Friday, March 30, 2012

... and yet it moves

"Eppur Si Muove" -- "And yet it moves" -- words often attributed to Galileo when he was forced to recant prior to the Inquisition. He may or may not have actually said them, but the point is salient regardless. He was describing the movement of the Earth around the Sun, a configuration that the Church did not want to concede as it would shatter their world view. Whether the Church wanted the Earth to be the center of the universe or not, it doesn't really change the facts. Maybe Galileo wouldn't have been so quick with a comeback if he had been given the "comfy chair" torture:

As is often the case, history repeats itself, and we have reached a point (at least in America) where a segment of the country feels their belief system crumbling and lashes out at those things that call it into question. Whether it is fighting the teaching of evolution in our classrooms(by putting creationism on equal footing, like in Tennessee) or the denial of climate change, some (and you know who you are) are exerting an all-out assault on science and reason.

Evolution and climate change may not be convenient to your idealogy, but it doesn't lessen their validity. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said,

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

It's not a fair fight. Scientific progress, by its very nature, works on the assumption that all involved parties that are in disagreement are still respectful and are desirous of using reason to resolve that disagreement. Deniers, however, do not. Innuendo, out of context cherry picking of data and ad hominem attacks are all tools that they will use. Scientists will not and cannot use these same tools. It's like carrying a knife to a gun fight, as it were. Climatologist Michael Mann, on a recent NPR Science Friday broadcast (March 2, 2012) explores this issue.

Wunelle shared a great video from this last weekend's Reason Rally. In the video Adam Savage (of MythBusters) gives a short, straightforward account of what reason means in our daily lives. To simply drive a car, fly on a plane, use a computer ... you are relying on hundreds of years of theory, research and experimentation by scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It's not magic. The very people that rail against scientists, that stunt our children by fighting against real science and promoting religion and pseudo-science -- these people have no problem taking advantage of those technologies that are utterly dependent on science.

I propose that all that have a problem with the teaching of science and with the use of reason stop using the fruits of those things. The way I see it, unless you are living in some Quaker or Amana colony driving around in a horse-drawn carriage and spurning the use of technology, you are a fucking hypocrite.

Earlier I said that "some" were against science. That "some" is obviously largely conservatives and most notably the the religious among them. Why this group, that I believe is more vocal than actually large, gets such a prominent place in public discourse - I will never know. But, it is our responsibility as thinking beings to challenge the superstitious and ignorant. As Lawrence Krauss recently said,

" ... Choosing to censor or distort knowledge rather than risk the possibility that such knowledge, or the technologies that result from it, might challenge faith or confront preexisting ideological biases is a something that should better characterize the Taliban or al Qaeda rather than the Republican Party.

As we head into the home stretch of a too-long presidential primary season, it is not too late for the public to turn their back on candidates that turn their back on empirical reality and scientific progress."

When seeing a speech by Rick Santorum, one feels that some elaborate joke is being played on us. This is all just a modern day Monty Python sketch. But it's not and the gravity of the situation takes some of the fun out of it. If we don't fight against this revisited Inquisition, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves for what will become of our society.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Podcast(s) of the Week

This week, I'm highligting two podcasts, one from This Week in Science and the second from Philosophy Bites:

This Week in Science, Feb 02, 2012:

An interview with Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America is the highlight of this podcast. In contrast with a similar recent book by Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science, Otto's book gets into how politicians, in general, seems unwilling to debate issues of science openly. When it is less controversial to hold a public debate on religion than one on science, you know something is fucked up with society.

I have not read either of Otto's or Mooney's books, but they're on my want list. It seems to me that Otto's would be the better for a general audience.

During the interview, Otto also mentioned The Debunking Handbook. This is a 7 page PDF file that you can download here. The Handbook is a good read and is a nice tool when you are debating with purveyors of pseudo-science (Creationists, climate change deniers, etc.).

Beyond Otto's interview, the podcasts has some interesting discussions on the psychology of Facebook posts and the nature of contagious yawns. The podcast runs about an hour.


From Philosophy Bites, Ronald Dworkin, American philosopher and constitutional law scholar, on the "Unity of Value -- Is liberty compatible with equality?"

This is a very good discussion on the practical applicability of philosophical concepts like liberty and equality. Dworkin contends there is a "right answer" to societal problems. Despite what politicians lead you to believe, liberty and social equality are not mutually exclusive.

He says that you can't look in the dictionary for a philosophical definition. You have to be able to apply your concept to the people that are affected by it. We have to "justify what we do in their name" and there can't be a disconnect between theory and action.

The discussion is about 19 minutes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


A bit overdue, here's my review of how we've done on gas mileage with our Prius that we got last May:

This model is rated 50 mpg city, 48 hwy by Toyota and 48/45 by the government's official ratings.

Even in the worse conditions ... fully loaded, on trips to Flagstaff or California climbing a mountain (the dips you see in the graph) ... we have consistently been well above all the ratings. In the summer, when I have the A/C on, I'll have tanks in the 52 or 53 range, but this time of year, I get between 55 and 58. The car is just perfectly suited for how I drive: 30 to 100 miles per day, mostly city driving.

And because of the constant feedback, I've drastically changed how I drive. I rarely speed. I coast to stops as much as I can. I accelerate slower. It's not that I can't do any of those things - the Prius has plenty of power, accelerates quickly and climbs mountains with ease. It's that I can see how doing those behaviors affects gas mileage. Manufacturers should put the MPG rating devices in all cars, hybrid or not. People would get better gas mileage just because they would change how they drive.

All in all, we both love the car. Rides great and has more room than any of the cars we've had before. It's nice that you can drive 600 miles on an 11 gallon tank of gas. I don't like that I have to drive for my business. But as long as I am, I might as well do the best I can.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Podcast of the week

"It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

I'm in the car a lot. Honestly, a ridiculous amount of time. And I've ran the course on sports talk radio. You can only listen to local sports meatballs complaining about stuff they have absolutely no knowledge of for so long. Ideally, I'd listen to NPR all the time but a lot of the shows I like aren't on when I'm driving around. So, for the last year I've been on a huge podcast listening kick. My car stereo has an auxiliary port so that I can plug my Blackberry into it. Plus, I've gotten in the habit of walking 3 or 4 miles each night, so I'll put a bunch of podcasts on the Blackberry and tool around the neighborhood in bliss.

Since I don't have near the amount of time I'd like to read, I've found listening to the podcasts gives me an opportunity to still learn and keep up on films, music, history, science, philosophy, etc. This week, I'm just going to the give you the general sites for the podcasts that I most often download. But, in future weeks (and every week, I hope), I will highlight 3 or 4 specific podcasts that I've listened to that I thought might be of interest to my few readers.

Anyway, here we go:

Filmspotting -- Put on by a couple of Chicago film geeks, these podcasts are frequently over an hour long. They review new movies, but maybe not the blockbusters that most other reviewers waste time on. These are actual good movies that may not get pub from mainstream reviewers. Plus, their shows have themed topics, such as Top 5 Action Thespians, which I just listened to a couple of days ago. Michael Phillips makes frequent appearances as do many indie filmmakers. While they get into a bit of film theory, it's not necessarily all high-brow and a casual film watcher can still get something out of it.

The Naked Scientists -- I like listening to this with my son. It's a British show that explores current science topics in-depth, often interviewing leading scientists. But, it doesn't get too overly technical, so is good for an audience of all ages. Plus, they bring some humor into it.

Nerdist - Hosted by comedian Chris Hardwick. Very irreverent and often off-color, but Hardwick has channelled many years in the entertainment business and his natural inquisitiveness and nerdiness into relationships with a lot of science and sci-fi talent. This is just a sampling of the guests on his podcasts in the past year: Conan O'Brien, David Tennant (Doctor Who), J.J. Abrams, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the cast of Big Bang Theory, Sir Patrick Stewart, etc.

NPR's Fresh Air -- This is probably my favorite NPR show. Terry Gross is arguably the best interviewer in any medium and has been doing it for over 30 years. She'll interview people from just about any area: politicians, actors, scientists, authors, etc.

NPR's All Songs Considered -- I'm relatively new to this podcast but have been very impressed. As their website says, "All Songs Considered is a great place to discover new music that doesn't get a lot of airplay anywhere else.". They will focus on a specific genre each broadcast and give some play to musicians that you may not have heard of but that are fantastic. One week it might be electonic music, another week punk, and yet another week might be themed.

Philosophy Bites -- If you like philosophy, this is really good. They highlight a specific philosophical concept on each podcast and will talk to a philosopher well-versed in that particular topic. The shows are not too long, frequently about 15 minutes. A few topics from the last year: meaning of life, moral relativism, atheism, Hume on design, humanism, free will. Good stuff.

NPR's Science Friday -- If you listen to NPR, most of you will know what this is. Ira Flatow has hosted this couple hour program on current science topics on every Friday (obviously) for as long as I can remember. I was lucky enough to see Ira Flatow in person a few years back at one of the ASU Origins Symposiums that I attended. He's very knowledgeable and understands the relevance and for science and reason in our everyday lives.

Sierra Club Radio - As you would guess, this highlights current environment topics, often speaking with authors and activists. About a half long episodes.

Sound on Sight - Another in-depth movie analysis program of about an hour an episode.

Star Talk Radio -- One of my favorites. This is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I believe he is one of the best science popularizers out there and a tireless advocate for science education and space exploration.

These are just a few of the podcasts available. There are zillions of other smart people making great podcasts. All of these can be found through Itunes or the pages I linked to above. Itunes is probably the best place for searching for podcasts of a specific topic.

The best stuff, the most informative talk, the most intelligent insights ... are not on your TV's. What you see on most television is what someone is paying for you to see or that is trying to sell something. Obviously reading books is probably the best way of getting information, but sometimes that verbal interaction between smart people is great way of learning. And I still want to be learning even when I can't be sitting down reading a book. Listening to something of substance makes me feel like that dead time in a car wasn't a complete waste of my time.

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." -- Ernest Hemingway

Friday, March 02, 2012

... of my youth

Doing a semi-annual purge of my garage, I came upon a box of my paperback books from my late teens, early 20's. Taking a look at pictures I took of them, you get a window into the mind of a shy, but ambitious young man.

It's not just about content of the books, which were great and informed my outlook, but also the cover art. The books are bright, abstract, inventive. All the things that my upbringing in podunk Iowa was not. Escaping into these books gave me the hope that I would not always be where I was then and the impetus to escape once I was able.

I was able to escape, but just not to where I thought I'd end up. Naive me, I thought I'd somehow venture beyond Earth's confines (all sci-fi geeks do) ... or at least save the free world from bad guys and bed the hot Russian spy. Oh well. I may not have done those things, but at least part of me went there - my imagination.

"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."
-- William Shakespeare