Archive for May, 2008

Speaking of "math alone doesn't tell you everything"….

May 30, 2008 - 3:24 pm Comments Off

Today I learned that “real” Intelligent Design theory, far from being a political creationist Trojan Horse championed by people who do not understand why methodological naturalism is important, is actually a real science about finding mathematical “markers” to show something is designed. It’s a real science because it’s falsifiable- if you can show something “irreducibly complex”- like a bacterial flagellum- could have evolved just fine without having to invoke a designer, ID is falsified and its honest proponents will presumably pack up and go home rather than calling Goalposts U-Haul and finding some other “irreducibly complex” biological gewgaw to add to the designer’s shrinking curriculum vitae.

Liu and Ochman, “Stepwise formation of the bacterial flagellar system”. Genome sequencing has really made finding these relationships rather than just positing them a lot faster. I have now falsified “real” ID. Cool, that took about five minutes for a jump over to my blogroll and a bit of typing. Don’t believe those haters that tell you science is hard!

Concerning Heavenly Bodies

May 30, 2008 - 11:56 am Comments Off

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never, in my entire life, run into a single individual that took a view to astrology any more serious than “Oh, well, horoscope said $prediction, wink wink nudge nudge, better watch out!” I’m told there are people who base major life decisions around these mass-produced vagaries in the local paper, or worse, pay people money to have others come up with specific vagaries on the spot from a cold reading. The only person I know who has paid for such a service was pretty clearly in the spirit of “For entertainment purposes only.” That said, I’m afraid I’m the dumb kid in today’s roundup of major talent, ’cause I really can’t get too worked up about a minor anachronism when I haven’t had to personally sit down and walk someone through the math proving it’s wrong. Personally the part that confuses me the most about the belief in astrology is that our local planets have enough gravitational sway to affect your entire life, while distant galaxies (which tend to compensate for the inverse square in the gravitational force equation with excessive mass despite the insane distances – at least they do well enough for astrology numbers) don’t. I guess you just run out of room on the graph paper at some point and have to draw the line, so to speak. That said, I realized that astrology wasn’t about math or science, but about heavenly bodies. I’m willing to bet that none of my esteemed colleagues picked this up, having written this before the “deadline” (Edit to add: And was foiled by a faulty “publish on schedule” in my wordpress setup), but I for one am going to run with that ball.

First, a quick look at what everyone can expect today:

For those either at home, or with bosses that don’t object to tasteful nekkidness, the rest of my impression of astrology lies below the fold.
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Surely you're not telling me they're just there to twinkle?

May 30, 2008 - 9:00 am Comments Off

“Personally, I liked working for the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. I’ve worked in the private sector- they expect RESULTS.”
– Ray Stantz, Ghostbusters

Nowadays, when you put “astrology” and “astronomy” in close proximity, and you are not a dictionary, it’s usually because you’re meaning to compare occult nonsense with sober science. One of them is the study of the nature, movement, and behavior of heavenly bodies, and the other is fundamentally the assertion that the bits of bright light in the sky move in ways that directly translate to what *our* bodies and nature are going to be doing. If nothing else, they make handy root-word cousins for comparing science and pseudoscience. However, as some astrologers point out (thanks Chas), astronomy and astrology were close to being the same discipline for the bulk of human history so far.

Humanity has parlayed a few tricks into astonishing success as animals. One of these- a tactic known by most big-brained and long-lived mammals- is noticing and remembering patterns in the environment around them, and relating those patterns to one another. In its most basic form, this is how a species that doesn’t breed like a mayfly and needs its expensive offspring to survive through lean years stays healthy- in flush years, ripe fruit and dumb young animals (meat) might be everywhere, but remembering where they may STILL be found during lean ones is a useful skill. For a big, bright primate- like an orangutan- life is a layered map of resources cued by changes in the length of the day, the temperature, and all the other things that change with the seasons.

Humans became extremely good at this. Between the even bigger brain and even longer lives, and early advances in telling each other things beyond “we can probably still find palms in fruit over this way”, and some even further symbological advancements that let us write such things down, humanity began to pick up on even bigger patterns- like the specific *way* the sun moved through the sky, the patterns of light against the darkness moved over time, and the predictable way the moon changed. People in the tropics began with noticing the strange days on which they cast no shadow. Folks in more temperate climes were most intensely interested in the longest and shortest days of the year- when the light, the warmth, and the ability to grow things to eat was going to go away and when it was going to come back.

In order to start writing *enough* things down and start relating them to one another in consistent ways, let alone start building everything from the ancient equivalent of UNIVAC right on up to Roadrunner, big civilizations were necessary. Without one, every individual human is mostly occupied with keeping all his own resources organized; you need a surplus, and a way of organizing its distribution, before you can have excess citizens with nothing better to do than sit around watching the lights overhead and mapping them.

However advanced any given group of humans became at making sense of the timing and progression of the seasons, and the tides, and the way they all correlated to the way the stars and the planets (identified by being a lot more inclined to wander around the sky than the more fixed points of lights) moved, they were still thinking about them with exactly the same brain that they used to keep track of the fruit, the herds, and the wife’s monthlies. Specifically, the same brain whose instant followup question to “How do these things relate?” is always “what does this have to do with me?” If anything, the followup only becomes more pressing when your entire existence of painstakingly recording the nature and behavior of the lights in the sky rests on it- or at least on your ability to justify such pure knowledge as valuable to someone who has no knowledge of the processions of the heavens, but DOES have a lot of goats and wheat to spare.

There was certainly little enough reason to suspect that the earth was NOT at the center of the whole thing; earth is a fixed point of reference to anyone standing on it. There was even less reason to suspect that the complex, beautiful system of patterns that the heavens revolved through had no more relevance to humanity than a useful reference system for good times for planting and harvesting; even an illiterate farmer can figure THAT sort of thing out. Stars were the stuff of math, the purest marriage of abstract symbolism and concrete reality, and ultimately the most powerful tool the tool-using apes were ever to stumble across. It all had to mean something- and the same people who wrote everything else down wrote down what they suspected that might be, relating it to everything else they associated with the heavens, with true justification or without it- it can be hard to tell. Ultimately, the body of any contemporary state of knowledge lies in what’s been written down so far.

As it turns out, reality is usually far more preposterous than mere intuition leads us to suspect.

milky way

Eventually, the math led us far enough in the right direction that old assumptions based primarily on “makes the most sense of the time” began to crumble and new ones based on “this is the only way we can make the figures work” rose, eventually to the point where we could make such accurate predictions about the sky and the deeper space beyond it that we could stick a probe into a transient celestial object 429 million kilometers away.

Math is wonderful. It gave us astrology and astronomy in a single package born of human nature and solid observation, and then got us out of needing astrology as the most logical set of assumptions about our relationship to the stars. Math can do nearly anything.

It is always useful, however, to remember that math, being a pure tool for pattern-finding, will find the patterns in anything.

Be sure to swing by Matt’s, Marko’s, Tam’s, LawDog’s, and Ambulance Driver’s for everyone else’s take on this weeks’ theme.

Search Term of the Day

May 28, 2008 - 10:46 pm Comments Off

amen

"And with Donald Sutherland as the bumbling waiter!"*

May 28, 2008 - 3:51 pm Comments Off

As you may already have heard, by week’s end we’ll be taking part in a little experiment in bloggery.

Ambulance Driver, Matt, LawDog, Marko, Tam, and the pair of us will all offer something- anything- on the same theme. Given that we tend to do an inordinate amount of sitting around trying to come up with something to write about, this will probably be good for us, though I probably should sit on my immediate contrarian urge to skip writing something dry and scientific and instead find the perfect interpretive dance on YouTube. Stingray suggested porn. We’ll see.

*You’ll probably get this by Friday. If you get it now, congratulations, and have a nice cold Willer on us.

Not Pictured: Badger, Mushroom

May 28, 2008 - 12:43 pm Comments Off

Another wonderful start to the day rolled around in the form of frantic barking from Kang. Looking out front and not seeing the dogs’ usual nemesis, the UPS guy, I wandered out back in search of something to throw at her. Instead of finding her running along the fence line, letting some recently released-for-summer probable delinquent student know that our yard is no longer a good venue for sneaking out and drinking*, I discovered her apparently engaged in a shouting match with her favorite spot to curl up in the mornings. Taking one barefoot step outside to find out just what the hell was going on in her tiny little mind, I heard a buzzing sound emanate from the spot with which she had contention.

In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I again set a land speed record. In the next five minutes hemisecond, I had cleared the fifty feet from porch to dog and was dragging her back houseward at a rate of speed normally reserved for Barack Jong Il Obama’s foot entering his mouth. Dog safely inside, and myself now equipped with shoes and a few spare neurons to dedicate to identification rather than reaction, I returned, camera and stick in hand**.
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I Knew This Day Would Come

May 26, 2008 - 8:11 pm Comments Off

Barack Obama confirmed many of our worst fears today:

“On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes — and I see many of them in the audience here today — our sense of patriotism is particularly strong.”

It gets worse. The outbreak has begun in Las Cruces, NM. I knew the town didn’t look particularly full of vim and vigor the last time we passed through, but I had no idea that our war dead had risen from the grave to consume the questionable brains of the students at NMSU. We here in Los Alamos may have some hope. Surrounded by the mountains and sheer cliffs, we may be able to draw on the by no means trivial firepower of the local citizens, combine it with the latest technology from LANL, and erect sufficient blockades to keep the shambling masses at bay. Sadly, with Las Cruces a mere 300 miles away we will probably encounter heavy assault much sooner than other places.

The remote mountaintop location of Los Alamos has been vital in our past to maintaining security. Let us only hope that the anti-LANL zombie appeasers have not weakened us beyond hope of surviving the coming conflict. Our thoughts and prayers go to those further south in the state such as Stephen Bodio. Stay strong in the face of the coming undead, and remember: only headshots count!

Internet Culture Goes High Culture

May 26, 2008 - 7:47 pm Comments Off

Once again, I have absolutely no context for this, as the furthest back I was able to trace the link was to a blog post with no other commentary. So I don’t know where this is, or who these people are, I only know that this looks like the most fun you can have at the opera without a paintball gun. It’s the audience participation that really makes it.

Original Numa Numa Guy lives here, for anyone that needs a refresher on YouTube Videos That Became Inexplicable Crazes.

Well That's Interesting…

May 26, 2008 - 7:37 pm Comments Off

I normally just skim that section of the paper, but my horoscope says that creative energies are approaching a cyclic peak soon. I wonder what this bodes….

Small world.

May 26, 2008 - 7:23 pm Comments Off

You know you live in a small town when you go bopping along a meandering path on the interwebs, find a blog by a local, and realize you’ve probably exchanged pleasantries and currency on multiple occasions with the author.

Maybe next time I won’t immediately scurry off like a startled rodent when approached by a salesperson while in the midst of Book Reverie. Or maybe I’ll just give thanks that I’m not nearly “interesting” enough a customer to be blogfodder.