Thursday, December 31, 2009

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

I just finished listening to the recordings of Donald Kagan's 2007 Yale course on ancient Greek history, which I obtained through iTunes and listened to mostly during walks and lengthy intercampus shuttle rides. Aside from one class in which he enlists (so to speak) some of his students to help demonstrate how a hoplite phalanx fights, Kagan spends almost all of his time lecturing from a podium, so you can safely skip most of the video. Kagan is an engaging speaker; I daresay, with admitted optimism, that he is engaging enough to win you over even if listening to lectures about ancient Greek history sounds to you (fool that you are) about as entertaining as having a root canal.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Post-American World

The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) is the characteristically outstanding work I have come to expect from Fareed Zakaria. Prognostication is always a dangerous business, but, if I were required to place bets, I would sooner place them with Zakaria than with anyone else. More importantly, I always learn plenty from him about the here and now. Even when he says things I already know (or at least agree with), he has a way of expressing them that makes me see them in a new light. One small case in point, his dissection (almost as an aside) of the idea that there is something inherently American about the shallow mass-consumerism that is supplanting high culture throughout the world:
What is vanishing in developing countries is an old high culture and traditional order. It is being eroded by the rise of a mass public, empowered by capitalism and democracy. This is often associated with Westernization because what replaces the old—the new dominat culture—looks Western, and specifically American. McDonald's, blue jeans, and rock music have become universal, crowding out older, more distinctive forms of eating, dressing, and singing. But the story here is about catering to a much larger public than the small elite who used to define a country's mores. It all looks American because America, the country that invented mass capitalism and consumerism, got there first. The impact of mass capitalism is now universal. The French have been decrying the loss of their culture for centuries, when, in fact, all that has happened is the decline of a certain old and hierarchical order. Did the majority of French people, most of whom were poor peasants, eat at authentic bistros—or anywhere outside their homes—in the nineteenth century? Chinese opera is said to be dying. But is that because of Westernization or because of the rise of China's mass culture? How many Chinese peasants listened to opera in their villages decades ago? The new mass culture has become the most important culture because, in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. How many listen matters more than who listens. (78)
Nicely put.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taxonomy Tuesday

What is this? My guess is Plantus plantus, the common plant.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Racing for clean energy

Thomas Friedman seems to me to get it exactly right:
The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming. And no market can do that better than America’s.
Maybe the best thing President Obama could have done here in Copenhagen was to make clear that America intends to win that race. All he needed to do in his speech was to look China’s prime minister in the eye and say: “I am going to get our Senate to pass an energy bill with a price on carbon so we can clean your clock in clean-tech. This is my moon shot. Game on.”
Because once we get America racing China, China racing Europe, Europe racing Japan, Japan racing Brazil, we can quickly move down the innovation-manufacturing curve and shrink the cost of electric cars, batteries, solar and wind so these are no longer luxury products for the wealthy nations but commodity items the third world can use and even produce.
I would add only two things:

(i) Even if one completely dismisses projections about climate-change-induced migrations, the development of clean, non-nuclear* energy should be a huge national security priority; there are few things that would benefit us so much as decisively cutting off the steady stream of terrorist petrodollars that have been flowing from the Middle East. I still am mystified by how many of us are gung-ho about using an energy source that puts money into the pockets of our most devoted enemies.

(ii) The United States is the best suited to do the job (for now), but only in principle. With half of the country openly contemptuous both of science and of anything that smacks remotely of environmentalism (because both somehow raise the specter of—gasp!—liberalism), I suspect other countries will take the lead, and ultimately turn us into a technological backwater. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

* Non-nuclear only because of the proliferation concerns that would result from using nuclear energy as the world's primary energy source; otherwise, I don't mind nuclear.

The Known Universe

If someone would complete the zoom in to the Planck length, this would be the new Powers of Ten.

Hat tip: Pharyngula.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dark matter detected?

Though still tentative (casually estimated at a three out of four chance), there is word that the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search may have directly detected dark matter, in the form of weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs, as the colorful acronym goes). So far, the best report of the whole thing is the CDMS's own summary. Hopefully the results pan out; it would be nice to know what most of the mass of the universe consists of.

Anaxagoras and the human condition

One of my friends just talked to me about an interview series between an evangelical Christian and a couple of Satanists; he pointed out that although most of the YouTube comments railed against the Christian for being a fundamentalist, the Christian actually ran circles around the Satanists, who were complete idiots. My friend's point: contrary to common perception, Christian fundamentalism is neither necessary nor sufficient for stupidity.

I mention this not because my friend's insight is profound (though apparently it is beyond many people's capacity to grasp), but simply because it occurs to me that Anaxagoras's view of matter is a good metaphor here. For Anaxagoras, every bit of substance contains a bit of every other substance; it makes no difference how much you try to purify something, everything always contains everything else in it. Likewise, we might point out that no matter how much you try to purify humanity by carefully choosing out a select group from the masses, you can be assured that the group you select still will contain idiots. It does only slight violence to the metaphor to notice further that any such group will undoubtedly consist primarily of idiots.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why I accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change

Not a year ago, I was avowedly skeptical about whether global warming was a real phenomenon at all, much less whether it was anthropogenic. I'm no longer skeptical, and I think that most people who still are, have at least been insufficiently reflective. What follows is (what I think is) my very simple argument why.

I am not a climate scientist. I do not have anywhere near the expertise necessary to understand the peer-reviewed work on which the IPCC Assessment Reports are based. I must rely on the judgment of those who do have the necessary expertise. Of those who have that expertise, the consensus accepts that anthropogenic climate change is real. There is no evidence that the members of the consensus are dishonest frauds, publishing fraudulent work and giving the nod to the fraudulent work of others, simply to advance their careers or some ecofascist agenda, nor is it reasonable to think that the members of the consensus are so stupid as to have somehow missed supposedly devastating counterarguments so simple that even a layman can understand them. Hence, it is irrational for me to oppose myself to the consensus, and likewise for anyone who shares my lack of expertise. This is simple respect for science.

Let me be clear. My analysis does not extend to true experts who disagree with the consensus. I do not begrudge them their conclusions. If they truly have expertise in climate science, they are entitled to their conclusions, for all I can say. But, my non-expert friends and I are nowhere near being in a position to adjudicate that dispute. It is well to say, "I know an honest, intelligent expert who rejects anthropogenic climate change." But, what personal expertise grounds our judgment that this one expert is so much more honest and intelligent than all of the experts in the consensus put together? It is incumbent upon the expert skeptics to convince the remainder of the scientific community, to transform the consensus from within, the way it is done in science. For the rest of us, there is no rational choice but to track the consensus.

I'm really interested in comments, particularly from those who disagree.

Real Clear Politics

One of my friends recommended Real Clear Politics to me. The site appears to trawl the news for partisan commentary from all over the spectrum. Looks good so far, another useful feed to have in the RSS reader, since obviously I have too much free time and all.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hovind thesis: follow-up

I have finished reading Kent Hovind's doctoral thesis. It is every bit as bad as expected. I say this not on the force of mere disagreement with its contents: it is an extremely unprofessional work, even by creationist standards. The thesis is almost entirely written in testimonial form, with declarations of personal belief and disbelief offered in place of even an attempt at providing evidence. Not until the last half of the last chapter (on the age of the Earth and the rest of the universe), does Hovind's thesis even rise to the level of a Henry Morris or Duane Gish tract (and, at that point, it appears to consist of recycled and largely unreferenced ICR literature). To cap it off, the thesis does not make any proper citations, even for the numerous quotes it contains.

I have no idea whether "Patriot University" is actually a diploma mill, but if this is its standard for doctoral work, it might as well be one. This simply is horrible work; it is amazing, embarrassing, and speaks volumes about Hovind's character (not necessarily dishonesty, but certainly buffoonery), that he genuinely seems to think such a slapdash production entitles him to bear the title of "Doctor." It is an insult even to other creationists, many of whom, whatever their faults, have worked very hard for legitimate degrees.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

VLC media player

If you are like me, you are always on the lookout for ways to increase your book-reading and podcast-listening efficiency. I haven't found much to help me with the first, yet, beyond making sure I keep a good stock of coffee; but when I realized that I probably would be able to understand most podcasts at much higher playback speed, I immediately started to investigate how I might be able to accomplish such acceleration. Most of the options I tried proved unworkable:

  • iTunes: there is no native support for podcast acceleration (or any kind of playback acceleration, as far as I can see) in iTunes.

  • iPod: my iPod classic software does have some slight support for audio acceleration, but only for audiobooks. You can use iTunes to change podcasts into audiobooks, but the process is irritating and causes file sorting problems. More importantly, acceleration is limited to 1.4x (I usually want 1.8x-2.5x).

  • QuickTime: Apple's own suggestion for acceleration is that you open your podcasts in QuickTime, which gives you a playback speed slider. Unfortunately, QuickTime introduces an echo at around 1.6x, which gets progressively worse as you accelerate more, and makes speech incomprehensible. This appears to be something that users have been complaining about for a while, but Apple does not seem to be very responsive to user complaints.

  • Windows Media Player: Windows Media Player gives you an acceleration slider, and the acceleration is smooth and echo-free. However, it can't play .mp4 files, which makes it practically useless for me since I get my podcasts through iTunes.

  • File conversion to .wma, or manual compression and resaving: Way too inefficient.
I don't think there is anything I can do with my iPod: I'll have to listen to everything at normal speed on it. However, I did find a very good solution for when I'm able to use my desktop: VLC media player. It plays .mp4s (and just about everything else under the sun), it allows user-selected acceleration in increments of .1x, playback is echo-free, and it's free (it's open-source). I have been happily blazing through podcasts and videos at my desired 1.8x-2.5x, with no issues. In fact, I have found the VLC player to be an all-around better piece of software for all of my media; there seems to be no limit to what you can do with it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Hello, my name is Kent Hovind."

No sooner do I plug Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, than I see PZ Myers' post about creationist talking head (and convicted felon) Kent Hovind's doctoral dissertation being leaked. Yes, he does start his doctoral dissertation with "Hello, my name is Kent Hovind." I'm almost afraid to read on. Almost.

Hat tip: Pharyngula.

Why Evolution is True

There are many high-quality books explaining why evolution is beyond any serious dispute—so many, in fact, that reading through them has become mundane for me; these days, I find it difficult to get excited about many of them, even while recognizing their merit intellectually.

Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True had me at the edge of my seat.

Coyne's book is the most masterful treatment of the evidence for evolution, and associated fatal problems for creationism, I have ever read. I cannot imagine anyone coming away from it unconvinced, except for one who has already made up his or her mind in advance. This book is now number one on my list, with a bullet.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shout out to Charles

I just want to express admiration for one of my very favorite bloggers of all time: Charles Johnson of LGF. I have no idea whether he would enjoy the comparison, but he reminds me of a conservative version of Christopher Hitchens: someone who doesn't give a damn about crossing party lines and pissing off his normal base, in pursuit of truth. Although I have generally given Johnson a sympathetic ear since I first came across his blog (post- September 11), I admit I was surprised when he really started to ramp up the effort against the anti-science mentality so prevalent in the contemporary right, whether represented in creationism or in climate change denial. Imagine my greater surprise, upon re-emerging from the void, to discover his November 30 post. I think I understand how he feels: the self-styled voices of conservatism, descending ever deeper (and ever more loudly) into the boastful ignorance and self-righteous malevolence I once identified with the left, make me feel as though I am tilting ever more towards the liberal end of the spectrum. Yet, I don't think my political views have really changed that much over the past ten years; rather, it seems that the ground has just shifted beneath my feet. I think Johnson is likely in the same position; so, no Charles, you haven't left the right, the former "right" has just left the solar system.

A brutal, but rewarding, semester begins to wind down

Now that finals are starting, I have more room to breathe, and can pick up on things I have had to leave by the wayside, like this blog. My main problems this semester were trying to introduce too many innovations into my classes, and spreading myself out too thin over multiple campuses. But I have to say, my students were fantastic this semester, and I have learned a tremendous amount that ought to make my next batch of classes run much smoother, with much less maintenance.

Being a philosophy instructor is still the best job in the world.