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, May 29, 2009

Well, at least we both have a fondness for wire work.

My wife and I were recently talking about movies we liked as children. As is frequently the case, however, we found that our picks were often a smidge... different. For example, she's a big fan of Mary Poppins:

While I, on the other hand, have a peculiar fondness for The Green Slime:

And the truly funny part? Both movies are rated "G". Seriously.*

* I actually had a hard time tracking down the rating for Mary Poppins.** I ended up looking for it in the parents guide over on IMDB, which is an absolute blast to read. I took a screenshot just to preserve the magnificence:

** Yes, folks, that is the level of fact checking I try to employ around here. I actually took the time to try to CONFIRM that Mary Friggin Poppins is rated "G."

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'd have been happier not knowing.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like if Conservapedia ran a country, we now know the answer. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: North Korea!

North Korea vowed Wednesday to attack South Korea if ships from the North are searched as part a U.S.-led effort to stop vessels suspected of carrying missiles or weapons of mass destruction. It also declared that the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953 was no longer valid.


On Wednesday, the government of Kim Jong Il went on a rhetorical counterattack. North Korea said it no longer could guarantee the safety of ships from South Korea and other countries sailing in the Yellow Sea off its western coast. It added that it would not honor a North-South border in that sea, which was drawn at the end of the Korean War.

The North also said it would not respect the legal status of five islands on the South's side of the line. Two naval clashes occurred in that area in 1999 and 2002, killing six sailors from South Korea and more than 30 from North Korea. In those skirmishes, North Korea was badly outgunned by the South's more modern weapons.


"The location of mansions where Pyongyang's leaders enjoy their Hennessy cognac is well known to the American military, and North Koreans know the precision of U.S. cruise missiles," Lankov said. "The North will steer clear of any action which might lead to a real confrontation."

So do they mean to go through with an attack on South Korea? Yeah, probably not, but it's always fun to have a bellicose lunatic with a potential nuclear capability next door.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yes, yes, I heard.

So are you looking for a way to respond to the bad news? Then try this, a petition in favor of extending marriage rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples. The text reads:

I do support the right of every American to marry, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples. I believe that marriage and other civil rights protections are essential to making all families safer and more secure.

By signing this petition, I agree to support efforts to make marriage equality a reality in our country, and to oppose any attempts to discriminate against LGBT couples and individuals.

And then, having done that, keep an eye on your local Congressperson and Senator. I'd like to see our legislators supporting real family values for a change.

As a side note: I'm not a constitutional scholar and won't weigh in on whether or not I think the overall ruling was good. I will observe that the ruling is based less on a distinction between homosexuals and others and more on the issue of whether Prop. 8 was valid. So, the case was over procedure, not substance. That said, I do commend the court for its ruling that homosexual marriages that were begun during the period of legality ARE still legitimate.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In other news: The sun is bright!

You remember all that debate about whether or not waterboarding is torture? Well, one advocate for waterboarding, a radio personality by the name of "Mancow," decided to try to prove that it wasn't by undergoing the experience himself.

"The average person can take this for 14 seconds," Marine Sergeant Clay South told his audience before he [Mancow] was waterboarded on air. "He's going to wiggle, he's going to scream, he's going to wish he never did this."

So how did he do? Well, in two words: not well.

"Mancow," in fact, lasted just six or seven seconds before crying foul.


"I wanted to prove it wasn't torture," Mancow said. "They cut off our heads, we put water on their face...I got voted to do this but I really thought 'I'm going to laugh this off.' "

The upshot? "It is way worse than I thought it would be, and that's no joke," Mancow told listeners. "It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back...It was instantaneous...and I don't want to say this: absolutely torture."

You can even watch the experiment yourself if you want:

Will this resolve the debate over whether we should be using waterboarding? Oh, of course not. Still, it's nice to see that a little empirical research- writ small- still has the power to adjudicate fact. And, you know, convince someone that waterboarding is a wee bit harsher than a trip down the old slip'n'slide.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

On Memorial Day...

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day when we should all pause to remember, and give thanks to, those who have worn the uniform of our armed forces and fought in the service of our country. Whether we agreed with the decisions of our government or not, it is nevertheless the case that some among us must carry arms and risk their own lives to carry out the orders of our duly elected government.* Military service does not sanctify a person, but it sure as hell deserves recognition.**

On this Memorial Day, in lieu of any raving of my own, please enjoy this very well written essay by a serving member of the United States Navy who tells us about his childhood, some of his experiences in the Navy, and his love of these United States. And how all of these are colored by his atheism:

Once I accepted that this life is it and came to terms with it, the idealistic principles of making the world a better place became much more focused. I became a more liberal person. When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, my being a liberal as well as an Atheist was like I lived in Sodom and summered in Gomorrah to my family. Just before the election one of my brothers sent me email stating, “You are the enemy. Goodbye.” He then deleted me from his MySpace account. Then my mother called to disown me as her son. That conversation was painful. Not only did she disown me but said that I do not deserve to wear the uniform of a U.S. military service member because I had betrayed the Constitution of the United States, a document I swore to protect. I know what our constitution and our other founding documents say, and when I asked my mother how, specifically, I had betrayed our country, she couldn’t answer. I think the reason for that is that she has a religious idea of what the United States is about, not based on any particular item included by our founding fathers. It is true that America still faces an identity crisis, one that in my opinion will soon be resolved. Our country was founded on freedom and liberty, and I stand, now and always, behind those principles. In fact, I have discovered that the very reason to found a country on those principles was to preserve and protect the pool of ideas which have made our country great.

That wasn’t the first time I was attacked for my atheism or liberalism. The U.S. military attracts many fundamentalist Christians. About five years ago, I had a roommate (a military colleague) who saw himself as a kind of Crusader for Christ serving in the army of God. This is not a fabrication of his ideology. He once told me that the historical Crusades were a “just and noble time for Christianity” – his words, not mine. Others have joined our military for this same reason. While I was his roommate, he was intent on trying to convert me back to Christianity. He had been a philosophy major, so I can see how it became frustrating for him when, time after time, I defended my position. He once got so frustrated that his response was to tell me that I shouldn’t be in the military since, as an atheist, I had no bearing on right and wrong; argumentum ad hominem. Eventually we ended up in an altercation in which he punched me in the face and broke my nose. I am not one to go around and tell everyone around me what my views are or to create division so let me be clear: This guy meant to convert or destroy me. Though uncommon in the majority of American society, this type of person is much more common in our military.

To all veterans, regardless of race, color, or creed: Thank you.

* Seriously, folks. Even if we disagree with the war, we should be grateful to our soldiers for carrying out their orders. Because a military that doesn't follow the orders of the civilian government is- historically speaking- a Very Bad Thing.

** If you've never done this before, find a veteran today and shake his or her hand. The experience is definitely worth the time.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

In which Drek discovers how far his standards have sunk.

Given my penchant for forays into the netherworld of Conservapedia, it will come as no surprise that I picked up right away on this enigmatic-yet-provocative headline:

Or, in plain human language:

Rule #1 For Atheists and Perverts: Convince the children that it's "normal". Watch.

The "Watch" is, of course, a link to this painfully stupid political ad opposing gay marriage:

Right. Yes. Of course, it all makes sense to me now. We have to deny loving couples the right to marry because doing otherwise would confuse children. You know... briefly. Until they got used to it. Because kids aren't known for their ability to learn and adapt. Right.

The stoopid, it makes my head hurt.

The funny thing, though, is that I really had two reactions to conservapedia's headline. My first reaction was that if "Convince the children that it's 'normal'," is rule #1 for atheists and perverts, it isn't one we came up with on our own:

It was during recess at one of Santa Barbara’s adorable, sun-spangled elementary schools that Ashley, a sprightly 6-year-old, approached her first-grade classmate Emma near the swing sets and delivered the bad news.

“You can’t go to heaven.”

Ashley had already determined that Emma, the only Jewish girl in her class, did not believe in Jesus.

Emma protested, but Ashley persisted. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.”

Their teacher overheard the increasingly heated exchange. When class resumed, she asked everyone to pay attention. People from different religious backgrounds, she explained, have very different perspectives on certain kinds of issues.

Emma, feeling good that she had stood her ground, seemed content with the result. But Ashley was crushed.

“You mean they lied to me right here in school?!” she began to cry. “Because that’s what they taught me here!

How can they lie?”

It turns out that Ashley had reason to be confused. She is a student at one of four Santa Barbara public elementary schools, including Ellwood Elementary School, Hollister Elementary School, Foothill Elementary School, and the Vieja Valley School, that last year opened their doors to an afterschool program known as the “Good News Club.” The club aims to convert young children to their form of Christianity and to encourage them to spread the word to fellow students. The club generally holds its sessions in school facilities, in most cases immediately after regular classes end.

See, "The Good News Club" has done an excellent job of convincing kids that it's "normal" to view everyone who disagrees with you as destined for eternal torment. Great job, guys!

Sadly, however, my other reaction to Conservapedia's headline is simply this: at least they referred to atheists and perverts. You know, in an uncharacteristic fit of tolerance,* implying that the overlap between those groups isn't perfect. It actually inspired me to create a helpful venn diagram in true GraphJam style to help everyone keep things straight:

Hey, you've gotta take your victories where you can, right?

* I'm sure it was just an oversight.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

You were warned...

...and damn if it isn't happening all over again.

The Soc Shriners should come back. Somehow, I just don't have quite the same vivacity.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And here we go again...

From the "Children are People Too" Department comes this unfortunate story about an outbreak in Wales. No, not an outbreak of swine flu- a disease that seems to have gripped the news media with unbelievable fervor. No, this is an outbreak of measles:

Health chiefs in Wales are dealing with a "massive" measles outbreak, with numbers already four times the highest figure recorded over the past 13 years.

Four nursery school children were treated in hospital as part of 127 cases across mid and west Wales, while there are another 39 cases in Conwy.

The National Public Health Service (NPHS) in Wales saw 39 cases last year. Its highest figure in 2003 was 44.
Officials appealed for parents to take up the MMR vaccine.

Dr Mac Walapu, consultant in communicable disease control for the NPHS, said: "For as long as there are children who do not receive their MMR vaccinations, there is the potential for outbreaks of measles to happen and we would remind anyone in Wales, and not just in the affected area."

A spokeswoman added: "We need to be up front with parents."

She added: "We try not to be too scary when we talk to people about this, but children die of measles and children are impaired by measles. "It puts children in hospital. The reality it is that this is happening now, in Wales. Measles is very contagious."
She said the outbreak was set to be the biggest in Wales since the MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988.


Last week, the NPHS said its research had shown the MMR uptake in one school in the Carmarthenshire area was as low as 14.8%.

The vaccine needs a 95% uptake to achieve the herd immunity needed to ensure the disease cannot take a hold in individuals who are not vaccinated.

I find it bitterly amusing that so many people are freaking out about swine flu and yet Oprah, in her usual style, is giving anti-vaccine nutter Jenny McCarthy space on her website to run a blog where, among other things, she writes about her poop. Okay, so maybe she has a few things in common with this blog.

Swine flu might be dangerous, measles definitely is. We have no safe or effective vaccine for swine flu, we do have a safe and effective vaccine for measles. You do the math.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

That Aquatic Aroma...

Recently I wrote a post remarking on Stanley Fish's review of Terry Eagleton's book, "Reason, Faith and Revolution." As you might recall, I was less than impressed by the argument he advanced. Or, perhaps more accurately, I was less than impressed by the fawning praise he gave Eagleton. Well, as it turns out, I wasn't the only person underwhelmed by Fish's writing as he has apparently felt the need to write a follow-up as a response to critics:

According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t. What they do believe, apparently, is that religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.

One is forced to wonder how much of the response is due to his readers being agnostics and atheists, and how much was due to the fact that his original review was quite poor. The rejoinder continues in that tradition, quoting a few select critics briefly and somewhat mockingly before detouring into a painfully drawn out example from literary criticism that hardly anyone is likely to find illuminating. Eventually, however, he gets to his point. And it's a doozy:

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

And this is all very problematic, because Fish is confusing "observation" for "interpretation." It makes a certain amount of sense that he does so- in our daily lives these two things occur with near simultaneity most of the time- but they are quite distinct. Observation is simply the act of noting something in the environment while interpretation is the act of identifying or classifying it. So, let's say that you and I enter a room and discover a man clutching a knife, covered in blood, standing over what appears to be a dead person. We observe the same thing but we may interpret it differently- I may conclude that we've stumbled into a murder scene while you may conclude that we've stumbled into a movie set. Our observations are in some sense evidence for either position BUT it's important to note that (a) we could resolve our disagreement by gathering more evidence and (b) the multiplicity of interpretations does not mean that there is actually a multiplicity of underlying realities. So long as we prefer not to retreat into solipsism, anyway. Getting back to Fish, it is certainly the case that the interpretation of evidence will be somewhat colored by our preconceived ideas but, that said, it is not the case that those with different preconceptions won't necessarily agree on observations. I might be naive but I think Dawkins, Fish, Dembski, Schlafly, and myself could all get on the same page about things like the sun coming up and objects falling to earth. What we think these things mean might differ, but that they occur would likely win consensus. And, of course, Fish's claims ignore the fact that people- every day- reject hypotheses that don't concur with the facts. While the human ability to creatively interpret evidence is substantial, it is not all-encompassing.

Of course, he also hits on the necessity of faith for any logical exercise, but takes the argument too far:

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.

Yes, any logical chain (as I argued in my original response) must start with certain assumptions that are effectively taken on faith, but this does not mean that all faith claims are identical. Taking it on faith that the world is more or less as I perceive it is one thing, but taking it on faith that the world is mostly as I see it AND that there are legions of powerful, insubstantial critters that can't be observed but love/hate me is another thing entirely.

And Fish ends with a tooting of his own horn via the words of another:

It would be hard to reply to that without seeming either defensive or boastful, so I’m happy to leave it to someone else. I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, “Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?” Darned if I know.

That Fish's critics were shallow is something about which I have little doubt.* Yet, for all of his caustic dismissal of them his own retorts are, by and large, equally shallow. The arguments in favor and in opposition to religion are many and some are quite sophisticated but, for all of Fish's mastery of the English language, he is relying on arguments pulled solely from the ash heap of history.

Too bad.

* Including myself. I'm a goddamned idiot, as I've asserted previously and at length.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

I can only describe myself as bemused.

As my Former Hypothetical Roommate was fond of observing, there are few sexual perversions of which I am unaware. This is not because I am a raging sexual deviant so much as because of a job I had before graduate school. This job, which I have mentioned before, was horrible. And part of its horror was our IT guy, who would alleviate his own boredom by "sharing" things with me that he found on the internet.* It didn't really matter if I wanted him to share or not either as he could take control of my computer via the network pretty much at will. So, thanks to him, I was well-schooled in all manner of fetish and kink, over time becoming more or less immune to it.**

I should probably also point out that while I don't personally have any interest in most kinks- and particularly not in the ones that involve some sort of pain- I don't really have an ethical issue with consenting adults doing what makes them happy. I want to live my life my way, so other people should be free to live theirs however they choose, so long as it doesn't put the rest of us at risk. As such, while I don't have any interest in practicing it, the idea of a variety of things including polygamy and polyandry don't really get my undies in a bunch.***

All that said, this past weekend I found myself entering the search term "Domestic Discipline" into google in response to a rather weird banner ad I saw on Something Awful.**** And the first hit on google was nothing if not interesting:

How could I not be even more intrigued? So, I hit the link and ended up here:

For those who don't want to view a larger version of the image, the text at the bottom reads:

***This website contains themes pertaining to spanking and may be suitable only for adults. Please do not enter if you are under 18 years of age or if spanking offends you.***

So, this is a website about spanking. Christian spanking. And, before you ask, no, they don't mean kids. From their section on "What is CDD":

A Domestic Discipline (DD) marriage is one in which one partner is given authority over the other, and has the means to back up that authority, usually by spanking. The application and practise of DD in each marriage is as unique as the individuals who make up that marriage. There is no "One Ring of Power" in the Domestic Discipline world, to which all DD couples must bow; no singular path to "true DD enlightenment". What works well for one DD couple may not be a good fit for another marriage. Therefore, you may see many different suggestions espoused on this site and elsewhere.

A Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD) marriage is simply a traditional, male-led, Christian marriage which utilises aspects of Domestic Discipline. It is set up according to Biblical standards.

Therefore, in a CDD marriage, the husband is the authority of the household.
The wife is submissive to her husband as if the Lord Himself was her husband.

The husband is to love his wife as himself, and as Christ loved the church. He is to be a servant, and leads by example. He is to lay down his life for her.
The wife is to reverence her husband. She is to obey him, so long as his instructions are not in opposition to God's commands.

He has the ultimate authority in his household, but this authority is tempered with the knowledge that he will answer to God for his actions and decisions. The final decision rests with him, and therefore, the final responsibility, whatever the outcome, is his to bear. A wise husband will not make a major decision without prayerfully asking God for wisdom, and without seeking his wife's counsel.

He is to be the head of the home. She is to be the heart of the home.

He is not a dictator. She is not a doormat.

He is not a overbearing Lord of the Estate, seeking to trample over his family. She is not some weak-minded lass, needing to be molly-coddled, or seeking to get straightened around.

He has the responsibility for leading his family and is accountable before God for their well-being and development. He has the authority to spank his wife for disciplinary reasons, but in real CDD marriages, this authority is taken quite seriously and usually happens rarely. Most CDD marriages do use spanking, generally for serious offences, such as the "Four D's" (Disobedience, Disrespect, Dishonesty, or Dangerous [as in dangerous choices... reckless driving, disobeying doctor's orders, etc]). Some CDD marriages also use non-corporal disciplines, such as writing lines, or the temporary forfeiture of a favourite privilege. Again, every marriage is unique, and CDD is much more than just corporal punishment or spanking. [emphasis added]

So, a CDD marriage is one in which the man spanks the woman. For Christ. For those who are curious, there's a section for men, a section for women and even a helpful group of articles that includes a very educational F.A.Q. Thanks to the F.A.Q., I now understand what "bratting" is:*****

4. What is "bratting" and why does is happen?
The term "bratting" is used to describe a woman who is deliberately misbehaving in order to receive a spanking. Bratting is, of course, completely inconsistent with a CDD marriage as it is not only sinning against your husband but sinning against God. However, it does happen and I believe it is because many women have a deep seated need to "feel" their husband's authority on a regular basis.

I do NOT brat, but I do have a need to regularly feel that control. I think it is a security issue for me. I know I am not a very self-controlled person and I love knowing he is looking out for me and keeping me on track. Fortunately, there are other ways to feel your husband's authority without the destructive practice of true bratting. We use play spanking in response to play bratting, but many couples who need a more "real" feel to it use maintenance discipline to take care of this need. [emphasis original]

Now, all kidding aside, I don't want to sound like I think these people are sick or wrong or something. I don't. It isn't how I would want to live, it isn't the sort of marriage I have with my wife, but if it works for these folks and makes them happy, then great. I think what I find so interesting is that here we have the intersection of what some people seem to want to do for their own reasons, and what their religion says. And they have managed to find a way to make those things mesh. Do I wish CDD maybe allowed some room for men to be spanked? Sure I do. I have to assume some of these guys would enjoy a good swat on the tush now and then. Still, to the extent that everyone involved here is acting of their own volition, I think it's pretty cool.

But, in perfect honestly, the idea that god wants me to spank my wife strikes me as more than a little funny.

* In all fairness, I should probably observe that if it weren't for this guy I think I might have bludgeoned by boss to death. I should also note that what sparked this off was my allowing him to blunder into a full understanding of our boss' crippling porn addiction and the ensuing difficulties that posed to our running a professional office.

** Friends of mine in graduate school have learned, as a consequence, that when I say, "Hey, you've gotta come see this thing I found on the internet," the correct answer is almost always "No, I don't."

*** Keep in kind, however, that "consenting adults" doesn't mean "a forty year-old man and two girls in their early teens." Yes, I'm looking at you wacky polygamist cults.

**** I looked it up because the ad seemed to be advocating giving a wife or female child a black eye if she disobeyed your masculine-highness. This, as you might guess, made me curious in an unsympathetic kind of way. I don't really care for the masculists and sure as hell don't condone domestic abuse.

***** I had never heard this term before in my life and frankly doubt I will ever find an occasion when I will need to use it.

As a final side note: I am aware that the first two paragraphs of this post are unintentionally hysterical. That said, given that I am aware and have chosen to leave them as-is, I think that makes them intentionally funny, no?

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Friday, May 15, 2009

"Now go away and let Daddy drink."

When I was in high school there was this one substitute teacher who was infamous. I say "infamous" because she was well and truly terrible at her job. She was the sort of old, broken down sub who was just trying to suffer her way through the last few years until retirement and didn't really give a damn about you, your material, or your education. Oh, and she never went anywhere without clutching a mug in her claw-like fingers that smelled suspiciously of rum. Generally, if you arrived in class and discovered her instead of your usual teacher you knew that you had about an 80% chance of coasting easily through class, and a 20% chance of ending up with a detention for some incomprehensible reason. Like wearing shorts that ended above the ankle or something like that. Anyway, one of her favorite approaches to class was to find some video or filmstrip to make us watch, so that she could sit at her desk and do... who knows what. Drink, probably, and muse over her wasted youth. In any case, in honor of that sub, please enjoy today's filmstrip. You ungrateful little bastards.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Tell a Physicist to Suck It" Day Returns!

Some significant time ago I suggested that physicists were not as different from we lowly social scientists as they might like to believe. Sadly, however, I had little evidence to back this contention and had to rely on my usual scintillating intellect to make the point. Obviously, that didn't go well.

Today, however, I have run across a paper that, I think, accomplishes my objective much more effectively. It's a short piece from American Psychologist that compares research progress in physics to progress in the social sciences. And the results are not exactly what you might expect.

The paper is titled "How Hard is Hard Science, How Soft is Soft Science? The Empirical Cumulativeness of Research" (Hedges, Larry V. 1987. American Psychologist 42(2): 443-455) and it uses statistical meta-analysis techniques common to both physics and psychology to compare the empirical cumulativeness of particle physics to the empirical cumulativeness of several sub-areas of psychology. For those who are curious, the author (Hedges) argues for two types of cumulativeness: theoretical cumulativeness, being the degree to which theory gradually builds on, elaborates, and ultimately supplants earlier ideas, and empirical cumulativeness, or the extent to which research results are replicated through time. Given that the former type of cumulation is fairly subjective, Hedges focuses on the latter. Or, more precisely:

Experimental results frequently can be expressed as a numerical estimate of a parameter in a theoretical model, such as a mass, an energy, a correlation between variables, or a treatment effect. The consistency of these numerical estimates across replicated experiments can be assessed. A comparison of the empirical consistency of the results of replicated experiments in physics (as an example of a physical science) and in psychology (as an example of a social science) is the subject of this article.

His reasons for carrying out this exploration are more or less what you might expect- that we social scientists have a tendency to kick ourselves (when we're not being kicked by those meanies from the chemistry quad) because we're not a real science like physics or chemistry:

Psychologists and other social scientists have often compared their fields to the natural (the "hard") sciences with a tinge of dismay. Those of us in the social and behavioral sciences know intuitively that there is something "softer" and less cumulative about our research results than about those of the physical sciences. It is easy to chronicle the differences between soft and hard sciences that might lead to less cumulative research results in the soft sciences. One such chronicle is provided by Meehl (1978), who listed 20 such differences and went on to argue that reliance on tests of statistical significance also contributes to the poorer cumulativeness of research results in the social sciences. Other distinguished researchers have cited the pervasive presence of interactions (Cronbach, 1975) or historical influences (Gergen, 1973, 1982) as reasons not to expect a cumulative social science. Still others (Kruskal, 1978, 1981) have cited the low quality of data in the social sciences as a barrier to truly cumulative social inquiry. These pessimistic views have been accompanied by a tendency to reconceptualize the philosophy of inquiry into a format that implies less ambitious aspirations for social knowledge (e.g., Cronbach, 1975; Gergen, 1982). [emphasis added]

Remind anyone of anything? So, the question obviously goes, what did he find? Well, without boring you with excessive detail,* he finds that physics and psychology enjoy the same degree of empirical cumulativeness. Yes, that's right: physics doesn't produce any more precisely replicated results than one of us inferior social sciences:

What is surprising is that the research results in the physical sciences are not markedly more consistent than those in the social sciences. The notion that experiments in physics produce strikingly consistent (empirically cumulative) results is simply not supported by the data. Similarly, the notion that experiments in the social sciences produce relatively inconsistent (empirically noncumulative) results is not supported by these data either.

So does this mean that we should march on over to the physics building and taunt them? Nah. For one thing they have lasers. For another thing, the physical sciences do have an impressive record of success and I don't think we should take these findings to suggest that they don't.

But maybe, just for today, we should use this as a reason to remind ourselves that just because we don't work with capacitors, it doesn't mean we're not pretty cool scientists ourselves.

* Too late.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I find this approach weirdly appealing.

I am frankly shocked that the Orgtheory boys haven't spotted this yet in their all-inclusive radar for financial news, but apparently someone has come up with a fascinating new innovation in investment speculation. See, trading requires a nearly autistic level of obsessive focus on minute details of one particular area of knowledge. Moreover, not only must one be focused, but one must have the patience to remain that way throughout the period of trading. This is, of course, why the best traders receive years of advanced training and education- so that they understand the market and can predict with lightning speed and flawless accuracy what the market will do.

Well, that's the traditional idea, anyway. Turns out a new company thinks they can do as well or better by dispensing with the advanced education, the huge bonuses, and the titanic egos and draw their investment counselors from a previously untapped source: rodents. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rattraders, the only investment advice company that uses trained rats rather than people:

Our program is a professional service to the financial industry; rats are being trained to become superior traders in the financial markets. Using our own methodology in accordance with well-established animal training techniques, our subjects learn to recognize pattens in historical stock and futures data as well as generating trading signals. We provide solutions for tick based trading data and day based data. RATTRADERS rats can be trained exclusively for any financial market segment. They outperform most human traders and represent a much more economic solution for your trading desk.

The idea, allegedly, is that rats are trained using skinner boxes to predict market movements. Market data is given to them using musical tones and the rats press on one of two levers to indicate what they think the market will do next. If they're right, they receive a small food reward. If they're incorrect, they receive an electric shock. Check out the methodology section of the site for the full scoop. So is this for real? Well, the site is entirely deadpan and even includes an interview with the CEO of rattraders, Michael Marcovici:

On the other hand, Michael Marcovici is not quite what you would expect. He's not a psychologist or a financial analyst. He is, instead, an artist. You can see an article about him here and check out his website here. His work is nothing if not unusual and seems to include several works that are a tad ambivalent about consumerism and money. On the other hand, he is apparently no stranger to the financial area and so far seems entirely serious about rattraders. And this despite the fact that he apparently has some programming experience and therefore knows you could doubtless get the same or better performance out of a computer.

So what's my conclusion? Is this a hoax? I'm going to tentatively say "yes, but I hope not." Yeah, I know, real certain. On the one hand, I think there's something beautifully artistic in this whole bit. A sort of concept piece that attacks our pretensions and makes us think about myopic decisions. And on those levels, it's a beautiful hoax.

But on the other hand this would certainly be a step up from the filthy varmints that currently handle the investment market.

I should probably note that the "best" rat trader's accuracy (One "Ms. Kleinworth Morgan") is only about 56.8%. I don't know what a typical human trader can achieve, but basically you're only marginally better off trusting the rat rather than a simple coin flip. And most of the rats don't even appear to be as accurate as that.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In which Drek and Pat Robertson discover a degree of common ground.

Given my fairly strong religious views, it will come as no surprise that I'm not a fan of Pat Robertson. Nonetheless, I try to evaluate a persons statements and actions on a case by case basis. Because, you know, much as a broken clock is right twice a day,* a raging nutball may actually have good advice every now and then. Or, put differently, if Rush Limbaugh told me the sky was blue, I wouldn't argue the point. In any case, Pat recently responded to a letter in which a woman named Roni asked the following:

I'm new to being a true Christian and my fiance of 4 years has been with me through every step of my journey, but he hasn't always agreed with my because he's an atheist. What I think we need is a good middle ground. How do you think we can interact with each other peacefully when it comes to spiritual matters?

Now, this is an interesting and unfortunately difficult problem. Roni and her fiancee must really care about each other to remain engaged for four years** while at least one of them was experiencing significant emotional turmoil. Likewise, they seem to understand the need for compromise. On the other hand, to be blunt, if Roni is the kind of Christian who refers to herself (without irony) as a "true Christian," and who considers Pat Robertson to be a solid and reliable religious authority, then I'm not optimistic about her chances. Or, more accurately, I think she and her fiancee could work out some sort of agreement to disagree, but suspect that such a deal would come unhinged as soon as children entered the picture. One always wants to give kids the best start one can, which gets touchy when one partner thinks that includes saving them from eternal hellfire and the other thinks that aforementioned saving is errant nonsense. So what are Roni and her atheist*** would-be spouse to do? Well, I would say if they are mature enough and determined enough they ought to be able to reach some sort of agreement about the kids and do so before they get married. And if they can't reach such an agreement, then they should perhaps reconsider their marriage, difficult though that might be. And Robertson largely agrees with me, though he doesn't allow any room for the "maturely reach an agreement" stuff and just categorically denies the wisdom of the marriage. Sadly, however, he doesn't stop there. Watch the actual clip and see if you notice what I mean:

If you said, "He claims atheists are doing the work of satan," then, yes, you're right, that is what I mean.

So I guess my best advice to Roni is that she and her fiancee should look deeply into their own hearts to figure out what to do, and not rely on the advice of a crazy, bitter old man who can't distinguish between "disagrees" and "evil."

* Growing up in an age of digital clocks, my students tend to look confused when I use that expression.

** As a side note: If that's the engagement, I wonder how long the honeymoon is going to be?

*** I should probably observe here that I've seen people referred to as atheists by "true Christians" who I really wouldn't classify as atheists. For example, my wife is UU and while I wouldn't classify most UUs as atheist, I suspect Pat Robertson would. So, really, I actually wonder whether Roni's fiance is an atheist like me**** or just someone from a comparatively liberal denomination.

**** By which I mean a strong materialist atheist, not an asshole, although they could be that too.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Sorry. Still not awesome.

So the other day I was checking out Penny Arcade and noticed something a little... strange. Specifically, I saw a sidebar advertisement that had all the signs of being some sort of weird Korean role playing game. That is, except for one little thing. Take a look at the screenshot I took and tell me if you see anything that isn't quite... right:

If you said "Golf," then you're right! Despite the presence of dragons and people with tight clothes, huge heads,* and swords, this is not some kind of weird anime-themed fantasy game. It's a frickin online golf game. If you follow the link one eventually ends up at Pangya, which is as weird on first glance as you would expect:

And if that's not enough of a mind job, try one of the (many) trailers:

It's not that I object to trying to make golf awesome but... I mean... they're trying to make golf awesome!

Hell, guys, best of luck.

* And I mean HUGE. Given that the eyes are even more oversized, I'm fairly sure any one of these characters could see the Galilean satellites unaided.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

A little bit silly.

Some of you may have heard about the recent exchange between Colin Powell and Rush Limbaugh. Specifically, Powell was asked in an interview if Republicans can continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh. In response, Powell commented:

“Is this really the kind of party that we want to be when these kinds of spokespersons seem to appeal to our lesser instincts rather than our better instincts?"

As you might guess, this didn't sit well with Limbaugh, who attempted to chastise Powell in response:

“He's just mad at me because I’m the one person in the country that had the guts to explain his endorsement of Obama,” Limbaugh said on his radio show. “There can be no other explanation for it.”

“What Colin Powell needs to do is close the loop and become a Democrat, instead of claiming to be a Republican interested in reforming the Republican Party. He's not. He's a full-fledged Democrat,” Limbaugh said.

“He's out there saying I am killing the Republican Party while he endorsed and voted for Obama,” Limbaugh added. “The Republican Party nominated the exact kind of candidate Colin Powell thinks the Republican Party should have and he still endorsed Obama.”

And, as you might guess, Conservapedia is all over this story:

Now, I'm not going to try to tell the Republican party what to do,* but I would like to point something out:

Colin Powell:

-Graduate of the City College of New York.
-Commissioned in the U.S. Army in 1958, he served for 35 years.
-Served in combat in Vietnam.
-Attained the rank of General in 1989 and was made the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Ronald Reagan.
-Winner of the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Meritorious Service Cross (Canada), and the Legion of Honor (France).
-Served as the U.S. Secretary of State, 2001-2005.
-Married in 1962; remains with his wife.

Rush Limbaugh

-Flunked out of Southeast Missouri State University.
-Made fun of Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's Disease in 2006.
-Has done considerable charitable work for leukemia, lymphoma and the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation.
-Has married, and divorced, three times to date.
-Has a long history of prescription drug issues.

Look, you're free to make up your own minds but, seriously, who looks like they reflect so-called "Conservative values" better? I'm just sayin'.

* Not least because I'm still so angry with it that I wouldn't mind so much if the RNC were drug out into the Atlantic and sunk.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Technology Win!

Over in that other part of the socioblogging world, Teppo asks why anyone still doesn't have an iPhone. And, despite his request to the contrary, cost seems to be a big issue for a lot of people. It's easy to see why, since the iPhone will cost you $200 up front, plus $70 a month for two years- you're looking at spending close to $1900 on a phone. Yikes! Trying to help out, Kieran suggests buying an iPod touch instead, since it has basically the same upfront cost, but no stinkin' service plan, and can still do e-mail and so forth. I like this idea, since I hate talking on phones and would love a mobile e-mail/planner device. At the same time, it's a little annoying that if I ever start needing a mobile phone again, I couldn't use the iPod touch.

Or could I? As it turns out, the current second generation iPod touch has a microphone port built in, as well as WiFi access and bluetooth. And do you know what that means?

Skype on the iPod.

Turns out, people have been doing this kind of thing since the 1st gen iPod touches were out. Now that the second gen is here, however, and skype has produced an app, all is right with the world. Seriously:

The same as a cellphone? No. Less capable? For certain. But, that said, it's about 85% of the device for about 12.2% of the price. And that's a bargain in anyone's book.

Just thought you'd like to know.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

How can you not love this?

I've mentioned Girl Genius, the webcomic of Phil and Kaja Foglio before. For those who don't remember, it's an alternate history steampunk themed world where mad scientists (known as "sparks") rule the Earth. And when I say "mad" I mean both "kinda crazy" and "prone to fits of rage." Today's comic is one I couldn't help laughing at and thought I would share. I blacked out some of the original panels to focus your attention, but I strongly recommend you check out the original and read through the archives. You won't regret it. Anyway, today Agatha Heterodyne, our eponymous heroine, lays down the law and finds out that not all sparks build war machines and horrible monsters:

You know, I think I actually submitted that proposal to the NSF. Getting the IRB clearance was a bitch, too.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Academia is sort of like high school. Only it lasts the rest of your life.

Younger grad students have, from time to time, asked me what it's like to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal. I find that it's actually quite difficult to sum up in a glib sentence or two the rich emotional roller-coaster that makes up the grindingly brutal article publication process. Nevertheless, the submission of a paper has a rather appropriate analogy.*

Submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal feels a lot like the moment immediately after you ask a girl out. On the one hand, you're elated, full of the hope that she will say yes. I mean, she's smart, she's interesting to be around, she has such well-proportioned margins and smart pagination- who wouldn't want to go out with that journal? At the same time, however, there's that sudden gut-wrenching feeling of terror where the back of your brain screams, "Oh shit! What did I just do?!!?" You have visions of how you sounded stupid when you asked the question, wonder if your footnotes are formatted properly, and cringe at the possible scathing rejection you might receive at her hands. And you stand there, swamped by that intense mix of emotions and wait for her to respond...

For three months.**

Don't worry, after a while, you get used to it.

* I apologize, in advance, for the fact that this analogy is pitched from a male perspective. I leave it to a helpful reader to provide the female version.

** I exaggerate, of course. You only get a response in three months if you're lucky. My first submission took over nine months before I received a reply. I find it a little absurd that it took as long for a few of my colleagues to review my paper as it takes the average woman to manufacture an entirely new human being.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Stoopid

Lots of you by now have probably spotted Stanley Fish's most recent column in the New York Times. If you haven't he reviews the book "Reason, Faith and Revolution" by Brit author Terry Eagleton. Eagleton, evidently, has written a book castigating the so-called New Atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, whom Eagleton collectively refers to as "Ditchkins"). Particularly, he seems to be advancing the NOMA system of the late Stephen Jay Gould, arguing that religion and science fundamentally address different questions and thus cannot speak directly to each other. I, generally speaking, agree with this position in that I think that science speaks very nicely to matters of fact but is poorly suited to dealing with questions of value. So, for example, science can tell you what will happen if you do a certain thing, and why that is the case, but cannot tell you whether you should do that thing. The difference between terraforming and catastrophic global warming, after all, is largely one of perspective.

Now, I haven't read Eagleton's book, so I don't want to criticize it. From Fish's summary of it, I rather expect it's the same sort of dreary apologetics I often run across and it includes the usual degree of goalpost shifting (e.g. Eagleton apparently claims that religion was never meant as an explanation for anything material, a perspective that I regard as patently false based on both the assertions of many creeds and thousands of years of recorded history) but I have not actually read it and so cannot form an opinion. It is, after all, extremely inappropriate to form a strong opinion about a work you have not actually read and no serious scholar would do so.

What I have read, however, is Fish's review of Eagleton's book and that review is, in a word, a clusterfuck. Arguably Tom has already made that point more amusingly than I can, but I do want to belabor one particular issue. Fish* argues this following in his review:

“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny. [emphasis added]

So, in short, since any logical chain of inference must start with an assumption of some kind and this assumption must be taken as true without evidence, then any thinker must, at some point, develop a degree of "faith." This is the premise outlined in Rene Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum, the notion that we must take something as true in order to reason outwards and, indeed, quite possibly the sole thing we can be certain of is that we, ourselves, exist. In order to avoid total solipsism, many of us accept certain other things are true (e.g. that the world is more or less as it appears to be, that others really exist, etc) but we cannot truly prove these things correct and, therefore, must accept them in a sense on faith. Thus, to this extent, I agree with Fishelton.

The difficulty emerges in the second paragraph where Fishelton refers to the "spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason," and speaks comparatively glowingly about "a flawed but aspiring religious faith." Leaving aside the puzzling question of what "unaided" means in "unaided reason"** I think Fishelton is engaged in a certain amount of sleight of hand with this argument. That all chains of inference must begin with a leap of faith is certainly true, but some leaps are more like short hops while others would require some sort of rocket-booster to complete successfully. Assuming that the world I sense is more or less the real world is a much smaller assumption than that an omniscient, omnipotent, invisible being exists, loves us, and designed the entire universe around us. One of these (the former) simply accepts what we already experience as being true while another (the latter) accepts that and postulates a whole bestiary of additional things that we cannot actually experience in the first place. Perhaps we are guilty of hubris if we atheists believe that humans are capable of understanding their world and finding good ways of acting, but at least we're not so arrogant as to make shit up out of whole cloth and then accuse others of small mindedness for not believing it.

Fish concludes by commenting on Eagleton's sources of anger when writing the book, and has this to say at the end:

The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.

I suppose all I can say in response is that I am far more weary of fending off limp attempts by the faithful to convince me to believe in the implausible and unobservable. And, if I say so myself, I suspect I have spent more time defending my lack of belief than Fish has ever spent on the arguments for his own.

It's not so much that I fault the emperor for his love of new clothes, but I do wish he wouldn't demand quite so much admiration from the rest of us.

UPDATE: P.Z. Myers has apparently read Eagleton's book- twice- and has rather a lot to say about it. Also, check out the comments section where TDEC helps to account for Eagleton's closing remarks. Enjoy!

* In honor of Eagleton's spectacular snark, whenever I bloody well feel like it, I shall refer to Fish and Eagleton as Fishelton.

** For example, I would argue that science is, in a sense, an aid to reason since logic alone has proven insufficient for unravelling the universe. Likewise, computers and math seem helpful.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

You had to know I was going to comment on this- I have a tag for it and everything!

By now all of you have probably heard the controversy over Carrie "Miss California" Prejean's claim that she was denied the Miss USA crown because she doesn't support gay marriage. Specifically, in response to a question asking whether gay marriage should be legal in every state she said:

I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other," Prejean responded. "But in my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised."

Now, I don't want to take sides on this issue. Really, I don't. I support gay marriage, as a matter of fact, but also think that imposing a political litmus test on beauty pageant contestants is fairly stupid. For that matter I think beauty pageants are fairly stupid, but that's not the point. No, what I want to do today is twofold: (1) post a picture of a woman in skimpy clothing and (2) talk about a deeper issue with her answer.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's deal with my second issue. During later discussion of her answer, Prejean added this:

"I don't take back what I said," she told Lauer, adding that she "had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs and for my God."

"It's not about being politically correct," she said. "For me, it's about being biblically correct." [emphasis added]

Basically, for her, marriage is whatever the bible says marriage is, right? Well then, I think she's in for an interesting discovery if she actually reads the bible attentively. I say this because the bible seems to recognize eight types of marriage and some of them might strike us as a little... odd. One of them is more or less what we think of as "traditional" (i.e. one man, one woman) but the other seven include "polygynous marriage" in which a man has multiple wives, "levirate marriage," in which a widow with no sons by her husband must marry her brother-in-law, and my personal favorite "marriage between a woman and her rapist," because a woman who suffers sexual assault must then marry her assaulter lest she be judged a slut or something.

So, hey, I don't want to lecture the beauty queen runner-up or nothing, but you might want to be careful with that whole "biblically correct" thing. It can be a whole mess of trouble.*

* And this, as a side note, illustrates a central problem with using the bible as an authority. If you use the whole thing- literally- then you run into a wide variety of problems, including that much of it is mind-bogglingly self-contradictory. If you pick and choose, however, how the hell do you decide what's "the word of god" versus "plain old crazy?" This isn't to say that Christians shouldn't use the bible for inspiration or something, but someone whose morality actually does come from the bible would probably be judged criminally violent by modern standards.

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