Archive for December, 2005

Uh-Oh, the Jig Is Up

December 31, 2005 Comments off

Kathleen Parker scolds the blogosphere:

Each time I wander into blogdom, I’m reminded of the savage children stranded on an island in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Without adult supervision, they organize themselves into rival tribes, learn to hunt and kill, and eventually become murderous barbarians in the absence of a civilizing structure.
- Kathleen Parker, Lord Of The Blogs

Two words for ya, Kathleen; “Ann Coulter”.

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Tagged! by the Four Meme

December 31, 2005 8 comments

Doh! Tagged by the FOUR THINGS meme:

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: Christian minister, machine operator, camera repairman, computer support specialist

Four movies you could watch over and over: Doctor Strangelove, Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Terminator I & II (Is it cheating to choose multiples?)

Four places you’ve lived: California, Iowa, Washington State, Tennessee (currently Illinois)

Four TV shows you love to watch: Simpsons, King Of The Hill, House MD, NOVA (also American Experience and Frontline)

Four places you’ve been on vacation: Coast of Maine, N. Shore of Lake Superior, Washington State, and New Mexico.  Not much of a globe-trotter.

Four websites you visit daily: Pharyngula, Stupid Evil Bastard, Unscrewing The Inscrutable, Dispatches from the Culture Wars (Buridan could be included in this list except he tagged me for this meme ;-)   Counting RSS I check 12 websites every day and a great many more every week)

Four of your favorite foods: Coffee in all its glorous variations, Chocolate, Sicilian Chicken Wrap, French Toast

Four places you’d rather be: See on vacation

Four albums you can’t live without: Not much of a music-listener but I have all of Steely Dan’s albums and some of the Beatles

Let’s add a couple more:

Four magazines you read: The Economist, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic (also American Heritage Invention & Technology and MIT Technology Review)

Four cars you’ve owned: ‘89 Chevvy Astro, ‘67 Dodge Coronet 440, ‘67 VW Beetle, ‘68 Fiat 124G

OK, it’s your turn.  I don’t know who has done this meme and who has not, so this is a MEME INVITATION… I invite any of my readers to do the ‘Four Things’ meme.  If you do it on your blog, put a link here in the comments, or even put the whole thing here in the comments if you don’t have a blog.  (evil) BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! (/evil) but I did tag Cajun, ***Dave, Pete of Terminal Ward, and Les of SEB fame. 

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Answering C.S. Lewis

December 30, 2005 5 comments

In the Narnia movie, the younger brother tells the professor that he does not believe his younger sister’s story about a magical land in the back of the wardrobe.  The professor says (best I can remember from the movie) “I don’t know what they’re teaching as logic these days.  If your sister is not lying, and she has not gone mad, then logically she must be telling the truth.  So why don’t you believe her?”

This is a mini-version of Lewis’ famous “Lunatic, demon, or God” argument (see notes below for full text).  In brief, Lewis says Jesus must be God because if he were not, he could only be a madman or a demon.

I can’t remember the technical term for this fallacy, but Lewis is forcing a conclusion from too few possibilities.  The full range of possibilities for Jesus’ claims runs more along these lines:

  • Jesus was a great human teacher but the Bible adds claims he never actually made

  • Jesus was a great human teacher but also a bit touched in the head
  • Jesus never existed – he’s a fictional rabbi invented to present revolutionary ideas in Judaism without getting the author into possibly fatal trouble with the authorities
  • Our understanding of Jesus’ claims, either by cultural context or translation, is incorrect
  • Jesus was a huckster and a liar
  • Jesus never existed – he’s a bunch of myths mixed up with the life of some rabble-rouser from a turbulent period in the history of Judaism and Classical/Roman mythology
  • Some combination of the above
  • Jesus was the Son of God borne to a virgin Jewish girl
  • Jesus was a demon
  • Jesus was an alien
  • Jesus was a time-traveller

Certainly the range of possibilities is wider than Lewis presented.  But even within his own construct, is it necessary to believe that Jesus is the Son of God?  Lewis thinks so, mainly for the reason that he is not ready to entertain his own alternatives (let alone the wider range I have presented here).  He does not like the notion that humans may be responsible for constructing a workable ethical standard, or that the universe may have no more meaning than its own inhabitants can accumulate in their brief lives. 

Lewis’ reasoning may be valid for one’s person’s own philosophical satisfaction, but not as normative constructs.  If you want to make a compelling argument for belief, you will have to do better than that. 

Nothing I have said here stands against anyone believing in God, or even in the way of liking C.S. Lewis, which I certainly do.  But let’s not get too misty-eyed about his status as a logician.  He was a Medaeval historian and a reasonably good storyteller.

The range of possibilities I have listed above is not in order of probability.  The actual probability you might assign to each one depends on your frame of reference. 


You can decide for yourself if I am being unfair to Lewis if you read Mere Christianity and some of his other didactic works.  Here is the full text of his argument about Jesus’ credibility.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but i don’t accept His claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.
- Mere Christianity, First Touchstone Ed. 1996, p.56

Categories: Religion

Review of Narnia: Lion, Witch, Wardrobe

December 29, 2005 3 comments

The Mrs & I went to see Narnia (Lion, Witch, Wardrobe) this evening, and it was pretty good (OK, it would have been totally mind-blowing twenty years ago).  So I’ll add my observations to the chorus of other reviews that I have seen:

  • How did “The Professor” (who was really quite a jovial fellow) find himself saddled with such an unpleasant housekeeper?

  • I now understand the person who said; “I started to read the book once, but gave up when it became clear the four children would not meet a grisly end”
  • In particular, I wanted to feed the one named Lucy to the wolves, then stand and watch
  • Speaking of wolves, If I’m holding a massive, razor-sharp sword, any conversation I have with a trash-talking wolf will be very brief
  • Movie children are immune to hypothermia
  • Special effects were quite invisible.  So far as one could tell, the movie featured a cast of actual mythical creatures with no special effects
  • After decades of cinematic aliens, we’re not so impressed with wierd characters anymore
  • If beavers could talk, they’d be hard-working common blokes who bicker with their spouses
  • The Phoenix, though a cameo character, was the coolest, followed by the Griffin
  • Despite the disclaimer toward the end, Aslan did seem pretty tame
  • I liked Liam Neeson better as Alfred Kinsey
  • A cheetah can run only slightly faster than a horse, at least in Narnia
  • I kept expecting to hear the White Witch say “Resistance is futile: you will be assimilated”.  Not the same actress, but she certainly had the ‘Evil Queen’ thing down solid
  • Anyone who misses the clumsy symbolism in the movie is either a dolt or is completely innocent of Christian mythology
  • At the end after they blow up the Death Star, uh, I mean after Aslan kills the witch (Sorry, that was a spoiler there, wasn’t it?), I missed Princess Leia handing out the medallions

If you have very young children, discuss scary movies with them before going and make a determination if they can make it all the way through.  There are no gory scenes but a couple spots that are a bit tough on sensitive kids (the couple next to us had to miss most of the movie because the children were scared).

Compared to Lord Of The Rings, this is pretty thin stuff. I enjoyed it, though, and I’ll certainly go see the sequals.



Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: Kinsey

December 28, 2005 1 comment

We watched Kinsey Monday night, a film biography of the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. I enjoyed the movie very much (see notes below the fold), but was far more interested in how the reviews mostly came out along lines of how the reviewers themselves felt about the controversial scientist.

Kinsey is a hero among sexual libertines and public enemy number one among the ‘Christian Right’.  Apparently this makes objective movie reviewing rather tricky…  “I found the movie Kinsey to be both true to his work and to the essence of this dedicated man. Besides being highly entertaining, it was very relevant… a wonderful actor… a brilliant stroke of genius for director/writer Bill Condon… exceptionally inspired… The chemistry between Linney as Clara Kinsey and Neeson as Alfred Kinsey is magical and, through Clara’s eyes, we see his extraordinary humanity as well as his dogged persistence…”

Gee, I think they liked it.  How about the movie-review arm of Focus On The Family, James Dobson’s organization?:  “The problems with this movie, including its pornographic content, are too vast to itemize. To say that it is rank propaganda for the sexual revolution and the homosexual agenda would be beyond stating the obvious… Insidious… That anyone would want to make a film lionizing the man simply boggles…  Simply judging the craft of filmmaking, however, Kinsey is fairly pedestrian…”

Huh… seems it wasn’t to their liking. Particularly hilarious is the complaint that the movie is “saturated with sex”.  Really?  A film about Alfred Kinsey?  Who knew?

But as one reviewer noted, many people do not know who Alfred Kinsey was, or the cultural context in which he did his research.  I read the following passage from the Focus review to my son:

The movie is not two minutes old when it begins mocking Christianity. It shows a stern preacher denouncing modernity, and it implicitly equates disapproval of sexual deviancy with disapproval of all that makes up the “modern” world (e.g., [zippers,] electricity and automobiles).

My son responded; “Well they were mocking Christianity!  The preacher was connecting zippers with sex!”  I told him that in that time, there were many sermons preached on the evils of modernity, including the too-convenient access that zippers afford to one’s genitals.  I have read transcripts of late-1800’s sermons that were very similar to the one in the movie.  They weren’t mocking Christianity: they were portraying a man, Kinsey’s father, and describing the context of Kinsey’s childhood.

Besides, Puritan prudishness isn’t Christianity; it is a cultural sub-context in which a number of historical Christian revivals took place.  My son knew who Kinsey was, and was familiar with his work, but didn’t know the back-story.

It is a fact that the only information about sex available to most people until just sixty years ago was misinformation, woven from religious prejudice, rumor, and legend.  The modern-day Puritans continue to fight tooth-and-nail to keep every scrap of factual information about sex from us all.

In all I read about 10 reviews, of which I have linked three below.  The evaluation of the the film’s cinematic virtues ran coaxially with the reviewers’ interests.  Is objectivity impossible?


THE PLOT:  Kinsey, raised by a puritanical minister (John Lithgow), escaped his family to put himself through Harvard (an impressive accomplishment in itself).  As an entomologist he studied gall wasps at Indiana University, but saw an opening in the dearth of scientific knowledge about one subject that is of intense interest to almost every living human.  Kinsey felt that any moral approach to human sexuality should begin by finding out what human sexuality is.  With this simple insight, he began to collect information on human sexual behavior.

Naturally this was controversial and Kinsey, himself hardly a saint, met many obstacles along the path to publication of his two most famous books.  Working constantly to exhaustion, he lived only a few years after the period covered by the movie. Any Star Wars-related doubts one might have about Liam Neeson’s acting ability will be put firmly aside by this movie, whose entire cast did an astounding job telling a difficult story.

I guess biblical literalists won’t like a movie about a truly complex character.  PluggedIn called portrayal of Kinsey’s faults a “clever propaganda technique” in what I believe was simply the producer’s failure to come to the same conclusion about Kinsey’s character as the reviewer.  My advice to them: if you like things simple, keep your eyes and ears closed.


Was Kinsey an ‘emotionally well man’?  Probably not.  The Puritan focus on sexual repression at all costs seems no less a ‘perversion’ than any fetish.  The chances that Kinsey would come out of that background perfectly balanced seem very small indeed.  That he became the obsessed vanguard of scientific sex studies, and was embraced by some thoroughly dispicable people (and vilified by some other, thoroughly dispicable people) hardly seems like a recipe for good emotional health.

Kinsey’s science wasn’t very good; there were serious flaws in his subject selection method, his statistics, and some of his laboratory methods.  Some of his interactions would not be considered ethical by today’s standards.  But those standards were developed from experience largely pioneered by Kinsey himself.  It is true that Kinsey was not always as objective as he pretended to be, but it would be very odd if anyone could juggle a difficult family background, while re-framing sexual ethics and interacting with the full range of human wierdity without being personally affected.


To this day we don’t really know how many people are gay, but we are enriched by Kinsey’s discovery that many people are not completely one way or the other.  Practically every aspect of human sexuality remains in the darkness of shame, a shadow cast by the religious right which makes sex the bait in a trap in which countless millions languish needlessly.  Through the lenses of his background and his research, Kinsey saw first-hand the suffering and pain of sexuality twisted by shame.  It is a story that history is not finished telling.


Roger Ebert – Kinsey – Just another juicy target of media conflict – Review of Kinsey
Focus On The Family (Plugged In) – Kinsey
James Beradinelli – Kinsey

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Improvement on the Ascent Of Man

December 25, 2005 2 comments

The Economist seems to have a humor streak that is missing in American news magazines.  I really like their update on the cliche “Ascent Of Man” picture:

Unfortunately no one in my immediate circle is as highly evolved as the character on the top step.


Categories: Humor

Murder of crows

December 22, 2005 6 comments

Our campus (and the rest of our town) is annual winter home to an enormous murder of crows, which fill the tops of hundreds of trees at night.  In this early-evening picture, the crows are still arriving and will continue to arrive for another ten minutes or so. Airborne crows do not appear in the picture because the shutter was open for about two seconds.

They are very interesting creatures.  Crows obviously prefer the company of other crows, yet unlike most social birds they are relatively autonomous in flight.  They’re very intelligent birds, and can make an astonishing variety of sounds; some quite human.  They appear to be omnivorous, and despite taking quite a lot of their diet from the streets (in the form of squirrels who, it seems, will never learn), are seldom hit by cars.  After a hard day of doing whatever it is crows do, they return to town in a long, chaotic stream over a hundred feet wide and stretching a mile or so into the evening sky, roosting on trees 70 to 125 feet high.

But as interesting as they are, crows are not good neighbors.  They’re not… toilet trained, and a crow is a lot bigger than a pigeon.  Their droppings pile up under trees like this one.  City and campus workers can be seen out on nice winter days with pressure washers, cleaning off sidewalks but nothing hides the stench, and bird droppings are a real health hazard as they can result in serious lung infections. 

Ideally, the word “murder” should be pronounced in the deep, melifluous voice of The Simpson’s “Sideshow Bob” (AKA, Bob Terwilliger: “Muurrrder of crows”.

Categories: Nature, observations

Problem that the Dover ruling won’t solve

December 20, 2005 5 comments

Pharyngula, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Unscrewing The Inscrutable, ***Dave, Orac, Buridan, and The Revealer have all written excellent analysis about the Dover ruling, in which it was found that ‘Intelligent Design’ is just religious creationism dressed-up in science-y sounding language (not to be confused with actual science).  Some of them have multiple entries covering different angles of the case, so I won’t try to duplicate their work.

Instead, I’m putting on my psychic fortune-teller hat and peering into the future to see what will happen next:

  • The Discovery Institute will try to say this is ‘a necessary step’ in a long battle.  They will probably also renege on their promise to cover the Dover school district’s legal expenses.

  • Pat Robertson (and possibly James Dobson) will whine that it is evidence of activist secular judges leading our nation away from God’s blessing, or some such, thereby proving that even they know ID is a religious concept that doesn’t belong in a classroom
  • Thousands of letters will be written to editors of hundreds of newspapers, complaining about how Christianity is persecuted and just can’t get fair treatment at the hands of those awful secularists.  (An ‘activist judge’, by the way, is any judge who ruled in a way you don’t like)
  • Many school districts will misunderstand the ruling and actually prevent any mention of Intelligent Design in any context, even to discuss what science actually IS and what it is NOT

That last point is the downside.  Many school principals and district superintendents have misinterpreted rulings against state-sponsored religion to mean that no one, not even students, can pray in school or read the Bible.  (Not true) The same thing will happen to discussions of science and religion, which is a shame.

I would like science classes and religion classes to devote more time to the respective theory of those disciplines.  What is science, after all?  And what is religion?  What kinds of questions does each attempt to answer? 

Although many scientists (being human) have opinions on the existence of God one way or the other, science itself does not intrude into that question because it is not testable or falsifiable.  Yet religion does make some scientific claims, such as; “The Earth is 6,000 years old.”  It is a testable, falsifiable statement of fact that can be addressed by science, and since it has been tested and falsified, it does not belong in science class.

Another collision between science and religion is where religion wants religious claims taught as science.  ‘Intelligent Design’ is such a claim; it is inspired by religion (as the judge clearly found), and there is no way to test it or falsify it.  To believe in Intelligent Design, as with creationism itself, is an act of faith, and outside the realm of science.

Ask 100 adults what science is, and you will learn just how badly our educational institutions have failed to lay the groundwork.  The same is probably true of religion – you will be given examples of each, rather than hear a fundamental understanding;  “Uh, science is like, laboratories, and computers, and dissecting frogs, and physics and stuff.” 

They might say something similar about religion: “Uh, religion is like, Christianity, and Judaism, and Islam and stuff.”

The operative word in both cases is: “Uh…”

I’m awfully glad for the court ruling but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.

No wonder NeoCons hate the social sciences

December 18, 2005 2 comments

Selected quotes from December ‘05 Scientific American article, “Sick of poverty” (Robert Sapolsky), a review of studies that correlate SES, or Socio-Economic status, with ill health, control for epidemiological factors such as lifestyle, and develop a useful analysis:

“Of the Western nations, the U.S. has the steepest gradient; for example, one study showed that the poorest white males in America die about a decade earlier than the richest…

Our body’s response, though adaptive for an acute physical stressor, is pathogenic for prolonged psychosocial stress…

It is not a subtle statistical phenomenon.  When you compare the highest versus lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the risk of some diseases varies 10-fold.

An extensive biomedical literature has established that individuals are more likely to activate a stress response and are more at risk for a stress-sensitive disease if they (a) feel as if they have minimal control over stressors, (b) feel as if they have no predictive information about the duration and intensity of the stressor, (c) have few outlets for the frustration caused by the stressor, (d) interpret the stressor as evidence of circumstances worsening, and (e) lack social support for the duress caused by the stressors…

…low control in the workplace accounts for about half of the SES gradient in cardiovascular disease…

…Adler’s work suggests that the objective state of being poor adversely affects health, at the core of that result is the subjective state of feeling poor

…Wilkenson has shown… that decreased income inequality predicts better health for both the poor and the wealthy…

…the more unequal the income is in a community, the more incentive the wealthy will have to oppose public expenditures benefiting the health of the community…

…Social capital refers to the broad levels of trust and efficacy in a community.  Do people generally trust one another and help one another out?  Do people feel an incentive to take care of commonly held resources (for example, to clean up graffiti in public parks)?  And do people feel that their organizations – such as unions or tenant associations – actually have an impact?  Most studies of social capital employ two simple measures, namely, ow many organizations people belong to and how people answer a question such as, “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance?”

…the strongest route from income inequality to poor health is through the social capital measures

…As a culture, America has neglected its social safety nets while making it easier for the most successful to sit atop the phyramids of inequality.  Moreover, we have chosen to forgo the social capital that comes from small, stable communities in exchange for unprecedented opportunities for mobility and anonymity.  As a result, all measures of social epidemiology are worsening in the U.S.  Of Westernized nations, America has the greatest income inequality (40 percent of the wealth is controlled by 1 percent of the population) and the greatest discrepancy between expenditures on health care (number one in the world) and life expectancy (as of 2003, number 29).”

It’s a fascinating read, but not comfortable padding for the conservative couch.  No wonder the current crop hate science – it keeps leading to conclusions that their ideology doesn’t like.  The December issue of Scientific American should still be on the newsstands – or you could swing by the library – if you want to tackle it.

Categories: Economics, Geeky

It’s cold in the kitchen

December 18, 2005 1 comment

The little corner of a furnace vent you see under one of his front paws is the only portion not sealed by his body.  He finds the vent warm, lays down on it (stopping the air flow) and then it gets cold, so he goes away disgruntled. Then air flows again, the vent warms up again, and…

Oscar’s brain, like that of most housecats, is about the size of a walnut meat. 

Categories: Humor