Archive for June, 2008

Context, like respect, must be earned.

June 30, 2008 - 6:47 pm Comments Off on Context, like respect, must be earned.

History, contrary to popular theories, *is* kings and dates and battles.
– Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

It seems that Louisiana has passed a law that allows for “supplemental materials” in classrooms to tackle “controversies” such as, but not limited to, cloning, “the origins of life”, and of course the real target, evolution. I’m not actually as exercised about this as I might be; I think one of two things will happen. One, litigation will strike it down for the zillionth time; just putting “shall not be construed to be any endorsement of religion or nonreligion” in the bill doesn’t mean the court isn’t just going to go ahead and construe the hell out of it anyway. When your primary backers are a conservative Christian organization and the Discovery Institute, the motives aren’t exactly difficult to tease out. Two, the same thing will happen as happened to Kansas when they tried to excise evolution from the classroom; things will be quietly reversed after the state discovers that universities no longer want students educated in their state. Louisiana is a repeat offender in this respect, as a search of the National Center For Science Education will quickly make apparent; it seems they never tire of spending taxpayer money on losing legal cases, and on stuff from the Discovery Institute and its ancestor organizations.

In any case, the bill relies on one of the ID movement’s very favorite defenses, which is that they’re only trying to “give students critical thinking skills” by “teaching the controversy”. Completely putting aside the fact that it’s trivially obvious that’s not really what they’re trying to do, why, on the face of it, is this a bad argument? Doesn’t evolution enjoy a protected status as a topic inside a science classroom that it doesn’t out in the wider world? Isn’t teaching students critical thinking skills good?

For one, let’s dispense with the most obvious argument, which is that in no other subjects do we teach “a controversy” in which a given field agrees on one side of the argument and a fringe broadly recognized as lunatic doesn’t. We don’t teach the controversy of homeopathy in chemistry classrooms, we don’t teach the controversy of geocentrism in physics, we don’t teach the controversy of holocaust denialism in history*. There are huge numbers of controversies within evolutionary theory- like the relative impacts of direct selective pressure versus neutral selection and genetic drift, how fast evolutionary change “normally” goes and under what circumstances (punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism, itself old enough a “controversy” that it’s not considered much of one anymore), or the impact of horizontal transfer in bacteria and how asexual species handle genetic load- but they are never taught in public school classrooms, partly because that’s not at all what the people pushing for “teaching the controversy” have in mind and partly because the understanding required to evaluate them is well above the K-12 level.

The next obvious argument is that students who are unaware of the controversy must have been raised in a cave on Mars with a blindfold and earplugs. Just as you can make the argument that there is such an obvious split in America on this issue that it deserves treatment homeopathy and holocaust denialism don’t, you can also make the argument that the “problem” is already readily taken care of in church, in the home, and in students who examine their understanding of evolution for themselves and decide to reject it- which, given the numbers, many already do. This is about a specific movement using the best weapons they have devised to try and hurry that process along, not any real lack of coverage of the controversy or of religious points of view. Religious points of view dominate outside the classroom, as there are many more religious believers than there are people who treat furthering their science education as a hobby. (And, of course, many people with a religious point of view are down and funky with both, but no one likes them, the spoilsports.)

But, let’s sweep all that aside and assume first that there is a legitimate scientific controversy and serious reasons to criticize “Darwinian evolution”, and that we’re dealing with a movement motivated purely by academic freedom and diversity of ideas. Let’s pretend that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins were fighting about whether or not evolution exists, rather than the basketful of controversies within evolution that they inevitably fell on opposite sides of, or the relationship between science and religion that they likewise fought over. Is there still a reason that “teaching the controversy” is a bad idea?

Yes, there is, the same reason punctuated equilibrium, neutral selection, “junk DNA”, and other genuine controversies within biology aren’t taught: secondary school students haven’t yet had near the education required to understand them.

Isn’t that what the teacher’s for? To guide them through unfamiliar waters and teach just the basics of the controversy? Well, no. A teacher can only get students to understand as much about the material as they are capable of grasping, and what they’re capable of grasping depends as much on the human learning process as it does on their intelligence and the skill of the teacher. Perhaps no one is more familiar with this limitation than history teachers, as it is the direct cause of complaints by ten-year-olds throughout the span of education that history is an inherently boring subject. This is because, when you’re ten, unless you were raised in a history department, it IS.

“Kings and dates and battles” is the popular, disparaging formulation of “traditional” history education: walking the students through memorizing the names of people of no relevance to the student other than the demands of the teacher, memorizing the dates things not important to the student occurred, and memorizing big military clashes that are likewise impossible for them to fully connect with. The tyranny of dry fact, if you will. Up to an extent, this can be compensated for with a teacher that has a lively delivery and good performance skills- and the regular small doses of facts which may not be all that relevant to history, but WILL actually interest the students- but when it comes to test day, the questions won’t be about the nuances of the performance or the juicy details included to get attention, they’ll be mostly… kings and dates and battles. Their names, their place in time, some demonstration of understanding of their significance, depending on the grade level.

The imagined solution to this problem- not to mention the problem of getting some diversity into the endless parade of Dead White Males- is to teach history “in context”. The problem with this otherwise laudable idea- who wouldn’t want students to be more interested in history, and minority students to feel less alienated by it?- is that there is no such thing as context until you’ve accumulated a sufficient number of boring facts, only its illusion. Proposing to teach a child context first- or fascinating context hand in hand with the kings and dates and battles every step of the way- is like trying to draw a zebra on a blank sheet of white paper by starting with the spaces between the stripes.


The Saga of the Bukkit

June 29, 2008 - 1:08 pm Comments Off on The Saga of the Bukkit

One week and roughly five thousand peeks into the guest room to check in on things, it’s time to take the next step in our first voyage into home brewing and get the now nominal beer moved into something we might drink it out of. On the advice of a buddy who’s done this before, we skipped the usual route of bottling and went for 1.5 gallon plastic mini-kegs. This turned out to be a mixed blessing.

Since nothing around here is allowed to go perfectly according to plan, we of course ran into trouble right off the bat. The instructions call for siphoning the alleged beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket. Well, it turns out that when we were at the brew store looking over kits and gear and all such happiness, the siphon and bottling tip didn’t get put back in the box with everything else. On top of that, since we opted for the jugs rather than bottles, when we were examining the draft system, we left the store with the bottle screwed on to the gas system, without a regular cap. A trip to the hardware store came up dry on the cap front, but at least siphon tubing isn’t rocket science, right? Wrong. Totally out of tubing. I love my luck. Much inventive and colorful language later, and after some motivated rummaging through the fridge and pantry, luck actually smiled on us for once, and the lid to a jar of some condiment LabRat picked up at the cooking store fit the jug perfectly.

Lacking a tube with which to siphon actually turned out to be a good thing as well. Having re-watched Alton Brown’s Amber Waves during the waiting period, I noted that the instructions we brought home with us said nothing about straining the wort before sealing it up. Really, it should’ve been obvious at the time since there were chunks of hop pellets still milling about hoppily, but when you over-focus on the instructions in front of you that kind of dumbass mistake slips in. Lesson learned for next time at least. Since siphoning was right out, this meant we could strain that crap out now anyway.

Water and priming sugar to carbonate the beer went on the stove to boil. Naturally, before we went any further, the only thing to do is sanitize this hemisphere again. After soaking the bucket, spigot, jugs, lids, straining implements, the dogs, half the garage, six rolls of now ineffective paper towels, and the keyboard and mouse, it was time to Open The Bucket.

Well… it smells like beer?

Since I was expecting a layer of sludge and such at the bottom, thanks to Alton, I was able to get the stuff transfered between buckets with only a minimum of extra sludge (and good freakin’ lord, that was a lot more sludge than I anticipated), and the strainers did in fact pull out all the floating crap.

From here it was downright simple. Hoist the bucket with the spiggot up to the counter, pull up a chair, and open the valve until the jug is filled. Ten minutes later, the bucket had given birth to three 1.5 gallon bottles of future happiness. Just out of curiosity, we pulled some off for sampling, not expecting much since a) It’s Our First Day(TM) and b) it needs to age and carbonate and such anyway, and were pleasantly surprised to find it already better than Budweiser. Granted, beating Bud in a taste test just means you’re a slightly taller midget, but it was still heartening, since I’d been worried about the beer all week when the airlock stopped bubbling for the most part by Tuesday. The kit we got was for a red ale (kit on account of hoping to be as idiot proof as possible), so we weren’t sure if that was about when the bubbles were supposed to stop, especially after hearing of things like gas production overwhelming the airlock (in comments on the last go-round from Matt), and Alton’s explanation that it should still be bubbling after a week.

Now it’s another two week wait while the priming sugar feeds the last of the yeast to carbonate and condition this stuff. This is definitely not a process for those into instant gratification. Oh well, off to the store for a resupply while we wait.


Comparisons to government agencies (though I think I’m missing something for that one), or analysis of preparedness for zombie apocalypses will be left to the reader.

There are SO many reasons that shouldn't have worked…

June 27, 2008 - 11:46 am Comments Off on There are SO many reasons that shouldn't have worked…

Last night, to celebrate the Heller decision, the missus and I opted to raid a local eatery rather than heat up the house by firing up the stove. Since raising a glass was most certainly in order, a quick scan of the beer list revealed an offering from a local microbrewery which we had not yet tried. Listed only as “Rio Grande Pancho Verde,” we figured it’d be worth a shot since we had enjoyed their Outlaw Lager (LabRat more than I) and their Desert Pilsner (I more than LabRat). When the bottles arrived, we became rather quickly dubious.

Chile Cerveza? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over.

“This is chile beer? Shit, if I’d realized that I would’ve just gotten the lager again,” opined a worried LabRat. Having always been the bigger chile head of the two of us, I was willing to give it a shot. We examined the label.

“Winner of the 1996 Great American Beer Festival’s Herb & Spice silver medal, Pancho Verde superbly combines the subtle flavors of a New Mexico roasted green chile and a crisp, world-class pilsner. With a perfect balance of aroma, flavor and heat, Pancho Verde is a uniquely refreshing chile beer.”

Courage screwed up, I poured, examined, sniffed, and finally sampled. It began as a perfectly servicable pilsner with nothing to write home about. Then the chile hit. Then something amazing happened: it was actually good. If you’ve never had truly freshly roasted green chile, not that crap in a can from the megamart, my description probably won’t help, but it was spot on the flavor of a nice Big Jim or Sandia freshly skinned out of the roaster. If you’re from somewhere that features huge propane burners and rotating wire baskets outside the grocery stores at certain times of the year, you know how that smell just flavors the entire neighborhood with awesomeness. It was like that, only liquid. There was just a tiny hint of spice in the finish – enough to cement the chile’s bona fides, but not enough to do more than say “Yup. Real chile.”

The last time I had a fruit-flavored beer, it was from some hippy-hole in Taos, and was a peach brew. That one turned me more than slightly off of the idea of combining fruit and beer, and had I realized that this Pancho Verde was another one, I probably would’ve given it a miss despite my crippling addiction to chile. That would have been a mistake, because even though there is no good reason to think that combining green chile and beer in the same glass is a good idea, I’ll be damned if it didn’t actually work out brilliantly.

(Bonus points to anyone geeky enough to identify the source of this post’s title.)

So What IS Reasonable?

June 26, 2008 - 6:44 pm Comments Off on So What IS Reasonable?

Commenter Skeeler of Industrial-Strength Science has asked what is basically going to be the question du jour throughout the nation in his reply to the Heller post below.

“So, what, if any, restrictions on the purchase of firearms would you endorse? Age limits (16, 18, 21)? Background checks (misdemeanors, felonies, violent felonies)? Weapons-per-day limits (1, 10, 100)?”

Originally I was just going to answer this in the comment section, but after a while the response grew long enough to merit simply moving it up here, especially since this discussion will be echoing around the nation in a great many halls of lawmaking.

In short, I can’t say I’m particularly in favor of any restrictions. The basic tenet of our legal system is “innocent until proven guilty,” and to my mind restrictions on the purchase of mere durable goods on the grounds that one might commit a crime with it is rather contrary to that tenet.

I even support letting felons have guns. Given how ridiculously easy it is to become a felon in this day and age (when something as simple as carrying one carton of cigarettes too many across a state line is a felony as in Tennesee) I have a hard time stripping so many people of so many rights for so little. As far as violent felons, if they’ve completed their sentence there is no evidence to assure us that they will commit further crime. Recidivism is of course a large problem in this society, and there are certainly plenty of indications that they may commit further crimes, but we then encounter two problems. First, we’re again pre-judging them as guilty, and second, we of course have the old saw that criminals tend to ignore laws. I think they just might manage to get a gun anyway. For cases involving domestic violence, I could even get behind having a chunk of my tax money going towards arming the victim and getting him or her proper training in self defense.

I likewise see little if any benefit to age restrictions. I myself have been shooting since I was three years old, and I know of children quite capable of safely handling a firearm, and have met some shooters as young as seven or eight that I would trust with a rifle while I can think of half a dozen people older than I who I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near if they were armed. Attitude and education are the keys here, not chronology. Ultimately, on the age issue I prefer to punt and leave that as an issue for parents to deal with. Before the age of 18, one is a minor and thus (theoretically) still subject to the rules one’s parents have laid down. If mom and dad are ok with Jr. having a pistol, make it a family outing and let mom or dad technically buy it. And again, if it’s little Johnny Crip or Ralphie Blood looking for a gat, an age restriction isn’t going to slow him down. In other words, this has been a long-winded way to say that I can live with restricting the purchase of firearms to those who are legally adults. Sorta. Kinda.

Weapons per day limit? Why? Does buying a couple guns make you more likely to go shoot a place up? Hell, if that’s your plan you’re better off only buying one anyway given how much ammo costs lately. “Well Bob, I like you and all, and I wasn’t planning on taking out the whole office, but I bought one gun, then another, then another, and then they all ganged up on me and made me come do this.” The only weapons per day limit I can support is whatever the buyer’s credit limit is. Run out of money, no more guns.

And just to cover the last of the usually included options, I don’t like waiting periods either. LawDog has offered a brilliant dissertation on the effectiveness of restraining orders and the like. I believe one of the usual rallying cries used in support of firearm restrictions is “If it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” How does the ethical balance work out if it costs lives? Frank J. Critter will unlikely wait patiently for Bonnie Beatenup to complete the ten day cooling off period before going to Show Her Whut’s Whut. Other situations of immediate need are certainly easy to conjure, and are likewise not to the victim’s benefit to wait around for a week or two.

At the end of the day, I support punishing people for crimes they actually committed, not with guessing games and crystal ball reading over what may be. If you commit a crime with a firearm, by all means, lump that in and punish the hell out of the criminal. Bad things will happen to good people no matter what laws are in place to prevent it, and to me it is unethical to enact measures which interfere with law-abiding activities of regular citizens, especially measures which so far have not shown the desired result when tested. When these measures go further, and deny a living, breathing, person with goals and plans the tools with which to fight for survival itself in the face of a physically stronger assailant, then they are not merely unethical but have actually aided the predatory criminal scum, and that will never sit well with me.

Just One More…

June 26, 2008 - 5:28 pm Comments Off on Just One More…


While I'm at it…

June 26, 2008 - 4:41 pm Comments Off on While I'm at it…

Since I’m somewhat relieved to see I’m not the only one who’s had an internet video meme in their head ever since Heller was handed down, here’s what’s been in mine:

I just bought some sour cherry jam to use with my PB n’ Js, too. Mmm.

We're experimenting with the short form today.

June 26, 2008 - 4:17 pm Comments Off on We're experimenting with the short form today.

Naturally, everyone and their dog is more or less obligated to comment on Heller today (I’m looking especially forward to the takes from the knitting-bloggers), and none more so than the current finalists in this year’s Special Electoral Olympics. McCain got to enjoy an I-told-you-so moment, and from the Obama campaign we got this absolutely priceless gem, regarding the statement that someone managed to wring out of him with regards to the constitutionality of the D.C. gun ban.

“That statement was obviously an inartful attempt to explain the Senator’s consistent position,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton tells ABC News.


For those who didn’t go read immediately- I mean, I’d never lay several dense paragraphs of linkery on you in the middle of a rant, don’t you trust me?- the relevant quote from his campaign was thus:

But the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that he ‘…believes that we can recognize and respect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the right of local communities to enact common sense laws to combat violence and save lives. Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional.’

Which is much less embarrassing than, uh, basically every single other position on gun control he’s ever taken. You know, the ones before he decided he wanted to run for the Big Rumpus Room.

True, it’s possible his campaign could mean he was inartful in ever suggesting that he thought the second amendment protected anything more than the smallest sliver of an individual right for all citizens, at least in the sense that you can technically own any firearm deemed as being as or less threatening than a B.B. gun, and then only if you keep it locked up and in pieces. That would be consistent, yes.

Anyone want to make a bet of it, though? I’m offering some nice long odds….

Heller, Of Course

June 26, 2008 - 3:55 pm Comments Off on Heller, Of Course

I see absolutely no reason to interrupt a perfectly good celebration, and as such if you’re looking for my normally somewhat-less-than-rosy take on the Heller decision, the closest you will find to such here for now is the gentle reminder that it was only a 5-4 victory.

That aside, a victory is a victory is a victory. Hoist your glasses high and sing the praises of Justices Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Allito, and Thomas for being able to read as-written a simple sentence and preserve what the founding fathers considered so important as to enshrine second only to the right to speak our minds.

We’re not at the end of the road, but we got over one hell of a milestone today. Celebrate joyfully, and extend in the spirit of freedom an upraised middle finger to the simpering, cowardly, petty tyrants in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and other disarmed enclaves who now rightfully fear their subjects becoming citizens.

Creeping Regulatory Excess

June 26, 2008 - 3:01 pm Comments Off on Creeping Regulatory Excess

After being poked from many angles with a frozen copper rod while attempting to read the Heller blog explosion, I’m strongly considering extending the “thermodynamics and YOU! games” rule about fireplaces to also include dry ice.

Rule 34

June 25, 2008 - 3:53 pm Comments Off on Rule 34

(Consider links in this post NWS. You have been warned.)
Proving that our modern world of six billion mostly-monkeys banging away at who-knows-how-many keyboards and focus groups is just as fucked up as you’d expect of six billion mostly-monkeys, we have further proof of Rule 34: If it exists, there’s porn of it. Specifically, we find a niche for the xenophile (and not the fans of the more, ah, unique stuff Phil Foglio puts out): the Area 51 Love Doll. With alien lube.

Y’know, the jokes kinda write themselves from here. I’m almost tempted to order one just for the comedy value to rival the inflatable sheep, but y’know, I think I’ll pass just the same.