Archive for May, 2009

Another backyard spider

May 31, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Another backyard spider

This is another in a series of posts by a few of us who enjoy photographing critters we find in our houses and yards. This shaggy little guy (he was about 3/8″ long) was posing on a screen on my back porch. I don’t claim to know enough about spiders to tell you anything about him (Click on the photo for more detail):

spider-furry

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Oklahoma trooper clashes with paramedic

May 31, 2009 | By | Reply More
Oklahoma trooper clashes with paramedic

This has got to be one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen, on many levels: an Oklahoma trooper pulling over an ambulance for a traffic violation and threatening to arrest one of the paramedics. And, oh yeah . . . the ambulance was trying to convey a woman to the hospital at the time.

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Abortion Doctor George Tiller Killed at Church

May 31, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More
Abortion Doctor George Tiller Killed at Church

George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed abortions, some of them late-term, was shot this morning as he entered his church for services.

Read the story here – and then someone explain how one justifies murder again?

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Does Gingrich think racism is evolving?

May 31, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
Does Gingrich think racism is evolving?

I loved this op-ed piece over at Huffpo by John Ridley – “Note to Newt . . . ” – regarding Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor’s supposedly racist comment about the perspective of a Latina woman in a 2001 speech. Ridley is right on target with his comparisons of “old racism” and “new racism” – as if a comparison can even be made. Mostly, Newt and his ilk just seem annoyed that “they” just don’t know their places these days. Not women, not minorities, not gays . . . life just isn’t as simple when everyone goes off and thinks they’re just as good as the good ol’ white guys.

Sotomayor’s point was essentially that anyone who has seen the system from the bottom up has a deeper experiential perspective from which to draw when discussing said system. That doesn’t make her every thought on it correct or best, but overall, her perspective has more to draw on than that of a privileged white male who never had to fight for his place at any table, let alone on any bench.

I don’t discount white males, by any means, and neither did she. Lots of them, present company included, are wonderful, open-minded, intelligent and fair people. By calling her comment “racist,” Gingrich has merely shown he has precious little understanding of what racism is really all about.

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Superorganisms take the limelight

May 29, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
Superorganisms take the limelight

In the Natural History’s February 2009 article titled “Could an Ant Colony Read this Book,” ecologist Robert Dunn tracks the long-term collaborative efforts of Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, leading up to their new book: The Superorganism. In their new book, Hölldobler and Wilson

. . . have breathed new life into a notion that intrigued scientists before World War I: that a colony of social insects is analogous to an individual. The concept of the superorganism—which compares a colony’s members to a body’s cells and sometimes its nest to the body’s skeleton—fell out of favor as research increasingly focused on the genes of individuals. Hölldobler and Wilson, building on new insights into the evolution and workings of insect societies, seek to bring it back. To them, “superorganism” is more than a metaphor; it is a unit in the hierarchy of biological organization, falling somewhere between an ecosystem and an individual. And, they argue, it is the most useful level of biological organization at which to examine how pieces are assembled to make a whole—be it an association of bacteria, a single creature, or a whole society—as well as to understand what holds all organisms together, even when the pieces struggle toward independent goals.

According to Dunn (and Wilson and Holldobler), ants and other highly social creatures (such as termites, and honeybees) offer a rare opportunity to study the process by which individuals meld into an unified organism. Other examples include the early symbiosis of mitochondria with an early form of bacteria, plant cells (“which arose when a eukaryotic cell . . incorporated a photosynthetic bacterium”) and multicellular creatures in general (e.g., human beings). In each of these examples, individuals gave up reproduction “either partially or completely, to work for their overbearing mother.”

Wilson and Holldobler point to group selection (and individual selection) as a key component of the evolution of highly social species. “In group-selection models, evolution favors the groups whose member cooperate more effectively, regardless of whether such cooperation helps a given individual (or that individual’s kin) reproduce.” The key to allowing this process is “communication and the division of labor.” Apropos for a book that was five years in the making by Wilson and Holldobler.

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What is obscene?

May 29, 2009 | By | 19 Replies More
What is obscene?

I was watching TV recently. At the climax of one of my favorite shows a man was murdered. He was stabbed twice in the chest. I watched as the blade entered his chest two times, piercing his lungs and heart. The man fell to the ground and was kicked into a nearby fire where he burst into flames as he was dying.

This was shown on television, during prime time, with no outcry from the public or the censors. And why would there be an outcry? One can witness murders of this kind and worse on TV many times a week.

Now imagine this scenario…

Prime time TV. A loving husband and wife wish to have children. They take off their clothes and get into bed, as married couples do. We then clearly watch his erect penis enter her vagina two times as he tells her he loves her.

Cut to nine months later and she gives birth to a healthy baby boy. The couple rejoices. The husband kisses his wife on the forehead and we…Fade to Black.

Can you imagine the outrage? Can you imagine the FCC fines and the righteous letters of condemnation?

In the first case we see the brutal, senseless ending of a life, and we get to see it in great detail. In the second scenario we are witnessing the loving, natural creation of life between two married adults.

Which one is obscene?

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Texas Governor’s creationist yanked from State Board of Education

May 29, 2009 | By | Reply More
Texas Governor’s creationist yanked from State Board of Education

The Texas Senate yanked Governor Perry’s creationist appointee to the State Board of Education.

In a rare rejection of an appointment by the Texas governor, the Senate Thursday ousted Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education, with his supporters claiming the Bryan dentist was the victim of his strong religious beliefs.

McLeroy is a devout Christian who believes in creationism and the notion that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. He has steadfastly argued that Texas students should be taught the weaknesses of evolution.

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The potentially overwhelming magic of internal representations

May 29, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
The potentially overwhelming magic of internal representations

I have two delightful daughters, now aged eight and 10. Just for fun, we have been trying to see how many digits of pi we can memorize. Our efforts are pathetic compared to the real pros out there, who can memorize tens of thousands of digits.

We are just starting out, however, and I’m only able to recite about 80 digits by memory. I’ve been employing several mnemonic tricks, and this experiment has helped me to see how it might be possible to eventually memorize several hundred digits if I worked at it hard enough (I doubt that I will). So far, my main trick has been arranging the digits of pi in chunks of five on a grid containing lines of four chunks each. This allows me to assign a physical coordinate for each chunk. From there, I’ve been mentally walking through my grid, trying to memorize the chunks by associating a story with each chunk or setting up a simple ” song” for each chunk.

As I’ve been working on this memorization game, I’ve appreciated, even in light of my meager memorization skills, the power of the human mind to internally represent the external world. I physically set forth my 5-digit chunks on a physical grid on a piece of paper, but while I’m reciting the chunks, I am doing all of the “work” in my head on an imaginary grid of imaginary numbers mentally footnoted with imaginary stories or songs to trigger each chunk to spill out.

This mental ability (not just mine, but this human capacity generally) is well worth stopping to contemplate. The human mind is able to replicate (to greater and lesser degrees) the external world and to make it available to us so that we can silently and internally manipulate its component parts, sometimes with great effectiveness.

We employ our representational abilities in many other ways other than memorizing the digits of pi, of course. It’s probably happened that you’ve lost your keys but gave up looking for them. Then, only while you were away from the house, you employed your representational powers to re-create your house and imagined where you last had the keys, or where you might have placed them. Perhaps you’ve successfully “located” your keys using only the representations in your own mind, mentally looking in the pocket of a mentally represented coat. This is truly a phenomenal capacity.

When it works well, there is nothing more impressive than this human ability to re-create external reality and to manipulate its component parts in one’s head. The fact that it works so well so often perhaps explains why many people fall prey to believing that their representational capacity is infallible. There are many people who have convinced themselves that the representations in their heads completely and accurately duplicate the external world. These are the smug people who have little use for real world evidence.

Here’s what I am suggesting: when they are not careful and humble, many people make the mistake of thinking that anything that they perceive in their heads is an absolutely true copy from the external world and, in fact, that their mental representations of the world might even be more accurate than the external world itself. Is this the move that gives credence to supernatural worlds for so many people? Are they so dazzled by the representational powers of their minds that they overlook the frailties of their representational powers?

I suspect that some people combine the confirmation bias with their admiration for their own mental powers. Many people (those who are mentally fatigued or simply not careful) tend to filter out evidence that conflicts with their own representational systems. They begin to make their permanent homes within their representational capacities rather than making sure that they stay anchored by the real world.

I realize that this is vague food for thought, but this problem is a real one: How is it that so many people who are so certain (but so very wrong) about basic facts have no use for evidence?

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Popular priest chooses both his girlfriend and a new flock

May 28, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Popular priest chooses both his girlfriend and a new flock

The Rev. Alberto Cutié, a popular Miami Catholic priest, gave up on celibacy. The Catholic Church busted him, though and threw him out. This move by the Church was probably because the U.S. branch of the Roman Catholic Church already has lots of young popular priests. You know, supply and demand.

A popular Miami priest and media personality known as “Father Oprah” has left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican after he was photographed cavorting on the beach with his girlfriend . . . He was received into the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, in a ceremony Thursday at Trinity Cathedral and may later announce he will marry his girlfriend, which is allowed in that denomination.

I can think of a few extremely good reasons why the Catholic Church should prefer to have sexually satisfied priests instead of sexually frustrated priests. But the Church doesn’t agree with me. And I suppose that God has clearly spoken that priests can’t have sex. I understand that this prohibition is somewhere in the Bible . . .

The Roman Catholic Church is that same church that still can’t admit that a significant chunk of its clergy should be sitting in prisons for raping children. It’s the same Church that disparages all efficient forms of family planning. It’s the same Church that disparages women by barring them from being priests because they are . . . WOMEN.

I know that a lot of us who were raised Catholic are privileged to enjoy sex extra-intensely because the Church taught us that sex is naughty. That extra enjoyment (if one can really call it that) is the silver lining of a huge dark cloud. It is hard to believe that an organization could be any more screwed up about sex than the Catholic Church.

I don’t understand why more U.S. Catholics don’t simply walk away from Rome and form their own locally controlled churches. Here are a few founding principles I humbly offer to any U.S. Catholics who want to found their own churches: A) Don’t disparage women, B) Don’t be idiots about sex, C) Don’t hire sexually frustrated priests.

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