Wednesday, December 29, 2010

mechanics, thermodynamics, and gravity

Apparently there is a new physical theory that gravity arises out of entropy (link from instapundit):
A few month's ago, Erik Verlinde at the the University of Amsterdam put forward one such idea which has taken the world of physics by storm. Verlinde suggested that gravity is merely a manifestation of entropy in the Universe. His idea is based on the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy always increases over time. It suggests that differences in entropy between parts of the Universe generates a force that redistributes matter in a way that maximises entropy. This is the force we call gravity.
This is interesting because I've always thought physics should concentrate more on thermodynamic-style theories rather than mechanical-style theories, and up to now mechanical-style theories have been far more dominant.

Consider a box divided into two chambers, A and B. Chamber A has high-pressure air and chamber B is a vacuum. You can extract useful work from this system by putting a fan between the two chambers and allowing air to run through the fan from chamber A to B. The moving air turns the fan and you can use a belt attached to the fan to turn something else. This system does work. I'm going to be a bit coy about how “work” is defined here, but think of it as doing something like running a car or generating electricity or cooling a house.

This two-chamber system will do work until the pressure in the two chambers is equalized. After that, there is no longer any organized motion of air from one chamber to another to turn the fan (there may be random microscopic motions of air, but these cannot be used to perform work). As the two chambers become more equal in pressure the system loses some of its potential to do work.

There are many other examples of two-chamber setups that can do work. For example, you can have a chamber with hot water in one side and cold water in the other. You can put a heat engine between the two sides and extract energy from it until the temperature of the two sides is the same. You can also get work from a system where there is fresh water on one side and salt water in the other. It will do work until the salinity equalizes. You can get work from a system having one side full of oxygen and the other full of nitrogen at the same temperature and pressure. You can extract work until the two sides have the same mixture.

Now the reason that you can extract work from these systems is that in each case, there is some sort of force or tendency that tries to change the state of the two chambers until the two chambers are the same, are uniform. We call this tendency potential energy. By controlling the tendency of the two chambers to become uniform, we release potential energy and get work.

Entropy is sort of the opposite of potential energy. Entropy is at a minimum at the beginning when the two chambers have the greatest difference. This is also when potential energy is at a maximum. Once the two chambers are uniform, the entropy is at a maximum and the potential energy is zero.

The systems I've talked about up to now are classical thermodynamic systems. Now lets think about a different kind of system, what would be considered a classical mechanical system. Consider a two-chamber system of astronomical proportions. There is an entire planet sitting in chamber A and a chunk of space rock sitting in chamber B. The rock will want to fall towards the planet and you can extract work from the falling rock.

Classical mechanics is about masses and forces and acceleration. Classical thermodynamics is about heat and energy. You can talk about masses and forces in thermodynamic system by bringing in a very complex theory called statistical mechanics. Or you can go the other way and use the notions of heat and energy to talk about mechanical systems. In this way of talking, we don't talk about the force of gravity, instead we talk about the potential energy that exists between the rock and the planet. This potential energy can be extracted as work, much like the potential energy of the other systems can be extracted as work. Once the rock is sitting on the planet, there is no potential energy left.

Throughout most of modern physics, there has been a strong preference for the mechanical type of theory over the thermodynamic type of theory. This is because there has been a strong tendency to view mechanical-type theories as being explanatory while thermodynamic-type theories were merely descriptive. For example, in the two-chamber experiment with high pressure air in one chamber and a vacuum in the other chamber, physicists have felt that what is really happening, the real explanation goes something like this: the chamber with high pressure has a lot of gas molecules bouncing around in it. Once you open a hole in the wall, the molecules that are headed in the right direction to hit that part of the wall will now pass through and hit the fan blades instead. Each molecule that hits the fan blade will bounce off of the blade, imparting a tiny bit of momentum. The sum of all of those molecule-sized momentum changes add up to enough to cause the fan to turn.

This is plausible as an explanation, but now consider applying the same idea to the planet/rock example. By similar reasoning we might say that the reason that the rock falls is because there is a gravitational force between the rock and the planet and that potential energy is just a mathematical fiction. Is that plausible? Why not say that the potential energy is real and the force is just a mathematical fiction? What makes one of these descriptions more real, more explanatory than the other? Frankly, I don't think that there is any rational basis to choose. Both force and potential energy are theoretical entities, as are molecules and momentum changes.

Now, as I said above, potential energy is sort of the opposite of entropy, so when you apply the thermodynamic theories to the mechanical system, it amounts to the statement that the planet/rock system has low entropy when the planet and rock are distant, and that once the rock is resting on the planet the system has maximum entropy. This notion seems to be incompatible with the statistical notion of entropy.

Recall from my original examples with thermodynamics that high entropy is always associated with uniformity –a state where the contents of both chambers have the same uniform contents. This has led physicists to associate entropy with just this state. They say that entropy is equivalent to disorganization and by their theories uniformity is equivalent to disorganization (I know that isn't entirely intuitive, but that's how it is defined).

Now consider the planet/rock system again. In this system the lowest entropy was when there was matter in both boxes. The highest entropy is when there is matter in only one box (which contains both the planet and the rock once all of the potential energy has been expended). This seems to contradict the theory that identifies entropy with disorganization unless you define disorganization as just that state of matter that has less potential energy. In other words, you could make a definition like this: A state S1 is more organized than a state S2 if and only if state S1 has higher potential energy than state S2. However, if you define it that way, then your definition is not an independent theory –it is just a set of code words to talk about potential energy. It hasn't added anything to our knowledge.

An independent theory of entropy (or potential energy) in terms of disorder would let you decide how ordered or disordered a system is before you know anything at all about how potential energy works in that kind of system. That would be exciting because it would show a genuine mathematical relationship between energy and organization. I don't know if such a thing exists or not since I never studied that area, but I find this new theory of gravitation interesting because it seems to imply that there is a genuinely independent definition of entropy that applies not only to traditional thermodynamic systems, but also to mechanical systems involving gravity.

UPDATE: after doing some more reading, it seems that I had the basic idea wrong. This new theory is about microscopic events, statistical mechanics, rather than macroscopic thermodynamics.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

and the near-sighted shall see

This morning after waking up I spent a few minutes as usual seeking vainly for renewed somnolence before I rolled over and reached for my glasses on the bedside stand. They weren't there where I usually keep them, so I started patting around for them without looking --I can't see much without my glasses anyway. I couldn't find the glasses and my mind was starting to go over the places that I might have left them. I turned my eyes to the bathroom door and I could actually see the bathroom counter clearly enough to look for my glasses. Then I remembered: "Oh, right. I don't wear glasses any more".

I got Lasik eye surgery three weeks ago but the habit of reaching for my glasses in the morning is ingrained by decades of practice. Last week I finally threw away my glasses and contacts. Normally I'm a pack rat --I still had contacts from three prescriptions ago-- but I couldn't come up with an scenario where I might possibly need them again. Even if something goes wrong with the surgery, you aren't going back to the old prescription.

Over all, I am pretty amazed at the results. I spent less time in the office on the day of surgery than I had in my pre-surgery exam --about 45 minutes. Of that only about 10 minutes was in "the chair".

The surgery was more painful than the websites or the doctor had led me to believe. That is not just pressure you feel while the doctor is wedging that glass plate against your eyeball to flatten it out, what I felt, at least, was pain. Or maybe it's just me. The last time I had a root canal, the dentist was not able to numb the area completely no matter how many times she gave me the needle. She called it a "hot tooth", but I wonder if I just don't respond well to local anesthetics.

The first week was really inconvenient. Among other things, you have to tape eye shields over your eyes before bed. If you are tying to do it yourself, be aware that doing it properly takes three hands and if you try to make do with only two hands and some clever finger positions as I did, you should either not do it in the bathroom or make sure your toilet lid is down unless you don't mind fishing for a roll of medical tape in your toilet bowl. Just saying.

It's pretty amazing, though. Not only is my distance vision close to 20/20, I can read better too (I've been using reading glasses with my contacts for several years). If you have correctable vision and aren't too risk-averse for the very small chance of complications, I highly recommend Lasik.

Two things to do before you go in though. First, practice staring at a small dot of light. Turn off your laptop and stare at the power LED in a dark room, for example. The doctor recommended that I do this, but I ignored the advice. How hard can it be to stare at a light? Well, it turns out to be hard. At first I would stare at the light and let my mind wander. My eyes wandered when my mind did. Then I decided to focus on the dot and concentrate, but when I did that it was almost worse. My eye, having been given the message that the dot was important, seems to have decided on its own that it wasn't getting any useful information from the dot and started to carefully examine the area around the dot. I kept telling it that we were only interested in the dot itself, but my eye was pretty stubborn about the whole thing. Stupid organ.

The other thing to practice is putting drops in your own eyes. You have to have drops every hour for the first day or two and with multiple kinds of drops, so unless you have a very patient person to help you out, you have to do it yourself. If you have never put in your own eye drops before it is going to be frustrating to figure out when you aren't feeling very well and can't see very well.

My technique is the following: if I'm putting drops in my left eye, I hold the bottle on the threads (where the cap screws on) with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. I close my eyes (in case I judge the distance wrong) and hold the bottle up to my left eye, positioning my hand against my forehead and nose to hold it in place. Then I open my left eye and try to position the bottle so that when I'm looking straight ahead, I am looking right down the nozzle.

Once I have the aim right, I lock my right hand against my face, close my left eye again (just in case my judgment is off...) and tilt my head back with my right hand holding the same position against my face. I open my left eye to make sure the nozzle is still in place, then I look off to the left so that I can't see the drop coming (otherwise I'll blink) and squeeze the bottle slowly with my left hand until a drop hits my eye. It's really not that bad once you get used to it, but it takes some practice. Reverse everything for the right eye, of course.

There are lots of other things to know, of course. Follow the doctor's instructions because he really, really wants you to have no complications, for his own self interest as well as yours.

Modern medicine is pretty incredible. In a former age, a person with eyes like mine would be condemned to a life in a small cubicle doing nothing but reading, writing and mathematics. Today, I can ... sit in a small cubicle ... working as a software architect ... which mostly involves reading, writing, and mathematics...

But! I can stand up and see from my cubicle if the coffee pot is full before I go over there. That's progress!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Microsoft Silverlight and open standards

I made a side comment about Microsoft Silverlight on a previous post and foxfier asked if I just don't do Silverlight.

I try not to. It isn't terrible technology. In some ways it's worse than Flash, in some ways it's better. Microsoft likes to say that Silverlight is "based on" open standards because they use XML packaged up in a zip file. Two comments about that: first, it is a terrible way to do things from a technical point of view, and second, it is a trivial sop to open standards given the enormous barriers to competition that Silverlight creates.

Frankly, Silverlight represents an attempt by Microsoft to create an internet platform that they can control. Given their history, Microsoft is not a company that you want controlling any more platforms. Unless you own stock or work for Microsoft, of course. And they don't support the platform anywhere except Windows and (sort of) Apple.

Now, Adobe isn't any better than Microsoft and Flash isn't any more open, but it is, at least, much more widespread on the internet and the clients are available on more platforms. People interested in open standards can copy a single platform more easily than two. So if you have to use an application like Flash or Silverlight, and you care about keeping big companies from controlling technology that they didn't create (which is what happens when a company controls a platform), then you should go with Flash.


From instapundit, this link about a critic of Sarah Palin who has been arrested for incest. Look, I think the guy was probably unfair in his comments about Sarah Palin and he may have been a real jerk in his other political writing, but there is really something indecent about taking this sort of personal revelation and using it for a political gotcha.

There is no rational connection between this man's crime and his politics. I can pretty much guarantee you that there are Sarah Palin fans who are involved in incest, not to mention child abuse, rape, and murder. Sarah has millions of fans, how could there not be?

Look, I've defended Ann Coulter from other conservatives who thought she was being too mean, and I haven't exactly pulled punches much myself on this blog, but there are lines that should not be crossed and this is one of them. Don't take family tragedies and exploit them for political gotchas. This is a family tragedy. Yes, it was deliberately caused by members of the family, but that makes it no less a tragedy. If a man tries to commit suicide and fails, is that not a tragedy to him and his family just because he acted deliberately? Would it be OK to exploit that for political gotchas?

I don't think so, and I don't think this is much different.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

netflix sux

Netflix suffers from the same problem that afflicts so many large internet companies: they are so successful that they don't have to care about their customers and it shows. Their "contact us" menu item gives you a runaround where they try to avoid having you contact them. In the end, the only way to contact them is to call customer service and wait on hold for seven minutes. Obviously the wait is a punishment for bothering them.

For dealing with customers, email is cheaper per contact. The disadvantage is that it leads to more contacts. If you can put your customers through a painful telephone experience, it acts as a disincentive and they won't bother you unless their problem is really serious or they have a lot of free time.

My problem isn't really serious; it's just an annoyance. It's something Netflix management probably doesn't even know about and if they did they could fix it easily and thereby avoid annoying their customers. But they don't want to hear about it because their customers are just such a bother. So instead of letting them know about the problem I'll just drop my membership when my free month is up.

Maybe I can find a similar service that doesn't require Microsoft Silverlight. Frankly, I have little hope of finding a service that doesn't view their customers as a bother.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

how to make a dugout boat

The Pirogue maker

This answered a question that has tasked me ever since I read about dugout canoes: how do they know how much to take off from the inside and outside to get the hull thickness they want? What they did in this film is drill a hole through the boat to judge the thickness as they were planing it down. Once they got it right, they sealed the hole with a plug.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

in defense of Saw audiences

John C. Wright posts a description of a torture porn movie that I think is the latest episode of "Saw". He comments:
I solemnly assure you that even the Imperial box, front row center, at a Roman gladiatorial game did not show wounds and torment so vividly and closely. As I said above, the point is not to drive our civilization down to the point of paganism, nor to the point of barbarism. Barbarians are still human. The point is to drive civilization lower, to the subhuman.
OK, first a historic comment: John is forgetting the horrors of the Roman Coliseum. The most traditional entertainment was a fight to the death, often between a well-armed and well-trained gladiator and a poorly-armed untrained slave. It is arguable that the fighting events were less violent than the scenes depicted in Saw but there were other entertainments which I am not going to describe here. Suffice it to say that Christians were commonly tortured to death by the most cruel tortures that the Romans could devise.

What I really want to talk about, though, is John's criticism of the genre. I accidentally saw one of the Saw movies a few months ago while I was flipping around channels late at night. I had no idea what it was until I was absorbed in the movie, so I ended up watching a good part of it. It was not the torture that I found so absorbing. I would rather not see that level of violence. I never deliberately watch a movie that I know will contain explicit scenes of torture or other extreme forms of violence or that I know has a horrifying ending. What was absorbing about the move was not the torture but the drama. In his previous post John gave these components of a drama:
1. A protagonist with a goal or dream or need or mission, who is facing…
2. An obstacle (it can be a person, as an evil villain, or a situation, as life in an evil village) presenting a real challenge, perhaps an overwhelming challenge, blocking the protagonist’s achievement of this goal. Facing this challenge initiates…
3. Rising action, perhaps with unexpected yet logical plot-turns to astonish the reader’s expectations, leading to…
4. A climax, a crescendo or catharsis, which in turn brings about…
5. A resolution that not only…
1. Makes intellectual sense, with no plot threads forgotten and no plot holes showing but also…
2. Makes moral and emotional sense, it shows the cosmos the way it is or the way it should be, but also…
3. Makes thematic sense, such that it can be used as an example, or a model, or a reflection of life or some aspect of life.
The Saw movie (I keep calling it "the Saw move" because I don't know which one it was) involved a collection of subplots, each a drama according to John's description. In each subplot:

1. the protagonist has the goal of not being tortured to death and preventing someone else from being tortured to death

2. the challenge is that he has been put in a grotesque dilemma by a sadistic madman --a situation where someone is going to end up dieing a horrifying death and the protagonist has to make some very hard decision which will effect the outcome. Sometimes the protagonist can save himself by doing something horrible to someone else, or sometimes he can save someone else by doing something horrible to himself.

3. there is rising action, small victories, small defeats, plot twists, and --believe it or not-- character development. At various points there is hope that maybe they can get out of the trap, and then there is a twist that shows that the hope was just another aspect of the trap. Everything has been planned to perfection by the villain.

4. there is a climax when the deadline arrives and someone dies a horrible death.

5. The resolution was very tight and it made sense logically, morally, and thematically.

I believe that a lot of the appeal of these movies is not so much the torture itself as it is the way that the torture heightens the suspense for an audience that has become jaded by depictions of violence. By the time you see one of these movies, you have seen Dirty Harry blow a guy's head off with a .44 Magnum about a ten times. You have seen samurai and immortals cutting peoples heads off with swords. You have seen a huge cruise ship roll over and a sky scraper burn down and about twenty planes crash, killing thousands of people in all. You have seen terrorists take hostages and eventually murder them. You have seen Darth Vader blow up an entire planet full of people.

Modern audiences with this sort of background are hard to impress. They have emotional calluses over their sensitivity to depicted violence. If you want to use violence to raise the stakes of your drama, it is not going to be easy. If you have an extraordinarily talented cast you can make even an audience of regular TV watchers forget that they are watching a movie, you can set up a situation where even a small level of violence is unthinkable, and then bring in that level of violence. That way is hard. An easier way to get a visceral reaction from your audience is to use a level of violence more extreme than their emotional calluses can handle. That's the solution used by torture porn and slasher films.

In general, people who enjoy these kinds of movies don't really enjoy watching torture or extreme violence for itself. Rather, the attraction of the film is that the extreme violence raises the stakes to where they actually care about what happens. The audience members are jaded rather than sadistic. Just shooting someone in the head so they can see the blood spurt, or drowning a thousand men, women and children in a cruise ship is ho hum. But an explicit scene of someone's guts being ripped from their body --even a modern jaded audience reacts to that. The point is that they don't want to see the character suffer, and that is why the threat of suffering makes the audience care about the movie.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I'm not a slut

Christine O'Donnell's next political ad: Same setting as the "I'm not a witch" ad. She says,
I'm not a slut. Does this seem familiar to you? Why do I keep having to defend myself against personal attacks based on things I did or said years ago and that have nothing to do with being a United States Senator?

Let's be honest. This latest personal attack is not even intended to effect this election. This is about humiliating a conservative woman in the most offensive way they can, in order to frighten other conservative women away from politics.

But there is another reason why they want to focus on the personal, and that is to distract away from my opponent's policies. If you are running a business, Chris Coons doesn't think you should have the right to hire who you think you need, pay what you think is fair, sell the things or provide the services that you think people demand. Chris Coons wants the federal government to control all of that. If you are a consumer, Chris Coons thinks the federal government should control what you can buy, who you can buy it from and what you can do with it. In the case of health insurance, he even wants the federal government to force you to buy a federally-approved policy whether you think you need it or not.

To distract you from Chris Coons's frightening authoritarian belief system, my opponents try to frighten you with stories about my personal moral beliefs. I do have conservative ideas about how people should behave, but I haven't been talking about that in this campaign for the very good reason that it has nothing to do with being a United States Senator. The federal government should have nothing to do with controlling your personal moral decisions.

This is the important difference between me and my opponent: I do not want to use the overwhelming power of federal government to force you to follow my beliefs, and Chris Coons does.

I want to go to Washington to cut back on the bloated federal government and get it out of your life. When you are living your own life or running your own local business, you should never once have to think about what those guys in Washington want you to do. It's not their life, it's not their business, it's yours. Chris Coons wants the federal government to control even more of your personal and business life --endless paperwork and endless regulations.

The difference is that I want to increase your personal freedom and Chris Coons wants to take your freedom away.

I'm Christine O'Donnell and I approve this message.

And I'm not a slut or a witch and I don't want to make masturbation a federal crime. I just want freedom.

If you want freedom too, please vote for me on Tuesday.

Some background, in case you don't get the references: Gawker, a on-line leftist "news" site, has posted a story about a one-night stand that Christine O'Donnell didn't have. She got close, though, and Gawker does their best to describe the event in the most humiliating way possible. I'm not linking the story and I encourage you to read about it from other sites rather than reading it yourself. Instapundit (who always has the best links) recommends Allahpundit and Katie Granju. Michelle Malkin discusses the slimy history of this site and the people who run it. Malkin also has a list of Gawker's major advertisers. Some of these companies might respond well to polite phone calls or emails, asking them if they really want to be associated with this kind of hate speech.

The idea for the ad and the "witch" references come from this campaign add by O'Donnell. Apparently O'Donnell made the mistake of telling someone that she had dabbled in witchcraft in high school and the left was trying to make that a campaign issue.

Monday, October 18, 2010

of owls and batteries

Speaking of things that you should take out of your pocket before scuba diving, I would also add your Owl Wallet Light to the list. The Owl Wallet Light is a credit-card-sized magnifying glass with a small light.

It's a neat idea with a relatively poor implementation. You can't see very much through the magnifying glass and you have to carefully hold it at the right angle and distance to see anything, so it's a bit tedious to try to read anything as large as a restaurant menu.

Part of the visibility problem is caused by the fact that the Owl uses a Fresnel lens. A Fresnel lens doesn't have varying thickness like a normal lens; instead it uses many small ridges to focus light. The ridges make it very hard to clean that side of the lens and the lens tends to get foggy when rubbing up against the sides of a leather wallet.

Another issue with the Owl is that the light is not bright enough in the dim lights of your typical cloth-napkin restaurant (I think cloth napkins are disgusting, by the way), but there is a new version out that has brighter lights.

Still another issue is that the Owl is disposable. There is no way to replace the batteries once they go out. Or is there? In the Owl that went scuba diving with me, the front of the card was coming up. I peeled it back and found what look like two stock hearing-aid cells underneath. It looks like you could replace them with a bit of effort. You would have to find some way to loosen the front of the card without destroying the circuitry.

My Owl is so rusted inside that it is not worth trying, but if anyone else wants to send me one with a dead battery, I'd like to give it a try. Anyone?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

the scuba scheme

I love scuba diving, and I highly recommend anyone who lives near the water or likes to vacation near the water to take lessons and get certified. However, be careful in taking advice from your scuba instructor on what to buy.

Beware of the "I think I'm going to buy that myself" scam. As you casually browse in a dive shop, some scuba instructor (often the one who taught you) will point out a piece of equipment to another instructor, completely ignoring you. The instructor will talk about how great it is and how he wants one. Often he is saving up to buy one or he has been waiting for the device to hit the shelves and now that it is here he is are going to sell his old device to buy the new one. My first scuba instructor tricked me into buying a dive bag by that method.

A related trick is that as you ask a shop employee about some item, a dive instructor will come over and say something to the shop employee, hardly even noticing you. He will say something like, "Have those finally come in? I'm going to buy one tomorrow." I don't know how the incentives are structured, but these events happen too often to be coincidence.

The scuba world is structured a bit like a pyramid scheme. When you first start diving, the equipment is very expensive, but dive instructors get huge discounts. This provides an incentive for divers to keep taking lessons so that they can eventually become an instructor and not only get the discounts, but make some money as well. Of course, they only make money if they talk other people into taking more advanced lessons, which gets other people more into scuba, who eventually decide that they want to be instructors too.

Monday, October 04, 2010

a tip for Droid owners

-- or --

what I learned on vacation

Take your Droid out of your pocket before scuba diving. It turns out that this can damage certain models of mobile phone and even void your warranty.

I'm referring here specifically to the first version of the Motorola Moto Droid. I have no specific experience with other sorts of mobile phones.

Also, it's a good idea to take your wallet out of your pocket, especially if you have any of those electronic keys that look like big white cards. Something about the environment seems to ruin their ability to open doors. Regular credit cards with the magnetic strip seem to survive immersion down to 100' with no ill effects as long as they are properly rinsed and dried.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

study habits

Instapundit links to an interesting article about study habits. I read the article mainly because I had some very unusual study habits in college and I was very successful with them, so I wanted to see if this article had research showing that I had hit on some great technique. Not so much. My study habits in many of my classes went something like this:

(1) go to all of the lectures and pay attention
(2) read the assigned work right after the lecture
(3) go to the library and read science fiction (the University of Arizona library had one of the largest science fiction collections in the world).

This study technique only worked for non-technical classes and technical classes such as calculus, intro chemistry, and intro physics that contained a lot of review material from high school. In most of my advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer-science classes I added a fourth step:

(4) do the minimum assigned homework

I like to think that if I had been paying high tuition at a private college instead of minimal tuition at a state school, I would have worked harder to make the investment worthwhile. I also like to think that if I had spent a little more time working on my jump shot that I could have played in the NBA. I also like to think that I am an extraordinarily good-looking and desirable man who women can't resist. Of the three, probably only the last one is really true.

But back to study methods. It turns out that modern cognitive research does not provide a lot of support for my study technique --no mention of science fiction at all. But the article did support my preferred teaching method which nearly got me lynched by my classes.

I taught several summer-school classes when I was studying for my Ph.D. One of the classes that I taught a few times was a 300-level class that involved formal logic, mathematical induction and other simple mathematics that is useful in computer programming (that is, no advanced stuff like difference equations or automata theory).

My eductional theory involved two parts

(1) cramming for tests is a poor way to learn
(2) taking tests is a good way to learn

Apparently the cognitive science backs up both of these ideas. To be honest, I may have gotten these ideas from some cognitive science classes that I took rather than from intuition and innate brilliance. I no longer recall.

Unfortunately, I don't seem to have come up with a good way to apply them. My technique was to assign homework frequently and have it due in two or three days (this was summer-school, recall, so all the students were taking just one six-week class and had no work assigned from other classes). In addition, I had frequent pop quizzes. Each quiz contained minor variations on problems from the homework that was due that day. My theory was that if they had just done the homework in the last couple of days, then they should have no problem with the quizzes.

Boy was I wrong. First of all, it turns out that a lot of people don't do their own homework. They join "study" groups which apparently work like this: a bunch of parasites latch onto one effective student, either a smart kid who is able to do the work easily or a hard-working kid who is willing to put in the effort to do the work. They assign each member of the group to do one of the problems but the effective student does all of the problems anyway, either because it is easy or because he actually wants to learn, and the parasites do half-assed jobs on only the problems assigned to them. Then they get together in their "study" group, pass around their work, and all of the parasites copy all of the answers from the effective student.

Now, you might be wondering why, after six or seven years of college, I was unaware of this practice until I started teaching. Was I really that anti-social that I was never in a "study" group? Yes, I really was that anti-social. I was asked several times to join "study" groups but I didn't see how studying in a group could possibly be useful so I always declined.

Next you are probably thinking, "Gee, Doc, no one could be so dense that they don't realize that these study groups were also an opportunity for social interaction and getting to know people with similar interests and career paths." But you are wrong. Someone really could be that dense and I am living proof of it.

It's just as well that I never joined such a group. The people who invited me to join their "study" groups almost certainly expected me to be the effective student in the group, but they would have been sorely disappointed at both my work ethic and at my attitude towards sharing my work (as you can probably surmise by the term "parasite").

Anyway, I didn't understand how "study" groups worked until I became a teacher and started seeing the obviously-copied homework. When I discussed this with fellow instructors, they explained to me how study groups work. All of them, of course, had been in great demand as the smart kid in study groups so they had a lot of experience.

Now let's get back to the reasons for the failure of my teaching method. The second reason that it failed is because students really hate tests. This came as a great surprise. I will spare you another long digression on how I could have gone through six or seven years of college and not known how much other people hate tests. Suffice it to say that this was something of a shock to me.

Apparently many people find tests to be stressful and unpleasant activities. Naturally, these people found the method of taking two or three tests per week to be beyond the bounds of acceptable academic torture. They complained. They revolted. Worst of all, they cried. OK, no one actually cried, but I thought they were babies anyway. Not fair of me, really. Just because I personally did not find tests to be unpleasant, is not reason to be unsympathetic to those who do.

I was convinced that all of the complaining had more to do with the fact that my technique had the side-effect of rendering their usual cheating methods ineffective than any real antipathy towards test taking. I'm still convinced that I was half-right on that. Still, the rebellion was so wide-spread that I eventually had to relent and go back to normal teaching methods.

It's a shame, though. I think if I could have carried out my plan then those kids might actually remember some of what I tried to teach them. As it is, I doubt it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

the sentimentality argument against the Ground-Zero mosque

The people who are calling opponents of the Ground-Zero mosque "bigots" have a point.

No, seriously. And literally. I'm not joking here, or setting you up for some sort of ironic twist. I'm serious.


Look, I'm opposed to the Ground-Zero mosque. In fact, I'm one of those extreme reactionaries who thinks that despite the First Amendment, the government ought to prevent the mosque from being built, but I have a sound non-bigoted reason for thinking so (which I'll get to later) while most of the opposition that I've heard from fellow mosque-opponents, does sound like borderline bigotry to me.

Also, I'm not pulling a Charles Johnson here and looking for approval from leftists by calling my fellow conservatives bigots. I have no interest whatsoever in getting approval from leftists. What I do have an interest in is getting conservatives to make honest arguments about what is wrong with the Ground-Zero mosque rather than using the politically-motivated argument from sentimentality. The argument from sentimentality smacks of bigotry and it sets a poor precedent.

The argument from sentimentality goes like something like this: "Muslims blew up the World Trade Center and killed thousands of innocent Americans. The families of the victims, and indeed, many Americans are justifiably sensitive about these events, even now, ten years later. Therefore, Muslims should respect that sensitivity and build the Mosque elsewhere."

Look what is happening here: just because some Muslims killed Americans, we don't want other Muslims building a mosque there? They should respect the sensitivity of bigots who blame all Muslims for the actions of a few? That really is a weak argument, and essentially calls for sensitivity towards prejudice.

A better reason, the justified reason, to oppose the mosque is not sensitivity or a desire to keep Muslims away from an area where they killed thousand of people; the justified reason is strategic.

To start, let's make the politically risky move of observing openly that the United States is in a war against Muslims. Oh no he didn't! Did I actually say that after worrying about prejudice against Muslims? Yes, I did. I don't say that we are at war against all Muslims, but we are at war, and the people we are at war with are Muslims, and the fact that they are Muslims is an essential characteristic of the enemy because they justify the war on religious grounds. There are some Muslims that we are not at war with. A (distressingly small) number of Muslims are even on our side in the war, but that does not effect that fact that our enemy is Muslim and views other Muslims as their allies in the war. It doesn't matter if American Muslims are their allies, it matters that the enemy views them as allies.

My statement that we are at war with Muslims is not bigotry; it is simply a statement of fact. It does not mean that I hate all Muslims (I don't hate any Muslims, actually), or that I want to kill all Muslims (I only want to kill the ones who are a threat), or that I think all Muslims are too icky to build mosques near a site where their co-religionists murdered 3,000 innocent Americans.

My reason for opposing the Ground-Zero mosque is purely strategic. I oppose the mosque because enemy Muslims* will view the building of the mosque as a great victory. It will give them an impression that they are winning --and for good reason as it will give further evidence that America is too afraid or too decadent to defend itself. This in turn will encourage those who are already active enemies to work harder to kill Americans and/or prevent the active enemies from becoming discouraged and give up on their attempts to kill Americans. Further it will help active enemies to recruit more enemy Muslims* who are currently only passive enemies and turn them into active enemies who are actively trying to kill Americans.

Since this reason for opposing the Ground-Zero mosque is a matter of war, it overrides the otherwise very important issue of religious freedom in this very trivial special case. We are not preventing Muslims from following their conscience; we are not preventing them from worshiping; we are not taking away their other First-Amendment rights; all we are doing is stopping them from building a monument to their greatest victory on our soil while the war still rages.

One thing you can count on is that whenever the United States comes up with a strategy that is effective at eliminating enemy Muslims*, the American left will worry openly and endlessly that it will be a "recruiting tool for terrorists", but when the Muslims put together their own recruitment plans, the Left suddenly has no concern whatsoever about it. Funny, that. It's almost like they are on the other side.

* the adjective "enemy" is intended to specify a subset of Muslims, not to describe all Muslims

UPDATE: from the comments, it seems that I failed to make myself clear. The argument from sensitivity begins with the presumption that the mosque is being built in good faith, and that no one intends for the mosque to be a monument to the Muslim victory of 9/11. If that premise were correct, and if the enemy Muslims gained no benefit from the mosque, then the opposition to the mosque would be prejudiced because there would be no reason left to oppose it other than distaste for Muslims.

Foxfier and Marcel not accept that premise, so they are not making the sensitivity argument. In fact, I don't think any conservatives accept those premises. Instead they use the argument from sensitivity in an attempt to persuade those who do accept the premises. This is a losing strategy since the the same fools who accept those ridiculous premises are also the ones who are constantly looking for signs of bigotry among the right.

the endless struggle against spam

I was in an unusually curmudgeonly mood today (OK, may not so unusually). The Sony Reader bookstore is concerned that I haven't been spending enough money there, so they sent me spam even though I specifically set my account to not receive any promotional email. I went to the trouble of tracking down a way to email Sony (like many modern companies, they make this difficult because they don't want to actually have to deal with their customers) and sent the following email:
I recently received a spam email from Sony with the following false statement: "You are receiving this email because you have subscribed to receive promotional information from Reader Store."

No, I did not subscribe to receive spam from Reader Store. Some asshole in marketing decided that they _really_ needed to send out emails to people who haven't been buying books, so they decided to just pretend that they had permission to do so.

You may consider this as my notice that I do not do business with spammers, so even thought I've been planning to buy some more of John C. Wright's books from the Reader Store, I'm going to buy a book reader from a competitor instead.
The note about buying a new book is true. I've been planning to read "The Golden Age" books, but now I'm not going to be reading them on my Sony.

Anyone want a used ebook reader?

Monday, August 23, 2010

black, white, and checkers

Foxfier suggests an interesting analogy of moral confusion for optical confusion.

I'm not sure how well the analogy holds up, but it is certainly thought-provoking.

UPDATE: oops. Fixed the link.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

ancients, moderns, and ineffability

In a thread on John C. Wright's discussion of the classification of fantasy fiction, montecristo claims that the difference between the modern worldview and the ancient worldview is that to the ancients the world and its causes were "ineffable" by which he means something like "hidden", "beyond our ability to understand", or "ultimately inexplicable". He says the ancients considered the world ineffable in contrast to the modern who believes that everything can, in principle, be explained and understood.

I claim that this is a misunderstanding based on a failure to appreciate the much deeper differences in worldview between the moderns and the ancients. The ancients simply had a different idea of what it means to understand things.

To the modern, the world is mechanical, a clockwork universe. Everything is springs and levers and gears. When the modern wants to understand something, he looks to physical, mechanical causes: forces, energy, mass, waves, particles.

The modern world view is also compositional. When the modern wants to understand the whole, he does so in terms of the parts. You want to know how a car works? He will explain it to you in terms of the engine and the transmission and the electrical system. You want to understand the engine? He will explain it to you in terms of the pistons and cylinders and crankshaft. You want to understand what goes on in the cylinders? He will explain it in terms of molecules. You want to understand molecules, he has atoms. You want to understand atoms? He has subatomic particles. You want to understand subatomic particles? He's working on it.

Furthermore, the modern thinker believes in universal laws. Every particular cause is just an instance of a universal law. If you know all of the universal laws that apply in a specific situation, and you know all of the initial conditions, then you know what is going to happen.

To the modern, all real causes are simply instance of universal laws that can be pictured in 3D with moving parts. Anything else is just an illusion or epiphenomenon. This is the sense in which the modern person thinks that the world of the modern conception is more comprehensible than the ancient one. It is because he believes that everything can, more or less be reduced to this one limited paradigm, universal laws that operate mechanically on physical pieces. Since ancient explanations did not reduce things to this mechanical paradigm, moderns find the explanations unsatisfying.

The ancient view of the world is quite different from this. Although the ancients did understand mechanical causes, they did not try to put all explanations in mechanical terms --not even all physical explanations. Things in nature might have explanations that are teleological, moral, intentional, or semantic.

A teleological cause is a reason in terms of ends. Why does a human have two hands? A modern would explain this in terms of evolution and fitness --a mechanical explanation. An ancient might explain it in terms of function: we have two hands because a warrior must hold both a sword and a shield, a craftsman must hold both a hammer and a chisel, a woman must hold both a baby and a child's hand.

A moral cause is a reason in terms of rightness or propriety or beauty. Why do the heavenly bodies move in perfect spheres? Because that is their right and proper motion.

An intentional cause is a reason in terms of the deliberate intentions of some thinking being. Where did everything come from? The gods created it all.

A semantic cause is a reason in terms of representation or meaning. A voodoo doll is supposed to work by being a representation of something else. Words are supposed to have power in virtue of their meanings.

To a modern, these sorts of causes seem like magic when applied to the physical world. We have no problem talking about teleological, moral, intentional or semantic causes in their proper scopes --it is when these kinds of causes are applied to physical nature that they seem wrong. To the ancients there was not such a sharp line between mind and nature. I imagine that it would be a bit difficult to explain to an ancient exactly where the dividing line is.

Not only did the ancients believe in teleological causes, they also believed in capricious and singular causes --not everything has to be explainable by way of universal laws. The ancients believed in a genuine cause-and-effect relationship between sin and punishment but did not believe that there was any universal law about it. They were fully aware that some sinners live long lives full of good fortune.

Although to a modern thinker the ancient worldview seems ineffable, that is because he has been trained from early childhood to think in the modern way. To an ancient, who had quite a different upbringing, it might be the mechanical explanations that seem ineffable: "You keep telling me that x happened because y happened first, but that is just a sequence of events. What I want to know is WHY x happened."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

it's just a building, right?

Marcel over at Monday Evening sounds a bit critical of the planned Muslim Mosque near where Muslims murdered three thousand non-combatants in New York. In a comment he writes:
It would be nice to be able to trust Imam Feisal, take him at his word, and believe he is building a Mosque near Ground Zero to spread the love. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the result. Besides the apparent confusion over goals (just a handy space, or a symbolically important location?) another part of the problem is his equivocation and reticence about where the money is coming from; another part is Imam Feisal’s apparent inability to clearly and consistently say what he thinks about 9/11, Hamas, and armed Jihad. Questions persist about the Imam’s connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and people are just beginning to ask about his current and previous trips to the Middle East, funded by the US State Department.
I think you are being too harsh and suspicious, Marcel. When I'm involved in negative emotional situations with someone, I find that doing something that pisses him off is a good way to start the healing process. This technique works especially well when I've done something really horrible to someone and I want him to get over it already. What I do is find some way to symbolically declare my horrible actions as a sort of victory over him. Typically, that calms him right down.

This Mosque is just an example of Imam Feisal, a wise and peaceful Muslim, applying to political life the interpersonal techniques that work so well in private life.

In fact, I am so inspired by his generosity that I think we should encourage other groups to use this same technique to smooth over some rough spots in group interrelationships. OH! Brainstorm! How about if some modern group of Nazis would build a Hitler museum near Auschwitz? Is that brilliant or what? You can see the healing start immediately.

Oh! Another brainstorm! Anyone know what the real-estate situation is on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered? Perfect spot for a chapter house of the Ku Klux Klan.

And while we are at it, the Christians should show that they can be as sensitive and wise as the Muslims by finding old Mosques to buy, raze, and build Christian churches over. The Muslims would love that, right? Because they are the ones claiming that buildings like this don't really have any symbolic meaning.

It's just a building, right?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

deception in science

Instapundit links to this article: "Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence". Practically everything that the article says about the experiment is literally false. The statements may be figuratively true, but the figurative language is misleading because it is intended to be taken as factual or at least reflective of facts and it is not at all reflective of facts. I'm not going to call this a lie because I think the researchers and the author of the article are themselves confused; they are not deliberately deceiving anyone, but it is false and misleading.

Let's start with the title : "Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence". First, the things that they are talking about are not "artificial life forms". They are not alive in any sense. They do not have any organic structure or any physical structure at all. They are nothing but tokens in a computer program, marks in digital memory much like the marks on the screen you are reading represent words.

Second, these marks did not "evolve". They did not reproduce at all. What happened is that a computer program created a set of marks and then created another set of marks based on a set of rules. Those rules were set up to reflect what happens in reproduction and evolution, but the process was not reproduction and evolution. Just as the marks merely represented life forms, the operations merely represent reproduction and evolution. The author is making the very same mistake that ancient magicians made --confusing the symbol for the thing symbolized.

Third, the end result of all of this did not display intelligence in any literal sense. If the marks had been real life forms rather than just abstract representations of life forms, and if the events had been real reproduction rather than just abstract representations of reproduction, then the events would have suggested what biologists call irritable behavior --behavior that is influenced by outside sources. In other words, the events represented irritable behavior but were not irritable behavior. The behavior symbolized is a long way from anything that would be called "intelligence" in any case.

So what did they actually do, in real, rather than symbolic language? These sorts of experiments work something like this: the marks are random 5-letter words like "kwdez" and "qsbjl" (don't bother trying to pronounce them...). Each of these marks represents one organism. You start with a collection of these marks and the computer program goes through the collection periodically and adds new marks. Each set of new marks is a generation.

The way that they make the generations represent reproduction is by having each mark in the new generation based on a mark in the previous generation. You use a rule such as "take the previous mark and get a new mark by randomly changing one letter". The new mark would be called a descendant of the previous mark. For example, descendants of "kwdez" might include "kadez" and "kwdqz".

Notice that this reproduction is entirely figurative. The marks are not doing anything. It is the computer program that is creating new marks based on the old marks. There is nothing wrong with symbolic language but in the field of artificial intelligence they have a long history of confusing representations with reality.

Here is an example:
In early memory experiments, Laura Grabowski, now at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, set up a food gradient in a computer environment made of a grid of cells. First-generation Avidians were placed at the low end of the gradient, in a cell that had minimal food. Straight ahead of them, however, lay a cell that had more.
Note the continuing confusion between symbol and thing symbolized. There was no food. The "food gradient" would have been something like this. When the program is going through the list of current marks to create a new generation, each mark is reproduced 0 or more times based on some rule. For example, you might make a rule like this: to decide how many descendants to produce for a word, you flip a coin 5 times plus 1 more for each time that the letter "q" appears in the word. In other words a word with no "q"s gets 5 chances to reproduce and a word with 3 "q"s gets 8 chances to reproduce. Since the number of "q"s effects how many descendants a mark gets, this symbolizes "how close they are to food".

Notice how arbitrary the symbolism is. Instead of the number of "q"s representing "how close they are to food", it could just as well represent anything else that leads to more reproduction. The marks could symbolize bull elephant seals and the number of "q"s could represent the number of cow seals they inseminate. Just as easily, the marks could represent companies, the descendants could represent copy-cat companies and the number of "q"s could represent the profits.

This particular experiment seems to have had a more complex generation rule with some features representing genetic abilities and other features representing physical movement, but that doesn't matter to the primary point. The point is that the symbolism is completely arbitrary. Any process that can be mapped into the same abstract structure could just as easily be the thing symbolized. Instead of writing an article about the evolution of intelligence, they could have taken the exact same experiment and written an article about economics.

Friday, August 06, 2010

is it too late to bash Windows Vista?

With my impeccable sense of timing, I bought a computer with Windows Vista on it just about a month before Microsoft starting offering free upgrades, so I'm still suffering with Vista. It's not that bad most of the time, but Vista is the nth version of an operating system that is almost 15 years old and they have put millions into developing it. You would think that after all of this time they would have found a way to fix the long-standing, and very serious bug so that if your file browser tries to access a drive that is not responding, it doesn't HANG YOUR WHOLE FREAKING DESKTOP.



I guess I got a little exasperated there.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

reflexive conservative-bashing

The following quote (link from Instapundit) displays two pernicious misunderstandings of conservativism:
Tea Party 365 is eager to gain more members, turning to a demographic often ignored or even persecuted by conservative activist groups: immigrants.
The first and most obvious is the liberal lie that conservatives "persecute" immigrants. Conservatives have expectations about immigrants: that they will follow the law (including immigration law) and that they will adapt to their new country by learning the language. Any immigrant who meets those expectations can walk into any conservative group in the country and be well-received. The idea that conservatives are against immigrants just because they are immigrants is a lie that is spread by liberals.

More subtle, but just as pernicious is the suggestion that conservatives "ignore" immigrants. This is the viewpoint of people who view the Democrat spoils system as normal politics. Democrats give government handouts and other special considerations to immigrants, to blacks, to hispanics, to women, to teachers, to policemen, to union members, to gays ... and to any other identifiable group who has enough money and/or votes to help the Democrats gain more wealth and power. This system is a corruption that eats at the foundations of a democracy and conservatives reject the system entirely. So, yes, conservatives "ignore" immigrants, just like they "ignore" blacks, hispanics, women, teachers, policemen, union members, gays, and everyone else. There are a few halfhearted attempts to reach out to particular groups in order to counter the pernicious Democrat spoils system, but true conservative really don't have their heart in it because they ultimately don't like the idea of dividing Americans into groups and classes like that.

In the Democrat's class-based view of the world, the Republicans have their own protected classes: angry white men, and religious nuts, but the Republicans do not do what Democrats do --they do not try to raise the groups that vote Republican above other Americans, do not try to direct government money to these groups, and do not create institutions dedicated to influencing these groups, and do not preferentially hire from these groups. Conservatives do not judge you based what groups you are a member of, but only what you yourself do and express and believe.

That's why it why it is silly to suggest that conservative groups "persecute" immigrants or anyone else based on group membership. Conservatives oppose people based on who they are and what they do, not based on what groups they are members of.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

the Shirley Sherrod war

Civil war among conservatives! And some of it none too civil. Rush Limbaugh and a bunch of emailers using the word "coward".

There a few basic facts that most conservatives ought to be able to agree on:
1. When the video first came out, people were saying based on the video that (a) Sherrod had once had a (presumably government) job where she was supposed to help poor farmers; (b) she had refused to help white farmers, and (c) she thought it was funny. That turns out to have been false, and it was the editing of the video that led to that false impression.
2. The Obama administration was wrong to fire someone based on an edited video without allowing the accused a chance to defend herself and without doing even the most superficial investigation to verify the accusation.
3. The NAACP is showing astonishing hypocrisy in their criticism of people who took this video at face value because they themselves took the video at face value and issued an official statement condemning Sherrod based on the edited video --again without investigating and without letting Sherrod defend herself.
4. Breitbart never pretended to be an unbiased reporter. He was engaging in open advocacy and any responsible person would have viewed the video in that light. Whatever his fault was in releasing the video, it pales in comparison to the faults of the NAACP and the Obama administration.
5. All of those liberals who are criticizing Breitbart but not the NAACP and administration are, as usual, hypocrites. They don't really care about justice and fairness. Their pretension to do so is just a pretext for them to criticize their political foes.
6. Sherrod may not be guilty of what the video seemed to imply, but she certainly is a racist, she does endorse class warfare, she does believe in Marxist conspiracy theories of history, and she did use her government position to advocate for racism, class warfare, and Marxist conspiracy theories. She arguably should have been fired for that even though the original story was false.
As far as I can tell, there is no real disagreement over these points, but that there seem to be some misunderstandings where people think there is disagreement on some of these points.

There is also an actual disagreement going on over what the rules ought to be for political advocacy, and whether Breitbart violated those rules. This is a real and ongoing argument within the conservative community. I've had my own arguments with Patterico over whether Ann Coulter violates rules that advocates ought to follow. I'm somewhat in the middle on this. In matters of decorum, conservatives ought to strive to raise the level of public discourse, but they should not be held to some absolute standard of civility that the other side ignores. We should not be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs --not when the stakes are so high.

Being truthful and consistent are much more important. Conservative ought not to tolerate lies and hypocrisy from the right any more than they tolerate it from the left. In addition to the obvious ethical reasons there is a good tactical reason for this --the left controls the big megaphone in political dialog, so any falsehoods of the right are likely to become far more widely known that the constant falsehoods of the left. This is the field we fight on: the advantage of the left is their big megaphone; the advantage of the right is that we are telling the truth. Let's not squander our big strategic advantage for some temporary rhetorical advantage.

Was Breitbart untruthful or does he owe an apology? If he had been pushing the story that I described in item 1 then he would have been untruthful and would have owed an apology, not only to Sherrod but to all of his readers. However, that is not what Breitbart was doing. His focus was on the audience, not on the speaker.

Was Breitbart careless in posting a video that was edited in that way? If he edited himself or had access to the full video, then he was careless and he owes an apology. If he just received the edited video and posted it, then he was not careless and the most he owes Sherrod is an expression of regret that she came to harm over it. The video was news, edited or not, and if Breitbart could not evaluate it properly within a short time frame then he was still entitled to post it while the story would still be hot.

These opinions are a close call and I can still respect someone who differs in their judgment. Look, we are fighting an unprincipled foe who is a grave danger to ourselves and our descendants. Let us not distract ourselves from that important work by assuming that our allies are unprincipled whenever we have disagreements.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

another sacrificial lamb for Obama's sins

Shirley Sherrod was fired from the USDA after Andrew Brietbart posted a video of her apparently bragging about not helping a white farmer who came to her non-profit organization for help (Mrs. Sherrod is black). Now the NAACP has posted the full video of the speech and it turns out to be a rather touching story of a black woman whose father was murdered by white racists, and who had to struggle with her own racism.

Stephen Spruiell at the NRO says that she should not have been fired. So do Glenn Beck, Charles Krauthammer, and apparently the redoubtable Allahpundit himself.

But not the White House. No, the Obama administration doesn't seem to want to dig the poor woman out from under the bus that they threw her under. This is not so hard to understand. To Obama, people don't have intrinsic value in and of themselves, but only in what value they serve to him and his goals. Shirley Sherrod isn't a person to Obama but just a symbol --a symbol to use against the critics that worry about the black racism in his Justice Department. Now Obama can hold up poor Mrs. Sherrod as proof that his administration doesn't tolerate discrimination.

Obama could have fired an actual anti-white racist at Justice, but those anti-white racists at Justice are serving Obama's goals. Instead he sacrifices someone who is not really important to his administration, someone who is not important to his goals.

I'm sorry, Shirley. Know that your fatal mistake was not in being a racist, but in being unimportant to Obama and being available at a time when he needed another lamb. No one gets fired the first day that a potential scandal breaks, not without any investigation at all, not when the victim denies all wrong-doing, not when it will only take a day or so to check the facts, not unless they were looking for some way to send a signal and you are just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Obama doesn't want you to be innocent, Shirley. Obama wants you to suck it up like a good little liberal soldier and ride off into the sunset. Frankly, if you don't have any integrity, that is exactly what you should do. In a few months you will get offered a crazy-good book deal by a New York book publisher (a Democrat), or you will get hired by some university for some secure and high-paying position (by a Democrat), or some Democrat lawyer will offer you a cushy job at an expensive law office. The Democrat machine has lots of ways to reward their patrons. No loyal Democrat ever suffers much career trouble even for serious ethical lapses, so you haven't much to worry about.

On the other hand, if you fight for your integrity and your rights, you can expect the teabagger treatment from the entire Democrat/media/entertainment establishment (you know the treatment I'm talking about because you participated in it during that video. You know ... when you made vague and unsubstantiated accusations about really mean things that the Tea Party has done that Democrats never did during the Bush years. Stuff like that where people accuse you of things without evidence). Most people in your position wouldn't have to think hard about which way to go here. Still, I have hopes that you will show the same honor and integrity here that you displayed in that story you told in the video --and much more integrity than you displayed in your political comments in the same video.

Monday, June 14, 2010

McAfee malware

Someone who sounds unusually defensive responded to my post on Security Scan Plus --the malware that McAfee and Adobe installed on my computer. I'll use the comment to explain just what the problem is.
Your blog post, and in particular the headline, is extremely misleading--and bordering on slander. You clearly have some catching up to do when it comes to the right terminology in the security world. You are linking to an article on and to the Wikipedia definition of "malware"--neither of which you seem to understand.
Side comment: someone needs to study the source of the internet phenomenon of people on the internet always jumping to the conclusion that other people on the internet are ignorant. It is a thousand times more prevalent in internet conversations than in face-to-face conversations, and I wonder why.
To quote Wikipedia, "Malware, short for malicious software, is software designed to infiltrate a computer system without the owner's informed consent."
Which is exactly what the McAfee malware does. It is deceptive in several ways which I will get to later.
If you read the article carefully, you will notice that this description does not apply in this case.
I didn't get my information from the techie-buzz article; that was just for reference so I didn't have to go into details in my post. I got my information from personal experience.
Yes, the author concludes that he would classify the McAfee software as "adware"--everyone is entitled to his opinion. However, nowhere does he talk about "malware" (or "DISHONEST adware," which is included in the definition of malware).
The author of the article is obviously a lot more circumspect than I am. Most people are.
Plus, you actually DID give your consent to install the software. A word to the wise: Read what you sign!
I did not give my "informed consent" and this is because of a deliberate and dishonest ploy by Adobe and McAfee.

Here are the ways that the McAfee malware is dishonest:

(1) The name is intended to mislead people into thinking that it is a virus scanner. It is not a virus scanner; it is an advertisement. If people knew that it was an advertisement, they would ignore it.

(2) The software misleadingly claims that it is providing a service for the user but it is not. It is providing a service for McAfee. Not only is this dishonest, it is arguably criminal. McAfee is using misdirection in order to appropriate my computer resources for their own purposes.

(3) My "consent" to download and install the software was obtained via subterfuge. I asked to download the Adobe update and nothing else. In order to avoid installing the McAfee malware, I would have had to read all of the garbage that the Adobe installer spewed out and take a specific action to avoid the malware. McAfee and Adobe intend that people do not read all of the crap --otherwise they would make it an opt-in rather than an opt-out. Unfortunately, although I know from experience that Adobe is not a trustworthy company, I was in a hurry at the time.

So, you see that it does meet one of the definitions of malware: "dishonest adware". In fact, this is exactly what dishonest adware is: adware that is installed on your computer without your informed consent. Adobe circumvents the "informed" part by burying the "consent" in another operation and McAfee circumvents the "informed" part by misleading you about what the software does.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Adobe and McAfee are installing malware

The Adobe update to my computer installed malware on my system.

A few days after I did a regular Microsoft security update, a dialog box popped up to tell me that "the security update" had installed McAfee Security Scan Plus which would do a "security scan" of my computer. I thought, "Really? Microsoft is giving away a free McAfee virus scanner with updates? That's a pretty impressive addition to the operating system."

It wasn't a virus scanner. Security Scan Plus is a malware program that checks if you have the entire McAfee security suite installed. If you don't then it gives you a big scary warning message "COMPUTER AT RISK" and tells you to fix it right away. I didn't push the button that said I want to "fix" my non-existent security problem, but I'll bet that if I had, it would have sent me to the McAfee sales web site. This program is malware because it is of zero value for the customer; it is nothing but an advertisement for McAfee.

I was pretty angry that Microsoft had installed this malware on my system as part of a security update, but apparently, it wasn't Microsoft. Just before I did the Microsoft update, I did an update to Firefox, and the Firefox update recommend I do an Adobe update. So I did. According to this web page, there was a check box in the Adobe update that installed the McAfee malware. It must have been checked by default, because I did not chose to install it.

So here's the scoop: Adobe and McAfee are installing malware as part of an Adobe "update". I wonder how much Adobe was paid to risk their corporate reputation on this. I also wonder why a security company like McAfee is willing to advertise via malware. They have to know that a lot of security-conscious people will never use their software again. I know I won't.

I also would like to say that I'll stop using Adobe products, but I already avoid them as much as possible because they have have a history of disrespecting their customers. McAfee didn't have that reputation before, but they will now.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

they don't really care about women's rights

Liberals don't really care about women's rights. This fact became blatant during the Clinton impeachment when the same people who had been preaching in the most intolerant terms about how men in authority should not even flirt with women that they have authority over defended a man for doing just that.

But that was always just political theater, right? Sure, sexual politics is subject to political considerations, but there are some hard and fast rules about serious things like violence against women, right? They have these marches against rape and want harsh prison sentences against wife abusers and those things, so they really care about violence against women, right? Except that when a black man, O. J. Simpson brutally murdered his wife, the Democrat establishment rushed to defend him. Oops. It looks like in the liberal pecking order, being black and politically connected trumps being a murdered woman.

But that was a special, personal case, right? Sure, in particular cases, they may make political decisions that overrule their more general views, but one thing that they absolutely stand for is that society in general must show respect to women and give them equal treatment, right? Well, not so much. Liberals and even, amazingly, dedicated feminists have absolutely refused to criticize Islam or Islamic countries for the brutal political suppression of women that they endorse and practice.

Not only do they not criticize Islam for this, they actively defend it against critics. Here is a post about the latest disgusting example (link from Instapundit). I've always been a big fan of Hirsi Ali. It is absolutely disgraceful the way that liberals --and especially so-called feminists-- have treated this courageous woman as she struggles for freedom for the women who are so brutally enslaved by Islam.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Katrina, the Big OOSE, and Iraq

I have taken flack in various blog comment sections for defending the Bush administration on the Katrina disaster so I was happy to see a blogger on The Corner take my side.

I always claimed that that the administration's response was adequate on Katrina, just like his effort in the Iraq war was adequate, and that the criticisms are all based on outrageously inflated expectations of what is possible. Yuval Levin says it better than I do:
Let’s say a major hurricane hits a large and densely populated American city with five hundred thousand inhabitants. Much of the city is below sea level, and the flood-waters that follow in the wake of the storm quickly overrun it, filling nearly every street with water, in many places fifteen feet in depth. The magnitude of human suffering and destruction of property is mind-boggling. But within six days, everyone is out of the city and in total approximately one thousand people—one in five hundred residents—lost their lives in the calamity. Hour by hour, the government response was messy and ugly—it could hardly be otherwise given the magnitude of the disaster. But looked at with a little perspective, is that really a story of a failure of government response, or is it an example of how to contend with an immense natural disaster in a densely populated urban center? Is it a model of incompetence, or the most effective mass evacuation in human history?
Read Yuval's post for the parallel comments on the big Obama Oil Spill Event which I like to call the Big OOSE (pronounced like "ooze" + "y"). It is discouraging to me that disasters, like almost everything else, have become part of politics.

I would also add similar comments about the war in Iraq. Readers of my blog (all four of you, thanks guys) know that I was never a fan of George Bush, but fair is fair. The war in Iraq was one of the most successful invasions and counter-insurgency operations in history based on the criteria of eliminating the enemy and of preventing civilian casualties, given the situation that he faced. You have to take into account the support for the enemy by foreign powers, the tactics of the enemy, and the political situation.

I don't think thaat any Republican could be expected to have done better. A Democrat could have done better because Republicans would not have played politics with the war and the country would have been united around a Democrat president. Without the encouragement of the strident anti-war sentiment in the US and the hope of a new administration that would surrender, the Muslims might have been discouraged earlier. With a Democrat president, the American news media would not have been filled with stories designed to enrage Muslims and encourage them to enter the war against the United States. You have to judge Bush's success against an enemy that included among its allies the opposition party and the news and entertainment media of his own country. Given all of that, George Bush did an astounding job in Iraq.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

census bulldogs

I ignored my first letter from the census. I also ignored my second letter from the census. Then I ignored the friendly note on my door that informed me that some census worker had been by and would I please call to schedule another stop. Then she stopped by last Saturday and I made the mistake of answering the door so I had to answer all of the dumb question.

I've never filled out a census form. For the last two censuses I was living on my own in Arizona and I don't recall even getting a form and if I did, no one ever stopped by to make sure it was filled out. I'm wondering if this special bulldog tenacity is something that the Obama administration is practicing everywhere or is it getting a slightly more tenacious effort in areas with a reliable Democrat vote.

The Democrats have been making this census a critical part of their strategic plans for a decade. Even someone like me who doesn't follow their plans that closely has seen many references to Democrat efforts to make sure that the counts in Democrat-controlled areas are high.

I didn't use to be this paranoid, but I've been paying attention to scandals since Bill Clinton, and here is the ugly truth: when a Republican gets caught doing something illegal or unethical, other Republicans call for him to resign. When a Democrat gets caught, other Democrats rush to his defense and do everything they can to keep him in power. The consequence is that dishonest people know that they are better off as Democrats than as Republicans and so corrupt and dishonest people tend to gravitate towards the Democratic party.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

affirmative action and racial profiling

Ilya Somin on the Volokh Conspiracy says that it is inconsistent to be opposed to affirmative action but in favor of racial profiling. This is one of those surface inconsistencies that only appears if you make shallow assumptions about the reasoning behind the positions. There is no inconsistency in the conservative position when you go beyond the shallow description of the policy preferences and get to the underlying reasoning. Conservatives believe that the government should be a neutral referee in society, not only in race but in religion, in wealth, in employer/employee relations, in renter/landlord relations, in buyer/seller relations, and in general (there are other areas where conservatives do not believe that the government should be neutral, but those are each individual issues).

On on the issue of race, when the government supports affirmative action it is not being neutral. It is taking sides with one group of Americans against another group of Americans. In the conservative view, affirmative action is morally wrong for much the same reasons that union-shop laws or rent-control laws are morally wrong (independently of any economic effects) and that reason is that the government is unfairly taking sides between its citizens.

By contrast, racial profiling is not an example of the government taking sides with one race against another or one religions against another. Airline security is supposed to protect all Americans of all races and religions equally. In order to do execute this task as effectively and as efficiently as possible, with the least overall burden to the public, the government should use all of the information it has available on who is likely to be a threat. If that information includes racial and religious indicators, then the government should use that information. It is not the government which is taking sides; it is nature that is taking sides. The state of the world is such that the best security practices involve profiling Muslims and people from the Middle East. For the government to take cognizance of this fact is not racist, not prejudiced, but merely pragmatic.

It is much like the alleged government failure during the Katrina disaster. This supposed failure of the federal government had a disparate effect on black people but only someone who is conspiracy-minded and creepily obsessed with race would really believe that the federal government actually intended to hurt black people. The reason that black people were disparately harmed is because more black people lived in the area. This racially disparate result was caused by brute fact, not by government choice.

It is the same in the immigration area. The purpose of immigration law is to benefit all Americans and legal American immigrants. If enforcing this law effectively has disparate consequences on one particular race, this is not the choice of the government; it is not the government that has decided to take the side of one race over another; this is just what the facts on the ground require as a form of enforcement.

The conservative position is consistent here. The government should not takes sides of one race against another, but if the government in the course of carrying out its proper functions is required to do things that happen to effect people of one race more than another, it is no concern of the government to take this into account. In all cases, the government should ignore race as a matter of government concern, and but government actors may take account of race when necessary to do their race-neutral job.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

the banality of atheism

Adam Savage, my favorite Myth Buster, is an atheist in the grand old tradition of too-smart-for-religion atheism. He recently gave a talk aimed at showing how smart and logical his world view is. Going by the comments, it seems to have been critically acclaimed by the too-smart-for-religion community, so this gives us a brief look at what these people think constitutes smartness. I decided to take this opportunity to do a little forensic analysis of their version of smartness. Adam says
I want to start by saying that, to me, any discourse from me about how one can live a moral existence without religion or the church would sound improperly defensive. That there's an opposite to be defended is absurd and based on a provably false premise. So let's dispense with that.

(To be clear: I'm referring to the humanist axiom "Good without God," whereby "good" means morality. It's provably false that there exists no morality outside of religion, therefore the statement sounds defensive to me.)
This sounds like a promise to deliver a positive disproof of the proposition that one needs religion or the church to live a moral existence. Unfortunately, Adam never delivers on his implied promise to give us a proof, so I cannot evaluate his statement that it is provable.

By what route does anyone come to believe what they believe? We all like to imagine that it's based on a set of logical facts, but it's often a much more circuitous route.

For me it was pretty simple. I'm actually the fourth generation in my family to have no practical use for the church, or God, or religion.
It sounds here like Adam is admitting that he doesn't actually base his beliefs on logic or reasoning, but isn't this admission inconsistent with his talk of proofs and his attitude of certainty and condescension?

Notice something more significant here. Adam signals that he is about to wander off of his promised subject --how an man can be moral without religion-- and onto one of the favorite topics of the too-smart-for-religion crowd --why do people less smart than us believe in religion? In fact the rest of the speech will be largely on this side topic and he will never really get back to his proposed topic.
Here are a few things I've learned.

Prayer doesn't work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening.
Adam goes on at some length, speculating that people only think that prayer works either because the act of praying focuses their attention or because the act of praying is correlated to paying attention (which of the two he intends is not clear) and that it is the attention that makes things work out. I don't think that this speculation deserves much in the way of comment. In the first place, it is just unsupported speculation. In the second place, answered prayers are not usually a significant reason for believing in God. In the third place, where answered prayer is a significant reason to believe in God it is because of the perception of something miraculous occurring --something which could not have been effected by "paying attention".
I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody's going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you're here. And when you don't, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I'm performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody's going to take care of us, it's incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That's community.
Here Adam comes back briefly to his intended topic with a bold statement of moral imperatives, but he never says why it is incumbent on us to take care of those around us --he merely asserts it. He is begging the question. He started out to tell us how moral duty can exist without religion and he has just slipped in the existence of duty as a given. Whence this moral responsibility? What does it consist of? What physical processes come together in what ways to create duty? Is duty something that radiates from matter like heat and light radiate from a glowing ember? Is it a force like magnetism that arises from the motion of charged particles, perhaps particles charged with morality? Is it an abstract state like entropy that is emergent from complex interactions of matter? What is it and how do we know about it? If you cannot answer these questions then you are not even close to explaining how duty can exist in a Godless universe.
The fiction of continuity and stability that your parents have painted for you is totally necessary for a growing child. When you realize that it's not the way the world works, it's a chilling moment. It's supremely lonely.

So I understand the desire for someone to be in charge. (As a side note, I believe that the need for conspiracy theories is similar to the need for God.) We'd all like our good and evil to be like it is in the movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it's not. It's banal.
There are several comments to make on the above quote. First with the last: there is certainly evil that is banal and it is important to acknowledge the existence of such evil, but not to the extent that one forgets about evil that is specific and horrible. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Castro --these are not just movie characters.

Second, the point about conspiracy theories coming from the religious instinct sounds plausible to me. As people give up mysticism, they do not give religion. Instead they replace mystical religious beliefs with pseudo-scientific religious beliefs. I call these "mechanical mythologies" because they are mythologies designed to be compatible with a mechanical world view. Examples are alien visitors who will be the salvation of mankind, a Marxist future history which will be the salvation of mankind, a benevolent world government which will be the salvation of mankind, evolution which will be the salvation of mankind or science which will be the salvation of mankind. In addition to the salvation mechanical mythologies, there are the adversarial mechanical mythologies such as the evil Jews who want to dominate mankind, the evil Christians who want to dominate mankind, the evil government employees who like fallen angels work within the all Good and Holy Creation of Civil Service to pervert it to evil and murderous ends --perhaps to dominate mankind.

Finally, Adam assures us that he understands the desire for someone to be in charge. This condescending gesture is a common trope of the too-smart-for-religion believers. I think that many of them actually view their ability to offer psychological theories of a religious instinct as some sort of refutation of religion. To the extent that they think this, it is unworthy of their extreme smartness. First of all, it is a capricious form of argument that can be turned in any direction with equal ease. For example: "atheists want to believe that there is no God because they fear being held responsible for their behavior". Or how about "atheists are just like high-school kids playing goth who want to be different and shocking to everyone else". Or we could reverse the argument with respect to religious people, "Religious people don't want to believe in God because they are afraid of judgment, but they believe anyway so there must be some explanation besides psychology."

Furthermore, there is no logical connection between the desire to believe something and the likelihood that that the thing is false. I want to believe that I have a hundred dollars in my wallet. Does this imply that I don't have a hundred dollars in my wallet? Does it imply that I my belief that I have a hundred dollars in my wallet is just wishful thinking? Does the fact that I would like to believe this make you think that I don't actually have sound reasons for believing it? Yes, there is such a thing as wishful thinking, but there is such a thing as pessimistic thinking too.

Yet another reason that this argument is not worthy of smart people is that hundreds of years before any atheist came up with this argument, Christians already knew that there is a religious instinct (and they used the existence of that instinct as an argument for the existence of God). Since Christian theology has a coherent and functional place for the religious instinct, the existence of this instinct cannot be used as an argument against Christianity without begging the question and assuming that Christian theology is wrong.
No one is in charge. And honestly, that's even cooler.

The idea of an ordered and elegant universe is a lovely one. One worth clinging to. But you don't need religion to appreciate the ordered existence. It's not just an idea, it's reality. We're discovering the hidden orders of the universe every day. The inverse square law of gravitation is amazing. Fractals, the theory of relativity, the genome: these are magnificently beautiful constructs.
Now this is a curious passage. Having proposed that people believe in religion because they want to believe in religion (and implying that this is a psychological malady of some sort), Adam goes on to tell us why we should want to believe in atheism. Why? If the desirability of theism is an argument against theism, isn't the desirability of atheism an argument against atheism? Is Adam being clever here and slipping in the same argument against atheism that he just made against religion?
The nearly infinite set of dominoes that have fallen into each other in order for us to be here tonight is unfathomable. Truly unfathomable. But it is logical. We don't know all the steps in that logic, but we're learning more about it every day.
Here we have Adam's statement of faith. He may not recognize it for what it is but "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" and that is what Adam appeals to here. He doesn't know how the world came to be or how we came to be or how his sense of right and wrong came to be, but he has faith that the answers are to be found in mechanical interactions of a purely natural (meaning "not spiritual") world and that science can in principle answer all questions because all things are fundamentally just things that happen in time and space and can therefore be observed and measured. And like the adherents of other many other faiths, he thinks that his faith is peculiarly right and true, and that those who cannot see it, just will not see it.
Learning, expanding our consciousness, singly and universally.

As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren't helping in that mission.
Adam doesn't name the three religions he has in mind. If he had actually said Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I would have had a lot to say about this statement, but since he is obscure and I do not want to risk putting words in his mouth, I will only assume that one of the three is Christianity (which I am certain is the case, given Adam's intellectual roots). First, what makes him think that this mission of learning and expanding consciousness is good? He has just affirmed that a man is nothing more than a flimsy bag of biochemistry, an accidental byproduct of the interaction of solar radiation with the various chemicals on the surface of a random planet, at best possessing for a brain a biological computer that evolved to make him more successful at evading predators and impregnating females, where any potential for abstract reasoning or joy is just happenstance and is irrelevant to the underlying processes. Given this, how can you possibly argue that (1) expanded consciousness has any value, (2) life itself has any value (3) random social processes (such as religions) can be judged as less or more "good"? Adam started out to answer questions along these lines, and at the end, he just assumes the truth of his thesis.
For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual (the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.
Ah. I'm a bigot. Well, we've rather quickly descended from fatherly, well-meant condescension to name-calling, haven't we? Notice that I am the bigot even though it is Adam who just assumes that I don't have any reasons for my position other than that I "close my eyes". Has he ever bothered to actually try to find out why intelligent Christians believe what they do? I am reasonably certain that I, as a man of intellectual tendencies, having grown up in a society where my teachers and professors, my news media, my favorite SciFi authors, the writers of the majority of my science, mathematics, and philosophy books, and the majority of my most highly-educated friends all think I have a silly and archaic faith, that I with that background have done considerably more introspection and thinking on these matters than most of the too-smart-to-be-religious people have. When one of these people, many of whom have never met a serious intellectual challenge to their own beliefs tells me that I "close my eyes", I take exception.

As to the "abuses of power by some of their leaders", I have no idea what Adam means by this. Christian leaders outside of the Catholic church have little power and the only arguable "abuse of power" I can think of involving the Catholic church is the cover ups when homosexual priests seduced teenage boys (and once Catholics found out about that one they certainly did not ignore it), but I should not have to defend Christians against vague accusations like this. I could just as easily make vague accusations against atheists by veiled references to the excesses of Communist mass murders, terrorism, suppression of science and other things. Adam is not offering an argument here, he is bonding with his fellow too-smart-to-be-religious-ers. They will all bring to mind their own pet peeves and all nod sagely as if they were thinking of the same offenses.
Now, just to be clear. If you want to believe, or find solace in believing, that someone or something set these particular dominoes in motion—a cosmic finger tipping the balance and then leaving everything else to chance—I can't say anything to that. I don't know.
And yet he does say something to that, almost as if he thinks he does know...
Though a primary mover is the most complex and thus (given Occam's razor) the least likely of all possible solutions to the particular problem of how we got here, I can't prove it true or false, and there's nothing to really discuss about it.
The primary mover is also the only solution that is actually a solution. Every naturalist solution ever offered, when you press it far enough, eventually comes down to, "that's just what happens". This is not a solution in the normal meaning of the word.
If Daniel Dennett is right— that there's a human genetic need for religion— then I'd like to imagine that my atheism is proof of evolutionary biology in action.
This is a common conceit of the too-smart-for-relgions people, but it doesn't make much sense. Evolution is random mutation with selection by survival and reproduction. If atheism is a "proof of evolutionary biology in action" then it is a proof that atheism is not a survival trait because it is not a growing characteristic of the population. In fact it seems to have be declining. But even if it were a survival trait, that would not make it true.
At the end of The Eagle's Gift, Don Juan reveals to his student that there's no point to existence. That we're given our brief 70-100 years of consciousness by something the mystics call "The Eagle," named for it's cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our consciousness right back up again.

He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they're granted, attempt to widen their consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one's life.

And that, to me, is a fine mission.
Adam fantasizes that we are created by some cold, killer supernatural being and raised like poultry to sate its malignant appetites. Adam is happy to cooperate and make himself a nice tidbit for this creature and to have no other purpose in life. This hideous specter is the best that Adam Savage can come up with as a reason to live. His religious instinct is at war with his beliefs. He yearns for a greater meaning, for a purpose validated by a greatness that is beyond himself, and so he sees beauty in the ghastly nightmare of being consumed by a malicious god. Being consumed, contributing to the cycle of life --that is a noble end for an animal, but not for a man. A man is too great a thing --in potential-- to be simply a bit of spiritual protein in some grand cosmic ecosystem. God created us to know this instinctively, but when we reject the possibility that there could be a Creator who cares personally about us as individuals, then we are reduced to such pathetic fantasies as this --to end up a tidbit in the maw of some uncaring, unloving, alien thing, with no greater goal to our brief existence than to provide a really satisfying cosmic belch after the final repast. How evil. How banal.
Acknowledgment: I found the link to the speech here.