Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Biology "Duh!" moments

Warning: Each of the following has a risk of being tainted with my confirmation/hindsight bias. But read them anyway.

The first one (Informed Reader, B4, third item, subscription required) isn't quite a "Duh!" moment; rather, it's just an interesting piece of information. The discovery? Naked mole rats produce less of Substance P (a chemical that causes humans and other organisms to perceive severe pain) than hairy ones. This surprised the scientists somewhat, especially since the rats are quite sensitive to other forms of touch; apparently, Substance P release is linked to chili peppers and acid, among other things. I'll be watching this for more future development.

Here's the second one (D9, subscription required, from Reuters). You've likely all heard of Tamiflu, a new-ish drug developed to treat influenza, especially bird flu. Well, due no doubt to microevolution, it has likely become partially resistant to the drug. This is expected because viruses tend to mutate fairly rapidly, even though they are only complex collections of chemicals.

And here's the third one (D5, subscription required, by Avery Johnson). Pfizer is reformulating one of its existing drugs to try to prevent HIV. Yes, prevent. Apparently, this area of pharmacy has been "littered with disappointments" because of the virus's extraordinarily fast mutation rate. Selzentry is the name of this new medication; it works "by blocking the virus from infecting healthy cells, [which] could make it more appropriate for prevention than medicines that prevent already-diseased cells from replicating."

Now, class, what's the single best way to prevent a disease? Abstinence (gasp!) from infected individuals and materials? Surely you jest! Non-conservative readers, please tell me what's so hard and unscientific about this hopefully-commonsense suggestion.

Monday, January 28, 2008

We're losing the war, eh?

Riiight. If casualty count is any indicator, we're not. America could afford to go on like this for another decade, assuming constant casualty rate, before we even reach the level of the Mexican War. Maybe it's just due to technological improvements. Maybe not.

Follow the Quran...

Several non-Muslims have responded (A13, subscription required) to Tahir Q's letter (lower half) about the article about Quranic criticism. I couldn't have said what they say any more articulately, so here are the best excerpts from each letter. Bold text is mine.

Debbir D. in Paramus, NJ:
[Tahir's] peremptory tone...demonstrates precisely what is wrong with Islam and its "hands off" attitude toward scholarship. No religion is perfect, even as the primary texts of all major religions preach and teach the messages of virtue, love, compassion and peace. But some are more perfect than others. (oops, Animal Farm reference)

Many of the key texts of my religion -- Hinduism -- have been respectfully subjected to critical analysis by Western scholars -- without arousing...the wrath of its practitioners. The Bible is believed by many to be God's words, yet Western scholars (Jewish and Christian) have not shied away from delving critically into the Old Testament and the New. Why exactly is it so objectionable for Islam and the Quran to be studied the same way? Yes, why? If you have a good reason, comment on it. Understanding and respect for other religions can be advanced only through rational discourse, not blind faith in the literal truth of the text... There are a few slightly disturbing connotations in that last sentence, notably "literal." Which meaning does he mean? "The-author-said-what-s/he-meant-to-say," or "no-metaphors-allowed"?

Mike J. in Canton, Ga.:

Maybe that is exactly the problem: Muslims interpreting the Quran for themselves. Maybe it is time for "Westerner scholars" to get involved. Islamic terrorists have carried out thousands of deadly terror attacks since 9/11. And you wonder why Westerners have shown a level of hostility toward Muhammad and the Quran and Islam when compared with other faiths? You basically answered your own question. Take out at least one "maybe," and it'll be even better.
Jay L. in York, PA, re Tahir's claim of, shall we say, Islamic victimhood:
Is he joking? Over the past quarter-century, literally thousands of innocent men, women, and children of practically all faiths have been murdered in the name of Muhammad, the Quran, and Islam, while the majority of Muslims either openly celebrated such acts or quietly stood by without condemning them. If any religion needs a reformation to bring it in line with modernity, it is Islam...
Robert M. in Drexel Hill, PA, about the same thing:
...Really? In America, the law guarantees one the right to practice any religion one chooses. On the other hand, laws based on Shariah consign non-Muslim people to inferior status. Christians living in Muslim nations are continuously harassed, threatened and even jailed for "converting" Muslims. Name a teddy bear after the prophet, and you will also go to jail, no matter if you're on a selfless humanitarian mission... [emphasis in original]
And finally, Charles S. in San Jose, CA:
Mr. Qureshi's response to study and interpretation of the Quran clearly characterizes the shortcomings of Islam -- lack of intellectual dynamism, curiosity, self criticism, inclusiveness and tolerance -- all demonstrated in his brief, articulate letter. And this one was even shorter!
Also, check out this post about the article, linked at the bottom.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Life: the spark

For some reason I temporarily overlooked this article (B8, Gautam Naik, subscription required) concerning the continuing effort of scientists to create life. Regular readers know my strong views on this topic. Yes, science should strive to advance knowledge and answer questions. No, it should not play God or try to create life because, quite frankly, if we've been around for a few thousand years and had all that time to work on the creating question, and haven't succeeded, why should we think that science has progressed beyond us? I'll be happy to debate that question to an extent. Below, the bold is mine.

Biologist Craig Venter and his team replicated a bacterium's genetic structure entirely from laboratory chemicals, moving one step closer to creating the world's first living artificial organism.

The scientists assembled the synthetic genome by stringing together chemicals that are the building blocks of DNA. Each of those, by itself, is a fairly complex bit of chemistry. The synthetic genome was constructed so it included all the genes that would be found in a naturally occurring bacterium.

The research was published in the online version of the journal Science by a team of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. The authors include Hamilton Smith, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1978.

"It's the second significant step of a three-step process to create a synthetic organism," said Dr. Venter, in a conference call with reporters. The final step could prove far trickier...

The scientific challenge of creating synthetic life isn't trivial, nor are the ethical and legal concerns. The potential for terrorism, perhaps. There is little government oversight, and researchers involved in such experiments regulate themselves. Detractors worry that the lack of safeguards increases the risks that a potentially dangerous man-made organism might run amok. (In creating the artificial genome of Mycoplasma, Dr. Venter's team disrupted the genes that would enable it to infect other organisms.)

Nonetheless, the science is pushing forward at a rapid pace. In June, a Venter-led team published details of an experiment in which it inserted the DNA of one species of bacteria into the cells of another bacteria species. That process almost magically "booted up" the genome of the donor bacteria, sparking it to life... That was the first step, I believe.

Dr. Venter now believes that the challenge of creating a synthetic organism is within his grasp. "I'll be...disappointed if we can't do it in 2008," he said.

Yes, what he's doing is most likely possible. However, the impression one gets from the headlines is that he's trying to create the "vital spark," which is, in all probability, impossible. Ah well.

Lead and the mind etc.

Article here (Yahoo! News). When I first read the title, "Lead linked to aging in older brains," my first reaction was "Duuuh!" - but when I read the whole article, it changed to "Interesting." It happens all too often, but maybe the inner cynic is good for something after all. (Maybe lead in younger brains causes a greater incidence of vacillating opinions? No, wait, that's just human nature.) Anyhow, for all my readers who are GenY or better, I dedicate this post to you. Just don't eat any more lead.

And now...a surprise poll. If you read this post, would you mind posting briefly in the comments section on how you found this blog? (linked to a friend's blog, Googled it, etc.)

Epiphany 3

The sermon text today was Isaiah 9:1-4.

Isaiah's (really God's) prediction of Christ's ministry was made over 700 years in advance! Israel was the pre-image of the church; therefore, the prophecy applies to us as well.
  • No more gloom for the anguished (v. 1)--gloom from having God turn His back on them. God hasn't forsaken us--His glory has shined upon us! This was especially true in the Transfiguration.
  • Galilee--a rural place, out of the way; news of Jesus spread fast.
  • v. 2--darkness and light, deep darkness vs. great light. Our sins go to the bone; we're dead in our trespasses. We don't deserve the glory God gives us.
  • v. 4--new motif, oppression vs. liberty. Works of the flesh (Gal. 6) vs. works of God. But God has given us His power over Satan!
  • v. 3--end-times words (e.g. dividing the spoil). We need Christ's power to fight Satan in the last battle. Just as God was victorious at Midian, so also the Messiah will be victorious over the devil, the false god. Christ's power ALONE. Even if we are unfaithful, He is faithful and saves not by our strength but by His own.
The end times are indeed upon us. Normally I wouldn't inject something political in a post of this character, but please visit and/or link to this post from Aurora. Do we want to die under God, or under Allah?

Jeremiah session 4

Today we got from 2:29 to 3:23, not to mention 1 Corinthians (and that's quite a lot of text if you know my pastors!). Here are the notes.

  • God rebuked Israel in the past for unfaithfulness, yet Israel killed the prophets and forgot God. God expected Israel to be His bride, yet Israel became a whore.
  • 2:33--Israel was so evil that she taught pagans more false gods.
  • 2:34--two sins: idolatry and neglecting the poor.
  • 2:35--Israel was brazen; she didn't repent, even though she had the Law.
  • 3:1--more unfaithfulness (God's only grounds for a divorce).
  • 3:3--more brazenness from Israel.
  • 3:6--high places = for worship, unfortunately pagan.
  • Don't take the intimacy with God for granted (Lord's Supper).
  • 3:11--surprising! Judah (formerly better) went farther (worse) than Israel.
  • 3:12-13--God invites contrition; He will always forgive repented sins. His patience still (but not for long) has a thread left.
  • 3:14-19--imagery of the promised Christ. See John 10:11-13.
  • 3:23--Jeremiah's confession of the true faith.
  • 1 Cor. 10; 11:17, 23-26--the sanctuary is the fellowship (Greek koinonia) hall--we all partake of Christ's blood (under the wine) and ONE body (under the bread). True fellowship happens at the communion rail--intimate fellowship with Christ and each other. Don't provoke God to jealousy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Criticism of Islam

No, I'm not (at least directly) criticizing the religion. But here are two follow-up letters (A15, subscription required) to the article (my post) about scholarly study of the Quran. And here, in the words of Aurora, is a possible result of squelching this study. It is already happening.

Let us see two Muslims' replies to the article. I won't say it's not typical. Bold material is mine.

In the words of Ihsan A., Esq. in Dearborn, MI:

Despite general Muslim sensitivities to outsiders venturing into Islam studies ("The Lost Archive," page one, Jan. 12), I don't believe that there should be any taboos concerning who and what is allowed as a subject of study. One can only look forward to a day when Islamic texts and history are studied with the same scholarship and rigor that Christian texts and history have been. If the Quran etc. were studied by scholars as the Bible has been, it would fall apart.

From ancient times, the Quran has been memorized by many individuals, illustrating that it is the same as it has always been. I cannot think of any other book that is completely memorized around the globe by individuals, called Hafiz, many of whom don't even understand or speak the language. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Visit any Muslim group prayer and you will see what I mean. It never fails that when I am engaged in communal prayer more than one of the congregants will correct the Imam if the leader of the prayer makes a mistake while reading verses from the Quran. These Hafiz of the Quran have kept it the same.

And here is Tahir Q.'s opinion (Silver Spring, Md.):

I say to the Western scholars: Do not interpret the Quran for Muslims. Who said we're doing it for Muslims? We're doing it for ourselves so that we may know more about this often-militant religion. We Muslims are capable of interpreting the Quran for ourselves. No other people have shown the level of hostility to another faith as Westerners have shown to Muhammad, the Quran and Islam. Muslim terrorist attacks on infidel dogs, Zionist pigs, etc., anyone? It continues to this day. Islam doesn't need reformation; the Western mind needs reformation about Muhammad, the Quran and Islam.

It will be better for both of us. I beg to differ.

Could be a miracle

From Yahoo! News - a nine-year-old girl, upon receiving a new liver, got some pleasantly unexpected baggage along with it: a new immune system and a new blood type. This was six years ago. Now she's much healthier than before the transplant--thank goodness!

Michael Stormon, a hepatologist treating her, [said]..."It is extremely unusual -- in fact we don't know of any other instance in which this happened...In effect she had had a bone marrow transplant. The majority of her immune system had also switched over to that of the donor."

An article on the case was published in Thursday's edition of the leading US medical journal The New England Journal of Medicine...

Stormon said it appeared that Brennan may have been fortunate because a "sequence of serendipitous events", including a post-transplantation infection, may have given the stem cells from her donor's liver the chance to proliferate.

The task now was to establish whether the same sort of outcome could be replicated in other transplant patients, he said.

What a miracle.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Jeremiah session 3

We planned on chapters 2-6 originally, but we just got through 2:28.

  • Standard prophetic outline (repeated sometimes): judgment on Israel/Judah; judgment on pagan nations; promise about the Messiah.
  • Gospel in Jeremiah: "not making a full end of Judah" (repeated 8 times).
  • 2:1--"devotion of your youth" was (very) shortly after their rescue from Egypt.
  • 2:3--God's protection of Israel His bride.
  • 2:4--"house of Jacob" was a favorite prophetic symbol for God's people. Following: God is exasperated with the supposed leaders of His people.
  • 2:10-11--Kedar --> Mohammad; included in pagan nations.
  • 2:13--water was precious for Israel, so their self-reliance was saddening. They forgot that God provides their water and had reserved cisterns already.
  • 2:16--"shaved...your head" is either shameful or pagan or both.
  • 2:18--God taunts Israel, who trusted in Egypt, their former master. Losing the fear (respect, repentance, trust) of God is losing everything.
  • 2:20--"under every green tree" occur acts of pagan worship. "Like a whore"--given that God joins Himself to us, idolatry = sleeping around on Him. In marriage, as in religion, there is no second place.
  • Planting/reaping--compare Is. 5:1-7, Jer. 12:1-7, Luke 13:6-9 and 20:9-19.

Epiphany 2

Today's sermon text was Isaiah 49:1-7, the second of the Servant songs (others: 42, 50, and 53).

We Gentiles are saved by grace!--God has included us in His salvation plan. But those outside Jesus Christ are condemned. Their lives are wasted. God offers to all the gift of life, but some reject it. Yet Jesus went to the cross for each of us.

The prophecy in the text is in the past tense while being about Jesus, far in the future. It is the "prophetic perfect" tense--so certain (for God guarantees it) that it's as if it had already happened. Verse 6 makes quite clear that Jesus, the Promised One, is for all, Jews and Gentiles alike. Verse 1--see 7:14. Verse 7 foretells His crucifixion.

This Messiah gives us His word (v. 2) and is THE Word (John 1:1). Through Him we have life better than physical life. Why do we tell so few of our unsaved loved ones about Him? The Word has come from Jerusalem all the way to us--surely we can spread it a little farther. Tell others that they too are included in God's promise.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Musings on "good" science

Certain blogs I frequent seem to be posting more and more about the ID-versus-evolution or creationism-versus-evolution debates. While evolutionists keep insisting that there is no debate, they persistently ignore or belittle evidence provided by creationists in response, saying that it is either false or just bad science. I won't make any judgment on those statements here; rather, I will simply throw some small darts, if you will, a few points to consider.

  • Darwinian evolution has been blamed for such items as gangs, murders, and a general rising worldview of "if God doesn't exist or didn't create the world, what prevents me from naturally selecting myself by firing this gun at someone's head?" Evolutionists reply that these conclusions are based on misapplications or misunderstanding of social Darwinism. Are they? If not, show me they aren't.
  • Evolutionists claim that creationism is pseudoscience. Does pseudoscience beget itself? Read this post from Cao2, then bring your answer.
  • Microevolution, or the theory that species change gradually over time, into more specialized species, has been well established. Creationism relies on that too. However, the other component of Darwinian evolution, macroevolution (that, over time, something like a paramecium could develop into a human), has somewhat less support. Looking at this post, a good summary, I wonder how much the second component really matters. Reasons 1 and 2 therein are certainly dependent on microevolution, not macroevolution. While reason 3 depends on both components, this is because it refers to the AP test, which assumes the truth of both.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Towards equality of a sort

In today's Informed Reader (B6, subscription required, third item) is a blurb scooping the Jan. 19 New Scientist, offering a conclusion that I thought was obvious...until I realized that I was using hindsight bias, a.k.a. Monday morning quarterbacking. The conclusion in question: that females do better in the "male" worlds of, for example, symphony orchestras and academic papers if the judges don't know their gender.

...To test whether this is true, a team at the University of Toronto led by Amber Budden looked at the journal Behavioral Ecology, which switched to a double-blind peer-review process in 2001. The study found that 8% more female authors had papers published once authors' identities were hidden. Dr. Budden believes the findings should spur a debate about adopting anonymous review policies in scientific fields.

Sounds like a good start. Is the 8% statistically significant, though? And the one journal? But I'm all for it, especially since my status happens to be female and (hopefully!) publishing papers in the future.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The death of the dichotomy?

From the AP, on page D3: a news item (subscription required) concerning genetics. Apparently, there is not just one gene that necessarily causes a disease, but rather several (as one might infer from the concepts of incomplete- and co-dominance in Mendelian genetics). In particular, scientists claim that a five-gene combination is the chief cause of prostate cancer.

There are a few drawbacks:

  • These results have, so far, been confirmed only in Sweden.
  • Also, "the markers do not help doctors tell which cancers need treatment and which do not -- they turned out to have nothing to do with the aggressiveness of a tumor, only whether a man is likely to develop one."
  • Related to the first reason, "Sweden was chosen because the population is so ethnically similar and well suited to gene studies."
Another one, added 1/22/08 (D2, Marilyn Chase, subscription required): two genes have been discovered that contribute to lupus. The first, BLK, likely influences B cells, a type of white blood cell. The second, ITGAM, probably affects T cells, another kind. Scientists expect at least 10 genes to influence lupus overall--perhaps even 20 or 30.

Two cases of "tolerance"

First, a case of typical (nowadays, anyway) European *tolerance*: doing unto others worse than they have done to you. Check out "Papal Inquisition" (A16, NO subscription required!) for full text. Some quotes, and my comments (bold):

  • "On Tuesday the pontiff canceled a speech scheduled for today at Sapienza University of Rome in the wake of a threat by students and 67 faculty members to disrupt his appearance. (The question is, how many students? That could make quite a lot of difference.) The scholars argued that it was inappropriate for a religious figure to speak at their university." And yet the Imams have no problem whatsoever speaking there.
  • "This pope's specific sin was a speech he gave nearly 20 years ago in which, they claimed, he indicated support for the 17th-century heresy trial against Galileo." Yes, those two little words, "they claimed." Granted, I do have issues with Catholicism, but that's no excuse for letting the opposition get away with a lack of evidence. Quotes, please?
  • Here's the best quote: "The censoring scholars apparently failed to appreciate the irony that, in preventing the pope from speaking, they were doing to him what the Church once did to Galileo, stifling free speech and intellectual inquiry." Need I say more?
  • "It is a pope's task, [Benedict] wrote, to "maintain high the sensibility for the truth, to always invite reason to put itself anew at the service of the search for the true, the good, for God." La Sapienza -- which means "wisdom" -- was founded by one of the pope's predecessors in 1303. Another unappreciated irony." Not to mention the clay rebelling against the potter.
Arthur C. Brooks, on the same page, writes about an interesting poll-type "thermometer" that I haven't heard of before, plus the (not) surprising results.

  • "A politically progressive friend of mine always seemed to root against baseball teams from the South. The Braves, the Rangers, the Astros -- he hated them all. I asked him why, to which he replied, "Southerners are prejudiced."" Lovely introductory quote.
  • "According to University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, "Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others." They also "believe individuals should be tolerant and respectful of difference." Indeed, generations of academic scholars have assumed that the "natural personality" of political conservatives is characterized by hostile intolerance towards those with opposing viewpoints and lifestyles, while political liberals inherently embrace diversity." Oy veh. Maybe that used to be true, but it's all too rare today.
  • Here's the "feeling thermometer" description: "[P]eople are asked on a survey to rate others on a scale of 0-100. A zero is complete hatred, while 100 means adoration."
  • Here are the results of one survey:
People in this survey who called themselves "conservative" or "very conservative" did have a fairly low opinion of liberals -- they gave them an average thermometer score of 39. The score that liberals give conservatives: 38. Looking only at people who said they are "extremely conservative" or "extremely liberal," the right gave the left a score of 27; the left gives the right an icy 23. So much for the liberal tolerance edge.
  • And another:
And sure enough, those on the extreme left give President Bush an average temperature of 15 and Vice President Cheney a 16. Sixty percent of this group gives both men the absolute lowest score: zero.

To put this into perspective, note that even Saddam Hussein (when he was still among the living) got an average score of eight from Americans. The data tell us that, for six in ten on the hard left in America today, literally nobody in the entire world can be worse than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

  • Brooks explains:

In 1998, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were hardly popular among conservatives. Still, in the 1998 ANES survey, Messrs. Clinton and Gore both received a perfectly-respectable average temperature of 45 from those who called themselves extremely conservative. While 28% of the far right gave Clinton a temperature of zero, Gore got a zero from just 10%. The bottom line is that there is simply no comparison between the current hatred the extreme left has for Messrs. Bush and Cheney, and the hostility the extreme right had for Messrs. Clinton and Gore in the late 1990s.

Does this refute the stereotype that right-wingers are "haters" while left-wingers are not? Liberals will say that the comparison is unfair, because Mr. Bush is so much worse than Mr. Clinton ever was. Yes, Mr. Clinton may have been imperfect, but Mr. Bush -- whom people on the far left routinely compare to Hitler -- is evil. This of course destroys the liberal stereotype even more eloquently than the data. The very essence of intolerance is to dehumanize the people with whom you disagree by asserting that they are not just wrong, but wicked.

I couldn't say it better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Stone-cold soup

The Informed Reader (B16, second item, subscription required) scoops February's Discover. Bold parenthetical material mine.

What if life began not in the famous warm primordial soup, but in primordial ice? (Ooh, that's much better--now Darwinian evolution doesn't disagree with the Second Law of Thermodynamics quite so much.)

...Douglas Fox describes a series of experiments seeking to confirm this hypothesis in the face of considerable skepticism. Opponents argue that ice slows the rate of chemical reactions to a point where life couldn't develop. The lower the temperature, the lower the chances that chemicals would randomly collide and form into the first basic self-reproducing structures -- called RNA -- from which all life (supposedly) evolved. Plus, that reaction would need liquid. As a result, the conventional candidates for life's birthplace have been warm, wet places such as tropical ponds or boiling volcanic vents.

But ice has some qualities that might outweigh these disadvantages as an incubator for life. Even at very cold temperatures, small amounts of water can persist in ice. Conveniently, the water is trapped in tiny compartments, which would serve as millions of test tubes, each with a different RNA experiment. What's more, while freezing slows most chemical reactions, it speeds up a few that could have served as stepping-stones to life. (What about the rest?)

Some studies have corroborated some of those claims, one of them a 25-year-old experiment by Stanley Miller, who died last year after a lifetime studying the chemical origins of life. (Um, I believe he just 'created' some amino acids; the rest can form only under nearly opposite conditions.) Another experiment has shown that ice actually helps RNA form into chains.

Even if the ice theory is correct, it doesn't rule out the possibility that a primordial soup also gave birth to life on Earth. (Or divine creation? No, no, science *can't* *intersect* with the supernatural at all...) But it does have implications for life on other planets. It would allow for the possibility that life has formed on cold places like Mars or Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Full-bodied worrying

Two articles today: The Informed Reader (B12, second item, subscription required), and the Health Journal (D1, subscription required). Both items are about the brain; one concerning body movements helping one to think, the other about a "worry gene." Here they are, in reverse order for no apparent reason.

Melinda Beck, in the Health Journal, notes the oft-emphasized fact that we are not at the total mercy of our genes. Scientists have discovered a variation of a gene, called BDNF, that increases certain peoples' tendency to be worrywarts by acting in the hippocampus (a brain area related to memory and learning). But how are we to defeat our tendency to over-worry? Beck offers a few tips:
  • "...doing something distracting for just 10 minutes can break the cycle and help people tackle problems more effectively." This can probably be most easily seen in young children who have just woken from naps and are crying even though they may not know the cause.
  • Says psychologist Robert L. Leahy: "Say to yourself, 'Is this worry leading to a To Do list?' If it doesn't lead to some action on your part today, set it aside." If you can't beat it, make it productive.
  • Leahy also "suggests literally reserving 20 minutes a day to worry. If you can postpone worrying, you are exercising control over it, rather than letting it control you." It's all in the schedule, I guess.
  • Finally, says Beck, "Practice saying or writing whatever you fear most, such as, "the plane is going to crash" or "I'm going to lose my job." "Repeat it over and over again slowly, like a zombie, and the fear will begin to subside," [Leahy] says. Eventually, "you'll just get bored with it.""
Here's the Informed Reader, scooping the Jan. 13 Boston Globe... (bold text is mine)

People think with their bodies, not just with their brains, according to some recent studies. (I guess that's why exercise usually invigorates people--try, for example, singing in a choir for an hour, then do a few math problems.)

...Drake Bennett reports on the emerging field of "embodied cognition," which suggests that actions such as pacing the carpet or gesturing with one's hands might clarify the thought process as much as anything going on in the brain. Researchers...aim to erase the presumed divide between mind and body that dates back at least to philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century.

For instance, a study led by Arizona State University psychology professor Arthur Glenberg found that arm movements can affect language comprehension. Children are more likely to solve mathematics problems if they are told to gesture with their hands as they think through the problem. (My mother, a reading specialist, has applied this in years past, doing exercises such as "ear eights"--keeping one ear attached to an arm while tracing huge figure eights in the air with that arm--with dyslexic children) Another line of research has found that unconscious eye movements help people solve certain kinds of brainteasers.

Body actions also seem to subtly shape preferences over time. Expert typists, when told to name their favorite two-letter combinations from a random selection, picked out easy-to-type couplets but couldn't give a reason why they preferred them.

At the extreme, some embodied-cognition thinkers say that the form of the human body has shaped some apparently abstract concepts. Linguist George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the number system has its roots in humans' ability to walk upright, which makes it possible to measure distances in discrete steps. If humans "moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes, math might be quite different," says Mr. Lakoff. (Ah, but isn't bipedal locomotion more unlikely to develop than sliding? It requires more energy and may be just about as fast...perhaps evidence for creation rather than spontaneous macroevolution.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Metaphysics

While browsing W. E. Messamore's blog, Slaying Dragons, his most recent post caught my eye. My being a biologist-in-training who doesn't care to think much about invisible/inconceivable things like attoseconds, reading the article linked to the post was a challenge fit for any philosopher. Check out the post and the article; they may lead to surprising conclusions (who knows?).

Jeremiah, session 2

Here, for your continued edification, are the notes from today; the topic was Jeremiah chapter 1.

  • Ch. 1--authority, nature, and character of God's Word. Law-message: "Tell Israel they'll be destroyed." Jeremiah, as all prophets did, tried to back out. But it was God's word, so he had no excuse.
  • Jeremiah prophesied/preached from 627 to 587 B.C.--40 years.
  • Verses 4-5: God's word came (by vision or voice or while he preached) to Jeremiah, set apart before birth. Good proof text against abortion. But it's about god's specific plan for Jeremiah--be careful about applying it universally.
  • Verse 7: God's rebuttal to Jeremiah's reluctance; see Mark 13:11. Verse 8: Jeremiah had reason to fear--people were plotting against his life--but God here promised to protect him. Lutherans pray "if it be Your will"--but should pray rather that God would deliver them to heaven (and hopefully leave them some time on earth!).
  • Verses 9-10: God's Word from His touch--Jeremiah was from Benjamin (v. 1) but put over "nations and kingdoms"--see ch. 44ff. He got to pronounce judgment on everybody (see text headings throughout the book).
  • Verse 11: "almond" sounds like "watching"--close enough [translation: ESV].
  • Verse 13: Babylon came from the north--they would be the enemies.
  • Verse 16: "works of own hands"--primary sin of Judah; see 1st table of Commandments.
  • Verse 19: God: "I'm protecting you; you shall prevail." One can't say that ideas are inspired and not words. If words mean nothing, then what is true? (Pilate) Once you give up on the truth of words, anything is possible. Ideas come from man, not God.

The baptism of our Lord

Today's readings were Isaiah 42:1-9, Romans 6:1-11, and Matthew 3:13-17.

Today, the first of the Servant songs (others: 49, 50, and 53). The Messiah was promised to be the perfect servant--and Jesus, the Anointed One of God, fulfilled all of the prophecies. How to we react to this "interruption"? Move on? Or not? for this event, Christ's baptism, alters history entirely. It is important because God, the Three-in-One, is present (the Father's voice, the Son incarnate, and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove--Matt. 3:16-17). The Greek of Matthew--"in whom I am well pleased"--matches the Hebrew of Isaiah.

Another surprise of Isaiah: "[Messiah] will bring justice" to all nations--you and me. The Romans reading explains this wonder of God counting us innocent. Isiah goes on to explain the great graciousness and gentleness of the Messiah--neither breaking a bruised reed nor quenching a smoking wick.

Then His covenant interrupts. We receive the promise of it in Communion, the Lord's body and blood. Christ Himself interrupts our lives, forgiving freely our filthy sin. Give God the glory for this. Christ Jesus has already given us everything! Glorify Him.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Islamic textual criticism

The WSJ did an excellent article (A1, subscription required) of something I've been hoping to see for a while, news on someone who dared cast half a grain of doubt on whether the Quran has been perfectly preserved throughout the 1400 or so years it's been around.

This story's opening paragraphs are worthy of a prize-winning novel (which is part of the reason I subscribe--excellent literary quality):

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.
The article's author, Andrew Higgins, writing from Munich, continues the survey of the investigation. These paragraphs, below, shed light on the curiously unbalanced state of affairs concerning the level of textual criticism allowed by Islam vs. Christianity and Judaism:

During the 19th century, Germans pioneered modern scholarship of ancient texts. Their work revolutionized understanding of Christian and Jewish scripture. It also infuriated some of the devout, who resented secular scrutiny of texts believed to contain sacred truths.

The revived Quran venture plays into a very modern debate: how to reconcile Islam with the modern world? Academic quarrying of the Quran has produced bold theories, bitter feuds and even claims of an Islamic Reformation in the making. Applying Western critical methods to Islam's holiest text is a sensitive test of the Muslim community's readiness to both accommodate and absorb thinking outside its own traditions...

Quranic scholarship often focuses on arcane questions of philology and textual analysis. Experts nonetheless tend to tread warily, mindful of fury directed in recent years at people deemed to have blasphemed Islam's founding document and the Prophet Muhammad.
Would you say that this a fair and balanced treatment of religions? Neither would I. In the minds of most Westerners, "questioning" does not equal "blaspheming." And Christians do not behead their enemies. An example of such "questioning":
A scholar in northern Germany writes under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg because, he says, his controversial views on the Quran risk provoking Muslims. He claims that chunks of it were written not in Arabic but in another ancient language, Syriac. The "virgins" promised by the Quran to Islamic martyrs, he asserts, are in fact only "grapes." (Whew! There is, granted, the issue of the Quran using words in languages other than Arabic.)
While the lead scholar over the project, Angelika Neuwirth, discourages "radical" theories, she still treads too lightly for my liking through the research because of its being "taboo." Here is the main purpose of the project, a welcome result:
...The photos of the old manuscripts will form the foundation of a computer data base that Ms. Neuwirth's team believes will help tease out the history of Islam's founding text. The result, says Michael Marx, the project's research director, could be the first "critical edition" of the Quran -- an attempt to divine what the original text looked like and to explore overlaps with the Bible and other Christian and Jewish literature.
Higgins continues about the crucial differences in *allowable* textual criticism:

Many Christians, too, dislike secular scholars boring into sacred texts, and dismiss challenges to certain Biblical passages. But most accept that the Bible was written by different people at different times, and that it took centuries of winnowing before the Christian canon was fixed in its current form.

Muslims, by contrast, view the Quran as the literal word of God (revealed over 23 years vs. about 2000, through one man instead of many, etc.). Questioning the Quran "is like telling a Christian that Jesus was gay," says Abdou Filali-Ansary, a Moroccan scholar.

Modern approaches to textual analysis developed in the West are viewed in much of the Muslim world as irrelevant, at best. (Why, whatever for?) "Only the writings of a practicing Muslim are worthy of our attention," a university professor in Saudi Arabia wrote in a 2003 book. "Muslim views on the Holy Book must remain firm: It is the Word of Allah, constant, immaculate, unalterable and inimitable."

Can we say "defensive"? Higgins goes on, driving home this point again:
[Gerd-RĂ¼diger] Puin says the manuscripts suggested to him that the Quran "didn't just fall from heaven" but "has a history." When he said so publicly a decade ago, it stirred rage. "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents," read one letter to the Yemen Times. "Allah, help us against our enemies."
Words that come to my mind for this paragraph include "intentional blindness" and "stifling free thought." Nothing new. On the whole, this article was quite informative for me, even though I've been doing personal research about comparison and contrast of Islam and Christianity. Check out this post as well (linked to the WSJ article) for another take on it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Biology newsbits

The first piece of news (on the op-ed page, curiously) is about "a different 'right to life' "--the right to choose among various health care options. The issue at hand: a Supreme Court case, Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. von Eschenbach, whose outcome would determine the legality of terminally ill patients deciding to try experimental drugs. The author, Steven Walker, co-founder of the Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs (AABADD, I suppose), firmly supports a ruling contrary to the FDA's "cruel joke for the sick."

The suit claims that FDA violates the due process rights of terminally-ill patients, who have exhausted all approved options and are unable to enter a clinical trial, by prohibiting access to promising investigational drugs.

Consider the plight of such patients. They search for clinical trials of new drugs that might extend their lives. Nearly all are ineligible. Of the few who do qualify, many learn the trial is fully enrolled and closed, or too far away. Others face a 50-50 chance of getting a placebo (a sugar pill) under blinded conditions (meaning neither they nor their doctors know what they are getting). Many are allowed to die without being told about or offered the active drug.

The FDA commonly insists on statistically comparing the timing and severity of the deaths of untreated (placebo) patients with those of patients who receive the potentially effective drug. This renders the FDA's vaunted "science" for drugs intended to treat terminal illnesses little more than a crude measurement of the height and accrual rate of two piles of bodies. There are better, less ethically challenged trial methods available to test drugs, but the FDA has consistently refused to accept them...

No matter one's judicial philosophy, it is inconceivable that the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended unelected, tenured career bureaucrats to hold absolute power over American lives without prospect of challenge in the courts. The framers understood that the pursuit of life is an inalienable right that should not be abridged without due process of law.

All right, so that was only part news, part opinion. Here, for your itching ears (aching eyes?), is a more newsy story. Gautam Naik (B4) writes on the creation of a stem-cell line (subscription required. No, it's not a *controversial* (destroys embryos) line, nor is it *uncontroversial* (iPSCs, from adult skin). It's a semi-controversial approach, that of taking one cell from an eight-cell-stage embryo and teasing it so that it becomes a line. Granted, according to Dr. Robert Lanza, it only has worked in about 2% of the cases (so much for payoff, then?), but at least it works and apparently has no risk of cancer (one of the worries about iPSCs).

The new technique is partly based on a common test done in fertility clinics, known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Under this approach, one cell is removed for genetic testing once the embryo has reached the eight-cell stage. The process appears to leave the embryo intact. Embryos that have been subjected to the procedure and then implanted in the womb have yielded apparently healthy babies, based on established scientific and medical measures.

And, to bolster the news, "Lanza and his colleagues say they have tweaked the approach so that at least 20% yielded stem-cell lines, and further improvements took the efficiency as high as 50%." Much better. I'm waiting for improvements on this--it could very well be an excellent technique, as long as it doesn't kill the embryo. As the venerable Dr. Seuss once said, in the words of Horton the elephant, "A person's a person, no matter how small." (I'm looking forward to the movie, too!, something a I'll feel completely comfortable watching, prudish me.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hooray! times 2

First cause for rejoicing: For my readers who don't subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (and for those who do), the op-ed page is now accessible to everyone! Go either here or here to get to the editorial page each day.

Second cause for rejoicing: Read this op-ed, by McCain and Lieberman (A15, subscription NOT REQUIRED!), on what a certain political party steadfastly refuses to believe: that the surge is working, or rather, has worked. (Yes, I've known this for a while, but the facts don't go on the mainstream media nearly enough. Ah well.)

Varied science tidbits

First: an Informed Reader (B6, third item, subscription required) blurb comparing earthquakes and epilepsy. From the Jan 12 New Scientist comes this interesting bit of data (emphasis mine):

...The research, led by neurologist Ivan Osorio of the University of Kansas, found patterns of "waiting times" between epileptic fits that are similar to those of earthquake occurrences. Also, just as earthquakes are preceded by tiny tremors imperceptible to humans, epileptic fits are preceded by neural spikes detectable only on brain scans. The analysis, not yet peer reviewed, compared the brain activity of more than 16,000 epileptic seizures with seismological data from 300,000 earthquakes...

Hmm. There is that bit about "not yet peer reviewed." But it's interesting research, yes?

Next, on A13 (link; subscription required) come two letters responding to an editorial concerning an aspect of behavioral psychology familiar to parents everywhere: the phenomenon of "zomboiding." (And I thought my parents, way back in the days of early video games, made the word up!) Emphasis mine.

Writes Ben L. in Mission Viejo, CA:

...Too many parents view videogames as high-tech pacifiers -- put the kid in front of the game, and he'll be quiet. Again it's not the games that are at fault when children spend too much time in front of the screen, it's the parents who leave them alone in the digital jungle. Modern videogames often feature engrossing storylines and deep characters. If children would spend the same amount of time reading a book, would parents be as worried? My guess is they wouldn't, because they know what a book is. The same can't be said about videogames.

Instead of blaming videogames for his family's problems, Mr. Moore should ask himself whether he's really made an effort to understand why his sons play as much as they do. If a child talked on a cellphone at church, would he blame the cellphone companies? No? Then why blame games for the Gameboy at church? Why not blame the parents who let their kid bring his videogame?...

Truer words were never spoken. Next: Blake H. in Alma Center, WI, offers some excellent tips.

...Videogame addiction isn't caused by videogames. It's caused by lack of alternatives. If parents make the effort to keep their kids busy with productive things to do, kids won't develop an interest in videogames. There are exactly two secrets to successful child rearing. One: spend 90% of your disposable free time with your kids. Two: put them to work as soon as they can walk. Yes, even a toddler can be taught to pick up his/her toys. My wife and I have raised four kids using this model and despite the fact that they all have computers in their bedrooms, none has ever expressed an interest in videogames. They're just too tired.

Your kids might not appreciate it right away, but wait till they cash that first paycheck. It won't be long till they're making fun of their childish friends who play videogames.

Very well put. Finally: a possible genetic link to autism (D4, subscription required). Reports David Armstrong:

  • "[Separate researchers] in Boston and Chicago...identified a genetic variation -- in a region of the DNA called chromosome 16 -- that is associated with about 1% of all autism cases. The abnormality is often not inherited...About 15% of autism cases have a known genetic cause, says David Miller, a researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston and a co-author of one of the studies."
  • However, as is typical with much new research, "the findings regarding chromosome 16 are only "one step in a very complicated puzzle we have to piece together"," says Yale autism expert Fred Volkmar.
  • This was all done with computers, simplifying complex analysis, as usual. Sometimes it makes me wonder whether there'll be any hands-on work left to do when I dive into research in the field.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Behold the FairTax, part 2

Careening wildly back and forth, the FairTax debate rages on. In part one, I summarized an op-ed by a staunch proponent of this tax; here is the other side (A20, by Jerry Bowyer; subscription required).

  • "People would simply switch from cheating on income taxes to cheating on sales taxes." Bowyer further explains this quirk of human nature (a.k.a. innate tendency to sin...but that's another debate altogether): "Small vendors often fail to withhold sales taxes. Buyers cheat on sales taxes now. They often fail to pay taxes on interstate catalogue sales. They buy some goods in black markets...There is a large category of economic activity designed to avoid sales taxes -- it's called smuggling."
  • "Then there's the complexity argument. You don't think the lobbyists and lawyers will get involved in this, looking for exemptions on houses, medical services and education? You're going to put a 30% tax on my home purchase, and my doctor visits and my kids' tuition? Yeah, great idea." Put well. Then again, say the proponents, it would drive down prices.
  • "And what about business transactions? If you tax business-to-business transactions, then you'll set off a wave of corporate consolidation. Instead of buying from a supplier at a 30% markup, I'll just buy my supplier and be tax free..." True--and nobody likes monopolies, save perhaps the *corporate giants* themselves. I wonder if it's a case of capitalism vs. "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
  • Bowyer closes vividly: "None of this matters anyway. We will never make this change. The 16th Amendment will not be repealed in favor of a tax vigorously opposed by an army of restaurants, pubs and retail stores. It's hard to get good ideas through the ratification process; imagine how hard it would be to push this stinker..." Watch and see.

Faithlings, part 2

A previous post questioning the reputed existence of alien life drew comments from both sides. Here's the text of a letter (A19, subscription required) responding to that blurb. Writes Alan S. of St. Helena Island, S.C. (emphasis mine):

It's not too difficult for me to believe that there is life out there somewhere. However, it's impossible to even imagine that Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich and two friends saw "something extraordinary" early one evening within view of Mount Rainier in Washington while staying at -- of all places -- the home of actress Shirley MacLaine ("What Kucinich Saw: Witnesses Describe His Close Encounter," page one, Jan. 2). Furthermore, if these flying triangles really paid them a visit that day, why did they choose to hover over her home?

I draw these conclusions: One, aliens, at least those who fly in triangle-shaped crafts, have a good sense of humor. Two, they come from an otherworldly location that has the same air-traffic congestion problems that we do, hence the "red and green lights running down the edges" of their craft. Could such lighting be a universal visibility regulation? And, finally, if one assumes that they are vastly superior to us in technical and intellectual capabilities, why didn't they know that Ms. MacLaine wasn't home that day? Shouldn't they have called first?

Although I'm not condoning the first sentence, the rest is a riot, as you can see--and parts of it seem to (indirectly, at least) support the other side.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The great debate

As both my conservative and liberal readers know, the ID debate has been raging for who-knows-how-long. This post won't argue anything per se, but is rather an archive for a few articles from WORLD Magazine's perspective (subscription helpful). Certain readers may be unpleasantly surprised.

From the Sept. 18, 2004 issue: an account of a biology teacher, Roger DeHart, prosecuted for daring to teach Darwinian evolution and ID side-by-side.

From the Oct. 9, 2004 issue: how an ID paper got published and how evolutionists lashed out-- "'The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories' by Stephen Meyer [that] appeared in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington," to be precise.

From the May 21, 2005 issue: how certain schools, defying Darwinists' demands to the contrary, are "teach[ing] the debate." A telling sentence: "Darwinians boycotted the hearings, insisting that there is no debate."

From the July 21, 2007 issue: a unique teacher who hasn't gotten prosecuted for teaching the controversy.

And, in closing, a blurb from page 36 of the Dec. 29, 2007/Jan. 5, 2008 double issue.

Throughout the year, Darwinists upped their rhetoric against proponents of Intelligent Design, blocking the tenure of...Guillermo Gonzalez...and interfering with the ID research of Robert Marks at Baylor. But the ID movement fought back.

...The Edge of Evolution [by Michael Behe] hit bookstores in the summer with a devastating critique of Darwinism. Specifically, Behe demonstrates the limitations of random mutation and natural selection in producing new genetic information.

Similar challenges to Darwinism propelled a new high-school textbook... Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and Against Neo-Darwinism [from the Discovery Institute].

So far, that "teach the controversy" approach to biology education appears lawsuit-proof...

Unlike the famous Dover, Pa., school board that advocated introducing ID into the classroom and lost a landmark lawsuit to the ACLU in 2005, this new methodology draws only scorn, not litigation...

Yes, this collection may be one-sided. But let the articles speak for themselves.

Added 1/9/08: Look at this link (trackbacked here) from The Stiletto and answer this question: Are we evolving up (as, in my understanding, Darwinian evolution would predict) or down (as creationism would predict)?

Global warming? Sure, it's happening!

Check out this *inconvenient* post from TRM. As if that weren't enough, the peak temperature for yesterday and today in my locale (and no, it's not in Florida, but in the icy Midwest) has been about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Can someone say "temperature fluctuations do not equal global warming"?

Added 1/8/08: Look at this interesting post from The Astute Bloggers. Humans *definitely* cause all of global warming, don't they.

Executions and...Islam? (or China?...)

The Informed Reader (B8) scoops the Jan. 6 L.A. Times about China and some good news coming from the country. It can be construed as "good" in the sense of "improving," but probably not any more, though.

Add yet another item to the list of things China has changed for the sake of an uncontroversial Olympics: the way it executes people. (Note to self: this is a really good opening sentence. Save it for a historical novel too.)

More people in China will still probably receive the death penalty than in all other countries combined. (The bad.) China considers the number a state secret. Amnesty International estimates that in 2006, 1,051 people were executed.

That represented a 40% drop from the year before. (The good.) Interviews with human-rights advocates, lawyers and defendants suggest the pace of executions decelerated last year as well. Officials sum up the essence of the death-penalty reforms as "kill fewer, kill carefully." Especially notable is that higher courts, which used to rubber stamp death-penalty verdicts, have reviewed a few cases and even reversed a few death sentences.

Wow! If we keep going at this rate, then certain people who think humankind can only survive if 95% of its species dies will have to find some other way to go about saving the world. On another note, now all China has to do to be Olympic-worthy is to allow Bibles in the same fashion they allow copies/translations of the Quran in the country.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphany

Today's sermon text was Isaiah 60:1-6.

This reading clarifies today's theme, especially v. 1. Shining--God has come to us; we shine with the glory He gives to us! Verse 2--why do we need this light? "Thick darkness shall cover the earth...BUT the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you." (At this point in Isaiah, he prophesies more about hope.)

Remember that we sit in darkness too, apart from Christ. God gets upset, to say the very least, when anyone worships a god other than Him, be it Allah, Baal, or any other, man-made deity. Our sins and sinful nature hung Christ on the cross--and we sat in the darkness of our sin.

BUT God's glory came upon us; this is first a word of warning (darkness cannot coexist with light), but second a lesson (believe in the One who came with this glory so that we are made able to receive it). Now on to verse 3--this was never fulfilled in the earthly country of Israel. However, it was fulfilled in Christ, the Israel of one. People are running to Him so eagerly that their "daughters [are] carried on the hip" so all the kids can keep up.

Verses 5 and 6: incredible details about Christ--"wealth of the nations...multitude of camels...gold and frankincense." Our true wealth is the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ: you cannot out-sin this forgiveness (but don't put it to the test!).

Jeremiah, session 1

Starting today: a brand-new, 11-session Bible study. The topic: Jeremiah. (Since the sermon emphasis at my church is currently Isaiah, why not continue? reasoned the pastors.) This first session is an overview.

  • Timewise: Jeremiah prophesied after Isaiah, ca. 627-587 B.C. Very near the end of Old Testament history, just prior to Judah's fall. He's the second of three "major" (long) prophets--Isaiah and Ezekiel are the others.
  • Style: Hebrew poetry (not rhyme, but repetition, plays on words, figures of speech, parallelism--antithetical, synonymous, and synthetic); narrative (e.g. ch. 39). He preaches and prophesies (really the same thing, 'speaking forth'); he speaks forth God's words--Law and Gospel.
  • Matching up Jeremiah's history with Biblical history: 1 Kings 12:16 = the great divide. 2 Kings 17 = Israel's fall. 2 Kings 22 = Josiah's reign. The last three chapters of 2 Kings correspond with Jeremiah's period of prophecy, the very end of Israel.
Next week: Jeremiah 1.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Words of wisdom

This post references two articles (one letter and one book review) related only by the label "bad government."

Here's the letter (A7, subscription required), by a George T. in Hobe Sound, Fla.:

...We have a Democrat-controlled Congress with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi at its helm enjoying a pathetic 11% approval rating nationwide and accomplishing absolutely nothing. If my kid came home from school with a record like that he'd be on bounds for life. And if Hillary with a disapproval rating of 49% is piled on top of Nancy and Harry, and they win the 2008 election, this country will have a divide of bitterness deeper than the Grand Canyon for a long time to come. The Republicans have been no better. Government and spending have risen without restraint, contrary to their basic principles. "Earmarks" are revered, making erstwhile loyalists abandon the party as simply a bunch of politicians whose only goal is to get re-elected...

That's only part of the problem, and he puts it very succinctly. Now, for those people who hate the U.S. government, period, here's an alternative. But consider this: would you rather be under a corrupt electorate in an independent country, or be under a world government, a.k.a. nanny state? Here are excerpts from a review of the book "The Great Experiment" (auth. Strobe Talbott) (W8; reviewed by Karen Elliott House).

  • "[The] point: The desire for security that prompts mankind to seek refuge in ever-larger groups will reach its apotheosis with an international system of governance -- George W. Bush's dreaded "unilateralism" notwithstanding." So now we know what Talbott's up to. Try a random sample of articles in scholarly journals: without looking at the abstract, find a clear statement of the main idea.
  • "In the premodern period...governance was top-down, imposed on the populace by autocrats...But since the Enlightenment it has largely followed the principle, articulated by humanists like Immanuel Kant, that the individual is sovereign. Thus were empires reconfigured and nation-states undermined..." Thus, we could theoretically blame the Enlightenment for big government, hm?
  • Accompanying criticism (only in the book, thankfully) of President Bush right and left (or just right) comes "the author's own fervent proclamation that 'within a hundred years nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority.'" All right, so if we're supposed to be part of this "single, global authority," what about the countries that think opposite of us? Iran? Cuba? Or will they be the ones most heavily represented in the government?
  • On the style of writing, House notes traits including the following: the first section is "replete with the author's superfluous personal asides"; the second "offers plenty of opportunity for irrelevant name- and place-dropping by this proud graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale" (House comments wryly, "Unless Mr. Talbott is making a subtle case that Hotchkiss and Yale alumni should be deputized to run a world government, the point of these digressions is not clear"); and "even [in the last section] he gratuitously digresses." Hmmm...wasn't there something we learned, way back in freshman composition, that one should use the first person as infrequently as possible in academic treatises?
  • Perhaps the most telling paragraph in the review is this:
Eventually the author gets around to describing events since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. He grudgingly acknowledges the U.N.'s inability to handle these events effectively, whether in a shattered Yugoslavia or Iraq. He nonetheless brims with enthusiasm for the U.N. itself -- the nearest thing we've had yet to global government -- and particularly for former Secretary General Kofi Annan's expansionist view that nations should intervene in the internal affairs of other nations to stop human-rights abuses. But when the U.S. confronts a tyrant who threatens American or allied security interests, that is to be deplored.
  • And the one after it:
Thus, for Mr. Talbott, it is laudatory for the U.S. to intervene to protect Haitians from an Aristede or to protect Bosnian Muslims from a Milosevic but not to intervene in Iraq, where a dictator used chemical weapons on his own people and where most of the world, including President Clinton, believed weapons of mass destruction were stockpiled. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mr. Talbott writes, qualifies, "even in the assessment of some of its original advocates, as the most ill-conceived, poorly executed, and disastrous exertion of American power in the history of the republic."
  • House, a diplomat herself (and a former WSJ editor to boot), goes on for several more paragraphs, explaining the two quoted above. Her last sentence needs no epilogue: "In sum, the reader is left to suppose that if Mr. Talbott had to choose between a world with the U.S. and no U.N. or one with a U.N. and no U.S., he would prefer the latter. Fortunately, plenty of Americans feel precisely the opposite."

Friday, January 4, 2008

It's a bird! It's a plane!

...No, wait, it's both! Here's an article (A1; subscription required) by Michael M. Phillips about one of the stranger jobs in America: the guy in Baghdad who collects smashed birds from Air Force planes and the woman who analyzes them.

The bird collector: "Lt. Col. Del Johnson...[who makes] sure that every time war bird and regular bird collide, the latter is scraped off the former and shipped to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution." Why this job? Answer: even a sparrow can destroy a plane if it goes into the turbines; a goose collision can destroy the pilot & co. Johnson has tried to get the birds away, period, by such methods as burning trash in towers (rather than "open pits, [which attract] mice, [which attract] birds"), shooting "fireworks from a double-barreled signal pistol," and potentially "a $7,700 Desman laser with a sniper's scope and 1.5-mile-long beam (Birds aren't harmed by the laser, its dealer says.)." The alternate method is the favorite of scientist-mathematicians everywhere: analyze the collisions to get data by which pilots can more easily avoid the birdies.

And that is where the woman, Carla Dove (yes, pun) in Washington state, comes in.

Ms. Dove and her staff have three methods of identifying dead birds, which they do about 4,000 times a year. Marcy Heacker, a 44-year-old research assistant from Dayton, Ohio, specializes in matching whole feathers with those found on more than 620,000 bird specimens in the museum's back rooms. Red-tailed hawks, scarlet tanagers, blackpoll warblers and more are lined up in drawers stacked floor to ceiling, their bodies lifelike except for the white cotton where their eyes once were.

There's taxidermy at its best for you-serving the country! Here are the other two methods:

When feather remains are too severely damaged to make a naked-eye identification, Ms. Dove steps in. In wooden filing drawers in her office, amid pictures of birds and jets, she keeps 2,400 microscope slides of fluffy feather barbs. Up close, she can see nodes that distinguish, say, a wren from a Muscovy duck. "Not many people do this," says Ms. Dove...

In the case of Col. Johnson's two-bird specimen, however, there wasn't enough feather to do microscopic comparison. So the blue, blood-stained rag ended up with Nancy Rotzel, a 28-year-old molecular specialist from Appleton, Wis. Using an expensive machine provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, Ms. Rotzel extracted DNA from the sample and matched it to records from the Barcode of Life Data Systems, a collection of DNA from 35,105 plant and animal species, [revealing] a 99.5% match with a skylark, and a 98.5% match with a great egret.

The Smithsonian team entered its findings into a global bird-avoidance database, which calculates the odds of a plane hitting a given species of bird at a given moment...

So nothing productive is coming out of the war, eh? (I'm kidding, of course.) This is just one of many silver linings. That job of "molecular specialist" sounds fun--not to mention the other two.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

We see through a bulb darkly: update

Yet another two letters about the letters about the light-bulb editorial. Both of these take the view of a contrary commenter, whose views on light bulbs and nearly everything else are sharply at odds with mine; here are excerpts.

Says Ed L. in St. Paul, Minn.:

...incandescent bulbs are replaceable now, by fluorescent and other lighting. [For example:] Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)...

When an incandescent flashlight bulb expires, it can be replaced with an LED lamp which will last much longer. Or, throw the flashlight away, as suggested, and replace with a cranking charger and eliminate the need for a battery.

Power-on and indicator lights on many electrical appliances are regularly configured with LED lamps. Look at most computers, and the flashing lights, which dim.

As for Christmas tree lights, LEDs offer an impressive return on investment...Safety is also significantly enhanced...An outside holiday decoration which I light, that used to run with incandescent bulbs at 550 watts, now runs with LEDs at 6 watts.

Bicycle headlamps and taillights are almost universally converted to LED lamps...flashing red taillights many cyclists use have been mostly LEDs for several years. Check out any bicycle store...

Roadway warning signs and signals are increasingly switching to LEDs, for lighting enhancement, incredibly lower operating costs, and longer life. And remote roadside emergency signage, running from solar panels, clearly excels for safety...

The shift to LEDs is indeed illuminating.

Says Dave G. of Oxford, Conn.:

...As to the mercury issue, I have to agree that this is a very real problem that can only be solved the same way that soda cans no longer cause quite the infestation that they once did -- deposits and redemption areas. IKEA has already taken the lead in recycling CFLs, but IKEA stores are not everywhere, so more recyclers are needed. Let's step into the 21st century with a little less dread.

Um, we're already in the 21st century. But that's a minor detail.

Update: Here is a link contrary to the contrary (hat tip Crusader Rabbit). And one from MK.

Yet another meaning for "yo"

The Informed Reader (B5, subscription required) scoops Jan. 5 New Scientist, this time about linguistics. And political correctness (or lack thereof--finally! Now that would make a good major for the politically queasy...). Need I say more?

English speakers who want to avoid seeming sexist frequently struggle with the lack of a gender-neutral alternative to "he" and "she." Suggested alternatives such as "ter," "ip," "ze" or "hir" haven't caught on.

But linguists in Baltimore have found that a gender-neutral pronoun has emerged among schoolchildren there. It is "yo," as in "yo put his feet up." Their study showed this usage was different from other uses of "yo" -- as a greeting or as a synonym of "you."

Dennis Baron, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, doubts "yo" will become an established pronoun. But he said it is significant it emerged without politically correct prodding.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Life: then and now, here and there

Here's an odd pair of articles about life in today's WSJ: one about evolution (which is its own complete kettle of stew) and cooking (B8, Informed Reader scooping January Scientific American), the other about possible extinction and plans to compensate (subscription required; A10, by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.).

First, apes and fire. The big question: "Could primates have evolved into humans without knowing how to cook?" Sure! Look at today's vegetarians! (For my evolutionist readers: Save the arguments about ID and so forth for another time. For my creationist readers: Keep up the research. In the end there'll be a big shootout; may the truth win!)

For 10 years, Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham has gathered data that he says show that the discovery of cooking allowed humans to evolve. The only snag: He has yet to prove that humans' ancestors could control fire, a missing link that some scientists say casts doubt on the cooking hypothesis.

Yep, that's a rather large snag, I would say. Here's why he's using that hypothesis:

Chimpanzees' diets of raw, bitter fruits couldn't provide enough energy to support humans' relatively large brains, says Dr. Wrangham. Cooking would have allowed early humans to digest hard, fibrous food more easily and free up energy for brain tissue. He has found that Homo erectus, a human ancestor that appeared between 1.6 million and 1.9 million years ago, had larger brains, smaller teeth and smaller guts than its evolutionary predecessor.

Now, to be fair, is the other side (if you know me, it's still not quite fair...the age part, to say the least--but I'll save that for another time):

But skeptics say Prof. Wrangham hasn't proven that Homo erectus consistently worked with fire, although one archaeological site has been found that shows signs of a fire 1.6 million years ago. Signs of consistent cooking only emerge within the past 500,000 years, around the time Neanderthals were coping with an ice age. In addition, some scientists believe humans could have developed their larger brains and smaller stomachs by eating raw, energy-dense animal products such as soft bone marrow or brains.

Mmm, tastes like chicken! (Now we know why Campbell's soups sell so well!) Back to the Doc:

Prof. Wrangham hopes DNA evidence will eventually prove him right, by revealing whether Homo erectus developed the genetic responses found in modern humans to counter some chemical effects of cooking.

Quibble: Normally the word "prove" is only used in math; in the *softer* sciences, I would prefer the word "demonstrate." Once we find the same evidence in every specimen of humans of this type, then it will technically be "proven." Now for the next article.

Jenkins starts with a bang:

Unless you can avoid a newspaper in 2008, expect to be reading a lot about human extinction. In June arrives the hundredth anniversary of the Tunguska impact, which leveled 800 square miles of Siberia. By happenstance, a rock of similar size may smash into Mars on Jan. 30, affording scientists a close-up view of a planetary disaster...[for example,] NASA last week was announcing discovery of a supermassive black hole spraying deadly radiation into a neighboring galaxy, ending life on an unknown number of planets in its path.


Yes, I have issues with that whole extraterrestrial-life thing. But bear with me. He continues:

More discouragement is found in the so-called Fermi Paradox, or the failure of the universe to yield evidence of intelligent alien civilizations. Is that because intelligent species end up killing themselves off with their own technology?

Hmmm...could it possibly be that there's (gasp) no life on other planets? A shocking notion to some, to be sure. The answer to humans' *imminent* extinction? Cheapening the process of getting *evolved primates* like us into orbit. There ends the biologically interesting part, and there begins the economically interesting part. So I'll stop. Just watch for cheaper shuttles.