Friday, December 23, 2011

It's Not the Size of your Footnotes, It's What You Do With Them

Am I the only person who thinks a 800 page book on miracles that is loaded with another 400 pages of appendices, footnotes, bibliographies etc is trying a little too hard to appear rigorous? In other apologetic books, footnotes and bibliographies have been stocked with references to the author's own works and books that had nothing to do with the topic at hand or were referenced out-of-context.

The hype surrounding Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Craig Keener is already touting its authoritativeness based on its size. I just know that no christian is going to verify the contents of the bibliography and I can't shake the feeling that Keener's enterprise relies on that fact.

[edit: I had 400 pages of text and 800 of references when it should have been the other way around]

Monday, November 7, 2011

King or Kingdom?

This Story of Israel meme is kicking up a lot of discussion about how interpretations of Kingdom of Heaven/God affect Christian practice and outlook. Reading various blogs , especially Scot McKnight's discussion of his gospel of Jesus, a question has introduced itself in my mind.

Is the gospel about Jesus primarily or about the Kingdom itself? Jesus spends a lot of time discussing the nature of the Kingdom and what is expected of his followers behavior - supposedly in relation to their role in the Kingdom. In fact, compared to the Kingdom discussion, Jesus' kingship hardly comes up in the Gospels. In the synoptics, rumor equates Jesus' activity with that of the Baptist, implying a messenger role for Jesus. Even in John's Gospel, Jesus casts himself as a servant doing the will of the Father, not his own.

I am increasingly thinking that McKnight is off on a tangent that, while intellectually interesting, will prove a theological dead end.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What's good for GM is good for GM

Check out the graph: US manufacturers are making one thing - profits. The high priests of Free Markets have told us that what is good for GM is good for America. Don't worry about jobs. If the corporations are doing well, then they will be providing jobs to the masses.

Guess what. They were wrong. Predictably wrong. Capitalism is based on the power of self-interest (read: greed). Supposedly competing interests balance out and create the mysterious Invisible Hand. Nowhere in market theory does it say that companies are duty bound or even inclined in provide jobs to as many people as possible. In fact, the very principle of self-interest would demand that jobs are not a priority but rather a cost to avoided.

They care about money, not you. What's good for GM is good for GM. Any benefit the country reaps is accidental or part of a marketing scheme designed to line the pockets of - you guessed it - GM. And that is what we are seeing today. As soon as corporations find a way to make more profits while shedding expensive workers, it's sayonara muchachos!

Monday, October 10, 2011

QOD - More Proof Conservatives Are Bad At Economics

Rich people don't create jobs when we hand them big windfalls. They create jobs when the economy is growing and they have customers for their businesses.

"Rich People Create Jobs! And five other myths that must die for our economy to live"
Kevin Drum - Mother Jones

The idea that corporations hire people just because they have some spare cash lying around is ludicrous - and common. Personally, I would never hire anyone for whom I didn't have work for, i.e. demand to be filled.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Just Plain Too Clever

... smart people are often those who say the stupidest things. They, like everyone else, have blind spots but, being rather intellectually resourceful, they are even more apt at covering them up and rationalising them to themselves. They construct obtuse abstractions that even they themselves find hard to grasp in order to cover up their blinds spots. Add to this some ill-defined (or, conversely, too precisely defined) jargon, and they’ll set the heads of everyone in the room spinning so fast that everyone forgets what outlandish things they are in fact saying.

Philip Pilkington - Confessions of a Non-Utilitarian Shopper
Although this quote is referring to the economics profession, this expresses my frustration when people like N T Wright and Scot McKnight say things like:
The question is not about whether Jesus preached justification; the question is about whether he preached the Story of Israel coming to its completion in the story of himself as a saving story. - Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, p 106 (ht JRKirk)
What the heck does this even mean? How does Jesus' descent and rise say anything about Israel's story that continues for 40 more years and, arguably, until the present day? More importantly, what possible light can "Israel's Story" cast on the state of the world today and God's apparent absence of action over the last 2000 years? N T Wright tries the same line in an online Theodicy debate with Bart Ehrman and reviewers are left saying, "What does that have to do with real people suffering in the world?" Personally I think the so-called "soterians" have a better claim - the whole Kingdom of God thing must be about internal salvation because the outside world is still f***ed up.

It is bewildering when a scholar like Rev. Wright, Bishop Willimon or Dr. McKnight say these things that are so out of touch with reality. The above observation that the smarter you are the more skilled you become in rationalizing away your errors is spot on.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I So Sympathize

My whole intellectual life has been one of throwing passionate subfield interests overboard as they as they exploded beyond my ability to follow them...

Fred Brooks, The Design of Design

Where is November?

Designers are mostly right-brained people, visually and spatially oriented. Indeed, one of my curbstone tests for potential design talent is to ask, "Where is November?" When my listener is puzzled, I elaborate, "Do you have a spatial mental model of the calendar? Many folks do. If you do, would you describe it to me?" The strong candidates almost always have one, the models themselves vary wildly.

The Design of Design, Fred Brooks
OMG! I have one of those but I never thought too much about it before. My calendar starts to my left with March, proceeds down through April and May. Then it turns to the right and runs horizontally through November, passing in front of me around August. Then December starts to droop and January and February make a turn downward.

Does anyone else have a secret mental image of the calendar? If designers typically do, what unexpected mental traits do theologians, musicians or literary critics share?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

More Parents and Education

As I related here, California has a law that allows a majority of parents at a school to sign a petition that fires the school staff or turns the school over to charter organization.

Well now this report of the actual goings on in the only case where this has been tried so far:
When Parent Revolution sent paid organizers to gather signatures from parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, Calif., the campaign was conducted secretively. The organizers collected signatures from 60 percent of the parents. When the petition was submitted to the school district in December 2010, it designated the charter operator—the Celerity Educational Group—that would take over the school, although it is not clear who chose it.
Further more, the group spearheading the new law, Parent Revolution is astroturf:
... Parent Revolution, which is funded by charter school operators (it has some affiliation with Green Dot, whose chief executive officer sits on the board of Parent Revolution) and by venture philanthropists (including the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation)
America had better wake up to the fact that the people who brought us the Blue Screen of Death, Wal Mart and the Financial Crisis of 2008 want to bring their special brand of not-so-free markets to our children's education and our country's future.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

QOD: Small Businesses, Small Payrolls?

“Eighty percent of U.S. small companies that remained in business from 2000 to 2003 ... didn’t add a single employee.”

Rethinking the Boosterism About Small Business, Charles Kenny (Bloomberg BusinessWeek)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Parents and Education

The states of California, Texas and Mississippi have passed laws that allow parents to initiate a schools their children's school's conversion to a charter and/or the firing of the staff. The details of these so-called "trigger laws" vary from state to state but California's law has been used only once, in Compton. As the inevitable law suits play themselves out, backers of the law are having second thoughts:
Proponents are now out campaigning to remind parents the laws have to be about more than just signing a petition and hoping the rest will take care of itself. They argue the trigger attempt should be a starting point for parents to organize, rally, meet and educate themselves. They've even started handing out what they call a Parent Power Handbook, a slim pocket-size notebook with hints about how parents can stay involved and remain active in the day-to-day operations of their children's school. [emphasis added]

NBC Nightly News
These parents are acting out a sense of powerlessness. They either have not taken the time to stay involved in the school, have faced a brick wall when attempting to do so or are in a situation where the factors impeding effective education are nearly insurmountable. Do we really expect a bunch of parents to come in and fix the situation? This is not something a bake sale can fix. These are challenges that the entire country is struggling with and, in my opinion and that of most real experts, failing at.

The most likely outcome I can see is that these unfortunate and frustrated families will fall prey to slick marketing from some charter school operator and realize only when it is too late for their kids that there was no quick fix.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

QOD: The World in 3D Edition

“Thinking like economists” is kind of like looking at the world with 3-D glasses. When you’re watching a 3-D movie, it makes it so that you see really neat things. When you’re not watching a 3-D movie, then everything looks red and blue and kind of weird. But economists still like wearing their 3-D glasses.

Naked Capitalism Blog

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


“The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.”

Jared Diamond

Friday, September 16, 2011

Without a Paddle

Did Friedrich Hayek, a godfather of Libertarianism, support government supported medical care? Paul Krugman refers to "The Road to Serfdom" where Hayek supports
“a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.

Through Adam Smith's belief in protecting the common good against the sometime evil tendencies of capitalism and you have to wonder what the hell conservatives are talking about!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tasty Filling

Did Tolkien invent Lembas merely to fill in a hole in his plot - "How in the world did Sam and Frodo carry enough food to travel all that way?"

[edit: fixed spelling of "Lembas"]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whole, Part or Not?

Over on Undeception, Steve reacts to a Focus on the Family video in which one Del Tackett paints a picture of Creation inside a box and God existing completely outside the box, poking his finger in to move things along. Steve's reaction is to consider panentheism as a better possible model of God's relation to the universe. (For the uninitiated, panentheism claims that the universe is a part of God but that God extends infinitely beyond its confines as opposed to pantheism which claims that God and the universe and co-equal or that God is animating spirit of the universe).

Now I am reluctant to attack Christians directly. I don't want to be THAT kind of atheist. However, The Outsider Test can be a powerful tool to refining our thinking. I seem to have anointed myself The Outsider Test Crusader! Or is it the Hyphenated Avenger (See below)? In either case, if the job comes with a cape, I'll take it :)

As The Outsider, I must say that discussion of pantheism, panentheism and outside-the-boxism strikes me as an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussion. While the selected view point may make sense of an individual's definition of God's nature, the matter is as immune to examination as invisible angels doing the hokey-pokey. Each theory produces the same set of results: the sun comes up and goes down, humans do bad things to each other, cries for deliverance from an indifferent universe rise up to the heavens. The position from which the creator hears these cries seems to have no impact on his or her or its response. Is there even a God? That is a separate question but spinning these bizzaro theories in order to save a concept based on personal preference and vapor makes you look irrelevant at best and kooky at worst.

Just to prove that I hold myself to the Outsider Test, I plan to give Tackett's critique of Carl Sagan's box - "The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be." - a good think today.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

More Rankings Bleh

One thing that bothers me about all these rankings (colleges, great-places-to-live) is that the rankings change every year. Have the conditions at the University of Chicago improved so much in the space of twelve months to justify it moving up four spots? What does that say about the poor freshman who discovers that the highly ranked school where she matriculated has tanked by the time she reaches graduation?

It seems to me that the essential things that make for a great university would be less ephemeral - and sell fewer magazines!

Forget the Kids! Where's My Alma Mater?

U.S. News & World Report has released its much awaited/hated 2011 university rankings. In reading all the discussion concerning how students and parents should use this information when applying for college I have experienced a growing suspicion that the ratings aren't even about future students.

What if the business model of USN&WR relies on the fact that most of the copies will be bought by adults trying to see where the school they attended ranks. Let's face it. There aren't that many parents deciding between Princeton and Harvard. There are far more Michigan and North Carolina graduates trying to feel better about their education and hoping that perspective employers are reading the same rankings. And Tufts administrators hoping that these alumni will feel good enough about their school add them to their will!

Or maybe it's just me...

QOD: Noah's Ark

Somehow making the story of Noah into a children's bed time story and wallpaper design is like creating a Ford's Theater play set or a Titanic for the bathtub.

The Biblical World: The Ever Evolving Story of Noah's Ark

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

QOD: Appealingly Counter-Intuitive Edition

The story would go that reducing the deficit would lower interest rates, thereby encouraging businesses to invest. (Actually most research shows that investment is not very responsive to interest rates.) [emphasis added]

Dean Baker, Beat The Press blog

Is this true? Do interest rates not have a strong effect on investment. This is appealingly counter-intuitive so I need to be careful here.

If Only We Had Schools Like China's

A millionaire who works in the coal industry, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the main push behind his plans to emigrate is China's test-centric school system, often criticized for producing students who can pass exams but who lack skills for the world of work.

Top of Chinese wealthy's wish list? To leave China,

It's funny that although the US lags many countries in performance on International assessments, it is consistently rated near the top in competitiveness. Yeah I know, changing economy and all that, but don't count us out yet. I used to worry about American anti-intellectualism until I started paying attention to what people in places like India, China and Japan believe. Other countries have their share of problems.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thank God We Have All These Tests

More why-numbers-lie: SAT scores show a frightening correlation with income. The same correlation has been found in almost every standardized test for which I have heard seen an analysis.

[Stolen from BusinessInsider]

Lying (to Ourselves) With Statistics

Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

I didn't know it had a name. When I worked at the phone company, every new AVP would install his or her own method for measuring the work of the division. Each time this happened, we would all be trained in the new methodology and sent back to our desks. I guarantee that the employees would do exactly the same things they had always done but they would come up with a way to make sure that their numbers came out to please the AVP.

I am working on a project where the management is ravenous to get their hands on numbers that will "measure" the productivity of each procedure and worker in their department. I can provide raw numbers but can't shake the feeling that these numbers will have little impact on the ultimate performance. We have tweeked many processes to greatly reduce the amount ofuseless work being generated. All to the good. But insisting that an up-to-the-minute dashboard of work flow will allow a executive to successfully micro-manage the organization is an abuse of the nature of the data and the conditions under which employees can be effective.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Get Me Jim West on the Line!

This report in the Washington Post details how emergency rooms are buying billboards to advertise themselves as a source for non-urgent care... With the mess of a healthcare system we have created this is simply unbelievable.

Queue the outrage!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Damaged Caps

Wouldn't it be funny if Rick Perry's run at the White House actually killed the zombie of Damage-Caps-Are-Health-Reform? California's 1973 failure is here and Texas' 2003 is here.


I was indulging my sinful nature again this morning by listening to NPR on the way to work.

The piece in question concerned public revulsion and rejection of plans to return well-treated sewage water directly to the tap. It seems that no matter how much high-tech treatment is applied, no one will agree to drinking water that was once urine. Go figure! A psychologist was employed to get to the bottom of this. After employing "finely-tuned" questionaires she discovered that much of the resistance disappears if you tell people that the treated water has been dumped in a river and only later processed and sent to their icemaker.

The conclusion reached was that the composition of the water was not what mattered but the identity! I think this may be a fundamental insight into the workings of the mind. We filter information not by analysis of the properties of an object but by what it is. Plato's Theory of Forms was a reflection of the very real functioning of human consciousness. Perhaps we are most lucid when we view things as kinds and essential beings.

Examples? How about a change in the way we view of ourselves and how others view us when we are elevated to a position of authority? What about Coming-of-Age rites? Are these changes in our identity that changes our relationship to our culture and immediate contacts?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who is Allowed to Forgive Sins?

In Mark 1:4, John the Baptizer offers baptism as a way of gertting your sins forgiven:
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Now, I am not sayin' that John had the authority to forgive sins. More likely the repentence and confession were the important elements in the process. My question: where is Jesus in this process?

Is a Tithe Charity? Part II

In my previous post on tithing and charity I quoted a former deacon who claimed that only $35,000 of a $850,000 church budget went to charity.

I here acknowledge that the quote does indeed refer to charities outside the church itself, not factoring in the charity done by the church itself. I am taking his mention of missionaries and youth groups as an indication that they are the kinds of programs that receive the lion's share of resources.

This raises a further question: Are missions charitable? My church has sent two groups oversees recently: one to Africa to decorate the future home of another missionary and the other to South America where several teens would be teaching vacation bible school. Leave aside the issue of whether sharing Jesus makes foreigners lives better. I can't believe that a couple of Americans needed to fly to sub-Saharan Africa to arrange furniture.Link

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

From God's Will to Your Browser

Have you seen the online ads for They feature the slogan: Find God's Match For You (tm)

Imagine how this works...

There must be a program library that includes an function that returns the will of God (via a tcp connection, no doubt).

Or perhaps there is a random number generator that fate causes to provide just the right helpmate - kinda like closing your eyes, opening a random page of the bible and jabbing the page with your finger. Oh come on, you know people who do this!

Or, a skipping every 7th letter in the original Greek text (no Hebrew, we're Christians!) reveals the name of your "soul"-mate.

It boggles the mind

Is a Tithe Charity?

[Disclaimer: I know that the OT does not link a 10% tithe to charity. It is intended for the use of the temple, whatever that entails. ]

Tithing and charity are inexorably tied in our culture. In praising evangelicals for their generosity, Nicholas Kristof obliquely uses tithing to prove his point:
Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. [emphasis added]
My wife and I have endeavored through the years to target as close to 10% of our income to charity as we can manage. We often fall short but we persevere. In keeping with my in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound policy I have agreed to make a significant portion of that a church donation. But how much of my "tithe" is actually charity?

No one says the word "charity" and means that they expect something back for their investment. At least they hope that no one thinks they mean that! But as far as I can tell, most of what individuals give to the church goes to services that directed back to it’s members in the form of facilities, activities and programs. Our church spends more than half of it’s budget on staff which invest only a small fraction of their efforts outside the membership of the church. I have struggled to determine how much of my contribution actually goes to “charitable” purposes, weighing ministry to the needs of the congregation and outreach to the community against stained glass windows and gymnasiums.

I have not been deep into the budget of our local church but I did find this quote interesting:
I was a deacon (before I was an atheist) in a respected conservative Christian church. Our budget was about $850,000. Most of it went for staff salaries, maintenance and expansion of church property, church programs like youth groups, missionaries, denomination dues, Christian school assistance and other internal needs. I remember about $35,000 going to community organizations which I would call charities...


I keep saying I am not a Democrat because I have no idea what their economic policy is, and I am not a Republican because I know EXACTLY what their economic policy is. That is our policy choices: Inept cluelessness on one side, and hapless fantasy-based lunacy on the other.

Barry Ritholtz

[emphasis in original]

Friday, July 22, 2011


The disappearance of unemployment from elite policy discourse and its replacement by deficit panic has been truly remarkable. It’s not a response to public opinion. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 53 percent of the public named the economy and jobs as the most important problem we face, while only 7 percent named the deficit. Nor is it a response to market pressure. Interest rates on U.S. debt remain near historic lows. [emphasis added]

The Lesser Depression, Paul Krugman

Friday, July 8, 2011


There is not enough cognitive energy in us to doubt everything

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Half an Apology

Perhaps I was too harsh on Tom Wright in my last post. He is entitled to interpret the "big picture" of the New Testament in any way he chooses.

However, I am searching for a good explanation of what Wright means when he says that Christians must be at work building the Kingdom of God. What does this look like, exactly. Is it political? Charitable? Because as soon as he tells us what the Kingdom of God looks like, we can fairly judge whether it is an exciting development or a bunch of twaddle. What does it have to show for itself after two thousand years?

As Joel hints at but takes in another direction, talk of Christ's victory over "principalities and powers" is senseless until you tell us what powers and principalities these are. Until then we might just have to conclude that you are obfuscating for fear of being exposed as holding an empty faith.

Too Clever by Half

Gotta love how Tom Wright interprets John's baptism as a "symbolic reenactment of the Exodus" (Jesus and the Kingdom* 29:38) instead of an extension of the well-established Jewish practice of ritual cleansing, a Mikvah, as in "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

You get used to Christians desperately re-interpreting OT writings to justify their belief in Jesus as Messiah but it is a real treat to see it happen with NT texts.

*-InterVarsity Press Conference, January 1999 diownloaed from

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I just listened to the Unbelievable program's podcast featuring a "discussion" between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman supposedly addressing the topic: Biblical evidence for the Resurrection.

My question is why did the program give Mike Licona over an hour of the 90 minute broadcast? The funny part is that Licona would make sweeping generalizations about, say, the reliability of oral tradition, and then have to back down when Ehrman shot down his claims. One wonders what kind of misinformation Licona is able to spread to audiences when there isn't a genuine scholar present to check up on him.

Than are Dreamt of in Your Metaphysics

My problem with philosophers who sit so secure in the belief that they have a superior source of truth is that their output almost never has to face the test of actual reality.

I chuckled reading this story related by Carl Sagan in Demon Haunted World:
At a dinner many decades ago, the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to the toast, "To physics and metaphysics." By "metaphysics," people then meant something like philosophy, or truths you could recognize just by thinking about them. They could also have included pseudoscience.

Wood answered along these lines: The physicist has an idea. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He consults the scientific literature. The more he reads, the more promising the idea becomes. Thus prepared, he goes to the laboratory and devises an experiment to test it. The experiment is painstaking. Many
possibilities are checked. The accuracy of measurement is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful experimentation, the idea is found to be worthless. So the physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of error, and moves on to something else.

The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded as he raised his glass high, is not that the practitioners of one are smarter than the practitioners of the other. The difference is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.

(Read last night in Demon Haunted World but got text from Textuality)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Failed Prophesy and a Mirror

I was pleased as punch when my Sunday school class didn't have me burned at the stake for suggesting that one of the first failed prophesies concerning The Rapture (tm) was that of Tars Tarkas Paul of Tarsus. He spends a good deal of time explaining why one shouldn't get married or treat your spouse in a manner other than how you would a sibling - Jesus is comin'.

With all the gleeful mocking by more sensible Christians of Harold Camping's May 21 prediction for The Second Coming (tm), it is easy to forget that Jesus made a similar, if slightly less specific, prediction in Matt 24:33-34:
33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
And Matt 16:28:
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
As James McGrath bravely points out, it has been two thousand years. Maybe it's time to stop looking for a guy in sandals to fly in and hit the reset button. Any number of bloggers chimed in with all the standard predictions of May 22 rationalizations and pity for Camping's followers. And yet many of them claim that to expect that God's judgment could happen any day now. Do they really fail to see the millenia of post-failure rationalization?
  • A thousand days is like a single day to God (2 Peter)?
  • God's time is not man's time?
  • There was a spiritual Second Coming?
  • It all happened in 70 ce (Preterism)?
  • It happened at the Ascension?
  • When Jesus said "generation" he meant "race" (Jerome)?
  • God changed his mind - you passed the test (Shepherd of Hermas)?
The excuses pile up until the "reasonable" Christian just ignores the issue while continuing to insist that belief in the Second Coming is essential to Christian belief.

It all reminds me of the defense offered by the religious against being called a cult, "My religion has been around for thousands of years." Essentially, a failed prophecy stops being a failed prophecy once it has failed long enough.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Klieg Lights of Imaginative Failure Edition

There has always been something unidentifiable about The Lord of the Rings that I found less and less as I read other fantasy novels. It was something that Ursula LeGuin's novels maintained but I did not feel in David Eddings The Belgariad series or The Sword of Shanara (forgive me, honey!) .

I abandoned fantasy and science fiction when I sensed that the author's were trying to impress me with the little world they had created. Long monologues on the origins of this or that feature choke the narratives and expose all to the harsh klieg lights of imaginative failure. RingWorld seems just too impressed with itself. Ender's Game is so contrived that I could never place higher than the lesser original Star Trek episodes. To me these genres, if they could anymore be considered separate, had played themselves out.

Expressing the depth of my feelings on the subject has been difficult. Certainly in J R R Tolkien, one never loses the sense that there is so much more than you are being shown. In LOTR, he resists explaining every little detail of, say, the origins of the barrow downs or Tom Bombadil. Middle Earth keeps her secrets. Each wondrous revelation carries within it further mysteries that we can smell but will never be allowed to taste.

Now, in a wonderful piece in Slate relating the stages of grief for a Star Wars Fan,
Star Wars, in its heyday, seemed like more than just a bunch of movies. As Mike Leigh would have said, the characters really did go around corners: When a bit-player like Admiral Ackbar left the screen, you could believe that he was going off to have his own adventure. Only the original series could do that for me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Book Titles if There Really Were a God

Emily Yoffe's suggestion for the title of the children's book that Newt Gingrich's (third) wife is releasing in the fall:
Mommy, Who’s that Blonde Lady Standing So Close to Daddy?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Playing the Un-Godwin-Card: Torture Edition

Attributed to "A former high-level CIA officer (Philip Giraldi)":
Many governments that have routinely tortured to obtain information have abandoned the practice when they discovered that other approaches actually worked better for extracting information. Israel prohibited torturing Palestinian terrorist suspects in 1999. Even the German Gestapo stopped torturing French resistance captives when it determined that treating prisoners well actually produced more and better intelligence. [emphasis added]
When even the Gestapo decides that yourtechniques are too cruel to be useful, you need to do some serious soul searching - I'm talking to you George, Dick and America!

Monday, May 9, 2011

As Long as We are Talking About Education Reform...

Keep Bill Gates away from your children:
If there’s some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears.
Apparantly Bill Gates can sweep in and fix America's schools with his magic wand. This kind of simplistic thinking (choose one: School Size, Merit Pay, Charter Schools, Vouchers) needs to be kicked to the curb so that real analysis can be brought to bear on a complex issue

KIPP Fails Science Test

The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, network of charter schools has announced that one third of the students from two of its middle schools who graduated at least ten years ago have completed a four year degree. The report breathlessly notes (emphasis in the original!):
KIPP’s college completion rate is four times the rate of comparable students from low-income communities across the country.
As Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science in education at Teachers College, Columbia University notes:
"There is good reason to think that KIPP families, even if they are low-income, are atypical in their interest and concern about education," said Henig in a phone interview today. He said that since the report is based on data from the first two KIPP schools, it's likely that the parents of students at those schools were especially highly motivated. "They may be atypical in that as soon as they heard about this option for KIPP schools, they were first in the door and were unusually interested and concerned about their kids' education."

Henig observed that studies that compare students who were selected for the lottery of a charter school and those who weren't selected provide a better comparison. "Then you are effectively comparing motivated families to motivated families."
So, the people who are claiming to have revolutionized education don't know what a valid scientific or statistical study looks like.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Theology

I was reading Jason Boyett's entry in Rachel Held Evans' Rally to Restore Unity series when I came across this passage:
But I can share with them my simple theology:

This world is broken, full of sin and sickness and pain and trouble and evil. That all that bad stuff keeps us from having a relationship with God, a relationship He desires.
I suppose that belief in The Fall and the Garden of Eden are not absolutely necessary to be a Christian but they fill a hole without which it would be impossible. In order to maintain all the feel-good bits of being Christian, one has to deal with a world that is not cooperating in colaborating your beliefs. Your assumptions about what God has to be like in order for you to believe in him run up against the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives we all live. So you just make stuff up. You invent Theology. Subjected to the outsider test, the idea that God created a perfect world that humans damaged, either by eating an apple or by excercising free will - it doesn't matter which - appears laughable and narcessitic.

Henceforth let Theology be defined as follows:

(1) Those improbable scenarios invented to justify believing in a God who could not possibly exist given the world in which we live

(2) That which "we cook up to justify whatever circus we are trying next." (Bill Kinnon)

Friday, April 29, 2011

In Large Friendly Letters: Don't Panic

Oh my God! American students are falling behind the rest of the world!! Soft Liberal Communist Hippies have ruined the once vaunted American eduction system!!!

Or not:
Back in 1964, American 13-year-olds took the First International Math Study and ended up ranking in 11th place. Considering that only 12 nations participated, including Australia, Finland, and Japan, our next-to-last performance was pretty abysmal.
This was six years into the Sputnik panic. We have never been a super-educated society. Christ, doesn't any one remember the Scopes trial? America has enjoyed an anti-elite, anti-intellectual run of about 250 years. Even Thomas Jefferson put his trust in dirt farmers.

Oh yeah, and:
Between the 2006 and 2009 PISA tests, our scores "increased 5 points in reading, 13 points in math, and 13 points in science."
Did I mention that the US also has the largest disparity between top and bottom performers of any of the countries tested (China only tested in Shanghai...)?

Separate but "equal" lives!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Screw the Poor: Social Security Edition

When someone suggests that we raise the age on Medicare or Social Security benefits, it seems like such an intuitively fair solution. Surely it affects all of us equally, right?

As it turns out, this is just another way that the poor are going to suffer in order to save everyone else a tax increase. You see, the poor are living longer but not nearly as long as the rich! The life expectancy for those in the top income brackets has been increasing at twice the rate as that of lower income workers.

Below is the Social Security Administration's calculation for median* life expectancy based on birth year. The figures are given for those in the bottom half of the income distribution and the top half.

Birth yearBottom 50%Top 50%

In the end, low income Americans are subsidizing their richer neighbors. Every year of benefits we shave off further distorts the "fairness". Add to that the fact that many of the low paying jobs are also more physically demanding (a lawyer can eek out a longer career than a coal miner) and you are left with not a fair policy but a cruel one.

*- approximated as "first age at which less than half the sample of male Social Security-covered workers is alive"

ht: Paul Krugman

Friday, April 22, 2011

Islam vs Christianity: A Travelog

More than periodically we are confronted with the claim that Islam is a violent religion. Two issues seem to drive this response: violent jihad and honor killings (or other forms of "justice"). I have had to confront this in my own Sunday school class.

My first thought is always that honor killings, at least, are not a part of Islamic culture but are a hang over from the tribal culture in some areas where Islam predominates. I strongly suspect that violent interpretations of Jihad can be traced to the similar sources. This is not to deny that Muslim writings do not contain verses that can be used to support of atrocities. They may even be more common than in Christian writings. However, there are enough calls to stoning or polygamy in the Christian scriptures that the fact we manage to ignore them indicates that human kind is not in thrall to Law. We pick and chose. Which parts of the Quran are ignored in Indonesia or Nigeria?

Given that Islam grew and evolved within certain cultural milieu, how has Christianity's historical path affected its current "culture"? Was there a specific difference between spreading through the cultures of 7th/8th C North Africa, Middle East and Asia Minor versus spreading in 1st-4th C Roman Empire? A difference between conquering local populations versus "co-opting" the Imperial machinery?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

No Wonder

It's no wonder that I sometimes feel like I can't get ahead. I have been weened on the promise of the American Dream. Upward and onward!

Then there is this:

There are currently 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. (as of March 2011). There were 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. So that is over eleven years with no increase in total payroll jobs...

And the median household income in constant dollars was $49,777 in 2009. That is barely above the $49,309 in 1997, and below the $51,100 in 1998....

Just a reminder that many Americans have been struggling for a decade or more. The aughts were a lost decade for most Americans.
Is it fair to expect standards of living to improve continually? That's been the American exceptionalist mantra for my entire life.

Some will say that income and quality of life are not strongly correlated or that technology has driven down the price of many goods (computers, TVs, iPads). Show me the math and we can discuss.

More on Gene COMT

The article describing how COMT gene may influence learning patterns that generated my Free Will post has triggered another thought.

Is this the beginning of the discovery of the biology underlying the personality patterns described Carl Jung and expanded by Briggs and Myers in the MBTI? My ENTP brain is all lit up with the possibilities!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Free Will vs COMT

If this pans out, then Free Will has taken a hit: confirmation bias may actually be influenced by your genes...
People's willingness to let advice color their experience hinges at least in part on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, reward and learning. The researchers pinpointed one gene in particular, COMT, that seems to play a role in a person's inclination to learn from his or her own experiences...

People with an exceptional ability to spot inaccurate instructions and start making decisions using their own experience tended to have the Val/Val version of the gene, whereas those who needed "greater confidence" that their experience was telling them to jettison earlier advice were more likely to have the Met allele.

Scientific American, "Refuse to learn from experience? Thank your genes"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Amateur Psychology Moment: for Monday, April 25

Why is it I frequent mostly religious and economics blogs? Am I sucker for lost causes?!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Twin Peeks

For those who loved all the eery results of the Minnesota Twin Study and/or found The Bell Curve persuasive:
In one study, Eric Turkheimer and colleagues studied 320 pairs of 7-year-old twins who were raised in extreme poverty. Among the poorest, the shared environment accounted for most of the differences in IQ (60%), and the genes accounted for very little; consequently, in this study, the heritability of IQ was reported to be close to zero! Among the richest, however, the heritability of IQ approached what Bouchard found: variations in the genes accounted for most of the differences in IQ scores, and the shared environment accounted for very little of the variance. This study points to the fact that estimates of heritability depend on the sample that is studied, and the environment of that sample.

Straight Talk about Twin Studies, Genes, and Parenting: What Makes Us Who We Are, Psychology Today
It would seem that these studies of twins raised largely in upper-middle class homes (US adoptions have almost exclusively been to well-off, two parent homes) may be poisoned by the uniform environment of employed parents and decent schools. As Turkheimer's along with various French studies (described here) have discovered, growing up in a poor environment has a marked effect on outcomes.

The appeal of the Minnesota study can be the same as that of eugenicist works like The Bell Curve: they comfort us with seeming proof that our comfortable lives are if not self-made, at least predestined. Our responsibility for reaching out to others who have not shared our luck - say through more equitable school funding - can safely be ignored.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Safe Nuclear Energy?

I will admit that other forms of energy beside nuclear have negative effects - coal mining, oil drilling, hydroelectric projects. I find the effects of uranium mining are under-covered but perhaps there is a lower volume of ore required in the case of uranium that mitigates the effects.

The burr under my saddle today is the claim that a much smaller number of people are killed by nuclear incidents than other energy-related industries. This is likely true but I have a question? What other activity requires the evacuation of the population for 20 some odd miles following an accident? Could this "precaution" be affecting the numbers a wee bit? And what about the impact of that contaminated zone through the years? The area around Chernobyl turns out not to be the wildlife haven that some would have had you believe.

So, we have the fact that actual deaths from radiation is low versus the fact that large areas might be declared off limits following the Fukushima Daiichi and future accidents. Sounds like the nuclear mavens are playing a little game of misdirection to me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Twin Peaks

At the same time I have been checking up on ol' Mister Oil Supply, my interest has peaked (pun intended) concerning the future of Uranium. The latest official word from the IAEA seems be from 2009:
At 2008 rates of consumption, total identified resources are sufficient for over 100 years of supply.
Am I the only one who is noticing that, if the promises of the current so-called Nuclear Renaissance come to fruition, that we could easily be looking at consumption rates twice that of 2008? Would this not bring the supply down to something closer to 50-60 years - approximately the service life of a reactor? Throw in a few undiscovered sources and we might squeeze out another 20 or 30 years. Are we talking about building a generation and a half of reactors and then having to ditch those and find some other form of energy? If this is what passes for planning for the future I certainly hope our grandchildren are far more resourceful than we are.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You May Want To Go Ahead And Fill Up Your SUV Now

In case you missed it,we are running out of oil, well at least oil that you can afford.

Above is a slide presented by the US Energy Information Agency back in 2009. It clearly shows that world oil production is expected to drop off in the coming years. In case you are wondering what "Unidentified Projects" are, think alternative liquid fuels - namely ethanol. That's right, we Americans think we can replace that oil with ethanol. Once all those acres of corn are planted, we can start talking about Peak Food.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thank God We're Smarter Than [insert foriegn county here]

The headline reads: Japanese Rules for Nuclear Plants Relied on Old Science

In the end do we really believe that American nuclear interests understand risk any better or are less cost averse than those in a technologically sophisticated country like Japan? Remember, American financial experts believed that they had banished risk with credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations.

Japanese nuclear officials are using that hoary phrase, "No one could have anticipated..." I hate to beat a dead horse here, but the Black Swan can not be wished away. For something as critical as a nuclear plant (or even many chemical plants) it is not enough to plan for the anticipated. Designs must be robust enough to handle the unanticipated or the project should not be done at.

The big question is whether this inability to evaluate risk properly is so ingrained in the structure of the human brain that it is impossible to overcome and hence humility demands that we limit the kind of activities we attempt. Call me a Neo-Luddite?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Time to Call It Quits

I have a nuclear engineer friend from college who bristles anytime someone questions the safety of nuclear power. On the assumption that she doesn't read this blog (or is reasonable enough to view recent events with alarm), I will say the following:

We have now had major natural disasters within the space of about 10 years - Katrina and the Sendai Earthquake. We have also had two energy-related environmental disasters in the space of a year - the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown. In our reckless pursuit of cheap energy we are forced to employ ever more fragile and questionable technologies, deepwater drilling, nuclear power, tar-sands and natural gas frac-ing. At what point do we sell our SUVs and admit that we are not living in a Star Trek universe where dilithium crystals will solve all our energy needs. We might prepare for situation X and Y but Z is always out there along with a thousand cousins. The Black Swan will always be poised to strike at our softest points.

I can't speak for my spouse but I think I am prepared to make some changes. I already drive a two-door Speck that gets 36 mpg on the highway, the best alternative I can afford. We have already moved from the ex-urbs to the suburbs and think I am ready to move far enough into the city to make public transportation a viable alternative if it is available. The problem is that our society is organized to make these lifestyle choices difficult. For instance, if I moved downtown, my job would still be in the suburbs and the hopes surrounding telecommuting are not being realized on anything approaching a realistic scale.

There have been numerous calls after each disaster for more investment in alternative energy but that is a dead end. The answer is not "more-but-different energy". That let's each of us off the hook of personal responsibility. Sadly, the answer is "less".

Monday, March 14, 2011

You Know That God Knows That You Know

Great blog post by Jesse Bering at Scientific American. He reviews an experiment on children and "magical thinking."

Along with the somewhat surprising conclusion that 9 year-olds are more likely to assign supernatural significance to perceived events than 5 and 6 year-olds, comes an exploration of the theory of mind - an individual's model of what another person might be thinking. The cool bit is when the discussion turns to second-, third- and even seventh-order theories of mind:
For example, in the everyday (nonsupernatural) social domain, one would need this kind of mature theory of mind to reason in the following manner:
"Jakob thinks that Adrienne doesn’t know I stole the jewels."

Whereas a basic ("first-order") theory of mind allows even a young preschooler to understand the first propositional clause in this statement, "Jakob thinks that . . . ," it takes a somewhat more mature ("second-order") theory of mind to fully comprehend the entire social scenario: "Jakob thinks that [Adrienne doesn’t know] . . ."

Most people can’t go much beyond four orders of mental-state reasoning (consider the Machiavellian complexities of, say, Leo Tolstoy’s novels), but studies show that the absolute maximum in adults hovers around seven orders of mental state.

I personally find myself sinking fast as the orders of mind theory build. Rather than a illuminating a general failure of intelligence (other evidence may exist!), my occasional mental discomfort has a specific cause. Others with a more highly developed skill might even enjoy flexing their theory of mind muscles (Isaac Asimov comes to "mind").

There are such a myriad of mental skills that we practice each day. Encountering an explanation of a hitherto unexplored example brings that unique rush of "Ah ha!" and provides the high that helps a nerd get through the day.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Which Judaism did David Practice?

Reading 1 Samuel in which two oddities have struck me.

The first is: Why is there an idol handy for David's wife - and Saul's daughter - to stuff under the blankets while David escapes? (1 Samuel 19:13)

The second, related issue is: Why does 1 Samuel keep mentioning sacrifices taking place in Bethlehem? Were sacrifices not limited to the the temple in that period?

Idols. Family Sacrifices. Asherah Figurines. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone can read the Old Testament and conclude that Judaism is this monolithic, eternally unchanging institution. In fact, this is becoming one of my litmus tests for evaluating the claims of scholars (and pseudo-scholars).

Monday, March 7, 2011

And So It Begins

For decades the growth of international trade has contained a sometimes discussed but rarely embraced threat to American workers: wage competition. Every president and free trader (redundant?) has promised us that our wages would never plummet to the level of our foriegn competitors because the magic U.S. economy would replace all those low-skill, low-pay jobs with sparkling high-tech jobs that we could walk in to straight from community college graduation. Or maybe not.

An analysis of the latest job "gains" come to a disturbing conclusion: even the meager gains in job creation experienced in February produced mostly low-wage openings ($9-$12 per hour) while biggest loses from the Great Recession were in the higher paying jobs ($19 to $31 hourly range).
In the private sector, there is a striking imbalance between where the recession’s job losses occurred, and where the growth of the past 12 months was concentrated:
  • Lower-wage industries constituted 23 percent of job loss, but fully 49 percent of recent growth
  • Mid-wage industries constituted 36 percent of job loss, and 37 percent of recent growth
  • Higher-wage industries constituted 40 percent of job loss, but only 14 percent of recent growth
National Employment Law Project, February 2011
Or as Robert Reich puts it:
For several years now, conservative economists have blamed high unemployment on the purported fact that many Americans have priced themselves out of the global/high-tech jobs market.

So if we want more jobs, they say, we’ll need to take pay and benefit cuts.

And that’s exactly what Americans have been doing.

Of course, with US productivity climbing over the last 30 years but wages stagnant, one might suspect that there is more than international competition going on here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Moral Deficit Crisis

Yesterday I linked to a David Brooks editorial in which he suggests that we should "reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life." Frankly I found it incomprehensible how someone could espouse this line and claim to be "moral". I now think I get it. My problem was that I was imagining pulling the plug on people like John F Kennedy, Audie Murphy or others of the so-called Greatest Generation. That, of course, would be reprehensible.

Fortunately we are not talking about euthanizing this group of heroes, great and small. No, this policy nugget is timed perfectly to coincide with the dotage of the Baby Boomers! Conservatives seem to have a special scorn for Baby Boomers - among whom they never count themselves, regardless of birth cohort. If these self-indulgent former hippies die helplessly in their beds, well then, that is just karma landing back on their morally bankrupt selves.

Turns out the moral deficit crisis is not fiscal at all. The actual deficit that the conservatives find is in the character of the post-WWII generation and it must be repaid in blood and breath.

I can't wait to see what these fine moral crusaders have in store for us slacker Gen-X types...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

GOP Death Panel QOD

We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

David Brooks
How is this different from the supposed death panels that the Palinistas invented in their attempt to derail health care reform? Ah, the conservatives do it in the name of unbearable taxes on capital gains!

Tom Scocca spots the emperor's hind quarters:
The debt—the runaway debt—has nothing to do with morality. Casting the debt as an object of moral concern is the work of minds that have come detached from human experience. The debt is an epiphenomenon. It is the side effect created by the specific moral decisions about what the country wishes to see funded, and how it is willing to fund those things.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cheesehead Shame

One could argue that the Wisconsin GOP's tactics in calling a vote for the governor's/Koch brother's state budget bill is balanced by the Democratic senators' quorum-denying maneuver of vacating the state.

Once one peruses the 140+ page bill in depth, however, all semblance of equivalency dissolves. The Republicans expose themselves as the corrupt and power-hungry scoundrels that they are.
To wit, this gem from the bill:
“Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”
Basically, the governor can sell state assets to his cronies (read the Koch brothers?) for any sweetheart price he likes and not be subject to any oversight. In what way is this good government? Or government at all? As Krugman points out, this is more Baghdad than middle America and the governor and his buddies should be ashamed!

ht: pk

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


That's BUMPER STICKER of the day!
When Jesus said love your enemies, I think he meant don't shoot them.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Only in the lived out life, death and resurrection of the Word made flesh is God’s presence most fully encountered. But that is in tune with the way in which Torah in Judaism is also a vehicle of encounter...

Doug Chaplin

Many Christians are way too quick to jump on the bandwagon of the Impossible Law of the Jews. I always ask myself why that nation would treasure the so-called Law* for so many millenia if it were of such little use. Nice to see there are those recognizing the possible value of the Torah from the Christian side of the aisle.

* - As a bonus, Doug sets the record straight: Torah meant "Teaching" until the LXX translated it as "Law". As the much missed Emily Litella would have said, "Oh, that's very different.... Never mind!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Before Borland's new spreadsheet for Windows shipped, Philippe Kahn, the colorful founder of Borland, was quoted a lot in the press bragging about how Quattro Pro would be much better than Microsoft Excel, because it was written from scratch. All new source code! As if source code rusted.
Joel Spolsky, Joel on Software

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

By Any Other Name?

It is almost amusing to watch the kerfuffle over Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book, Forged. From what I can determine from news coverage and the blurb on various websites, Dr. Ehrman is claiming that ancient writers sometimes used the names of persons of authority and wrote things that were not strictly true in order to win points for their theological side of the debates that characterized the first few centuries of the Christian era.

Ehrman’s sin it seems is in calling a spade a spade.

Jim West (who seems continuously on the prowl for his next outrage fix) sets the tone for the reaction on the conservative blogosphere. First the irony; in the very same sentence Doctor Pastor West states that Ehrman “cannot POSSIBLY know what intention was operative in the minds of the writers of those texts” while calling him a “publicity seeking deceiver”. Apparently Dr. West CAN POSSIBLY know what intention was operative in the mind of Dr. Ehrman! Tee Hee!

More to the point, is this criticism valid? Would any of Ehrman’s critics cringe if The Book of Mormon were referred to as a forgery? I doubt it. It would be universally acknowledged that throughout history religious writings were passed off as authentic works of figures from the Bible. A pile of works was rejected from the canon because each was suspected of being “inauthentic” – read “a forgery”. We all know it was going on. So if we can detect in a work some anachronistic element that conveniently counters a later “heretical” claim and have good reason to doubt the attributed authorship of the work then what other conclusion are we supposed to come to other than that it is a forgery perpetrated to further the views of the forger. It may soothe West’s feelings to call it mimicry but the fact is that even Paul was concerned about forgeries. To wit, he writes in 2 Thess 3:17 “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.” Why would Paul feel the need to authenticate his letters if so-called mimesis was harmless and nothing like that as nasty forgery?

Personally, I applaud Bart Ehrman’s attempts to bring these kinds of issues to the attention of a public who has is still being told that Moses wrote Deuteronomy and Matthew is an eyewitness account. Does he over do it sometimes? Yeah, perhaps. But compared to the twaddle that passes religious instruction these days, I am willing to take a risk.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rumors of the Death of Hal

As I watched the Nova episode introducing our new overlord,the Jeopardy-playing computer named Watson, I was reminded of an observation my AI professor once made. The history of artificial intelligence is crisscrossed with lines drawn in the sand declaring something like,"machines are not intelligent because only humans can do X" whether X is playing chess or playing Jeopardy. When at last IBM produces a computer that can accomplish the forbidden task, the nay-sayers look under the hood and say, "It isn't really displaying intelligence. It is just some clever programming, etc..." Then they grab a bit of drift wood and start drawing a new line.

I am here to declare that I have seen under the hood and am willing to admit, "It isn't really displaying intelligence. It is just some clever programming, etc..."

There has been a seeming breakthrough in the last few years in the realm of computer translation. The best known example of this is the translation feature at After decades of research in language parsing and artificial intelligence, has the Holy Grail of AI been achieved? Not at all. Some computer scientists decided that they could do translation without understanding the content of the text they are translating. All they had to do was gather a large amount of text with corresponding translations in other languages and smash them together until, through clever programming, they can map one series of sub-phrases in Ukrainian to a statistically similar series in English. Turns out this is good enough for government work and the scientists involved deserve kudos. But let us be honest, what has happened is that they have thrown hardware at the problem in much the same they calculate the value of pi to rediculous decimal places.

Enter Watson.

How does this clever bit of programming convert the sometimes satirical Jeopardy clues to answers-in-the-form-of-a-question? It smashes vast amounts of text together along with vast numbers of historical Jeopardy clues until it winnows the possible answers to the most likely. Oh yeah, and in order to save Watson's hide prior to its debut on national television, the developers added a subroutine to use the other, human, players' answers to help understand the categories. I realize that the human players use their opponents responses to narrow down possible answers but it seems that Watson is piggy-backing on the human facility with language to glean the crucial factor of context.

The creators of Watson are quick to point out that they are not claiming that the machine is intelligent in any way that humans would recognize. I agree that it is merely a highly sophisticated search engine. However, judging by the way the project leader takes offense at jokes made at Watson's expense, the urge to anthropomorphize a "language using" machine is irresistible.

Although it sometimes seems that artificial intelligence has been thrown over in favor of flashy tools that "play" chess or game shows, perhaps this is good for the field. While Murray Wiggle (I swear that one of the developers looked just like the red Wiggle) labors to get Watson a date with Alex Trebek, researchers in AI are recognizing that no matter how many games of chess they win, they must conquer the things a five year old has mastered - e.g. the motivations of others - before they can arrive at true machine intelligence.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Doubleplusungood Oz

I finished The Oz Principle (no link provided for fear of spreading contagion) in advance of a day long training session on Oz. I am all a-quiver!

This questionable tome seems to be summed up with this gem in its last chapter:
most anything will work if you get Above The Line® and use your head
Basically, if your efforts are successful you were obviously following the authors principles. If you fail, you fell Below The Dredded Line. In the end they have covered their tails by redefining "GOOD" as "Above The Line" and "BAD" as "Below The Line".

Orwell would be proud.

Missing Mark Found!

In my last post I examined what the post-resurrection appearance in Matthew's gospel might tell us about original ending of Mark. It was late and, well, I'm a moron so I left out the other equally probable interpretation.

Instead of having an indication that Matthew was "correcting" an appearance-less Mark, Matthew may be preserving the original but now lost ending of Mark. Matthew obviously has very little tradition of Jesus appearances to draw on and the short scene he did include would be in keeping with the sparsity of Mark's narrative. Are the vocabulary and grammar sufficiently Markan to warrant this conclusion or my previous one? I will have to leave that analysis to the experts.

Now imagine that Matthew got to the end of his source, Mark, found no post-resurrection Jesus and just, well, stopped like Mark did. Wouldn't "is told among the Jews to this day" make a snazzy ending. I can just see Matthew stoking his beard significantly as he reads these words to the audience at the Gospel Slam. Now we would have both Mark's and Matthew's sitting around with the ends exposed and the scribes having to fix up both!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Missing Mark Found?

It is well known that the ending of the Gospel According to Mark is problematic. Some ancient manuscripts end the gospel at Mark 16:8 and others insert a number of different endings suggesting that no solid tradition survived concerning any text after the eighth verse. This has led some scholars to conclude that there never was an ending and that the author of Mark intended the sudden and dramatic ending.

One thought that has occurred to me is that Matthew's gospel gives a further indication that the "missing" ending may never have existed or at least was lost extremely early. We all know (I think) that Matthew borrows heavily from Mark. In fact Mark is Matthew's primary source for narrative details. When we read the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, of course we get the cute story about the guards which "is told among the Jews to this day" (Kudos to Matthew for this nice bit of apologetics). This is followed by chapter 28, verses 16-20
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
This brief and simple appearance story pales next to Luke's and John's memorable versions. However, if we line it up with Mark's passion narrative a curious thing happens. Matthew's appearance story is precisely what we would expect to follow Mark 16:8, namely the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee just as the young man in the white robe instructed the women at the tomb saying, "he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Mark 16:7.

Is Matthew stuck with a copy of Mark that ends without the promised reunion? Does he feel the need add exactly the scene that so many scribes felt compelled to supply as well? I must admit that I never felt completely satisfied with the conclusion that Mark ended so abruptly but this little detail has me rethinking my position.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Life After Capitalism

From Robert Skidelsky - Life After Capitalism:
We ban pornography and restrict violence on TV, believing that they affect people negatively, yet we should believe that unrestricted advertising of consumer goods affects only the distribution of demand, but not the total?
Capitalism’s defenders sometimes argue that the spirit of acquisitiveness is so deeply ingrained in human nature that nothing can dislodge it. But human nature is a bundle of conflicting passions and possibilities. It has always been the function of culture (including religion) to encourage some and limit the expression of others.

Indeed, the “spirit of capitalism” entered human affairs rather late in history. Before then, markets for buying and selling were hedged with legal and moral restrictions. A person who devoted his life to making money was not regarded as a good role model. Greed, avarice, and envy were among the deadly sins. Usury (making money from money) was an offense against God.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wither Wal-Mart

I am pushing through The Oz Principle now. Having endured unending peans to Jack Welch the name dropping has inevitably arrived at Wal-Mart. Every supposed success story drives me to google to see if there is a "rest of the story" and Wal-Mart is no exception. While poking around I came to this chart of Wal-Mart's profitability.

The first thing to notice is how consistent the trend of profit level has been. It is also flat and may be bending downward of late. Do they get kudos for maintaining such consistency over a decade or blame for failing to increase the profitability in any real way? I don't know and don't care.

The figure that struck me was under the chart where it says that Wal-Mart is in the 41st percentile for profitability among all corporations measured, 49th among services companies and 46th among discount, variety stores. Hardly a world beater - just middle of the pack.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

QOD - Peace and War

I have been searching for this for some time and finally found it in a box back in a closet:
If a man could not look at the fact of peace and the fact of war and choose the former in preference to the latter, what additional argument could persuade him.

The Currents of Space, Isaac Asimov.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


A deity whose attempts to punish humankind through storms and diseases can be thwarted is at least as problematic as a deity thought of as using such imprecise weapons in the first place.
Jim McGrath - Exploring Our Matrix

Monday, January 3, 2011

Manga safe for kids?

I have a pre-teen daughter whose friend reads a lot of manga and watches a lot of anime. Recently my daughter started watching Full Metal Alchemist.

My wife and I have watched some of FMA and are little disturbed. The violence is pretty graphic with characters walking through puddles of blood. Also, the drawings are quite dark and I found themes like a corrupt ruling military potentially too mature for an eleven year old. That said, my daughter is fairly sophisticated for her age so we might have been willing to overlook these.

The element of FMA that has really got us wondering is the focus on death and souls - more specifically the ways in which souls are manipulated, bodies stolen, soulless creatures created and souls harvested to create a philosophers stone. My wife and I are struggling with the unwholesome nature of this series and do not think that the occult theme is balanced adequately by redemptive elements.

The question that I hope someone in Blogland can help me with is this:
Are we overreacting or should we not allow our children to watch this show until they are older?

On a related note, when he was seven, we stopped my son from watching the Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon whose plot including soul-stealing. Is this a common theme with manga and anime and something to which we as parents need to pay special attention?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gould's Kettle

On his blog, Arni Zachariassen posts a passage from John Polkinghorne's Questions of Truth which trots out the idea that science and religion are not incompatible because science answers "how" questions and religion answers "why" questions. Polkinghorne uses the analogy of a kettle whose boiling water can be explained by the fire burning under it but the reason why it is boiling is because John want's a cup of tea. Stephen J Gould was less homey in his rendition of this concept and apparently needed an acronym: NOMA - Non-Overlaping MAgisteria. Below I reproduce the comments I contributed to Mr Zachariassen's post more or less as it appears on his blog:

Non-Overlaping MAgisteria works nicely as a philosophical stance but I always run into trouble when trying to apply it to the real world, to the way people actually practice religion. While many of a more intellectual bent seem inclined to separate the hows from the whys, the vast majority of believers hold that the active work of the divine is central to why they believe. They will tell you that the beauty and complexity of the universe could not have come about without some intelligence behind it. They will look for divine interventions in their family relationships, careers, health and parking places - [couldn't resist! ;)] They will tell you that they have felt their heart strangely warmed. They will tell you that your actions now will be balanced by fortune in this life or a future one.

All of these common religious experiences are hows, not whys. They express either a belief in a supernatural mechanism that determines events in the world or a direct intervention of the divine into the workings of the physical world (I am including mental states here). This is where I believe analogies like the Kettle fall short (or Stephen J Gould's Non-Overlapping MAgisteria). They explain only a part of what religion does - the part that appeals to the analogist - while pretending that the "how" elements endemic to religion either don't exist or are somehow not valid.