Friday, January 28, 2005

Ashcroft, Inauguration and Let the Eagle Soar

At the presidential inauguration ceremony of 2005, John Ashcroft sang his song Let the Eagle Soar.

This is a new low in patriotic and God-invoking propaganda. Have we acheived National Socialism yet?


Victoria Birds

Well, it happened. Goal complete. Superb Fairy-wren found. Ahhhh.

I'm in Australia for the first time, and since I'm on a disappointingly short business trip here, I chose a small goal bird for this trip. Simply to see a Superb Fairy-wren. I had tried to see one near the Yarra river in Melbourne, but that didn't happen.

Now I am at Aitken Hill conference center, and they have some nice, landscaped grounds with a few small ponds and a little riparian-ish area. It's nice to walk around, with several bird species to see. (I also saw a kangaroo yesterday.) Several Fairy-wrens were in the area, males and females.

One thing I noticed is that there are several superlative Fairy-wrens in the Australian bird list: Splendid Fairy-wrens, Lovely Fairy-wrens. Makes one wonder about the other birds who don't get a nice descriptor. I mean, there's no "Mediocre" Fairy-wren. The Variegated Fairy-wren sure got dealt a lousy moniker.

Here's the some other birds I have seen at Aitken Hill. Photos are credited via html links back to their source pages.

Pacific Black Duck


Masked Lapwing

Eastern Rosella

Willie Wagtail

White-plumed Honeyeater

Crested Pigeon

Science is Taught Wrong

I have reached a point where I realize that I was taught Science completely the wrong way. And, frankly, I'm a little bent about it.

My junior high science teacher, Mr. Hiroshi, taught us some basics on how protons and electrons always come in equal proportions in an atom, and how neutrons can make the atomic weight greater. But there was some symmetry in the math that was interesting, but overall, there was not much relevance to the topic. I now know that this is part of the Quantum theory, albeit hugely simplified. But what we learned was not deep. It was shallow. The curriculum was tired, and dumbed down. But far worse was that it was not relevant to the world of an eighth grader.

I don't think that Mr. Hiroshi was the problem; he was actually one of the more engaging teachers at Joseph George middle school. But I don't think he was provided a good curriculum, nor a way to connect this strange subject to its grand significance to our existence.

Now, my highschool biology teacher was miserable. And the way we learned biology was also miserable. That experience made me avoid taking science courses in college. While I took interest in the findings of science--something my parents instilled in me at an early age--public school curriculum established in my mind that science classes are tedious.

If I could design a high school biology curriculum, the first thing I would teach in the program would be about viruses. What these simple genetic programs do is amazing. They invade cells and hijack the DNA replicating machinery within to make copies of themselves. They hijack other cellular machinery to create protein casings for the replicants, and those casings provide the mechanism for invading yet other cells. The weirdest thing is that viruses are by and large considered to be inanimate: Scientific American recently ran a cover story called "Are viruses alive?"

This first subject of viruses opens up several exploration paths. One of immediate interest for kicking off the course is that viruses are relevant. HIV is, in fact, very relevant to high school children. Influenza is, too, for that matter. The latter example is something they can connect to. And it could increase the impact of talking about the former. But, they also give a mechanism to talk about what biology is--the study of life--by introducing whether viruses are alive or not.

Viruses as an early subject also gets immediate practical examples of how evolution works, introducing the subject on the small-scale, where it is manageable, immediately evident, and proveable with real-world examples. Some call this "micro-evolution." So be it. Save the big implications of evolution for later. Get the fundamentals of the theory in place first.

Virus as an intro also sets you up to teach about sex very naturally. Through viruses, you've covered how cells work. From that point on, you can get into cellular reproduction at any time.

Viruses do present a problem as a first subject, though. How do you introduce the subject without having to explain a mass of other concepts. For examples, the concept of cells isn't necessarily known to students at that age. So, what are these "cell" things that viruses use? Nevertheless, I think this problem can easily be solved. Perhaps start with how computer viruses spread (they're short programs that tell machines to reproduce the short programs, and most first world students would get the concept).

You could devise some in-class excercises, too. You could start by giving every student a blank sheet of paper, except one, who gets a sheet that says, "Tell two people to write down this exact sentence on their sheet of paper." It would spread through the room, even though you never gave verbal instruction to do so. Example shown: It doesn't take much instruction to get machinery working for a virus. At the end of the copying, you could grab students' attention by telling them that you planted a virus on one of the sheets of paper. Subject begun; attention grabbed. There's probably even a clever teaching angle you could get with the couple of kids who try to thwart the activity by not cooperating or changing the sentence text. (Copying infidelities are mutations; non-cooperation is actually resistance to the infection!)

Why shouldn't learning science be made fun?

Perhaps a part of what holds back biology classes from really excelling is U.S. cultural resistance to evolution. You cannot discuss how biology really works without a grasp of evolutionary theory. [Aside: The implications to how we teach sex education would be enormous if we could just show how human behavior is part of such a larger system.]

I have not heard about how great biology (or any other sub-discipline of science) classes are in other countries, so maybe this is a worldwide phenomenon.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Fairy Wren Update from Down Under

Okay...I went on a walk with Ed Anderson along the Yarra River in Melbourne yesterday. No Superb Fairy Wrens...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

This Just in: Larry King is Satan*

I'm waiting in an airport under the big CNN-o-vision, and Larry King is on. The guest is husband of a teacher who had sex with her 14-year-old student. Let's put aside how absurd it is that someone would go on a news program to talk openly about how his wife cheated on him with a 14-year-old so that we can get right to the matter.

How on earth does Larry King purport to be a newsman?

There are wars and genocides going on in the world. There are diseases to cure. We're landing exploring machines on other worlds. There is so much going on that is news. People's sick fascination with such trash is one thing, but dressing it up as news is absolutely immoral.

Can somebody please wake America up? We're turning into a culture of trash.

New rule: Being au courant doesn't count if your news source is anything on TV. Except The Daily Show with Jon Stewart cuz that shit's just funny.

*Larry King is Satan according to my personal belief system, and is probably not the real Lucifer, Judeo-Christian embodiment of pure evil.

Reverend Ted's Politics

On's blog I found a biographical entry for the Political Compass that was rather interesting to me. It tries to replace the over-simplified left-right political spectrum with a two-dimensional map.

I come out as this:
  • Economic Left/Right: -3.25
  • Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.82
I suppose that is to say that I lean toward a liberal/libertarian political view.

So, oversimplified political classifications still suck.

One thing that my test results indicate is that my political views will probably keep me out of politics; not authoritarian enough it appears. However, I've got Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in the same quadrant as me...not sure if the latter is such a good thing, but Mandela's pretty cool.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Teach the Controversy? Hell yes!

Fairly often I see pro-Darwinian evolution essays and articles railing against Intelligent Design being taught in our schools. These advocates for Evolution attempt to gun down the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools because it's bad science. Perhaps they're going about it backwards.

Under the banner of Intelligent Design, or ID, creationists assert that since there is disagreement about the veracity of Darwinian evolution, schools should "teach the controversy" about the subject. They claim that ID is shut out of the scientific dialog without due consideration.

While I agree with most the pro-evolution stance that the controversy is not actually a scientific controversy, and therefore the controversy should not be taught in schools, I think this may be worth considering a valid subject in the science classroom.

Of course, there would have to be some ground rules:
  1. The controversy that the Intelligent Design band is actually trying to perpetuate is that the universe has features that are irreducibly complex. To them, it is the evidence for this argument that should be taught. We can grant that, as long as...
  2. If we're going to bring in this counter-evidence, then the counter-evidence gets thorough examination. The dogmatic evidence against Darwinian evolution usually has fairly straightforward ways to discredit. (The eye remains one of the creationist's common counter-points, despite that it has long-since been shown to be an entirely vapid argument.) We should foster a healthy scientific framework that teaches children to have a skeptical worldview of all grandiose claims about how the universe exists. But that means...
  3. Science must be defined to children as an ongoing human quest to completely understand how the universe works. That means that in science there are no taboo questions, including whether God exists or not. Subsequently...
  4. Schools are required to get to the heart of the matter: It's not "Intelligent Design or Evolution." It's "God or no God." (And I assure you that the "no God" camp will have some pretty compelling points, given the skeptical framework that we would be teaching children...) What that means is...
  5. "Is there a God?" specifically gets addressed, with scientific inquiry on how one could prove or disprove God's existence. (And I'm cool with an inconclusive answer, so long as we teach genuine critical thinking to our children.)
What I am saying is, yes, let's get the controversy into the classroom. Indeed, the majority of the world's people believe in some kind of god. Part of living in this world means that your life will have government-imposed laws based upon belief in one religious doctrine or another. Understanding the case for God is really a fundamental part of life. So, shouldn't we be educating children on this strange concept of God and whether it holds any water?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Back to Flores: Why "Hobbits?"

My previous post gives more details on the discovery of Homo floresensis. One thing I did not mention was the ridiculous common name given to the creature discovered. The researchers are call their staggering H. floresensis find a "hobbit."

What a way to belittle what will perhaps be your life's greatest acheivement.

Ebu Gogo and the Giant Chimpanzees

While searching for a name for an open source project that I working on with Nat Friedman, I got into some casual web reading on great apes--our closest relatives; the family of creatures to which we humans belong.

Homo floresensis, the recently discovered contemporary to our own species, Homo sapiens, fills me with wonder. As recently as 13,000 years ago, we had a tiny contemporary that--by our own taxonomic methods--shared our same genus and may have lived side by side with modern humans. Evidence excavated from Liang Bua on the island of Flores, Indonesia, lays out the case with at least one relatively complete skeleton and the remains of five others. The most recent Scientific American featured a summary of the find, as well as made it the cover subject.

Now, as it turns out, there is an outside chance that the species either existed up to even more recent times, or could even still exist. The people of the island of Flores have oral traditions of a small, human-like creature that they call "Ebu Gogo" that lives on the island. The Floresians' stories go so far as to recount recent interactions with the creatures. Certainly, I'm a strong believer that scientifically-minded skepticism is the best route when it comes to cryptozoological claims--especially those that involve of any mysterious human-like creatures. The likely case is that the people of Flores simply have Ebu Gogo as their own local skunk ape legend.

Of similar interest is a potentially new species of ape that was recently discovered in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (yes, the Congo still can play the clichéd role as deepest, darkest Africa), a giant chimpanzee has recently been discovered. They are enough unlike chimpanzees and gorillas to be considered possibly a new species of great ape.

In either case—whether a new species of great ape, or another human species somehow still living in our shadow—what would we do? Would there not be an incredible biological imperative to preserve them from destruction at our own hands? In the case of the potentially new ape turning out to be real, we might have some serious issues. The Congo is a war-torn country—natural preservation seldom fares well in the face of human strife. Also, our record for preserving species—even those most closely related to us—is not very good. The great apes seem to have no special preservation standing with us.

A new, living species of Homo suddenly turning up could create deep, deep challenges for us as a species, because Homo means intelligent. What would we do? How would religious fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, or others of the monotheist creation myth) deal with the news? How would scientists manage to both study and preserve the dignity of such a species?

It is unlikely that the Ebu Gogo legend will produce a living H. floresensis for us to ever find out the answers to these and many other questions. One thing is now fairly certain, though: we Homo sapiens have lived alongside at least two Homo contemporaries (H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis) and perhaps now one more (H. floresensis). Homo sapiens emerged dominant from the various types of Homo on which evolution was tinkering. Now we are the only species we know of that is stretching out to explore the laws of the universe that begat us. We can look now at the still-emerging evidence of our own evolutionary history, and also that of our generic contemporaries, and part of the wonder is necessarily sober and somber: At what cost have we succeeded as a species?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Hubble Trouble: Isn't this just what we as a species do?

I just saw something on slashdot about a hubble service mission not happening because of funding. This is bizarre. How could we possibly not have money for servicing the Hubble?! Isn't this obviously a primary occupation of our species? In our priviledged role of being matter-lucky-enough-to-have-intelligent-consciousness, isn't it our duty to explore the universe and appreciate its wonders? I mean, I really don't get it.

It turns out that our President, George W. Bush, line-itemed it out of the budget. How can he claim to be a man of God when he spurns one of the great tools for studying Creation? I for one am deeply more devout than this man. I seriously don't get it.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Acts of God

I heard this at the the Amazing Meeting 3:

~"The tsumani tragedies were NOT an act of God, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were."

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Dawkins cites Sagan

In his keynote address at JREF's Amazing Meeting 3, Richard Dawkins cited a quote that I really liked from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space:
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed.” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.

This is the kind of stuff that attendees and presenters at this conference discuss. If you're like-minded or curious about the points-of-view of so-called free thinkers, delve into the links above.

Friday, January 14, 2005

So many Atheists

Most surprising about the conference I'm at: so many people who are outspoken atheists here.

I guess I was expecting it to be a quietly-known subject. Now, thinking about it, having been here for a bit, I realize that the whole God thing is the biggest societal deliusion, and has the deepest impact on how people live their lives--even choose their politics and politicians--left. All the others, from cryptozoology to astrology to ufology, are pretty much the irrelevant fringe.

Julia Sweeney
's "Letting Go of God" performance last night was brilliant.

Meeting Dr. Dawkins

At the James Randi Educational Foundation's "The Amazing Meeting 3," Richard Dawkins--one of the most inspirational thinkers I know--is a headline speaker.

As it happens, I went out of the convention hall to take a call during a presentation. After the call, I noticed that Richard Dawkins was looking over an exhibit of optical illusary sculptures.

So, I sidled in when he was alone and looked possibly receptive to conversation, and with considerable trepidation I asked something like, "Would you be okay with one of your fans coming up and mobbing you?"

Dawkins replied to me something to the affect of: I'm not really sure if I have the right angle. Referring to how he was looking at one of the illusions. It was an awkward reply. Apparently, he had not understood what I had said to him at all.

So there I was, having had a complete collapse in the arc of communication with the man with whom I have most wanted to have a conversation for quite some time. It reminded me most of how it felt, in adolesence, to ask a girl to dance.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Amazing Meeting

Tomorrow I head to "the Amazing Meeting"--James Randi's conference for skeptical inquiry (of all paranormal, anti-scientific mental boogeymen).

Richard Dawkins is speaking. If you have not read anything by Dawkins, you're missing one of the most lucid big thinkers of our time. He's frequently compared in eloquence to Carl Sagan, but honestly, I think he's even better.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Australia Bound?

I might get to take a short trip to Australia. Never been there before. It would be a business trip to Melbourne. Of course, the first question is: what birds are there.

It turns out that this little jewel, the Superb Fairy-wren is found right there in the city. This could be good.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Titan's Atmosphere

This photo of Titan's atmosphere from from NASA's Cassini mission I find fascinating.

The text and image can be found here.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Update on the Snowboard Quest

I got a sweet new snowboard.

It's a Never Summer Legacy. Looks a little like this:

But it's the performance I'm hooked on. New Years Day was an incredible day at the Canyons, and I got my first chance to take the board out in deep powder. My buddy Erin said that on that board I am finally fun to ride with.

My old board was a K2 "Fat Bob." Here's a comparison review from a boarder who made the same switch.