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, February 29, 2008

Act now!

Like many folks in the U.S. I am a routine victim of junk mail. Unlike many of my fellow citizens, however, I am a recipient of junk mail from Harbor Freight. For those who aren't part of the club, Harbor Freight is an oddly named hardware store that my father is rather fond of. As a consequence, I once purchased him a gift card from said establishment for his birthday. Alas, when I completed this purchase I unchecked the box that said, "Yes! I want to receive special offers from Harbor Freight!" I say "alas" because I am forced to the conclusion in, in fact, the box should have been labeled "No! I don't want to be added to your mailing list for slack-jawed hillbillies!" Doubtless you can see where this is going.

In any case, I recently received an envelope from Harbor Freight that was, allegedly, a "resource pack." In point of fact, this resource pack was just a large envelope filled with little cards like those you find stuffed into magazines. Instead of selling subscriptions, however, these cards were selling a variety of products. Some of these products were useful but some, to the contrary, struck me as a little humorous. For your viewing pleasure, I here include five of my personal favorites with a little commentary.


First up, we have the gift for a man who has everything except drinkable water. So, you know, Paul Atreides would have loved this thing:

There are two things I love most about the drill kit above. The first is the name- the "Hydra-Drill." See, "hydro" means "water" but "hydra" means "horrible monster." So, really, the name makes me think that if I were to cut this drill in two it would suddenly grow four new drill bits. Awesome! Secondly, however, I love the claim that, "There's no limit to the wonderful things you can do when you have your own private water system and no water bills." Seriously? No limit? None at all? The Hydra-Drill will make my omnipotent?


Second up we have another resource for drilling as well as pumping:

I know I shouldn't laugh but... well... does this really count as "hardware?" On second thought, don't answer that. The truly frightening thing is that while this is covered by insurance and medicare, birth control pills probably aren't. Yay, batshit looney religious proscriptions! Truth be told, I also have a hard time reading that bit about "Compare the size," without snickering a little.

Next up, we have something nice you can do for our brave soldiers serving overseas:

Folks, really and truly, this holiday season give the gift of mouth and lung cancer. Sure our soldiers face the risk of IEDs, suicide bombers, insufficient armor, arbitrarily long deployments, and general malaise, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't also be saddled with a vile habit that can kill them in horribly uncomfortable ways in the event they survive their deployment! Good decisions about personal health are, apparently, unpatriotic.

Next, we have an entry that seems to go hand-in-hand with the penis pump above:

Sure the door will let you fit your chemically and mechanically induced, but no less raging, hard-on into the bathtub, but will it restore your dignity? I doubt it.

Finally, we come to the ultimate in crappy products:

That's right ladies and gentlemen! You can now purchase $6.00 in U.S. currency for the low, low price of $15.00! What a steal! I mean, if these were really old or something it might make sense, but the oldest was minted in 2002. I suspect the real purpose of this item is to determine who should receive the "extra special" offer catalog. Doubtless it includes super-special offers like, "Buy a new, unused brick for only $39.95 plus shipping and handling! Supplies are limited so ACT NOW!"

And the odd thing is, the main consequence of these "offers" is I suddenly feel even less inclined to buy anything. Thank you, Harbor Freight!


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Just so you know...

The Scene: Drek is riding in a car with his wife when his cellphone rings. Drek's mom is calling.

Drek: Hey mom.

Mom: Hi Drek! Okay, so everything is fine here.

Drek: Glad to hear it.

Mom: But your sister's water broke last night at about 2:30. That would be 1:30 your time.

Drek: Hey! Awesome! She's early though, right?

Mom: Yes. She wasn't due until later in March, so she's a little over three weeks early. The doctors say she's fine, she's not having any contractions yet so they may try to induce soon and, if that doesn't work, they may do a c-section.

Drek: Got it. Why the rush?

Mom: Well, after your water breaks you need to get the baby out within a certain period of time.

Drek: Risk of infection?

Mom: Right.

Drek: Okay. You'll keep me updated throughout the day, right?

Mom: Oh, of course! You know, I was saying I didn't think she was going to make it through March. The baby was riding really low. Still, I didn't think it was going to come this early.

Drek: I know you were thinking that and I didn't expect it this soon either.

Mom: Just pray to... well, just pray to whatever you pray to.

Drek: That would be "nothing," but I'll be thinking about Sis a lot today.

Mom: That works. Thoughts work too. We just want a healthy baby and healthy mama.

Drek: Damn right.

Mom: I'll call when we have more.

Drek: Sounds good. Tell Sis I love her!

Mom: Will do! Bye!

Drek: Bye!

UPDATE: After an easy, breezy 21 hours of labor my sister has given birth to a very, very healthy six pound, three ounce baby girl. I am, from now on, Uncle Drek. No doubt out relationship will be magical. And, for those who are curious, a picture:

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Total Drek Public Disservice Message

A while back I posted some helpful little guidelines for graduate students. While they omitted the most useful advice someone can give a prospective grad student,* they did encapsulate a lot of the wisdom I have acquired about graduate school over the years. Nevertheless, on considering the whole thing for a while longer I have come to the conclusion that there is at least one bit of advice that I need to pass on to my fellow graddies. This particular morsel of wisdom is hard-won, so I hope you take it seriously.

What is this advice? Well, simply this: develop a system for making backups and stick to it. And I mean religiously, people.

Okay, allow me to explain. Those of you out in grad school land have a few things in common: you're probably smart, you're probably poor, you're probably short on sleep, and you're probably young. What does this mean? Simply this: you likely have not had the experience of a truly catastrophic computer crash. Oh, don't get me wrong, you may have lost a computer before but, odds are, it was more of a hassle than a real problem. So you lost a couple of term papers and those naughty pictures you took with your significant other. So what? None of these losses are all that devastating and most can be remedied fairly quickly. The thing is, the entire game has changed for you and you may not realize it yet. Consider, for a moment, the sorts of things you're going to do in graduate school: write a master's thesis, write a doctoral dissertation, collect/analyze data, write research articles, maintain gradebooks, and so forth. Losing these items is not a trivial problem it is, indeed, a major problem. What would happen to your stress level if, for example, the harddrive with the only copy of your dissertation went kerblooie? I think we all know the answer to that and it ain't pretty.

What makes this worse for the average grad student is our relative poverty. The pittance we make tends to lead us into viewing the computer hardware as being the valuable part of our work. We may take pains to protect our laptops from bumps or spills because we can't afford to replace the machine. Yet, this is wrong-headed. The hardware itself can be replaced, even if the money to replace it with is difficult to come by. The data on the computer however- theses, dissertations, papers, data, gradebooks, etc.- cannot be replaced, or at least cannot be replaced easily. Once they are gone the only way to get them back, if it's possible at all, is through the expenditure of time. Believe it or not, your computer hardware is a lot cheaper to you now than is your time.

I learned this particular lesson early in my grad school career when I nearly lost my master's thesis as a result of a computer hiccup. And by "hiccup" what I really mean is "when my mainboard caught fire." Given the fact that my apartment reaches kiln-like temperatures during large portions of the year, I actually experimented with one potential solution: rebuilding the computer in a fridge. As it turns out, however, this isn't as good an idea as it sounds. The more permanent solution I have discovered, however, is a paranoid and rigorous system of backups. I will now explain this system for your benefit.

I have two computers: a desktop unit I keep at home and a laptop. The laptop is my primary work computer, as I prefer to work in the office, but the desktop remains part of my working life. Because I use two systems I need to keep copies of my files on each and don't want to have to constantly figure out which computer has the most up-to-date version of a file. So, what I did was this: I made the "My Documents" folder the desktop a shared directory and then mapped it as a network drive on my laptop. This means that, as far as the laptop is concerned, the desktop's folder is a local drive. Once this was done, I then told the laptop to make the content of that mapped drive available offline. What this means is that all the data in the desktop's folder will be copied and kept available on the laptop. I can then take the laptop to work with me, make changes, and when I return at night allow the software to automatically synchronize the two systems. It basically allows me to keep automatic quasi-realtime backups as the desktop backs up the laptop and vice versa.

The problem with this little system, however, is twofold: first, both of my backups will sometimes be in the same physical location (hellloooo robbery and house fires!) and, second, data corruption can fry both copies. What to do? Well, my solution is simple: I keep a large external harddrive in my office and, once a week, make a complete backup to it. The copying takes about an hour to complete but, because of the size of the drive, I can make redundant backups. Right now I have several months worth of sequentially more recent backups stored there. So, in the event that my data is corrupted I only have to back-track until I find a backup where the corruption does not exist.** And if my house burns down, I'm fine so long as the office remains intact.

This system has saved me from several harddrive failues over the years and has contributed a great deal to keeping me sane. There's nothing quite like watching your computer fling itself off of a digital cliff and sit there secure in the knowledge that it isn't holding your entire career hostage.

So, grad boys and girls, take it from your uncle Drek: figure out a backup system, use it, and sleep better at night.

For those two hours three times a week that you get to sleep, anyway.

* "For the love of god, get out now!"

** I'm sure some Apple fiend will want to remind me at this point about time machine. Fair enough, but your gloating isn't all that helpful to those of us with PCs, now is it?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meanwhile, back on Total Drek...

I'm busy this morning and do not have the time to do much blog-wise. So, in lieu of any great insight from me, allow me to direct you to two fantastic uses of your time.

The first is a dog's take on evolution. Perhaps more accurately, it's also a dog's take on the "debate" between science and intelligent design, and is pretty amusing.

The second is absolutely hysterical- a set of pictures of real-life science fair projects. Ah, that really brings back the memories!

Enjoy, and I'll hopefully see you tomorrow.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

I don't know whether I should laugh or cry.

I'm busy today, seeing as how I spent the morning helping my wife with her work, but I ran across this tasty tidbit of news that I thought y'all might appreciate. Many of you are probably familiar with Gardasil, the vaccine for HPV that should protect women from many kinds of cervical cancer. What you may not know is that, according to a guest poster on aetiology, it may also be effective in preventing something else: breast cancer.

Could Gardasil protect against other cancers, such as breast cancer?

Possibly. New studies from the University of New South Wales may indicate that this may indeed be the case. In the January 2008 edition of the British Journal of Cancer a lead investigator in this study Dr. Lawson explains that in 11 of 13 studies conducted in several countries HPV DNA from types 16, 18 and others was found in breast tumors. He goes on to state that an additional 5 epidemiological studies revealed there was indeed a relationship between the age of onset of breast cancer if that person was positive for HPV. In one study, Greek women developed breast cancer 15 years earlier if they had an HPV infection in their breast tissue. Many of these researchers went on to say that HPV could be transferred to the breast during sexual activities or from the genitals to breast during routine bathing. However, they were cautious to state that this research is still in its early stages and that a direct link between HPV and breast cancer needs to be more fully researched.

If this turns out to be true, it's super, super cool. A single vaccine may prove to be effective in stoping multiple kinds of different types of cancers. And given the number of women who die from breast cancer in the United States the potential impact is profound.* Or, in any case, the potential impact for those of us who believe in science is profound. The folks over on Conservapedia have their own ideas about gardasil. If it turns out that gardasil does help prevent breast cancer in addition to cervical cancer, I'm forced to wonder if that might perhaps be sufficient reason to consent to vaccinating our young women before they become sexually active.

But probably not in the eyes of most conservapeons. I don't mind that they have their own opinions, I just wish women didn't have to die for them.

* Not to mention that, were we to conquer breast cancer, we could stop coloring everything in the goddamn world a vile shade of pink to show our sensitivity to breast cancer.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Too true.

From the always excellent xkcd comes this wonderful comic that, more or less, exactly replicates an exchange between my wife and I:

Curse you, Conservapedia!

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Atheism: Part Two

Hey boys and girls, welcome back to the show. Today, as you might have guessed from the title, we're going to return to our new series where I discuss atheism. This series began mostly out of a sense of frustration at how poorly a lot of folks understand atheists. I followed that up with a discussion of why it is important to me to be an atheist and, more recently, we enjoyed an intermission where we examined a fairly typical attempt to show an atheist the error of his ways. It's been a busy series already and I feel like we've only just begun!

Today, we take up the second of my three promised topics: why it is important for me to talk about being an atheist. As always, keep in mind the standard caveats: I can really only speak for myself (as atheists don't have a central scripture or doctrine) and I am in no way attempting to convert anyone to my faith. In the case of the former caveat, I do attempt to speculate on how I think a lot of atheists see things but my remarks will likely apply most fully to strong materialist atheists like myself.* In the case of the latter caveat, I really and truly have no interest in swaying someone else to my perspective. If what I say makes you curious about atheism I will be happy to discuss it with you, but I in no way want any of you to become atheists.** We all spend too much time and energy thinking what other people want us to- exercise your personal freedom and make up your own mind.

So, all that said, why is it important to me to talk about being an atheist? I have, after all, admitted that I do not want to convert anyone, so why don't I just remain quiet? Why deal with all the hassle of trying to explain things to folks who often don't get it? Why not keep my atheism out of the sight, and minds, of others? Well, as you might expect, there are several reasons. The first, and simplest, has to do with the answer to our first question. It is important to me to talk about atheism for the simple reason that I don't believe that we should have to hide. Consider, for a moment, that my atheism is as central and important to my sense of self as another person's theistic beliefs are. A theist may experience the world as full of signs and portends signaling the presence and majesty of god. When an acquaintence or friend is going through a rough time, they may respond by saying, "I'll pray for you." This statement isn't an effort to convert the other person but, rather, is a simple and warm-hearted expression*** of the theist's self. The simple act of genuinely being who and what they are in itself reveals their metaphysical leanings. In the same sense, my way of understanding my world and of feeling about it is rooted in my atheistic belief. Given that, how on Earth could I avoid talking about being an atheist, to at least a limited extent? Oh, obviously I could hold my tongue every time the issue threatened to come up but, if I do, I'm concealing who and what I am. I can, and do, choose not to talk about parts of my life in many circumstances**** but when it is appropriate to discuss my atheism it is important to me that I be able to do so. Otherwise, people aren't talking to me so much as to a caricature of me designed to be relatively non-threatening.

This simple reason is not the entirety of my motivation, however. The second part of the importance I attach to talking about my atheism is that, to be blunt, atheists are not well thought of. There are a variety of reasons for this: the unfortunate and inaccurate association with totalitarianism, the self-absorbed writings of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, and even a certain amount of lingering distaste from earlier periods. The thing is, most atheists are quite invisible in society because we are not unethical exploiters of others. We are, in fact, at least as ethical and honorable as the average non-atheist. Yet, we remain feared and disliked. I believe, however, that the best way to dispel this idea that atheists are bad people is to be open about being an atheist and hope that my own behavior will serve as a sufficient counter-argument. After all, if atheists are assumed to be bad people and we never reveal ourselves enough to dispel this notion, we will continue to be regarded as bad people. It is important for me to talk about being an atheist because I would someday like to live in a world where I don't have to explain why I can be ethical AND be an atheist.

Finally, however, there is one last reason why it is important to me to talk about being an atheist: because there are other atheists. Consider, for a moment, what it is like growing up as a Christian: you are, by and large, surrounded by others who share your faith. If you have a question you can ask your parents, or your pastor, or your youth group leader. For that matter, there's a good chance that you have a youth group leader or a Sunday School teacher who provides authoritative instruction in the basic ideas and beliefs of your faith. There are places you can turn to discover what you are expected to do and how you are asked to feel. The thing is, none of this infrastructure exists for atheists. People that find themselves drifting towards atheism can have a very difficult time understanding what is happening or knowing whether or not it is okay. Trying to ask religious parents or friends about these thoughts and feelings often ends badly, as Brad Wright has previously observed. Often this negativity may emerge because a person who is becoming an atheist is often thought of as deconverting- as losing or moving away from something. From my perspective, and it's a perspective I suspect many other atheists share, this is in fact a process of moving towards something. This is probably why my earlier distinction between weak and strong atheism is so crucial- the strong atheist hasn't just relinquished religious faith, they have gained a new structure of beliefs.

For some, becoming an atheist may be a little like the opening scene in Carrie when the protaganist experiences her first menstrual period but, not having been educated about it in advance, is terrified. She believes something is wrong with her and fearfully reaches out for help. Unfortunately as we know, Carrie was mocked and rejected by other students at her school, adding to her misery, and the young atheist may, likewise, be mocked and ostracised by those around them. The unfortunate truth is that, right now, a young person who finds themselves gravitating toward atheism may be completely unable to find any guidance in the process. Often all they will find are exasperated demands to "return to the fold," or some such thing.

Eventually atheists manage to figure things out and decide what they believe. Moreover, eventually atheist come to understand that what they believe is okay- that it doesn't make them evil. From there, however, the atheist has to figure an awful lot of things out by themselves. This was not an easy task for me as a young man and I doubt that I will ever be completely done with it.***** Yet, looking back on the experience now, I wonder how much less traumatic becoming an atheist might have been had I examples of stable adult atheists to draw from. I do not believe that strong materialist atheists are very common, nor do I believe that we will ever be very common, yet by concealing ourselves we make things so much harder on those few who will someday join our ranks. We force them, however inadvertently, to suffer in isolation and silence when we could make ourselves available to talk, to help, and to guide. This is intolerable. I can talk about being an atheist, I can simply work to create space for others like me to live in, and I can hope that this makes a difference. I honestly believe that atheism is a deeply rewarding way of living and, as a consequence, I want to help proto-atheists find their own happiness in it. If people flirt with atheism and eventually decide against it, that's just fine, but if someone decides atheism is right for them, I'd like there to be a welcoming presence waiting for them.

I can also hope that in the process of writing this series I don't descend into pointless melodrama.****** Hey, everyone needs a dream, right? In any case, this concludes the second installment of our series on atheism. Tune in next time when I finally get around to discussing why being an atheist makes me happy. Or, if we're lucky, when I harpoon yet another ill-advised conversion attempt. Either way, it should be a hoot.

See you then.

* If you're not sure what a strong materialist atheist is, see the discussion here.

** There are days, actually, when I think that the worst thing that could happen to atheism is for it to become more popular. Nothing kills a good philosophy like mass-popularity.

*** I, of course, don't include the more aggressive version of "I'll pray for you" here. You know, the one that emerges when you tell someone that you're an atheist/homosexual/democrat/etc. and they respond, "Oh, well, I'll pray for you." Um.... thanks.

**** For example, I absolutely do not discuss my religion in the classroom. It isn't relevant to that and, indeed, discussing it would likely be an abuse of my authority.

***** Perhaps more accurately, I hope I don't ever figure everything out completely. I mean, what the hell is the point of living if you have all the answers already?

****** Too late.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

K.I.S.S. my ass.

As some of you may know I am the son of an engineer. This probably helps to explain my love of machinery and technology in general as well as a certain portion of my natural pragmatism. Engineers are, in my experience, rather gadget-obsessed and certainly like to think of themselves as hard-headed. This also means that I was raised on the simple engineering acronym "K.I.S.S." which means "Keep It Simple, Stupid"* and is more or less an admonishment against developing a solution that is unnecessarily complex. The idea is that the more complex a machine is the more parts that can go wrong, so overbuilding will just create problems down the road. A simple example of this is that you've probably had your car in the repair shop much more frequently over the years than your hammer. One of these machines is, quite obviously, more complex than the other and thus is more prone to failure.** In any case, my long time education in the wonders of K.I.S.S. probably accounts for my current appreciation for parsimony, the scientific preference for the simplest explanation that accounts for the observations. In some ways it relies on the same logic as K.I.S.S., just phrased differently.

Nonetheless, the thing about K.I.S.S. and parsimony is that you have to be very careful that you don't get so focused on the "simple" that you forget the "solution." In engineering or in science a solution is meant to deal with some particular problem and, while simple is good, a straightforward approach that doesn't fix the problem is not preferred over a somewhat more complex approach that does fix the problem. K.I.S.S. and parsimony are really only good standards for judging between solutions that are equally good at dealing with problems or, at the very least, very close to equally good. I bring this up because people very frequently take a preference for simplicity to extreme lengths, and often end up paying a price for it.

To understand what I mean, consider this comic from the excellent xkcd:

Humorous as this may be, it depicts a process that is familiar to any student of social psychology and, particularly, someone conversant*** with Status Characteristics Theory. This theory, for those who don't know, deals with how certain traits increase or decrease our rank within social groups. A characteristic (e.g. skin color, sex, age, training, habit, etc.) that influences one's rank is said to confer status and, so, is a status characteristic. Particularly, status characteristics come in two different flavors: diffuse and specific. A diffuse status characteristic is one that impacts your rank in a wide variety of different circumstances whereas a specific status characteristic only influences your rank in a limited set. So, being white in the American southeast**** can be thought of as a diffuse status characteristic because it boosts one's rank in a variety of situations, whereas being an electrician will only boost status in situations dealing with electricity and wiring. Additionally, diffuse status characteristics are often easily observed while specific status is harder to see. So, you know within seconds of meeting me if I'm male or female, white or black, but it probably takes you longer to figure out if I'm good with computers or handy with a hacksaw.

What's interesting is that because diffuse status characteristics have such a broad influence, they often cause us to assume incorrectly that a person will be good at a given task. So, I sometimes get to read over on Uncommon Descent about an engineer or computer programmer who doubts evolution. This is fine but, the thing is, what do either of these occupations have to do with evolutionary biology? Well, nothing. Being either indicates that the person is pretty well educated, and education is a diffuse status characteristic, but engineering and computer programming do not confer any particular expertise in evaluating biological science. Yet, because education serves as a diffuse status characteristic, the doubts of these folks are supposed to be convincing in and of themselves.*****

And, in the above comic, we can see this same process playing out. You see, studies suggest that sex serves as a diffuse status characteristic in which (surprise surprise!) maleness is more valued than femaleness. As such, in interactions males are given a disproportionate share of attention, of credit, and of deference. The thing is, the same process can also work in apportioning blame. When one male discovers that another male is bad at math he makes an attribution about the cause, asserting "You suck at math." This is okay- it's a claim about the level of a specific status characteristic. When a female makes the same error, however, the diffuse status characteristic comes into play and he asserts that "Girls suck at math." Because femaleness is thought to be less valuable than maleness, the observation that a specific female is bad at a thing reinforces the original belief that femaleness is bad. Because one female is bad at math all females are now taken as being bad at math. On the other hand, because maleness is valued the observation that a specific male is bad at something is just cause to conclude that a specific male is bad at something. It's a version of that old favorite game, "Heads I win, tails you lose," and it helps to explain why status orders are so gosh darned resistant to change.

And this, unfortunately, has a lot to do with K.I.S.S. Diffuse status characteristics are convenient ways to make guesses about the competence of others but they provide no certainty. So, if you encounter someone who has the low value of a diffuse status characteristic, and who is poor at some task, it's easy to explain the one with reference to the other. It is, in effect, a nice simple explanation. But, as we've figured out by now, simple is sometimes just another word for wrong. It's good to keep things simple, but not so much so that our solutions don't work anymore.

Perhaps in the end the most important lesson of all is that our judgments of other people may simply be wrong.

* I once worked for a man who had a certain amount of difficulty with this acronym, explaining it as, "Keep It Stupidly Simple." If you're familiar with the English language you have already realized that this entirely changes the meaning. Oddly, however, he inadvertently hit on a better way to describe our products. Ah, serendipity.

** And I don't mean the hammer.

*** I refer here to my wife. The most complicated thing I'm conversant with is putting my pants on in the morning.

**** Not to mention a wide variety of other places in the United States.

***** Note that I don't object to these folks having opinions, or even disagreeing with established authorities. I just disagree with their educational credentials being used to lend credibility to those doubts. Hell, I'm educated, I believe in evolution, but I don't think that it's legitimate to try to convince someone by saying, "I almost have a Ph.D. in Sociology so you can trust me about quantum physics!"

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Taking a break from all my worries...

Last week was kind of a downer- posts about bigots, posts about fools, posts about bigotted fools, and even a post about a crazed gunman. It wasn't a good week for Totak Drek or the world in general. So, today, I've decided to talk about something a little lighter.

More than that, today I'm briefly talking about something that only a handful of y'all are likely to enjoy. I'm sure most of you, by now, realize that I'm a science fiction fan. In recent times I, like many others, have become familiar with concepts like the singularity and transhumanism, but like many others I was raised on the older strain of sci-fi. I particularly refer to works by Robert Heinlein and his contemporaries- books and stories that depicted humans pushing outwards into space with little more than a hope, a prayer, and a circular sliderule. This was sci-fi in the old form, when computers were the size of small rooms and the answer to every problem had the word "atomic" in it somewhere. It was a more innocent kind of sci-fi, and I miss it dearly sometimes.

Fortunately for me, my longing for the classic days of science fiction has recently been soothed by a peculiar website. Ever wondered how much of those classic tales really made sense? Ever wanted to see an in-depth analysis of various types of drives for space travel? Well, friends, look no farther than Atomic Rocket, the website that answers all your questions about space travel in excruciating detail. That said, however, the technical analysis is mixed in with excerpts from relevant books and short stories and everything includes a good dose of humor. Particularly, I recommend the section on common misconceptions, covering topics like stealth in space and the need to keep cool. Awesome stuff for the novice and amateur expert alike, and all very well researched.

So, head on over and take a look. I know that Tom, at least, will be interested, but the rest of you lot would benefit from the experience. As for me, I'll just be slaving away here and tomorrow will (most likely) be helping my wife with some of her work, so you'd best make Atomic Rocket last for two days if you know what I mean.

And I think you do.

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Friday, February 15, 2008


As one might expect, we here at Total Drek would like to extend our sympathies to the families of those slain at Northern Illinois University. For those who do not know already, five people were killed and sixteen wounded when a gunman entered a geology class and opened fire with a pair of weapons. Or, as the Washington Post puts it:

DEKALB, Ill., Feb. 14 -- Without saying a word, a gunman dressed in black opened fire in a Northern Illinois University geology class Thursday, killing five students and wounding 16. He fired at random, authorities said, until the moment he killed himself.

Students screamed and crawled on their bellies to escape the auditorium in Cole Hall as bullets and buckshot flew. The gunman, a former graduate student in sociology, carried a shotgun and two handguns. Police said he volunteered no motive before he died.

It's difficult to know how to feel about this, particularly given that the shooter appears to come from my own discipline. I wonder how many times he and I passed each other at the ASAs or regional conferences. I wonder if I ever saw him present or reviewed one of his articles. I wonder what it was that drove him to commit such a terrible act.* Particularly, I wonder about how his former department is doing- to have counted a senseless murderer among your own must be a strange experience. For whatever it may be worth, NIU-Sociology, I think today you have the sympathy of the entire discipline. Indeed, I think today much of the country has nothing but sympathy for the folks at NIU. Well, with the exception of Conservapedia who, as is their custom, are engaging in a spot of victim-blaming:

I have never been more convinced that Conservapedia not only represents the minority of Americans, it represents the worst minority.

Take care, NIU.

* While opinions may vary I strongly doubt that grad school, as difficult as it is, drove him to kill. I suppose it is possible it was a proximate cause but, really, I'm betting a considerable amount of pre-existing pathology had to be in place first.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Atheism: Intermission

Regular readers of the blog know that a while back I promised to start a series of posts on atheism and, more recently, that I began such a series. I have, so far, been rather pleased at how this has been going. Alas, I recently realized that amidst all this warm and fuzy affect I had overlooked something I should not have. While writing this series may well help me explain atheism to the genuinely curious it is also likely to make me stick out like a halogen spotlight to a variety of internet cranks. Such is the life of a blogger who allows his blog to be indexed by google.

Which is what brings me to today's post. My first post on atheism has garnered a comment from an individual calling himself "Bob Bag of Doughnuts." The comment is less a comment and more an essay purportedly in response to my post. I say purportedly because it is evident, as you shall see, that Bob Bag of Doughnuts has grievously misinterpreted rather a lot of what I said. So, today for your reading pleasure, we're going to go through Bob's essay bit by bit and analyze it, both in terms of the arguments he makes and the manner in which he makes them. And hopefully, when we're all done, we'll understand a little bit better why appeals like Bob's are almost always counter-productive.

Below, Bob's essay is in block quotes while my responses/commentary are in regular script. All bolding is original.

For Theism

Hello, I've read your argument and I'd like to put forth my own Counter-argument. What is the web if not a place for a discussion? So I will begin:

Hi! You're more than welcome to advance your own arguments and, frankly, I agree that the internet is a good place for discussion.

The most basic need for Man is to reconnect to his Creator. To try and understand and bond the temporary with the eternal. My argument, and my rejection of your statements, is meant to lay out some fundamental axioms of my own interpretations of this need.

Well, already you're running into trouble. Your first sentence presupposes the existence of a creator being. This is perfectly fine for you but for me, an atheist, it is highly problematic. Since I don't believe in a creator god, any claims based on such a being are pretty much automatically going to be discounted. Put another way, if statement B relies upon statement A and someone doesn't accept statement A, then they're never going to accept statement B.

God is Love
Man must have faith that a loving God exists in order to bridge the gap between the temporary and the eternal. I don't believe that God created the universe, and us, to love and protect just to ignore us.

I don't believe that god created the universe at all (since I don't believe god exists) and thus the issue of whether or not a hypothetical being is or is not ignoring us is more or less irrelevant. I also have to point out that there are logical possibilities other than "God created the universe and loves us" and "God created the universe and ignores us." It's also possible that, were there a god, he or she created the universe and dislikes us. We could be, for all intents and purposes, like the mold that grows on leftovers in the fridge. Sure we as humans are responsible for the conditions that produced the aforementioned mold, but that doesn't mean we're pleased to have it around. Similarly, humans could be an unavoidable and undesirable byproduct of whatever it is god is really trying to do, much as theologians argue that evil is an unavoidable byproduct of free will. I, personally, don't think that humans are intrinsically bad or anything (not least because I don't believe in original sin) but it's a logical possibility.

Weak vs. Strong?
You mention this conflict quite a bit. Weak vs. Strong? Might makes right? This makes right and wrong?

Okay, now we have a problem. I didn't talk about a conflict, I talked about a typology. "Weak" and "Strong" are terms used to classify types of atheist thought. I was in no way referring to coercive force, which appears to be where you're going with it. Moreover, this is so obvious from what I wrote that I can only assume that you didn't actually read my post. If you're genuinely curious, no, I do not think that might makes right. Sadly, however, I'm pretty sure you're about to indulge in a rather foolish stereotype about atheists.

That's like saying Hitler had some army - so it was cool for him to conquer people that didn't have an army. That is Fascism. No matter how you frame a slaughter - it will always be fascism. You are applying the law of the jungle to spirituality.

My amusement at this demonstration of Godwin's Law aside, my post never states or implies that might makes right. Moreover, no offense, but slaughter does not automatically indicate fascism since pretty much every type of government ever used has, at one time or another, engaged in actions that could be classified as slaughter.

How can the sick ethos of a child rapist (weak vs. strong) apply to your frustrated attempts to understand a universal super being? It's not "only natural" for humans to take advantage of one another - it's wrong. Really wrong.

Okay, now you're just embarrassing yourself. Seriously. In the last two paragraphs you've compared me to Hitler and a child rapist based solely on a trivially incorrect reading of my argument. This is the written equivalent of a kindergartner screaming, "Well you're a poopie head!" at a peer. Go read my original post- carefully- and then we can talk about the typology of atheism if you want to.

God is Moral
The fundamental wrongness of say, running over elderly women in your bitchin' Mustang - is something that no man or father had to teach us. Ever. You know it is wrong - so, how?

This is an interesting argument given the preoccupation of religious education with inculcating a particular type of morals. If your contention were correct, wouldn't it be the case that humans would have to be taught how to be immoral? In any case, I somewhat agree with you to the extent that humans are predisposed towards behaviors that are pro-social because such a predisposition is an evolutionary advantage for a group-species like ours. What that means in terms of actual behaviors, however, depends rather strongly on the structure of society as a whole.

It seems that God has wired us up in such a way that we understand all these things at the moment of conception. His Laws are in our bird brains from day one. We are taught, in our hearts, that hatred is wrong by our Creator - naturally, genetically and perpetually.

Are you even serious? Leaving aside the incredible difficulty of showing that morality is inserted into a collection of cells that lack even a rudimentary nervous system, hatred is a pretty widespread and even natural emotion. It's common to pretty much all types of intolerance, including the religious intolerance that provides the foundation for crusades and jihads. Having said that it is natural, however, do not interpret that to mean "good." Sepsis following a serious wound is "natural" but I wouldn't say it's good. What is more human than attempting to change ourselves, and our world, to be better?

How can an Atom understand an Amoeba?
If, in this example, Man is an atom and God is an amoeba, how can we (as a single celled organism) be able to ask the right questions let alone to find any larger cosmic answers? We sense His movements in our lives with a limited capability of seeing the waters of time and space that surround us.

Okay, first off, an atom is not a single celled organism. If you think it is you are a bitter disappointment to your chemistry, biology and physics teachers. Second, this is one of the most often repeated arguments about god and one of the least convincing. One of the amazing things about science is that the longer we study the world the more sublimely elegant it appears to be. What is confusing becomes less confusing. The answers, of course, are far from simple or easy to comprehend, but they at least make a kind of sense. Yet, the longer we study the concept of god and the assertions made about it, the less sense it makes. Contradictions pile up and are shielded behind the handwaving defense that god works in mysterious ways. I see no reason to believe that a creator would be infinitely more irrational than his or her creation.

Agnosticism is the refuge of an unworthy vessel.
God hasn't spoke to you as a torched bush or handed you any stone tablets lately, huh? Get over it.

This is a pretty interesting, and funny, rhetorical strategy. You're implying that requiring some sort of proof for god's existence is more or less just being petulant. Yet, that's really all you've got going here- just an implication. I might as well have said, "You haven't seen an amphibian evolve into a reptile this week? Get over it." It's an equally condescending remark and just as ineffective. Now, that said, there happens to be considerable evidence for the evolution of life. Yet, when it comes to god, unicorns, and bigfoot,* matters are somewhat different.

Perhaps, He has been even more active in your life than your realize or dare to admit? In the book of Job, Elihu, a friend to Job during his trials, says to him, "God speaks once, twice, even three times to us - although we hear him not."

Ah yes. And we're back to the "god works in mysterious ways" schtick again.

Bunnyists and Santaists (yes as in Claus)
Why is it that when a middle aged man glues on a fake beard and hops into a chewed up bright red suit no one shakes their head? Why do they shake their heads when some mentions Christ or the prophets? Why is it that egg bearing rabbits are more welcome to us than the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount? Why is the Information Age so full of useless information? I have no use for this. I do have a use for wisdom.

What the hell are you even talking about? The rituals of your religion are not my problem to explain. Moreover, if Christians are more preoccupied with the Easter Bunny than with scripture, how is that something an atheist must answer for?

Jesus was an Uncool Terrorist

I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think any terrorist could be described as "cool." My opinions on Jesus aside, I also don't think he could be described as a "terrorist." A rebel, perhaps, but not a terrorist.

Even at the most skeptical point of view you and I can admit this: Two thousand or so years ago, a profound and brilliant dude walked in a dark world.

No. No we can't. I think the stories told about Jesus are often full of considerable wisdom BUT those stories were, by and large, written down a century or more after his purported death. I rather suspect that the actual man Jesus was not nearly as brilliant and profound as the stories about him would suggest. If it makes you feel better, though, I also have my doubts about Buddha.

Butchery and barbarity was the way of the world he lived in. Savage cults and terrible slaughters defined the ancient world. He was a poor man from poor people who lived in an occupied backwater city at the edge of an empire. His life and his peoples lives where defined by poverty, punishment and backbreaking toil for their oppressors.

This is a staggering simplification of the ancient world. The Roman empire was, by comparison to many other ancient cultures, quite reasonable and dignified. In many ways it was superior to the nation states of Europe that emerged centuries later. Additionally, while the Israelites were under the dominion of Rome they were hardly the enslaved people you depict them as.

And do you know what this uncool weirdo said?

I am the Prince of Peace.

So the Strong folks - the Romans and the Pharisees, didn't like that very much. How could they? This was a dangerous concept to their authority. Interesting to note here that the word fascism comes from a Latin word "fasces" - basically a big ass nightstick that roman centurions would use to beat the snot out of the locals at this time.

You know, interestingly, the Romans objected much more to the monotheism of early Christianity than to any claims about peace.

Now. After this "dangerous" renegade was betrayed he went to his horrible death. And no one forgot him. In fact, men and women followed his example of spiritual strength and faith for many hundreds of years. They built hospitals and formed orders just to take care of the "weak" because some uncool terrorist asked them to.

The most emotionally resounding work of our civilization is based on faith. And not the faith that a light bulb will turn on when you flip a switch or that your car will start when you turn a metal key. I mean Faith in humanity. Faith that we as a species will overcome our fear and doubt and disease to be something better than an animal.

And here we have at least one point of agreement: we have achieved much through faith in humanity. We are capable of great things and we have done great things. We will continue to do great things. This is what it means to be human- to constantly struggle to become more than you were before. If Jesus has provided the inspiration for some people to carry through with this great work, I have no objection.

That faith is rewarded with Love. Love that comes from one source and one source only - God. The love of our fathers, our brothers, our friends and wives begins and ends with God.

And for that I pity you, for you apparently believe that you lack the capacity to love whereas I believe that you do not.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to present another view.

So do I have any summary at the end of all this? Well, just this: if you're going to try and convert an atheist you should remember two things at a bare minimum. First, pay attention to their actual statements. I said nothing in my post to imply that might makes right yet Bob gave me a lengthy discussion about how I was like Hitler. If you want to discuss my faith with me, that's fine, but discuss it. Don't pretend to listen to me and then unload with your own pre-digested pap. Second, if you want to try to convert an atheist you need to bring your A-game. You are not, in all likelihood, the first person to try and convince me that god exists. I am likely already familiar with the common arguments. Do you seriously think you're the first person to try to convince me that Jesus was teh awesome? Either be creative or just give it a rest.

Otherwise we're not discussing, you're preaching at and I'm being preached to. If that was gonna work, I don't think we'd be having this little chat in the first place.

* Actually, in perfect honesty, I think I have to admit that the case for bigfoot is a lot stronger than the case for god.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Total Drek receives a ten from the East German judge.

Some of you may notice that blogging (from me at least) is light this week. The reason is not that I've grown bored of blogging,* but rather that I am presently assisting my wife with important work of her own. As such my schedule right now is pretty chaotic. Sorry about that but, hey, I live with her and just correspond with you on the internet- you do the math.

In the meantime, a loyal reader recently made me aware of something that I can only describe as "truly awesome." It sums up, in one video clip, both the reasons why I avoid watching local news and the most compelling argument to date as to why I should stop:

I dunno what's best: the totally deadpan way the announcer reads the note or the woman's final remarks.** Classic.

That's all from me today- tune in again on Friday for more Drekish goodness.

Or, you know, don't. It's up to you.

* As it happens I'm more or less convinced that blogging has become a nervous habit for me. Some people drink, I blog. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which is more self-destructive.

** Note that the source of my amusement is not the theft of a Jesus statue but, rather, the mismatch between the humor of the ransom note and the total lack thereof in the "victim." All this story needs to be complete is Frank Drebin.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

They Keep Pulling Me Back In

Hi Drekkers.

A new volley in the culture wars was made in my local deep south newspaper last week, and this time it was concerned one of this site's all-time favorite topics: Intelligent Design. Well, being an avid Drek reader, as well as an occasional contributor, I felt overwhelmingly compelled to reply and reasonably well-armed to do so.

Well I did, and they printed it today, so... for whatever it's worth I thought I'd share Sisyphean pursuits with y'all. (DAMN! I mean "you").

So, I was faced with this unprovoked attack on reason last week:

All signs point to intelligent design

Why teach evolution with a closed mind?

It is one thing to accept the observations of science and another to blindly accept the non-observed, unproven and down-right impossible evolutionary model claimed as science. Granted, evolutionary viewpoints are uncomfortable to creationists, but there is actually less science in them than in the scientific creation model.

There is more information found in the DNA of the ‘simple’ living cell than contained in more than 20 million pages of an encyclopedia, and it didn’t write itself. With any design we know there must be a designer.

Common descent does not necessarily point only to evolution but also to a common designer of every kind of living thing. Evolution has only produced horizontal change within a kind or species and has never produced an upward change or a new kind.

To produce an upward change or new kind would require additional DNA information and that has never been found or observed. Found only are mutations, better known as birth defects, and they are always negative and detrimental to a species.

The designs of the ‘simple’ cell and the computer both contain information. We know that the computer did not happen by a big bang at Radio Shack and we should know the jump from chemicals to living organisms containing information could not occur without the help of a designer.

The only evolutionary transitional form ever found is a fish with legs on an evolutionist’s bumper sticker.

Ok. so what was I to do? Remember, 1) letters to the editor are limited to 250 words, and 2) I don't have a gun and don't know where this guy lives.
So, this is what I sent. I hope it's what Drek would have:

Pointing Away from Intelligent Design

To reasonably address all the unfounded statements based on tortured logic and fundamental misconceptions in Tom Weir’s letter hyping “Intelligent Design” (ID) would take far more space than this forum provides. The evolutionary tenet that complex things arise occasionally from simple things is both demonstrable and documented. It is also a fundamental paradigm of biology as we know it.

There may at some level be a “designer”, but theorizing so is like saying Jack Frost makes snowflakes. True, snowflakes are seemingly complex and beautiful, but that does not imply intelligence– and nature is far better understood without imagining it has a personality driving it. Scientists have overwhelmingly accepted this principle. That is why we don’t teach the “Jack Frost theory” in schools.

ID is not “science” by any definition we have. If readers are swayed by the ID argument, they owe it to themselves to look up some of the many critiques and debunkings of its assertions (see, e.g., before they side with what amounts to a conspiracy theory or a fairy tale.

Not my best work, maybe, but I had to send it off quick.
The most encouraging thing was the call I got from the editor. They do this to check that you’re in fact a local resident. But the guy who called me seemed genuinely curious who I was – when I moved here, where I worked, etc. He ended the call by unsarcastically thanking me for providing an “enlightened” viewpoint. How ‘bout that? It got published 5 days later.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Just when I think I'm used to it...

I am once more amazed at how hateful the kids over on Conservapedia can be. Two particular instances of this general trend are of interest at the moment. The lesser of the two is their headline about Richard Dawkins:

For those who don't want to read, allow me to transcribe:

Richard Dawkins is leaving his Charles Simonyi "post" at Oxford without ever becoming the "Charles Simonyi Professor" that Dawkins claims on his own resume. There now is an outpouring of the atheistic substitute for love for him, and Dawkins deftly declines one request by a fan to continue calling him "professor".

Leaving aside the bit about whether or not Dawkins is a professor* I have to say I think the whole "...atheistic substitute for love" bit is just plain vicious. As crazy as the Conservapeons make me, I have never accused them of being goat-raping baby eaters or of being incapable of love. They, on the other hand, routinely do that and more to atheists. Which of us all, then, seems to have the greater capacity for tolerance and love?

I'm just sayin.

The more horrid of my recent discoveries on Conservapedia comes from the page on Barack Obama and includes a sentence in the summary section that I think might interest you:

For those who don't want to read, the infamous sentence, referring to candidate Obama, is:

He has no clear personal achievement that cannot be explained as the likely result of affirmative action.

Just fucking awesome. I mean, I could really point out that Andrew Schlafly has no personal achievement that cannot be explained as the likely result of having been born from a raging lunatic, but generally speaking I don't engage in that sort of ad hominem.

I can do nothing but shake my head in amazement.

* Basically, they contend that because Dawkins is not presently in a tenure-track academic position he does not warrant the title "professor." Those of us in academia, on the other hand, are well aware that tenure track is not necessary to being referred to as a professor. Beyond that, I have no detailed knowledge of the intricacies of Dawkins' posting.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Black Mesa Research Facility Technical Support FAQ:

Thank you for accessing the Black Mesa Research Facility Technical Support Frequently Asked Questions file! This file should help you with common difficulties experienced by employees of the Black Mesa facility. If this file does not help you, please fill out a trouble ticket and submit it to technical support.

1. I can't access my e-mail with the web utility.

ANSWER: The web utility has been disabled for security purposes. For improved security and reliability all e-mail must be accessed using Microsoft Outlook.

2. I've set up Outlook, but the e-mail server keeps reporting that my password in invalid.

ANSWER: New policies require that employees change their passwords once every thirty days. You may change your password using the personal information editing tool located online.

3. I keep trying to change my password but the system won't accept it!

ANSWER: Black Mesa Technical Support has installed password monitoring software to ensure that your password conforms to industry standards for security. You must supply a password that is sufficiently complex. Here are a few tips:

  • You must choose a password that is at least ten characters long.
  • You must use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  • You may not use any words found in the English, French, German, Russian or Spanish languages.
  • You may not use profanity.
  • You may not use more than two vowels in your password.
  • You may not use "Y" at all.
  • You must capitalize at least three letters.
  • You may not have two or more capitalized letters adjacent to one another.
  • You may not have any symbols adjacent to any capitalized letters.
  • You may not use a letter, number, or symbol more than once.

Remember: You must change your password every thirty days.

4. The password requirements are too restrictive!

ANSWER: While they may seem difficult to work with at first, you will find that the new password restrictions are easy and fun! You can make lots of easy to remember passwords like, QwtHi#3^pJ and Vk#4Ri8Ft~

5. I need to install new equipment controls on my computer but it says I don't have administrator priviledges.

ANSWER: To improve security all administrator priviledges have been revoked. If you would like new software installed on your computer please fill out a technical support ticket online. One of our skilled technicians will take care of the installation in 4-6 hours.

6. I've been trying to use the anti-mass spectrometer in the anomalous materials laboratory for hours but the control software won't open!

ANSWER: To improve security we have locked all users out of all programs except for Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel. If you want to activate lab equipment you must submit a technical support ticket online. We will temporarily unlock the software in 4-6 hours.

7. I can't fill out a technical support ticket asking you to unlock my broswer because you've locked my browser.

ANSWER: Let us know if anything changes.

8. I was just down in sub-basement B-31-Delta and there's radioactive sludge venting into the drainage canals!

ANSWER: We have applied a patch to the pumping control system that locks the radioactive sludge vents into the "on" position. This resolves a security issue in which some virus programs could corrupt cookie data in Internet Explorer 3.0.

8. The WiFi keeps dropping my computer!

ANSWER: To improve security we have installed software that randomly reassigns IP addresses every six and a half minutes. Some computers may experience delays of up to three minutes in resetting their IP addresses.

9. Help! I'm locked out of the anti-mass spectrometer's emergency shutdown control!

ANSWER: Submit a technical support ticket via the online system and we will unlock the emergency shutdown control in 4-6 hours.

10. I've been going around in circles in the rail tunnels for hours! The remote track changer isn't functioning!

ANSWER: The remote track changer has been disabled. It was part of a security vulnerability in which remote users could, potentially, take control of your computer's desktop themes. To change tracks throw a rock firmly at the track control lever as your rail car goes past.

11. The blast doors have been triggered by the fire and now I'm trapped!

ANSWER: The blast door emergency open controls were disabled to correct a security flaw in which a remote user could delete your favorites file.

12. I'm trying to call out and alert the authorities to an invasion by hostile aliens but the system won't let me!

ANSWER: To reduce costs long distance calls have been disabled unless you have an appropriate access code.

13. How do I obtain a long distance calling access code?

ANSWER: You must submit a technical support ticket via the online system. We will provide you with a code within 4-6 hours. Your call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.

14. Where are you? I want to beat you to death with this crowbar.

ANSWER: We apologize for the inconvenience but Black Mesa Research Facility's Technical Support staff is leaving to bring our expertise to Drek State University! With our help, soon their computing resources will be as secure as Black Mesa's.

Thank you for accessing the FAQ file!

Hail Lord Satan,

The Black Mesa Research Facility Technical Support Staff

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Chasing Venus

If the title of today's post seems a little vague that's because I could be referring to a lot of things. To aid in your interpretation, I am not talking about the Greek Goddess, nor am I speaking of all womankind, or even my wife (although she is hot). No, specifically I mean the planet Venus, the second world from our sun and our nearest planetary neighbor.* You might wonder how I can chase a planet located at a considerable remove from my own but the answer is pretty simple: I jog a lot.

No, seriously, that really is the answer. See, I go running more mornings than not and always at the same time. Specifically, my running time is early enough that during a large portion of the year I am out before the sun rises. I actually love that time of day when things are still and the stars are visible overhead. One of the most prominent stars that I see each morning, however, is the planet Venus. As our closest planetary neighbor it is quite bright and is usuaully hanging low in the eastern sky.** The funny thing is, because I get up and run at the same time every morning, year round, I get to watch Venus dance through the heavens. Like a flip-book that I see one page a day, I witness Venus on its yearly cycle. As the weeks pass by I watch Venus drift around until, at the end of one year, it returns to the same place it started. It's an experience I think most people don't get anymore and I treasure it.

The funny thing, though, is that what I find neatest about all this is the way it is so regular. Venus reminds me that as chaotic as our world may seem it is, in fact, characterized by a deep and sublimely beautiful order.*** The same processes and mechanisms play out day after day, year after year, with the sort of precision that would be valued in a fine clock. Really Venus is the perfect analogy for the battle between the regular and the irregular- the same word denotes a planet that obeys consistent physical laws and a goddess known for her capricious behavior. Some of us chase it while others chase her. For my part, I chase it and find it incredibly reassuring to notice that my world really does behave itself. This is, most likely, why I feel such kinship to the skeptics that hang out over at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skepchick. Skeptics can be unbelievable assholes but they also tend to be big believers in regularity and predictability- things I see reflected in the universe at large.

So, given my preferences, I often find myself arguing for the value of skepticism and rational thought. I'm proud of that because, really, I don't think either are given enough credit anymore. Sadly, advocating skepticism isn't exactly an easy job- particularly when it comes to things like homeopathy- for the simple reason that people often wonder, "What's the harm?" After all, if someone wants to integrate herbal remedies into their health regimen, where's the harm? Well, nowhere when you put it like that. The problem is a lot of folks just don't know when to stop- and this reality is the inspiration behind the website What's the harm. What's the point of this site? Well, I'll let it speak for itself:

We are all confronted with new information daily. It comes to us via newspapers, radio, television, websites, conversation, advertising and so on. Sometimes it seems like a deluge.

Not all information is created equal. Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy.

It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest. This requires the skill of critical thinking. Unfortunately, this is a skill that is often neglected in schools.

This site is designed to make a point about the danger of not thinking critically. That point is that you can easily be injured or killed by neglecting this important skill. We have collected the stories of over 20,000 people who have been injured or killed as a result of someone not thinking critically.

We do this not to make light of their plight. Quite the opposite. We want to honor their memory and learn from their stories.

We also wish to call attention to the types of misinformation which have caused this sort of harm.

Read on to encounter these stories about the danger of ignoring critical thinking.

In effect, then, it's a catalog purporting to show off exactly what kind of harm believing in nonsense can cause. Often it's pretty effective, too- the section on homeopathy provides quite a few instances where these "remedies" did, indeed, have an adverse effect on people's lives. On the other hand, some of the sections are a little... dumb- such as the entries for creationism. Nonetheless, it's an interesting attempt to really answer the question "What's the harm?"

Okay, some of you are probably sensing a "but" coming up here. If so, you're correct, I do have a reservation about all this. My concern is that, interesting as this website is, it relies on some of the same faulty logic that allows nonsense like homeopathy to survive. In fact, in some ways it reminds me of the "Headlines" section over at Conservapedia. Sure it lists some of the poor outcomes but it also fails to give us any context to put those outcomes in. So there are 72 serious injuries or fatalities listed in the homeopathy section- how does that compare to the size of the population actually using homeopathic "medicines"? Maybe homeopathic remedies can cause this kind of mayhem but how often do they really do so as opposed to operating as an otherwise harmless placebo?**** I feel like this website, howsoever laudable its goal, has the flavor of a chain letter. Why not just print in big letters: "Betty Wilson of Vancouver didn't use homeopathy and she won the lottery. Steve Killaren of Boston did use homeopathy and he was ripped apart by wild dogs"? I mean, to the best of my knowledge dog attack isn't one of the potential side effects from quack remedies, but you never know, right?

I don't want to be too hard on this site- I agree with its basic purpose- but I think that we have to be careful how we go about these sorts of things. In the service of our own points we should not employ the kinds of arguments that we decry in others.

And as we chase Venus we shouldn't get confused about just what it is that we're after.

* A lot of people assume that Mars is closer since it gets more attention. Not true! The gap between each planet and the next gets larger as you move away from the sun and Mars is more distant from the sun than the Earth while Venus is closer to the sun than we are.

** Because Venus is closer to the sun than the Earth we can only observe it shortly before dawn and shortly after dusk when we face away from the sun but still towards the inner solar system. This is also why people often mistake Venus for airplanes- it's so low and bright they fail to identify it for what it really is. In any case I say it is USUALLY hanging low in the eastern sky because, sometimes, it's much easier to observe after dusk in the western sky.

*** I should probably mention that "order" doesn't necessarily mean "harmony."

**** I don't want to get into the pernicious "Does homeopathy work?" argument because... you know... it doesn't.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"Holy apologetics, Batman!"

Some of you may be familiar with the comic strip Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling. For those who aren't familiar, it's an awesome comic and you should really read it. Among the othe regular characters, it sometimes features "God-Man: The superhero with omnipotent power!" It is, as you might guess, a sort of pulp comic superhero examination of the god concept.* It is also, in a word, awesome. These two comics came out recently and, with no further commentary, I commend them to your attention.

* A lot of the humor relies on the basic narrative difficulties experienced with, say, superman. See, superman is so powerful how do you generate the conflict that normally powers a story? By the same token, how the hell do you use god as a character since his omnipotence makes conflict effectively impossible? The answer, as it turns out, is that you can't. It's a beautiful way of grappling with the logical problems of god as traditionally defined.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Whatever gets you through the day.

It's been a while since I made fun of the folks over on Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski. This isn't because I've stopped paying attention to them so much as that, since the Kitzmiller et al. vs Dover Area School District et al. ruling, they just haven't had a lot to work with. Things haven't changed- they still don't have much to work with- but nonetheless I saw something on there yesterday that is simply priceless. I refer, of course, to a post written by Wild Bill himself that is meant to buoy the flagging spirits of Intelligent Design* activists everywhere:

For those who are too lazy to read the image directly:

The lesson is this: The myth of invincibility is just that — a myth. Also bear in mind that Darwinism’s record isn’t nearly as good as the New England Patriots’ going into Super Bowl XLII.

Reading this made me laugh really, really hard and then continue laughing at unpredictable intervals for the rest of the day. There are two reasons for this. The first is just the sheer absurdity of it. If you have to look to the result of a football game to reassure yourself, and others, that your "research program"** will someday achieve success then you have absolutely nothing left on your side but sheer tenacity. I mean, what the hell? Are there lawyers out there who say, "I didn't think I could possibly get my client off but, hell, the 1980 U.S. hockey team totally beat the Soviets so maybe I can win after all!" It's an utter non sequitur.

The second thing that amuses me, however, is that it implicitly puts intelligent design in the same game with modern biology. You know- evolutionary theory is cast as the New Englad Patriots who will be defeated by Intelligent Design's New York Giants*** in the big game. This is hillarious to me: that an army of highly-educated researchers laboring for more than a hundred years are somehow matched by a handful of cranks with what amounts to a legal SWAT team. The much more accurate analogy would be an NFL game between modern biology, represented by the New England Patriots, and Intelligent Design, represented by a shuffleboard club from the local senior's center. The only way to make the analogy even better would be if the shuffleboarders had a team of lawyers who constantly filed injunctions against tackling.

Say what you want about the intelligent design folks**** but you can't say they're not creative.*****

* What my father-in-law refers to as "Ecclesiastical Design."

** Keeping in mind, of course, that intelligent design has a research program in much the same sense as I have a starship.

*** If I don't have the correct teams please keep in mind that I don't care. I do not watch sports and don't really want to.

**** And I say a lot- almost all negative, too.

***** A little too creative, really.

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Monday, February 04, 2008


Definitions are funny things. In one sense they're just abstractions that we keep written down in books for our reference. In another, however, they constitute our entire world. Social psychologists often talk about the "definition of the situation," which is a way of conceptualizing the interpretive process that goes into understanding our world. For those who aren't already familiar, allow me to describe a scene: you walk into a room and find rows of chairs with writing surfaces affixed to them. Most of these chairs are filled with individuals in their early twenties who are scribbling in spiral notebooks while watching, and listening, to an older person speaking from the front of the room. What is happening? Well, most of you probably figured out that this is a classroom- probably at college level or beyond. In figuring this out you have defined the situation and obtained an understanding of how you, and others, should behave. Think about that for a moment: in defining the situation in which you find yourself you also develop an understanding of what sort of behavior is acceptable. The simple act of applying a definition, in many ways, controls your further behavior.

This isn't the only place where definitions are important, however. Any time we communicate we trade streams of significant symbols, each of which carries some sort of information- in effect, we trade symbols that carry definitions.* To the extent that these definitions resemble each other, we can communicate successfully, but if they differ too much we will no longer be speaking the same language even if the words are the same. Parents of teenagers are most likely familiar with this problem as youth most definitely have their own way of defining not only situations but basic terms. Often their use of these tools produces very different meanings from the same strings of symbols that adults use. In many ways, the cognitive content of a sentence is like an equation: a set of operators linking things that are operated on. If any of these elements is changed then the result of the entire equation shifts dramatically.

I ended up thinking about definitions today after perusing Conservapedia and running across a reference to this article from the Daily Mail, a British newspaper. Okay, well, that's not totally accurate: it's more of an ultra right-wing tabloid that has a long and "dignified" history.** In any case, the article in question is about a National Health Service report on the number of fetuses that survive abortion procedures. The findings, as you might guess, are somewhat disquieting:

Botched abortions mean that scores of babies are being born alive and left to die, an official report has revealed.

A total of 66 infants survived NHS termination attempts in one year alone, it emerged.

Rather than dying at birth as was intended, they were able to breathe unaided. About half were alive for an hour, while one survived ten hours.

The figures are the first to give a national picture of the number of babies who survive abortion but are left to die.

Experts previously believed the phenomenon was limited to a handful of cases a year.

The babies were aborted using a drug to soften the cervix and induce labour. Once born no medical help is offered.

The statistics are contained in the small print of an official report by the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health, commissioned by the Government.

Now, I am pro-choice, and so this article is as distressing as its writer no doubt intended it to be.*** That is, indeed, the whole reason why the Conservapedia folks put a link to it on their front page. At the same time, my reaction to it isn't that we need to stop all abortions but, rather, that we need a better technique for performing them. I suspect that a conservative reading that will regard me as heartless and evil for being "immune" to the plight of these fetuses. So be it. That isn't the case, but I'm disinterested in explaining the reasons for my pro-choice position right now. The thing is, given the way I define the situation and fetuses and the reasons for abortion, this report doesn't really change things. Before this report came out I was fully aware that abortion involved the destruction of a fetus and nothing has changed now.

And this has made me think about something else: the death penalty. I know quite a few liberals who are absolutely opposed to the death penalty on what seem to be moral grounds.**** At the same time, many conservatives seem to be in favor of it. More than that, they often seem to favor fewer restrictions on ownership of firearms and are more likely to see the application of military force as a legitimate solution to foreign policy issues. Liberals, on the other hand, oppose these issues so regularly as to frequently be labelled "squeamish" by conservatives. Liberals often regard the death penalty as murder while conservatives feel the same way about abortion.

What's my point in all this? Eh. I don't really have one- this is a blog after all. If anything, though, it's just this: don't let anyone tell you that definitions aren't important. Often, they are a matter of life and death.

* Affect control theorists would no doubt object to my focus on the cognitive, rather than affective, content of symbols. That's okay, though- they can get their own blogs.

** As a side note, the writing quality reminds me of nothing so much as USA Today, which is to say that the reading level is so low my brain stem suffices for the task.

*** No doubt I would find it substantially more disquieting if it represented a larger percentage of procedures. For example, if we assume that the same number of abortions were performed in 2007 as in 2004 then there were a total of 185,400 procedures. That means that the 66 botched procedures in the article represent 0.03% of all abotions performed in the U.K. I suspect most people would be compelled to agree that a medical procedure that is successful 99.97% of the time should be labelled highly reliable.

**** As long as we're on the subject I have no particular problem with the death penalty, though I admit that I have reservations about the manner in which we choose to impose it.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

And to think I've been wasting all this time in grad school.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of Conservapedia, the so-called trustworthy encyclopedia. I don't know how one couldn't be a fan, to be honest, given their hard-hitting articles on subjects like the homosexual agenda, liberal deceit, hate crimes and feminism. You just won't find their type of coverage from any other media source.* So, it should come as no surprise to you that recently I decided to use my passion for conservapedia to learn about my other passion: sociology! Specifically, I decided to look up sociology on conservapedia and see what they had to say. I was simply amazed by their in-depth article which taught me many things that I didn't already know. Me! A graduate student in sociology! For example, there's the definition they offer for sociology:

Sociology is a branch of Social Sciences concerned with the study of human behaviour, specifically in social relations, using the scientific method of observation. Sociology, with psychology, is at the crux of the long standing Nature vs. Nurture debate. Sociology represents nurture and psychology represents nature.

Not bad, I suppose, although I think the evolution and sociology folks may object a smidge. My real surprise, however, came during the section on "Key Theories." For example, did you know that Max Weber is a conflict theorist:

Not only that however! In addition to being a conflict theorist, Max Weber is also a symbolic interactionist!

And, not to be outdone by that German upstart Weber, it turns out that Emile Durkheim** was onboard with structural functionalism:

This is some damned impressive work, Conservapedia! I mean, symbolic interactionism wasn't developed until long after all three of these guys were dead. Yet, there Max Weber is, proudly participating in a theoretical tradition that didn't even exist yet! That doesn't even begin to address the inclusion of Weber with the conflict theorists. Seriously, he wasn't ignorant of conflict but it also wasn't the central theme of his theories. You might as well call Marx a Freudian because of that "false class consciousness" stuff. And as for Durkheim, yes, he was an inspiration for structural functionalism but he predates the theory itself. So calling him a structural functionalist is a little like referring to Galileo as a Newtonian. Still perhaps I shouldn't be expecting too much from an article that includes the sentence: "Weber argues that the first capitalists were Calvanists, though not all Calvanists becamecapitalists."

As always, Conservapedia, it has been educational.

* Primarily because they're raging lunatics.

** A helpful note for all the undergraduates who find this post while hoping to crib on their sociology paper: Emile Durkheim is a DUDE. "Emile" is not just the crazy French spelling of "Emily," okay?

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