Sep 30, 2005

sleep makes your brain fall apart

Well, sort of.
As we slip into deep sleep, higher regions of our brains take a vacation from each other, disconnecting so much that consciousness is snuffed out and a once highly integrated organ becomes separated, according to a groundbreaking experiment by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.
Sleeping in class? Much, much worse.

tales outta school

1. Yesterday we spent a half hour reading in each class. Hack, hack, cough, cough, hack, sniffle, hack, cough, cough. I walked around with a Kleenex box, but there were few takers. This is an English class, but maybe I should take a few moments to lecture on the Germ Theory of Disease.

2. An administrator came by to check on a student who's been absent seven days. No one noticed the one who has yet to show up, but miraculously is still on my attendance list.

3. Yesterday's tie was declared "not as girly."

4. Students took umbrage at a letter to the editor (the first one, the "just kids" one.)

5. Today we're examining specific blog entries from different classes, talking about what makes for effective, non-doofus writing in an online environment. It's tough to drag students away from bad habits garnered from AIM or MySpace. Gratuitous exclamations and ROTF LMAO don't exactly add credibility.

6. Freshfolks are having a class discussion where I type up their thoughts on screen as they talk. Powerpoint works okay for this, but if there's a way to edit in fullscreen mode, someone tell me. Thanks.

Sep 29, 2005

utilitarianism and wet-nursing

Should infants nurse only at their mother's breast? A little-known passage from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism addresses the age-old question.
Whether one is to wet-nurse or to nurse one's own infant, this poor philosopher cannot say. Aristides of Sparta declared the wet-nurse a parasite. Bentham encouraged the practice. That an infant must be nursed is indisputable, but the method cannot be reconciled to any theorem or axiom of the moral calculus.
Better ask a Kantian.

[thirty-fifth in a series]

Sep 28, 2005

dueling dorks

Anderson's Maxim of Discourse has a new partner.

Anderson's Frightening Observation

Strangely relevant stories will appear on Obscure Store, whatever your topic.


A tornado on his back, he blitzes the classroom, poking the vacuum's snakelike plastic nozzle at tiny bits of notebook paper under the desks. "Here I am again," he shouts over the din.

"Me too," I shout back.

I work late when my wife works; he works late every night. We repeat this drill twice a week or so. Some nights we talk football, others we just nod and smile.

If my wife decides to work less to concentrate on school, this might be one of our last hellos, I tell him. He shakes his head, weaving through the desks.

"I know all about that," he shouts, then stops the vacuum and plunks down on a desk. "I tried that thirty years ago. Pre-med and a full-time job. Then the kids started coming, and I had to decide."

His eyes are bigger behind his glasses, his close-cropped gray hair hidden beneath a backward baseball cap. He adjusts the cap and scratches his scalp from time to time, mostly when making a point.

A military man for twenty-three years. A father with three grown sons.
Now, by choice and circumstance, a night custodian. "It's a great profession," he says. "With all my combined pension checks I'll retire with the big boys. But I wish sometimes I hadna left... It was tough. I didn't do real good in math. Those big lecture halls... it would go in one ear and out the other. But in the lab, it was different."

He pauses, searching for the moral. "When I look back... I threw away three years."

"Ever thought about dabbling, taking a few classes at the community college, getting back into it?" I ask.

"My friends are all doin' that," he replies. "I don't know. I don't know if I have the mentality anymore--to study like that."

"There are times when I just want to say 'screw it.' I take a lot of shit. I never thought I'd be cleaning up after people."

Five minutes of straight talk: back to work. Hitching up the vacuum, he drags a chewed up extension cord behind him and hollers good-night.

Sep 27, 2005

an English teacher's pet peeves: blogging edition

it's = it is

its = belonging to it

they're = they are

their = belonging to them

there = not here

criteria = more than one criterion

ideology, ideological, ideologies

atheist, atheism, atheists

Thank you.

poop de grace

Just when we're arguing whether whizzing in Sizzler's worth the intervention of the state, along comes this weirdo.

Sep 26, 2005

is Achilles a hero?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes, of course.

Horribly punned answer: Yes, but he's quite a heel.

[thirty-fourth in a series]

sip to your heart's delight

I love coffee, and since discovering the robust goodness of Batdorf and Bronson's decaffeinated pleasure, I imbibe in nearly guilt-free circumstances every other day or so. (It's expensive, that's why.)

NewScientist's recent article on the demon drink (sorry, subscribers only) mostly makes good sense, swatting away some of the myths surrounding the nectar of the gods. No, coffee doesn't raise blood pressure, at least not in regular users. No, coffee won't cause cancer. No, coffee won't steal your innocence and throw your heart in the trash. The only real risk, it seems, is a greater incidence of bone fractures among those tippling four or more cups per diem.

But tucked away in an otherwise unobjectionable "science update" is a curious little section about caffeine's allure.
... [S]ure, caffeine is a habit-forming stimulant, but nobody abuses it. Take too much and you feel jittery and anxious rather than getting high. And nobody ever got mugged by a caffeine junkie. "An addictive drug is something you commit a crime for," says Manfred Kroger, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

Caffeine researcher Lawrence Armstrong, an exercise physiologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, agrees. "Caffeine is a substance of dependence, not a drug of addiction," he says. "The words 'drug' and 'addiction' are powerfully emotive. Nobody robs banks or commits murder for caffeine."
Maybe they would, if caffeine were prohibited and cost $500 per cup, turning preps into anarchists and law-abiding mothers into mobsters.

Coffee: enjoy it while you still can.

Sep 25, 2005

one long drag toward the slippery slope

This week The Olympian is calling for voters to support I-901, which would add bars, restaurants, and other privately-owned establishments to the list of places where a puff of rancid tobacco is forbidden. A few choice paragraphs from the editorial show just how deep-rooted the logic of protectionism has become in society. Let's take a look.
On Nov. 8, Washington voters should adopt Initiative 901, which will ban indoor smoking from bars, restaurants, skating rinks and bowling alleys. In effect, I-901 bans all indoor smoking. It's the last step in a long process....
The newspaper's blunder in the first paragraph is telling. I-901 doesn't prohibit "all indoor smoking," instead extending the ban to all privately-owned businesses. You can still smoke in your own home. For how long, though? I'd say about twenty years; the neo-prohibitionist movement is building momentum. (Come back in two decades and see if I'm right. If wrong, I'll buy you a fine Cuban cigar. Well, as long as that ban is lifted by then.)
...In 1985, the state adopted the Clean Indoor Air Act, banning smoking in retail outlets. In 1993, offices were added to the "No Smoking" list.... If we protect the health of office workers and retail employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke, why shouldn't waitresses and bartenders and clerks at bowling alleys and skating rinks enjoy the same protection?
A better question: why is it the government's role to protect people from smoke, when they have the right to vote with their feet and their wallets? No one is forced to work or eat in a smoke-laden environment.
...As for the loss of individual rights, Nick Federici, spokesman for the American Lung Association of Washington, says, "Your right to swing your arms ends at my nose." In other words, smokers don't have the right to pollute nonsmokers' air....
Social norms usually take care of this problem. By this chop logic, a nonsmoker could enter a private home and tell its occupant to douse the cigarillo. As slippery slope--and one The Olympian is ready to slide right down.
...There is a strong argument to be made in favor of protecting the health of hospitality employees and patrons. Think about it. Restaurants and bars are already heavily regulated by the county health department. Inspectors ensure that cooks and dishwashers have taken a class on proper foodhanding techniques. The regulators conduct regular and special inspections ensuring that those individuals handling food are wearing gloves, that dishes are properly sanitized and that food is prepared and stored in a safe manner.

Those precautions are all in place to protect workers and patrons. Improving air quality is simply another protection.
First off, those regulations mostly protect patrons, not employees, because undercooked or unsanitary food is an immediate health hazard, and the unsuspecting customer has no idea what's going on in the kitchen. Granted, smoking isn't terribly healthy, but do we need more ways to tie up law enforcement, county employees, and business owners? What about other policy options? Give businesses incentives to upgrade their ventilation systems, tax breaks for switching to smoke-free environments. There are dozens of choices, but do-gooders want to regulate, regulate, regulate.
Federici predicts that smoking establishments will increase business once the ban is in place. "People will spend more money at those places if they don't have to walk through a cloud of carcinogens to get to the scrambled eggs."
If consumers really cared, they'd already tell the businesses that they're losing patrons because of their smoggy environments. I'm sure I'm not the only who's walked out of an indoor forest fire.
...There are more than 225,000 hospitality employees in this state who must show up for work in a smoky environment every day. They deserve protection from secondhand smoke as much as office workers and retail employees....
Interesting choice of phrase: "must show up." They have no choice but to work in a smoke-filled den. Instead of banding together to convince their management to change things, they call upon the power of Ma State to knock private businesses around.
Everyone has a right to breathe clean air. That's why voters should cast their ballots in support of Initiative 901 on Nov. 8.
I'm all for upholding rights, but I wasn't aware of a "right to breathe clean air." Let's go as far as the slope will carry us. Let's shut down the fragrance aisle at Macys.* And ticket those who flatulate in the public square. And provide mandatory scrub-downs for the B.O. burdened. And monitor emissions from the mall's food court. And clamp down on halitosis. And ban everything on the road but the Honda FCX.

Smokers are doomed. I-901 will pass, and may even survive the courts. But not with my help.

*It's not as silly as it sounds. The Evergreen State College, always on the cultural vanguard, prohibits the use of deodorants, perfumes, or colognes in any of its buildings.

Sep 24, 2005

I do bite my thumb, sir.

Mark Olson's essay comparing David v. Goliath to Menelaus v. Paris is up. One of his considerations:
Man’s competitive nature, and the value placed on honor leads inevitably to dueling. Today, the fact that we don’t duel makes it clear that, for the modern man, life is valued over personal and family honor.
Perhaps "Dueling is a valid way to resolve disputes" will make it to the list of Lincoln-Douglas debate topics.

even more eyesores

Friday evening, for cheap entertainment, the wife and I went ugly car hunting. We walked around the downtown and elsewhere, tourists in our own town, digital camera in hand, and discovered these three beauties.

Black, silver, and ugly all over. (Custom plate reads "VW VIXON." Add poor spelling to the mix.)

A Geo with racing stripes. Yup.

I hope the "Re-Elect Carter / Mondale" sticker and the stripes are perversely ironic.

Orange plus tan on anything else makes for a hideous combination; on an El Camino, though, it's strangely alluring.


Check this week's Prep Scoreboard: that's Capital 60, Stadium 0.

On to state.

Sep 23, 2005

more on materialism, knowledge and question-begging

Joe Carter, attempting to declare materialism null and void, indulges in a little petitio principii. My responses are in the comments. (Maybe I'll post more here, when I have time.)

Read my previous thoughts on materialist aesthetics here.

Sep 22, 2005

Mr. A's fashion quotes

Student: "You look like an Easter egg. So bright and pastel-y."
Me: "Is that a compliment?"

Student: "You always match. That's pretty rare for a teacher."

Student: "On the first day of school, why did you dress like a lawyer?"

Student: "I'd wear that tie. It's not tacky."
Me: "Are you kidding? It looks like grandma's curtains."

Student: "Now I get it, when you said that some teachers wear ugly ties and don't know it."

Sep 21, 2005

if you think it, it is so

A few minutes shy of my wife's five o'clock lunch break, as I pulled into the Macy's parking lot, I watched a teacher from my high school enter the store. I had this thought: It'd be funny if she bought a handbag from Melissa.

When her break finally came, my wife hopped into the car, bubbling with news that she'd just sold a nifty leather purse to that very same teacher.

Obviously, I control the universe. So blame your misfortune on my oversight, laziness, or utter disregard.

shine the spotlight

Apparently it's Lurker Day. If you're happy lurking, stay happy.

on our minds

Three sophomore English classes. Fifty-nine potential debate topics. Bold items were listed by all three classes. We whittle the list on Friday.

1. Drug legalization
2. Gay marriage
3. Polygamy
4. Domestic violence
5. Gas prices
6. Prison overcrowding
7. Hurricanes
8. Iraq
9. Pollution
10. Gender roles in the home
11. The WASL / new state graduation requirements
12. Celebrities and the justice system
13. School parking permits
14. Airline safety
15. Immigration
16. Taxes
17. Government spending
18. The Pledge of Allegiance
19. Steroids
20. Stem cells / cloning
21. The school's dress code
22. STDs
23. Premarital sex
24. Teen pregnancy
25. Human trafficking / international slave trade
26. The drinking age
27. Music
28. Longer school lunches
29. Homelessness
30. Abortion
31. The school's new soda policy
32. Obesity
33. Sports
34. Religion
35. Evolution
36. G. W. Bush
37. Driver's license requirements
38. Teachers who preach in class
39. Why school is mandatory
40. Marriage / Divorce
41. Area 51
42. Bible codes
43. Biological / Chemical weapons
44. Are we alone in the universe?
45. Guns
46. Fireworks
47. Natural disasters
48. Rebuilding New Orleans
49. The draft
50. Class in America
51. Cliques in school
52. The voting age
53. Cultural relativism
54. Fast food industry
55. Poverty
56. Droughts and disease in Africa
57. Racism in Olympia
58. The annoying morning announcements
59. Aging and rights

Sep 19, 2005

naturalism is a beautiful thing

On my urging, Eric of The blog on the corner has posted his version of the aesthetic argument. I'll interweave my thoughts with his own. (Sounds nicer than "I'll fisk it.") Eric's words are in italics; I've minorly edited for spelling and grammar.

At Jim's request, here is the aesthetic argument against naturalism. I admit that I am not a trained analytic philosopher, so forgive the impreciseness of my argumentation. At the same time, I believe that the idea I'm trying to get across in my argumentation is more fundamental than the argumentation itself. So, even if my syllogisms don't amount to a formal mathematical proof, hopefully the reader will look past that and try to get the underlying idea.

Sounds reasonable. I'll try to avoid too much deconstructive hoo-ha.

First some quick pseudo-definitions:

Naturalism: everything is fundamentally the product of some material cause.
Aesthetics: that which deals with the subject of beauty.

Immediately we're running into problems. Naturalism is often conflated with materialism, but the two aren't synonyms. Can the argument be salvaged by thinking "physicalism" or "materialism" whenever Eric writes "naturalism?" We'll see.

Now the argument:

During my life, I've had moving experiences of what I would call beauty. These experiences are powerful and have a strong physical and mental effect on me. These experiences also include the belief that they are real, as real as when I think I see something red or that I am talking to another person. Naturalism claims that such a thing as 'beauty' does not exist. Instead, my experience would be brought about by different material causes, such as chemicals in my brain, something I ate, etc. Consequently, whenever the 'beauty faculty' tells me something is beautiful I must say "No, according to the naturalist it is not," and thus not allow myself to have the experience of beauty.

This straw version of physicalism is worthily and easily knocked down. But it's straw. Consider:
When I see X, pleasure neurons A and B fire.
I have come to associate X with similar items that also fire up A and B.
I call this particular brain-state "beauty."
Therefore, X, like any other object that brings about this brain state, is "beautiful."
Is it subjective? Yes. Is it a gross caricature? Probably. I'm less of a philosopher than Eric. But I don't see any contradiction, internal or external, that places this scenario outside the bounds of physicalism, even in its crudest forms.

To the charge that physicalism undermines aesthetics, commenter Phil adds, "According to naturalism, an idea isn't really an idea, it's just neurons firing in your brain." Where does that "just" come from? It's a value judgment tacked onto a scientific explanation. But if naturalism is true and somehow undermines value judgments, then that "just" has no place in the discussion, making the objection internally contradictory and self-defeating. (How's that for a reductio?)

To begin with, this just seems kind of arbitrary. Why only accept some perceptions of 'reality' based off of a theory that has not been proven? That just seems to beg the question, especially since beauty sometimes seems more real to me than the observations upon which science is built. Why not also accept the observations of beauty? They don't undermine science, just naturalism, and naturalism is not necessary for scientific advance. Plus, if you listen to some of the great scientists, i.e. Einstein, it seems that beauty in fact inspires scientific progress.

Given the above, these objections are irrelevant. Let's move on.

Next, it seems hard to account for such a belief in beauty via naturalism, especially since a naturalistic explanation undermines the belief. Unfortunately, this is more of an intuitive notion for me right now as to why exactly that is. The thought process is that as I focus on my perception of beauty and then try to explain it by some third person perspective I just don't seem to really be explaining the perception, but just accidental features of it.

If I understand the complaint rightly, this is definitely a problem for physicalism. But no one has a satisfactory explanation for how qualia come about, so all mental models walk the same runway.

Finally, in the practical world naturalism undermines itself. Naturalism undermines all that has in the past motivated man to be willing to die in the defense of others. Thus, the more naturalistic man becomes the weaker he is, which also applies to nations.

How has materialism undermined human motivation for self-defense, or the defense of others? I'd love to see the evidence.

As a general aside, the argument against physicalism seems to presume that knowledge deflates enjoyment--call it the "Wizard of Oz objection." As a counterexample, I find helium-heightened voices hilarious. Yet never have I found them less funny because I know that it's "just" helium letting vocal cords vibrate faster, and not a magical transformation.

hope springs

Freshpeople started The Odyssey today. (I call them "freshpeople" not out of political correctness, but because it draws attention to the side of the board where the week's assignments are posted.)

The guiding question is deceptively simple.

How did you get here?

Its corollary, of course, is equally important.

Where are you going?

They're 14, so they have a long time to thoroughly consider both.

Sep 18, 2005

what the FAA really knew

A long time ago, regarding 9/11, I argued that "[e]ven if the attacks were not entirely preventable, it is not tenable to claim they were completely unforeseen."

An unedited 9/11 Commission report, compliments of The Smoking Gun, confirms that sad truth.

thinking caps off

PZ's smackdown of a hapless, self-described Thinker was funny and sad the first time, and even funnier and sadder the second.

The Thinker has even set up a fresh weblog to counter the criticism. It's hilariously inept. A sample:
You are a nasty little man, sir. Name calling is the last refuge of the loser of an argument. The fact that you felt it necessary to launch into it immediately speaks volumes about you and your position.
"You are a nasty little man" and "Name calling is the last refuge of a loser of an argument." In successive sentences! Remarkable.

Moral of the story: Wittgenstein's dictum.

Update: Now, on Dembski's blog, a plea for help.
I`m being assaulted by PZ Myers and his Panda`s Middle Finger minions at my website. It`s vicious, and I would appreciate any help anyone could give me.

Comment by birddog — September 18, 2005 @ 10:24 am
But you're already being helped, Birdnow. PZ's just applying Dembskian "reality therapy." Truth stings.

Sep 17, 2005

name it and claim it

The First Amendment, that is.

blog in me, Muse

Mark Olson's first entry in the mythic essays pseudo-carnival compares and contrasts the openings of the stories of Elkanah David and Achilles.

Coming soon: discussions of The Duel.

blast from the past

My brother's added more to his plate: he's writing a book about dating. Back when I was a college lad, I had delusions of authorship. The following is an article I penned for my school's newspaper, with a few minor edits.
"There’s a sucker born every minute." --P.T. Barnum

I have figured out a fool-proof way to get rich.

I've failed at just about everything--Internet multi-level marketing, Amway, telethons, begging, armed robbery--but I've hit upon the mother of all gold mines, a sure way to vault myself to instant fortune, or at least pay off my college loans. What is the magical formula, you may ask? Self-help books, the key to financial success.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the bestseller list is largely dominated by books designed for the average American moron. Walk into any Barnes and Noble or check out and you'll see row after row (or webpage after webpage) of books like Eat More, Weigh Less or Torture: the Easy Way. Pass any bus stop and you’ll see noses buried in Corporate Flunky No More! and Tying Shoes for Dummies. Visit any church and you’ll see Chicken Soup for the Soul next to the Bible on the back display. (Guess which one gets read more. Nope, you're wrong.)

I am a living testimony to the power of self-help books. The other day I picked up I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Mr. Harris has a lot of nice things to say, such as "Dating is a sin," and "Six things the Lord hates, seven sins including dates." While his skill as a poet may be meager, his heartfelt, emotional message will capture your heart and empty your wallet. It did both to me; not only am I thirty dollars poorer, but I haven’t been on a date since I came to LeTourneau. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is another self-help classic I've had the privilege of stealing ideas from. Within a week of reading it, I thought up my scheme. Thanks, Steve! About the only one I haven't read is Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It’s too difficult.

Self-help books work. Nothing will change your life like a couple million dollars in your bank account. Here’s my scheme. I’m working on a sure bestseller: Make Money Fast Writing Self-Help Books. It’s a guaranteed winner.

With such chapters as "Developing Your Jargon, or Unintelligibility Explained" and "Finding a Target Audience—the Broad Spectrum of Losers," or my central chapter, "Lying With a Straight Face," I can’t lose. In fact, I bet right now you’re thinking, "Gee, Winston, I would love to know how to write a self-help book, so I can be filthy rich! I've got to have that book!" Friend, I can accommodate you. Send $25 cash to CPO 161, c/o Winston Smith. You're going to thank me for it.
Yes, I wrote under a pen name. And yes, it's that Winston Smith. I blame the excesses of youth.

Sep 16, 2005

I get the last word... and here, sadly. I wish the conversation would continue.

Update: Here, too. And here.

Update II: No longer, here or here. And there'll be much more forthcoming here.

Sep 14, 2005

The Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle: Ask a Random Skeptic!

"It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." --James Thurber

Dear Random Skeptic,

With property values higher than Dr. Phil's hairline, should I risk leasing my new restaurant in a haunted building to save some green?

Stingy in the Sunshine State

Dear Stingy,

Why not? Our courts explicitly protect you against demons, succubi, phantasms, and other etheric beings. If ghoulies and ghosties make a mess of your diner, simply refuse to pay rent on the basis of your religious proclivities. Happy Haunting!


Lord Runolfr (nominated by Ted Collins)

Dear Random Skeptic,

I'm embarrassed to death by my twin brother, who has fashioned his once lovely locks into a tawdry mullet. He swears that he did it "to please the ladies." I think he's lost it. Who's crazy? Me or him?

Baffled in Brooklyn

Dear Baffled,

"We like to think of ourselves as rational animals, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe ourselves as rationalizing animals. However reasonable a view may be, it’s possible that we have acquired it for wholly irrational reasons and are now simply rationalizing it in order to maintain our self-image as consistent, rational, and moral." Not that your cousin pretends to be any of those. The short of it: chop it off, Mullet Man. No one, not even a split-brain patient, thinks mullets are sexy.


Austin Cline

Hey Random Skeptic,

I exist, really I do.

God in Heaven

Dear God,

"The Yankees are a pack of steroid-pumped, overpaid, cliché-ridden jocks wholly owned by an obscenely rich egotist; they have as much to do with sportsmanship and the Spirit of the Game as Minnesota Fats; you’ll find more heart, more human drama, and more entertainment value in a fast-paced game of stickball in a Brooklyn schoolyard than in a typical Yankees game." Which, analogously, is why I don't believe in you.


Richard Blumberg

Dear Random Skeptic,

Is there a chance that those selfless penguins that inexplicably make religious conservatives so happy will contract avian flu and wipe out humanity?

Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous,

No need to fear the penguins. "The facts are simple, as even the World Health Organization admitted in 2004: No evidence to date indicates that wild birds are the source of the present outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. Wild birds should not be culled." Enjoy your time at the zoo.



Dear Random Skeptic,

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I found the lost city of Atlantis in Chesapeake Bay, populated with Sea Monkeys and loaded to the gills with pirate booty. Who should I call first?

Curious in Cape Charles

Dear Curious,

First, it's "whom." Public schools. Anyhow, that's a great question, one deserving a lengthy, well-reasoned answer. Think to yourself: "If I go along to the nearest archaeology department and tell them I’ve found Atlantis I’ll be shown to the door. There are dozens of Atlantis theories announced each year. They’re all different, so logically at least dozens minus 1 of them must be wrong each year." Suffice it to say that your first step is to calm down. Second, read my entire essay. Third, don't forget to itemize. Plunder is taxable.


Alun Salt

Dear Random Skeptic,

Yesterday these nice looking young men dressed in dapper suits knocked on my door, with all sorts of pamphlets and fliers about a Flying Spaghetti Monster. We chatted for at least a half hour about what they called "Intelligent Design." They were pretty insistent that it was scientifically proven, and wouldn't leave until I promised to at least look into the possibilities and consider that His Noodly Appendage just might have created us all. Is there anything to that "Intelligent Design" stuff?

Questioning in Queens

Dear Questioning,

Boy, did you come to the right place. First off, it's tough to distinguish between design and "nature"--and so far, ID hasn't given us a reliable way to make that distinction. IDers aren't consistent about what "design" means. As humans, we're quick to see patterns where none exist. Furthermore, in general, our intuitions about the natural world are often entirely wrong. Evidence, not intuition, rules the world of science.

IDers sometimes try to dress up their arguments in scientific language, which might work for Larry King, but doesn't fool scientists. "It's not enough in science to wave your hands and make 'claims' that you've got some idea that challenges a known theory. You have to back it up with actual experimental data published in actual journals."

The whole is-it-religion-or-science question can confuse even the brightest of thinkers. We'll say it again: ID isn't science, at least not yet. But we're not holding our breath.


Pat Hayes, Canadian Cynic, Joseph O'Donnell, Ophelia Benson, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and Ryan Whitmore

Dear Random Skeptic,

What should stop us from genetically modifying asparagus so it makes urine glow in the dark? That would be so cool.

Nolan, Age 12

Dear Nolan,

Sounds like the ideal situation for late-night trips to the bathroom. In all seriousness, though, to the best of our knowledge, GM food is safe, and a lot of the objections to it aren't very well thought out. In fact, they're pretty similar to the fears people once had about aviation. In some cases, anti-GM organizations twist facts about patent laws to drum up unnecessary hysteria. Risk assessment is one thing; irrational fear is another.


Mark and Skeptico

Dear Random Skeptic,

My boyfriend insists that coffee kills brain cells, and that I should drop my latte-a-day habit. But I heard a report that coffee is a great source of antioxidants, and maybe can cure cancer. Please help!!!

Desperate in Des Moines

Dear Desperate,

Any time you hear "studies show..." you need to crank on your baloney detector. Reporters are fond of breathless science stories that leave facts in the dust. "Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn’t about something being true or not true: that’s a humanities graduate parody. It’s about the error bar, statistical significance, it’s about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it’s about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence." When the media tell you that coffee is the devil's drink, swill down another cup and laugh at death.


Ben Goldacre (nominated by Alun Salt)

Dear Random Skeptic,

I'm a computer programmer, and the long hours at the keyboard and routinely poor dietary choices have left things all backed up, and I'm not talking about data. A buddy of mine recommended that I detoxify. He said it'll clear up my acne, ward off the flu, and reduce my risk of heart disease. Is it time to cleanse my colon?

Verstopft in Friedrichshafen

Dear Verstopft,

I'll let EneMan do the talking: "I have only a couple of purposes: to clean out the rectum and lower colon, usually in preparation for some sort of endoscopy, and to help relieve moderate constipation or stool impaction. And I'm quite good at it. I don't have delusions of grandeur that I can do anything more than that. After all, I'm just a 6-foot Enema with a job to do, but I'm not going to "detoxify" you or cure any major diseases."



And so endeth the Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle. Thanks to Orac and PZ for helping spread the good word, and double thanks to Orac for the chance to host, and triple thanks to all those who sent in their entries or pushed other people into the spotlight. Any editing decisions and liberties taken are my responsibility, so if you have a problem, I'll force someone else to resign just to make you happy, okay?

The next edition will be hosted by Wolverine Tom on September 29th. No rest, wicked, etc.

the first day, one week in

Mrs. Frizzle's hosting the latest Carnival of Education, and it's a doozy.

[thanks to Jenny D. for the tip.]

Sep 13, 2005

did you ever know that you're my hero?

The Pseudo-Polymath has come up with another interesting idea, this time calling for bloggers to contribute their thoughts about heroism. Nerdy, but fun, and with possibilities of profundity. The description:
The idea is to compare and contrast two heroic stories from almost the same eras but from very different cultures. The two stories I had in mind were the Hebrew heroic story … that is the story of King David in Samuel I & II … and the Greek heroic poems from the same era by Homer … that is the Iliad (and perhaps the Odyssey). I had in mind perhaps posting once weekly (say Thursdays) on the similarities and differences - to contrast and compare the stories of David and Achilles. We could write on the same subtopic on this theme each week. For example, for next week I was thinking we could write on the openings. To compare and contrast the Iliad’s immortal opening cadences to the more subtle (tender?) vignette of Hannah giving up of Samuel, her firstborn, to the Temple.
Other topics might include,

  • Musing about what makes a hero a hero. Compare what makes David a Hero to the Hebrews and Achilles a Hero to the Acheans.
  • Compare how the two cultures (and authors) treat Death.
  • How are the two Heroes flawed? How do these flaws impact their stories?
Check it out.

your baby can read critical analyses

Thanks to a breakthrough in electronic technology, your wee tyke can read. But not just Dick and Jane or See Spot Run or My Pet Goat, oh no. We're talking about the intellectual heavyweights of literary criticism. Jack Derrida. Ellie Showalter. Sig Saussure. Marty Heidegger. Julie Kristeva. Stanislaw Fish.

The secret?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

When your infant wears this specially-designed helmet for half an hour a day, it will subtly boost connections in the right parietal lobe of her blooming brain. She'll quickly comprehend that the signifier is not the signified, and that differance and difference are, well, different. From there it's a short leap to the complex mental gymnastics required to read and understand po-mo criticism.

The TMS helmet is completely drool-proof and 100% crash tested. Results are guaranteed, or your money back. Send three easy payments of $29.95.
Side effects may include religious ecstasy. One in ten infants reported mild dizziness and spit up on the lab assistant.

[thirty-third in a series]

owning Rose

From the teacherrefpoet, a strange little tale of woe.

damned inactivist judges, part II

This time, in Everett.

When will they stop?

Sep 12, 2005

you retort, we include

Haven't sent an entry to the next Skeptics' Circle yet? You still have time. The gate closes Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. PST.

Email: decorabilia AT hotmail DOT com.

Don't be shy.

a bone to pick through

While we're on a gee-whiz kick, how about this story from New Scientist?
Clumps of mineral crystals in fossil bones preserve DNA better than other parts of the bones, a new study shows. The results promise new hope for research on both ancient humans and extinct animals.
The pressing question: could we clone a plesiosaurus? 'Cause I want one.

try before you buy

Via Ed Brayton, word of this website produced by the NYTimes: a first-chapter index of books reviewed by the paper of record. Too, too cool.

Sep 11, 2005

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Spoiler Alert: Don't see the film, and your evening won't be spoiled.

The harshest criticism I can level at The Exorcist Exorcism of Emily Rose is that it makes The Devil's Advocate look inspired. Scott Derrickson has taken a workable, if derivative, premise and ruined it. The film tries to be a combination horror flick and courtroom drama, and fails as both. Whenever any thing genuinely creepy happens in the flashbacks, the plot lurches back to the present, deflating any built-up tension.

Add to that an almost total lack of concern with the title character. Emily Rose, at least according to a vision she witnesses post-exorcism, is nothing more than God's pawn, a puppet who is battered and beaten for the greater cause of sending us all back to the Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, then, her function in the film is the same. We are treated to just one brief scene where she's a normal young woman about to head to college (country mouse cliches notwithstanding), and somehow that's magically supposed to make us sympathetic. It doesn't. Her histrionic convulsions and contortions make only the teeny-boppers scream; the rest of us are laughing.

Was Emily Rose genuinely possessed, or epileptic? The film's sympathies obviously lie with the spiritual interpretation, though the prosecution's skeptical case is far more convincing. The defense's "Is it possible?" closing statement has to rank among the worst in the history of cinema.

What more can I fault? The chronic abuses of suspense with no payoff? The cardboard characters? The long, boring stretches? The insipid dialogue? ("You're much prettier than your picture." "You want that rising star to keep rising.") The overwhelming debt to The Omen, The Exorcist, Constantine, Rosemary's Baby, every other demon movie ever made? Movies that, no matter how flawed, are seared into the imagination?

Your brain, your gut, and your wallet will be offended if you go. You've been warned.

Bonus: I'm not the only one who went away disappointed.

James Berardinelli: "The Exorcism of Emily Rose is entertaining to the same degree as any courtroom drama of limited imagination can be."

Rob Blackwelder: "Derrickson clearly fancies his film a large intellectual step up from the horror genre, but the structural concessions in his courtroom plot -- made to accommodate those flashbacks in a way that builds maximum apprehension -- are so blatant they become more of a hindrance than a help in telling the story."

Phil Villareal: "If you thought "The Exorcist" went too over the top with its rotating heads and pea soup projectile vomit, wait till you get a load of Emily's histrionics. Homegirl looks like she's an extra from the "Thriller" video set on fast-forward."

David Gilmour: "[Derrickson's] a rock-solid, competent technician; he can scare you, but so can my seven-year-old stepdaughter when she hides behind the couch."

Melinda Ennis: "A "Rashomon"-like approach of visualizing the two disparate explanations is inconsistently executed, then discarded altogether at the end. The exploration of unquestioning faith (religious or otherwise) in a world of pop psychology and cynicism is worthy of a far better movie."

Peter Travers
: "At one point, Scott raises an objection. 'On what grounds?' asks the judge. 'How about silliness, your honor?' Amen to that."

three days in

We have a reverse deus ex machina: construction workers descend onto the roof's HVAC system and bleed natural gas into the ducts, forcing the entire campus to evacuate until the all-clear. No one knows where they're supposed to go, so students and teachers diffuse like little gas molecules until redirected to the track.

Lesson plans are only so useful, really.

Sep 9, 2005

skeptics' circle: time to contribute

Number 17 is in the works and will be hosted right here on September 15. Cast your critical eye over the landscape, write about what you see, and send it this way.

Description (shamelessly stolen from the archives:)

The Skeptics' Circle is a biweekly carnival for bloggers who like to apply critical thought to questionable stories. It is meant to be, as much as possible, apolitical. For purposes of the Circle that means not touching social causes mired in political action and for which multiple viewpoints can be reasonably supported by empiric data or for which the heart of the disagreement is primarily political or philosophical. That means no posts about how Bush’s Social Security reform is going to bankrupt our nation or how liberal activists are pushing “institutionalized racism,” malpractice caps, or anything about abortion. This is also not the place for personal causes. If you think personal light rail is a bad idea in your area, take that up with your local politicians and media. The Circle was created to clear up things rendered unnecessarily mysterious and fight frauds (paranormal, urban legends, etc.), pseudoscience (creationism, perpetual motion machines, for example), quackery (homeopathy, for example), and pseudohistory (Holocaust denial, for example), not to push anyone’s political agenda.

Most importantly, the data used to debunk or make a case should be empirical, which is why hotly debated social issues where there really is no clear answer at present are outside the scope of this carnival. Posts discussing or arguing such issues should be submitted to one of the many political blog carnivals out there. On the other hand, a (very) few specific issues that are unavoidably political are within the scope of this carnival. The most prominent examples come from creationism and intelligent design, because they are clearly not scientific concepts but, particularly in the case of intelligent design, are being represented as such for political reasons.

Appropriate Subjects

Here are the ideal topics for a Skeptics’ Circle submission:

Urban legends. Heard a story about a friend-of-a-friend repeated from other friends and want to find out whether or not it’s true? See a hoax you want to warn people about? Have a strange looking picture forwarded to your e-mail? Don’t leave it all to Snopes, do a little digging and see for yourself whether or not it’s true.

The paranormal. Want to prove how silly astrologists, psychics, ghosts, UFOs, or Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) are? You better belive we’ve got a place for you. All I ask is we keep it more scientific-based than snarky, although there’s nothing wrong with some sarcasm to keep it funny.

Quackery. Of all the subjects included in the Circle, this may be the most likely to save someone's life. There is a lot of potentially harmful questionable medical advice out there being pushed faster than researchers can debunk it.

Pseudoscience. You don’t need to be a professor to know something flat-out doesn’t make sense. If you hear a theory that makes everything you learned from your high school laboratory experiments sound wrong, odds are it’s wrong. Intelligent design fits into this category, because it’s less of a political issue than it is an attempt to superimpose beliefs over factsand the political connotations are side-issues at best.

Historical revision. If someone’s promoting a crooked timeline to try to deny or ignore a major event in history or forcing an incorrect view of the past, prove them wrong. Ideological reinterpretations have done too much harm to the world already.

Critical thinking. Posts dealing with the meta-analytical process behind sorting out the reason from the misinformation fit in this catch-all category.


Send an e-mail with the URL for your post along with a brief description to the decorabilia AT hotmail DOT com.

The deadline is September 14, 7:00 p.m. PST.

Jesus the logician? (redux)

[Joe Carter recycled his, so I've recycled mine.]

Joe Carter has put together an interesting project. In his words:
Earlier this year I encouraged my fellow godbloggers to analyze the Gospels and post examples of the way that Christ used various logical and rhetorical forms in his ministry. Listed below are links to the invaluable posts that I received on this project....
In his original post, Carter quotes extensively from Dallas Willard, who has a high view of Jesus's use of logical discourse and argumentation. Why shouldn't he? As Douglas Groothuis writes,
For all their honesty in recording the foibles of the disciples, the Gospel writers never narrated a situation in which Jesus was intellectually stymied or bettered in an argument; neither did Jesus ever encourage an irrational or ill-informed faith on the part of his disciples.
But wait. Let's parse the first claim: generally speaking, why would the Gospel writers want to show Jesus's foibles? (His disciples, foolish as they sometimes seem, are perfect foils for Jesus, literarily speaking.) There may have been situations where Jesus was in fact stymied, or took a long time thinking up an answer, that just aren't included. (If we think the Gospels are a "fair and balanced" presentation of Jesus's career and teachings, we assume too much.)

Jesus, no doubt, is a master of rhetoric. But rhetoric sometimes comes at the expense of logic. Even within the Gospels one can find examples of sloppy reasoning and obfuscation, many (if not most) in John, chief among the Gospels for its oracular density and maddening repetitiveness. I'll point out just a few examples.

First, look at Jesus's defense of his authority in the book of John, specifically chapters 5 and 8.
Jesus examines what constitutes valid evidence for a claim. First, he states,
"If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is valid."
Seems fair enough; trumpeting one's own accomplishments is a pretty poor way to gain credibility. But three chapters later,
The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid."

Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me."
In John, Jesus sounds very much like Walt Whitman. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

In Matthew 15 (paralleled in Mark 7 ), contra Groothuis, Jesus actually is bested in an argument.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
(We may speculate as to why Mark's rendering doesn't include the line "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," and makes no mention of "faith," and why Luke's Gospel entirely omits the story.)

Other logical fallacies are there for the finding. There's petitio principii, John 8:43:
Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.
Denying the Antecedent, John 8:47:
He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason that you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.
To sum up: there is no need to deny Jesus his greatness as an orator and profound thinker. But his logic is not perfect. In that respect, he's just like the rest of us.

Sep 7, 2005

metaphysician, heal thyself

When he stops posting nonsense, I'll stop harping on it. When commenter PaV calls Chris Mooney a "Looney," Dembski calls for an end to juvenility:
[I was about to delete this remark, but then the second remark below would no longer make sense. I don’t have any more affection for Mooney than you do. But staying on topic and forgoing the name-calling is a more effective strategy for defeating people like Mooney. –WmAD]
Isn't this the same Dembski who called Darwinists "maculinity-threatened?"

Or "Darwhiners?" Note the prescient comment by one "eswrite," and the response by none other than PaV.
All of this name calling adds to a great deal of unproductive vitriol. IDiots vs. Darwhiners, Cretinists vs. Darwimpians. How does any of this advance public discourse?

Comment by eswrite — June 6, 2005 @ 1:30 pm

I don’t know about public discourse, but it is a lot of fun.

Comment by PaV — June 9, 2005 @ 4:27 am
Dembski also called Mark Perakh "The Boris Yeltsin of Higher Learning" (which, I admit, may or may not be an insult; someone help me understand what it means).

down the hatch

Day One complete; mostly successful.

I started my freshman courses with the great Theodore Roethke poem "The Waking." Villanelles are nifty enough, and Roethke's is a gem. Sophomores were treated to "English Class can Save You Money," wherein I showed the remarkable power of the complaint letter to--drum roll--save you money. (It helps that I have an effective personal example from my struggle with an unnamed national restaurant chain.)

I have publicly stated my goal to learn all 142 students' first names by Friday. I tried it last year, and was pretty close to the mark. Everyone doubts it's possible, which is reason enough to try.

Tomorrow I'll go over handouts and rules and syllabi. Seems like a waste on the first day, when a we're-here-to-learn tone is essential from the first minute. I'll also show my sophomores some complaint letters gone wrong, which are even more fun than the ones that work.

Sep 6, 2005


School starts tomorrow. A year ago, this is what I wrote about the first week:
The first week--okay, three days, really--is over. When I get my rhythm back, I'll be blogging again on a regular basis, providing fresh insight into one microcosm of American education.

Hope wears baggy jeans and bling-bling. It sports black lipstick and purple eyeliner. It is pimply and extroverted. It is stubbly and shy. Hope slouches in the back of the room and fidgets in the front. It scribbles love notes and locker combinations. And hope preaches from a markerboard and an overhead, between the rows and behind the podium.

I love this job.
Today, hope drowns in caffeine and scrambles to put the posters up.

no pressure

The day before school returns to Olympia, let us pause to remember why we're here: the WASL. Now it counts.

Sep 5, 2005

ironia vincit omnia

9:16 p.m. PST: Dissent posted.

10:55 p.m. PST: Dissent crushed.

Minor triumph: at least he feels compelled to justify his deleterious fixation. (This is particularly ironic, given his long-ago prediction: "I don’t plan on policing or editing comments." We all know how that played out.)

Post a comments policy on your front page, and no one will have grounds to complain. It's that simple.

willful blindness

William Dembski revises history:
But this much is clear. There have already been two immensely important changes that have been more or less coterminous with the recent media frenzy. The first is that criticism of Darwin’s theory has now been internalized by the biological community itself.
"Has now been internalized." "Now." Give us all a collective break. Darwin's theory has been "on trial" from its inception, and its critics within mainstream science have been vocal and, more to the point, feverishly researching and publishing. Where was Dembski when the "punctuated equilibria" controversy first broke? When Lynn Margulis first speculated that mitochondria were once free organisms?

Then Dembski pulls a common creationist card, "my enemy's enemy is my friend:"
To be sure, it is never ever called criticism, but that is what it is nonetheless. Look at Harold Morowitz’ stuff on the origins of life. His papers always contain a purely ritualistic word about Darwin’s great insight. And then Darwin is dismissed. Too random, too unscientific. These are both Morowitz’s terms.

What he wants is a “universal and deterministic” theory of biological origins and development, one based on biochemistry. Not traditional biochemistry, of course, but biochemistry in which “organic laws” are finally revealed. These laws Morowitz argues cannot be reduced to organic chemisty, just as inorganic chemistry cannot be reduced to physics in view of the Pauli exclusion principle. What a remarkable series of claims to find within the very heart of the establishment.
It's only "remarkable" if you are willfully blind to the existing controversies at the "very heart of the establishment." Dembski doesn't mention that Morowitz looks down upon both God-of-the-gaps and randomness-of-the-gaps explanations for the origin of life. His "deterministic" account of biogenesis is completely designer-free; its fundamental claim is that life is an expected and common feature in the universe.

As Morowitz (along with Robert Hazen and James Trefil) writes,
Although both the theories of frozen accident and deterministic origins have their supporters, virtually all scientists who work in the field believe that once living things appeared on our planet, the Darwinian process of natural selection guided their development. There is no disagreement on that point, although there is -- and should be -- vigorous debate on the details of the way natural selection has worked.
Dembski conveniently ignores Morowitz's unequivocal opinion of Intelligent Design: it's "bad science."

When the facts don't fit, you must call bullshit.

Sep 4, 2005

my aching eyes

I could have an entire blog dedicated to the ugly cars that fill Olympia's streets. As if the Chrysler 300 wasn't hideous enough.

a catalogue of excuses

Friday: A new teacher needs to know what's on the sophomore curriculum. All my handouts are currently saved on a Mac that the tech guy just installed OS X on. Now it requires a username and password to boot up--and mine doesn't work. The tech guy is on vacation, return date unknown.

Saturday: The carpenters have turned my classroom into a staging ground in the war against siding. The floor is littered with air compressors and tool belts. Their fellow electricians replaced a set of surge-protected outlets with a solid steel plate; the nearest alternates don't work. The carpenters inform me that the electricians won't be in the building again until Tuesday, the day before school starts. The carpenters will be there, too, presumably finishing, and taking their toolbelts with them.

Sunday: Excel is crashing. The requisite update demands previous updates that I never installed. I can't quite configure Office Update to work on the campus network, so I have to download twenty-megabyte files over a 56k modem at home.

Distractions, obstacles, dilly-dallying, tangents, dithering, laziness, nerves, attention deficit, time constraints, hiccups, daydreaming, senior moments, meetings, computers, power outages, illness, fatigue, boredom.

It's a wonder anything ever gets done.

"busy like a guy who's really busy"

I can be found discussing origins on Mere Orthodoxy and Rube Goldberg on Evolutionblog, cleaning my classroom, preparing lessons for the first week of school, reading, reading, reading, reading, and reading. Oh, and receiving entries for the Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle.

Sep 3, 2005

de gustibus non est disputandum

Yes, that's a screaming orange Audi with a "PAPAYA" license plate.


It's good to see Barry McKinnon notch his first win as head coach of the Capital gridiron squad. Two former students (Ling and Haefer) helped seal the victory. Congrats all around.

(Incidentally, while the Cougars were coming from behind to win, the Seahawks were departing from ahead to lose in typically ulcerating fashion.)

Sep 2, 2005

of mice and design

Dembski points to this article to ask, "How much intelligence is required to build self-repairing systems?" (An interesting, albeit loaded, question.) The exciting discovery:
Scientists have created "miracle mice" that can regenerate amputated limbs or damaged vital organs, making them able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals.

The experimental animals are unique among mammals in their ability to regrow their heart, toes, joints and tail.
Since Dembski hasn't, I'll consider the metaphysical implications. Let's assume that self-repair is, in fact, designed. Some immediate questions, then. Why can fish and amphibians regrow organs and limbs, while mammals--never mind humans--can't? Is it an inscrutable whim, a design constraint, a purposeful omission?

To press the theodicy question, what might be the motives of an omnibenevolent designer to deny such radical self-healing capabilities to otherwise favored beings?

Some potential answers. First, if the designer's motives are entirely inscrutable, inquiry stops there. Second, self-repair isn't an obvious design constraint; witness the healthy functioning of the amped-up mice. Third, I can imagine a creationist response to the third possibility--self-repair is a postlapsarian loss--but if so, again, why fish and amphibians weren't affected is a mystery.

As to the theodicy question (which I grant is packed with certain assumptions), I leave that to the theodicists.