Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin Audiobook

Have you read The Autobiography of Charles Darwin? Do you read, er, listen to audiobooks? If so, did you know about this one?

Read by Greg Wagland:

This work, unsurprisingly, offers invaluable insights into the life and times of Charles Darwin, his personality and the formative influences that made him what he was, for here we have his own words and ‘voice’ at the close of a prodigiously productive career. He tells of his childhood, his student days at Edinburgh and Cambridge, his love of beetles, shooting and geology and of his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood. He talks at some length about his meetings with the great scientific men of the age, his attitudes to his critics, to religion and of his theories of evolution. He also discusses his scientific methods and the background to the publication of many of his works including ‘The Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man’, and how he came to join ‘The Beagle’ as naturalist. This is an indispensable work for any student of Darwin, of evolution and conceivably, creationism. It is undoubtedly the autobiography of a great man.Greg Wagland reads The Autobiography of Charles Darwin for Magpie Audio. Note: This is the version authorized and edited by his son, Francis. Francis Darwin and Charles’ wife Emma censored and excised some passages, in part to limit references made to his home life.

Here’s the audiobook.

Which is more likely to be real, Ghosts or Martians?

Do ghosts really exist?

Is there life on Mars?

Despite what one might think, what with large class sizes and the homogenization of culture caused by TV and Fast Food, the fact remains that clumps of high school students organized into classes can vary widely from one another. Each year has its own characteristics, and each classroom-sized bunch of them, taking a particular course together, can be very different from the next. A teacher I know has ended up this year with a science class with a large proportion of students who believe that ghosts are real, and while they are at it, they also seem to think there is a high probability that Bigfoot is real, and probably the Loch Ness Monster and most conspiracies one might care to mention. I don’t think it is the whole class, just a half dozen students or so, but enough that the existence of ghosts has become a background theme in the patter that accompanies the usual classroom activities such as arriving at the beginning of class, asking permission to go to the bathroom during class, and leaving at the end of class.

From "Mars Attacks" which, if you have not seen, you must see.
So the other day the question of life on Mars came up; a student had pointed out the discovery of mysterious globe-shaped objects on the surface of the distant planet. During the ensuing conversation the teacher noted how exciting it would be to discover evidence of past or present life on Mars, and further noted that such a finding is well within the range of possibilities.

“Wait a second … You are telling us that you don’t think Ghosts are real but you believe in Martians?” Continue reading Which is more likely to be real, Ghosts or Martians?

What Halloween Costume Is Best…

Arrrrrrgh.
… for science-oriented secular skeptical people like you?

Halloween is when the really scary things make their appearance, mostly in the form of the Halloween Costume Industry. This is when we learn about all those latent adult sexual fantasies involving school children, for example.

But more insidious and damaging, if not just plain annoying, is the janus-faced monster of jack-booted gender policing and Disney/Pixar marketing. Little girls should be princesses or some other girly thing, and little boys should be race cars or some other boyish thing.

Huxley will be wearing this costume.
But Halloween is also an opportunity to make a point. Some people I know have suggested handing out science-oriented or skeptical literature along with or instead of candy. Little miniature “Origins of Species” tied to a candy bar, that sort of thing. I object to that. I object because I know that there is already a small but non-zero number of people handing out churchy literature and I don’t like that, and I know that if handing out polemic literature became more common on this particular holiday, the churchy people would totally kick ass and the skeptics and scientists would be looking at yet another channel for insidious anti-science and religious literature to be flowing into the lives of our society’s children.

So just don’t do that, please. You’ll lose and you’ll bring the rest of us down with you.

There are dino costumes for all sizes and ages, some are pretty cute.
But you can dress in, or more likely, dress your cute little children in costumes that gently and subtly promote skeptical, secular, or scientific values. Obviously, you can make a Flying Spaghetti Monster costume. I don’t know if you can buy such a costume ready made, but you can get a pirate costume such as this one … If you want to avoid participating in the gender police state, perhaps you would get this one for a little girl, not a little boy.

This is cheaper of the two Dalek costumes I found. The other (the link in the text points to it) seems to be a very high end product. Seems to me that a paper bag and some magic markers would do the trick.
Instead, the little boy may be better dressed in what is probably a non-gendered costume, such as a primate or a a dinosaur. This is not to say that dinosaurs and primates are not “gendered” … the original creatures certainly are, being highly sexually dimorphic in many cases and all. But, the costumes per se do not automatically fall into the usual Halloween stereotypes of little girly princesses and tiny boyish warriors and such.

Scooby Doo. Almost always skeptical, except that one movie with the Voodu Zombies.
Or, one could pick a theme that is skeptical, sciencey, or at least, popular among nerdy geeks who lean towards skepticism, such as Scooby Doo or Dr. Who. There are some nice Dalek Costumes and a full range of Scooby Doo related alternatives.

And to add to the science oriented theme, this year, maybe everybody should hand out Mars Bars!?!?

Which Linux Do I Turn To In My Hour of Need?

RIP Ubuntu. Ubuntu was great. For years, I kept trying to get my own Linux box up and running, initially so I could relive the halcyon days of UNIX and later so I could avoid Windows. But every time I tried to get Linux working some key thing would not be configurable or would not work. Well, I’m sure it was configurable and could work but configuring it and making it work was beyond me. Those were also the days when what little support was available on the Internet was limited mostly to the sort of geeks who prefer to give answers that are harder to parse than one’s original problem. In other words, studied unhelpfulness was all that was available to the novice. Then, one day, two or three forms of Linux that were supposed to be installable and usable by the average computer-savvy person came on the scene at once, including Suse Linux, some thing called Lindows or Winlux or something, and Ubuntu. I tried the first two because they seemed to have more support, and I got results, but the results still sucked. Meanwhile, I has a computer working on downloading an install disk for this strange African thing, Ubuntu, which seemed to have a problem with their server being really slow. But, because it was South African, and at the time I was living about one fifth the time in South Africa, I thought that was cool so I stuck with it.

Eventually, I had a usable install disk for Ubuntu, I installed it, it worked. I installed it on a laptop as a dual boot system with Windows, and on a spare desktop. Within a few months, I installed it on my main desktop instead of Windows, and a few months after that, I realized that I had never booted up the Windows system on the dual boot laptop, so I reconfigured that computer to be Linux only. And that was it.

Ubuntu was based on a version of Linux called Debian. There are many Linux families out there, but the two biggies are Debian and Red Hat/Fedora. The former is very non-commercial and very free-as-in-software free Open Sourcey, while the latter is all that but also has a significant business model. People like to pay for their operating systems, so Red Hat/Fedora gave large companies and institutions the opportunity to pay for what was really free, and in so doing, they would get (paid for) support and training.

In a way, Debian is what makes Linux go around, and Fedora Linux is what makes the world (of the internet, etc.) go around. Sort of.

Debian and Fedora are two different systems in a number of fundamental ways. All Linux families use the same kernels, the underlying deep part of the system. But this kernel is associated with a bunch of other stuff that makes for a complete system. This includes the way in which software is installed, upgraded, or removed, and some other stuff. Each family has it’s own (very similar) version of the original UNIX file system, and so on. Back when I was first messing around, I did get to play with Fedora and its system a bit, and I quickly came to like Debian’s system better than Red Hat/Fedora, especially because of the software management system (apt/synaptic) which I thought worked much better than the Fedora system (yum).

As I said, Ubuntu was based on Debian, but from the very start, Ubuntu included some differences from the standard. For example, the exact configuration of the underlying file system was different. The original Debian file system was there so that software would know what to do, but everything in that file system (or almost everything) was a pointer to the Ubuntu file system. This actually made messing around under the hood difficult until, eventually, a strong Ubuntu-only community developed. You would see people refer to Ubuntu as opposed to Linux, which is a noob mistake and wrong, but over time, in fact, Ubuntu, even though it was based on Debian, became fundamentally different from both Debian and Red Hat/Fedora to the extent that it really had to be thought of as a different family of Linux.

And that was fine as long as Ubuntu was doing what most other Linux systems did, meaning, remain configurable, don’t change the work flow or how things operate too dramatically, don’t make up new ways of doing things just to make everyone upgrade to a new product, don’t try to be Windows, don’t try to be a Mac, and always follow the UNIX Philosophy, more or less. Over the last several months, though, Ubuntu has in my view, and the view of many, jumped the shark. It may well be that future new desktop users will appreciate Ubuntu as a system, and that’s great. If Ubuntu continues to bring more people into the fold, then I support the idea. I just don’t want it on my computers any more.

I have a desktop that I’ve not upgraded in way too many releases because I’ve not liked the new versions of Ubuntu. I have a laptop that I upgraded to the most current version of Ubuntu, then undid a lot of the features, and I’m using the desktop Xfce instead of Unity, the desktop that Ubuntu installs by default. And, I want to put Linux on a G5 Power PC.

So, this is the part where I ask for suggestions. I have a feeling that there will be more suggestions on Google+ when I post this there, so please be warned: I’ll transfer actual suggestions from G+ over to the original blog post comments sections, at least in the beginning of this discussion, unless a commenter tells me not to.

The following table shows what I want to do. Notice the question marks. There is an advantage to having the same system on all three machines, but that is not a requirement. The desktop has two monitors, and assume I want to run a 64 bit system on it, and the laptop is a bit slow. The primary uses for all the computers are simple: Web browser and running emacs for text writing, and a handful of homemade utilities for managing graphics and files, and a bit of statistical processing with R-cran now and then.

So, what do I fill into this table?

Hardware Base System (Ubuntu, Fedora, Etc)? Desktop
Older intel dual core HP workstation ? ?
Dell laptop ? ?
Mac G4 PowerPC ? ?

I’m intentionally avoiding a lot of details. I’ll get a new graphics card for the desktop if I need it, and other adjustments can be made. Also, this workstation may well get replaced with a different computer that makes less noise than a Boeing 747 taking off during a hurricane. The point is, desktop with dual monitors running a 64 bit system.

What do you think?

The Secular Coalition of America's Big Goof

The Secular Coalition of America is a lobbying group that represents several groups, including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Camp Quest, the Secular Student Alliance and so on. A few months ago the SCA made news, in a bad way, by appointing a former Bush White House Staffer, Edwina Rogers, as Executive Director. Many of us did not like that and we complained, and we were essentially told a) the decision is final and b) don’t worry, everything will be OK.

But it is not. Much more recently, the SCA appointed as a co-director for one of its state groups a guy who has developed a very firm reputation as a Mens Rights Advocate and overall Sexist Misogynist Creep. Or at least, so it appears.

The individual in question is Justin Vacula, and he’s been appointed as co-chair of the executive council of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the SCA. I’ve got some information below on why this is a bad move, but I want to say right away that the SCA Executive director has already stated on a blog her answer to people’s concerns:

… the Secular Coalition for America has not “hired” anyone in any state. We have a staff of seven in DC. We are staffing state coalitions in 49 states, DC and PR. The state coalitions are made up of interested groups and individuals in the states and particupation is voluntary. We are willing to work with as many affiliated and allied groups and individuals as possible. We are seeking volunteers in the states and are thankful to those that are willing to assist. We have much work to do at the National and State level and request that all interested parties please consider joining the SCA in our mission as given to us by our member organizations. Please sign up at secular.org. Edwina Rogers

When Rogers was first hired, she made a big deal out of the fact that she’d be overseeing the development of a state chapter in every state. We are now being told that the SCA of which she is Executive Direct really has nothing to do with the state chapters. The “hired” vs. “Volunteer” distinction means nothing in relation to the present question.

Vacula published a piece on Men’s Rights Activist site “A Voice for Men” in which he attacks modern feminism and equates feminists with vampires and piles on with the attacks already underway designed to silence the Skepchicks (a group of women skeptics with whom I’ve worked for a few years) in particular Amy Roth Davis See this link for details on the attack on Amy. This act and related activities by Vacula clearly place him in the camp of anti-feminist anti-women pro-sexist activists who should not be leaders in a humanist movement which does, pretty much, have liberal and progressive political values. He has also been a regular member of the famous “slime pit” which, sadly, was a product of this very blog network (though it has been expunged).

Apparently, Vacula has been criticized for being less than smart i the arguments he’s made about various legal positions, and for showing poor leadership. The details are summarized in the writeup for the following petition which I urge you to sign:

What Apple, Microsoft and the Rest of Them Don’t Get

Apple, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Google, all of them … the companies that make the hardware and software we use … are, it would seem, ignorant, probably willfully so, of an important thing. We use their hardware and software in our work. Many individuals are like miniature institutions or corporations. Our HR department, our payroll department, our accounting department, our R&D department, our car pool, and everything consists of a handful of machines (a car, a desktop, a mobile device, a printer) and a single person to staff them all (you, me, whatever). We do quite a bit to implement hardware and software combinations that do the things we need. We have an address book, a way to use a phone, a file storage system, we install and maintain software to produce documents, keep track of numbers do other stuff. And we use the readily available standard hardware and software to do this, thinking all along that this is a good idea.

Now, I’m going to give you two scenarios, one imagined one real, to underscore why this is a huge problem. These two scenarios have very different meanings, and I’ll let you work that out. Continue reading What Apple, Microsoft and the Rest of Them Don’t Get

Who will win the US House of Representatives?

There are a number of US HOuse of Representative races that are too close to call at this point. Although the house is currently predicted to go Republican, which would be a shame, there are not a lot of current data to predict this. Given the potential strength of Mitt Romney’s coattails going in one direction, and President Obama’s going in the other, it is possible that a large share of the toss-up states will end up in the Blue column. Here are a few of the currently contested races. Continue reading Who will win the US House of Representatives?

What should be your college major?

A small college out east. Photo by wallyg.
I very strongly agree with the basic conclusion offered by a post at teenskepchick by Ali Marie, advice for those now looking at college: “…what’s the undecided student to do? My advice: community college.”. Ali discussed the problem of getting all the required courses in within a four year time span. The key problem she points out is that unless you know pretty much what you want your final major will look like you may end up having to take more than the expected number of courses and thus, have a hard time graduating in four years. I’ll add to that the following: Some of the courses you will want/need won’t be offered when you need them, and it is possible that something else will go wrong while you are busy prostrating to the higher mind and all that, causing you to be unable to complete the usual (e.g. 4) classes per term. Between switching interests, unavailable classes, and things going wrong, you won’t easily finish your four year degree in four years. I recommend that if you are looking into college, read Ali’s post.

I do want to add a few more thought, however.

The importance of Liberal Education Requirements

First, Ali discusses what are generally called the liberal ed requirements and does so with the usual dislike of the process. I want to put in a plug for the liberal education requirements that all colleges have. The purpose of these requirements is not to give you an exposure to a wide range of disciplines in order to help you decide on your major. Yes, it can do that, but that is not only not the main reason they exist, but also, they don’t do that good of a job of that in some cases. Take Cultural Anthropology for example. One reason that many advanced (junior, senior college and early graduate school) Social or Cultural Anthropology students always look so unhappy and eventually get permanent Academic Frowns painted on their face is this: They took the intro Cultural Anthro course, loved it, then went to major in the topic and found out the awful truth: What is taught in Anthro 1001 is not what Anthropologists do or think. It is what they hate about themselves. Once you’ve taken that intro class, and switch majors into Cultural Anthro, the rest of your classes will be about how everything you learned in Anthro 1001 is wrong, and moreover, that for thinking that it was cool, you are an asshole.

I’m sure this does not apply to all disciplines, but in some way…small, medium, or large…I think it applies to many. Even computer science, which one would think would be more logical and laid out, teaches at the intro level stuff you only need to know for the purposes of the exam, not to be in the field of computer science. When was the last time a proposal to implement a commercial web site, or a project to rewrite an operating system, used scheme? Never, that’s when.

The real reason for the Liberal Education requirements is to make society better by seeing to it that a larger proportion of the population leaves college not clueless about so many important things. Someone like Ali Marie probably does not need liberal arts much, but not because she is innately liberal or artsy, but because she’s probably absorbed all that on her own, being a writer and a nerd and all that. But this is not the case for many people.

For a few years, I worked in a program to help adults get their degree. I was on the board of advisors for the program while I was on the Anthropology faculty, and later, I worked directly for the program. This issue came home to me very clearly in many cases. We had many students who, in their own life’s work, including but by no means limited to taking courses and engaging in training programs, had learned way more than you need to learn to get a college education. But some of these students, maybe about half, had skirted the liberal arts. Go look at the internet. Check out the letters and comments on various news sites, or other places where people have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and perspective. A lot of the annoying commentary we see is from either kids who have not yet taken a range of courses in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and so on, or are people who are older but never did. As great as my students were (and they were all great) those who had skirted the liberal arts had bad attitudes about things like education, learning, international perspectives, and diversity. These are the people who can hear a presidential candidate say “we have to preserve our American Exceptionalism” and not throw up a little in their mouths. Until they take a full range of Liberal Ed courses. That helps them to throw up a little in their mouths.

How to pick a college major

The other point I wanted to make is about college majors. The answer to the question, “How to choose a college major” is a bit complicated, but there is another question that is closely related: “How to change your major from one subject to another.” The answer to that second question is: “Don’t”

Here is a reality that many college students, and sadly, many advisors, don’t know, or if they know about it, they don’t believe it: Your major is not as important as you think it is. It will be important for about two months after you graduate, then every month after that for the next two years or so it will reduce in importance until it matters not at all. When you are applying to certain programs you will have a better time if you have a certain major, but what is more important, are certain sets of courses that you’ve taken and other things you’ve done in college. Seriously. I know many of you in college today won’t believe this, but it is true.

OK, your major is not entirely irrelevant, but it is much less important than you might think.

If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal. Ultimately it is the argument that you make to the graduate application committee that counts, using a persuasive essay, showing excellent performance in certain (as mentioned) classes, and a few other things, not the argument that some committee at your college made to their dean to structure a major a certain way. At the same time, if your transcript has a lot of bullshit on it, then that’s what you have: A bullshit transcript. I once reviewed a transcript of a student who had nine semesters of golf and not much else. I did not take that student’s college career seriously, as clearly he did not either.

Yes, yes, of course, try to match your major with your interests and abilities and then aim for a graduate program or career that fall in line with that. The system is indeed set up that way. But the specific courses you take, how well you do in them, the balance of courses overall, matter about as much as what major you picked. Having the “wrong” major is not catastrophic, but taking two more years of college to get the perfect major may be. In other words, for the average college junior who is contemplating changing majors, the medium and longer term wise move is to put less value on the major than on the degree. It is the degree that counts, and within that framework, the specific classes you’ve taken and your ability to make a good argument (which is helped with good performance on on certain classes coupled with a lack of bullshit on your transcript) matters much more than you might think. I’m not talking about abandoning the system as it exists, I’m talking about calibrating. I’ve sat on admissions committees for both grad programs and undergrad programs and advised a lot of students, and it really is true that most of the time the major is a fetish not as valuable as people think it is when they are busy tearing themselves up over the details.

Is it good to take Community College courses?

Getting back to the point of Ali’s essay for a moment: I do think that taking a year off from college and taking one course at a time from a community college is an excellent strategy for a lot of students. Sometimes community colleges give deep discounts for your first class, so check into that. Also, if you are concerned that the teaching at community colleges is not as good as at the big research university down the street, then you need to recalibrate. Why would it be? Community colleges hire teachers, of which there is a great oversupply, based on their teaching abilities. MRU’s fire faculty if they focus on teaching. Until that changes, teaching at the Big U will be spotty, often wonderful but also often horrid, but the community college will rarely fall below a fairly high bar most of the time. This, of course, applies only to my own experience in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I don’t know what they are doing down in Mississippi and Texas.

Photo by wallyg

The Bacon Shortage

Bacon. Photograph by Flickr User Kentbrew
It appears that there is going to be a bacon shortage. It is estimated that the total amount (in poundage, I assume) of swine that will be produced next year will be several percent, about 10% most likely, less than expected. It is said that there will be an approximate doubling of the cost of pork production, not necessarily doubling the cost of bacon and other products at the consumer end, but certainly squeezing the farmers and raising costs in the grocery store significantly. Presumably this will mean a shortage of all pork products, and quite a few things are made from swine. Why the focus on bacon? Obviously, because without bacon, we will not be able to make BLT’s, and other fine foods, or put crushed bacon on our otherwise perfectly healthy salads.

Why will there be a bacon shortage?

Continue reading The Bacon Shortage

Welcome Comet ISON

Late Winter, 1997, just before moving from Boston to Minnesota, was very snowy out east. And, that year I had stupidly agreed to shovel the snow for our apartment building in exchange for a pittance of some kind. One night I was shoveling the latest 7 inch storm off the walk, and the father of our upstairs neighbor came out to look at the weather, the snow, and the sky. Our neighbors were Russian, and had been in the US for only a year, and their dad may or may not have been a refugee of some sort. He was wearing his big Russian hat and his big Russian coat and he knew almost no English. Noticing him looking around, I stood up and said hello. He grunted something. Then, I pointed up the street, and up in the sky. There, hovering over the Somverville Massachusetts cityscape was Comet Hale-Bopp, bright, curving, strange looking, hovering in the night sky. He turned his gaze and looked at the comet for a moment, then looked back at me, shaking his head in awe.

“America…,” was his only comment.

He then returned to the warmth of his apartment. I continued to shovel snow for the next couple of hours.

Well, we have a new comet, and it is named ISON (full name, C/2012 S1). Continue reading Welcome Comet ISON

Pakistan will seek UN anti-blasphemy laws

The Prime Minister of Pakasatan, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has

…reiterated his demand from United Nations and other international organisations to come up with an effective legislation against all kinds of anti-Islam acts which harm the co-existence and harmony among the followers of different religions.

“We would go to the UN and OIC and get a law passed to stop anti-Islam activities, including blasphemy, for-ever,” he added. The prime minister said the Muslims have respect and reverence for all prophets and messengers of God and also other religions in the world. The Muslims expect that followers of other religions would reciprocate in the same way, he added. It was time to wage a diplomatic war with full sincerity and commitment until the international community is convinced to take concrete action including due legislation against all kinds of anti-Islam activities that provoke the sentiments of the Muslim world, Raja said.

First, I want to see an anti-science denialism law. Then, we can talk teapots.