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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ever wanted to see someone tell creationists to suck it in musical form?

Here's your chance:

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Ouch! You didn't have to pinch so hard!

Y'all remember a week or so ago when I blogged about Wild Bill Dembski finally abandoning his absurd explanatory filter concept? Yeah, well, never mind. I apparently spoke too soon:

Or, in plain human speech:

In an off-hand comment in a thread on this blog I remarked that I was dispensing with the Explanatory Filter in favor of just going with straight-up specified complexity. On further reflection, I think the Explanatory Filter ranks among the most brilliant inventions of all time (right up there with sliced bread). I’m herewith reinstating it — it will appear, without reservation or hesitation, in all my future work on design detection.

Well... great. At least he's modest about his bad ideas, I guess.

Carry on.

For those who are wondering, yes, I am aware that he may intend this most recent communique to contain sarcasm. I am not unsympathetic to that but, really, considering his published canon is effectively one long quasi-mathematical descent into madness, how is one to tell? For crying out loud the journal "Evolution" said of the book in which Dembski introduced the idea: "The text soon becomes a dazzling congeries of binomial coefficients, perturbation probabilities, and sundry mathematical notation, all in the service of a computation that may as well have been written in Klingon for all the connection it has to reality. Modeling the formation of complex structures via a three-part process of atomization, convergence, and assembly is terribly unrealistic." If Dembski's post is meant as a joke then the explanatory filter is the punchline.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

A comic for the girl genius in your life...

The other day I was having a polite conversation with a saleswoman and she remarked that she had trained in acupuncture at a chiropractic college and that acupuncture was an extremely effective cure for asthma. My reaction to this was- believe it or not- to show polite interest in what she was saying. It would have been rude, after all, to respond in my usual fashion. I was not more than politely interested for three simple reasons: (1) acupuncture doesn't seem to work quite as advertised, (2) there's no vaguely rational explanation for how sticking needles into the skin could influence a respiratory disease and, (3) if acupuncture were that effective, I doubt that China would have the highest asthma mortality rate in the world. I'm just sayin'.

Nevertheless, the pseudo-medical advice from a saleswoman reminded me of the excellent webcomic Girl Genius, which is as you might guess about a young woman with a rather robust intellect. Particularly, she's something of a science and engineering prodigy, which makes her if nothing else an excellent role model for other young women. Well, in some ways. In any case, in a recent issue* the titular girl genius, Agatha Heterodyne, came up with a rather interesting variation on Clarke's Third Law. Clarke's Third Law states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Agatha, on the other hand, employs a rather excellent corollary that is similar to the one developed by Larry Niven:

Specifically, "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science." And this, I think, is ultimately the neat thing about science. Some folks like to depict science as this horrible evil empire that systematically eradicates alternative approaches in favor of whatever idea it wants to push. And it's true that scientists can be arrogant people- hell, look at me.

The thing is, though, that the scientific approach emerged out of the long dominance of magical thinking. It is, in effect, the product of applying systematic observation and analysis to what was previously thought of as magic, thereby leading to reproducible, controllable results. In a sense science is magic, it is simply understood, explored, harnessed magic rather than the sort of feel good woo that we usually associate with the word 'magic'.

So the next time you're thinking about the evils of Western science, just take a moment to wonder if maybe, just maybe, science really is magic. Or more to the point, it's magic that actually works.

* At the moment Girl Genius is in the midst of a version of Cinderella for the holidays, but I do recommend the main plot. Start at the beginning and work your way forward.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The reason why I do sociology rather than spoken word poetry...

Rain falling sideways.

Like her hair,
blowing in the wind.

She's standing on the back
of a circus truck.

She's with the clowns.
The happy clowns.

She's trapped in a box.
She can't get out.

It has invisible sides,
an invisible top.

It's an invisible box.

She feels the sides.
She feels the top.

She can't get out.

Her white face
shines in the sun.

Black stripes.

Hot mime.

And you wondered all this time why I chose the backup plan that I did.

Now you know.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On an assertion by the pot that the kettle has an extremely low albedo*

Some of you may be aware of the ridiculousness currently taking place in the state of Washington. Okay, I should be more specific. The ridiculousness I am referring to surrounds a set of religious displays in the state capital that are a part of their holiday festivities. There are, as you might guess, the usual Christmas and Hanukkah displays but, added to the usual suspects this year, is a placard installed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As you might guess, this sign is a bit out of the ordinary:

For those who can't read the crazy small picture, the sign states:

“At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Offensive to believers? Maybe, but no moreso than all those bumper stickers that emphasize that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and so forth. Nonetheless, the display has attracted a lot of attention- having been stolen once already and, most recently, attracting a gaggle of protestors:

More than 500 people from throughout Western Washington turned out Sunday at the Capitol steps to protest a sign a group of atheists erected as part of the holiday display inside the building.

The protest — organized late last week by a Federal Way man who said he was offended by the sign installed by Wisconsin's Freedom From Religion Foundation — drew Christian pastors, at least one state legislator and a handful of counter-protesters.


State Rep. Jim Dunn, a Vancouver Republican, called for the crowd to continue their energy and prayers.

"It is time to chase out of the house of God all the unbelievers and evildoers," Dunn said.

My main reaction, of course, is that there's a considerable difference between a house of government and a house of god- and I think that the bible agrees with me given the whole, "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..." business. I also, I have to admit, find myself in complete agreement with Jason Rosenhouse on this one:

Need I point out that the solution is obvious? Simply let the Capitol be a religion-free zone. End of problem.

This is the part I don't understand. Why is it so important to so many folks that the government display the symbols of their religion? You can put all the nativity scenes you want in front of your homes and churches and private schools and private businesses. About ninety-eight percent of the town you can decorate to your heart's content. Why must you have the other two percent?

I can only think of one reason. Placing religious displays on government grounds is meant to convey that certain religions are acceptable and certain ones are not.

Typically I get lectured at this point about how I am overreacting, that it's no big deal, and that I should just go along to get along. The thing is, though, that there are plenty of people on the other side who think it is a very big deal indeed. They are the ones who are not content with, say, placing a nativity scene on the front lawn of every church within walking distance of the Capitol (I'm guessing there are quite a few). That would be entirely uncontroversial, and it would let them get the word out about Christmas very effectively. This is not good enough, it would seem.

So if all these folks on the other side just can't abide the idea of the government not displaying their symbols then I'm entitled to think there is something more going on than just a desire to place a decoration in the Capitol rotunda. If they are not willing to shrug their shoulders and let it go, then neither am I.

But, of course, as it turns out displays of religious icons in the state house is hardly the end to this absurd game. As it turns out, a preacher has of late been attempting to place a cross in the most public place of all: orbit. I refer to Arthur Blessitt** and his plan to place a cross in space:

The Mission: To put a 2 inch cross in space to orbit around the world. This is made from the cross that Arthur Blessitt has been carrying around the world. He is in the Guinness Book of Records for 'the world's longest walk', now 315 nations, island groups and territories for a distance of 38,102 miles (61,319 km) This is one and one half the distance around the earth! On Foot!

Now as an extension of that walk on foot around the world a 2 inch cross made from that very cross will be put in space orbit above the earth. A cross made from the only cross carried around the world will become the first cross put in orbit around the earth! All Glory to God.

Nope, not making this up. Mr. Blessitt wants the cross in space- in a polar orbit no less- so that it will regularly pass over every nation and people. Again, not a joke:

The cross will be over You personally! The Cross will be over every Nation on earth! Over Afghanistan! Saudi Arabia! Jerusalem! America! The cross in Space Satellite will be in a Polar orbit from pole to pole. As the earth turns it will pass over every inch of the earth like peeling an apple. The cross will circle the earth every one and a half hours.

After launch we can tell you on our site when it will be over you and your nation. We have carried the cross in Every nation. Now we will, God willing have it flying above Every nation! We wave the cross in the face of Satan and proclaim that Jesus is Lord over All the Earth. All glory to God.

Doubtless the non-Christians of the world will not be too excited by this but, hey, the thing is only two inches. How visible will it be?***

As it turns out, it won't be visible at all because there was a little glitch during launch:

The Cross in Space was launched August 2nd from the Marshall Islands on Falcon 1 by SpaceX. The cross reached an altitude of 134 miles (217,km). There was a failure of the second stage and the flight did not reach orbit. I am thrilled that a part of the cross I've carried around the world did get this high, however we will press on for another launch with another cross from the cross I've been carrying. Glory, Peace and Blessings. Keep praying for this to come to pass soon.

Now, if I were a religious man, I think I might speculate that this is a hint from god that we shouldn't be wasting our time with this sort of foolishness. Or, I might rail against the foul interference of Satan, who doesn't want a cross to be circling the Earth. Or, I might just blame weak mankind for the failure. That's the beauty of religion: always a justification for whatever the hell it is you want to think or do.

But speaking personally I find the idea of a cross in space to be a little sad. Because given recent events and the disturbing connections between religion and the state, it's sometimes a little hard for me to believe that our religious differences aren't going to get us all killed. And the thing is, I can think of no more melancholy a testament to a silent, war-scarred earth, than one of the very symbols that led us to kill ourselves off.****

Just something to think about.

* Please note that an albedo is not the same as a libido. If it were, astronomy would be much weirder.

** What is it lately with the weird names of Christian evangelists? First we had Captain Santeria Poptart and now we have Reverend Blessitt? It's a name, it's a request (i.e. Reverend, bless it), it's both!

*** Not very.

**** Just FYI, this isn't so much an indictment of religion as of extremism in the service of an ideology.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Add Romania to the "Absurdly ignorant" list.

UPDATE: A heroic commenter debunks this story. See here for the full scoop. Speaking personally I am slightly embarrassed I didn't figure this out on my own, and considerably amused that the Conservapeons haven't figured it out yet, either.

For those who don't routinely follow the news from comparatively obscure eastern European nations, I have learned recently that Romania has decided to remove the teaching of evolution from its science curriculum:

Romania's withdrawal of the theory of evolution from the school curriculum could be evidence of a growing conservative tendency in teaching. Evolution has been removed from the school curriculum in a move which, pressure groups argue, distorts children's understanding of how the world came into being.


The theory of the Origin of Species and the evolution of humans is no longer present in the compulsory curriculum, through a nationwide decision made under the previous Government in 2006. Before the change, Darwin's theory was taught to pupils aged 18 or 19 years old. This was also in the curriculum during the Communist period of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Information on natural selection, how fish turned into lizards and, more or less, a summary of the first 4.5 billion years of the world until man walked the earth is now optional.

Those who have even a passing familiarity with science realize that this is an enormous step backwards. Those of us who are familiar with the "debate" between evolution and creationsim,* however, realize what the driving force behind the change is. Hint: it's not the educational interests of the children.

At present, children are taught religious classes from ages seven to 18. This is mostly an Orthodox curriculum. They are also taught that to sleep in on Sunday mornings is bad because children should be going to church.

"It's not being taught about religion and what it means," said one headmistress. If a parent wants their child not to attend the classes, because they are, for example, Jewish, Muslim or agnostic, he or she has to draft a letter to the school. The child then sits in a library or the head teacher's office working on, say, maths or languages.

But there are new proposals to make all religious classes compulsory for the education system, regardless of the parents' wishes. All children who do not want to attend Religion classes would attend a Moral and Religious Education class. But there is no one qualified to teach Moral and Religious Education. Some teachers fear that the classes will, with minor additions, be the same Orthodox curriculum dictated by a religious studies teacher to a single Jew, Muslim or Humanist in a library or staff room.

So, to sum up, evolution has been removed entirely from the schools and biology instruction reduced. At the same time, however, students take classes in religion for eleven years and these classes may soon be mandatory. Brilliant. As you might guess, the usual crew of raving idiots are all sorts of excited by this development. Hell, you should see how they defend the mandatory religious education part. Perhaps with a few decades of this type of education, Romanians will start to think that this is a good depiction of evolutionary theory and its potential rebuttal:

Welcome to a brave ignorant new future.

UPDATE: A heroic commenter debunks this story. See here for the full scoop. Speaking personally I am slightly embarrassed I didn't figure this out on my own, and considerably amused that the Conservapeons haven't figured it out yet, either.

* aka barking madness.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

All of you, I'm sure, are aware of my long-standing interest in intelligent design* and my penchant for following Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski and friends. I've written quite a bit on intelligent design and have even whipped up some pretty snazzy explanations for why it's kinda stupid. Hell, once I actually blew a few afternoons arguing with a creationist on the blog to- you guessed it- no avail. It is unfortunately the case that arguing with full-blown creationists rarely leads to the outcomes you might prefer:

So, I have gotten used to the idea that intelligent design "theorists" and creationists generally just will not admit that they're wrong, even when it's glaringly apparent.

And that takes us back to Wild Bill. See, he has long pushed forward this thing he calls an "explanatory filter". And the basic purpose of this critter is to allow us to deduce when something is designed by agency rather than produced through some other process. It basically works like this: when you encounter a new phenomenon you ask, did this occur by chance? If the answer is no, then you ask, did this occur due to the regularity of natural law? If the answer is still no, then you conclude it must be the result of design by an intelligent agent.

No, I'm not kidding.

The obvious problem is that this makes design the logical complement to "chance" and "regularity."** And, of course, that has the effect of labeling any process we don't understand yet as the product of intelligent agency. Put more simply: If we don't understand it, god done it, and that's the end of it. As allegedly scientific explanations go, that one sucks pretty hard. Nevertheless, Dembski has defended it as a logical and useful principle.

Until now.

In a recent comment on his blog, Dembski said the magic words:


(1) I’ve pretty much dispensed with the EF. It suggests that chance, necessity, and design are mutually exclusive. They are not. Straight CSI is clearer as a criterion for design detection. [emphasis added]

So, in other words: Dembski just admitted he was wrong. He buried the admission in comment 169 to a post on his own blog but, hell, we gotta take what we can get! As you can guess the usual suspects are pretty damned excited about this and I don't blame them.

Looks like a Christmas miracle to me!

* Or, in the parlance of my father-in-law, "ecclesiastical design."

** Ignoring for a moment the amusing fact that our understanding of the probability of events depends upon understanding the natural processes that give rise to them. To see what I mean, tell me the probability that Geerg on planet Ingmar will farzoozle its heyule before the next goouyer. You can't do it because our complete ignorance of any of those things (including whether or not any of them exist) makes the calculation of a probability completely impossible.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Statistics fail.

Normally when I relapse and talk about Conservapedia I'm driven to it by something unusually offensive. So, for example, I was tempted to remark on it when they referred to the impending Obama administration as the "Obama caliphate." Yet, somehow, I restrained myself. Today, however, I'm not here to comment on some new height of offensive verbiage that Andrew Schlafly has unleashed upon the world. Instead, I'm remarking on the fact that he has once again shown his incompetence with the maths.

I refer, of course, to a recent headline on the main page about Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss. You remember Saxby, don't you? The only senator to grope his pre-pubescent granddaughter in a campaign ad?* In any case, as some of you may know, Chambliss recently won his run-off election versus the Democratic candidate- an election that only went to a run-off because of a weird Georgia law and the presence of a third-party candidate even more conservative than Saxby. Realistically, the Democrat was never going to win this election and the run-off created a tense situation that was more apparent than real. Nonetheless, Conservapedia wasted no time at all in attempting to use this victory as... well... see for yourself:

Or, in plain human speech:

Conservative Senator Saxby Chambliss won by a stunningly large margin: 57% to 43%. An early sign of the mid-term elections in 23 months?

Are you even serious? One conservative candidate achieves victory in a traditionally conservative area amidst an overall trouncing of the Republican party and you think it portends a Republican resurgence in an election that won't be for two f-ing years?! Are you implying that the American people are so fickle that they've grown sick of the Obama administration and a Democratic legislature before they're even sworn in? Really? This is how you console yourselves? I can only imagine what Conservapedia's elite statistical corps has been up to:

"My god! At this rate the entire Senate will be Republican within four months!"

Jesus Titty-fucking Christ is Schlafly an idiot.

* Comes at the end. Watch his right hand.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oh, if only.

The Scene: Drek, having finished teaching class for the day, is chatting with one of his students.

Student: So things are starting to wind down now.

Drek: Yep. I think we're all pretty tired, so a break will be good.

Student: Right on. I've got an eighteen page paper due tomorrow. I'm on page four right now.

Drek: Yikes! Is that single spaced or double spaced?

Student: Wow, like, double spaced! Jeez! Single spaced would be huge. That'd be like a dissertation, right?

Drek: (laughs) Well, a dissertation is usually a bit longer than that.

Student: Right, right, yeah I know. A dissertation is like, what, fifty pages?

Drek: ...

Drek: Yeah. Something like that.

Student: You're writing your dissertation- how long is yours?

Drek: I think my first chapter is fifty pages.

Student: Oh. Wow.

Drek: Indeed.

And you thought I was a wordy bastard on the blog. I pity my committee.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My tax dollars at work.

Longtime readers of this blog are probably aware that I am... you know... an atheist. You're probably also aware that I have remarked previously on the whole notion that there are no atheists in foxholes. For those who are unfamiliar, this expression supposedly relates to the idea that once a person is exposed to mortal danger, they inevitably recognize the "reality" of a god or gods. Sure they do. I've also remarked in passing on the increasing tendency for the United States military to serve as a recruiting arm of certain elements of the Christian faith- a tendency that has become disturbingly pronounced. Still, there has been some room for folks to dispute the idea that the military in general is a shade too religious for the good of a secular nation.

Yeah. Not so much anymore.

Check out this powerpoint presentation given by Captain Christian Biscotti of the Air Force Chaplain's corps.* It's supposed to be on suicide prevention, and it kind of is, but mostly it's about why U.S. commanders should encourage their soldiers to believe in god and why humanism is bad.

No, I am not fucking kidding. Besides basing itself** on Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life", this presentation takes a number of opportunities to swipe at evolutionary theory and us gosh-darned atheists. Take, for example, the "three levels of purpose":

It's nice to see that loving an invisible, ineffective quite likely imaginary critter in the sky more than you love other humans is better. You also have to love the logic: "Category I is most beneficial, because if you love God (in a majority of world religions), you'll love man and yourself." Yeah, but here's the thing: if you're in category II then you also love man and yourself. So, you know, we have all our bases covered without religion. So why should we love god, again?

Still not enough to make my point? Try his slide on "Contrasting Theories of Hope":

So, to recap, Darwin is all about random chaos while god is about purpose. And purpose, of course, equals "good". And before you spend too much time trying to tease out the logical implications of his talk, allow me to remind you that this talk is supposed to be about suicide prevention. Do we have advice on picking out depressed subordinates? On appropriate ways to get them medical attention? No. Instead, we have a call to proselytize and, you know, a general claim that being an atheist is equivalent to being a damn dirty Soviet:

So, remember: all the historical, ideological, and cultural differences between Soviet Russia*** and the U.S. can be summed up on one handy slide. And the most important difference of all is we Americans love god. Fucking awesome. Now, just in case you haven't quite gotten the point yet, Capt. Buddhist Donuthole decides to make it a little more obvious what he's saying:

Yikes! So not only does atheism lead to horribly oppressive totalitarian regimes, it also leads to crime, prostitution and alcoholism. Hell, given the math of the slide, it's amazing atheism could lead to any sort of regime since they're all apparently too busy drinking, screwing and stealing to do anything else. Specifically, the descendants on the right add up to 615 (out of 929) while those on the left add up to 1170 (out of 1026). And no, he's not just double-counting the prostitutes as convicts because if we subtract 190 from the total we get 980. So, basically, some of Family #1's descendants must be alcoholic prostitutes or something. Finally- and this is my favorite part- in what way is being an author, a minister, or a congressman necessarily inconsistent with being a convict, engaging in prostitution, or being an alcoholic? Sorry, Captain Hindu Bagel, but your outcome categories are not mutually-exclusive.

And just to make sure that the horse has well and truly been beaten into a thin pinkish scum on the ground, we have this emphasis slide:

Look, it's not that I object to people in the military having religion, it's that I object to it being pushed on soldiers as a matter of policy. And, frankly, given that Arlington National Cemetery has an approved emblem for atheists,**** I think such a policy is disrespectful to both those atheists currently serving and those who have given their lives for this country.

And if that isn't enough for you, how about this: what should we be telling our soldiers? That their god is foremost? Or that their duty to the constitution is foremost?

Just a thought.

* Yes, I know his name makes him sound like a prank. What's next? "Lieutenant Commander Muslim Teacakes"? But, so far as I can tell, the dude really exists.

** i.e. slide 8 "Developing Purpose-Driven Airmen".

*** In Soviet Russia, Powerpoint presents YOU!

**** Number 16.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

This may be the saddest thing I've ever read...

I discovered this little gem over the recent Thanksgiving break. Note the source when interpreting the spin:

Couple Waits Till Marriage for First Kiss

Chicagoans Melody LaLuz, 28, and Claudaniel Fabien, 30, shared their first kiss Saturday at the altar. The two teach abstinence at the city's public schools and practiced what they preached to their teenage students.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the couple had never kissed and that they had never been alone together in a house.

So, let me get this straight: two people are now committed to each other- for life- who have never even been alone together in the same house? They've never even kissed? And we now expect them to develop and maintain a healthy sexual relationship to supplement their existing (presumed) emotional one? Look, if you want to wait for sex until marriage, I respect that. Really, I do. There are all kinds of complex reasons both to have sex and not to have sex. That said, marriage is an incredible commitment* and I'm not sure this degree of "abstinence" is approaching the commitment with adequate solemnity. Put differently, if your self-discipline isn't strong enough to allow yourselves to be in the same house alone without, presumably, immediately disrobing and getting your freak on, then what makes you think you have adequate self-control to not cheat on your spouse?

And, seriously, these two teach this to children? I can only hope they dress up like Pilgrims while they do it so that we all get the full effect.

Best of luck, kids.

* One that I, as a side note, find very pleasant given my good fortune in tricking my wife into marrying me.

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