Science! Round-up

Been busy – but not too busy to read the Google News Science! feed. Starting with something light:

1. Thousands Of Blue Sea Creatures Called Velella Velellas Wash Ashore In California

I was amused to read:

Also known as “by-the-wind sailor,” velellas float on the surface of warm waters, subsisting on small fish like plankton.

Plankton are fish? I didn’t know that.  But then again, I’m not an editor at the Huffington Post.  We’ll skip past…

So when thousands of the tiny blue sea creatures recently turned up, en masse, on beaches in central California, many were surprised to see such a large amount of the beached marine life.

… except to point out that the editor evidently knows neither science nor editing. Unless maybe the creatures are counted by the gallon.

To give credit where credit is due, the story did mention that this washing ashore of V. velellas is nothing to be alarmed at. So, it is possible for a science article in the Green section of the HP to print an article about some unusual natural event without blaming global warming.

2. Over at the Boston Globe, not so much:

I don’t know, but doesn’t it look like material has been thrown out of the pit? If it were merely the remnants of the raised edge of an ice dome (and a pic for comparison would have been helpful) would it not be covered in whatever green stuff is growing everywhere else? Inquiring minds want to know.

Newly Discovered Siberian Craters Signify End Times (or Maybe Just Global Warming)

Science-based hypotheses (as opposed to the alien invasion variety) about the origins of the craters abound, including meteorite collisions, sinkholes, drilling-related methane explosions, stray missiles, and global warming.

The latter is the most likely explanation, according to scientists who have visited the site.

So, I read the rest of the article waiting to hear who, what, where and when of these scientists who have visited the site. Because, you know, that’s kinda what reporting is all about. I’d even hoped against experience for a scientific explanation of how these holes might form as the result of warmer temperatures. But who visited the site and what they found that inclines them to the global warming theory are nowhere laid out.  Oh, well.

What I gather is that liquid water below the permafrost may force its way up, and freeze into ice domes. When the domes melt, you would be left with a hole in the ground. OK, sounds good, but what’s mysterious about these holes, apart from their seemingly sudden appearance, is that materials seem to have been ejected from the holes, creating a ridge around them. Seems not what one would expect from melting ice. So, yea, mysterious.

Here’s the killer line, for me at least:

Some geologists are speculating that if the Siberian permafrost melted rapidly over the past two summers, the craters could be evidence of these melted ice lakes. As Plekhanov puts it:

The theory was that the number of Yamal lakes formed because of exactly such natural process happening in the permafrost. Such kind of processes were taking place about 8,000 years ago. Perhaps they are repeating nowadays. If this theory is confirmed, we can say that we have witnessed a unique natural process that formed the unusual landscape of Yamal peninsula.

Does no one else catch that Dr. Plekhanov is saying that the same processes happened 8,000 years ago – a wee bit before the Industrial Revolution and any human contribution to CO2 in the atmosphere? When, in  fact, it is asserted that CO2 levels were much lower than they are now? So, whatever caused this phenomenon in the past, it wasn’t CO2. Therefore: we’d need to know that that process from 8,000 years ago is not going on now BEFORE we cook up another explanation. Because, otherwise, we’d be multiplying theories for no valid reason, making the baby Ockham cry.

3. Finally, here’s another range of data issue:

No Record, But Arctic Sea Ice Will be Among 10 Lowest

Question: the 10 lowest what? Answer: annual arctic sea ice minimum extent during the summer. Here’s the blurb:

The extent of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer season likely won’t surpass the record low of 2012, but 2014 will still likely rank as one of the lowest minimum extents (or areas) in the record books.

That’s according to Julienne Stroeve, a scientist at theNational Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “It’s likely that it will be among the top 10 lowest,” Stroeve told Climate Central in an email.

Next question: so, how big are those record books? Turns out, the only records you’d hang your hat on are from about 1979, when the first satellites that use microwaves to determine sea ice extent were launched, to now. Anything before then is pretty iffy – there weren’t thousands of trained observers fanning out over the ice each month and taking measurements according to consistent, established protocols. So, there’s a lot of room for errors in the educated guesses and backfilling used to estimate sea ice back to 1800 – the earliest I’ve seen it estimated on an annual basis – let alone any further back than that.

35 years worth of good data. Data covering 0.2% of the time since the end of the last glacial period. As to what kind of arctic sea ice existed over the other 99.8% of the time since the glaciers melted, we don’t know. Sure would be nice to know that, to know if the extent of the sea ice today really is something to be alarmed about, or if its just one of those things, like continental ice sheets and local annual rainfall, that tend to vary over time. I imagine it might have been even greater back at the end of the 18th century, when the Thames froze over every winter, and might have been much less when the Vikings settled Greenland. But we just don’t know.

So, looking over the last 35 years, this summer’s minimum arctic sea ice area will likely fall in the lower 30% of those years for which accurate measurements are available. That doesn’t sound too bad, which is why I suspect they don’t put it that way.

Education’s Rudderless Ship

A confluence, in the sense that the soggy stuff that clogs the drain in the shower is a confluence, of a damp passel of education writings have been washed into the low spot that is this blog:

An essay on the thesis: Religious schools shouldn’t be accredited from the deep-revolving Mr. Briggs;

An article from the New Republic on how Ivy League schools are overrated and even damaging (H/T to CMR);

(Plus, the mandatory rejoinder: Na-ah!)

The Chosen One at School
Here’s the picture illustrating the rejoinder. Well, that settles that, then.

And then, via a comment on Mr. Brigg’s essay, the coming education disruption from the Futurist.

Quick rundown: Seems a professor Conn at Penn  (hey – maybe we could do Kirk’s KAAAAHN! yell, except use COOOOOONN! No?) has noticed that the faculties and graduates at religious colleges and university have a perplexing, nay, dangerous tendency to disagree with him and his pod-mates at the secular colleges. Ipso facto, this means they are close-minded and bigoted. There is no greater intellectual crime than rejecting the gooey grey homogeneity of thought espoused unwaveringly by the members of  the herd of open-minded free thinkers like Conn.

I’d like to see anyone in Conn’s crowd stand up and say something departing from the party line, even something as superficially trivial as: 99.9% of modern art is narcissistic, hiney-kissing crap. Say our intrepid open-minded daredevil holds to all other progressive ideals, and burns incense at the secret shrine and otherwise toes the line, but just one day, around the faculty water cooler, opines that, you know, letting a maggot-infested cow’s head rot in a box is an  adolescent stunt no adult should deign to notice, not art – and see what happens.

I think the best he could hope for is being considered an iconoclastic eccentric, just throwing stuff out there to get a rise, tolerated with a wink like a crazy uncle. Because if he ever made his peers believe he was serious, he’d be challenging the very relevantist foundations of all they hold dear – and would need to be destroyed like an invading  virus.

Conn should be concerned. Schools like Thomas Aquinas College (more seems to popping up all the time) have by now released several thousand graduates into the wild. These are people who have been exposed to beauty, truth and goodness, most especially in the form of logic and reason. They have been exposed to the idea that to conform just so you can sit at the cool kids’ table is cowardly and unworthy. Worst of all, they have had a chance to read old writers, and compare their thinking to what passes as thought by new writers.

They are harder to snow.

Can’t have that.

Next, the radical proposition that Ivy League schools are overrated. I’ll admit to a strong bias here: as a Johnny, I was endlessly exasperated by the hushed reverence with which Harvard or Brown or whatever were treated. At the time, St. John’s Santa Fe was a dusty set of none-too-impressive buildings in a severely beautiful setting – but we were scholars, dammit! We wrestled with Plato and Euclid and that crowd daily! In Greek, even!  Bring it on, Ivy League!

This was only made worse by getting to know a contemporary Harvard grad fairly well shortly after graduation. Not impressed. Not sure she’d have lasted a month at St. John’s. But, boy, was she sure she was part of the Chosen – except when her insecurity was palpable. Weird.

So, I have to wrench my mind back from the conclusion I’ve nimbly leapt to when I read about really, truly outstanding Ivy grads. My only comment here is that the filtering process by which students are admitted ensures a certain level of genius, apart from anything that goes on at the school – one most certainly CAN get an education at the Ivies, it is just not necessary or even a primary expectation. You’ve already won just by getting in – it takes fortitude to then pursue an education in addition to merely collecting the merit badge. But with the number of really smart kids and the world class facilities, it’s not surprising many kids do.

Then comes the rebuttal. The writer makes some good, if sad, points: your typical 20 year old is a clueless, anxious child wandering about lost. That some wander around Harvard Square is not surprising, and is not a reflection on Harvard. Well, maybe. At the end of the rebuttal, I don’t think I was any more favorably inclined toward the Ivies, but I was perhaps better aware of some of the problems with the original critique.

Finally, the essay at the Futurist boldly asserts that high-end colleges are in for a big shakeout sooner rather than later, as more and more people recognize that there’s more bang for the buck in MOOCs and the Khan Academy and so on.

While I’d shed not a tear to see colleges get hammered, I have my doubts: as one wag put it somewhere, we’ve had good free libraries all over the country for a century or more, where anybody who wanted to could learn about anything that interested them – and the number of people who availed themselves is minuscule. Just putting it on the web does wonders for ease of tracking things down, but does nothing for making anybody want to learn anything.

Another brief foray into a bottomless topic. Barely skimmed the content of the above articles.

Brief Science! Roundup

1. Why Do Birds Fly Into Glass?

To get to the other side?


2. U.S. wildlife officials want limits on snake trade as big constrictors are entering the wild

The problem: cute little snakes grow into giant scary snakes that eye toddlers with an untoward amount of interest. Solution: turn them loose! What harm could come from releasing large predators into environments largely or totally lacking in animals that prey on those predators? Eventually, their numbers will peak as they eat all the native species. Just keep your toddlers in doors!

Or, hey – just introduce fire ants – works some of the time…

On a slightly more serious note: species spread – otherwise, Galapagos and Hawaii would be sterile. Plants often produce millions of seeds and spread them to the wind, ‘hoping’ (teleologically speaking) that those seeds, you know, spread the species; animals (including people) explore the edges of whatever ranges they find themselves in, seeking, again, to spread the species. It’s what we might call a successful survival strategy.

Awww! Look at that cute little thing! Who could object to having millions of them living nearby, harmlessly crawling around, killing and eating gigantic Burmese Pythons, crawling up inside your pants leg by the thousands…

Yet, one of most successful spreaders of all – people – are now somehow at fault if, as a side effect to our spreading, other species spread as well.

Philosophical question: why? In all probability, those unique birds in Hawaii and unique lizards on the Galapagos Islands were going to be extinct within a couple million years anyway. Heck, a betting man would figure human beings won’t last even that long.  Once we’re gone, it won’t take a million years – an evolutionary blink of an eye – for things to return to the joyous simplicity of pre-human times. No nasty slaughterhouses or fishhooks – just the simple beauty of predators disemboweling their prey and devouring their entrails before the darling fuzzy little thing’s still-living eyes. Good times.

I’ll answer: I like animals and plants. I like knowing that mongooses are out there eating cobras, that whales are sweeping up tons of krill, that weird flowers are blooming in forest no human foot has trod, that little nasty six-legged horrors are prowling about in their millions looking to eat anything that too slow to escape. Makes me feel good, and seems a shame to disrupt it without a good reason.

If we didn’t like the little critters and feel better about a world full of them, it would be pointless to worry about how we humans, going about our natural lives, cause some of them to become extinct a few millennia before they would have become extinct anyway. 99.9% of all species that ever were are extinct – it’s just a matter of time before we all are, no matter what we do.*

* with the possible exception of colonizing other planets. Even that assumes that we violate the extinction pattern of the genus Homo, the longest-lasting species of which survived slightly longer than a million years. We  H. sapiens reasonably have only a few hundred thousand years to go, if that. But let’s keep it practical.

3. On that topic: Back From the Dead: Why De-Extinction May Save Humanity

Don’t want to downplay the significance of this topic, although I have my doubts about the apocalyptic nature of the claims here. We all, it is assumed, like having elephants and giraffes and whatnot around. But habitat destruction on a large scale is more generally a result of consumption, not raw population. Yet, rather than point the finger at the grant-funding wealthy right here, the kind of people who benefit from the international economy where the harvesting of rosewood oil and ivory are made economically viable, we’ll point it at the out-of-sight, out-of-mind third world peasants. Handy, that.

But, hey, let’s not bicker about who killed who! Instead, here are a couple amusing bits:

Since the year 1500, at least 322 vertebrate species have gone extinct such as the dodo and wooly mammoth. Across vertebrates, population abundance has declined by 28 percent over the past four decades with many local populations now extinct. Globally, populations of invertebrates –- insects such as beetles, butterflies, and spiders — have decreased by 45 percent over the past 40 years.

Couple questions: Could you pick worse examples than dodos and wooly mammoths? The end of the last glacial period did in the mammoths, who seem unlikely to have survived in the interglacial in any event. Their couple million years as a species was pretty much up. And dodos, while fascinating, populated a few small islands – humans (and their dogs) were just the first predators that got there – pretty much any predator would have done them in. It’s sad they were needlessly slaughtered, but their grip on existence was pretty feeble to begin with.

Second, how does one go about counting the total world populations of invertebrates with enough confidence that one can say the population has decreased 45% in 40 years ? I was looking at whale population statistics the other day, relatively small populations of creatures it’s at least possible to count individually – and the estimates had ranges where the top estimates were often more than double the low estimates. In other words, there was much more than a 45% margin just in any one years estimate. Yet, we can get way better than that with bugs? I think not.

Anyway, what say we try to protect species without the hyperbole, and without blaming poor people for having babies? Why not look at who benefits from tropical hardwood forests getting cut down, who is ordering the high-end mochas, whose perfume has rosewood oil in it, whose rings are encrusted with diamonds, whose patio furniture was really really cheap, whose sushi is oh so fresh? Why not look in the mirror?

C. S. Lewis’s Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

Image result for st. athanasiusDrove the Middle Son and a friend down to Thomas Aquinas College’s summer program, and my wife took that opportunity to read aloud from Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, one of the books the boys were to read. The Introduction was penned by C.S. Lewis. The text to the Introduction can be found here.

Lewis presents the antidote to the condition outlined in the last post. Please read the entire Introduction – it is too good to just excerpt. To entice you, here are a couple selections:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility (ha! Well, post-post-modernity has at least removed that stumbling block.) The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.


Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it….. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance….. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.


Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Do read the whole thing – it’s not too long.  And that Athanasius dude is pretty smart, too.

(Since the 10 year old was with us as well, a good bit of Perelandra was read as well. A regular Lewis-fest. It was good.)

It’s Not Enough to Render People Stupid

You must also convince them that they are the smartest people ever.  This is not easy, but much success has been achieved:

Media Ignorance Is Becoming A Serious Problem. Ya think? While I here on this blog tend to concentrate on how the media presents science (Science!) what this article is addressing is less subtle and perhaps more dangerous: people like Mr. Carter can become, at age 31,  a *Senior* Political Economy Reporter with a national audience without knowing anything about Political Economy, and not be at all ashamed or apologetic, let alone silenced, when this ignorance is brought to his attention.  Nor does he lose his job, which goes without saying.

This phenomenon is not limited to “journalists” and talking heads, unfortunately. I almost always stay out of any combox wars where it is instantly apparent that the interlocutors are are completely uninterested in any history or logic or science, which eliminates almost all of combox discussions above room temperature. We can include, therefore, at least a good percentage of combox warriors here.  And, unfortunately, that’s not the end of it by any means, insofar as anecdotal information can be extrapolated to the population as a whole: that combination of humility and curiosity that is the hallmark of real scholars and engaged civilians alike has all but vanished from the earth.

So, this wealth of nations is, like, a book?  Wow. Who reads books? 

But how did we reach this sorry state? In the case of the Mr. Carters of the world, the option, when faced with their obvious ignorance would to recognize themselves as ignorant fools – and that’s not very appealing, especially when one is being well compensated to be a *senior* expert in exactly that field. The better response is to simply denigrate what you do not know and any foolish enough to bring it up. Easy-peasy.

In fifth grade, I won the Merit Pin: given to the best student as determined by the highest GPA each semester in each grade at St. Mary’s of the Assumption in Whittier. This would have been around 1968 – dark times! (I was then as I am now a terrible student – Mary Beth Hughes, who was an ideal student, always won it, but that semester she was evidently in a transitional phase out of little girl to not so little girl – whatever, she had an off semester right when I hit my academic peak. It’s not my fault!)  But that was about the beginning of the end of awarding excellence in school. Over the next few decades, we started in with awards both more plentiful and general, peaking in awards for just showing up or completing 4th grade. In the 70s, my youngest brother’s basketball team won some tournament – each kid on the team got a trophy. Not that any team I was on ever won anything (we will presumptively dismiss discussions, no matter how well-founded, on any causal relationships here), but teams that did win tended to get *a* trophy *for the team*, which the school put into a display case. Well, at least my brother’s team did actually win, and the other teams in the tournament didn’t get trophies for having lost – clearly, the event was run by barbarians!

Now? I’d be shocked if grade school tournaments don’t give something to everybody. Better, just stop keeping score – winning and losing is just so arbitrary anyway.  That kids, especially boys, actually like to compete, is only a sign of their unevolved consciousnesses. Or something.

About 20 years ago, a story came out about a high school basketball player who was impenetrably convinced that he should be playing in the NBA (that’s the highest level of professional basketball for those of you lacking the sports gene). So, he declared for the NBA draft (meaning, he threw his name in the hat to be claimed by NBA teams – at the time, doing so meant surrendering your eligibility for a college sports scholarship). No matter how many people told him he wasn’t remotely good enough and no NBA team was ever going to select him – he wasn’t even the best player on his high school team – he refused to listen.

His self-esteem was very high.

Today, that poor kid’s name is Legion. The only problem for the rest of us is that, in certain professions, there’s no winnowing process based on anything objective. Thus, Carter above could land a job without knowing anything deeper than a coat of paint about the field in which he’s supposed to be an expert.  We better be careful – the way things are going, we could end up with somebody like that running the country, surrounded by people who, like every teacher and coach he’s ever had, keep telling him how wonderful he is, until no mere fact is allowed past the armor plating of self esteem.

That could be bad.

The hard part is telling where the smug ignorance ends and the willful deceit begins. Sure, reporters, not, in general, being the sharpest cutlery in the kitchen, may almost as a group be innocent of any active deceit – they really do believe they are, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. This leads them to consider anything they don’t know as ipso facto unimportant, any views they don’t hold as necessarily the result of ignorance and superstition. That this represents the death of reporting – you will never see anything that can’t exist in your world – seems to likewise be lost on them.*

I wish it were hard to believe a Rachel Maddow, who I know only by reputation and a couple brief things she’s written, could be just a mindless sycophant, given her elite education and obvious native wit – but she seems to be. A Maureen Dowd, on the other hand, shows no evidence of ever having had a thought (I read her regularly a few years ago, back when the NYT was free (almost worth the price) and my main source of news). Maybe she had one since the Times started charging, who knows.

Were things ever any different? I don’t know. I’ve only known one newsman more than superficially – Marvin Arrowsmith, AP Washington Bureau chief during the 60s and 70s, may he rest in peace. He retired to Santa Fe when I lived there, and we attended the same Catholic church. Very nice man, high integrity. Was the reporting out of Washington better back then, with people like Marvin in charge? I’d like to think so.

*Once, years ago, I attended a party where I was one of only three people there not in the news media. It seemed I was one of only two people there who did not think Democrats were obviously smarter and more virtuous than Republicans. (Then as now, I tend to not vote party line when I vote, though its been a while since I’ve found a Democrat I could vote for. Back then, it happened often enough.) Struck up a conversation with a nice, if somewhat mousy, young woman reporter, wherein I asked her what she liked about her job. Casting down the mighty from their high places. Putting 2 and 2 together, which mighty are likely to get her attention?

I’ve been to better parties.

On the willful deceit side, we have the leaders who, for 150 years and more, have been working to get the schools to output just such intellectual ciphers. When Woodrow Wilson says that vast bulk of people must forego a liberal education and instead be fitted for particular manual jobs, what he and his buddies wanted at the time were docile factory workers. Since then, the needs have changed somewhat, but the methods – especially making sure people don’t get a liberal education – haven’t. We teach children in a million ways to despise the past, to believe that everything is better now in every way than it used to be, to believe in their hearts that all those old guys have been superseded and need not concern us any more. If a kid were able to go a few honest rounds with Plato, for example, his world would change – so, we can’t have that happen. Turns out to be more effective and less of a red flag if you work on the ‘honest’ part. Let them read Plato, in the unlikely event such a thing we ever occur to them. Just make sure they lack the intellectual tools to understand him.

It’s not just or even mostly the ignorance itself that is the chief and most evil output of our school, although it is bad enough. It’s the inoculation against thought. The right questions are in the study guide; the right answers are in the back of the book. And we’re all practically perfect in every way.

We live in a country where many people – not most, I don’t think, but many, and almost all you’re likely to read in the news or see on TV – have gotten their jobs by, as Fichte’s put it, being unable to think anything their betters don’t want them to think.

Once you don’t love the truth, you quickly become unable to love anything at all. What you call love becomes a kind of rage.


Science! Getting Close….

…to not one, but *two* much to be desired discoveries:

We’re ‘Very Close’ to Finding Life Beyond Earth: NASA. Not just close, very close. I’m holding out for very, *very* close, myself.


Researchers Close To Building Shape-Shifting, Self-Healing Robots

These headlines are a sort of logic test. In the first case, in the body of the article, scientists echo Sagan’s ‘terrible waste of space’ argument (if you can call it that): that there’s just too much empty space out there, too many stars and planets, for only earth to have life. Try putting that into a valid syllogism and its circularity becomes patent.

But the robots are more interesting: they could mean they’re ‘close’ in that all that remains in creating shape-shifting, self healing  robots is a better application of well-understood technology that already exists, in which case ‘close’ may be the right word. This is the sense in which we are close to wiping out world hunger and providing safe drinking water and state of the art sanitation to every person in the world. OR they may mean that we’re ‘close’ in that we’re only a couple more technological breakthroughs from having all the technology we’d need to build such machines – this is the sense in which we’re close to AI and commercial nuclear fusion power. (Although strong AI may be a metaphysical impossibility, while commercial fusion power is merely really, really hard.) In this second case, we’d be using ‘close’ in the same way in both headlines: we’re ‘close’ to having what we need, which happens to be proof of what we’re trying to prove. We’ll only be close once we have what we do not now have – claiming we’re close to having it is oracular, in that we don’t, you know, have it. The implied short time frame for the ‘close’ works as well for warp drive as it does for alien life or other undiscovered technological breakthroughs – how far out in time? We can only answer that once we’ve discovered it. ‘A million years’ and ‘never’ are, logically, every bit as much in play as ‘tomorrow’ or ‘within 20 years’.

So, I’m ready to be amazed and thrilled. How close I am to being amazed and thrilled is and will remain an open question until that undetermined time when it’s not.

Ignatius Pew Missal

Not, as one might hope, an Ignatian Pew Missile, the shoulder-mounted Church Militant defensive system for the spiritual foot-soldiers, which opens a can of old-school Jebbie-style whoop-hiney on heretics in the Church – that’s still in development. BUT: we do have a much-improved missal:


It’s got lots of good things, go to the site for details. Most wonderfully, it has simple chant settings for the Mass propers – doing those FIRST, before simply picking 4 hymns, would certainly be a huge step in the right direction – the direction of making the Mass time out of time, transcendent, not just another episode in my me-centered life.

One comment on a curiosity in the hymns: included among the wonderful old-school tunes (of whatever vintage) are a set of about a dozen ‘contemporary’ tunes – Be Not Afraid, I Am the Bread of Life, Hail Mary Gentle Woman (yeech!), Eagle’s Wings and so on – a pretty good representative sample of the songs sung in parishes that all the 50+ year olds have heard since childhood. (Plus a big dose of Taise – which I don’t claim to get, exactly, but it’s usually not terrible. Neither here nor there.)

Why, one might ask, would those aiming to improve music in the liturgy include such musical and (usually) theological trivialities? First, they did choose (mostly – Carey Landry?!?) from among the more musically inoffensive end of the pool, and songs which are not (too) theologically suspect.  But I see a bit of subtle as serpents going on here: by including these warhorses of the Spirit of V-II crowd, the compilers neutralize a whole line of attack (‘everybody LOVES song X! We can’t use a missal that doesn’t have song X!) ; second, by putting such songs in the middle of many much better songs, those who have ears to hear – say, anyone under 40 – may, in fact, notice the difference. The aging hippies have sold their ears for an ideology – they just hear goodthink and badthink when they hear any song in church – but the younger crowd might actually like good songs that are not hard to sing (the tune and scansion are the same for each verse? They can DO that?) The usual snakes in the grass are probably too wise to fall for this, but they are losing traction with the people who actually, you know, go to Mass.

Anyway, it would have been interesting to be in on the meetings where the songs were chosen. I’m wistfully imaging a little maniacal cackling as they tucked the Prayer of St. Francis next to Regina Caeli. MUAHAHAH!

May God bless this effort, and all efforts to make our worship of Him as beautiful, good and true as possible.

H/T to the Curt Jester.

Disappearing Planets in the News: Cautionary Tale

With science, not to mention Science!, there’s finding stuff and then there’s finding stuff. For example, today we learn that a tiny hedgehog and a personal-size tapir lived in British Columbia millions of years ago. The researches discovered physical remains of the two creatures, although in the case of the hedgehog, they used CAT scans to construct a 3-D model of the jawbone while it was still embedded in rock – they didn’t think it could be safely removed. So, they had parts of the tapir skeleton in hand, and images of the tiny hedgehog jawbone that was too small to extract from the rock.

And that’s the kind of evidence we get for the existence of extinct animal species from paleontologists. From there, we usually descend rapidly into more or less baseless speculation about appearance (‘artist’s rendition’) or behavior (looks like a hedgehog; hedgehogs eat bugs; probably ate bugs) which is fine, as far as it goes, but we should always keep separate, in our minds, actual physical evidence from speculation, no matter how reasonable such speculation may seem.

Careful about those alien planets, especially if your fashion sense runs toward the more rosy end of the spectrum.

Today’s example: a few years ago, two ‘earth-like’ planets were ‘discovered’ orbiting a near-by star. Well, by discovered we mean: certain observed fluctuations in the star’s spectrum could be explained, under certain theories, by the presence of two rocky planets of certain masses orbiting a certain close distances. It’s all a bit messy: there’s a lot background noise when looking at spectra, and it’s all very far away, and we’ve got to filter out the mess without filtering out the data, and, even then, we have some theories and models that allow us to back into the existence of invisible planets, and to construct very broad models of what those planets might be like.

And there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s very proper and exciting. Only problem is when we switch from thinking ‘tantalizing evidence’ to thinking ‘almost certainly true’ to ‘established fact’ without actually establishing a fact.

So, today, we learn that those fluctuation in the stellar spectrum are more easily explained some other way – not as planets. The astronomers have refined their methods and theories, and concluded that when all the natural variations that could be expected from such a star were filtered out, the evidence for these two planets disappeared. So, oops.

But, the news is generally good: under the refined method, stronger evidence for the three other planets that are claimed to be orbiting that same star – outside the ‘Goldilocks zone’ so not as interesting to SETI fanboys – was obtained, strengthening the overall claims of this planet-hunting method. So, we lost a couple planets, but we gained a better approach to finding planets in the future.

Nonetheless – some snapshots would be nice, maybe of the surface. Until then, there’s always going to remain some uncertainty as an unavoidable feature of using surrogate measures in lieu of direct observation.


The Trolley Problem: Let’s Beat It Up a Little More

That this insipid piece of Pragmatist absurdity has not died, but has generated papers and books and endless pop references makes me suppose that perhaps it needs a stake driven through its black, black heart. Picking up where we left off:

You come across this every-day scene yet again: from a distance amazingly just sufficient to prevent you running up to the victims yet close enough so that all the implications are perfectly clear at a glance, you see 5 men bound and laid across a trolley track. Just before the trolley track reaches the men, there’s a spur off to the right into a blind alley inches wider that the trolley car. Wouldn’t you know it? Right then, at that very moment, an out of control trolley car – your excellent x-ray vision allows you to see that the conductor is not just bending over at the moment and so out of sight,  no, he’s not there at all – comes barreling down the tracks, AND you notice one guy who is working away in the blind alley. AND you just happen to be standing next to a lever that switches the track so that the trolley goes down the spur instead of over the 5 guys. The operation of this lever is instantly known to you.

Don’t you just hate it when this happens?

So, after .5 seconds of consideration, you conclude that 1) miraculously, you have  information certain about all the relevant parts: you know FOR SURE that the 5 guys will get run over and die if you don’t switch to the spur; you know FOR SURE that the dude in the blind alley will die if you do switch to the spur; 2) you have certain knowledge that no one else can do anything to stop the trolley, nor help the tied up men escape, nor alert the guy in the alley.

What evil Daemon has placed you in such predicament? So, what the hell, you pull the lever. Too bad for the guy in the alley, but saving 5 lives at the cost of one seems like the right thing to do.

Oh, the humanity!

Just then, a director jumps in to the scene yelling ‘CUT!’ and the five men, their bonds revealed to be simply props, stand up and various other members of the movie crew appear. ‘WHO THE HELL IS THAT JOKER WHO THREW THE SWITCH?!? GET HIM THE HELL OFF MY SET!’

And then the man in the alley is crushed to death by the now out of control trolley.

Moral: you will never have certain knowledge of outcomes. Moral decisions CANNOT be based on certain knowledge of outcomes, for the simple reason that in all cases that involve a true moral decision, outcomes are at best only more or less likely, given the limits of human understanding.*  Sometimes, as in the case given above, your clear conception of the ends is just plain wrong.  This is a core and inescapable feature of the reality within which moral decisions are made.

Pragmatism, once you cut through  Peirce’s thicket of obfuscatory circumlocutions, is just the theory that the ends justifies the means, and nothing more. Pragmatists want to pretend that what they understand as the ends are sufficiently well understood and desirable to justify crushing the occasional innocent man with a trolley. So to speak.

Thus, the lamentable Dewey, in his defense of Trosky, can give only what amounts to stylistic limits on what may be done to achieve an end.  There’s no hard and fast rules about how many innocent people may be slaughtered to achieve a sufficiently glorious end. As Trotsky said:

The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind.

Making an omelette, here. Concern for the eggs is misplaced. Just which and how many eggs get broken is up to the omelette maker, who cannot be criticized for his slaughter and lying, except insofar as said slaughter and deceit fail to achieve the glorious end.

Any supposed moral thought experiment wherein perfect knowledge is assumed is about as applicable to the real world as a thought experiment that begins with a unicorn eating green cheese on the moon.

* It also bears keeping in mind that the means chosen form the ends actually achieved. One is as unlikely to achieve peace, kittens and rainbows by indiscriminately killing innocent people as one is unlikely to harvest watermelons after planing corn, for example. Stalin’s and Mao’s failure to achieve the worker’s paradise was assured by their choice of means, even assuming the ends were otherwise obtainable.

Pre-Fourth Up-roundings and Tidbits

1. What other willies-producing tricks are those creepy little 6-legged horrors up to these days? Glad you asked:

Bone House: Species Of Wasps Protects Its Home Using Bodies Of Dead Ants

Seems some wasps lay their eggs behind a wall of dead ants, to send a message much like nasty little mafiosi: mess with us, and it won’t be pretty.

I’m betting seeing piles of dead bodies from the moment of birth results in years of tiny nasty wasp therapy.

Bone House Wasps defending against predators. More or less.

2. Domesticated Tomato Plants Evidently Stone Deaf

How else would one explain how a few tomato hornworms can reduce a decent size plant to a bunch of green twigs, in light of this study? The claim here:

We found that feeding vibrations signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars,” said Appel in a statement.

So, plants, hearing the sloppy eating sounds of caterpillars, produce chemicals that the caterpillars don’t like, thus driving them off. Why they don’t just produce those chemicals by default is not explained – no, they have to wait until one of their little buddies or they themselves start getting eaten, *then* they grab their little chemical Uzis and have at ’em.

This tomato plant was evidently hard of hearing.

3. Investment advice explained:

Say you have developed and successfully tested a way to make a lot of money investing in stocks. Do you:

a. Spend your time making a lot of money investing in stock? or

b. Sell your expertise to other people so that they can make lots of money investing in stock?

4. Never cared about cars much until I was about 30, and working as a personal lines underwriting analyst, and had to look at a lot of car magazines as part of my job (no, really). Then my obsessive little mind started noticing all sorts of odd things.  One, which hit its apex a couple years ago, was what we called Sweeps:

a 100% Sweep compliant Hyundai Sonata

From humble beginnings back around 2009, this practice of using a fold in the side sheet metal as the unifying design theme of cars briefly took over the world. The idea is almost as old as cars, but here it is put to work unifying what are really disparate design features, giving the design a real sense of forward motion. The picture above show a perfect example: the sweep starts as part of the definition of the tail lights, moves through the door handles and points at the front wheels, then is picked up curves defining the fog lights and indeed the hood.

The sweep ties into the rear design nicely as well.

It’s surprisingly elegant and convincing, which means of course that car makers quickly overdid it in a series of abominations (e.g., designs with two contrasting sweeps, or sweeps that have a kink in them – unclear on the concept), and, then, as of this model year, it has largely disappeared. RIP, sweep – until it is rediscovered in 20 – 30 years.

Now, my attention has been drawn to colored – most often, red –  brake calipers:

We must make sure all the world knows we can stop if we want to.

Back in the day, something as mundane as brakes would not be made into a design feature. But then, a few years back, some sports cars – I think it was Ferrari – started painting the brake calipers red. This shows up nicely if you have spidery rims, which such ego-toys typically do. Now, you’ll see trucks, and subcompacts with 1.2 liter engines advertising their stopping capabilities.

Current hobby: seeing how lame an underpowered econobox is willing to sport look-at-me! brake calipers.

Chevy Sonic entry-level subcompact. With red calipers. And a spoiler. Woo. And, I might add, hoo.