27 January 2008


My mother left a message reminding me that today is Lewis Carroll's birthday. Rex Stout, John Lennon, Alexander Woollcott, James Thurber, and Martin Gardner are numbered among his admirers. Mark Twain once met him, describing him as the shyest adult male he had ever met except Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus stories.

A photographer, inventor, mathematician, satirist, clergyman, and amateur philosopher, Lewis Carroll is best remembered as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass. The Hunting of the Snark (An agony in eight fits) is a favorite of mine; the Bellman reminds me of a great many leaders in my experience. "He had bought a large map representing the sea, without the least vestige of land: and the crew were much pleased when they found it to be a map they could all understand. 'What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators, Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?' So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply 'They are merely conventional signs! Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! But we've got our brave Captain to thank,' (so the crew would protest) 'that he's bought us the best--a perfect and absolute blank!' This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out that the Captain they trusted so well had only one notion for crossing the ocean, and that was to tingle his bell. He was thoughtful and grave--but the orders he gave were enough to bewilder a crew. When he cried 'Steer to starboard, but keep her head larboard!' what on earth was the helmsman to do?"

Lewis Carroll turned 176 today.

17 January 2008

Quotation of the Day

H[uckabee] doesn’t believe in evolution, which is like not believing in electricity. You have a constitutional right not to believe in it, but grab a live wire and you will still be eliminated from the gene pool.

13 January 2008

Does a Theory Somehow Become a Law?

In a recent post I expressed a certain befuddlement over a notion that there is some sort of progression from hypothesis to theory to law. Not being a scientist myself I could only fall back on what I learned back in my school days. While stumbling about the internets looking for something or other I fell upon a Scientific American piece by John Rennie that observed:

Many people learned in elementary school that a theory falls in the middle of a hierarchy of certainty--above a mere hypothesis but below a law.

Somehow I missed that bit; I remember that stuff about forming hypotheses, testing them, and developing theories from hypotheses that panned out--whether that came up in elementary or junior high school I no longer recall--but nothing about theories being between hypotheses and laws. If it ever came up in school I must have spaced it out completely, because that whole idea was absolutely new to me when I read it in a critique of a biology textbook, complaining that the author should have written of Newton's "Law" of gravitation rather than "Theory" of gravitation. John Rennie goes on to confirm what I thought I understood:

Scientists do not use the terms that way, however. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." No amount of validation changes a theory into a law, which is a descriptive generalization about nature. So when scientists talk about the theory of evolution--or the atomic theory or the theory of relativity, for that matter--they are not expressing reservations about its truth.

The rest of the commentary on this point was also interesting:

In addition to the theory of evolution, meaning the idea of descent with modification, one may also speak of the fact of evolution. The NAS defines a fact as "an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as 'true.'" The fossil record and abundant other evidence testify that organisms have evolved through time. Although no one observed those transformations, the indirect evidence is clear, unambiguous and compelling.
All sciences frequently rely on indirect evidence. Physicists cannot see subatomic particles directly, for instance, so they verify their existence by watching for telltale tracks that the particles leave in cloud chambers. The absence of direct observation does not make physicists' conclusions less certain.

Nice to have a little common sense for a change. I've probably been reading too much of this creationist/ID stuff for too long.

Silence is Golden

One of the things that irritate me--and there are many--is the way certain people seem to think that they are privileged to do things to others that would annoy the hell out of them if the situation were the other way around. Like distributing bibles at school, for example. People who would be horrified if their little angel came home from school carrying her brand new Koran or The God Delusion under her arm claim to see no problem with sending other people's kids home with a Gideon Bible. "But it's THE BIBLE," they exclaim, with much arm-waving and gesticulation, as though that somehow made things better. Maybe so, but remember, it's somebody else's Necromonicon, and their horror is no different from your horror.

Not that I have a lot of sympathy with people who want to be protected from running into ideas they may find uncomfortable. There are lots of them out there, and one way or another we all have to develop thick hides to protect us from somebody else's notions of reality.

But there are many times when a little peace and quiet are appropriate, and as a bus rider myself, I feel strongly that people should be prepared to shut up rather than disturb other passengers. This especially applies to people who seem to think that it is appropriate to read from their chosen text, whether it be from the Bible or from a syndicated advice columnist, in a loud carrying tone, just in case there are people at the other end of the bus who can't hear it.

Which brings me to this story: A Fort Worth woman is claiming religious discrimination because she was asked not to read to her children from her Bible in a loud voice while riding the bus. When she refused to desist a supervisor came and escorted her off the bus, then drove her and her children to their church, allowing her to read on the trip as loudly as she liked. This woman is now demanding an apology. "She said in her mind, what happened this past weekend was religious persecution, and she refuses to go along for the ride." Her representative, a person from the Liberty Legal Institute, proclaims:

I'm extremely shocked that a bus driver would pull over and take time out of his busy schedule in order to kick off a lady and her two kids while they're trying to read the Bible on their way to church.... They should be ashamed of that.

Richard L. Ruddell, president of the bus company, however, sets the matter straight:

It was not what she was reading, it was the very loud and disruptive volume. She was asked to lower her voice, but refused. Other passengers on the bus were looking to the driver for proper enforcement of the rules.
This driver acted in a very courteous and professional manner to properly deal with the situation. The T, as a public transit authority, has no policy against reading any type of material on the bus. Only when behavior of a passenger reaches an extreme volume, such as in this case, is a supervisor called.

On this same excursion into Internetland I turned up this story:

BEIJING - A Chinese Christian businessman has been released from detention after police grabbed him from his home in the early morning hours over a month ago, says his wife. Zhang Jing said her husband, 37-year-old Shi Weihan, was set free on January 4 after being held in a cell for 37 days, the legal limit in China before formal charges have to be filed. He was arrested on November 28, while his two young daughters cowered in their bedroom, for "illegally" publishing Bibles and Christian literature for distribution in home churches. His family had been worried he would be sentenced to at least five years.

Now that sounds more like persecution to me.

11 January 2008

Another Corrupt Politician Out

According to the New York Times, John T. Doolittle, who along with fellow-travelers Richard Pombo and Tom Delay did so much to gut environmental laws for the benefit of private corporations, is planning to step down.

WASHINGTON — Representative John T. Doolittle, a California Republican who has suggested he is almost certain to face criminal charges in a Congressional lobbying scandal, announced Thursday that he would retire from the House next year.
The announcement by Mr. Doolittle, 57, who is in his ninth term in Congress and was once seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, made no reference to the criminal investigation by the Justice Department, which has centered on his connections to the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Last April, Mr. Doolittle’s home in suburban Virginia was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of that inquiry, and his wife, a campaign fund-raiser, was subpoenaed for her financial records.

The aptly-named Doolittle spent his time in Congress attempting to destroy the endangered species act and to make sure that nothing was accomplished on virtually any environmental front. Given this record it is no surprise that the California Republican had ties to corrupt lobbyists. The Times added:

Justice Department officials would not comment Thursday on the status of the criminal investigation against Mr. Doolittle, who is among nearly 20 House Republicans to announce that they will voluntarily leave Congress over the next year. Prosecutors appear to be focused on business connections between Mr. Doolittle’s wife and lobbyists, including Mr. Abramoff, who might have sought to influence his vote.
...Until this week, Mr. Doolittle publicly rebuffed calls for his resignation and said he was eager to seek another term. Branding his critics within the Republican Party as “weasels,” he continued until several days ago to seek donations for a re-election campaign this November.

I wonder what happened to change his mind.

03 January 2008

On the Energy Front

First the bad news: oil hit $100 a barrel today.

The good news: demand is expected to drop as many consumers are priced out of the market.

Another Election Season Begins

The first shot of the 2008 election has been fired, and (as of this moment at least) it seems that Obama is the winner on the Democratic side, and Huckabee on the Republican. If past experience is anything to go by, we're probably looking at something like a Clinton / Thompson match-up when the dust settles, but past experience may well be meaningless. The field is depressing at best; an anti-science preacher, a right-wing actor, a guy bankrolled by racists, another fellow whose main asset is his famous name, and an ex-mayor of New York, whose chief claim to consideration is that he didn't entirely lose his head when his city was attacked by terrorists.

I can't cope with this.
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