Aug 31, 2006

why demons attack you in your sleep

Everything's fine during the daylight hours. You lounge in the park, watching widowers play chess, ducking from an errant frisbee throw, reading Proust and thinking of the possibilities.

But at night... when the lights are out, the covers drawn, the wind whipping at the window... demons come out of nowhere, assaulting you with evil thoughts. Trip a granny crossing the street. Laugh during Sunday sharing time. Flip the bird at a motorcyclist for no good reason. Watch House. Like Goodman Brown, you buckle under the barrage.

Why? Why do they come at night?

Freud once opined that dreams are the "royal road to the unconscious." That road, my friend, is a public conveyance. Incubi and succubi wait around for a hackney-cab to your hallucinations, and, once inside, can roam the streets with impunity, like vandals sacking Rome, like Michigan fans after the Rose Bowl.

The trick is not dreaming. Every night, before sleeping, say the Dreamer's Prayer of Protection.

O God, who made the heav'n and earth,
From dreams this night protect me.
Destroy each succubus at birth,
No incubus infect me.

Your slumber will be safe from the torment of dreams and demons, and you can resume your normal life of Proust in the park, basking in the sunshine of grace.

[117th in a series]

anagram of Benjamin Franklin

A straight-talking, adroit genie [1] strolled into a nondescript pub in a nondescript neighborhood somewhere south of here, dancing around the drunks and sidling up to the bar. "I'll grant two wishes to the first fellow who can beat me at arm wrestling," he barked, glancing around the room. Nobody moved until a short accountant named Ben squeaked from the back.

"I can take you," said the milquetoast, baring a puny bicep tattooed with a calculator, charging up to the bar and propping his elbow on a coaster.

The genie laughed and took his seat opposite the number cruncher. Unbeknownst to the genie, the accountant had slathered his arm with a potion derived from the dye of the water-spangle, its recipe privy to Japanese assassins [2]. The bout was over in seconds, as the genie fell to the floor, cradling his broken left arm in his right. "What... do... you... wish?" he croaked.

"To be left alone," said the accountant, who then barged out the door as the barflies wheezed in disbelief.

"Well," said the bartender, "I'm guessing no one's ever going to stuff Ben in a skating arena filled with caramel-capped custard [3] again."

[1] a frank, nimble jinn
[2] fern ink ninja balm
[3] jam Ben in flan rink

[116th in a series]

Napoleon did it. Wikipedia says it. That settles it.

My school email inbox just received a Saint Martin's professor's stern warning about an insidious trend:
In the last couple of years I have seen a noticeable increase in the use of Wikipedia by students. It is not, however, a legitimate source, b/c anyone can update/edit the online encyclopedia, regardless of expertise and without quoting sources. I tell my students that it may be a fine place to start your research (even this I distrust, but I try and throw them a bone), but all outside material must be sourced elsewhere and appropriately.
Tell that to The Olympian.

Pluto's status still in doubt

Now a group of astronomers wants to subvert the recent International Astronomical Union's decision that Pluto isn't a planet. What we need is a Dan Brownesque novel that exposes the conspiracy to throw our astrological fortunes all outta whack.

html template editing now available for Blogger Beta

At long last, the Second Coming. Changes will appear shortly. Once they arrive, feel free to complain about them here.

Also, archiving is almost done. Scroll down to see the formative list on the sidebar.

night of the living skeptics

The 42nd installment of the Skeptics' Circle is brought to you by Joseph O'Donnell, who's gone "completely and utterly mad." Enjoy.

congratulations! you've got the pink slip email.

Via Obscure Store, we learn that Radio Shack recently sent out firing notices via email.
Those who were not that lucky saw a message that read: "The workforce reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated."

Some of the terminated employees included vice presidents and rank-and-file workers. Hodges said that after the e-mails were delivered, he heard no gasps or cries.

"People had plenty of time to mentally prepare for what might happen," he said. "They handled it professionally."

USC business professor Warren Bennis said it didn't matter that employees had been forewarned: "I thought I had stopped being surprised at the callousness of corporate acts."
Callous, or just misreading and misapplying research?

loud enough to wake the dead

I arrived at school this morning to find construction workers lounging in the grass by the parking lot, secretaries smoking at the bus stop across the street. Turns out the Olympia Fire Department was conducting an hour-long test of the fire alarm, without first bothering to inform the administration. I ran in to drop off my lunch, then scurried back to my car, ears plugged to muffle the deafening klaxon. Right now I'm blogging in the library-quiet computer lab at TESC.

Aug 30, 2006

Initiative 87 dies on the judicial vine

The news, in brief:
A King County Superior Court judge threw out a school-funding initiative Wednesday evening, ruling that the Seattle Education Association's attempt to raise millions for Seattle Public Schools is illegal.

Initiative 87 would have directed city property-tax money to smaller class sizes, all-day kindergarten and other programs in Seattle schools....

A related measure, Initiative 88 ­-- a proposal to raise the levy lid -- is on the September ballot. But even if it passes, it doesn't do anything without I-87, which spelled out how to spend the money.
More will come when the details of the ruling are available.

two persons, one very unique body

As John Lizza explains, the biological definition of humanity has difficulty accommodating the extreme cases. Consider Abigail and Brittany Hensel, healthy conjoined twins fused at the pelvis, sharing one blood stream, one liver, one reproductive system, one small intestine, and one large intestine, but with two stomachs (and two very different sets of tastes), two sets of lungs, two hearts, two heads, two brains, and two personalities.

[Thanks to Burgess Shale for the link.]

John Cleese, Edwin Meese, and apophenia

Over a week ago, inspired by a bizarre search query, I crafted a fiendishly simple puzzle that one very smart guy with too much free time decided to solve. He eventually gave up in frustration, admitting defeat first in the comments, and later in an email, which I've reproduced below. (Yes, with permission.)
Here were the best "leads" I had so far:

--The endings are filler, of course. I then took the "people" side to be the independent variable in any potential "transform one into the other" solution, since the endings of names are much harder to fake than the endings of adjectives: You can append "ary" to many things, with a few grammatically necessary transformations, and get an adjective.

--The presence of an identical or almost-identical "filler" in each "name side" entry was therefore perhaps a selection effect done purposefully to throw us off. It may have been that the appropriate transform could turn "Abe Lincoln" into "dromedary" for all that I knew. This is quasi-confirmed by "Reese's," which does not fully fit the pattern.

--In the case of the adjectives side, the endings were appended to words or roots of words to fit the pattern after an initial transform yielded the root.

--If the pattern relied on word counts in a given dictionary or other source of words, then all was lost. Such codes are almost insoluble without NSA-style equipment. And even then they're hard.

--I assumed that "Edwin" and "John" are extraneous (which is a big assumption),

I'm therefore left with:

1. R = zythep-
2. Cl = arbitr-
3. ch = lachrym-
4. M = consuetid-

And there I'm stuck.

My only other "lead" was that John Cleese's name was, indeed, arbitrary, since the Wikipedia entry noted that his father changed the family name. From Cheese. (!)

Anyway, those were the theories that "held up." I'll spare you the ones that didn't.
What does this have to do with intelligent design, you ask?

It's all about trying to find a pattern that isn't real--when pathological, the condition is called apophenia--by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle--if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn't. In the vague, meaningless sense of "design," one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which "Edwin Meese" is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than "hmm, this word sounds nifty."

If Jason Kuznicki (the very smart fellow in question) had found a pattern, I would be congratulating him on his transcendent cleverness, while secretly never admitting the true nature of the design.

What is my point? ("You often have no point," my wife always cuts in.) In their delightful and accessible introduction to probability, Chances Are, Ellen Kaplan and son Michael write,
Recent experiments using positron emission tomography (PET) scans have revealed that, even when subjects have been told they are watching a completely random sequence of stimuli, the pattern-finding parts of their brains light up like the Las Vegas strip. We see faces in clouds, hear sermons in stones, find hidden meanings in ancient texts. A belief that things reveal meaning through pattern is the gift we brought with us out of Eden.

Our problem, however, is that some things can have shape without structure, the form of meaning without its content. A string of random letters split according to the appropriate word-lengths of English will immediately look like a code.
Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution." Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn't.

Update: Matthew Anderson writes,
The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the aggression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
"It's up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself" restates the problem, making me sound like a radical subjectivist. Instead, I would have written, "It is up to the reader to determine if the meaning is in the puzzle, or in the mind of the puzzled."

Helmut of phronesisaical connects my post to his thoughts on "accidental art."
Part of the point of both posts is that decisions made about what to look for or how to create are as much a function of accident as they are rational design. If you look at the photos and decide they are "art" (I know this is presumptuous, but bear with me), understand that you are the one doing it. I made a selection of photos to show you. But I can't call them art, which, even allowing for the artist's relationships with accident, involves intentionality on the part of the all-too-human artist.
Another update: Jason Kuznicki links to another puzzle that ostensibly has a solution--except no one's solved it. Yet.

bacteria in the big box bookstore brew

Which java joint gets the worst knuckle-rapping in this week's Health Inspections? Barnes and Noble's cafe, that's which.
COMMENTS: Red - Milk and half & half cream were kept in undercounter refrigerator between 51-55°F. Cold holding must be at 41°F or below. Do not leave dairy products on counter at room temperature. Handwashing sink at front area was out of order. Handwashing sink in back area was completely blocked by a cart. Sink was used as a handwashing sink but soap was not readily available. All handwashing sinks must be accessible and operable.

Blue - Evidence of rodent infestation was observed. Pest control management by professionals must be used more effectively. Cleaned utensils were exposed to potential contamination by soapy water generated from washing hands. Biscotti was kept under handwashing sink.
"Evidence of rodent infestation was observed." Eek! Mice and/or rats!

While I'm bashing B&N's Starbucks, I should point out that my favorite coffee stop, Batdorf and Bronson, is pristine by comparison.

hungry? why wait?

The Intelligent Designer is a frickin' evil genius.
A mother gray nurse shark carries 40 or so embryos in her two wombs. But once an embryo develops jaws, it starts eating its siblings. Results: 1) Only one embryo survives in each womb. 2) The species is endangered.
Update: Volokh reader ajf points us to more fetal shark-vs-fetal shark facts. The word is oophagous.

Update update: Some varieties of tadpoles eat their brethren to gain essential fatty acids. Yum.

last-ditch legal effort to revive gay marriage

Says KOMO news:
Gay and lesbian couples on Tuesday asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its endorsement of Washington's gay marriage ban, saying the court's flawed reasoning ignored legal protections against sex discrimination.

Such requests to the high court rarely are granted, but attorneys in the case said the stakes were too high to let the opportunity pass.

"We felt that we had to use every option available to us to show the justices the logic behind our arguments and how their decision, as it is currently reasoned, falls short," said Nancy Sapiro of the Northwest Women's Law Center, a plaintiffs' attorney.
I'd put it at 90% that the Court says no. It's time for gay marriage proponents to rework their strategy and head to the legislative arena.

Aug 29, 2006

these chimps are no chumps: part III

In parts I and II, we learned that chimps can teach each other about tool use and problem solving. What, though, can they teach us about ourselves? Enter Frans de Waal, one of the world's leading primatologists, with over three decades' experience observing the behavior of our closest relatives.

In this Spiegel online interview, the author of Our Inner Ape, which I breezed through last week, summarizes his book's themes better than I ever could.
SPIEGEL: Family and language are traits that you recognize as being unique to human beings. There is also another major difference: We have religion and ethics. Apes can't compete in that respect, can they?

De Waal: I'll admit that. But I do believe that religion and ethics are based on psychological building blocks that we share with related species. We have added a system of social pressure, with which we justify and emphasize rules. One of those rules is "Thou shalt not kill." It may be expressed by religious leaders or philosophers, but it merely signifies something that is deeply engrained in our consciousness.

SPIEGEL: When the Pope appeals to us to love our brothers, is he appealing to the apes in all of us?

De Waal: Essentially. I'm not saying that chimpanzees and bonobos are moral beings.

SPIEGEL: They're unlikely to be familiar with the categorical imperative.

De Waal: But they are. They're very familiar with the motto "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's precisely the principle of reciprocity that I see, in addition to empathy, as the fundamental element in the psychology of all primates. We did an experiment in which we gave chimpanzees watermelons and then documented how they divided up the fruit among themselves. In the hours leading up to the experiment, we recorded which animals groomed which other animals' fur. The results were clear. The ape that divided up the watermelon gave significantly more to those apes that had groomed him earlier on.

SPIEGEL: You also mentioned empathy...

De Waal: Oh yes. For example, chimpanzees are quite good at comforting one another. If a friend is suffering, they hug him and attend to him. It's only our arrogance that makes us doubt that this is even possible. When someone brutally kills someone else, we call him "animalistic." But we consider ourselves "human" when we give to the poor.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said: "Homo homini lupus," or "man is a wolf to man."

De Waal: The evolutionary struggle for survival is really a self-serving series of blows and stabs, and yet it can lead to extremely social animals like dolphins, wolves or, for that matter, primates. I call the notion that we are nothing but killer apes the Beethoven fallacy. Beethoven was disorganized and messy, and yet his music is the epitome of order.
You can disagree with the political conclusions he draws (socialism out, capitalism out, democracy out, non-despotic hierarchies in) or with points of his analysis, but you've got to study our chimp and bonobo relatives with as much care and empathy as de Waal before you can say his claims are groundless.

surf in your SUV

Sure, it's big news that Washington state rest stops will now allow wi-fi access, free for travel info, and with fees for broadband use.
The service went up Monday at 28 of the state's 42 rest stops, including the Maytown and Scatter Creek stops south of Tumwater along Interstate 5....

Travelers can get free access to the DOT Web site for traveler information, as well as to Amtrak, some bus and other transportation-related Web sites.

But for broader access, motorists will have to pay a fee: $1.99 for 20 minutes' access; $3.99 for a day; $7.99 for a week; and $29.99 for a month.
But the really big news is buried at the end. Keep scrolling, and you find:
What is wi-fi?

Wi-Fi is a brand originally licensed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to describe the underlying technology of wireless local area networks. ... A person with a Wi-Fi device, such as a computer, telephone or personal digital assistant can connect to the Internet when near an access point. The region covered by one or several access points is called a hotspot. Hotspots can range from a single room to many square miles of overlapping hotspots."

Source: Wikipedia
That's right. Wikipedia, despite the best efforts of creeps, malcontents, hackers, egotists, partisans, and vandals, is good enough to be gospel.

summer of bargaining: over for Everett?

Updating a post from earlier this summer, Everett's union and the district, at long last, have reached a tentative agreement. The union has to vote on it, and no details are forthcoming. Elsewhere, the work goes on:
The Monroe and Sultan school districts, as well as Skykomish, are still negotiating new contracts with their teachers.
Update: It's done. Congratulate Everett teachers, who have picked up a 6.75% raise over the next three years.

Update update: Here's why you should always look for another source. The Everett Herald goes into all the details of the new contract offer, including the different levels of raises (higher for new hires) and a couple surprising changes:
* Current employees get preference over new hires for open positions.

* Principals can no longer require teachers to turn in weekly lesson plans.

* Teachers can go off campus for their 40-minute lunch period.

* Couches and other such furniture are no longer prohibited in classrooms.
A forty-minute lunch... must be nice.

religious vandals deface petroglyphs at Qajartalik

I visited Writing-on-Stone this summer, the fabulous collection of petroglyphs in southern Alberta, and was amazed at the vandalization that has wrecked ancient images, mostly by stupid tourists wanting to leave their own eternal mark. As a result, this story resonates strongly.
More than 170 mask-like images, animal shapes and other symbols have been recorded on the island since the 1960s. Studies suggest Qajartalik was a sacred place, used for Dorset spiritual ceremonies and coming-of-age rituals.

But the site has been dubbed "the Island of the Stone Devils" because some of the faces -- possibly depicting a Dorset shaman in religious costume -- appear to be adorned with horns. In the past, crosses have been scratched on the "pagan" petroglyphs and some area residents have told researchers they believe the site is infested with evil spirits.

Long-running negotiations between Nunavut, Quebec and the federal government over the ownership of the Hudson Strait islands has delayed for a decade plans to protect the cultural treasure, which Arctic scholars have touted as a natural candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Two ancient African rock art sites achieved that status earlier this summer, and Canada recently short-listed Alberta's Writing-on-Stone petroglyphs for a UNESCO designation.
One could write an entire book on the destruction of art by sick ideologues.

[link via Jesse Walker]

Aug 28, 2006

these chimps are no chumps: part II

In Part One (which wasn't supposed to start a series, but why not?), I pointed to a report of isolated colonies of chimps that developed similar tool-using skills. Biologists were sure a river between the groups prevented "cultural transmission." Perhaps--but what if one chimp forded the stream? It might be possible, because it turns out that chimps are much better at teaching and learning than we thought.
The team trained one chimp to lift the flap to get a food reward, then let a second chimp watch the first one demonstrate the technique several times. The "teacher" was then removed and a new naïve apprentice was brought in to watch the newly taught chimp, and so on.

A second cultural lineage was started with a chimp trained to slide the door instead of lifting.

In both lineages, the knowledge was passed down almost perfectly: through six teacher-pupil iterations, chimps trained by lifters always lifted, and through five generations sliders always slid.

The researchers observed only a single error, a slider that lifted once out of 20 trials; its apprentice learned to slide anyway.

The result shows that cultural learning is strong in chimps, says Horner. "If the chimps weren't learning from each other, we'd expect over a couple of generations it would degrade to a 50-50 performance. If they weren't very good at copying, you wouldn't see this almost 100% accuracy."
Will this lead to a ban on chimps smoking on television and the silver screen?

judge God, lest ye be judged

This post by Jason Rosenhouse got me thinking.

Debates about theodicy may begin in different places, but, eventually, all end up where the Book of Job ends, with an unanswerable question, "Who are you to judge God?"

Yet the apostle Paul claims that we can observe nature, and from its mere existence not only determine that God exists, but is worthy of obedience, making humanity therefore "without excuse" for rejecting Him. We are not only able to judge God, but obliged to. Our soul's fate may depend on it.

So, which is it? If we are able to judge God's goodness, why are we not also able to judge His badness?

to be is to drive

Reader / cameraphone abuser Josh sends us the photograph that prompts the philosophical question, What does it mean to be passed by the Red Bull car?

the scores are upon us

Day One of the LIDs is done. Highlights:

1. Learning that, in lieu of our WASL performance, our school has hired a "math intervention specialist." Gauzy / watery screen wipe, with harp glissandos...

Brian walks into his pre-algebra classroom, his backpack slung over his shouler, his iPod earbuds deeply implanted. Brian is grooving to one of those indistinguishable emo outfits, when suddenly he notices that the entire class is standing by their desks, staring intently at him. A stranger sits his teacher's desk. A stranger with a clipboard.

"Dudes... what's up? Why's everybody lookin' at me?"

"Brian," says Clipboard Toter, "We're here because we love you. And also because you didn't meet standard on the WASL."

(Let your imagination fill in the rest.)

2. XpressNap
It's a napkin dispenser. It is also a talent I would kill for.

3. A fire drill.
Right in the middle of the new staff introductions, the alarms start whooping, the lights a-flashing. Nobody panics, or even budges, until the superintendent says, "Give it two minutes, and we'll see." Fifteen seconds later, he says, "Okay, better go. Everybody out." Twenty-two seconds later, the alarm turns off.

4. WASL results
They are confidential, so I can't share any numbers. Suffice it to say that, at least as far as reading and writing went, our district's numbers shot up. At our school, nearly 90% passed both on the first try. Not bad for our demographic, which includes more and more English-speaking novices than ever. Math, though... not so good. Maybe if we emphasize math across the curriculum, like we did with writing, scores will improve.

dolphins aren't dumb

Quick link before I jet to school: Bora Zivkovic has it exactly right.

what dreams usually come

School starts September 6, but summer's already done with the coming of the first anxiety dream, a prelude to this morning's meeting at Oly. Today is a "LID day," redundant like "ATM machine," a Learning Improvement Day. So, last night, I dreamed I was teaching--in Elma, where I used to live--and it was the first day of school, which started at eight. Half past seven, and I'm staring at the closet, trying to match a shirt with slacks and a tie. Nothing goes. Pink Dockers and a pink striped shirt? Green khakis and a navy oxford? Jeans and a red polo? My mom and sister are yelling at me, claiming that I'm purposefully wasting time because I "like to be late," and I'm screaming back, "What do you mean? I hate to be late!"

The strangest part comes when I'm trying to take off a long-sleeved shirt, but remove the polo--yes, polo--underneath it instead, as if by magic. I start throwing clothes around, frantic as the time draws near. Thankfully, I awake before having to arrive late to my first class.

Like an egg on a skillet, summer's over easy.

Aug 27, 2006

Mariners continue to stymie

Four days ago, I wrote about how the Mariners, fresh off an eleven-game losing streak, took it to the Yankees, for some unknowable reason tough against the tough but impotent against their own mediocre division. I described the young starter, Cha Seung Baek, as "fearless."

Indeed. Today, Baek took a no-hitter into the sixth, eventually giving up three (two earned) in a 6-3 victory. Seattle has won 5 of 6, including a sweep of reeling Boston.

Glimmers of hope for next season, I guess.

my blue suede existential blues

First George Bush reads The Stranger, and now Beetle Bailey finds comic fodder in the inevitable march of death?

Cal Thomas is afraid of family values

How else to explain this?
In the United States, former presidential candidate and journalist Pat Buchanan again is stirring controversy by trying to give sight to the willfully blind. An open border that allows anyone to come to the United States, he asserts, means the country is headed for self-destruction. Buchanan's figures are irrefutable: one in 12 illegal immigrants has a criminal record; by 2050 there will be 100 million Hispanics (at current immigration rates) concentrated in the American Southwest, as some radicals plot to undo the results of the Mexican-American War.
Even if we put on a Cal Thomas lens and try to lump all Hispanics into one category, that category is overwhelmingly Catholic, married, and self-identified as religious at the same rate as Whites. (In fact, Thomas ought to be more concerned about all those secular Asians, by far the least religious ethnic group.)

The most likely reason that Hispanics don't vote for God-fearing, gun-toting, national-security-protecting Republicans is the GOP's association with stances like Thomas's. Ironically, if Cal Thomas wanted a permanent values-voting majority, he'd do his best to woo Hispanic voters.

(Incidentally, that 1 in 12 illegal immigrants stat is misleading as well.)

lean, clean and green: new buildings greet incoming students

Tomorrow the district roars back to life, and in a little over a week the students come roaring back, too. In some schools, they'll be greeted by radically revised learning spaces. Washington Middle School, for example.
Most of the school was gutted and rebuilt for the project, which expanded student capacity from 588 to 800 and modernized the building. It added 10 classrooms, computer laboratories, wireless technology and increased space for the library, science labs, the cafeteria and more.

The project also received a $300,000 grant from the state for its environmentally friendly aspects - elements known as "green" or "sustainable" design. Plus, the renovated building uses several exposed finishes, such as concrete floors in hallways and some classrooms, that district officials say will require minimal maintenance.
Other district buildings got an update over the summer, or will be starting renovations soon. Capital has twelve new classrooms and an entirely different main office complex (on the other side of the school, in fact) nearing oompletion. LP Brown's $6.2 million project is mostly done, adding office space and a new multipurpose room, among other things. Pioneer Elementary and Reeves Middle are just getting started on major renovations.

It's one thing to be excited to see students and colleagues again. It's another to walk into a fresh, shiny building at the start of the year, as I will at Capital in a matter of days. Now, if only they remove the "pebblecrete" from the exterior, I'll dare to call it "beautiful."

Aug 26, 2006

Christian nationalism, theocracy, and the judicial branch

I'm largely skeptical of claims that the U.S. is devolving into a theocracy. Nevertheless, a few politicos, like Florida's Katherine Harris, wouldn't mind if it turned out that way.
"If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin...."
I came across the Harris story after reading Peter's take on "Christian nationalism," decried in a recent book by journalist Michelle Goldberg. According to John W. Dean, Goldberg makes an incendiary claim:
One of the handbooks of the Christian nationalists, which Goldberg found at a convention for home-schoolers, was How to Dethrone the Imperial Judiciary by Edwin Vieira, who has alluded, Goldberg reports, "to Stalin's purges as a way of dealing with liberal judges."
This immediately raised suspicion, so I decided to investigate by using Amazon's "Search Inside the Book" feature.

Now, Vieira is definitely guilty of inflammatory rhetoric, calling justices "pernicious" and "evil," and continually decrying "cultural bolshevism," a historically Nazi epithet used to deride modernism. He's also guilty of tenuous interpretations of Constitutional history and self-contradictory reasoning, as you'll see below.

But I can find no evidence of allusions to "Stalin's purges as a way of dealing with liberal judges." Rather, Vieira's anti-liberal strategy would rely on either court-packing or impeachment. The former, Vieira writes, without a trace of irony, is no "final solution," necessitating impeachment for justices who dare to depart from "higher law."

Defending his proposal, Vieira argues that the "good behavior" standard does not require an impeachment process, since impeachment is requisite only for "high crimes and misdemeanors." He claims that Congress can constitutionally lower the bar and invent a process to remove judges that promote disagreeable judicature, invoking the debate in the Constitutional convention, but with a tenuously narrow reading of the delegates' high view of judicial independence.

Remarkably, Vieira would allow "contemporary social and political standards" to define "good Behaviour," even admitting that "this is an area in which 'the living Constitution' may have some relevance" (p. 300). He then claims, entirely without warrant, that "an absence of 'good Behaviour' must surely include judges' malign, reckless, willfully blind, negligent, or incompetent misinterpretations of the Constitution" (ibid.).

Even if this plan is "premature," Vieira is confident that impeachment is appropriate for the justices who undid Texas' anti-sodomy statutes in Lawrence. Vieira quotes English precedent supporting a definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" for "misleading their sovereign."

Vieira has a tough time with irony. He rails against the "law profession" for its over-reliance on commentaries, yet founds his arguments on Story's famed commentary on the Constitution, what he calls "pre-Constitutional" necessities, and English common law. (The foreign nature of the latter apparently escapes his attention.) He even complains outright that "commentary reigns supreme" (p. 311). (He reaches the unhinging-point when he argues that modern judicature is "unscientific"--something the founders were entirely unconcerned about.)

Vieira's selective reading of early documents is perfectly exemplified in his treatment of George Mason's suggestion that, concerning (presidential) impeachment, treason and bribery were too narrow. Mason wanted to add "maladministration"--but, as Vieira does not point out, his wording was rejected, and the vaguer concept of "high crimes and misdemeanors" was accepted instead. The arguments were particular to the president, who, as Madison points out, has a four-year term. Whether such logic would apply to the judicial branch simply was not raised in the discussion.

Even if we would grant all of Vieira's claims that impeachment is a valid way to deal with politically inept justices, this is a far cry from calling for kangaroo courts, forced confessions, and the show trials of Stalin's era. Frankly, judicial impeachment--like any other impeachment--is too politically unpalatable, and has been for over a century.

I haven't yet read the entirety of either Goldberg's or Vieira's work, so I can't say with certainty that Goldberg exaggerates Vieira's position or that Vieira isn't an out-and-out extremist. But my initial impressions make me highly suspicious of Goldberg's rabble-rousing.

planetary definition has astrologists in a tizzy

When the Pluto-might-not-be-a-planet story first broke, I blithely wrote, "Astrologers, working with only seven planets for the last few centuries, largely have ignored the controversy."

I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.
"Whether he's a planet, an asteroid, or a radioactive matzo ball, Pluto has proven himself worthy of a permanent place in all horoscopes," says Shelley Ackerman, columnist for the spirituality Web site Ackerman criticized the IAU for not including astrologers in its decision [emphasis added].
I'm sure they would have been let in if Michael Behe were in charge of the guest list.

But wait. There's more.
Francis and many other minor-planet enthusiasts are interested in raising awareness about Charon and the new dwarf planets, Ceres and UB313, in part because they consider them female planets symbolizing a rush of new maternal energy into the cosmos.

"Most of our clients are women, and we need stories women can relate to," Francis says.

A planet's gender is determined largely by the name given to it by astronomers [emphasis added].
In other words, there is no good reason to suppose that a planet's gender has any spiritual or cosmic meaning. But don't let that stop you from wild-ass speculations in the guise of ancient wisdom. astrologer Michael Wolfstar suggests that the asteroid Ceres is a humanitarian, compassionate force "associated with relief operations, the food industry and parent-child relationships." According to the site, Ceres is currently pushing for "the return of refugees to southern Lebanon" and "reforms in the organic-milk industry."
You can't make this stuff up.
Michael Lutin, columnist for Vanity Fair, says he will consider the newcomers. But he notes that they aren't likely to have massive impact on our personal lives because of their location in at the outer reaches of the solar system: "UB313 is never going to tell you whether Wednesday is good for romance."
Nope. You need a charlatan with a star chart for that.

Sidebar: You think astrology is marginal hokum? Think again. According to the article, nearly one in three Americans believe in astrology, a $200 million-per-annum industry employing more than ten thousand full-time starry-eyed fools.

scent of a relative

(Overheard at the playground next to our apartment.)

"Gimme the ball. It's my shot."
"No way."
"C'mon, gimme."
"You stink."
"No, you stink."
"You and your whole family stink. In fact, you all smell the same, thanks to a unique concert of genes, nutrition, and other environmental factors. Even trained rats can sniff your family out of a lineup."

Aug 25, 2006

the planet that wouldn't die

Objections to the latest planetary redefinition are manifold. There's the it's-undemocratic objection:
No email voting was allowed for the decision – it was made by a show of hands – and that meant that less than 5% of the nearly 9000 IAU members actually voted.
The exclusivity objection:
The definition stipulates that to be a planet, an object must have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. But Earth's orbital neighbourhood is filled with thousands of near-Earth asteroids, Stern says.

And Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have so-called "Trojan" asteroids sharing their orbits. "This is a half-baked criterion for planethood," he says.
The wrong motives objection:
[Stern] says the new definition was pushed by people who are unhappy with having large numbers of planets – an earlier proposal would have potentially allowed hundreds of new planets into the fold.

"It's just people that say things like, 'School kids will have to memorise too many names.' Do we limit the number of stars because children have to think of too many names?
The it's-unenforceable objection:
In any case, he says, astronomers are not obligated to use the new definition, since the IAU does not have the power to enforce it. "I don't think it's going to be very widely followed," he says.
And, lastly, the it-doesn't-even-matter objection:
As best I can tell, 'dwarf' is an adjective and 'planet' is a noun," [David Weintraub] told New Scientist. "I think the IAU thinks they defined Pluto to not be a planet. But they in fact have defined Pluto to be a planet – a particular kind of planet."

distributed snitching: an army of Big Brothers

When I read 1984, I always think, How would they ever find enough people to keep track of everyone's everyday movements? When Winston Smith is exercising, for example, he's reprimanded via telescreen for not dipping low enough on a toe-touch. But it would take thousands of people to watch millions of citizens, wouldn't it? Artificial intelligence isn't yet ready for panoptic prime time.

This article contains the germ of a solution.
An American helped foil a burglary in northern England while watching a Beatles-related Webcam, police said Friday.

The man from Dallas was using a live camera link to look at Mathew Street, an area of Liverpool synonymous with the Beatles and home to the Cavern Club, where the band regularly played.

He saw intruders apparently breaking into a sports store and alerted local police.
Just like SETI@home, farming out computing power to a grid of otherwise idle PCs, Big Brother could outsource its civic oversight to idle surfers with scads of free time. Problem solved. Somebody call Glenn Reynolds.

Update: Welcome, Reason readers. I guess I sounded more serious than snarky. I'm really not that paranoid, promise.

Update Update: Speaking of people with copious free time, how about the Google Earth (ab)users who have to tag everything? (And that means everything.)
People have found and tagged lighthouses, limousines, roller coasters, abandoned nuclear-missile silos, sports stadiums, nude beaches—one man cataloged each and every Starbucks outlet in the world. In the gee-whiz, hobbyist world of GE, that's the equivalent of dunking from the foul line.

a workaround to create a "recent posts" list in Blogger Beta

This is the perfect definition of a "Yak Shaving Razor." I first used it to work around a Blogger error that was keeping my content from displaying on the main page, but soon realized that it would also replace the "recent posts" feature that, for some reason, isn't (yet?) available in Blogger Beta.

In other words, this will let readers see a list of your five most recent posts, at least until Blogger fills the gap or allows template HTML editing.

Why it works
Beta lets you add RSS feeds from the layout screen. Using your blog's own RSS feed (which updates every ten minutes or so), you can list your most recent posts.

Here's what you do
First, click "add a page element," then choose "feed" and click "add to blog." Title your feed "recent posts" and use this for the URL: Be sure to save your changes. Then, back on the layout screen, move it to the top of your sidebar--or wherever you want it to go.

That's it. Your readers can see the clever titles of your most recent material in one easy-access location. No scrolling needed.

Jackie Mason is not a Jew for Jesus

In fact, he's suing them.
The $2 million lawsuit seeks the immediate destruction of the pamphlet, which members of the missionary group have been handing out at various points around New York City.

"While I have the utmost respect for people who practice the Christian faith, the fact is, as everyone knows, I am as Jewish as a matzo ball or kosher salami," the 75-year-old comedian said in documents filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

Founded in the 1970s, Jews for Jesus practices Judaism but regards Jesus as the Messiah.

The pamphlets feature an image of Mason next to the words "Jackie Mason ... A Jew for Jesus!?" with information inside that outlines the similarities between Jews and Christians.
Note carefully the punctuation. A question mark on its own leaves room for doubt. "Jackie Mason is a Jew for Jesus?" The answer could be "no." But "Jew for Jesus!?" says, "Are you joking me!?" and implies that yes, Mr. Mason has indeed converted.

Which he hasn't.

The JfJ spokeswoman is unapologetic. "Shame on him for getting so upset about this," says Susan Perlman. Shouldn't shame be upon those who stretch the truth to the ripping point?

the workaround for Blogger Beta's bug

Last night while I was drumming away at band practice, I thought, "Hey, Beta lets you add an RSS feed to your blog. That means you can add your own feed on the sidebar, so your new posts will appear there." Congratulating myself on my cleverness, I implemented the change as soon as I could. It worked. Below is what I posted to Blogger's discussion group. Let me know if it helps.
I have a workaround. It's clumsy and unattractive, but at least it lets users see your most recent posts on the main page, until this bug is fixed.

Beta lets you add RSS feeds and text boxes from the layout screen. Using your blog's own RSS feed (which updates every ten minutes or so), your blog can exist on life support.

Here's what you do:

First, click "add a page element," then choose "feed" and click "add to blog." Title your feed "recent posts" and use this for the URL: Be sure to save your changes. Then, back on the layout screen, move it to the top of your sidebar.

Then, add another page element. Choose "text," and use it to add an explanation that Beta is screwy, but your posts can still be read using the links on the sidebar. Once you've saved it, place it immediately below the Feed on the layout page. Save your changes, and presto: a way for visitors to know you're still alive.
Update: It seems to be fixed. For now.

Aug 24, 2006

this is what I get for beta testing

For some reason, the main page won't display, leaving only the header and sidebar. At first I thought it was just my parents' low-res monitor (I was checking it over at their place), but then I hopped on a discussion board and saw that at least two other bloggers had the same problem.

Oh well... at least it gave me an excuse to install Firefox on my mom's computer.

Now, I'm going to bed, to sleep, perchance to wake to normalcy. Tech support magic in the wee hours. Dare to dream.

Boo Radley packs heat

These girls probably didn't read To Kill a Mockingbird freshman year, else they would have remembered the moral: never go knocking on the door of the crazy house.
Teens throughout Worthington had heard the stories about the home by the cemetery, hidden in a tangle of trees, bushes and weeds, with trails snaking out from the door and around the house. "It’s haunted," some said. "Crazy people live there." And one of the favorites: "They’re witches."

Police learned only yesterday of those stories and the youthful dares of teens driving to the house at 141 Sharon Springs Dr.

But none of those tales involved a man with a gun.

Late Tuesday night, the homegrown scary tale turned to real horror. Five thrill-seeking girls set to begin their senior year at Thomas Worthington High School on Friday ran afoul of an armed resident of the home, leaving 17-year-old Rachel Barezinsky critically injured by gunfire, police said.

Allen S. Davis, a 40-year-old man who lives at the house with his mother, said during a jailhouse interview that he was defending his home.

He admitted opening fire from his first-floor bedroom window after hearing the girls outside around 10 p.m. He said he repeatedly fired shots from a .22-caliber rifle.

"Did they threaten me?" he said. "No.

"I didn’t know what their weaponry was, what their intentions were," he said. "In a situation like that, you assume the worst-case scenario if you’re going to protect your family from a possible home invasion and murder."
[link thanks to Obscure Store]

Pluto no planet, refs make the clock, and other fruits of gay marriage

The urge to redefine nearly everything, starting with heterosexual nuptials, has knocked Pluto from its planetary pedestal.
The decision at a conference of 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries was a dramatic shift from just a week ago, when the group's leaders floated a proposal that would have reaffirmed Pluto's planetary status and made planets of its largest moon and two other objects.

That plan proved highly unpopular, splitting astronomers into factions and triggering days of sometimes combative debate that led to Pluto's undoing.

Now, two of the objects that at one point were cruising toward possible full-fledged planethood will join Pluto as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has nicknamed "Xena."

Charon, the largest of Pluto's three moons, is no longer under consideration for any special designation.

Brown was pleased by the decision. He had argued that Pluto and similar bodies didn't deserve planet status, saying that would "take the magic out of the solar system."
See what I mean? Just as gay marriage has sapped the soul of marriage, so has this latest planetary renaming, an obvious plot by immoral, tree-hugging atheists.

In other redefinitional news, NCAA football changed a timing rule to shorten the game.
The Huskies spent a significant portion of the scrimmage practicing their two-minute offense, in part to get a handle on new NCAA rules mandating when the clock will start following a change of possession. Previously, the clock didn't start until the ball was snapped. Now, the clock will start when the official gives the "ready for play" signal.

"It changes a lot," said UW quarterback Isaiah Stanback.

It could have its most impact late in games. Say the Huskies are behind in the late going — not a far-fetched scenario — and their defense creates a turnover. Under the old rules, the offense would have a few seconds to gather itself and call a play, not having to worry about the clock. Now, the offense will have to get organized as quickly as possible since the official will start the clock at his discretion.
Blame gay marriage again, for fostering a climate of moral and chronological relativism and refericial activism.

Aug 23, 2006

these chimps are no chumps

The headline on the main page reads, "Chimpanzees may not be as clever as we thought," but the linked-to article seems to say exactly the opposite, reporting that two groups of primates have invented a particular tool use at roughly the same time. The kicker: geographic isolation all but rules out any "cultural transmission."
Some new research from Cameroon has just clobbered one of the favourite theories, that such useful tricks are seldom invented afresh in the wild, so if they spread at all, it’s through gradual “cultural” dissemination of the skill through the families and descendents of the original, inventive ape.

A great example of this is in western Africa, where the ability of chimpanzees to crack nuts with stones was thought to be confined to forests West of the N’Zo-Sassandra River in Cote d’Ivoire. The river, uncrossable by chimpanzees, was considered to be a physical barrier beyond which the nut-cracking skill stood no chance of spreading. And all the evidence pointed that way.

Till now, that is. Bethan Morgan and Ekwoge Abwe of the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Conservation for Endangered Species facility have now put a spanner in the works by discovering chimps doing the same thing in the wild 1700 kilometres to the east, in Cameroon.
A better title, then, might be, "Humans not as clever at figuring out chimp behavior as we once thought." Given our history of underestimating animal intelligence, this is no surprise.

Incidentally, the abstract is here, but it's no help to a nonsubscriber.

the end of history

Q: How long does it take for the present to become the past?
A: Eighteen years, roughly.

change is in the air

I've made the switch to Blogger Beta, with hopes of improved functionality (that's for you, bro-in-law). Please report any hiccups or issues. I'm going to tweak the layout, add categories, and maybe even mess around with RSS. But don't worry: quality content, totally free of advertising, is always a decorabilia guarantee.

Update: Categories are on the way. Successfully added: different layout, new photos, revised links. Big thanks to Franklin Mason for the heads-up. This is much, much better than Paleo-Blogger.

Update Update: Geez, categorizing is a slog.

embryonic stem cells without the pain?

If this pans out, it could virtually end the debate about ESCR.
Last year, Bob Lanza and his team from Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts, demonstrated that stem cells could be harvested from mouse embryos without killing them (see Are all human embryos equal?). Now they have done the same in human embryos left over from IVF treatment.

The researchers employed a technique used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in which a single cell or “blastomere” is removed from the ball of eight to 10 cells that comprise the early embryo. The researchers were able to grow a stem cell line from just one or two cells from an early embryo - leaving that embryo viable. The cells are “pluripotent”, meaning they can grow into the three major tissue types (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature05142).
The obligatory skeptic, though, responds later in the article:
IVF embryos that have been biopsied for PGD have grown into normal babies, says Alison Murdoch of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. “However, it is not true to say the biopsy is not detrimental to the embryo,” she says. “Some embryos do not survive.”
Once the technique is refined, that may no longer be the case. At any rate, it's a potentially revolutionary development in a field that has seen far more hype than hope.

Update: As far as the end of the debate goes, Ed Brayton is slightly less optimistic.

faint praise for charter schools

By now you've probably heard that charter schools didn't fare too well in a 2003 study released only this past week, probably because of its unsavory political implications. While not the final word, the report can be summed up in a rather sorry sentence by the NCES's commissioner, Mark Schneider: "On average, they're not doing harm."

why can't we beat anyone else?

For some reason, the Mariners decided to end their losing streak against one of baseball's toughest teams. This after getting batted around by our own mediocre division rivals.

In fairness, despite my doubts about their competence, Adrian Beltre hit the winning tater, Julio Mateo had a key strikeout, and the young starter, Cha Seung Baek, was fearless.

civic duty

This morning my wife waits for her number to be called at the Thurston County Courthouse, her first time swimming in the jury pool. Though she grumbled a bit when the notice arrived, I know that in her heart of hearts she wants to be chosen. That is, if being a fan of "true crime" doesn't automatically disqualify her.

Meanwhile, I just received an email from my mom. A green card-carrying Canadian citizen, she has lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, steadfastly refusing to learn English and assimilate. She always sings the praises of Canadian milk chocolate, keeps in constant communication with her Canadian friends, and even bakes with only Canadian flour. I've hounded her for years, pointing out that she's been paying taxes without voting for the bums who tax her. (But then, come to think of it, didn't all the Loyalists, who thought "No taxation without representation" was just fine, end up fleeing to Canada?)

Today's big news, though, is that she's finally starting the process. She's taken--and passed--practice citizenship tests, even though she's still refusing to join an English class. (I guess I should point out that it's her native language.)

Congratulations, Mom. Soon you'll be an American. Little tears. Of pride.

Update: My wife was dismissed. She claims it's because a friend of ours is a Thurston County Deputy Sheriff, but I'm pretty sure it was the true crime novel she was reading during breaks. (Seriously.)

Aug 22, 2006

Gmar Gavi'a -- Cup Final

Just before the World Cup, Israel invades Lebanon to seek and destroy terrorists as a fractured global community looks on. Think I have my chronology wrong? Not for 1982, in the poignant and once-again relevant Israeli film "Cup Final." Switch Hezbollah for the PLO, and the movie could have been made yesterday.

IMDB user bika's critique is spot-on.
Cohen is shirt maker and a soccer fan, with tickets to the World Cup being played in Spain. His character therefore is not a contrived soldier/soccer fan, but an every day guy who was called up as a reservist to fight for a month, who must miss the tournament. That he is captured by a PLO band led by Ziad (played magnificently by Mohammed Bakri) makes the situation worse.

Soccer serves as an early bridge between the two men, but it is never overt or presented in a corny fashion. It is natural, and leads to the discovery of other commonalities between Cohen on the one hand, and Ziad and his band on the other. Their appreciation of one another and mutual love for the Italian national soccer team is juxtaposed against episodes of sudden violence that shock and sadden the viewer.
In a particularly memorable sequence, the PLO gang breaks into an empty estate to watch a semifinal match. When Italy scores, Cohen and Ziad leap up to high-five--then realize what they're about to do, and sink back into their seats.

Would make an excellent double feature with No Man's Land, a different take on war that is similarly--and tragically--timeless.

you say planet, I say planetoid: part II

The define-a-planet-once-and-for-all conference mentioned earlier is starting to reach a consensus. Things don't look so good for Pluto.
After a day of public bickering in Prague, followed by negotiations behind closed doors, the latest draft resolution was greeted with a broadly friendly reception.

If accepted on Thursday, it would be bad news for Pluto, which would no longer be a full-fledged planet.

The crucial change in "draft c" is that a planet must be the dominant body in its orbital zone, clearing out any little neighbours. Pluto does not qualify because its orbit crosses that of the vastly larger Neptune.

The planet definition committee is also stepping back from trying to define all planets in the universe, and sticking to our solar system – a slightly easier task.

It is still a work in progress, however, and the wording will change by Thursday in part to simplify it and make the final result more palatable to the public.
My first impression: "The Eight Planets and Pluto" isn't as bad, say, as "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

USA Today picks up the urban raccoon story

With the fantastically overblown tabloid headline, "Psycho killer raccoons terrorize Olympia."

Didn't I say it was the "tragicomic story of the summer?"

Thurston County voters, pay attention

Since the appeals court found that the top-two primary is still unconstitutional, we're stuck with the one-party ballots for the next who-knows-how-long. Add other changes, and you have a potential recipe for confusion and frustration. The Olympian gives a succinct list:
Major changes: Entirely vote-by-mail. Pick a party. Punch cards are out, replaced by paper ballots.
The voter's guide arrives later this week. Ah, the sweet smell of impending democracy.

argumentum ad consequentiam and the circumstantial ad hominem

School starts in a few weeks, and I'm revving up my intellectual engines, preparing material for the resurrected debate class. A necessary component: studying logical fallacies.

Joe Carter recently pointed out a fallacy called the Argumentum ad consequentiam, explaining,
The author points to the disagreeable consequences of holding a particular belief in order to show that this belief is false. (Ex. You can't agree that evolution is true, because if it were, then we would be no better than monkeys and apes.)
In the comments, Jon Rowe wonders what separates this from a reductio ad absurdum. The difference is whether the consequences are logical, and thus create an inconsistency (as in a reductio) or a red herring unrelated to the proposition's truth value.
For instance, a child's belief in Santa Claus may have good consequences in making the child happy and well-behaved, but these facts have nothing to do with whether there really is a Santa Claus.
Kissing cousin to the appeal to consequences is the argument to false motives: "You believe x only because it benefits you or permits you to do something objectionable." This is also known as a circumstantial ad hominem.

Both fallacies crop up inordinately in debates about evolution, personhood, or atheism (or, often, all three at once). The latter is especially pernicious. Consider Carter against a functionalist view of personhood:
The blatant attempts at rationalizing clearly immoral behavior is why Frank Beckwith and other scholars have been able to demolish the “functionalism” argument, that defends the killing of "non-person" humans.... If you want to kill certain groups of human beings, you can find a sufficient rationalization.
Or, as he's echoed elsewhere, "Also, isn't it odd that the only times people make distinctions about 'human being' and 'human person' is when they want to treat members of the human species as sub-human?" Strangely, this comes from the same writer who immediately before that (in the same comment thread!) made the same distinction, and previously was open to reconsidering whether life begins at conception, or, alternately, at implantation--presumably without wicked motives.

Watch out for the argumentum ad consequentiam and the circumstantial ad hominem. Their lure is powerful, even to those who are wise to their ways.

Aug 21, 2006

some of the beards of ScienceBlogs

The thesis: beard length correlates with evo-blogging. The evidence: see above.

Clockwise from bottom left: John Wilkins, Ed Brayton, Josh Rosenau, PZ Myers (center).

is a beard a prerequisite?

Via Ed Brayton, we learn that Josh Rosenau has joined the ScienceBlogs family. Update your links accordingly.

superconducting magnesium diboride, phonons, and extra added bonus energy

Peter links to a website making preposterous, nearly impossible claims. I say "nearly impossible" because the accepted model of physics simply can't allow energy for nothing--but hope springs eternal.

On a more realistic front, room-temperature superconductivity, one of physics' Holy Grails, might be within reach in a decade or two. (Sorry, have to be a subscriber to read it all.) Magnesium diboride is the key.
Last year, [Warren] Pickett decided to go back to basics and re-examine the theory, inspired by an astonishing discovery reported in 2001 by Jun Akimitsu's team at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. Akimitsu and his colleagues were playing around with mixtures of titanium, magnesium and boron in an attempt to find a new superconductor. To their surprise, they stumbled across hints of superconductivity at 40 K....

The finding was scientific dynamite. Within two months of Akimitsu's announcement, 50 papers were published online as researchers rushed to study magnesium diboride for themselves....

Pickett realised that if he could identify what made magnesium diboride so special, other metal alloys might be found with even higher critical temperatures. To do this, he studied what affected the critical temperature in Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer's studies and then compared these factors to the properties of magnesium diboride.

According to their theory, the critical temperature depends on three things: the number of electrons available, the frequency at which the phonons vibrate, and the strength of the interaction or "coupling" between the phonons and electrons. Magnesium diboride's high transition temperature is due mostly to strong coupling, which is down to its chemical structure. It consists of layers of boron just one atom thick sandwiched between layers of magnesium atoms.... Each magnesium atom feeds two electrons into the boron layers, which means that there are abundant electrons in the structure.... [T]he electrons flow in the same layer as the boron atoms and set up large disturbances, which enhance the coupling between phonons and electrons as they sweep through the material. The upshot is that the electron-pairing still takes place at higher temperatures than expected.

Despite the strong interaction between phonons and electrons... only 3 per cent of phonons interact at all. "Impressive as it is, magnesium diboride is doing a poor job of making use of the available phonons," says Pickett. "If we could use most of the phonons, the critical temperature would increase all the way past room temperature...."

[H]e proposes involving more phonons by trying different combinations of elements. What's more, his blueprint gives researchers clues as to which elements would work best, rather than resorting to trial and error as they have done in the past. By doing this, his calculations show that it should be possible to find a material that superconducts at a searing 430 K...."
430 K is over 314 degrees Fahrenheit, an incredible temperature, hundreds of degrees (on any scale) hotter than present technology. Pickett, to his credit, hasn't made any unverifiable promises or formed a startup company to lure investors with dreams of glory. We'll just have to wait for the revolution.

Wolfmother: the new Jet

Dear 107.7 The End,

Rattle this around in your skull for a few minutes, until you hear the sound of maracas.
You know that you're a woman
You got to be a woman
I got the feeling of love

When you're talking to me
You see right through me
I got the feeling of love

She's a woman
You know what I mean
You better listen
Listen to me
She's gonna set you free
"You got to be a woman." Why does this have the ring of desperation? Is her femininity in doubt?

"I got the feeling of love." Not love, mind you, but the feeling of love. Like the bloating of gas.

"She's a woman / You know what I mean." What else could he possibly mean?

"She's gonna set you free." Ah, she's an appeals attorney. A powerful woman is mannish. This is all some kind of veiled antifeminism.

Granted, this hackneyed tripe very nearly rhymes, and the accompanying guitar work reminds one of sloppy Queens of the Stone Age. But please, for the love of music, stop playing Wolfmother.

Oh, and Keane, too, while you're at it.



geese = statuary

It baffled me until I discovered the embedded meaning, the deep underlying logic.

Try it for yourself. Play along!

1. Reese's =
2. John Cleese =
3. cheese =
4. Edwin Meese =

For answers, click "read more" or scroll down.

1. Reese's = zythepsary
2. John Cleese = arbitrary
3. cheese = lachrymary
4. Edwin Meese = consuetidinary

[115th in a series]

for the record, &c.

When I'm not blogging about what you think I should blog about.
When you show me your CD collection.
When I already have the same damned platinum card you are trying to sign me up for.
When nominated by the Green Party.
When Mormons visit.
When the day's special includes feta.
When a portly, mustachioed, plaid-encumbered man is that desperate for a date.

what a difference a month makes

Upper photo: Mount Adams, July, 2005.
Lower photo: Mount Adams, August, 2006.

urban raccoons and your pets: a deadly combination

Raccoons terrorize a West Olympia neighborhood, killing cats, dragging off small dogs, attacking children. It's the tragicomic story of the summer, illustrating the consequences of congestion on animal behavior.

Raccoons aren't like possums, which, when encroached upon, give up polygamy for a lifetime of monogamous bliss, otherwise remaining calm. No, no. Raccoons are fiendishly smart, their cute Hamburglar looks belying wicked plot-hatchery and tricksterism.
Keeton and Pam Corwin have decided to have "cat coops" built so their pets can go outside and have some room to roam, with protection.

It's not just cats being attacked. Five raccoons actually ganged up on and carried off a little dog, who survived.

One thing that makes these raccoons scary is they have no fear. One neighbor threw firecrackers at them to try to scare them off, and it didn't even bug them, Hall said.

"It's a new breed," Keeton said. "They're urban raccoons, and they're not afraid."
If I may play Dave Barry for a moment, "Urban Raccoon" would be a great name for a band.

Aug 20, 2006

detailed WASL reports for parents: coming soon

Parents face a deluge of digits, thanks to NCLB.
This fall, Washington parents will also get an alphabet soup of test reports, both federally and state mandated, that will help them track whether their children and local schools are meeting benchmarks.

School districts and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will send home a personalized score report, with their child's results on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and the aggregate scores of the school, district and state.
Notably, the article has no analysis of what parents are going to do with such data, other than appealing a low score.

Although you can be sure at least a few will use them as a financial incentive. After all, they're just following their government's example.

Mariners trade Jamie Moyer to Philadelphia

I was going to hold off blogging about the Mariners until they won again--but then I heard they traded Jamie Moyer, the last of the old guard from the pre-Ichiro days. Philadelphia gets him for a couple of prospects, and Moyer gets the prospect of a World Series run.

I can't entirely blame Moyer for his 6-12 record, since the Mariners' offense has gone anemic every time he's taken the mound. But the crafty southpaw has given up way, way too many home runs this year, his sharpness around the corners diminished. Ultimately, though, Moyer got the axe because Bill Bavasi suddenly pretends to make smart business decisions.
"I'd love to tell you that taking care of Jamie was a high priority," Bavasi said. "It wasn't. Our job is to take care of the Seattle Mariners, so the fact that he's getting to go to a club like Philadelphia, a couple of games back in the wild card, is great. We are really happy for him. But we always take care of ourselves."
This is from the guy who wasted millions on Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, underperformers who sapped life from Seattle's once live-wire lineup.

The Mariners did best, in their run at the turn of the century, when a bunch of B-listers stepped up and played with remarkable chemistry. The last element from that compound is Philadelphia bound.

(As an aside, Steve Kelley talks about some big changes that could turn the team around--if the Mariners make 'em. Joel Pineiro's gotta go, and so does Mike Hargrove.)

Aug 19, 2006

snakeskins on a squirrel

Speaking of snakes:
Female California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) chew on skins shed by Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) then lick themselves and their pups, apparently to anoint them with the odour of the enemy. But does this olfactory disguise fool the snakes?

To find out, Barbara Clucas of the University of California in Davis captured rattlesnakes and offered them filter paper scented with snake skins, squirrel fur, or both. The snakes were drawn to the squirrel-scented paper, lingering over the spot and flicking out their tongues as they do when they hunt. Papers scented by both snake and squirrel, or by snake alone, failed to interest them.
Although the sight of Samuel L. Jackson chewing up a rattler, then licking the flight attendants, probably would've been too over-the-top, even for Snakes on a Plane.

paper, cotton, or cottonmouth?

A movie that tries so hard to be good (like, say, Windtalkers) is infinitely worse than a movie that tries so hard to be bad (like, say, Snakes on a Plane). The former ends up excruciatingly bad, while the latter swings from mediocre to brilliant.

How do I know?

Last night the wife and I enjoyed steak and seafood at Ricardo's, and an evening's entertainment at Lacey Cinemas, courtesy of the reptilian slaughterfest mentioned above, all in celebration of our second--or, sort-of-first*--anniversary. This morning, as I type, my wife is watching Windtalkers, which is a disgrace to cinema. Sample nostalgia bit: "This pretty thing, Molly, came up to me... she was having a wienie roast.... now I'm over here roasting human beings."

If you want a good-bad double feature, wait 'til SoaP comes out on DVD, and watch it along with Slither. Or triple it up by concluding with Shaun of the Dead, better than both.

*For our first anniversary, we got re-married in a public ceremony. The real deal was family-only.

Aug 18, 2006

random photos from our recent trip to Canada--with captions!

In no particular order. Click "read more" to see all ten.

This is what you see from the window of a second-floor room at the Banff Boundary Lodge. That is, if you can't focus past the screen.

I like clouds. Do you like clouds? I like photos of clouds almost as much as I like clouds.

Photos of clouds over the Columbia Gorge are even more likable.

Once in a lifetime your old, cheap, crappy digital camera is fast enough to catch a unique photographic moment. Call it a Fuji femtosecond.

Two cloud photos deserve another.

It's raining money, hallelujah.

By the time we drove six miles from the fire, the smoke had billowed into the heavens, blocking out the sun in an apocalypse over Drummond--a ghost town that survived the end of the world at least a decade ago.

Art is its own justification.

Taxidermy is its own reward.

Rainier from the Ryegrass Rest Area.
"What we call the beginning is often the end...."

41st Skeptics' Circle posted

What would you call an award for skepticism, anyway? The Skepty? The Fauxscar? The Hrm?

photos of Lake Louise, Lake Agnes and the Big Beehive

A goodly hike: from Lake Louise, take the trail to Lake Agnes. Stop at the teahouse for apple crumble and black currant tea. (Avoid the squirrels.) Depart for the Big Beehive, and do not despair at the steep, but mercifully short, switchbacks. Take the side trip to the top of the hive--yes, that's it, pictured below--then head back toward Louise down the other side of the mountain. Chuckle to yourself at the suckers who are trudging up the harder way.

(Click "read more" to see all ten photos.)

cocoa with the cloven hooves

At first we thought chocolate was our friend, maybe even a divine messenger. But as the Good Book says, even the devil drives a Prius.

I'm not giving my wife chocolate for our second anniversary, not because I don't love her, but because I don't trust chocolate.

Update: What, you think I'm joking?

Aug 17, 2006

oil and water separate, together again

God is certainly going to punish us for tampering in His metaphorical domain.

Burgerville: a feast for the sense of taste

Move over, In-N-Out. There is a new Zeus in the fast food pantheon: Burgerville. One culinary experience tops anything California's fabled chain has to offer. One savory sacrifice of beef, cheese, and pork.

The Pepper Bacon Tillamook Cheeseburger.

In-N-Out prides itself in a simple menu of burgers, fries, and shakes, with toppings even Philip Glass would love. From this pallette of ingredients, customizable complexities emerge. Yet nothing, not even "Animal Style," matches the complexity that blossoms from the hallowed grasses of Tillamook, Oregon, and lies beneath hearty cured pork instilled with real peppercorns. Is there bacon on the In-N-Out menu? No, there is not. Is there Tillamook cheese on the In-N-Out menu? No, there is not.

Sadly, Burgerville suffers from the same weakness that plagues In-N-Out, namely, it isn't available outside of its home region, the Pacific Northwest. It does not, however, suffer from spongy fries, In-N-Out's Achilles heel. (Bonus point: Burgerville recycles its spent oil to make biodiesel.)

I stop at Burgerville every time I travel I-5 south of Olympia, even bookending my recent trip to Mount Adams with two visits, with my wife's gracious permission. I ordered the PBTCB both times, and was deliriously happy.

Would someone open an Olympia franchise? Please?

bigger, smarter brains from two genes?

A new kind of gene, a surprising rate of mutation, and a critical area of cortical development converge in this week's genomic revelation.
There are only two changes in the 118 letters of DNA code that make up HAR1 between the genomes of chimps and chickens. But chimps and humans are 18 letter-changes apart. And those mutations occurred in just five million years, as we evolved from our shared ancestor.

“That is an incredible amount of change to have happened in a few million years,” Pollard notes.

Subsequent experiments looking at the brains of human and primate embryos revealed that HAR1 is part of two overlapping genes. One of these genes, called HAR1F is active in nerve cells that appear early in embryonic development and play a critical role in the formation of the layered structure of the human cerebral cortex.

The role of the other gene, called HAR1R, is less clear, but it also appears also to be involved in cortex development.
It's important to note that it's not the only significant difference between chimps and humans. Chimps are better dressed, and never backstab their cinematic costars.

Aug 15, 2006

that's where we wanna go, way down to the Gifford Pinchot

See that mountain up on the title of this blog? That's Mount Adams. That's where my wife and I are headed until Thursday. Be like Billy--behave yourself.

(If you get that reference, you're on the A list.)

a jaunt through the morning paper

Let's see....

The Chihuly / Rubino flap is officially settled, but part of the settlement means keeping the terms of the settlement for-their-eyes-only. Chihuly sued Rubino for imitating Chihuly's style, although it eventually came out that Chihuly--whose name goes on everything--is more of a conceptual artist, while the actual glassblowers like Rubino did all the work. It'd be like Peggy Noonan running for president, and Ronald Reagan getting upset because all her speeches sounded like his.

Meanwhile, George Allen (R., VA) made an ass of himself at a campaign stop. Pointing to S.R. Sidarth, his opponent's staffmember who's been videotaping the incumbent, Allen said, "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Allen later non-apologized, saying, "I would never want to demean him as an individual. I do apologize if he's offended by that. That was no way the point."

Ironically, Sidarth was born in Virginia. 150% ironically, Allen was not.

Last, the U.S. couldn't stick terror charges on three Americans who were buying TracFones in bulk, not to blow up a bridge, but to resell them at a hefty profit. The men were cleared of charges of behaving suspiciously while Palestinian-American, and were commended for their entrepreneurial spirit and released.

by the numbers

Results from Monday's budget vote:

1. No funding for ajoining a potential lawsuit against the state for its consistent (and unconstitutional) refusal to fully fund education.

2. No additional funding to ensure that Olympia and Capital are in compliance with the new compulsory culminating project, required of all graduates in the class of 2008.

3. A new special ed position, overseeing students' transition to life after high school.

4. The best news, at least from a citizen-teacher-journalist's perspective: $1,000 to make public meetings available on the web.

Meanwhile, the headline says "Student ranks swell at area private schools," but the article claims either steady enrollment or "slight" increases (with one decrease). Without statistics, it's impossible to know whether real growth is occurring.