Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Another Episode of Poetry Corner

In The Church

The priest went into the church in the evening, around ten o'clock,
into the dim, deserted sanctuary, so quiet,
just to see that all was well in the house of the Lord.
And as he walked along the aisle,
he noticed hanging on the end of the pew,
a pair of pants and a jacket,
and shoes and socks on the floor.
"That's strange," he thought, and just as he thought it,
The door of the confessional moved.
"Who's in there?" he demanded,
And a voice behind the door answered,
"I'm in here with my son."
"This isn't a public toilet," the priest said,
and the voice replied, "Just give me five minutes
and we'll be out of here."
But the priest said, "No, get out now!"
And with that, the door opened
and out came the man whose pants were on the pew,
and right behind him a woman, disheveled too,
and the man pulled on his pants, and grabbed his jacket and shoes,
and they hurried past the priest
without conversation or confession
and out of the church. So,
what should the priest do now?
He could have laughed, and tossed a blessing after them.
But instead, he ran and got the license plate number
as the car pulled away.
He went into the rectory and called the cops.
They'll be in court next week.
They're in the paper this morning, front page, bottom right.
He is forty-two. She is thirty-five. They aren't married
(surprise, surprise). The paper mentioned that he's balding.
Is it more remarkable for a bald guy
to do such a thing? They told the police
that they'd gone into the church to grieve.
They'd been out to dinner, they were talking
about recent deaths in their families.
A little hard to believe?
Too bad the priest, whose profession is belief,
couldn't have looked at it
as a sort of miracle --
the miracle of the two people
appearing at the confessional
on a Tuesday night -- the miracle
of human resourcefulness and desire.
Maybe they really did sit and grieve for a while,
and then he put his arm around her, to comfort her,
and they started kissing,
and there was the confessional booth...what else could they do?
However it went, it's obvious that God, knowing
what was going to happen, knowing what they were feeling,
knowing everything --
God would have smiled, if God
Smiles, watching them slip together
into the hush and darkness of the church.

Howard Nelson

Monday, July 30, 2012

Darwinism, the hammer of the current age

Except for a few small, sad people who believe the bible is a history lesson rather than a life lesson, everyone embraces Darwinism and evolution. Sometimes, however, evolution gets credit for something it is not. Witness this comment by Kottke on his post Gorilla's Getting Smarter, "I fully support this type of evolution."

I'm giving Kottke the benefit of the doubt and assume he was being humorous. Learned characteristics are not a "type of evolution", and are not inherited. If gorillas have evolved to dismantle traps, they are far ahead of humans.

However, if he meant that all the gorillas not intelligent or resourceful or quick enough to dismantle a trap will eventually all be killed in traps and only those left, who, it could be argued, have some genotype that exhibits itself in learning from their elders how to dismantle a trap—well, then he could support that type of evolution. (In deference to Myk, this process could be aided if female gorillas get turned on by male gorillas showing-off by dismantling traps.)

I also loved the prime directive in the referenced article, "Gorilla's Seen Dismantling Deadly Traps", where "Fossey Fund staff cannot teach gorillas how to dismantle snares because it is against their policy to intentionally change gorillas’ natural behavior".

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Quote of the Day

Language does not describe the world we see. We see the world language describes.
—S. Leonard Rubinstein

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Letters of Note

If you haven't bookmarked "Letters of Note" yet, get on it. Here's a letter Ted Turner received from his father after he learned that Ted wanted to major in Classics at Brown. I've read a lot of boring, inarticulate rants against ivory tower elitism, so it was fun to read an intelligent one. Ted Turner's dad sounds like a real Hemingway type:
There is no question but this type of useless information will distinguish you, set you apart from the doers of the world. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower, and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner. Incidentally, he was a contemporary of mine in Mississippi. We speak the same language—whores, sluts, strong words, and strong deeds. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Least Credible Books of History Contest

After a week of voting by readers, David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies” won with some 650 votes, narrowly edging the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s“People’s History of the United States,” which received 641 votes.
Some quotes about each of the top 5 books.

Penn State and the Milgram experiment

Perhaps the officials at Penn State should have paused occasionally in their highly structured, detail oriented lives and spent some quality time thinking about big picture issues such as the meaning of the Milgram experiment. And it wouldn't have mattered what interpretation they embraced.

From listening to the stories of the people involved, some appear to follow a more traditional interpretation: an organizational structure run by powerful individuals discouraged people from following their own moral compass. As one janitor said when asked by another whether they should report the problem, "No, they'll get rid of all of us."

Also, the ideological reverence of football, singled out in the Freeh report, discouraged some from following their own moral compass. Powerful figures may have struggled with the moral dilemma of addressing the child molesting problem versus their ideological belief in the good name and importance of Penn State and it's athletic department.

From the Freeh report:
"It is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large. Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky's victims."

We know, from the Milgram experiments, that this would have happened in most any university, not just Penn State. Sixty-five percent of them would have gone all the way.

Would it have made a difference if these powerful officials knew, understood, and thought about the meaning of the Milgram experiments? And should every organization, from universities to churches to governments, think about the Milgram experiments before writing their bylaws?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

200 Years Later

Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s equally strange.  According to Leonard Wibberley, author of The Mouse that Roared, in 1955, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick had armed forces comprised of 700 bowmen and 20 men-at-arms.  Its most advanced weapon was the longbow.  Nevertheless, this small country declared war on the then nuclear-armed United States, and subsequently launched an invasion against the US.

If we turn back the pages of history 200 years, United States in 1812 was a fledgling country with fewer than 7000 troops and a navy of only 16 warships.  It nevertheless decided to declare war on Great Britain, arguably the most powerful nation in the world at the time.  Britain had an army of over a quarter of a million men, and a navy of 600 warships.

What boosted American confidence was Canada, the low-hanging fruit.  At the time, the population of Canada was a mere 300,000; compared with America’s 8 million.  Thomas Jefferson had declared, “The acquisition of Canada, this year … will be a mere matter of marching.”  Jefferson’s words returned to haunt him after the first two attempts at invasion ended by the complete surrender of American forces.

The American navy fared better.  Although we had nowhere near the naval power to challenge the British strategically at sea, America won moral victories in single ship duals with British frigates.  We all learned of one such victory – the Constitution versus the Guerriere – in grade school.   It was disheartening enough to the British that George Canning, Britain’s foreign secretary, told parliament that these American victories threatened nothing less than “the sacred spell of the invincibility” of the royal navy.

The real turning points in the war, however, were the American naval victories of Commodore Oliver Perry in the battle of Lake Erie and Commodore Thomas MacDonough  (any relation?) in the battle of Lake Champlain.  These thwarted British invasions of the US from the north and, when the Duke of Wellington advised his government that no victory in America could be achieved without naval superiority in the Great Lakes, a peace treaty was only a matter of time.

The War of 1812 was not James Madison’s finest hour.  His refusal to make full use of the navy and the bungled attempts at the invasion of Canada showed him to be something other than a man of action.

Madison, however, by the end of the war, distinguished himself in two ways.  First, he showed that he could learn and at some point began to recognize the importance of a strong American navy.  But, more importantly, throughout the entire conflict, he stuck to his republican principles.  Unlike the Federalists who, during the quasi war with France in 1789 passed the alien and sedition act and otherwise tried to suppress the opposition, Madison, as one admirer put it, withstood widespread opposition to the war, “without one trial for treason or even one prosecution for libel.”  

Anton Otto painting depicting the victory of the USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere  

Arab Spring continues as Saudi Arabia sends first female athletes to the Olympics

Let's keep the humor going. Saudi Arabian athletes Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar will be the first ever women in the history of this ancient country (OK, 1932 isn't all that ancient.) to compete in the summer Olympics. Wodjan will compete in judo and Sarah in the 800 meter run.

Of course neither of them is from Saudi Arabia, and the nation does not have Olympic qualifying trials for women. Sarah Attar was born and raised in California and is a sophomore at Pepperdine. I'm not sure where Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani is from, but I did read she was not raised in Saudi Arabia. So, although you will see plenty of headlines proclaiming that Saudi Arabia is 'sending' two female athletes, that's not quite true. It's more like two women with Saudi citizenship will compete under the Saudi flag. And that required a lot of work (and rule breaking) on the part of the Olympic Committee.

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani remains a mystery guest to me. Sarah Attar ran track and cross country in high school but is not on the Pepperdine team. She is working out, however. Her fastest time for the 800 is 2:30. The qualifying time for A and B countries respectively is 1:59 and 2:00.
All the women who participate in the Olympics must wear “suitable clothing that complies with Sharia [Islamic Law], be accompanied by a male guardian at all times and may not mix with men during the Games." said Saudi Olympic committee chairman and sports minister Prince Nawaf bin Faisal.
Sarah obviously believes her Olympic moment will be worth it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Seven Minutes of Terror

This is either the slickest piece of self-promotion in the history of science or a preview of the most technically difficult achievement by humankind to date. Maybe both.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Freakonomics Motto Contest

I may have mentioned this before, but some four years ago, the Freakonomics blog hosted a contest for a motto for the United States.  Recently, I was reminded of this contest.  It was inspired by England’s search for a national motto (suggestions ranged from “No Motto Please, We’re British” to “One Mighty Empire, Slightly Used”). The only rule for the Freakonomics contest was that the motto had to be in 6 words. The winning entry (by readers’ vote) was “Our Worst Critics Prefer to Stay” followed by “Caution! Experiment in Progress Since 1776.” There were over a thousand entries, and I made a point of noting some of the more clever ones, as follows:

Just like Canada, with Better Bacon.

Everyone hates us; immigration way up.

No, we still don’t like soccer.

Luckily, our parents left your country.

Now with 20 percent more Mexicans.

Quiet, or we’ll liberate you too!

The Folks Who Brought You Democracy

We’ve got the Coen Brothers. You?

Didn’t We Save Your Ass Once?

The U.S.A (Warning: may contain nuts)

We’re not compensating for anything. Honest.

The most gentle empire so far.

OK, everybody into the gene pool!

Hello? We are the armed Canadians.

With Great Power….Something. We forget.

Coming to your military theater soon.

Lots of schools. Not many mimes.

Not just a Spanish explorer’s surname.

Nation of immigrants, but we forgot.

Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! Partying! Beer! Uh-oh!

Not arrogant. Just better than you.

America: Easier to spell than Kyrgyzstan.

Leftists Whine; Rightists Parry; Bedlam Accomplished

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Quote of the Day

"There are two kinds of people in the world to me: those who are humble, and those who are about to be."
—Clint Hurdle, Pirate Manager

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Scientific discovery means different things to different people

To most of the world, at least those who like to know why we aren't all traveling around at the speed of light with no mass, the discovery of the Higgs boson confirming that a Higgs field exists, is important in our progress in understanding how the universe works. To others it is a strange message in typography.

Here is a video explanation of the Higgs field. It may be easier to understand than the typography argument.

I guess I should add that scientists are certain that they found a particle. Now, with more experimentation, they will determine how similar the behavior of it is to the predicted Higgs particle.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Poor Salesmanship

Below are some of the results from the recent Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey. Both polls show that a majority of people believe that the government should be involved in insuring universal health care.  So, why is Obama's plan so unpopular?  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama just hasn't done a good job communicating what's in the Affordable Care Act and how it will affect citizens.   People don't oppose because they've studied it and don't like it.  They oppose it because they don't understand it.