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.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Power of Visualization

One of the things that the development of computers has made possible is incredibly powerful visual images. It's almost impossible to find a movie made in the last 10-20 years that doesn't make some use of CGI (computer generated imagery.) Stick around through the credits of any recent realistic movie and you will see that somebody is being credited with computer imagery or enhancement. And we're not talking Beowulf or the latest Pixar flic but all normal, "realistic" movies.

But that's not the only kind of visualization that computers have made possible. A very powerful tool is data visualization. This involves taking data and devising a visual presentation of it. There need not be anything new about the data -- just the presentation.

The folks over at have developed just such a tool. The video below shows some of the kinds of things you can notice and learn just by visualizing data that used to be presented in pages of numbers with the occasional chart or three.

If you find this intriguing, head on over to GapMinder World where you can play with a large number of different datasets from the convenience of your own browser. Maybe you'll come up with some insights that others haven't seen yet.

How Cute ....

... and a transitional fossil to boot!

One of the constant complaints of IDers and creationists is that there aren't any transitional fossils. This, of course, misses the point that all fossils are transitional fossils. But here is evidence (not the drawing, but the linked article with video) of an early cousin of the awesome Tyrannosaurus rex.

This is a conception of the Raptorex.
Despite what many newspapers will assuredly tell you, Raptorex isn't the ancestor of Tyrannosaurus although it probably looked very much like what this hypothetical animal would have done. It's more like an early cousin, but one that's clearly more closely related to T.rex and its giant kin than any of the other smaller species so far discovered.

You can read all about it over at the marvelous Not Exactly Rocket Science blog. And watch carefully for the depiction of the teeny-tiny brain these creatures had (but apparently a very good sense of smell.)

Music and Aerodynamics

I suppose if Philip Glass can create a piece of music/theatre called 1000 Airplanes On The Roof, it makes sense for Karlheinz Stockhausen to create the Helicopter String Quartet. From the Wiki:
A performance requires: four helicopters, each equipped with a pilot and sound technician, television transmitter and 3-channel sound transmitter, and an auditorium with four columns of televisions and loudspeakers, a sound technician with mixing desk, and a moderator (optional), as well as the members of the string quartet. The piece focuses on the simple idea of a string quartet, with the rotor blades acting as a second instrument, with microphones placed so the helicopters may blend with the instruments themselves, whilst the instruments remain louder than the blades. The piece is played as follows. A moderator, who may be the sound technician, introduces the quartet, and then explains the technical aspects of the piece. The players must then walk, or be driven if necessary, to the helicopters, always being visible to the auditorium audience by camera. The embarkation is also shown, the musicians and instruments remaining constantly in the view of the cameras, with no camera changes. Behind each player the ground can be seen, as well as the glass. Then the piece begins. The original version lasted approximately 18½ minutes, but the 1995 revision was extended to 21½ minutes. The helicopters circle at a radius of 6 km from the auditorium, changing altitude constantly to create the 'bounce' of the piece. All 12 incoming signals are controlled by the sound technician. The descent lasts five minutes, with the decreasing sound of the rotor blades acting as a background as the quartet re-enter the hall. The moderator then takes questions and leads applause.
Here's a short excerpt:

Well, It Didn't Just Happen ...

Probability is one of those things that people are just not very good at unless trained. There are probably some good reasons why evolution didn't help us come with the intrinsic Calculators of Large Numbers we would need to not be misled so easily.

Psychologically, we seem to be much more attuned to the false positives in our data gathering than to the false negatives. Of course, interpreting a rustle in the grass as a possible snake and taking action is much more prudent (in terms of survival) than to dismiss the rustle of a snake as just the wind. Combining this tendency with inadequate number-crunching skills leads us down many a garden path (or blind alley.)

Coincidences fool us all the time. The Gambler's Fallacy helps drain bank accounts every day. Lucky numbers become signposts on our journeys. Superstitions are usually born from misunderstood coincidences.

The folk over at QualiaSoup have addressed this issue with another fine video that begins with one of my favorite examples, the Birthday Paradox. The Birthday Paradox, of course, isn't really a paradox but just something that is counter-intuitive — which just shows how our intuitions about probability aren't very good.

Political Rhetoric Explained by Steven Pinker

A bit from a talk by Steven Pinker, one of the more interesting writers on psychology, mind, and language. I particularly liked his quotation of Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe:

... a gaffe is when a politician says something that is true.
His discussion of how words can become colored like swear words is intriguing. Liberal in America connotes something much different than in does in Canada.

This clip is just an excerpt from the full video. See info in the clip to get the whole thing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

John Cage (Unplugged)

Nowadays, when a musician's performance is characterized as "unplugged" it means that the normally electric instruments are not used, just "acoustic" ones. In this historic footage from 1960(!), avant garde composer John Cage is featured on the TV show "I've Got A Secret." Network television (when there were only three networks.) Prime time (when Prime Time actually was prime time.)

Figuring, I suppose, that the game of guessing his secret would be too difficult and, as host Gary Moore explained, to allow for sufficient time for the complete performance to take place, the game portion of the event was eliminated and Cage's secret was just announced. He would perform his composition Water Walk using: a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, 2 cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a seltzer siphon, 5 radios, a bathtub, and a grand piano.

I suppose guessing the secret probably would have been a little on the difficult side.

There was, however, a glitch in the system. Two different unions were contesting which should plug in the radios. There was no resolution so the radios were to be unplugged for the performance. Cage explained his workaround before beginning the performance and the radios were not played although they were still used.

I haven't figured out yet why the other electrical gadgets (tape recorder and mixer) did not enter into the dispute. Maybe the sticking point had something to do with music or actors being broadcast over the airwaves.

Enjoy! Oh, yes, TV was mostly in black and white back then.

Originally from: WFMU's Beware of the Blog — A Radio Station That Bites Back

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thinking Inside & Outside the Box

QualiaSoup has nailed it again with a video about a box, theistic claims of existence, and the logical traps of asserting non-physical characteristics (among other things.)

Tip o' the hat to Hemant over at

Our Diverse History Is Even More Varied & Interesting Than We Have Been Taught

My long-time friend Kathleen Thompson is one of the founders of the site

Kathleen's background includes being a bookseller, an author, a playwright, an editor, an educator, and — throughout it all — a feminist (she co-authored the classic Against Rape). Her diverse interests have reached a new stage with OneHistory.

Let's face it, American history is not what most of us have always thought it was. It is not a neat story written in a book or even a hundred books. Not only is it far from finished -- we're living it right now -- but it is far from being recovered, reclaimed, and recorded. So many voices have been silenced for so long that our historical chorus has often sounded like a brass band with only one trumpet and a beat up tuba.
So, what is OneHistory trying to do about it?
OneHistory was founded ... for students, teachers, and the general public. Our aim is to have high-quality, accessible content for all levels of learners and for a variety of interests. ...

Because of both personal experience and professional exposure, we are acutely aware of the educational difficulties faced by many children. That is why we have a number of features designed specifically for Hi-Lo readers. In addition, after witnessing the power that images from our book The Face of Our Past had on a huge variety of audiences, we began to explore the power of imagery as a teaching tool.

We at OneHistory are passionate about historic images and this site has a number of features designed to help people understand their power. Like a diary or other text document, an image is a primary document. And like a text document, a historic image must be read with care. In others words people must become visually literate. Toward that end, we have included an entire section of the site devoted to visual history.

As an example, I was pleasantly surprised to find an early plea for religious freedom — freedom of and freedom from — by an early (Native) American.
Red Jacket (c. 1750-1830) was a Seneca leader and spokesman for the Six Nations. He gave this speech in 1805 in response to appeals by missionaries that his people convert to Christianity.
An excerpt:
Brother, continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to His mind; and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a Book. If it was intended for us, as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to us, and not only to us, but why did He not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that Book, with the means of understanding it rightly. We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do not all agree, as you can all read the Book?

If you get some time, go browse around I'm sure you'll find something new or interesting. If you can, recommend it to other students, teachers, or parents who might find it useful.

Let's keep more of our heritage from disappearing into the dustbins of history.  

Sunday, September 6, 2009

When You Design and Build Watch Factories ...

... everything ends up looking like something a watchmaker would do.

Jim Manzi (of Lotus Development and Lotus 1-2-3 fame see comment below) has a piece over at Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish in which he takes on Jerry Coyne's review of Robert Wright's book Evolution of God that was published in The New Republic.

I read about this at Coyne's blog where you can read his response to Manzi. You can follow the twisty maze on your own by clicking on the above links (including responses, responses to responses, etc.)

My point here, however, is another train of thought. Shortly before discovering this kerfuffle, I got a status update via Facebook from an engineer friend. It was early Sunday morning and A new day breaks, a glorious Sunday to worship our Lord and Savior. Just the coincidence of these two pieces of input got me thinking about the observation that Intelligent Design proponents and some Creationists often come from backgrounds of math, physics, or engineering rather than biology or philosophy.

When all your training has been to successfully design and build things, it is a natural thought that something successful has been designed and built. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail is a less sophisticated version of the same thought.

The ID luminaries who have some real scientific training come from outside the field of biology — which is the field in which evolution does its handsprings. Manzi comes from the world of software development.

They are all used to the idea of designing and building as the natural mode of changing the world. Their tools are crucial to the world we live in — airplanes fly across great oceans, sewer systems allow giant metropolises, Facebook is filled to the brim with our minutia, genetic algorithms guide our computers through designs, small boxes of magic carried in our pockets let us listen to music or talk to people around the world.

The engineering design and manufacture paradigm has been overwhelming successful in our attempts to tame the savage world and provide sustenance, enjoyment, and longer lives. We no longer have to survive on what we find. Or what we learn out how to hunt. Or what we figure out how to husband. Or fitting the family into a cave.

But just because a method is successful there is no reason to assume that it has any relevance outside of the realms that are amenable to its use. Even within a field, careful use is required for some concepts. Something as simple as the average of a collection of numbers requires well-grounded analysis. Is the mean, the median, or the mode the correct concept to use? Statistics and probability are minefields for the unwary. Why is the Birthday Paradox so .... paradoxical?

I think understanding how the engineering paradigm influences the ideas and analysis of those who wish evolution wasn't true will be a useful beginning to more constructive dialogues and partnerships. There are millions of interesting engineering problems in the structure and development of this thing we call life. Tapping into the engineer's expertise would be useful where it is appropriate.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Deconstructing (Literally) a Pocket-Size Box of Magic

Over at YouTube, I found this piece of "pure nerd porn" in which a MP3/camcorder device is deconstructed before our eyes.

We Might All Eventually Have Machines This Powerful

I ran across another interesting demo of early computer hardware and software. Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad program was developed in the very early 1960s. Here are a couple of clips about a slightly later version from 1963 demoed at the MIT Lincoln Laboratories.  

Part The First:

Part The Second:

Hat Tip to BoingBoing.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I Have No Use Of That Hypothesis

One of my favorite stories about the Creator as an explanation of Nature is of the brilliant French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace — math, physics, probability, celestial mechanics, planetary motions, statistics, astronomy, etc. As a frame of reference, consider that he's been described as the French Newton.

From the Wikipedia article on Laplace:

An account of a famous interaction between Laplace and Napoleon is provided by Rouse Ball:
Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, 'M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.' Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, 'Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.' ("I had no need of that hypothesis.") Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, 'Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses.' ("Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.")
I don't know much about Lagrange except that his name comes up quite a bit in some more advanced fields of mathematics. It sounds like he was a Deist (at least) but my interest is more in Laplace's explanation.

I had no need of that hypothesis.

He could do his work, even on the system of the universe — a somewhat large topic — and never need to invoke the crutch of God to help prop up his work. The mathematics, the science, the hypotheses, the theories, the observations, and probably so much more, were sufficient to synthesize a coherent theory of how the universe worked. I don't know enough to know how detailed his system was nor how well it has held up against the ravages of scientific scrutiny since then. But his reputation gives me a pretty good idea.

I noticed in my own life that I've had no need of that hypothesis either. Since acknowledging my atheism, I haven't had any reason to reconsider. In fact, I don't remember have any reason before then either. Being a Christian (ALC Lutheran) was just the way I was raised. The reasons I would have been a Hindu in India were the reasons I was a Christian in Oregon. I sang in the choirs, went to Sunday School, read The Screwtape Letters in early high school, went through the confirmation process, celebrated Christmas, watched the sun come up at Easter Morning services, and so on.

By late grade school, or very early high school at the latest, I was skipping Sunday School classes and could be found reading in the back pews of the empty church. I remember that one of the books I read in such a manner was Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian.

The history isn't the important part, though. It's the content: I have had no need of that hypothesis. I've never needed it to be good and kind — or even explain how to be good and kind. I've never needed it to understand what I can of science and mathematics, astronomy and biology, music and art, literature and dance, work places and sport fields. I'm not an expert in any of those (although I am pretty good in a couple) but as the years go by and my knowledge continues to increase, I find fewer and fewer areas where God (whether one or many) could be of help or is even relevant.

I grant that many other folks do have a need for the hypothesis. I think it is usually because they don't have anything else to help explain the world. They don't have science and sociology at their finger tips. They aren't used to critically examining anything serious or seriously. They don't know what other explanations or theories exist for their questions or dilemmas of the moment. But I don't try to "convert" them. If I can help, I will try to ask questions or provide another viewpoint or point them to a useful reference. If God or religion comes up, it's not from me.

Having "no need of the hypothesis" is not the same as denying the hypothesis. Denying the hypotheses of others usually ends up in a battle. I've been happier and more effective, I think, by using and sharing the theories and hypotheses that work for me. And there are becoming more of us that are comfortable with sharing the fact that we've had "no need of the hypothesis." And we aren't all staying silent all the time now. Forty-five years after those mornings reading on the oak pews, I'm comfortable talking about it.

Some Small Print I Would Like To See

The debate over health care in America has turned very tendentious and downright ugly. I will admit that I have not followed the 'debate' very closely but I occasionally hear sound bites that are pretty outrageous.  These outrageous statements are usually made in response to something that sounds pretty reasonable.  Some of the bloggers I follow occasionally write interesting, informed, and articulate posts about various aspects of how it might work or how the current system doesn't work. 

I added my comments to one such post that had been met with some uncritical, opinionated, prejudiced garbage. This was my seat-of-the-pants, OMG, WTF-is-going-on emotional response so it may not be extremely well thought out but here it is anyway:
Can we please get a notarized and binding contract from everybody who spouts off against government involvement in healthcare that they will: 1) never enroll in Medicare or Medicaid until they are already dead and then agree that since being dead is a pre-existing condition, they will not be covered, 2) agree to pay cash in advance for any unscheduled use of municipal ambulance, fire, police or emergency vehicles, 3) agree to pay at least the triple the cash rate of #2 plus interest (charged at the highest rate allowed under our current credit card usury limits) if they cannot pay cash in advance, 4) agree to pay cash in advance for any use of hospital ER services except for the hours of 8am to 6pm for which the ER services required payment will be triple the standard rate since they should have seen an available physician instead, 5) as with #3, triple the rates of #4 if not paid in advance, 6) agree that company health benefits are of benefit to themselves and without them they could negotiate correspondingly higher salaries for which they would have to pay taxes and therefore further agree to pay such tax amount even if they have "company benefits".

I feel better now.  And I did not even need to take a pill.

But don't even think about getting me started on the "death panels" ....

Coming Soon: The Greatest Show on Earth

The blogosphere surrounding those of us of certain pursuasions and inclinations is all abuzz with anticipation for the new book by Richard Dawkins -- The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Coming relatively hard on the heels of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, these counter-attacks to the fundamentalist attempts to hijack the education and political process are all about the science.  Well, there may be a little other stuff thrown in, too.

(click on the image for embiggerment)

You can find more information at:

The Why Evolution is True blog


The Greatest Show on Earth page at

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where Were You When You Heard?

The passing today of Sen. Edward Kennedy brings to end a period of my life in America.  The Camelot dynasty has finally concluded. With his death and the recent death of his sister Eunice, it seems like all the links to the past have finally fallen away and we are on our own.  I'm sure I won't remember finding out this morning on my 5am work break.  But I remember where I was when I heard some of the other news ...

Mr. G's eighth grade science class, rightmost row, next to the back chair-desk, about 10 feet from the classroom door, late morning in Oregon: November 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

High school senior, working after school at my dad's woodworking shop, stopping at the ice cream shop on the way home for dinner, listening to the radio as Dad went into the shop: April 4, 1968.  Martin Luther King assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

High school graduation, early evening, checking our gowns and hats and shoes, milling about in the hallways while our parents and siblings worked their way into the auditorium, then sitting through the ceremony to get to the much more fun overnight lock-in of movies and such (The Guns of Navaronne was on the big screeen.): June 4-5, 1968.  Robert Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles, California.  Somehow we found out about the initial shooting but then had no information until we got home the next day.  He died about 26 hours after the shooting.

I've heard of many deaths since then but I don't remember any of the details surrounding getting the news.  I suppose every generation has their own version of this.  The recent death of Michael Jackson will probably be remembered by some the same way I remember the deaths of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

Why Can't We All Just Play Grice?

The title of this post is supposed to invoke the sense of mild whining that a teacher or parent uses when talking to their charges. So much of the communication via conversation on today's web (email, tweets, blogs, comments, YouTube videos, etc.) is whiny, mean, silly, untruthful, half-baked, aggressive, ignorant, petty, illogical, narcissistic, political, etc., etc, .... ad infinitum

I can see why my friend Tom described the problem with the web as there is too much communication. It sometimes helps to remember:

  • a channel is not communication
  • communication is not information
  • information is not knowledge
  • knowledge is not wisdom

As a plea for more effective conversations, I present a tidbit of the ideas of philospher Paul Grice. Maybe with a little more discipline in the early stages, we can come to more fruitful places together. You can find out more about Grice here (the short version) or here (the long version.)

In his extremely influential essay Logic and Conversation (collected in Studies in the Way of Words), Grice outlined a communication strategy for conversations. This was not an attempt to dictate how we should communicate; rather, it was an attempt to capture what seemed to be important about successful conversations. As Kent Bach puts it in The Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature:

... [We] need first to get clear on the character of Grice’s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit. As listeners, we presume that the speaker is being cooperative (at least insofar as he is trying to make his communicative intention evident) and is speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately. If an utterance superficially appears not to conform to any of these presumptions, the listener looks for a way of taking it so that it does conform. He does so partly on the supposition that he is intended to. As speakers, in trying to choose words to make our communicative intentions evident, we exploit the fact that our listeners presume these things.
Assuming that a conversation is a joint effort, Grice gives an overall strategy for successful communication as follows:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE. 

Grice then presents four categories of maxims that will be useful in support of this principle. The following is an abridged version of the original in an attempt to be brief and orderly (see below).

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange). 
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. 

Be relevant.

Be perspicuous. 

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

I have no illusions that following these simple rules will always be easy but I think that it would be a good beginning to a more charitable way of living together on this tiny blue dot.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Problem With Anecdotes

If you've gotten an email from me in the last 6-7 months, you might have noticed my signature line: The plural of anecdote is not data.

The problems of anecdotes in all kinds of areas is pretty well known if you have looked into it.  But if you haven't, this video from QualiaSoup is a good introduction to the issue.

There is more from QualiaSoup over at YouTube -- you might want to take a gander.

Data Mining As Art

The Sociable Media Group at MIT has created a installation work called Metropath(ologies). Watch the video below for more details.


The Personas application is available by itself over here. I tried it on myself:

You can click on the graph for a larger version.

Thanks to GrrlScientist over at Living The Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted) for finding this.

It's Just Water!!

Ben Goldacre writes the Bad Science column for The Guardian. He also runs the blog over at He's one of the seriously good guys in the fight against intellectual (and other) silliness.

Ben Goldacre on Homeopathy from science TV on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The World of the College Class of 2013

Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1991. Where are they coming from? What is their mindset?

Thanks to The Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2013 we can get an inkling of some potential communication barriers.  Hopefully, forewarned is forearmed.

Below are some of my favorites from the list:

  • For these students, Martha Graham, Pan American Airways, Michael Landon, Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, The Dallas Times Herald, Gene Roddenberry, and Freddie Mercury have always been dead.
  • Earvin "Magic" Johnson has always been HIV-positive.
  • Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has always been a flavor choice.
  • Bungee jumping has always been socially acceptable.
  • The European Union has always existed.
  • There has always been a Cartoon Network.
  • They have always been able to read books on an electronic screen.
  • We have always watched wars, coups, and police arrests unfold on television in real time.
  • There have always been flat screen televisions.
  • Britney Spears has always been heard on classic rock stations.
  • Most communities have always had a mega-church.
  • Natalie Cole has always been singing with her father.
  • Nobody has ever responded to “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

And In Other News, The Earth Was Created Today -- An Archaeological Moment In Time

Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC

(via Kelosphy)

What The Fundie !@?#@?! ....

I've recently learned that among a group of high school girls, mostly from very conservative religious backgrounds that discourage swearing, premarital sex, drinking, and all other manner of "immoral activity," the words giving rise to the ubiquituous WTF acronym have changed to "What The Fag?".

I find myself pretty offended by this, just as I am by the somewhat more common "That's so gay!"

It's pretty clear that none of these usages are meant as compliments or even neutral assessments. How would the NAACP and others react to "What The 'Fro?!"?

In replacing one of the magic seven words you can't say on television, some of the original tarnish rubs onto the replacement. It's never a Good Thing.

I lived through the '50s, '60s, and '70s to watch the racial epithets of previous generations finally become unacceptable. They didn't go away; they just became incorrect in the company of larger and more diverse groups. By becoming "politically incorrect," in some ways the explosive power of the words was enhanced. You know something has really gone kablooey when one of those words makes it out into the public air — the canary in the mineshaft has just become the 800-pound gorilla.

Similarly, ethnic disparagements have also mostly disappeared or gone underground. They have joined the racial word bombs as examples of incorrectness in action.

These historical cases are now "incorrect" in that same sense that you can talk about "correct English" and "correct spelling" — the invisible hands of culture have rewritten the social discourse style books. The politics of the times helped hasten their move to the other side of the ledger — they are now seen (at least) as indicators of negative attributes or ideas rather than neutral slang. (Note: I don't personally think any of this was ever neutral but it was often excused that way.)

In a manner similar to the way African-Americans appropriated "black" and turned it into a strength during the civil rights battles, the homosexual community has commandeered "gay" and "lesbian" to gain some power in its class war struggles.

In all these cases, something has been lost or, at least, changed in the process. "Gay Paree" doesn't connote — or denote — what it used to. "Spic & Span" can be saying more than just how clean something is. It's dangerous to use the word "niggardly." A fag isn't even a cigarette anymore. But I think the balance is OK; in fact, more than OK — we've gained much more than we've lost. I'm glad that minorities have found ways to rally around a common cause when necessary with terms they can support. Language changes; people change. Sometimes in that order, sometimes the reverse. Sometimes the change is for the better; sometimes not. Holding onto what's comfortable or "what we've always done" isn't always the wisest course.  

Now, name-calling is never a very nice thing. But sometimes one get so frustrated that nothing else is left.

So, in the tradition of politically incorrect epithets for very occasional use, I'm nominating "What The Fundie?!" What's a fundie? A fundie is similar to a fundamentalist but STUPID. And that's what WTF?! is usually about.

Maybe I'll get the t-shirt.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Good Reason Not To Use You As An Eyewitness

Richard Wiseman is a very smart man.  Author of The Luck Factor, Quirkology and :59 Seconds, he also devises real world experiments and demonstrations.  Watch this video and see if you could survive a good cross-examination.

Go here for more information including how it was done.  And check out the other videos he's done.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Something Else I've Learned Since Kindergarten

I can't believe I forgot this one on my initial list:

Occam's razor
"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." Read more here at The Skeptic's Dictionary.

or, as Wikipedia describes it:
"entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem", roughly translated as "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity."

How Really, Really Big Can Make You Feel Really, Really Small

Thanks to PZ Myers over at Pharyngula for this.  You can join the comment fest there if you wish.  I just wanted to share the video:

A Call for the Faitheists to Unite (I think)

Over at the Daily Kos, Frederick Clarkson and others have announced a "controversial panel" to take place at the Netroots Nation get-together.

A New Progressive Vision for Church and State

The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed—one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief.  But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like "under God" in universal terms. For example, the word "God" can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

There's so much wrong here I'm not even sure where to begin.  I'll leave the title alone -- it's pretty innocuous.  If they think the old vision (whatever that was) didn't work, by all means call for a new vision.

But on to the rest of it ....

The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited.

How about if we really tried that instead of it just being a vision?  In my 59 years on the planet, America has not even begun to implement this other than the various school prayer battles.  In fact, it's within my lifetime that the RealAmericanTM "under God" alteration was made to the Pledge of Allegiance.  But yes, it is an "old liberal vision" -- think of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and our own revolution.  But, hey, if it hasn't worked, it must be because the vision is wrong -- not that it wasn't really implemented.

Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, ...

Why? It seems like anything growing might succeed in getting above 50% sometime in the future.  Of course, if the secular majority is not progressive, then there could still be a problem.   Since it is "still impossible," then Clarkson and crew must mean that a group that is both progressive and secular will be limited to less than 50% no matter what we do. So I guess we better give up and try something else.

... and a new two-part approach is needed—one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief.

OK, so for starters, let's discard all the those bothersome rules we do have and stipulate that if a policy is based on some kind of religious belief, it can (maybe?) be discussed but no criticism of such policies is allowed.

I don't know if voting "nay" counts as criticism -- I would think so -- but let's move on.

But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal.

I'm not quite sure what step in the process has been elided -- voting, general referendum, palace coup -- to move from suggested policies to government action.  And what universe?  It seems like "universal" in this context is referring to those "old liberal vision(s)" that either are -- or could be -- taken as cross-cultural constants.  And they should be taken that way because We Know What Is Right.TM

The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like "under God" in universal terms. For example, the word "God" can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights.

I must not be very in tune with the universe. I see no evidence of "ceaseless creativity"; I stand amazed at the ceaseless activity and amazing complexity. Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker should be (re)read as a tonic to this silly anthropomorphizing of the cosmos.  The "objective validity" of anything human is only shorthand for saying that within the societies and cultures we people-critters have built, there are some cross-cultural constants (we think) that are worth highly valuing.  Most of us think, and some of us believe, that human rights are extremely important.  We need to realize why they are important and act upon those facts or valuations; not on the basis of some cave wall shadows that has been deemed The Truth.  We need more searchlights in the caverns, not better ways to be entertained by the shadow puppet plays.

As a side note, it sounds like Humpty Dumpty has been appointed Director of Communications: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I chose it to mean -- nothing less, and nothing more." (Lewis Carroll)

Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

By now -- after only one paragraph -- I'm so tired and cynical that I just want to say "Good luck!" But bucking onward, since religion itself has been one of the greatest sources of "culture-war divisions" (the Bible itself is a good place to begin an historical survey), I think minimizing the impact of religion in all aspects of so-called secular life would a good beginning.  Kind of like the old saw about Western Civilization -- "it would be nice."

Maybe then we can work towards a broadly human based world culture with liberty and justice for all.

RIP: Les Paul (1915-2009) -- The Man Who Changed Popular Music

Les Paul has died at age 94. Musician and inventor who changed the face of popular music forever.

"I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one,and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes." -- Les Paul

Here he is at age 90:

You can also check out the video obituary at the New York Times.

Thanks for the memories!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sometimes, Humor is the Best Alternative Medicine

Comedian Dara O'Briain was unknown to me until this clip began showing up.  Obviously, I've been missing quite a bit.  Here's his take on homeopathy and related looniness.  (Warning: the clip contains industrial strength language so children may wish to cover their parents' ears.)

You can find more of his work on YouTube.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Most Frustrating Bug I Ever Tracked Down

In PreviousLifeTheLast, I was responsible for developing a wide range of marketing software with a financial bent (student loans, repayments, electronic applications with calculators, etc.)  For one client, the calculation side was much more prominent than usual.  But we had to do it in MacroMedia Director because it had to be pretty.  And, because we could use a Designer rather than a Real ProgrammerTM.

The designer we chose was really good.  He even became a pretty good programmer.  But after he was gone, we had to do the final cleanup before distribution.  Then, The Bug was found!  I don't even remember who found it -- the client, our testers, our tech review?  In any case, everything ground to a halt so we could get it fixed.

What was it? Sometimes, when clicking to leave an entry field or to go to another field, nothing would happen or the cursor would go to the wrong field.  It took us hours to even come close to isolating the behavioral coditions, let alone diagnose the problem.  Eventually, I put in debugging code to dump coordinates (because single-stepping wouldn't work since the problem code and the debugger both used the mouse!)

Finally, we saw it.  In essence, the code was doing the following (in pseudo-code, I don't remember Director syntax anymore):

if (onMouseClick()) {
where = getMousePosition() ;
[ do additional processing ]

Looks like a pretty foolproof way to detect a mouse click and find out where on the screen it occurred, right?

Obviously, FAIL!

One would think that an event like a mouse click would trap some pertinent information such as time, right/left/middle, position, etc., to then be used by the calling application.  But, nooooooo .......

The program gets the information that a click has occurred and then has to ask for the current mouse position.  So Director returns the information of the position at the time of requesting the position (or, worse yet, once Director gets done with whatever overhead and interrupts it may be processing.)  So, if the button is clicked while the mouse is moving, the program gets the position of where the mouse/cursor has moved by the time the program gets around to asking for it.

Of course, if the position isn't anywhere close to where the click happened (even a few pixels may make a difference between a button hit/non-hit), it was anybody's guess what might happen.

I don't remember how we fixed the problem.  But I do remember that a system should not be designed with that kind of object/event sloppiness.

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
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