Archives May 2010

RIP Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner, the Mathemagician, passed away on May 22.

Go read Phil Plait’s post about him, because Phil says everything I would have.

ID and the 2LoT

I keep hearing from cdesign proponentsists that ID is not creationism. That ID is totally a scientific theory with predictions and everything that they’d love to show except the dog ate their lab notes the mean old bourgeois scientific establishment is suppressing the truth.

And then Bill Dembski posts this:

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics has never been a friend of materialistic evolution. Granville Sewell’s arguments concerning it at the following two links are worth pondering:

Link 1: from the book IN THE BEGINNING

Link 2: video presentation “A Mathematician’s View of Evolution”

You can read the preface (PDF) of the Disco Tute’s latest emesis, in which Granville Sewell writes:

The origin and development of life seem to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a clear and spectacular way; however, such arguments are routinely dismissed by saying that the second law does not apply to open systems, such as the Earth. The author counters this idea with the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.”

Sewell either doesn’t understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, or he’s deliberately lying.

Perhaps the most layman-friendly version of the 2LoT is

Heat generally cannot flow spontaneously from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature.

Right now, I’m sipping a drink with ice cubes in it. How did those ice cubes form? I started out with water at room temperature (say, about 20°C). My freezer then “sucked” the heat out of the water, bringing it to 15°C, then 10°C, then finally 0°C when it froze. And where did that heat go? Into the room.

You can test this for yourself: go stand by the back of a fridge, or an air conditioner, and you’ll feel that the air coming out is slightly warmer than the ambient air.

In other words, what my freezer does is move heat from a material at lower temperature (the water) to a material at higher temperature (the air in the room).

But note that the 2LoT says “spontaneously”. That’s a key word. The only reason my freezer works is that it’s getting electrical energy from the wall socket. If you put water into a freezer that hasn’t been plugged in, it’s never going to spontaneously freeze, any more than water will spontaneously go uphill.

But it’s possible to pull heat out of a colder object and into a warmer one using a freezer, just as it’s possible to move water uphill using a pump. But both of these come at a cost: you have to keep adding energy into the system. If you pyt a small amount of energy into your pump, you can move a small amount of water uphill; if you want to move a lot of water uphill, you need to put more energy into the pump. Ditto with freezers. It’s possible to freeze Lake Michigan in a week, but not with a common household freezer.

Sewell’s rebuttal to people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about is:

if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.

That “something [which] is entering” is sunlight. If I put my freezer inside a capsule (insulated against heat loss) at 20°C, then shoot the capsule into space, and put water in the ice tray in the freezer, it’ll never turn into ice.

But if I then hook the freezer up to a solar panel, and point the panel at the sun, then yes, the freezer will cool the water and heat up the rest of the capsule. But then the capsule is no longer a closed system, since energy from sunlight is entering it. And thus, something that’s very very improbable (read: impossible) in a closed system becomes possible in an open system.

In fact, that’s what photosynthesis is: plants take energy from sunlight, and use it to force CO2 and water molecules together against their wish, to make sugar molecules. The sugars can then be broken up to release energy where it’s needed. It’s like using a solar panel to charge batteries that can then be used wherever they’re needed.

I’ll leave you with Sewell’s conclusion, a dumb-bomb of such potent moronicity that it ought to be banned by international arms treaties:

The conclusion: “If we found evidence that DNA, auto parts, computer chips, and books entered through the Earth’s atmosphere at some time in the past, then perhaps the appearance of humans, cars, computers, and encyclopedias on a previously barren planet could be explained without postulating a violation of the second law here. But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.”

AI vs. EC

Since the 1940s, computer scientists have been seeking to make machines perform the same kinds of tasks as humans. This pursuit of artificial intelligence (AI) has yielded a lot of impressive results, such as Deep Blue beating a chess grand master, but it has fallen short of people’s expectations: computer translation, for instance, is still a long way away.

And so computer scientists started emulating evolution by natural selection, a process about as far removed from intelligence as possible: try everything and see what works. A process so amazingly stupid that even inert, nonliving material cam perform it. This research seems to have succeeded much better than anyone expected.

Which just goes to show that artificial intelligence is no match for artificial stupidity.

Everybody Draw Mohammed!

Here’s my contribution to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day:


It’s a good thing there aren’t any talent requirements. The only way you can tell that this is actually the prophet Mohammed venerated in Islam is that I’m telling you so.

Just in Case…

Just in case Elena Kagan’s nomination falls through and I am asked to serve on the Supreme Court, I thought I should mention that I don’t play softball, and am therefore not a lesbian.

I would also like to assure the Senate Judicial Committee that I would not be an activist judge, and would almost certainly not repeal the 21st Amendment or any legislation favored by the people who support me. Not until an attractive lawyer from the other side offers me a blow job, or something of equal or greater value.

Basically, I would use Original Intent in my rulings, interpreting the Constitution strictly as I think the founders should have meant it, if I were around to tell them how to get it right.

Nun Excommunicated Over Abortion

The Arizona Republic is reporting that a nun at a Catholic hospital was disciplined and excommunicated for allowing an abortion that saved a woman’s life:

A Catholic nun and longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix was reassigned in the wake of a decision to allow a pregnancy to be ended in order to save the life of a critically ill patient.

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, who indicated the woman was “automatically excommunicated” because of the action.

The article goes on to say that “The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother”, and that pulmonary hypertension was involved.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” [hospital vice president Suzanne] Pfister said.

So. Fetus poses a clear and present danger to the life of the mother. First trimester of pregnancy, so the fetus isn’t viable outside the womb. Throw in some rape or incest (which may conceivably have occurred, but the patient’s identity hasn’t been released, for privacy reasons) and you’ve got the textbook description of a justifiable abortion, it would seem.

But still, the Catholic church — run by a bunch of people who’ll never never be put in this predicament themselves, what with not having a uterus — prefers to dogmatically maintain that abortion isn’t acceptable, even under these circumstances, not even as a regrettable but necessary evil.

The article doesn’t say what this policy is based on, save that the fetus is “a human life”. But given the Catholic church’s history of encouraging and abetting the termination of human lives — Saracens, Jews, heretics, Protestants, etc. — there’s got to be more to it than that. Unfortunately, I suspect that the “more to it” is “a bunch of our ivory-tower mental masturbators derived it from our magic book.”

I also can’t help noting some sexism: for decades, men in the organization rape and abuse children, and they get a slap on the wrist before being shuffled off to another parish to avoid embarrassing the church. But now a woman authorizes an abortion — due to, I assume, compassion for the mother — and is immediately reprimanded and kicked out of the club. Would you like to super-size your standard and make it a double?

I remember reading an article about attitudes toward gays in the Catholic church. The investigator found that policymakers in the upper echelons were a lot harsher on teh gays than were priests who dealt with gays in their parishes and heard their confessions. It’s easier to condemn someone when you never have to meet them.

I suspect that something like this happened here. McBride, the nun who was disciplined, made her decision in large part out of compassion for the patient. The bishop who excommunicated her never had to meet the patient beforehand.

If my suspicion is true, then that means that the morality formulated by the higher-ups may look good on paper, but were the rubber meets the road, the rank and file don’t abide by it. That’s a sign of an impractical morality in bad need of a reality check. Unfortunately, if the Catholic church had any interest in reality, they wouldn’t believe in gods and miracles.

Update, Mon May 17 14:10:29 2010: Fixed a missing in a sentence.

Cracked on Psychics

Cracked has entitled “5 Cheap Magic Tricks Behind Every Psychic”. The introductory paragraph reads:

I got into magic at the age of five. I stopped thinking psychics were real at the age of five-and-a-half. Mainly because most of them were doing tricks I had just read in the colorful magic book I had bought for three dollars the week before.

Now go read .

This Is a Political Leader?

Today, the Washington Post hosted a Q & A session with Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. Presumably that makes him a big wheel in the Tea Party movement, and Someone To Take Seriously, as opposed to the random riff-raff who seem to dominate TV coverage of tea-related demonstrations.

And so one might expect to get reasonable, well-thought-out answers to questions, outlining specific policies and measures that the Tea Party supports. One would be wrong.

Small govt.: I get that the tea partiers want smaller government, but you all seem to think government should have no part in basically life at all. The scandal arising today over lack of control in the plant producing children’s medication as well as the oil spill make me very much weary of this point of view. I want the government actively protecting and monitoring my food and drug supply. Leaving that up to the free market will result in disaster, as has been proven time and again. What is your response?

Judson Phillips: If you leave it up to the government, you end with 72 million doses of a vaccine that no one wants. One of the liberal myths is that the Tea Party Movement wants no government. No, we want a constitutional government. Throwing someone in jail because they do not want to buy government health insurance is not smaller government. It is a dictatorship

Is there any way to read that other than “let’s get rid of the CDC, USDA, FDA, because it’s better to have trichinosis in our pork chops, than to waste money by overestimating how many people will want flu shots?

Notice, too, the unsupported cheap shots: what, exactly, about our current government is unconstitutional? And unless I’m missing something, there’s no “government health insurance” that I can buy.

And to all the people who complain that requiring them to buy private health insurance is unconstitutional, there’s a simple fix: you find an insurance plan that works for you. But instead of paying the company directly, the cost of your insurance becomes a tax that you send in to the IRS. The IRS then forwards your money to your insurer.

That way, it’s a government service contracted out to private enterprise, and paid for by taxes. Of course, that’d probably get the anti-big-government people in a lather, and it’d be a lot simpler to just pay your insurer directly, but it’d be constitutional.

Phillips goes on in that vein, spouting slogans, but never getting down to nuts and bolts, despite being prodded several times by readers. Color me less than impressed by the teabagger movement.

Oh, and for anyone who gives me grief over calling them “teabaggers”: if they didn’t want to be called teabaggers, they shouldn’t have called themselves that. But maybe I’ll reconsider when the right wingers learn that there’s an “ic” in “Democratic”.