Sunday, January 10, 2010

Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism


Over at the Scientific American
website, I found these two videos about the decoding of the Antikythera Mechanism.

This amazing piece of technology was discovered at the turn of the last century in a shipwreck in the Greek isles.

An astronomical calendar, Olympic calendar, eclipse calculator and on and on.

As the videos discuss, there is some indication that this device may be a result of the workshop tradition in Syracuse extending from the time of Archimedes.

Videos from Nature:

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

America's Founding -- Not a Christian Nation

As a result of a recent response on Facebook to becoming a fan of the Secular Coalition for America, I felt I needed to put together some references about aspects of the founding of our country. In short, the question is:
Was America founded as a Christian nation or not?

Without too much effort on Google, I found the following information and references. I haven't had the time to search Wikipedia yet but I hope to do that in the near future.

From the Freedom From Religion Foundation (site here), there is this "nontract" entitled Is America a Christian Nation? This is a short, brochure-style Q&A sheet that briefly addresses most of the major issues (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Tripoli, the Pilgrims and Puritans, separation of church and state, majority rule, state standing under the Constitution, and displaying the Ten Commandments in government facilities.

An article in The Nation from 2005 entitled Our Godless Constitution contains more detailed information about the Treaty of Tripoli (signed with little ado in 1797.) It also details some the thoughts of our most famous founders -- Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin, John Adams, and others. It quotes Jefferson on one of three accomplishments he wished to be remembered for: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom -- that there would finally be "freedom for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian, the Mohammeden, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination." The article also addresses the issues confronting politicians in public life, even 230 years ago.

A blog post by Jim Walker entitled The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense founded on the Christian religion is another brief summary style of piece. It touches on the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Tripoli, and the development of common law as it informed the development of Western legal systems. The title of the article itself is a verbatim quote from the beginning of Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli.

A more light-hearted, somewhat satirical piece entitled The United States: A Country Founded on Paganism examines the origins of the many symbols of our government and society. From documents to coins to statues to buildings to memorials, we have been inspired by a wide range of other cultures and beliefs.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Clouds of Information

Under the theory that word selection by itself provides information about a communication, a variety of tools have been developed for the statistical analysis of texts.

It can be as simple as counting words. For example, Andrew Sullivan in his The Daily Dish blog over at The Atlantic has a recent post entitled Fact-Checking George Will. In it, he takes Will to task for characterizing the Obamas as being narcissistic during a recent overseas trip. My take on his discussion of Will: "Don't bother me with the facts! I've got a point to make."

A more complex version of word-counting is showing up all over the blogosphere in the word clouds that summarize whole sites in a graphical way. One of the more interesting (and fun) versions of such an analysis tool was developed by an IBM research scientest and can be found at the Wordle site. I found it via the James Fallows post A nice tool for envisioning rhetoric. He points to the inaugural speech analysis that the developer, Jonathon Feinberg, did to show off the tool.

While spending a bunch of time driving to soccer fields to referee kids, I came up with the idea of using Wordle to portray some of the more important socio-cultural roots of our society. To visually portray the importance of concepts over time. To see if I learned anything new. To see if I could inject an element of the aesthetic into the mix. To see if a more modern technique of concrete poetry is useful in the search for knowledge.

The result is The Gist of the Matter.

As a very long-time atheist who would have to characterize himself as culturally Judeo-Christian, the choice of the documents reflects that background. There are probably many of us who would fall into the same category. I've found it encouraging to clearly recognize the shift from god-speak to secularism over time.

So, the points of discussion I see are:

* Is this kind of visual analysis useful to those of us who focus on words?

* And, if so, can it be used to help combat the drivel we encounter out on the intellectual playing fields of society?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Only Graph You'll Ever Need

The folks over at the Journal of Irreproducible Results have come up with another winner!


Click on the graph for embiggerment.

Links to the runner-ups can be found at

Update: After posting this, I realized that this was several years old but decided that it did not matter.  Since this is the graph that proves all theories, it works now, i.e., in the future from then, just as well as it would if it had been discovered yesterday.

The Gist Of The Matter

One man's [re]viewing of the socio-political roots of a culture

Click on the thumbnails for larger versions. All images come from the Wordle tool and are licensed by
Genesis 1-2, Ten Commandments, Psalm 23
Ecclesiastes, Plato's Republic, Sermon On The Mount
Golden Rule, Magna Carta, Luther's 95 Theses
Mayflower Compact, Galileo Dialogues, Thomas Paine's Common Sense
Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, US Constitution Preamble
US Constitution Article 1, Article 2, Article 3
US Constitution Article 4, Article 5, Article 6
US Constitution Article 7, Bill of Rights, Amendments 11-27
French Constitution 1791, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Emancipation Proclamation
Gettysburg Address, League of Nations Charter, United Nations Charter
UN Declaration of Human Rights, John F. Kennedy speech, Martin Luther King speech

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Laws Of The Game In A Couple Of Hundred Words

The wonderful Wordle tool (which I'll write about later which I've now written up over here) is a great way to waste spend some time. Here are the complete laws of soccer:

Click on the image for a larger version. From

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A-Theist Does Not Mean A-Moral

Greta Christina is a blogger who writes about atheism (among many other things, not always suitable for work or family) over at the cleverly eponymously monickered Greta Christina's Blog. She has begun a new project -- The Facebook Atheist Meme of the Day. See here, here, and here.
I'm doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I'm going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme... in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.
Her project, and many of the reactions to the Facebook posts, started me thinking about one of the anti-atheist memes that still is very widespread. This is the theory that the lack of belief in a god leaves one without any moral grounding. In other words, without gods (or God), anything is permissible. Or maybe even ("Horrors!"), encouraged. This particular meme is #2 in Greta's Eleven Myths and Truths About Atheists --
2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there's no basis for morality.
Now, for must of us who take life seriously, thinking about morality is an important part of what we do. There's the old "An unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates, I think.) There are the problems of dealing with other people and institutions. There are the issues of raising children to be prepared to go out into the world by themselves. Atheists are no different from anybody else in these concerns.

Greta will probably come up with some nicely worded pithiness that summarizes her position if a sentence or two. Her post from March of 2008, The Not So Logical Conclusion: On the Morality of Atheists and Believers, probably lays out the direction she will go.

So, I set myself the task to come up with an atheist meme about morality. I'm sure it won't be as good as what Greta produces -- she's a much better writer -- but the exercise has been be useful.

I think most people who believe the myth are still very much in thrall of Strict-Big-Daddy-In-The-Sky-Ism.  Without a strong father figure, we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Even this statement reveals the sexism, dominance and fear-mongering that is crucial for this particular brand of Control-Ism to succeed. But this view isn't at all necessary for a coherent and effective morality.

First, we need to now what morality is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its definition of morality with this:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons

In either case, morality is a code of conduct. In other words, it's about behavior, not thoughts. The old saying that you can't legislate morality is wrong. In fact, most of our legislation is about morality -- the ways people behave towards other people. You can't legislate what people think or feel, however, which is what the saying is trying to communicate.

As an atheist coming from at least a cultural Judeo-Christian background (see here), starting with the acknowledged sources of some of our moral sense is useful. The Bible contains two major concepts of exemplary morality -- the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Golden Rule (ethic of reciprocity) of the New Testament. Although the Ten Commandments are a hodge-podge of prescriptive and proscriptive injunctions, they are mostly a descriptive code of conduct. Just as the Bible itself becomes mostly gentler and kinder as it moves from the chronicles of an Iron Age society to the inspirational message of a more modern world, the basis of morality becomes more universal by the time of the New Testament. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is an ethical normative meme that spans countries, civilizations, and time. The commandments that deal with human interactions can be seen (with some slight rewording) as examples of the Golden Rule.

Similarly, Western culture has absorbed the prescriptive meme of karma -- "What goes around, comes around" and "Instant karma's gonna get you" -- and has begun to unravel the ramifications of the normative meme of Pay-It-Forward-Ism.

In game theory as applied to social interactions, the tit for tat and tit for tat with forgiveness tactics in the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma seem to be the best deterministic strategies. Cooperate until betrayed and then respond in kind (maybe with a little "I forgive you for defecting that last time" thrown in.)

So, where have I gotten? So far, the best I can come up with is:

Atheists know that morality is the human response to issues of social interaction, not delivered from on high. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just a rule – it’s a Good Idea.
The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
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