly, given that I get asked random questions from time to time, I've decided to finally just bow to the inevitable and embark upon a unique sort of experiment: offer to answer questions in blog posts as a sort of sick, twisted advice column. No, I'm not kidding. Basically my readers' penchant for posing strange dilemmas has combined with my now nearly perpetual level of business to generate a voltron of stupidity. Aren't we all lucky.

So here's how it works: you ask me a question, either in comments or via my e-mail address,* and I will consider answering in blog post format. You may get a serious answer, if it's an interesting question, or a totally flippant answer, if it's not an interesting question.**

Good luck, have fun, and we'll see if I can possibly get any more lazy than I am right now.


** Note that this will be subjectively determined by my already addled psyche.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Martian Test

Recently I've been thinking of Mars. I was reminded of the red planet again by Drek's post last Thursday, in which he reprinted a heated discussion from Conservapedia about scientists' search for how birds and butterflies navigate. It's far from the only heated discussion that I've seen on these here Internets, which can bring out the worst in people.

As a way of measuring argument intensity, I propose a stepchild of Godwin's Law and the Turing Test - the Martian Test. To perform the Martian Test, rewrite an argument so that any references to the subjects being argued are rephrased to be about Martians instead. Then, imagine what a Martian would think if he/she/sle read or heard what you have to say. The test obviously applies to real-life debates as well as Internet discussions.

Here is a handy phrasebook to help with the translations:

Internets Debate Term - Mars Test Analogy
  • [people who agree with you] - Earthlings
  • [people you don't agree with] - Martians
  • [religion you agree with] - Earthism
  • [religion you don't agree with] - Martianism
  • The Bible - The Martian Chronicles
  • President Bush - Prime Minister Oxhamiowefj
  • President Clinton - former Prime Minister Zfewjifo
  • [media outlet you like] - Earth Today
  • [media outlet you don't like] - The Mars Times

As an example of how to apply the Martian test in everyday life, let me compare two passages on the heated-but-unnecessary religion v. science debate - Andrew Schafly of Conservapedia about science, and Richard Dawkins of Oxford University about religion. I'll rewrite both their arguments to be about Martians instead.

Here is conservapedia founder Andrew Schafly, as quoted Thursday here at Total Drek, on scientists:

Right, Rob, the "Science" news article is a mixture of circular reasoning and unsupported conclusions, typical for that liberal rag. The "reasoning" in the article is, of course, good enough for atheists and materialists who assume that there must be a material explanation. For the rest of us who, like Isaac Newton, look beyond materialism, the Science article is referenced for only one purpose: to demonstrate that atheists and materialists are still searching in vain for their material explanation. Do tell us, please, if anyone really thinks magnetism guides butterfly migration also. Don't duck that one.--Aschlafly 18:16, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Andrew Schafly on Martians:

Right, Rob, the Mars Times news article is a mixture of circular reasoning and unsupported conclusions, typical for that Martian rag. The "reasoning" in the article is, of course, good enough for Martians who assume that there must be a Martianist* explanation. For the rest of us who, like Isaac Newton, look beyond Martianism, the Mars Times article is referenced for only one purpose: to demonstrate that Martians are still searching in vain for their Martianist explanation. Do tell us, please, if anyone really thinks magnetism guides Marsosaurus migration also. Don't duck that one.--Aschlafly 18:16, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Richard Dawkins on religious people:

You guessed it, once again someone was aggravated that I have dared to call adherence to religious belief a case of being "ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed." This time our indignant contestant is Mark A. R. Kleiman, who considers it atheistic bigotry to enumerate the reasons why people might come to absurd and erroneous conclusions. That 80-90% of this population, which is not hypothetical at all but is the entire US, believes that chanting their wishes into the sky might get them granted by a magic being, or that over half use the excuse of their religious dogma to reject the basic facts of modern biology, is something we must not question and especially must not criticize. Because it is religion, it must be respected.

Richard Dawkins on Martians:

You guessed it, once again someone was aggravated that I have dared to call adherence to Martian beliefs a case of being "ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed." This time our indignant contestant is Mars A. R. Kleiman, who considers it Earthian bigotry to enumerate the reasons why people might come to absurd and erroneous conclusions. That 80-90% of this population, which is not hypothetical at all but is the entire planet Mars, believes that chanting their wishes into the sky might get them granted by a magic being, or that over half use the excuse of their religious dogma to reject the basic facts of modern biology, is something we must not question and especially must not criticize. Because it is Martian, it must be respected.

Why the Mars test? Notice something about the two postings: they espouse very different viewpoints, but the angry, sarcastic tone of the articles is almost exactly the same. The Mars test helps separate the tone of the debate from its content. By debating with people, what we are intending to do is to convince people, both the people that we are debating and anyone who might be watching. With anything you write online or anything you say in real life, there are almost sure to be Martians around to hear. How do you expect them to hear what you have to say when you insult their planet and their people?

*Note that I replaced "materialism" with "Martianism," implying that materialism is a religion. Whether it is or is not is an entire blog entry in itself, but this is certainly how Conservapedians think of it, so I think it's justified to translate the term.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Alan Turing: Cleanup on aisle seven...

Forgetting Lyotard: Dialectic semioticism in the works of Fellini

David F. Hamburger
Department of Politics, Stanford University

1. Fellini and dialectic semioticism

The main theme of the works of Fellini is not, in fact, theory, but subtheory. In La Dolce Vita, Fellini affirms Marxist capitalism; in Satyricon, although, he denies neocultural textual theory.

But a number of narratives concerning dialectic semioticism may be revealed. Sontag suggests the use of neocultural textual theory to analyse art.

It could be said that Debord’s analysis of postdialectic materialism suggests that the purpose of the poet is deconstruction. The subject is interpolated into a neocultural textual theory that includes truth as a paradox.

2. Cultural subcapitalist theory and Lyotardist narrative

If one examines Lyotardist narrative, one is faced with a choice: either reject dialectic semioticism or conclude that culture is capable of significance, given that sexuality is equal to truth. But the premise of the conceptual paradigm of discourse implies that class has objective value. The primary theme of Dahmus’s[1] essay on dialectic semioticism is the common ground between sexual identity and class.

The main theme of the works of Fellini is a self-justifying whole. Thus, Geoffrey[2] holds that we have to choose between Lyotardist narrative and Lacanist obscurity. Sartre promotes the use of neocultural textual theory to attack sexism.

“Consciousness is part of the stasis of language,” says Marx; however, according to Drucker[3] , it is not so much consciousness that is part of the stasis of language, but rather the failure, and some would say the futility, of consciousness. However, if textual postdialectic theory holds, we have to choose between neocultural textual theory and cultural desemioticism. Sartre uses the term ‘neodialectic cultural theory’ to denote the role of the writer as observer.

But d’Erlette[4] implies that the works of Rushdie are not postmodern. Lyotard uses the term ‘Lyotardist narrative’ to denote a mythopoetical totality.

Therefore, several theories concerning the bridge between society and class exist. Baudrillard uses the term ‘dialectic semioticism’ to denote a dialectic whole.

In a sense, the primary theme of Reicher’s[5] model of Lacanist obscurity is the common ground between sexuality and society. The subject is contextualised into a neocultural textual theory that includes culture as a totality.

Thus, Sontag suggests the use of dialectic narrative to read and analyse class. Lyotardist narrative suggests that narrativity may be used to reinforce capitalism, but only if Baudrillard’s critique of neotextual cultural theory is invalid; otherwise, the media is fundamentally used in the service of outdated, sexist perceptions of sexual identity.

3. Expressions of rubicon

In the works of Rushdie, a predominant concept is the concept of subtextual language. However, Derrida uses the term ‘neocultural textual theory’ to denote the role of the writer as poet. If Lyotardist narrative holds, we have to choose between dialectic desituationism and Debordist situation.

“Sexuality is part of the paradigm of art,” says Sartre. But the dialectic of dialectic semioticism which is a central theme of Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is also evident in Satanic Verses. Sargeant[6] holds that we have to choose between Lyotardist narrative and cultural predialectic theory.

If one examines neocultural textual theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept dialectic semioticism or conclude that narrativity is capable of significant form, given that sexuality is distinct from consciousness. However, any number of theories concerning neocultural textual theory may be found. Marx uses the term ‘textual narrative’ to denote the dialectic, and some would say the futility, of postconstructivist sexual identity.

Therefore, the subject is interpolated into a neocultural textual theory that includes art as a paradox. The main theme of the works of Rushdie is not discourse, as Lyotardist narrative suggests, but prediscourse.

However, Debord promotes the use of neocultural textual theory to deconstruct the status quo. If dialectic semioticism holds, we have to choose between neocultural textual theory and Baudrillardist simulacra.

Thus, Debord uses the term ‘dialectic semioticism’ to denote the collapse of dialectic society. Abian[7] states that we have to choose between neocultural textual theory and precapitalist libertarianism.

Therefore, dialectic construction holds that sexual identity, surprisingly, has intrinsic meaning. Sartre suggests the use of neocultural textual theory to modify society.


1. Dahmus, T. V. O. (1972) Neocultural textual theory and dialectic semioticism. And/Or Press

2. Geoffrey, B. ed. (1981) The Rubicon of Context: Dialectic semioticism in the works of Rushdie. University of Michigan Press

3. Drucker, C. W. (1978) Dialectic semioticism in the works of Cage. O’Reilly & Associates

4. d’Erlette, J. ed. (1989) The Fatal flaw of Class: Dialectic semioticism and neocultural textual theory. Panic Button Books

5. Reicher, L. V. B. (1971) Neocultural textual theory and dialectic semioticism. And/Or Press

6. Sargeant, A. ed. (1992) The Discourse of Absurdity: Dialectic semioticism, nationalism and neomaterial feminism. University of California Press

7. Abian, I. B. (1987) Dialectic semioticism and neocultural textual theory. Cambridge University Press

Have I lost my mind? No, I've just been playing with the postmodernism generator, a simple computer program that can generate short bits of pomo drivel more or less randomly. I say more or less because, honestly, I can barely tell the difference between the randomly generated paper and authentic postmodern "scholarship." Clearly I need the innovative approach to peer review that has been discussed previously.

Do I have any wider point? Nah. Not really. Mostly, it's just that I've been ragging on the Conservapeons a little, and it might be fair to remind us all that some illogical idiocy comes from our side of the world as well.

I mean, really, it does take something like randomly generated pomo to equal Conservapedia so I've done my best!

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

It's like a field guide for recognizing insanity.

Some of you, who have memories stretching all the way back to yesterday, will recall that I mentioned a rather strange entry on Conservapedia. Specifically, it was a claim that god supernaturally shows birds and butterflies how to migrate and that a scientific explanation for this feat is impossible. In and of itself, this wouldn't be so weird, except that the article they linked to as "evidence" makes essentially the opposite point. Well, okay, that's not totally accurate: the article provides a lot of information on what scientists know about bird migration, but doesn't specifically observe that we don't need god to explain it.* Instead, it discusses research that has identified specific brain regions and neural connections that appear to allow birds to literally see the geomagnetic field. This is, if nothing else, a highly "material" explanation for bird migration that is backed up by data. It was this stark contrast between Conservapedia's claims and the article's report that left me rather baffled.

Well, folks, believe it or not, it appears that I wasn't the only one. By mining the Conservapedia discussion page it's possible to see that some others had similar concerns. What's more mind-bending interesting, however, is to watch a sort of "debate" unfold as to whether or not the article, in fact, fails to support Conservapedia's claims. How does this debate go down? Well, for your edification I've included it below in its entirety as of the moment I wrote this. To give you a hint, however, it includes an insinuation that all human invention is merely an attempt to prove that we're smarter than god.** All human invention since the wheel and fire, anyway, since the wheel and fire are, like, totally holy. Yeah. The debate gets that... interesting. Take a look and see what you think. If nothing else, it's the intellectual equivalent of a funhouse mirror: you see the same stuff as always, but reflected in a bizarrely distorted fashion that is both amusing and disturbing all at once.*** For those who are curious, by the by, the "Aschlafly" that participates in this "debate" is none other than Conservapedia czar Andrew Schlafly. Andrew is the son of Phyllis Schlafly, who played such a significant role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. I would add commentary to all this but, really, nothing I could say even begins to compare to the lunacy that's already present.


Nothing in that article mentioned that the scientists were atheists or materialists. Or is that just taken for granted here? Maestro 13:10, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

I won't touch Maestro's comment, but there's another issue here: the source doesn't seem to support the news claim. The headline states that scientists are trying in vain when no explanation exists, but the source clearly states at the end of the article that the given evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that birds detect the earth's magnetic field. I suggest a different source or a headline that aligns with its cited material. ENelson 13:59, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Both of you seem to misunderstand a wiki. The headline links to several entries, not simply an external article that ENelson calls "the source." We are far more than a news referral service.

Also, note how liberals dispute something that is plainly true, like atheists and materialists searching for materialist explanations. No one seriously disputes that, but perhaps in doubting it one hopes to hide the fact. See liberal style.--Aschlafly 15:22, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

The fact that the headline links to several entries is not relevant to ENelson's point. Nobody is disputing that atheists and materialists are searching for materialist explanations. The only issue is that you are using as a reference an article that does not support your statement. Masterbratac 15:26, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Masterbratac is right. I never disputed that atheists and materialists search for materialistic explanations. What I dispute is the news article saying no explanation exists. Compounding this is the fact that the citation is an article that DOES provide an explanation.
I still strongly suggest that either an appropriate citation be found and linked, or the heading modified to coincide more with its source. ENelson 15:36, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Excellent point, Andy. One can only speculate why a source called ScienceDaily carried a news item recently entitled, Bush apologizes to Wiccan widow. Must be of interest to enlightened scientific researchers. Rob Smith 15:43, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Rob, one could go as far to say that Conservapedia shouldn't make comments about any scientific topics, as (speculatively) very few people here have an education in the sciences. I agree with you that hypocrisy is wrong and people should stay in their fields, though. ENelson 15:47, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

By "education in the sciences," are you referring to Wicca and other occult subjects scientific advancement has replaced God with? Rob Smith 15:54, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Science replaced God with Wicca? When did that happen? Maestro 16:17, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

To answer your question, no. I'm not even fully sure what Wicca is, so I will not comment on it. And why does science replace God, as you say? Why can it not expand on our understanding of the universe He set up?

Anyways, we're both way off topic. If you want to continue this, take it up in my talk page and I'll happily oblige. The issue here is that this news piece has a source that does not adequately reinforce its subject. Considering that at Conservapedia all things must be true and verifiable, I suggest that unless a proper source can be found, that news item either be removed or modified to coincide more with its source. ENelson 16:03, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Ok, so I'm a bird brain (no pun intended). The source says, "Thus, the only two parts of the central nervous system shown to be highly active during magnetic compass orientation are linked to each other." To quote the immortal Rumsfeld, "There are things that we know, there are things that we don't know, and there are things that we don't know we don't know." The article continues, "These findings strongly support the hypothesis..."; what hypothesis? So this "strong support" for something that is below a theory (hypo = below), a theory by definition is not a fact, is based upon visual stimuli, i.e. what is "shown." Is there the remotest possibility that other, unknown, unseen, unanticipated factors may be at work, before we elevate this grandiose research to the premature conclusion that it lends "strong support" to what is not even formulated yet as a hypo-theory to either prove, or disprove, that human observation is the deciding factor to establish truth, at least momentarily until someone else observes some new phenomenon, which then disproves all our previous understanding? Rob Smith 16:30, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

I'm not entirely certain what that meant, but I think you mean that, because this is a "hypothesis," it should not be elevated to the level of a theory. This is true, but irrelevant. The fact is, the article states that there is strong support for this hypothesis. Whether it is a hypothesis or a theory, this contradicts what the main page here says - that atheists and materialists search for the answer in vain, because the answer does not exist. The article does not say anything about atheists and materialists - it's a reasonable assumption, but not something the article says. The article does not say that there is no answer to this. On the contrary, is states that there is strong support for a potential answer. Either the headline or the article needs to be changed. Please be aware that, if you change the reference to something that actually does support the headline, I will gladly drop this. Masterbratac 18:11, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Right, Rob, the "Science" news article is a mixture of circular reasoning and unsupported conclusions, typical for that liberal rag. The "reasoning" in the article is, of course, good enough for atheists and materialists who assume that there must be a material explanation. For the rest of us who, like Isaac Newton, look beyond materialism, the Science article is referenced for only one purpose: to demonstrate that atheists and materialists are still searching in vain for their material explanation. Do tell us, please, if anyone really thinks magnetism guides butterfly migration also. Don't duck that one.--Aschlafly 18:16, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

If that's why this article is being used, the headline should really be reworded. As it stands, it appears that the article is being used to support the lack of an explanation for bird migration, not the fact that the search for an explanation has not revealed any definitive answers. Masterbratac 18:21, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Masterbratac, your discomfort is with the lack of a material explanation for migration, not our headline. Note how you did duck the question of whether you really think that magnetism guides butterfly migration.

I can't resolve your discomfort with the failure of materialism to explain migration. I urge you to let go of your insistence on materialism. The headline is appropriate and the "Science" article, which has the title of a question ("Do Migratory Birds 'See' The Magnetic Field?"), is just one of several sources used to support our headline. I'll add this issue to our Essay:Quantifying Openmindedness, so our discussion has not been wasted.--Aschlafly 18:40, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

My discomfort is not with the lack of material explanation, nor is it with the headline itself. My discomfort is with the way the headline seems to read. As it stands, the headline appears to state that this article shows that there is no materialistic explanation for migration. Whether I have a problem with this concept is irrelevant. The article does not support the headline as it is written now. Personally, I think that it might work better if the link were on the word "search," but that's just my opinion. I freely admit that I am not an expert in journalism, nor in any other relevant field. Feel free to ignore this. I'll probably continue to object; from this point forward, however, I will object to this, at least, silently (Unless something really ridiculous happens).

As for the butterflies, I have not the slightest idea what guides their migration. I have no problem with believing that it is magnetism, nor with believing that it is based on the sun, the moon, God as presented in the Bible, Zeus, Thor, some all-powerful butterfly deity, or anything else - as long as there is some evidence for it. However, this is irrelevant; the article is not about butterflies. Masterbratac 19:05, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Masterbratac, I obviously have not ignored your criticism, but I do urge you to accept the strong likelihood that there is no material explanation for homing and migration. I urge you to accept that not for my good, but for yours. Once you reject materialism, as Isaac Newton did with action-at-a-distance, as Adam Smith did with the invisible hand, as Louis Pasteur and Bernhard Riemann did for their inspiration, the truth shall set you free. In the past some people, including strangers, urged me to open my mind beyond what I learned in school and I'm glad I did. I hope you do too.--Aschlafly 19:53, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

strong support for a potential answer
It doesn't even say this. It says there is strong support (based upon human observation) for an unformulated sub-theory which cannot, by definition, be a fact (A theory, by definition, is not a fact; if it were a fact, it would not be a theory. And the reponse, "theories are unproven facts," is so ludicrous on its face, please consider it first before following this logical fallacy). Rob Smith 18:46, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

The Merriam-Webster definition of "theory" (at least, the one relevant here) is "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena."[2] There is no reason that a theory cannot be true. Also, if the statement that "theories are unproven facts" is a logical fallacy, which fallacy is it? Masterbratac 18:56, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

If scientists, or "atheists" and "materialists" as you call them, gave up searching for material explanations and chose to explain everything through religion we would never achieve another technological breakthrough. Image if they had given up, say, 70-80 years ago. We would not have computers. Without computers we surely would not have the Internet, and without the Internet we wouldn't have sites like Conservapedia. Are you sure you want them to give up? --BillOhannity 19:33, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Mr. Schlafly, you find solace in religious enlightenment. That's perfectly fine. I enjoy investigating life. You have every right to think the way you do, and so do I. But this is not what's at stake here. Conservapedia entries must be "true and verifiable", and the news item is not. It says there is no material explanation, nor will there be one. The article that supposedly backs this up says that peope are in the process of formulating an explanation for said phenomenon. They just don't match up! ENelson 20:00, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

No, ENelson, you misstate my views and what's on the main page. Atheists waste my taxpayer money searching in vain for a material answer that they assume must exist due to their lack of faith. This isn't a matter of "solace"; this is factual.--Aschlafly 20:03, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Mr. schlafly, (call me Mr. Nelson, or Ed if you like) are you suggesting that research into nuclear physics was a waste of taxpayer money? If you do, then you'd probably be a subject of either German or Russian dictatorship. What about research into thermodynamics? Or electromagnetism? Nobody had any idea what these things were until someone thought "why does this happen?" If you'd rather live purely on faith alone and reject all technology as arcane work of the faithless, then you best cancel your ISP account and go live like the Amish, because right now you're using the fruit of your opponents' labour. America is a world leader in scientific research, and try as some might, that isn't about to change. ENelson 20:09, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Thanks for restating my point above Ed. As for the issue of wasting your tax dollars Mr. schlafly, the study discussed in this particular article is taking place in Oldenburg, Germany. On top of that, it makes no mention of any government funding, be it the German government or the American government. If your tax dollars are really the reason that this research upsets you so much then hopefully you can rest a little easier tonight. --BillOhannity 20:27, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

After this long diversion in to the politics of science, I still wonder where the quoted article states that the researchers search in vain? Can someone point to paragraph and line number? The front-page gives the impression that the editor who put it there either didn't read the quoted article, or didn't understand it. Order 21:29, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

Assuming the unproven suggestion that the homing capabilities cannot be explained by material science, how do non-materialist approaches explain the homing capabilities of birds? Order 21:25, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

There is no reason that a theory cannot be true.
Possibly; but this requires assumption.
research into nuclear physics was a waste of taxpayer money?
I would precisely say it was. And for all this glorious research, look at all the problems it brought. And more specifically, it was awfully cute the way the KGB got the U.S. taxpayer to pay for it, only to carry on an insane nuclear arms race at what cost for half a century. We don't have to worry about godless commies nuking us anymore, we progressed to non-state jihadists nobody can even locate to negotiate with, if it were possible.

Thank you very much, to both the rational scientists and the commie scum who made it all possible. (Oh, you don't believe the KGB did it? read J. Robert Oppenheimer's bio. Yes indeed the Rosenberg's were scapegoats--Oppenheimer's the guy who should've fried in the chair). Rob Smith 21:26, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

How about computer technology Rob? Or medical technology? Or any of the countless other technologies we all use everyday? --BillOhannity 21:31, 2 October 2007 (EDT)

How about the wheel? Or the discovery of fire? Where any of these invented or discovered by people whose primary aim was, not the betterment of the human condition, but to prove they were smarter than God? Rob Smith 12:56, 3 October 2007 (EDT)

Well I'm not sure that anyone can know their motives since the wheel and fire were both discovered/invented long before records were kept, and also before organized religion came about. I'm also not entirely sure what your point is. Are you saying that invention and ingenuity are only ok when someone is trying to prove that they are smarter than god? It does not really matter what the person's motive was, the point is that in order to actually come up with the discovery the person would have to conduct research. Also, you didn't answer my question. Your point seems to be that scientists and researchers shouldn't "waste their time" trying to come up with physical explanations for everything. If this is your opinion, would you have had the scientists and researchers of previous generations stop their research before the modern technologies used today were developed? I must say that I expect your answer will be no, considering that you are using a computer to express your opinion on the internet. If I have missed point or misunderstood your question please let me know.--BillOhannity 17:00, 3 October 2007 (EDT)

* Most likely the "god guides birds" hypothesis wasn't mentioned because it's both stupid and a trivialization of religion.

** This is a fairly stupid assertion, really, since if you accepted the existence of god as conservative christians define it, it would be obvious that one cannot be smarter. It's a little like saying that I'm trying to prove that I am smaller than an atom. If I believe in those I know such a thing to be impossible, so it's pretty much a dead issue.

*** A little like this blog, actually.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bird Brains

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of quote mining. For those who don't know quote mining is the taking of remarks and presenting them out of context, most often in a way that distorts their meaning. I've had some fairly interesting arguments with people about this practice and have always come down against it. If we really go into the wayback machine, it's possible to locate one of my first ever complaints about quote mining when I critiqued the wonderful world of Graham Hancock. Incidentally, this was also the first installment in my occasional series "The Insanity Parade," which has touched on such other wonders as Ramtha, electric windmill cars, and deep fried astronauts. In any case, Hancock is remarkable because he doesn't just take a few quotes out of context- he actually completely ignores the thrust of a scientific article, interpreting it in a way that supports his hypothesis, but is utterly opposed to the article's own meaning.

I was reminded of Hancock during my recent foray into a website that, like Hancock, also has its very own highly implausible but deeply treasured creation myth. I refer, of course, to Conservapedia, the "Trustworthy Encyclopedia."* Thanks to their in-depth reporting, I recently learned that scientists are unable to determine how birds can possibly navigate during lengthy migrations. This is a question, you see, because many birds travel so far during migratory cycles that simply "knowing the way" by sight is an inadequate explanation. Fortunately for me, the Conservapeons appear to have a solution. Sort of:

And for those who don't want to scrutinize the image, the headline reads:

Atheists and materialists continue to search in futile for a magnetic explanation for remarkable homing and migration capabilities of birds. No material explanation exists; even butterflies exhibit remarkable migration. [all spelling original]

Oh noes, scientists! Your treasured "materialism" has been challenged! Even worse, you're being forced inexorably to the conclusion that god himself is whispering navigational instructions to birds in flight.** Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: God is the original LORAN! What ever will you do?!

Well, most likely we'll read the damned article that the conservapeons link to, which gives a rather different perspective:

Do Migratory Birds 'See' The Magnetic Field?

Every year millions of migratory birds fly towards their wintering quarters and come back in next year´s spring to breed. Behavioral experiments have shown that the Earth´s magnetic field is the main orientation cue on their journeys.

Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about the neuronal substrates underlying these navigational abilities. In recent years, it has been suggested that sensing of the magnetic reference direction involves vision and that molecules reacting to the Earth´s magnetic field in the birds' eye form the molecular basis for a vision-dependent compass mechanism.

Cryptochromes, which fulfill the molecular requirements for sensing the magnetic reference direction, have recently been found in retinal neurons of migratory birds (Mouritsen et al., PNAS, 2004).

Furthermore, studies investigating what parts of a migratory bird´s brain are active when the birds use their magnetic compass showed that the cryptochrome-containing neurons in the eye and a forebrain region (“Cluster N”; Mouritsen et al., PNAS, 2005; Liedvogel et al., EJN, 2007) are highly active during processing of magnetic compass information in migratory birds.

Sensory systems process their particular stimuli along specific brain circuits. Thus, the identification of what sensory system is active during magnetic compass orientation, provides a way to recognize the sensory quality utilized during that specific behavior.


These findings strongly support the hypothesis that migratory birds use their visual system to perceive the reference compass direction of the geomagnetic field and that migratory birds are thus likely to "see" the geomagnetic field.

Look, there's quote mining, and then there's linking to an article that soundly contradicts your absurd beliefs. If it were any less direct, any less self-defeating, I wouldn't be as stunned, but this is just incredible. The conservapeons claim "science has no explanation," and then link to an article that says, "not only does science have an empirically validated explanation, we're nailing down ever more precisely how it all works." And perhaps what's even worse is that the Conservapeons wouldn't do this unless they were sure they could count on the Lemming-like**** critical thinking skills of their readers. Oh, well, it's written on Conservapedia so it must be true.

And ironically enough, after this experience, I'm left wondering if perhaps the brains of birds aren't just a tad more sophisticated than the average conservapedia editor.

* Considering that the Conservapeons apparently think that ignorance is strength, you should perhaps reinterpret the meaning of "trustworthy" in this context.

** Which explains why he doesn't have time to do other stuff... like warn us about typhoons.***

*** And as a secondary point: if there's no "material" explanation, then we've pretty much entered the realm of the supernatural. Does it seem flat-out lazy to anyone else to explain bird migration with "God did it"? I mean, sure, I can see using that for the origin of life but, sooner or later, don't you have to come up with something a little more concrete? Apparently not.

**** Yes, I am aware that Lemmings do not actually commit mass suicide. It's a useful analogy, okay? You all know what I mean at this point, right? Okay.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I'm not a professional or anything...

But doesn't this seem a little like playing both sides of the game?

I mean, health promotion and prevention? Do they lace the allergy shots with botulism or something?

I know people want efficiency from their health care system, but this may be taking things a bit far.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Backup Plan

I was planning on blogging on something to do with Conservapedia but, alas, am having technical difficulties. So, instead, please enjoy this article from the fabulous Aetiology on a subject that is very near and dear to my heart: boobs.

Over at Respectful Insolence, Orac discusses an article where a scientist has spent his days shut away, slaving endlessly over a data set--of pictures of topless models. Why? To produce the perfect boob job, of course--or as the article puts it, "to help Hollywood look even more perfect."

Great. Just what we need.

According to the researcher, the ideal breast " a 45 to 55 per cent proportion - that is the nipple sits not at the half-way mark down the breast, but at least 45 per cent from the top." Like it wasn't enough before to worry about them being too perky, or too saggy, or the nipple has to be a certain percentage up on the breast as well? Thank you, Mr Mallucci, for your meticulous research.

It's an interesting read, and well-worth your time. I'd say more but, really, I already did. I'm just having problems getting blogger to cooperate with my saying it.

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