If you are curious about creationism and ID from a science perspective, this is a light quick read that will bring you up to date. Hafer reminds me of me. The odd bad joke; a serious load of contempt for IDers and their ilk; copious diagrams and white space use; several fun anecdotes; all make for a fast easy read.
This is a book about ID (Intelligent Design), the stupid idea that we, and everything else, was designed by a designer. Generally a god, and generally a Christian god (that is the stupid part). The basic premise of the book is this: If there is a designer, he or she should not quite their day jobs. If creationism is a pig, ID is a pig with lipstick. The "evidence" for design is called "irreducible complexity". The idea is that certain structures (like the eye) are irreducibly complex… if you take any part out, the whole structure fails. This, in turn creates probability arguments against evolution. This is not true… see below.
Creationism is religion. ID is creationism on the down low. In one famous legal case (Dover Area School District), IDers took a creationist text book and edited it, replacing "god" with "intelligent designer" everywhere. But they screwed up (in one case, "creator" became "cintelligent designer"); the judge saw through it; and they lost, bigly.
Figuring prominently in the book is The Discovery Institute, a Washington State group that does no research, has no labs, does no experiments, makes no predictions, states nothing in numbers, has never published a paper (OK… one, but the editor was bribed, and the paper withdrawn), and yet spews pseudoscience like a fire hose. The Discovery Institute wishes to discover nothing. It wishes to inject religion into your life and our society... by stealth. They demand equal time in text books simply because they think they deserve it. They shout about academic freedom where none exists (public schools instructors do not have any "academic freedom" whatsoever). They fight dirty by getting stealth pro-ID people on school boards, and when they get a majority, they pounce, changing curricula. The "institute" created the famous "Wedge" document that ultimately leaked, exposing them for the conniving frauds they are. The "institute" is following in the footsteps of Stalin, the last guy who tried to quash evolution. That resulted in mass starvation.
When the institute and guys like Behe (a big Kahoona in the ID game) invoke science, they get the science wrong… every single time. Flagella in bacteria is an example of ID that Behe likes to promote. He made statements about flagella in bacteria (specifically, he said that IFT or InterFlagella Transport is required, which is false). Ironically, Behe points to malaria as an creation example (where he again gets the science wrong), but malaria is particularly bad today precisely because it has become resistant over time. In other words, malaria has evolved!
The human body is a mess. Back aches, fallen arches, rotten teeth, bad eyes, useless/dangerous organs like the appendix; our gonads are in the middle of a sewer; lost faculties (like the ability to create Vitamin C, something my cat can do); and the list goes on. The map of our nerves and arteries looks like a Jackson Pollack painting. And let us not forget giving birth.
Women have had the shit end of the stick since the dawn of humanity. Child birth and motherhood has huge rewards, but the risks prior to modern medicine were enormous. Assuming she did not die, a mother might get a fistula after a long, hard birth. A fistula is an abnormal "tube" growth connecting the uterus to the bladder or bowel. They can be created by difficult deliveries. A thus stricken mother will leak feces or urine from her vagina forever. This is every bit as unhealthy and awful as it sounds. And a lousy design. One thing about evolution is this: it largely doesn't give a shit about you once you have reproduced.
This is just the beginning of the major flaws in the design of our bodies. And a designer was not involved. It was evolution what done it.
Nothing about our bodies, or anything else in biology makes sense without evolution. But this does not deter the anti-intellectuals at the Discovery Institute.
It is often said by the aforementioned idiots, "What use is half an eye?"
"Nothing" is the answer if you intend to cut a working eye in half. But the actual answer is: "A half-working eye is better than no eye at all". The eye argument has been well addressed. Even a single photo-sensitive "eye" spot on a bacteria is better than no eye at all. What is most amusing about it is that the alternative (a designer) would have us believe that god that designed several different eye types over the millennia, perfected them, and then designed the terrible human eye from scratch, forgetting all he had learned from the past.
The basic issue with the human eye is this: In cuttlefish, the blood vessels and nerves that service the eye lie under the retina; in people, the opposite is true. Those vessels and nerves obstruct light and vision by sitting on top of the retina and, because the still have to get out of the eye, they exit trough a hole we know as our "blind spot". Other kinds of similar issues arise over and over, such as repurposing a spine and hips for upright walking (this is not part of the book, but still applicable).
ID and creationism have been around a long time. The Scopes Monkey Trial was in 1925 (as I recall). Almost 100 years ago... and we are still having the same stupid argument with fanatics without reason. That last sentence can be parsed any way you like.
faulty If you are a student of WWII like me, you might enjoy this book. A very quick read. Lots of pictures and maps. Some very interesting stories about the US's submarine warfare efforts in the Pacific.
There are nice stories about sub mascots and ice cream machines, and there are not so nice stories of pointless and pointed deaths.
I have seen every notable submarine movie ever made. Some of them are ridden with false clichés, and others are very accurate. One of the best is Run Silent, Run Deep. It reflected a mélange of submarine realities.
Some notables from the book:
In Run Silent, Run Deep, Clark Gable plays an obsessed skipper determined to kill a certain destroyer with a "down the throat shot" (meaning "bow on"). One submarine actually did pull this off.
When a sub "buttons up" for a dive, high pressure air is released into the sub. If the sub holds the air pressure, it is generally good to go on the dive. The "Christmas tree" (a bank of lights -- green on US subs, white on German -- indicating the sub's water-tightness) would not show a green dive light if it did not.
Some subs actually had mascots (puppies etc) that they kept hidden from the skipper... In one case, until he literally stepped in it.
One submarine actually killed itself with a faulty torpedo that boomeranged.
There actually was a guy who has his appendix removed by a pharmacists mate while at sea.
Subs never "crash drive". In wartime, all dives are combat dives and are done as fast as possible... every time.
Perhaps the first four torpedoes fired by a US sub in the war (fired by the Seawolf) all failed to detonate. This was the start of the Mark XIV (Roman numerals… Jeez!) torpedo issue. Operation Pacific (a John Wayne movie) deals with the subject matter but gets all the details wrong. The Mark XIV was designed with a magnetic detonator. It was meant to pass under the keel of a ship and then explode, breaking the ship's back (this is similar to the way the famous dam-buster bombs worked). Unfortunately, the Mark XIV torpedoes had issues with maintaining the proper running depth. They often ran 11 feet too deep, failing to explode. This issue lasted for two years! How would you like to be sent into a shoot out knowing that a high percentage of your bullets are blanks. It took a determined naval officer to get the powers that be to even admit there was a problem.
Notable boats discussed: Seawolf, Tang, Wahoo, and Trigger.
The book is full of photos. It is a very quick read. World War II shaped the modern world. Everyone should respect the men who fought and won this largest and most important of all wars.
Michael Shermer is the editor of The Skeptic, one of the two major skeptical journals. He is a psychologist and has been a professional skeptic for about as long as I have. I admire his work.
I read this book largely because it covers a lot of the same territory as mine. I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to make me look stupid. He did not. Dying is our major fear, and religions exploit that. I doubt Mr Shermer would disagree.
In the prolouge, he discusses an ISIS publication on death called "Why We Hate You, Why We Fight You". There are six statements in it, all starting with "We hate you (because)". The reasons are: you are disbelievers; you are too secular and liberal; some of you are atheists; your crimes against Islam; your crimes against Muslims; and invading our lands. The last one is kinda reasonable.
In his initial discussion of death, he points out many of the same problems that I did. For example, it not possible to imagine your own death, except as a spectator, which makes no sense at all.
What follows in the book is largely a discussion of death in all its forms and impacts (e.g.: capital punishment; dreams; how animals react, etc).
At one point, Shermer suggests that ideas about the afterlife and death postdate writing. This seems to ignore oral traditions and I reject it. People have been making stuff up forever… with or without writing. Writing just made it better.
I wrote about the democritization of the afterlife as a part of the evolution of religion. I did not use that phrase, but I like it and have adopted it. Democritization of eternal rewards was the start of the con.
The book discusses the various views of the afterlife...which is a lot like discussing the properties of the integers between one and two. Fun fact: the word "paradise" comes from "pairidaeza", meaning "walled garden". This is to be expected from peoples who grew up in desert-like conditions.
He discussed "forever", which is a long time to be "blissfully bored". Woody Allen said "Eternity is a long time, especially toward the end."
Shermer discusses the views of modern nut-bars like Deepak Chopra, whose ramblings swing from the bleeding obvious to the incomprehensible and back inside a single sentence. He spews "pseudo-profound bullshit", which is something a computer can be programmed to do better than he can(it has been done). Deepak is a huckster (my observation) who loves to kill arguments using quantum mechanics… which he does not understand (and, in fairness, neither does anybody else).
As a long time skeptic, I skimmed a chapter or two on topics with which I am very familiar, such as OBEs and NDEs (No, not the Order of the British Empire… OBE == Out of Body Experience; NDE == Near Death Experience). At least one of the best OBE stories happened in Seattle and involved a tennis show. Barry Beyerstein did a presentation to the BCS on the topic, debunking it thoroughly. Another alumnus of the BC Skeptics was cited in the book: Leonard Angel on reincarnation. Move toward the light… or away… it makes no difference to a dying brain.
Ray Hyman and other notable skeptics were mentioned when it came to those walking talking assholes who tell you they can talk to your dead relatives for a fee.
In discussing souls, Shermer goes into another domain with which I am familiar: science fiction (and philosophy). He mentions ideas like: If the Star Trek transporter duplicated you twice (as TNG did to Riker in one episode), which one gets the soul? Who is the real you? Science fiction has beat this horse to death over the years. Our ancestors thought of this in a thought experiment called "The Ship of Theseus". The idea, which I alluded to in my book, is this: What if you have a ship in a barn. Over the years, timbers rot and are replaced. After enough time, nothing of the original remains. Is it still Theseus' ship? Like the tree falling in the forest, it depends on what you mean. Is the ship the wood or the pattern?
The book also reviews the latest attempts to literally live forever (temporal immortality), or for at least a long time. Fear not… death will be with us for a long time. It is, in fact, and ironically, natures way of keeping the species alive. I am not a big fan of Ray Kurzwell's "singularity". As Shermer puts it: Futurists are always saying the next big thing is right around the corner… they never say it is coming in 600 years. I am also reminded of the adage: Relieve the camel of its hump if you will, but you may be relieving it from being a camel.
One final word: Oprah (yes, that Oprah) asked an athlete if she felt a sprit or higher power? She replied "I am an atheist". She went on to explain that she found awe in love and nature and creation in general. Oprah replied "Oh, I do not call you an atheist then." So let me say this to Oprah, who would probably argue that everyone should be able to dictate their own pronoun, "Screw You… you bigot".
Shermer is a good writer. If you have never spent much time thinking about these ideas, I recommend the book. I found some good insights and a little history that I did not know.
This version of the report has introduction material and a number of appendices added. The full report is a part of it.
Because the Mueller Report is essentially photo-reduced to fit inside the book sized printed page of this report, the resultant font is very small. And I am getting a bit old. The reason they did this is clear… to keep all page references accurate and referable. That is, if you hear that something was written on page 150 of the actual report, you will have no trouble finding it.
I did not read it all. I only scanned the collusion/Russia half, knowing that it did not come to any conclusions that are not already part of history. Trump colluded his brains out (and he recently said he would do it again), but criminal conspiracy (which I believe requires a quid pro quo) could not be proven.
I read the half on Obstruction of Justice (OoJ) more carefully. There are several key obstructive acts that are as plain as day, all done in public, that they did not charge Trump with…. Because they say at the outset that they cannot charge a sitting president. Mueller all but said: "He is guilty, so Congress… you must act!"
The most striking thing about the OoJ evidence is that almost all of it took place in plain view or was report contemporaneously by various news outlets. I was constantly saying to myself "Oh yeah, I remember that."
So why have they not started impeachment proceedings? Beats me! I believe that should for many reasons, most of which were excellently described by John Oliver on his TV show (aired June 16, 2019).
This is not a readable book, but it is historic, and a good reference.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back - The Evolution of Minds; Daniel C. Dennett; 2017; W. W. Norton; 413 pgs, index, notes
I have always been interested in the evolution of humanity, and especially that of language and reasoning. FBBB tackles this very problem.
The book introduces (to me at least) the concept of "competence without comprehension". At its simplest, an elevator is competent at moving people up and down, but does not comprehend what it is doing. The same can be said for Watson answering questions on Jeopardy. One of the messages of Dennett is "don't worry about machines taking us over", which relies heavily on this concept.
For me, as a software guy, I was struck by how many times Dennett relied on software and hardware analogies taken from my industry. I too have often pondered these obvious similarities. For example, in computing, routine chores (like printing an essay) are passed off to sub-processors (purpose built and programmed chips) so the main CPU (a remark from the Department of Redundancy Department?) can do other things. A good human example is catching a hit baseball. A good player can, within a fraction of a second, "calculate" where that ball is going and where she has to be to catch it. They can then run to that spot, perhaps with a single refining glance at the ball, turn and catch it. No logical thought goes into any of this. No formula is used to calculate when and where the parabolic arc of the ball will cause it to intersect with the ground. Those calculations are farmed out and unconscious.
DNA itself is essentially a binary digital code... slightly less complex than Morse.
Another thought, which I raise in my book, is the sub-processing associated with interpreting incoming data from the outside world… i.e.: incoming sensual info. We have dozens of senses, and they are all working at once. One of the tricks of the trade in brains and computers is to manage the avalanche of incoming data and separate the wheat from the chaff on the fly. If we could not do this, we would all go nuts (schizophrenia may be an example of this).
Evolution is a master at getting the balances and trade-offs just right… a daunting task and a necessary one if you are going to be you (i.e.: your sense of self awareness). This sense is an illusion, but it is a tough one to kick. (Of course, evolution does no such thing, but it is hard to think about it without get all anthropomorphic.)
Another key component to our minds is Bayesian mathematics. Once pooh-poohed by math purists, it is, nevertheless, in common use by computers today for many different purposes. We use it all the time in our heads, and smarter people are at least somewhat aware of this. Here is the idea: You get a new piece of information in the "game of life". It could be anything at all, like say, a stock price goes up. You note this information. It does not trigger any action per se, other than you mumbling to yourself "oh, gold went up". But in your head, many of your other beliefs may be slightly adjusted (e.g.: "perhaps I should invest more in commodities", or some such). This too will affect other ideas in your head and so on. We do it without thinking or rigor. Computers can do it better because it is an extremely computationally-intensive chore. Each adjustment of a "dial" in you head affects the dials near it, which means they must be adjusted… but this means the original dial is affected and it must be adjusted again… on and on until the adjustments are to small to measure (in computing, this is called "relaxing a network").
This book is not an easy read. It is very thought provoking. One of the central themes in my book The God Con is that con artists and lying have shaped out mental evolution. I am happy to report that Dennett says nothing to contradict my hypothesis, and he even supports it to a degree. The idea here is that we are unique in the animal world in that we have empathy. We can imagine ourselves as another, and ask "What would I do or feel in that circumstance, if I were him or her". This ability is crucial to establishing our self-identity. You cannot understand a con without this ability. The ideas are intertwined. Dennett even discusses the Nigerian Prince scam, for example, and why it is still alive today.
Dennett goes on to discuss cultural evolution and memes in some detail. For you computer fans: memes are applets that can run on any virtual machine (aka: your brain). Our brains are an onion of virtual machines within virtual machines. P-code (Pascal's pseudo-code) died years ago, but the idea came back with a vengeance with scripted languages for the internet. This resurgence is driven by the fact that computers are blindingly fast compared to the 19080s.
The evolution of language has been deemed "the hardest problem in science". Nobody knows how it happened, or when. As little as 50,000 years ago, language may have been rudimentary at best. But the point is, it did evolve, and Dennett offers a plausible explanation for how that happened.
A line I liked:
Consciousness may not be real, but it is remarkably efficient to act as if it did.
George Carlin once said: "For years, I thought the most important organ in my body was my brain, until I realized one morning 'Look who is telling me that!'"
One last point Dennett makes, and I agree, is that it should be illegal to pass off a computer as a human being. In a year or two, it will be possible to appear to make anyone say or do anything with a computer simulacrum. As I write, an unflattering doctored video of Nancy Pelosi is making its way around the internet, and the wanna-believers are lapping it up. Thanks Facebook! This is the just pointy tippy-top of the iceberg.
As books go, this one is as deep as they get: Man trying to fathom his own mind.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century; Yuval Noah Harari; 2018; Penguin/Random House; 323 pgs; Notes, index
The title pretty much says it all. Harari is a Jewish historian. I mention his religion only because he does, in order to point out that there is nothing special about Jews in world history.
The book is about the future… always a mugs game. But Harari does a good job in talking about the future in big picture ways that make for compelling arguments. I will not try to summarize his points here. There are 21 essays here to do that. The primary message is change. The world has changed a great deal in the last few years alone, and the rate of change will only increase in the near future.
In my own industry, computing, the trend is obvious, and computing has impacted, and will impact virtually every job in the first world. There are few things that computers will not be able to do better than people. For example, a computer (AlphaZero) played chess with itself, and within four hours it could beat the best players in the world. AI will drive the new world order. Sixty years ago, it was not unusual for someone to get a job and retire from it. Soon, that number will be more like five jobs.
Data and data ownership will become more and more important. Privacy will erode. If you want medical insurance one day, you may ne compelled to wear a monitor that connects you to the network 24-7.
My favorite quote from the book:
"The mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different track. That's why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus only learn how to make better excuses."
The author advocates for humility (no religion has a deeper incite into the truth than another; all religions come from the same place; and secularism and doubt are the watch words of civilization).
Another warning comes across strongly: internet bullshit bubbles are everywhere … beware.
This book gives a good overview to what we will be dealing with in the next few decades. For me, it really confirmed and solidified many views I have held for a long time. Still, a worth while read. If you are considering the author, read his other books first.
Brain that Changes Itself, The; Norman Doidge; 2007; Penguin Books; 284 pgs; appendices; notes, index
This is an interesting book, recommended to me by my friend D. Harper. It starts out very strong with a story about a woman who had lost her balance. That is, her vestibular complex had been destroyed and she had no balance. She felt like she was in a permanent state of free fall. If she stood, she fell immediately. Then they put a small accelerometer under her tongue. The accelerometer would raise and lower bumps on the tongue contact to indicate how her head was moving. Miraculously, it worked. She was walking again in a short time, and could ultimately get by without the device for most for the day.
Her brain had rewired itself to take balance input not from the ear, but from her tongue! That is neuroplasticity, the subject of the book. This is NOT neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) which is a crock.
As a computer scientist, I see computing analogies all over the place in this book. All your senses act as "ports", the technical term for how data gets into a computer. It turns out if one port breaks, the brain can, with some work, relocate the input to another port. A great deal is made of the topological nature of the brain. What this means is that there is a map of your body (to pick one example), in your brain. This is no surprise. It means that if you touch yourself on two adjacent parts of your leg, there will to two adjacent parts of your brain that "light up".
Some pithy conclusions:
These ideas imply a lot of possibilities. The brain is a big de-localized computing machine. If parts die, the functions can be relocated. If parts are not busy, they will get seconded for other uses. For example when you are blind your hearing improves, using bits (literally and figuratively) of our visual cortex for help. Knowing these mechanisms has led to real treatments for injured people.
I have little doubt, for example, that my brain map for my hands has gotten larger since I started practicing close up magic. The same would be true for learning to play an instrument.
The book starts out strong with deeply interesting experiments and outcomes, and finishes with weak examples that to me are little more than simple learning (which, of course, also changes your brain). Just imagining things (like rehearsing in your head) can make long lasting changes to your brain.
One take away: Learn new stuff. All the time. It will keep your brain healthy longer… and you are your brain. If your memory is getting iffy, exercise it!
Perhaps I'm old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what's actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, "Hang the sense of it," and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day.
Slartibartfast, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Michael Lewis has written some great books (Moneyball, The Big Short etc). I cannot really count this one among them. Nevertheless, it was interesting. Heavy leading and lots of white space make the 219 pages a short read.
This book a basically a collection of anecdotes about Trump taking power.
The first section focuses on the DOE. When Trump took power, he resented having to spend money on transitions (which he is required to do by law). He wanted to keep the money for himself! As a result, there was no smooth transition between administrations. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The first thing the Trump administration asked for was a list of DOE names that had attended any climate related discussions!
Like all departments, the DOE had prepared a primer on what the role of the DOE was. But no one showed up to see it! Rick Perry attended a meeting to brief him. He spent mere minutes familiarizing himself with the department. One official was ousted from her physical office by Eric Trump's brother in law who took it. No one knew why.
The DOE does a lot of things, like making sure reactors don't melt down, and that no bomb material "gets lost". Over the years, the DOE has recovered enough material to make 160 bombs. It is populated by some very smart people. They made sure, for example, that Iran lived up to its part of the deal… until Trump killed the deal. Trump likes to do things in half measures. DOE interviewees point out the dangers of cutting corners, and the huge risks involved when you do.
It is hard to build a fence. It is easy to knock it down. And it is stupid to knock it down if you don't understand why it is there.
The same story unfolded at the USDA (Department of Agriculture). Everyone was waiting to hand over power, and no one showed up… for a month. Soon, the USDA board was occupied by a long haul trucker, an AT&T clerk, a gas company meter reader and a cabana boy. The USDA is responsible for a lot of things, like crops, and nutrition, food stamps etc., and it is now being run by the least competent people imaginable who all hate climate change
The Department of Commerce sounds dull. It does have trade responsibilities, but mostly it is a data bank (data from agencies like NOAA and NASA). Information is their currency. And they have a lot of it. They got the same treatment as the other departments. Wilbur Ross runs it. He and Trump are cut from the same cloth.
Fun fact: Really rich people do not want to be listed in the Forbes 500. Only three in the history of the magazine have fought to get on the list: Saudi Prince Alwaleed, Donald Trump and Wilbur Ross!
The problem is this: Scientific data can be used for many things. Like predicting weather to help farmers make timely planting decisions for example. Huge amounts of data were made public, and scientists used that data to make the world better (you will have to read the book for details), but Trump et al smelled climate change, removed all references to it from all web sites, and removed the aforementioned data from the cloud.
There is an interesting conflict building. AccuWeather gets its data from the feds. But they make money selling that information and the feds give it away for free. So AccuWeather sought to stop the feds from doing that.
Soon, you can expect to see headlines like "Hurricane coming! If you want to know where and when, subscribe to AccuWeather now!".
It will take many years to undo the damage that Trump has done to the US and the world.
This is an odd book. It was published, but is now vanity published. The only date on the book reflects the day I ordered it. My attention was drawn to this book by Dale Beyerstein, my philosopher on call. We were discussing religious belief and he mentioned that this book might be of interest.
The subject of the book is Armageddon, and why people buy into it. More specifically, why do they keep on believing, and in many cases, believe even more when the predicted date for the end of days is just followed by, well... more days.
The feeling you get when this happens is called cognitive dissonance, a term Dale Beyerstein thinks may have been coined by the authors. Cognitive dissonance happens when you "know" two contradictory things are true. The contradiction must be resolved. If you know the world will end on Tuesday, then you will experience CD on Wednesday.
The book asks why belief seems to grow after an utter failure of prophecy. For this to happen, the book argues that there are 5 necessary conditions to be met:
The book focuses almost exclusively on a bunch of nuts who see the end of days coming pretty much all the time. The head nut was a woman name Kelly who received "spirit writing" about the end of the world. The group was known as the Seekers. The whole movement was wrapped up paranormal powers, Scientology, UFOs (which were in vogue at the time), and the nuts who believe in them, etc. A real mish mash of ideas. I could not handle the narrative about all this. Endless detail, too many crazies and too many crazy ideas.
The books conclusions are interesting and controversial. The controversy comes from embedding people in the group to help better understand them. But to get in, you had to prove you to were a nut… and if you got in fast it was probably because you had a story so compelling that they wanted you in. And the next thing you know, you are the poster boy for the movement, and not a dispassionate reported. And you are corrupting the group (a psychological Schrödinger's cat). The authors were well aware of this problem.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.