Today’s Goofy Science! Headlines

As usual, just reading the Google News science feed

Giant, flying reptiles once filled England’s skies

I half expected an article about the Thatcher administration.

Toboggan Tracks on Mars?

Let me save you the click: No.

TEDGlobal welcomes robot cockroaches

Insert Your TED Joke Here. Fish in a barrel.

To kill, cheetahs use agility and acceleration, not top speed

And here I would have thought teeth and claws figured into it. “Hold still, wildebeest, while I clobber you to death with my agility and acceleration, and not, as you foolishly supposed, my top speed!”

An Honest Government Also Has Nothing To Hide…

Therefore, as soon as all government docs are declassified and all government meeting open to the public, we can discuss permitting government surveillance of civilians.

Until then, the ‘nothing to hide’ argument needs to be retired with extreme prejudice*.

* whatever that means – but it sounds so angry, had to use it.


Science! On a More Serious Note –

The NYTimes reports:

Water Levels Fall in Great Lakes, Taking a Toll on Shipping 

Gist: due to a number of factors the water levels in the Great Lakes are below historic averages, which is costing shippers millions. We need to fret about this. Engineering – dredging and maybe locks and turbines – could, along with increased precipitation, solve the problems indicated. Government needs to act now.

Analysis & Questions:

– In the fifth paragraph, we are told that water levels in the Great Lakes have been below their historical averages for the past 14 years. Inquiring minds want to know, but are never told, how long a period do those averages cover? 1918 is mentioned – is that it?  Less than a hundred years? The Great Lakes in their present form are only about 4,000 years old, and their geology is very complicated: rifts valleys, glacial basins, crustal rebound. They were originally filled with glacial melt water, but are now filled with rain and snow. Are the water levels of the Great Lakes fundamentally stable? Over what kind of time periods? How do we know this?

– “A measure of the drop in water levels can also be attributed to the engineering that makes Great Lakes shipping possible. The 1962 dredging of the St. Clair River may have lowered the water in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan by five inches”. So, by dredging waterways we make it easier for more water to flow out of the lakes and into the ocean. They don’t make this point in the article, but the greatest drops in water level are in the West – Lake Superior is down 22″ – but hardly evident in the East – Lake Ontario is at about its average level. Since the Great Lakes drains roughly west to east,  this is not surprising.

–  “Climate change is expected to reduce water levels still further in the long run.” Expected by whom? According to what logic? It seems as likely as not that warmer weather would put more water vapor into the atmosphere and increase area precipitation, for example. Further, do we really understand the long-term trends? It’s quite possible the lakes are simply doomed to dry out, as the crust rebounds and no glacial water enters them. Wouldn’t we need to know what the long term trends are first before we can say what, if any, part climate change may have?

This article strikes me as a form of subtle disinformation. Rather than ask and answer the pertinent questions about the long-term direction of water levels in the Great Lakes, we proceed directly to Climate Change and other human interference (engineering those waterways the embedded human interest stories need dredged – except that would be repeating something that allegedly contributed to the problem in the first place).  Also, check this out: current levels in Lake Superior are much closer to average than they are to record lows. Oops.

Geologically, lakes don’t last long. It takes a rare set of circumstances for a lake to not fill with silt and turn into a meadow within a few thousands of years, tops. And that assumes that other factors, such as precipitation and drainage, stay favorable.  Once in a while, a lake sits atop a widening chasm – Lake Baikal – or a sinking plate fragment – Clear Lake, CA – or is simply really huge, like the Great Lakes, and so survives longer.

Out here in the West, the landscape is dotted with dry lake beds, lakes that were full of water a few thousand years ago. Mirror Lake in Yosemite is now Mirror Meadow, and that has happened within living memory.

Isn’t this transient nature of lakes the real news?

Science! Headlines Roundup

The Register (UK) suggests suggestively: 

China’s second woman ‘naut blasts off for coupling in HEAVEN

No, that’s not what’s happening. Officially, anyway. Insert Heinlein joke here. Or Roddenberry story line, either way.

Cyborg Roach is Controlled by an iPhone

That’s not a nice way to refer to Apple’s customers, however accurate and tempting.

And the following is Science! at its finest, unencumbered by evidence or self-criticism of any kind:

SEE: Visionary pair imagines how humans will look in 100,000 years

Riiiight. Before looking at the article, one might ask: What evolutionary selection forces are at play in the modern world that favor big-brained bug-eyed people? Remember, ‘survival of the fittest’ is the marketing department talkin’ – what is really going on is death to the less fit before they reproduce. So, we have to ask: who is getting killed off? Who is not? If anyone can see into the future of eeevolution – not likely – the hints would have to be who is having the babies now?

But then you look at the article, and it becomes clear the authors are speculating on how Smart People ™ will use the miracle – and I do mean miracle – of genetic engineering to make themselves more like Pokemon characters.

I heard once (warning: highly fallible memory in play!) that the human brain consumes just about as much of our body’s resources – blood, oxygen, energy – as is mechanically and biologically feasible for a creature our size. Something like half our blood supply is dedicated to keeping our brain up and running.  So maybe we all need to get HUGE to support the bigger brains people with bigger brains think we want. Shaquille O’Neal: Super Genius.

Weekend Roundup:

1. Went to see the latest Star Trek flick with the fam at the local multiplex. It was OK. Best line I will immodestly claim for myself: after viewing the latest murder- and explosion-laden trailer  for the upcoming Lone Ranger flick, I whispered to my wife “I don’t think they’ve quit captured the subtle understatement of the original.”

2. End of the Year party for DVS. The agony and the ecstasy:  part 1, the Agony. Daughter # 2, age 15, baked a cake in honor of this year’s graduate, but, as temperatures reached 100F plus, the nice tower collapsed:

Leaning Tower of Fondant

The cake, with layers of vanilla, chocolate and red velvet, was (briefly) raised up on those little pillars like a wedding cake. It sported little mortarboards made out of fondant-wrapped little cake pucks with  fondant squares and little tassels. It was completely delicious nonetheless, but daughter was sad.

3. Part 2: the Ecstasy: Background: at this school, the kids are responsible for making stuff happen – the end of the year party is one thing that always gets plenty of attention. This year, there were a large number of little boys who got involved, and voted to have a Minecraft party. A whole bunch of kids came dressed up as characters, with heavily pixelated weapons. Son #2, age 17, decided to build a life-size Iron Golem, a character from the game. Thus:

As depicted in the game
as realized in plywood and spray paint
as realized in plywood and spray paint

 The most common reaction: “Wow”.  Every little boy and several little girls came by to look at it, get their pictures taken with it, ask who made it.

So, lesson for dad, who provided a lot of help in the execution of the piece: Even if you don’t see the point in spending many hours building a large awkward item that will likely just get used once – go with your son’s instincts. BTW: he did all the engineering, and has pages of detail showing exact sizes, positioning and colors.

4. Mourning Doves are legendarily stupid. Or, rather, their environment of evolutionary adaptation was different from the human-rich environment they now find themselves in.

Or something. Anyway, we leaned an 8′ ladder against the wall on the patio, and then left for three days. Here’s what happened:


Of course, we’re leaving the ladder there and pretending we don’t notice the dove, who cooperates by freezing any time we get near. So, it’s been a couple weeks now, and we’d all be disappointed and a little sad if there end up not being any chicks, or if our remarkably inattentive dog notices.

Is the IRS the New Praetorian Guard?

The Anchoress wrote a rather speculative but fascinating piece, wherein she wonders if America is being ripened for a coup.  Such concerns seem a little premature to me, but not wrong – we’d like to think America somehow immune to the forces that brought down empire after empire, that History has ended, after all, and there’s just no room for America to descend into the control of those conjoined twins, anarchy and tyranny.

Why not? What forces will keep history from repeating itself? Progress? OooHaa! Think I just dislocated my knee by slapping it!

Anyway, my thoughts, as posted in a comment to the above-linked piece: 

I suggest that the tipping point is the establishment of the Praetorian Guard. It has been plausibly suggested that the IRS, in the ancient, unbroken tradition of court hangers-on, didn’t need anybody to tell them that they should suppress the get-out-the-vote campaign by thwarting the applications for non-profit status of politically conservative groups. It was simple enlightened self interest to do so.

Tacitus tells us how Sejanus, an up and comer, worked his way into Tiberius’s confidence and ended up as head of the Praetorian Guard, and was planning to take over when Tiberius died, and eventuality Sejanus himself might facilitate.

The telling part of the story: Tiberius, when he began to grow suspicious, did not call out Sejanus directly, or attempt to send – who else? – the Praetorian Guard to kill him. Nope – he knew how things worked. He sowed confusion by a series of letters to the Senate, so that no one would know where things stood – Romans, not being dummies and having seen how fast the political winds could change, quickly became neutral toward Sejanus. Popular support having been neutralized, Tiberius secretly appointed another up and comer, Marco, head of the Praetorian Guard, and called Sejanus to the Senate by letter, ostensibly to receive an honor. Then, as another long and meandering letter was read, supporters of the Emperor surrounded the Senate, and the letter, at the end, suddenly changed course and condemned Sejanus. Marco’s forces seized him to his unhappy end.

But: this event made clear to the Praetorian Guard who wielded the real power in the Empire. They then made sure that only emperors to their liking ever came to power, and promptly disposed of those who displeased them. 

Is the IRS coming to appreciate its role in determining who gets to be President? Or viewed more generally, if trends continue, there will soon be enough government workers so that government workers in general can simply choose who gets to be President, if they wish, by simple exercise of democracy. 

These concerns do not require any conspiracy theory. They spring from having a toehold in history. 

Fichte, Part 4

Note: I’m reading and posting about Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) because he is widely recognized as a key figure in modern education. He greatly influenced von Humboldt’s reforms of the German school system, which in turn greatly influenced Horace Mann and that crowd. It’s important, I think, in any discussion of modern education to recognize just what kind of a nut Fichte was.

Things really pick up starting with Address # 9.  We’ve waited with bated breath for JGF to get around to telling us how all this is supposed to work in practice, instead of telling us how good it will all be when it has been carried out. Turns out that Fichte accepts, with heavy and fundamental modifications, the model developed by the contemporary German-speaking Swiss of Italian descent, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Before we go there, a quick set of bullets: File:Parade 1894.JPG

– Fichte does recognize that the his idea of how the State should be in charge of education traces back to Luther.* The key aspect is that the State – or states, as political institutions laid atop the Fatherland of native German speakers – cannot leave the proper development of morality to the vagaries of education conducted within family life. Note the naive assumption that the State will get it right where the family has gotten it wrong. Fichte is absolutely untroubled by the thought that maybe ‘the State and its advisers’ might not get it right. They just will, if only they listen to him.

– Fichte contends, in fact he asserts it to be patently obvious, that the child’s greatest desire is for approval – ‘respect’ – from his father. The state can easily refocus this desire on the respect of its teachers. The key mechanism of moral education is the state, through the instrument of its teachers, judiciously doling out or withholding approval to the students in order to shape their moral universe. This is what Fichte means by destroying free will – the properly schooled child will be unable to think anything other than what his teachers want him to think.

The free will to be destroyed is the ability to choose between moral options. Earlier, I mentioned Fichte’s theory of free will, where freedom does not lie in an uncertain evaluation of and choice among options, but rather in the will, having been fixed on the good, willing to actualize that good. The good is defined as the next stage in human development, the bringing about of heaven on earth by Germans who have escaped Original Sin as a result of their German education. It’s all good!

– As an aside – the kind of aside the ‘the State and its advisers’ were sure not to miss – Fichte says that a benefit of his new education would be an undefeatable army that you won’t even have to draft men into. The properly educated German would of course fight better than anyone else, and be more than willing to lay down his life for the Fatherland. So Sparta peeks out from behind the curtain.

Back to Pestalozzi. Couldn’t find his treatise on education, the pithily-named Enquiries into the Course of Nature in the Development of the Human Race online, so I’m forming tentative opinions based on summaries of what other people say he said – not sound practice. Pestalozzi’s father died when he was 6, leaving him and 2 siblings for his mother and a faithful maid to raise. He went from middle-class comfort to poverty overnight. Being an extraordinarily bright kid, he managed to get an education and become a Calvinist minister – at which he failed miserably. (note: ‘failed miserably’ is a recurring theme.) Then: lawyer. Failed miserably. Then: decides to start a farm and gather in orphans to work it for him, so that he can provide them a home and educate them. Failed miserably, which might have a little to do with having no business talent whatsoever and having no knowledge or experience of farming whatsoever. But, hey, the man was not intimidated by challenges. Usually failed to overcome them, but he was not intimidated.

Before laying into poor Johann Heinrich any more, I do admire his heart and good will, and his willingness to take chances in order to do good. Sterling traits, but unencumbered by any apparent practical talent.

So, having failed at everything he tried, Pestalozzi is now a recognized expert in education. The little bits I’ve picked up third hand:

– He’s a Romantic, in the bad sense of thinking society is the bad thing, while human nature is good. How human society, a product of human nature, got to be bad is a point never adequately addressed by Romantics.

– He thinks education should be atomized and then built up. Haven’t discussed this particular bad idea before here, so here’s the elevator pitch: knowledge is connected. People learn best when they see a big picture, and learn to fill in the details. Regurgitation of facts has its place, but it’s a smallish, rudimentary place.

– He – just like Fichte – says all kinds of good things that nobody would dispute, about educating the whole child, making sure to recognize and work with individual differences, caring more about moral development than mere job prep. Good stuff. The devil’s in the details.

There’s tons more packed into these Addresses. Maybe I’ll write a book nobody will read about it someday. Here’s a parting quotation. Fichte was not into homeschooling, it seems:

Of course, it is not to be expected that all parents will be willing to be separated from their children, and to hand them over to this new education, a notion of which it will be difficult to convey to them. From past experience we must reckon that everyone who still believes he is able to support his children at home will set himself against public education, and especially against a public education that separates so strictly and lasts so long.

“that separates so strictly and lasts so long” – we’re talking handing over your kids to the state at some young age and not seeing  them again for many years. I could see how moms and dads might have a problem with this.

* As mentioned elsewhere, the idea of compulsory state education is at least as old as Sparta and Plato’s Republic, and was practiced to some extent in the ephebia  ubiquitous to the Hellenistic world. Sparta had the problem of being horrifying; the ephebia could be seen as a sort of 2-year cultural finishing school for young men. There was no real implementation of state-run schooling on the scale or to the degree Fichte and Luther imagined in the Greek world. Luther’s contribution was to wed the Church and State in such a way that the State becomes, through education, the conduit for all moral training. The Catholic tradition, with its claim that parents are the first and primary educators of their children, with its Holy Family and Jesus being obedient to his parents, was Not Working. In a couple short steps, we replace mother and father with the Fatherland.

Today’s Round-up:

Dr. Boli is a scream: 

A statue of the Blessed Virgin in St. Britney Church has been observed to begin weeping every week at the precise moment when the guitars are brought out of their cases for the contemporary Mass.

The Statistician to the Stars has a good point:

The older Consensus was only pretty sure that what was causing the planetary sickness was humanity. The new Consensus is morally certain of it. Both groups were convinced that whatever good happened to the planet was due to Nature, and that whatever bad happened was our fault. Scientific imagination has thus not advanced beyond paganism.

Read the whole thing here.

– UPDATE: Have to add a link to a cool short video on the Middle Ages via the TOF spot. Aside: finding out how misrepresented the ‘Dark Ages’ have consistently been can be a key step toward constructive skepticism. 

– what part of the following headline did I just make up?

Scientists examine the ethics of reviving extinct animal species: is there money in it? 

– Question: What is an ‘alleged scandal’? How does it differ from a real or validated or confirmed scandal?

– Question 2: Are new standards in Newspeak being set by the use of the word ‘tolerance’ in regards to the brutal suppression of speech and freedom, or am I just forgetting how bad it’s gotten elsewhere?

– June in Northern California. ‘Nuff said.

File:Mount Diablo Panoramic From Newhall.jpg

Adoration Hour With the Pope

We attended at 8:00 a.m. local time, at this lovely Guadalupe chapel at a local parish:

Adoration Altar

It was good. Couple thoughts:

– One thing that pleases me to no end is that attending Catholic events in the East Bay (or California generally) is like a trip  to the United Nations, except quieter, cheaper and with fewer Marxists. Being in the Guadalupe chapel tended to slant the crowd Latin American, but still – not white bread America. Which is good.

– I’ve long been amazed at how our Sola Scriptura, Bible-lovin’ separated brethren could read John 6 without some serious cognitive dissonance.  What *do* they imagine Christ is talking about?

– On that topic, I’ve also long been (slightly) curious about why John, of all the Evangelists, leaves out the Institution of the Sacrament from the Last Supper narrative. Recently read Walking with God by Gray and Cavin, which suggests an answer. I’m embarrassed to admit one point the authors raise escaped me – you know, the pedantic Great Books guy – that the writers of scripture come from a very sophisticated story-telling tradition, with its own rules and traditional practices. You know, like every other freaking culture, only more so, as the Israelites are both long-lived and conspicuously devoted to their stories.

Anyway, any sort of even moderately sophisticated reading has to ask: in what context was this text read? What conventions is it following? One convention: the Jewish writers  do not hit you over the head all the time – often they prefer to leave little leaps for the reader, to better engage him and make the story memorable. Gray and Cavin give the example of Abraham’s banishing of Hagar and Ishmael, and the subsequent call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Nowhere does account spell out that Abraham had condemned Hagar and Ishmael to death, it merely says he sent them off without supplies or protection, which readers would know meant he intended them to die. God then calls on him to kill Isaac, which the readers would see as reasonable justice for a man who murdered his own son and his mother. God makes it all work out with miracles left and right, sparing Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac, and calling Abraham to greater fidelity and holiness. The context in which this story was read was one in which the children of Abraham know they have failed to keep God’s law, have sinned repeatedly, and yet have been, from Moses on down, repeatedly and miraculously spared what justice would require.

And so on – it’s a good analysis, check it out. In the case of John’s Eucharistic theology, the thrice-repeated insistence by Christ that He is eaten and drunk, and that that Body and Blood are real food and real drink, and that if you do not eat of His Body and drink of His Blood, you will have no life within you, the context in which this was read was – the Mass. By the time John wrote his Gospel, the practice of celebrating the Eucharist by reading Scriptures, hearing a homily, and then sharing in the Bread and Wine had become well-established. John didn’t leave out the Last Supper consecration narrative to denigrate it – he left it out to emphasize it. The hearer of that passage would then see what it means by the actions of the priest right before his eyes. The hearer of the Word is engaged, and the message made more memorable, by not spelling it out in the text, but by letting the liturgical context actualize it.  Since the other 3 Evangelists and Paul, writing earlier, had spelled it out, there was no risk of the connection between the Real Presence at Mass and the Last Supper being missed.

Well, unless you willfully want to miss it.