Wednesday, February 28, 2007

David Mamet on Real Time

Last Friday on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill interviewed writer/director David Mamet. Mamet has made some really awesome movies. He also wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the L.A. Times (no longer available online) where he compared politics to poker. He argued that the Democrats were weak because they never raised the pot (which is the only way to win at poker).

However, it also seems that he's a hardcore Jew and he's written a book lambasting moderate Jews for not getting with the program. Bill Maher asked him about this and here was his reply.

BM: I'm curious how somebody who is such a freethinker wants to herd people into the collectivism that is religion?

DM: Oh my goodness gracious! Here's the thing, Bill. Bob Dylan said "You gotta serve somebody." ...

I don't know about the "collectivism that is religion." I disagree with you; I get a lot of good out of religion, and so does my family, and so do a lot of people I know who happen to be religious. (applause)

Curiously, this is—and the Republicans discovered this—a religious country. And it's always been a religious country. It was founded by people who wanted to worship the way that they felt was correct. And they didn't like people putting them into a herd. Thomas Jefferson talked about "freedom from religion." America was, right or wrong, founded by people who wanted "freedom for religion." It's always been a religious country.

What I'm talking about in my book is for my particular people, who've been undergoing a tough time for the last 2000 years, I'm saying "Get hip to the fact. Get in or get out!"

"Feel free to be Jewish if you're a Jew; feel free not to be Jewish if you're a Jew. But if you have some of the following problems, these may be the seven danger signals of you're missing a great experience—you're missing your tribe. And that larger polity that you think you might belong—the American public at large—it may exist, but if you're a Jew, it don't exist for you!"

That's what I'm saying in the book. (applause)

Okay. Let's break this down.

Oh my goodness gracious! Here's the thing, Bill. Bob Dylan said "You gotta serve somebody." ...

And Lesley Gore said "You don't own me!" I don't think Dylan was right. But I know if I had to serve sombody, it sure as hell wouldn't be an imaginary sky-daddy.

I don't know about the "collectivism that is religion." I disagree with you; I get a lot of good out of religion, and so does my family, and so do a lot of people I know who happen to be religious. (applause)

And I know people who get a lot of good from their regular visits to the nail salon. So what! He didn't address the collectivism issue at all.

Curiously, this is—and the Republicans discovered this—a religious country. And it's always been a religious country. It was founded by people who wanted to worship the way that they felt was correct. And they didn't like people putting them into a herd. Thomas Jefferson talked about "freedom from religion." America was, right or wrong, founded by people who wanted "freedom for religion." It's always been a religious country.

Sigh! Maybe he should read Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers. Yes, there were founding fathers who wanted "freedom for religion," but guess what? They were siding against Jefferson, and Jefferson's side won.

What I'm talking about in my book is for my particular people, who've been undergoing a tough time for the last 2000 years, I'm saying "Get hip to the fact. Get in or get out!"

"Feel free to be Jewish if you're a Jew; feel free not to be Jewish if you're a Jew. But if you have some of the following problems, these may be the seven danger signals of you're missing a great experience—you're missing your tribe. And that larger polity that you think you might belong—the American public at large—it may exist, but if you're a Jew, it don't exist for you!"

"You're either with us, or you're for the terrorists!" -- George W. Bush
Get in or out? You're missing your tribe? You don't belong to the American public at large? What kind of absolute, divisionist credo is that? It seems to me that he just vindicated Maher's "collectivism" assertion.

PS---The real star of that episode was Ayaan Hirsi Ali; just watch.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Primates and stress

Yesterday I saw an interesting article at ScienceDaily titled Why Do Humans And Primates Get More Stress-related Diseases Than Other Animals?

Obviously the researchers don't write the headlines for these articles and press releases. (It's probably not the science reporters either. I'm guessing it's the editors.) News flash: Humans ARE primates; the headline is redundant. Had it said "Why do primates ..." or even "... humans and other primates ..." I wouldn't have twinged the way I did.

But to the article: Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky claims that it's our higher intellect that causes our stress. He says that because we're super smart, we have all this extra time to make each other's lives miserable.

"Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

He backs up his assertions with baboon studies he's done. Why baboons you ask?

"The reason baboons are such good models is, like us, they don't have real stressors," he said. "If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don't mess with you much. What that means is you've got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They're just like us: They're not getting done in by predators and famines, they're getting done in by each other."

It turns out that unhealthy baboons, like unhealthy people, often have elevated resting levels of stress hormones. "Their reproductive system doesn't work as well, their wounds heal more slowly, they have elevated blood pressure and the anti-anxiety chemicals in their brain, which have a structural similarity to Valium, work differently," Sapolsky said. "So they're not in great shape."

Monkeys going around making each other's lives a living hell, where have I heard that before?

While he may sound like a fatalist, he's actually quite an optimist (at least for our species of primate).

"We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of," he said. "For example, I might say, 'This job, where I'm a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn't matter. What really matters is that I'm the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church'--that sort of thing. It's not just somebody sitting here, grooming you with their own hands. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I'm not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character, and there's no primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we're capable of is extraordinary."

So primates are prone to life-shortening stress due to their superior intellect over other animals, while humans have the power to overcome this due to our superior intellect over other primates. I like that. Which reminds me: one more day of this self-imposed stress of "a new post every day for the month of February" even though I'm tired when I get home. I wonder if other primates bring stress upon themselves? I can't really complain though, I wouldn't have done this if it weren't fun.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Favorite Movies

It seems some of the 2008 presidential candidates have revealed their favorite movies. I can't say I'm too surprised by Rudy's choice (The Godfather). It is a great movie and one of my favorites. And I'm shocked! Shocked at Hillary's choice (not really). Remember, we'll always have the 90's. I'm rather upset that Barack didn't chime in. Now I'm dying to know which movie is his favorite.

But picking a favorite movie isn't always that easy. Maybe some people have it easy and have a clear favorite, but not me. I happen to love both of the above movies. And there's so many other great dramas and comedies that I love that it would be unfair to single any ones out (cheat: The Day The Earth Stood Still, A Fish Called Wanda). But if I had to pick just one, I guess I'd have to go with a silly one. I can't help it but I love this movie.

Which brings me to candidate John Edwards. I gotta love a guy whose favorite movie has the same lead actor as my choice. Besides, nuclear (or is it nucular?) proliferation is once again a hot topic--just check out this opinion piece by Lawrence Krauss (yes, the same Lawrence Krauss I ripped into here. I agree with him on this {and actually most} topic).

Take it away, Jack Ripper!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pictures from LiveScience

Army of Sea Cucumbers marching in Unison.

The website has a way of finding really cool pictures. The above picture of the sea cucumbers was taken near the Larson B shelf in Antarctica. The article doesn't explain their polarization, which is a shame because that's the most fascinating part. The same article had this picture of a "psychedelic octopus" (Paraledone turqueti).

And finally I'll leave you with this picture--if you've got the stomach.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Madness 2/23/07 : Yo Quiero Taco Bell!

Perhaps you remember the famous urban legend about the lady who goes to Mexico and comes home with a new pet dog. In case you forgot, here's the rundown from Snopes.

A woman from La Mesa, California, went to Tijuana, Mexico, to do some shopping. As any visitor to this border town knows, the streets near the shopping areas are populated with stray dogs. The woman took pity on one little stray and offered it a few bites of her lunch, after which it followed her around for the rest of the afternoon.

When it came time to return home, the woman had become so attached to her little friend that she couldn't bear to leave him behind. Knowing that it was illegal to bring a dog across the international border, she hid him among some packages on the seat of her car and managed to pass through the border checkpoint without incident. After arriving home, she gave the dog a bath, brushed his fur, then retired for the night with her newfound pet curled up at the foot of her bed.

When she awoke the next morning, the woman noticed that there was an oozing mucus around the dog's eyes and a slight foaming at the mouth. Afraid that the dog might be sick, she rushed him to a nearby veterinarian and returned home to await word on her pet's condition.

The call soon came. "I have just one question," said the vet. "Where did you get this dog?"

The woman didn't want to get into trouble, so she told the vet that she had found the dog running loose in the street near her home in La Mesa.

But the vet didn't buy it. "You did not find this dog in La Mesa. Where did you get the dog?"

The woman nervously admitted having brought the dog across the border from Tijuana. "But tell me, doctor," she said. "What is wrong with my dog?"

His reply was brief and to the point. "First of all, it's not a dog — it's a Mexican sewer rat. And second, it's dying."

Could someone really confuse a Chihuahua with a rat? Could the Taco Bell dog actually be a giant sewer rat? Maybe. Judge for yourself.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bacteria wick through fungal hyphae

Laser Scanning Microsope photograph of fungi Fusarium oxysporum showing the hyphae (green threads)

I saw this article today on ScienceDaily. It talked about how soil bacteria use hyphae (thread-like structures) of the mycelia (branching, vegetative part) of soil fungi in order to get around. Basically, the bacteria use fungal mycelia as a grand underground highway network.

This is interesting, but the reason I felt compelled to blog about this article is the following quote.

“We deliberately make the bacteria work their way upwards against gravity so that people can’t say there could be a small amount of water trickling down and carrying the bacteria with it,” says Wick.

Dr Lukas Y. Wick: what an appropriate name. I just think that's funny.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Russia confirms humanist philanthropist as next space tourist

Russia has now confirmed that Hungarian born billionaire Charles Simonyi will become the world's fifth space tourist on April 7th.

The world's next space tourist, Hungarian-born US billionaire Charles Simonyi, will blast off on his journey to the International Space Station on April 7, Russia's space agency said Tuesday. Simonyi will become only the fifth space tourist in the world when he makes the trip the research facility aboard the Russian vessel Soyuz TMA-10.
Charles Simonyi was a computer programmer who made his fortune by getting into Microsoft just before it exploded (his work at Xerox PARC labs probably helped give him an in there).

His most well known philanthropic endeavor is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Here's a snippet from its Manifesto.

The chair is for ‘Public Understanding of Science’, that the holder will be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field rather than study the public’s perception of the same. By ‘public’ we mean the largest possible audience, provided, however, that people who have the power and ability to propagate or oppose the ideas (especially scholars in other sciences and in humanities, engineers, journalists, politicians, professionals, and artists) are not lost in the process. Here it is useful to distinguish between the roles of scholars and popularisers. The university chair is intended for accomplished scholars who have made original contributions to their field, and who are able to grasp the subject, when necessary, at the highest levels of abstraction.

The first and current holder of that chair is none other than Richard Dawkins. So the benefactor who has made all of Dawkins' current work possible is about to get "closer to God."


Charles Simonyi says he wants two books with him up into space (and he dreams of a "space library.")

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Don't Make Me Dance!

From the people who brought you Code Monkey Dance ...

What to believe

What do you believe and why do you believe it? There are many things we believe with varying degrees of certainty. A purely rational being will rank his beliefs based on the amount of knowledge he has.

But we are not purely rational beings. Our confidence in each of our beliefs does not necessarily follow from the evidence. This can be a good thing, though. A fixed belief system makes for a much more efficient and streamlined operating system--just not quite as flexible as the purely rational being.

If this is starting to sound like the religion vs. science debate, it is. The conventional wisdom (in the "science crowd") is that scientists base their beliefs on the evidence, while religious beliefs are based on blind faith. Furthermore, a scientist's degree of certainty in her belief is proportional to the amount of supporting evidence, while a devout person has near perfect certainty about highly dubious claims. (I always get a kick upon hearing creationists call "Darwinism" a religion) Of course, reality is full of shades of gray.

For one, there's the phenomenon known as compartmentalization. This is where someone can hold perfectly rational beliefs about one subject while believing completely unsubstantiated woo in another. And then there is the matter of "efficient operating system" that I mentioned earlier. If we only believed what we could personally confirm, our lives would be simple and narrow.

When the AP wire announces that archeologists have discovered 3K year old tombs in Egypt, I believe them just as surely as if I were there to see it. But I'm not; I've never even been to Africa. Blind faith? No. It's a little something called trust.

Trust is nature's shortcut for helping us evaluate information. We would never get anything done if we relied on personally evaluating everything. That's why we put our trust in others. Now this is not the same as the Appeal to Authority fallacy. The AtA fallacy is about ignoring the veracity of the claim itself in favor of the character of the claimant. Trust is just a shortcut. One should always be willing to re-evaluate beliefs based on trust. These beliefs can be perfectly rational.

That's because trust must be earned!

And as surely as it's earned, it can be lost. Young children tend to trust all authority figures blindly. But as they learn to think for themselves, their trust starts growing a price tag. Back to religion vs. science, when I was younger and attended Catholic school, I trusted the priests and brothers who taught me religion. But as I went learning how much of what they taught me was lies, my trust in them began to erode. Today, claims made by religious authorities carry about as much weight with me as a random phrase generator.

This brings me to the story of Marcus Ross Ph.D.

KINGSTON, R.I. — There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.

His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

This story has been discussed at length here and here. Never mind for the moment his kooky beliefs about the age of the Earth. Let's talk about the inherent dishonesty in what he did.

In this situation we have an example of someone who carefully hid his true belief from the thesis committee, or at least went out of his way to give them an excuse to avoid facing up to the main problem. This is deceptive and antithetical to how science is supposed to operate (see Some People Defend Lying for Jesus). It opens a whole other can of worms. While most of us would agree that openly advocating a young Earth in your thesis would be grounds for failure, we couldn't fail someone who effectively lied about his "scientific" opinion. We put our faith in honesty and scientific integrity whenever possible. It's the default assumption.

But here's the rub. Although there wasn't anything in his thesis about a 10,000 year old Earth it wasn't the case that his examining committee was completely ignorant of Ross' true views on paleontology. In fact, they were aware of the history. They knew Ross was a Young Earth Creationist when they admitted him to graduate school and they had no reason to suspect that he had changed his mind.

The bottom line is that faculty of Rhode Island University gave a Ph.D. degree in geology to someone they knew to be a "scientist" who believed that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Furthermore, they gave a Ph.D. to someone who they knew was deliberately misrepresenting his "scientific" views in his thesis. They had every reason to suspect that this misrepresentation was for the sole purpose of getting the Ph.D. since Ross knew that by being honest about his rejection of a old Earth, he would not graduate. This is a double whammy since not only was Ross ignorant of the basic principles in his field but also ignorant of the principles of scientific integrity.

His entire education is nothing but a lie as far as I'm concerned. And URI should be deeply ashamed for letting this happen. This is a major violation of trust! When I hear a Ph.D. geologist or paleontologist speak, I have certain expectations relating to that degree of their's. This is a sham! It wouldn't be much different if I went and became a minister.

Oh yeah, that's right. By the way, from now on you will address me as the reverend science pundit. I may not be a scientist (we all know that to be a pundit, no special credentials are needed--hence the moniker.), but I can perform rites.

And if I ever when I go back to school, it won't be at URI. I just don't think I can trust them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy Presidents Day!

Okay, Here's how I'm celebrating Presidents Day.

I can kick him now that he's "cured"

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this video on YouTube which I found hilarious. It's a satire of the Richard Dawkins interview of Ted Haggard in The Root of all Evil? If you've never seen the original, click on this link before going further.

What this guy did was to take some footage from The Root of all Evil? and substitute himself for Pastor Ted. This was pure genius. His facial expressions captured Haggard perfectly. The funny thing is ... that he didn't change that much from the original. An added sheep-call, a fake moustache, a book and a Village Person just help highlight all that actually was said in the original. After watching the spoof, I had to go back and watch the original to see if some of the more outlandish things were made-up or real. Were the crowds chanting "Obedience?" Were they doing the Roman salute? Yes, they were!

Pure genius! Enjoy!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Amazing Animal Human Tricks

One of the most popular types of tricks that people teach their pets is to "act human." It's amazing when animals do things that we only thought we could do. But what about the reverse? What about when people do what we thought only animals could do?

A while back, I saw this article in LiveScience called Top 10 Animal Senses Humans Don't Have. I say give humanity a chance. You might be surprised at what we can accomplish when we try.

For example, do you think people can sniff out a chocolate bar like some kind of hound? According to UC Berkeley researchers, yes.

To test Sobel and Porter's smell hypothesis, the UC Berkeley researchers soaked a 33-foot (10-meter) string in chocolate essence and laid it in the grass outside Barker Hall, located at the northwest corner of the UC Berkeley campus. They then garbed volunteers to block their senses of sight, hearing and touch, eliminating all clues other than smell to guide them along the trail. Sniffing like bloodhounds, two-thirds of 32 subjects were able to follow the chocolate scent to the end of the trail within three attempts. All volunteers zigzagged along the trail in the same way that tracking dogs follow a scent.

The researchers then trained four of these volunteers to see if they could improve. All were able to double their speed along the track within just a few days and deviated much less from the scent trail than on their first attempts. The researchers measured subjects' sniffs and noticed that the faster the subjects moved along the trail, the more rapid their sniffing - just as with dogs, though not as fast as the six sniffs per second rate exhibited by dogs.

I bet you didn't know that you could do that! You probably never realized that you were capable of echlocation. Check this kid out! (via)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ready, set ... cheat!

First, let me just say that I love that picture! I got it from this Chris Beam column in Slate. He explains how one can cheat in NASCAR--a rather appropriate topic given the huge cheating scandal at the Daytona 500 which has even tainted the popular Jeff Gordon (though he didn't intentionally cheat; his case would be akin to an Olympic athlete who didn't realize that there were minute traces of a banned substance in his/her cold medication).

I find this all very interesting being that my sport (bicycling) is still under the pall of doping. Speaking of cycling, it seems that disgraced Tour de France champion Floyd Landis will be releasing his autobiography on the opening day of this year's Tour. Perhaps he should name it If I had doped for the Tour, this is how I did it.

Friday Madness 2/16/07 : Valentine Madness!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Batman Eats Robin!

What do bats eat? We all know about vampire bats--they suck blood. Although I personally think the most fascinating thing about vampires is that they share their bloodmeals with cave-mates who were less fortunate in finding a vein. Then there are the fruit bats, they eat ... well, fruit. Then there's the insect eating bats. In fact, much of the bat's famous sonar evolved to help them catch flying insects in the dark. It would also stand to reason that there would be omnivorous bats that ate some combination of the above. But do bats eat birds?

Well it seems that the giant noctule bat (Nyctalus lasiopterus) does just that.

A unique creature is indeed capable of exploiting the formidable food source represented by the billions of high-flying, Eurasian songbirds which engage twice a year into long-distance, north-south or south-north nocturnal movements. The danger seems especially acute where birds' flight routes converge around the Mediterranean basin, such as the Iberian Peninsula. This newly recognized hazard adds to the numerous obstacles that sea and desert crossings already represent for fragile migratory passerines. Actually, the newly uncovered danger comes from the deep black sky, in the form of a 45 cm wing-spanned aerial-hawking mammal, equipped with sharp canines and an efficient radar system which remains probably largely inaudible to songbirds.
Nyctalus lasiopterus bat

Bird eating bats?? Oh my!!

Scientists first suspected this might be the case a few years back when they found feathers in bat feces (I thought it was called guano?), but were met with much justified skepicism. To settle the issue, they looked at isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen in the bats and the suspected prey. All elements exist in isotopes, where the number of protons is the same, but the number of neutrons differs. The ratios of different isotopes varies in nature and can be detected using mass spec analysis. Since "you are what you eat," you can determine an animal's diet by comparing its isotope ratios to that of its suspected diet sources.

But how to study the foraging habits of an elusive predator that chases its favourite prey several hundreds if not thousands of metres above the ground in total darkness?

To elucidate the mysterious habits of giant noctule bats, an ambitious investigation led by young scientist Ana Popa-Lisseanu, under Prof. Ibañez' supervision, was launched by Spanish research teams based in Sevilla (Doñana Biological Station) and Granada (Zaidín Experimental Station) thanks to funding from the Spanish Environmental Ministry. The programme was soon joined by one of their once most virulent Swiss detractors (Prof. Raphaël Arlettaz, University of Bern and Swiss Ornithological Institute). The technique of stable isotopes was applied because this recently developed method allows tracking species' main dietary specializations and trophic level position along food chains. The researchers concentrated on carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which are among the best dietary tracers. They analysed their concentrations in bats' blood throughout the year, predicting major seasonal shifts in isotopic signatures towards bird prey in spring and, especially, during autumn. In parallel, isotopic signatures of whole insect bodies and passerine muscular tissues were tracked throughout the year, serving as a control. The results elegantly showed that the bats ate only insects in summer, included some songbirds' flesh in their diet during spring, and depended a great deal on passerines during autumn. Moreover, a higher fraction of songbirds' flesh in autumn than in spring was attributed to the more massive passerine migration in autumn, because both parents and offspring migrate then towards their wintering grounds in Africa, whereas in spring only birds having survived winter mortality return to their breeding area. In addition, young birds in autumn may represent naïve, inexperienced, i.e. more vulnerable prey.

(emphasis mine) Why, you ask, did I highlight the fact that these bird eating bats also eat insects? After all, everyone knows that bats eat insects. So what's the deal? The deal is that sometimes insects eat bats. You don't believe me? Then watch this.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Mindless Imitation

Several months ago, I read an article in NewScientist titled Mindless Imitation Teaches Us How To Be Human. The article really blew me away because it suggested that, despite the popular notion, the true “aper” of the animal kingdom is Homo Sapiens. It turns out that from a very young age, we learn by rote imitation. This classic study was used as an example.

Andrew Meltzoff from the University of Washington in Seattle got 14-month-old infants to watch as a woman turned on a light box by leaning forward and touching it with her forehead. A week later when presented with the light box, two-thirds of the infants performed the head action to switch on the light, even though they could have more easily done it using their hands.

The curious thing is that no other animal shows this degree of fidelity. When given a choice, chimps will tend to do the “smart” thing rather than repeat what they were taught.

The difference between the way chimps and humans learn is clearly illustrated in a study with children and captive chimps published last year by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews, UK. They compared the methods that 3 and 4-year-old children used to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box with those used by 2 to 6-year-old chimps under two conditions, one where the box was transparent, showing its mechanism, the other where it was opaque. With the opaque box, chimps imitated all the demonstrator's actions, but when they could see the workings, they only reproduced those actions that actually functioned to open the box. Children, on the other hand, were happy to faithfully copy all the actions even when they could see that some of them were ineffectual (Animal Cognition, vol 8, p 164).

These results suggest that chimps can imitate, but if they can work things out for themselves, then they will.

My first thought was that that explained why us humans continue to believe in silly superstitions, Bronze Age religions, and other forms of magical thinking despite evidence to the contrary. I saw this as a handicap that needed to be overcome. However, upon further reflection, I have to agree with psychologists who believe it is our greatest strength.

At first glance such unquestioning imitation seems foolish. Like Sylvia, we may end up doing silly things for no good reason. Psychologists Gyorgy Gergely from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest and Gergely Csibra of Birkbeck, University of London don't see it that way. To them, our talent for high-fidelity copying is among our greatest assets. They think that our species is uniquely adapted to both receive and pass on knowledge and skills. What's more, they argue, this everyday education - which they call pedagogy - is at the root of the rich cultural life that marks us out from all other animals.

This seems like clear evidence that memetics is real. We would be unable to acquire and maintain the vast sum of knowledge that is human culture without such faithful copying of information. It is indeed one of our greatest assets. While “thinking outside the box” has become prized by many in the business and scientific communities, a perpetual novelist will not outperform an inerrant copier. You will bog yourself down if you constantly reinvent the wheel—even if your wheels are superior. The key is to faithfully copy but to be able to recognize those rare occasions when a new meme is in order. Magical thinking then becomes a side effect of one of our great strengths.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Happy Belated Darwin Day!

Yesterday was Darwin Day. It marked the 198th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. The really big celebration will be in 2009, to celebrate the bicentennial. Among the events we should expect on that day is the culmination of the Beagle Project.

Welcome to the Beagle Project: we aim to provide the most compelling events of Charles Darwin's 2009 anniversary by building a sailing replica of HMS Beagle and sailing in Darwin's wake. The build and Beagle's arrival in the Galapagos in 2009 will be two of the most striking, iconic media events of the 2009 celebrations, aimed at firing the scientific imaginations of a new generation and celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest biologists ever.

I encourage everyone who hasn't done so already, to check out their website and donate some money to an incredibly worthy project.

But why did I wait until today to post this? Quite simply, I consider November 22nd to be the true Darwin Day. That was the day (in 1859) when The Origin of Species went on sale; that was the day that changed the world. I've always thought that celebrating the birthdays of important people missed the point. It makes sense to celebrate one's own birthday--or the birthday of one's child or loved one--that date has personal significance. But when you're talking about an important historical figure, their birth is really insignificant. I mean, what really happened on the day that George Washington, or Caesar Augustus, or Martin Luther King Jr. was born? Another baby was delivered. Whoop-dee-doo! It wasn't until later that these people would do what made them "go down in history."

If you're familiar with my blog, then you've probably already smelled the BS. Fact is, I was travelling much of the day yesterday, and when I got home it was late and I was tired and just not in the mood to write the post I had planned. I do however stand by everything I said about important people's birthdays--just not enough to eschew celebrations.

On a final note, I'd also like to encourage evryone to become a Friend of Charles Darwin. That way you can put FCD after your name--just like me.

--Javier Pazos, FCD

Monday, February 12, 2007

Carnival of Mathematics

The first edition of the Carnival of Mathematics is up at Abstract Nonsense. There are some very interesting posts there. There's even a small contribution from yours truly.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hash House Harrier Run

Today I will be partaking in my first Hash House Harriers run. I've heard good things about these runs. For one, one need not be super fit to do it.

In most groups, all are welcome, young and old, fast or slow, so don't wait to get in shape, just come on out and join us.

Okay, I can do that. My biggesst worry is if I'll be able to follow all the rules. It seems this particular HHH group has strict rules which are enforced by the Religious Advisor. The penalty for violating a rule is to drink beer. I'm told that everyone violates the rules--I don't know if I can handle that.

To show how serious this all is, I will do the run dressed a a vicar. It should be fun.


The run has been completed and I must say that I have found "my people." As you can see, the entire family got into the spirit of the run.

I should mention that my dad (wearing a pretty lame vicar's costume) is not wearing the tasteful tie my sister offered him as a gift. In fact, he resoundly refused it and so Stefan is wearing it in the picture.

When I asked him "Father, why do you not wear the beautiful tie your eldest daughter has so graciously furnished you with?"

He replied "Since my absolute disdain for the lie that is the Christian mythology is quite well known among my acquaintances, to be seen wearing that tie in public would be tantamount to wiping my ass with the tie, then using it to mop up cat vomit, before micturating all over it. I'm not quite ready to make that statement, but perhaps in the next couple of months I might consider doing to that tie what this fellow did to the Bible." (WARNING: potentially offensive video at previous link!)

That is what you said, Dad. Isn't it?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bug-brained chopper

Insects manage some pretty amazing aerial acrobatics for having a brain we humans can hardly see with the unaided eye. Yet even our best engineers and AI experts have trouble programming simple autonomous navigation. Just look at what it took to finish The Grand Challenge.

Now researcher Nicolas Franceschini, a neurophysiologist and engineer at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and at the University of the Mediterranean in France has decided to emulate those little bug brains in his newest project.

The simple principles that Franceschini and his colleagues think underlie insect flight have to do with visual cues. As insects fly, their ground view changes depending upon their height above the ground and their speed relative to the ground. Essentially, the higher the insect, the slower the ground will appear to sweep below it.

The changing view that insects have of the ground, known as "optic flow," thus encodes details on both an insect's height and velocity. Franceschini and his colleagues speculated that insects rely on simple relationships between their height and velocity to keep flying. Basically, the idea is that if they slow down, they will begin descent, and if they speed up, they will begin climbing. By the same token, if they are descending, they will slow down, and if they are climbing, they will speed up.

"They don't need a speedometer or altimeter. They just need to use their eyes," said Franceschini, whose latest work on this topic is detailed online in the Feb. 8 issue of the journal Current Biology.

That's pretty cool stuff. A simple feedback system controls both speed and altitude--ain't evolution grand? Of course, such a simple system can sometimes trip up.

Their findings also help illuminate the basis for a number of previously unexplained observations regarding insect flight. For instance, honeybees often drown when flying over very still water. "There are no contrasting features in their field of view then, so they have no visual cues to go by," Franceschini said.

Franceschini's helicopter is equiped with a 200 mg. electronic brain, is tethered to a maypole, and free to fly around. At least under these simple circumstances, it seems to behave just like a fly.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Madness 2/9/07 : Ancient Nuclear Warfare

This morning I received a curious e-mail on one of the listservers I belong to. It's great to have a Friday Madness topic just fall into my lap.

Zeus was equipped with a thunderbolt, Krishna with a 'Bramastra' weapon.
Ancient Nuclear Warfare

"Anybody not wearing 2 million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day. Get it?" --Sarah Connor, Terminator 2

"Thank you, India." --Alanis Morissette

There is evidence that the Rama empire (now India) was devastated by nuclear war. The Indus valley is now the Thar desert, and the site of the radioactive ash found west of Jodhpur is around there.

Consider these verses from the ancient (6500 BC at the latest) Mahabharata:

...a single projectile
Charged with all the power of the Universe.
An incandescent column of smoke and flame
As bright as the thousand suns
Rose in all its splendour...
a perpendicular explosion
with its billowing smoke clouds...
...the cloud of smoke
rising after its first explosion
formed into expanding round circles
like the opening of giant parasols... was an unknown weapon,
An iron thunderbolt,
A gigantic messenger of death,
Which reduced to ashes
The entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas.
...The corpses were so burned
As to be unrecognisable.
The hair and nails fell out;
Pottery broke without apparent cause,
And the birds turned white.

After a few hours
All foodstuffs were infected... escape from this fire
The soldiers threw themselves in streams
To wash themselves and their equipment.

Until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, modern mankind could not imagine any weapon as horrible and devastating as those described in the ancient Indian texts. Yet they very accurately described the effects of an atomic explosion. Radioactive poisoning will make hair and nails fall out. Immersing oneself in water gives some respite, though it is not a cure.

When excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro reached the street level, they discovered skeletons scattered about the cities, many holding hands and sprawling in the streets as if some instant, horrible doom had taken place. People were just lying, unburied, in the streets of the city. And these skeletons are thousands of years old, even by traditional archaeological standards. What could cause such a thing? Why did the bodies not decay or get eaten by wild animals? Furthermore, there is no apparent cause of a physically violent death.

These skeletons are among the most radioactive ever found, on par with those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At one site, Soviet scholars found a skeleton which had a radioactive level 50 times greater than normal. Other cities have been found in northern India that show indications of explosions of great magnitude. One such city, found between the Ganges and the mountains of Rajmahal, seems to have been subjected to intense heat. Huge masses of walls and foundations of the ancient city are fused together, literally vitrified! And since there is no indication of a volcanic eruption at Mohenjo-Daro or at the other cities, the intense heat to melt clay vessels can only be explained by an atomic blast or some other unknown weapon. The cities were wiped out entirely.

While the skeletons have been carbon-dated to 2500 BC, we must keep in mind that carbon-dating involves measuring the amount of radiation left. When atomic explosions are involved, that makes then seem much younger.

Interestingly, Manhattan Project chief scientist Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to be familiar with ancient Sanskrit literature. In an interview conducted after he watched the first atomic test, he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: "'Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.' I suppose we all felt that way." When asked in an interview at Rochester University seven years after the Alamogordo nuclear test whether that was the first atomic bomb ever to be detonated, his reply was, "Well, yes, in modern history."

Ancient cities whose brick and stonewalls have literally been vitrified, that is, fused together, can be found in India, Ireland, Scotland, France, Turkey and other places. There is no logical explanation for the vitrification of stone forts and cities, except from an atomic blast.

Another curious sign of an ancient nuclear war in India is a giant crater near Bombay. The nearly circular 2,154-metre-diameter Lonar crater, located 400 kilometres northeast of Bombay and aged at less than 50,000 years old, could be related to nuclear warfare of antiquity. No trace of any meteoric material, etc., has been found at the site or in the vicinity, and this is the world's only known "impact" crater in basalt. Indications of great shock (from a pressure exceeding 600,000 atmospheres) and intense, abrupt heat (indicated by basalt glass spherules) can be ascertained from the site.

Wow! I had never heard THAT one before. This is priceless. It also goes against the grain of most conspiracy theories. Most of the freak stories I'm familiar with work from the premise that ancient and primitive peoples were too simple to accomplish any worthwhile engineering feats (eg. "Aliens built the pyramids/Easter Island statues." etc.), so there must be a fantastic explanation.

This beauty seems to go the other way and say that ancient peoples had nuclear technology. Wow! Perhaps their secret to enriching Uranium has been forever lost. That is truly a pity. If only they hadn't used their vile technology to wipe out their own knowledge--I think there might be a moral lesson here.

But don't despair, the ancient religious writings that stand witness to those horrid events have survived to this day. And furthermore, they are corroborated by claims of archeological evidence that are at best specious if not outright fictive.

My favorite part is:

While the skeletons have been carbon-dated to 2500 BC, we must keep in mind that carbon-dating involves measuring the amount of radiation left. When atomic explosions are involved, that makes then seem much younger.

Actually, it measures isotope ratio. And furthermore, the type of radiation emited during a nuclear detonation has never been shown to alter the carbon isotope ratio. I could go on, but I prefer to sit back and enjoy the fairy tale. If only all Fridays were this easy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Parasitic Threesomes

When I first saw this article, Tricky Parasite Creates Deadly Threesome, on LiveScience, I thought it was going to be about the parasites I had seen earlier on Joshua's blogpost Hot three-way action with grass and 'shrooms. It turns out they have nothing to do with each other. I guess the word threesome just has too much sex appeal to resist using in the title (not that I'm guilty of that).

Joshua's post is on a paper that appeared in Science about plants near the hotsprings in Yellowstone that become resistant to heat if they're infected with a specific parasitic fungus which itself must also be infected by a specific virus in order for the heat resistance to be established (Wow!).

The LiveScience article is about a parasitic worm that swaps hosts between a shrimp-like crustacean (amphipod) and a predatory fish. Like other parasites, upon maturing this worm (Pomphorhynchus laevis) causes its host (the amphipod) to change its behavior and actually seek out its predators.

Check out the hooks the worm uses to latch onto its host. Ewww!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The phenomenal power of the human mind

The phenomenal power of the human mind

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

I received the above paragraph in an email today and was quite surprised at how easily I was able to read it. Whole words indeed. While the explanation may seem counter-intuitive, it actually fits well with my experience. As a crossword puzzle afficionado, I oftentimes find myself stuck for the longest time, only to realize that I had been misreading the clue. (“Imitate friendship?” What was I thinking?) Looking back, I’m sure that every time, I’ve always confounded the clue for another word with the same first and last letters. I’ll have to pay closer attention the next time it happens to me.

That mixed-up paragraph also reminded me of an article in Scientific American on the Expert Mind. The author, Philip Ross, discusses a study done by Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot that demonstrated that chess grandmasters could recall chessboard positions much better than novices.

De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

While that may not seem at all surprising, the following study might. It starts to get to the heart of why grandmasters have such superior recall.

In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, both at Carnegie Mellon University, tried to get a better understanding of expert memory by studying its limitations. Picking up where de Groot left off, they asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised--that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weaker with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

If this sounds confusing, or if you’re wondering what this all has to do with the shuffled-up words, perhaps this will explain.

Psychologist George Miller of Princeton University famously estimated the limits of working memory--the scratch pad of the mind--in a 1956 paper entitled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." Miller showed that people can contemplate only five to nine items at a time. By packing hierarchies of information into chunks, Simon argued, chess masters could get around this limitation, because by using this method, they could access five to nine chunks rather than the same number of smaller details.

Take the sentence "Mary had a little lamb." The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one's knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In other words, our brains are constantly using our experiences to create short cuts. We learn to recognize familiar patterns. When we later encounter the familiar pattern, our brains process it as a single bit of information, allowing us to streamline our thinking and be more efficient.

Hvae a wedrnoufl day!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I want to hold you 'til I die!

I want to hold you 'til I die! Archeologists in Italy have unearthed a Neolithic couple who apparently died in each other's arms. I say apparently because they may have been placed like that 5-6K ago by whoever buried them. But that they're hugging is undoubtable. Judge for yourself...

Monday, February 05, 2007

He hath decided the Superbowl

Tony Dungy really made today's post easy. After pondering yesterday over who Jesus would favor in the Superbowl, I now have my answer: Jesus likes the Colts. The Colt's head coach said so much.

In the awards ceremony in Dolphin Stadium, CBS announcer Jim Nantz asked Dungy to comment on the significance of being the first African American head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. "I’m proud to be representing African American coaches," Dungy said. "... It means an awful lot to our country."

But Dungy continued: “More than anything – and I’ve said it before -- [Chicago coach] Lovie Smith and I [are] not only the first two African-Americans, but Christian coaches, showing that you can win doing it the Lord’s way,” Dungy told Nantz while holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to each year’s NFL champion.

“And we’re more proud of that.”

I guess he missed Mr. Deity's press conference. The important point is that you can win doing it the Lord's way. What a relief! But wait a minute, isn't Lovie Smith a Christian too? Why did Jesus slight him? And besides, Nantz asked him about being the first African American coach to win. What's with the Jesus, then? Does he think he's the first Christian coach to win the Superbowl?

I swear that the Jesus juice must kill at least half the brain. Amen!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Superbowl destiny

It's Superbowl time! The big question now is "Who will God give the game to?" Back in 2000, God made the Rams win, as evidenced in the testimony of winning quarterback Kurt Warner.

Immediately after the Rams' victory at the Super Bowl, an interviewer began, "Kurt, first things first--tell me about the final touchdown pass to Isaac." Kurt responded, "Well, first things first, I've got to thank my Lord and Savior up above--thank You, Jesus!"

Obviously Jesus didn't like the Titans, but can you blame him? After all, Titans are pagan gods--false gods. In my exhaustive search, I was unable to find a video of that fabulous interview. I did, however happen upon this Real Time clip of Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan talking about Mr. Warner's opposition to stem cell research.

I am compelled to say a few words on that clip--not for anything Kurt Warner said (he's clearly an idiot) but Andrew Sullivan is actually pretty smart. He says:

"I live with a disease that ten years ago they told me I'd be dead by now ... HIV. And they worked really hard and they managed to create a set of pills that keep me alive. And I thank God for those pharmaceutical companies that did that, by the way."

Hey, at least he acknowledged the middleman. So let's see. God (who delivered Kurt Warner's victory) first gave us AIDS (to punish our society per Jerry Falwell), then gave us the pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments. What a wacky guy--mysterious ways indeed.

But none of this answers the important question about tonight's game. I think the only solution is to ask Mr. Deity himself.

You should check out the other Mr. Deity episodes. You might find Lucifer tempting; I know I felt the heat--Hell Hath No Fury!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Saturday Madness 2/3/07: Rael blasphemes!

I know this is the wrong day of the week for this, but I couldn't resist. It seems that Mr. Rael is an ardent atheist and a strong supporter of atheist causes. That's right, Rael the cult leader is against religion. He's all about science. After all, he did clone a human. He even has his own theory of origins which is superior to evolution. Wow!

Anyway, it turns out he has taken the blasphemy challenge. His video is a strange eclectic mix of delusional rantings and heavy sales pitches for his cult and it's associate websites (Warning: Don't watch it if self-serving lunatics make your stomach turn). I tried to leave a comment asking about how the young clone is doing, but Rael is monitoring comments. "Your comment will be posted as soon as it is approved." What do you think are the odds that my comment will ever show up?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Groundhog Day

Today Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Woodchuck, didn't see his shadow and so foretold of an early spring. I caught up with Phil after the momentous event.

"Hello Phil, you look very tired."

"Yes Javier, it's been a very long day. It seems like you're the millionth person I've talked to today."

"Well then, I'll keep it brief--and not ask about your shadow."

"Thank you."

"So tell me Phil. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

"That's a very good question, Javier. And believe it or not, I actually get that question a lot. I would have to say that ... a woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood."

"Thank you so much for your time, Phil."

"The pleasure was all mine."

Friday Madness 2/2/07 : ¡Soy el estado!

I would like to take a moment to welcome our hemisphere's newest elected dictator. While I'm grateful that he doesn't control a superpower like the United States, it is troubling that he's sitting on top of a lot of oil. His recent attacks on George W. Bush—calling him el diablo—have endeared him to many on the left. Though I have no love for Mr. Bush (an understatement), I emphatically disavow any and all Chavez apologists.

Back in July, The Progressive published a March 28th interview of Chavez by Greg Palast. The very first question says it all.

Q: Your opponents are saying that you are beginning a slow-motion dictatorship. Is that what we are seeing?

Hugo Chávez: They have been saying that for a long time. When they’re short of ideas, any excuse will do as a vehicle for lies. That is totally false. I would like to invite the citizens of Great Britain and the citizens of the U.S. and the citizens of the world to come here and walk freely through the streets of Venezuela, to talk to anyone they want, to watch television, to read the papers. We are building a true democracy, with human rights for everyone, social rights, education, health care, pensions, social security, and jobs.

His responses throughout the interview showed a remarkable consistency in their level of honesty. But let's see, how honest was he in his first response? According to,
1. a person exercising absolute power, esp. a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.

I can't help but notice that the definition says nothing about democracy or human rights. It only talks about absolute power and non-hereditary succession. Certainly, as yet, Venezuela has no hereditary succession. But does Chavez have absolute power?

Venezuela's Chavez takes sweeping powers
The new law -- which Chavez has dubbed the "mother of all laws" -- gives him the power to transform state institutions in 11 key sectors, including the economy, the military, transportation, security and oil.

The measure giving him power to rule by decree was approved Wednesday by the entirely pro-Chavez National Assembly.

Gee, sound like a dictatorship to me. My favorite part of it all is this choice quote:
"We are going to enact it with a red ink and from today it will be in effect -- in the name of God and the revolution," Chavez told a news conference, referring to his signature Socialist color.

He's invoking both Marx AND God! Damn, that's sweet. Although he really should've signed it in heavy crude—after all, oil money is the opiate of the masses.