Archive for February, 2007

Review: Carl Sagan’s The Varieties Of Scientific Experience

February 28, 2007 15 comments

I recently finished reading Carl Sagan’s new book, The Varieties Of Scientific Experience, and recommend it as an antidote to the lethal venom that has been building up along the epistemological boundary between supernaturalism and naturalism since Sagan’s death.

How, you ask, can Sagan, dead these eleven years, have just come out with a new book?  TVOSE is a compilation of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures On Natural Theology in Scotland, about the relationship between religion and science.  Here’s a sample:

“The astronomer Sir William Huggins frightened the world in 1910.  He was minding his own business, doing astronomy, but as a result of his astronomy (the work I’m talking about was done in the last third of the nineteenth century) there were national panics in Japan, in Russia, in much of the southern and midwestern United States.  A hundred thousand people in their pajamas emerged onto the roofs of Constantinople.  The pope issued a statement condemning the hoarding of cylinders of oxygen in Rome.  And there were people all over the world who committed suicide.  All because of Sir William Huggins’ work.  Very few scientists can make similar claims, at least until the invention of nuclear weapons.  What exactly did he do?  Well, Huggins was one of the first astronomical spectroscopists…. “p. 69

The Gifford Lectures were made famous in 1902 by William James’ classic Varieties Of Religious Experience which gave Sagan the inspiration for his series.  Sagan reflects on the history of the long struggle between science and religion, including the painful adaptations each has made to the other over the years.  He talked about biochemistry, physics, evolution, astronomy, and scientists’ own religious feelings as they grapple with the natural universe.  He outlines the risk to humanity from nuclear weapons (let no one say this is an outdated concern).  TVOSE is a deep and very involved series of lectures.

“Does trying to understand the universe betray a lack of humility?  I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring…

I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship… the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.”

Sagan understood the desire to believe. It was no pale theoretical fancy to him; he yearned to reach into the inmost nature of the universe.  Even in his dying years he worked tirelessly to build connections with people of faith.  Where a religious person expressed wonder at the universe, or opposed violence, or moved to save the natural environment, Sagan agreed and recognized common purpose.  He respected the religious desire to frame the universe in some larger meaning, because he had the same desire even if he could not reach the same conclusion.

Today contempt is everywhere between science and religion. We have Richard Dawkins taking advice on American religious culture from PZ Meyers (possibly the worst, most divisive possible choice).  We have Sam Harris positing the end of all religions as a solution to mankind’s problems.  We have the Discovery institute trying to poison science education with thinly veiled creationism.  The opportunity for peace, to say nothing of achieving any common purpose or reaching any constructive compromise, seems more remote than ever.

So let Harris languish on the discount rack; it’s a very good time to read Sagan.  TVOSE may seem quaint, 22 years after the lectures were given, but it could hardly be more timely. 

Categories: Books, Reviews

Passed a kidney stone - UPDATE

February 25, 2007 18 comments

Light posting this weekend as Saturday morning began with a kidney stone attack.  If you haven’t had them, there’s no point in trying to describe and if you have, well, you already know.  In any case after about 20 hours I finally passed the stone, and now I feel as if I have been beaten up, by experts.

I did snag the stone though, an interesting one about 3mm and ripping jagged on one side.  All of the stones I passed 14 and 15 years ago were controllable by morphine.  This is the first one where morphine did not work.  We had to use something called dilaudid, which did work but they couldn’t give me enough of it to relieve the pain – something about how it would make me stop breathing.  At the time, I didn’t really care.

Anyway, back to carrying a water bottle around.  Kidney stones are a symptom of chronic dehydration and apparently I’m not drinking enough water.

UPDATE: never could resist taking a challenging picture, so there is one of the stone, below the fold…

This stone is half the size of the largest one I’ve had, but it was more painful (judging by morphine not working this time) and my urine was a lot bloodier.  My current half-assed theory is that my ureter was damaged and scarred by the previous stones, especially the last one, which was on the same side and had to be removed surgically.

Clearly there are two minerals in this stone.  The tan-colored spikey portion is familiar to any kidney-stone sufferer as calcium oxalate – better known as the abrasive mineral in Bar Keeper’s Friend scouring powder.  But I do not know what the smooth rounded dark section is made of – that is new.  Analysis will tell.

Categories: Personal

Recipe for flooding

February 23, 2007 4 comments
  1. Hard freeze for about two weeks, followed by

  2. A couple good-sized snow storms, followed by
  3. A couple days of slight melting (but the ground will still be frozen hard and there’s still eight inches of soggy snow on the ground), followed by
  4. Predicted torrential rains tomorrow.

Add high winds and stir.  Yields flood warnings for most of Central Illinois for Saturday and Sunday.

Radiation on Mars mission

February 22, 2007 6 comments

I’m not a big fan of manned space exploration, at least not at this stage of technological development.  For what we spend to keep the ISS spinning around in low-Earth orbit doing no science at all, we could send out an armada of robotic explorers and get some real science done.  But, our president has set a priority of a moon base and a Mars mission, which would starve scientific missions of funding for decades to come.

So it’s with mixed feelings I see that radiation may render a Mars mission difficult to survive.  Do you ‘spoze this practical difficulty will make our policy makers see a bit of reason and plan for Mars missions a century from now, after expected advances in materials science and propulsion?  Or will they just try to build bigger rockets to launch huge slabs of radiation-shielding lead into space? 

Unfortunately a much more detailed Scientific American article on the radiation hazard is “subscribers only” but there’s good overview on the SciAm Blog.  Upshot?  Forget EM shielding, expect cancer and cataracts, and, uh, astronomical costs if you try to carry tons of shielding.  NASA’s Walter Schimmerling gives a .pdf overview of the subject that basically says “we’re studying it without trying to sound like we really don’t know what to do next”.  At least, that’s my summary.  Somewhere I read an article on lightweight polymer radiation shields but I’ll be darned if i can find it now.

Categories: Science & Technology

Switching to Outlook

February 21, 2007 15 comments

Last week I switched from Thunderbird to Microsoft Outlook for my desktop email client. (No, I have not gone insane, but using a better different product weakened my ability to support Outlook for other users)  Here are my complaints impressions:

  • Outlook must have been designed by someone with perfect eyesight

  • When using “large icons” for the toolbar, the application just scales up the small icons so they look crappy and pixelated.  As bloated full-featured as Outlook is, couldn’t they have created a large icon set?
  • Very illogical workflow.  One example: “Purge deleted messages” is in the Edit menu.  Wouldn’t you expect to find it under the Action menu, along with all the other message actions like “New Message” and “Reply”?  Purging deleted messages isn’t really an editing function.
  • Good luck finding the signature dialog.  Oh, wait, there it is… buried way the hell down into a dialog.  But I change my signature quote every week.
  • Don’t bother having any of your own viewing preferences as to type size, font, etc.  Microsoft knows better than you and will undo them for you next time you start the application.
  • Outlook is noticeably slower than Thunderbird.  When outlook is thinking, you may as well sit with your hands folded on the table because your mouse and keyboard are purely decorative.
  • Outlook pipes http links to Internet Explorer, even though my default browser is Firefox.

That’s all for now.

Categories: Geeky, Software

Attacking Iran

February 19, 2007 23 comments

BBC unsurprisingly reports US plans to attack Iran, though the US denies that the Iran attack plans mean we are planning any attack on Iran.  All clear now?  Well of course we have plans to attack Iran.  Hopefully better thought-out than our “plan” to invade Iraq was.  Doesn’t mean we’ll actually do it but it makes sense to have a plan.

In some ways, this all seems like a dance in which everyone knows their steps.  Need proof Iran is messing around in Iraq, or that they’re building nukes?  I don’t, because that’s exactly what I’d do in their place.  Just look at Iran on a map, and notice the location of the last two countries the US has invaded.  What would you do if you were Ahmadinejad?

If I were him, I’d work on destabilizing the Americans and tying them down on the other side of the border.  And I’d get my scientists into a room and tell them; “Your vacations are cancelled – we need nukes, and we need ‘em now!”

Yes, I do blame the latest debacle on Bush.  We had a legitimate reason to invade Afghanistan, and the world’s backing to do it, but we left that job unfinished to go off on a side-trip where we got stuck.  Afghanistan is slipping back to the Taliban and we’re losing in Iraq.  It’s all over but blaming it on the liberals. 

Leave now, or leave later, there won’t be a good end to the Iraq situation.  If you screw something up badly enough, it just can’t be fixed no matter how many corrupt murderous allies you recruit or how much high-explosive you use. 

But Bush can’t shoulder the blame all himself.  Iran’s revolution ran on hatreds fanned by our old friend, that murderous dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.  But he said he was our friend, he said he was against communism, and he was a check against the power of Iraq, where we were cultivating similar mistakes in similar ways. 

This catastrophe has been a long time in the making.  Anyone who thinks they have the solution – more forces, less forces, a redeployment, a pullout, an all-out invasion of the whole region, whatever… feel free to leave a comment explaining how your mistaken idea will fix everything. 

(One party in control of our government… never again).

Categories: defense, Politics

Insanity in government and business

February 18, 2007 10 comments

The Washington Post reports that The governments of Spain and Morocco want to build an underwater tunnel from Cape Malabata, Morocco, to Punta Paloma, Spain.  It will run 25 miles under nearly a thousand feet of water, in a “geologically tormented” region.  They think they can get it done by 2025, for only “6.5bn through $13bn.”

(Question: what’s with the “.5” when you can’t even narrow it down to a factor of two? )

OK, neat.  That’s slightly shorter, but through five times deeper water and much worse geology by far, than the British/French “Chunnel” which ended up costing almost twice as much as the largest estimate for their tunnel, and has bobbled around the bankruptcy point since it was built.

What is it about governments, civic boosters, and other hucksters that they always say; “We’ll do it in less time for half the cost!  It’ll make tons of money!”  It reminds me of the Simpsons’ “Monorail” episode.  I have no problem with the idea of the tunnel.  It’ll probably help Africa, help the countries involved, and be one of the great engineering wonders of the world. But stop lying about what it will cost.

This is a universal problem.  My little town of Normal, Illinois is restructuring its downtown, and the same thing is happening – we’re building a tunnel to Morocco.  No wait, that isn’t it; we’re just buying a lot of land through eminent domain and mismanaging it to grease wealthy companies after the voters said “no” to the whole project.  (Project was re-worded and presto! now it’s a different project! Nearby Bloomington did the same thing when voters said “no” to a civic arena.)

The local paper says:

“The $75 million Uptown Normal project outlined by OneMain Development builds on a vision and creates the energy needed to continue Normal’s push into the future.”

Well as long as we’re building on a vision and creating energy, then.  Gotta push into the future, y’know.  (Oh, they officially changed the name of the area from “downtown Normal” to “Uptown Normal” because it sounded more, well, uptown.)

I think it’s high time that “civic boosterism” be recognized as a mental disease. 

David McCullough address

February 15, 2007 9 comments

Our university is now 150 years old, and as part of the celebration I had the good fortune to hear an address by historian David McCullough.  He is author of many books of historical narrative, Pulitzer prize winner, and according to Wikipedia “holds 31 honorary degrees”.  As of today, that would be 32. 

Speakers of that calibre are usually worth rearranging your schedule for and this was no exception. He spoke passionately about history education, about leadership and perspective with a depth and insight you don’t hear from most podiums.  I’ve read a few of his books, and we even visited Johnstown, PA to travel the flood path after reading The Johnstown Flood (which was a fascinating trip)  He’s big heat, that David McCullough.  To the best of my recollection, here are a few random points of his address:

“Eighty percent of American history teachers have neither a history major or minor.  You can teach subjects you don’t know; it can be done.  But there are two problems.  First, you are very dependent on the book.  And if you have not seen history textbooks lately, they’re terrible; politically-correct mush. I know; I’ve seen them.  I’ve lifted them. You shouldn’t give a kid any book you wouldn’t read yourself.  The second problem is that you are teaching what you don’t love, because you can’t love what you don’t know any more than you can love a person you don’t know.”

“Education is more than facts and dates.  If it weren’t you could just memorize the Farmer’s Almanac and you’d be educated. But you wouldn’t be educated; you’d just be weird.”

“People in the past didn’t live in the past; they lived in the present, just as we do.  Adams, Jefferson, Washington, they didn’t walk around saying; “Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?  Look at our quaint costumes!”

The original chamber of Congress had a sculpture of Clio visible from the podium, to remind Congressmen that what they were doing, was for the ages, for history.  You know what Congresspeople see when they look up from the podium now?  Television cameras.”

Let’s not ever measure humanity only by someone’s failings.  It is also part of humanity to attain, to achieve, to overcome.  History is a source of strength when things are going badly.  It is a source of inspiration, and of pleasure.”

“A simpler time?  Who are we kidding?  Life in the 18th century beat people up.  You could see it in their faces.”

“Today we think of transportation and communication as different things.  In the 18th century, they were the same thing.  Modern communications dilutes personal responsibility.  You couldn’t ‘call somebody’ – you made a decision and lived with the consequences.”

A year from now, at the end of our university’s Sesquicentennial celebration, the keynote speaker will be Ray Kurzweil.  The celebration begins with a famous historian and ends with a famous futurist.  It will be interesting to see if the latter can deliver as much value as the former.

(Bonus point: the university symphony played a stirring piece I’d never heard before.  Turned out to be a specially commissioned symphony by composer David Maslanka, performed for the first time.  Neat.)

Categories: Education

Prairie Nightfall

February 14, 2007 4 comments

(See comments for explanation)

Categories: Nature, observations

Snow storm lessons

February 13, 2007 10 comments

Schools are closed today.  Even the university is closed. Snowploughs have been called in off the road as there is no use until the wind dies down – just wasting fuel.

Here are a few snowstorm lessons:

  • An unheated garage is a fine place to rebuild a snow-blower carburetor… if you do it in April.  February during a massive blizzard?  Not so good. (The alternative is to spend a week with shoveling-related back pain, or worse.)

  • If you run out of carburetor cleaner, brake cleaner will do, though it is not optimal.  Either one will suck the heat out of your hands in nothing flat.
  • When they talk about “gum” and “varnish” in old gas, that is not a metaphor.  Don’t trust “fuel preservatives” – just empty the damn thing in the spring.
  • That flat-top style on top of my car looks pretty cool, though.  I have always thought snow shapes were nifty.