29 August 2005

- Katrina -

I should be preparing for classes today, but instead I'm transfixed by the coverage of Katrina. Eeeeek! I've been flipping between The Weather Channel and CNN, as well as the various websites.

28 August 2005

- Evolution -

Daniel Dennett has a great ed-op piece on evolution in this morning's NY Times. It's just the sort of thing that is needed at the moment.

- Overenrolled -

I checked the registration for my graduate "seminar" Friday: 18 students. I was assigned the course rather late and forgot to check on the enrollment cap. To add to the problems, we had a larger than usual crop of new students, and they had to be signed into the course. In any case, the seminar will work better if I have more like 12 students, so I sent out the syllabus early. It has an extraordinarily heavy workload, which will allow the students to see what they are getting into. I'm hoping that more than a few of them will decide that this is more than they bargained for.

27 August 2005

- Friday Shuffle (Late Edition) -

  1. Begin the Beguine—Artie Shaw
  2. Hero Worship—The B52's
  3. Spread Your Wings—Queen
  4. "The Girl Hunt" Ballet from The Band Wagon
  5. Boog It—Cab Calloway
  6. It's All Too Much—The Beatles
  7. Mamma Mia—Abba
  8. Don't Worry Baby—The Beach Boys
  9. West End Blues—Louis Armstrong
  10. Chiquita—Abba

24 August 2005

- G-d Help Us All -

And this man is what passes for a devout Christian these days.

- The Book Proposal -

As I reported last week, I sent my book proposal off. The guidelines for submission were very clear: send a detailed proposal and one chapter. The chapter is in good shape. I showed the proposal around to get feedback, and everyone liked it. So I really felt good about it, not the least because I knew that I wouldn't have to deal with it until the readers' reports came in.

At least that's what I thought.

I opened my email yesterday morning and found a letter from the press saying they really liked what I sent them, but could you, ah, send more of the manuscript please. Well, that sucks, especially at this time of year, when I'm trying to get courses up and running. In fact, I have about half the manuscript completed. The problems: (1) none of it has been adequately sourced; (2) each of the other chapters has significant gaps in it; (3) while there are significant chunks of coherent material, the large-scale organization of the material for most of the chapters remains less than clear; (4) none of the writinng has been edited for consistency and repetition; and (5) much of it at this point would be quite obscure to anyone who hasn't dealt in a very detailed way with this material.

So I'm really wondering what I should do. I plan to spend today—my last free day before school starts—going over the extent material to see exactly what state the various chapters are in. Given that I have to give a talk on something I know essentially nothing about in mid-October (ah, the things you do for friendship...), will it be possible for me to pull together another chapter by the end of September? If so, which chapter is in the best shape?

Yes, I've got a long day ahead of me.

23 August 2005

- School Daze -

I have my first official task of the semester today: administering and grading the entrance exam. Advising follows quickly on its heels, starting on Thursday; then a faculty meeting a week from today, with classes beginning the day after. So today essentially marks the first day of the semester.

I'm not at all ready for the semester to begin. I'm still finishing off the syllabus. I've got one class more or less set, aside from xeroxing the articles for the course packet. Hopefully, I won't run into the same trouble as Camicao. Given the number of solicitations I've received from area copy shops, I don't imagine this will be a problem. Still, it's something to worry about in the future. (Why put off worrying tomorrow what you can worry about today!) The other class is still in a nascent state. I have the books ordered, but I haven't yet assembled the course packet nor even decided on the course schedule. I've been putting this one off because I'm reusing the first unit of the course more or less intact from last time I ran it. But I did a really silly thing and decided it would be a good thing to overhaul the course as a whole. Why do these things always seem like a good idea in prospect but never in actuality!

22 August 2005

- Unintelligent Design -

As I've been reading all these recent news articles on intelligent design (there's another one in the NY Times this morning), I can't help but be struck by the parallels with geocentrism. With geocentrism, it's possible to account for most if not all astronomical events. Heck, if you're clever enough you can even do it using only circular orbits (which allows you to build those neat little mechanical models of the solar system). But it's all so—well ad hoc, and a heliocentric view with eliptical orbits is just mathematically so much simpler and parsimonious, why bother? Of course, we can claim that G-d is really, really, really obsessed with the perfection of circles, but wouldn't that make G-d into a rather silly diety?

It's similar with intelligent design. Ok, you can probably account for most variation using it—actually, I'm quite sure you can, miracles, being after all miracles. But explanations that depend on miracles and the mysteriousness of G-d are all pretty much ad hoc. And because a diety substitutes for scientific principle, the whole system becomes completely arbitrary. On this count, I must say I loved this bit from today's article:

Other studies that intelligent design theorists cite in support of their views have been done by Dr. Axe of the Biologic Institute.

In one such study, Dr. Axe looked at a protein, called penicillinase, that gives bacteria the ability to survive treatment with the antibiotic penicillin. Dr. Meyer, of the Discovery Institute, has referred to Dr. Axe's work in arguing that working proteins are so rare that evolution cannot by chance discover them.

What was the probability, Dr. Axe asked in his study, of a protein with this ability existing in the universe of all possible proteins?

Ok, so what kind of diety is this that would unleash penicillin resistant bacteria on the world???

Yes, indeed, G-d works in mysterious ways.

21 August 2005

- The Work of Discovery -

An interesting article in this morning's New York Times on the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that has played a large role in pushing intelligent design. Predictably, the Times gives a much more sympathetic spin to Discovery's mission than it deserves. Here, too, the institute is savvy in understanding that the Times science reporting valorizes those who tilt against scientific consensus, so that's the angle that Discovery's spokespeople took.

Nevertheless, the article is full of interesting observations

Pushing a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution, the institute has in many ways transformed the debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.

In cases like this, I always say following the money. So who is funding the institute? Some of it comes from the usual places, but there's this startling revelation:

A closer look shows a multidimensional organization, financed by missionary and mainstream groups - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides $1 million a year, including $50,000 of Mr. Chapman's $141,000 annual salary - and asserting itself on questions on issues as varied as local transportation and foreign affairs.

Yup, good ol' Micro$oft

There is also the AMDG Foundation in Virginia, run by Mark Ryland, a Microsoft executive turned Discovery vice president.

Here's a bit more:

The institute also has support from secular groups like the Verizon Foundation and the Gates Foundation, which gave $1 million in 2000 and pledged $9.35 million over 10 years in 2003. Greg Shaw, a grant maker at the Gates Foundation, said the money was "exclusive to the Cascadia project" on regional transportation.

Given the fungibility of money, it's highly questionable whether such "exclusivity" is possible. I also have to ask why the Cascadia project would fall under the auspices of the institute? Predictably, the reporter didn't pursue the issue. But it strikes me as highly suspicious. A means to give the "mainstream groups" a cover for their donations perhaps?

To get back to the primary mission of the institute, which is to promote intelligent design. So how do they go about doing it?

Since its founding in 1996, the science center has spent 39 percent of its $9.3 million on research, Dr. Meyer said, underwriting books or papers, or often just paying universities to release professors from some teaching responsibilities so that they can ponder intelligent design. Over those nine years, $792,585 financed laboratory or field research in biology, paleontology or biophysics, while $93,828 helped graduate students in paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy.

The 40 fellows affiliated with the science center are an eclectic group, including David Berlinski, an expatriate mathematician living in Paris who described his only religion to be "having a good time all the time," and Jonathan Wells, a member of the Unification Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who once wrote in an essay, "My prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism."

Their credentials - advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California - are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

"They're interested in the same things I'm interested in - no one else is," Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. "What I'm doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It's not something a 'scientist' is supposed to do." Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

"I believe that God created the universe," Dr. Gonzalez said. "What I don't know is whether that evidence can be tested objectively. I ask myself the tough questions."

I suppose we can take some comfort that Discovery feels it still has to have the appearance of science. But note where the graduate student funding is going. Not into biology, but into paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy. That tells us where the institute sees the future course of its "science." Yet that also suggests that the institute will use an appeal to the interdisciplinary to undermine the separation between the natural and the supernatural, the separation on which modern science is based.

Once again, the right seems so adroit at appropriating and instrumentalizing current academic fashion. They did this before with postmodernism, and we ended up with this lovely alternative reality of Bushworld. Now apparently the same thing is happening with interdisciplarity. What we treat as a mere intellectual plaything, the right works on politicizing. Our best defense in this case—the insistence on firm disciplinary boundaries—makes us into academic conservatives. Oh, the irony.

19 August 2005

- See the Future: EPIC -

Via Terminal Degree.

Not sure whether this is incredibly funny or incredibly scary.

- Friday Shuffle -

  1. California Girls (Beach Boys)
  2. Express Yourself (Madonna)
  3. I Must Have That Man (Billie Holiday)
  4. Pink on the Inside (Sarah Hickman)
  5. The Name of the Game (Abba)
  6. Two-Faced Woman (India Adams, The Band Wagon)
  7. Every Little Thing She Does (The Police)
  8. Paradise Hotel (Eliza Gilkyson)
  9. Boplicity (Miles Davis)
  10. Beethoven, op. 135, III

17 August 2005

- Online At Last -

Phone's back. DSL's back. Yay!

- EEEEEK!!!! -

Brought our cars in for oil changes yesterday and today, and between the two of them, we're looking at $1500 in repairs. Yikes! Maybe we shouldn't have bought those iPods...

16 August 2005

- A Full Day -

Lots to report today.

The good news: Judu started up school—she's now Judy J., First Grader. Spouse and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. We went out for a nice lunch on the lake. We also gave each other iPod minis. As it turns out, we each bought one for the other without knowing that one was coming our way too!

The bad news: There's still a big hole in our yard, and our phone and DSL remain out of service. As you can imagine, this is really getting irritating!

15 August 2005

- Comment Spam -

I just got hit by a couple. Blech.

- There's Still a Big Hole In Our Yard -

Yes, the stupid phone company still hasn't fixed our line or DSL. This morning I used our neighbor's phone to call repair services. The woman I talked to said she wasn't sure we'd have our phone and DSL back until Wednesday! Grrrrrrr. Apparently, the phone company has trouble getting contractors to work for them in the area where I live. Maybe, you should pay them better, ya think? Ain't that covered in Capitalism 101, right there after "screw the customer first"?

To top things off, the cell network started flaking out this morning and still isn't working. So much for the technological revolution...

12 August 2005

- There's a Big Hole In Our Yard -

Well, yesterday the excavators came and dug a big hole in our yard to get at the phone line. Apparently, we had a splice go bad. We still have a big hole in our yard, as the phone company has yet to send someone out to fix the splice. In the meantime, I'm still in limited posting mode, though I think I'll go to the coffee shop later in the day and try to get caught up on all your blogs. As it is, I've been stealing a very iffy wireless signal from the neighbors.

11 August 2005

- Still Down -

The phone's out, the DSL is down. Grrrrr. It was supposed to be fixed yesterday, but it poured rain, so the crews couldn't get out. Maybe today. Limited posting (and reading) until it gets fixed.

10 August 2005


DSL is down. Waaaaaaah!

05 August 2005

- Policing Borders -

Our govenment at work:

New Requirements for Travelers Between the United States and the Western Hemisphere

Travelers to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, Mexico and Canada will be required to have a passport or other secure, accepted document to enter or re-enter the United States. This is a change from prior travel requirements and will affect all United States citizens entering the United States from countries within the Western Hemisphere who do not currently possess valid passports. This new requirement will also affect certain foreign nationals who currently are not required to present a passport to travel to the United States. Most Canadian citizens, citizens of the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda, and to a lesser degree, Mexican citizens will be affected by the implementation of this requirement.

Gee, I really feel soooo much safer.

04 August 2005

- A Few Good Scriptwriters -

The ultimate product placement:

At a cost of roughly $25,000 in Pentagon research grants, the American Film Institute is cramming this eclectic group of midcareer researchers, engineers, chemists and physicists full of pointers on how to find their way in a world that can be a lot lonelier than the loneliest laboratory: the wilderness of story arcs, plot points, pitching and the special circle of hell better known as development.


Exactly how the national defense could be bolstered by setting a few more people loose in Los Angeles with screenplays to peddle may be a bit of a brainteaser. But officials at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research spell out a straightforward syllogism:

Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering. While immigrants are taking up the slack in many areas, defense laboratories and industries generally require American citizenship or permanent residency. So a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular, said Robert J. Barker, an Air Force program manager who approved the grant. And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies and television shows that depict scientists in flattering ways?

Funny, I would have thought that investing in education would be a better way to ensure a necessary supply of scientists. Interest, after all, accrues proportional to the investment.

03 August 2005

- Life at the Coffeehouse -

Right on top of Monday's break-up spectacle, this morning the coffeehouse was time for a scintillating hour of Christianity Today. At the table next to me, this middle-aged fellow spent the whole show subjecting a bleary-eyed Japanese student to a sermon on the love of Christ. It was so patronizing, the theology completely insipid. Yet like Monday's program, it was hard not to listen—sort of like driving by an accident where you can't help but gape.

Still, Christianity Today is such an irritating program. Why can't these people just shut up for a minute, put more of their energy into feeding the poor and less into massaging their own egos? Evangalizing by example would be so much more effective. But that form of evangalizing would also require real sacrifice. Can't have that today, can we, since everyone knows that Jesus died so that that none of us have to make the least sacrifice—except of course those poor, poor souls not among G-d's Elect and so deserve exactly what they get. It's not our fault: we have no reason to feel guilty or act to alleviate their suffering, if G-d's fortune does not smile on them.

This lack of sacrifice, a void filled by the insertion of stern discipline: therein lies the secret bond between Christianity Today and contemporary politics.

01 August 2005

- Public Break-ups -

I'm sitting in the coffee shop at the moment, trying not to listen to a couple breaking-up in the worst way—shouting, crying, etc. This is the second time in the last year that I've had this experience. Have coffee shops become, like the place to break-up? Do I just not get why people would choose to break-up so publicly in this way? Is it because doing it in public is safer and more final?

- The Weather -

Running2k has a really interesting post about the pleasures of bad weather. Growing up in Minnesota, I know well the "pleasures" of blizzards—the howling wind, the icy roads that can quickly turn driving into a demolition derby, the phalanx of snow plows driving down the interstate breaking up the immense drifts that quickly form. I have so many memories of blizzards that I could go on forever—doing a full 360 on the interstate, winding up on the side of the road, with nobody hurt and the car able to go on its way; 18 inches of snow one night that took two full days for street crews to clear, only to be hit that night with another storm that dumped 24 inches; snow in the front yard that went higher than 6 feet and 10 feet out next to the street, where the snow plows dump their snow——but the blizzard I most remember happen when I was living in Indiana.

Now, the part of Indiana I lived in is not really prepared for large amounts of snow, relying on the sun to do most of the road clearing. But that wasn't the worst of it. No, the houses are not really insulated for cold temperatures, and the house we lived in was leakier than most. So one night, an artic cold front came through, pushing temperatures down to record lows— -34°F. The cats and I (Spouse was off at a conference) spent the night huddled directly over the heating grate closest to the furnace with heavy blankets on—and it was still cold, cold, damn, damn cold. It really made me nostalgic for those Minnesota blizzards...

On the opposite extreme, I've seen a tornado once and funnel clouds more than once. Southern Indiana, of course, has extremely impressive thunderstorms and gets its fair share of tornados. Though they stayed away from our immediate vicinity, we had three small ones hit the town we lived in while we were there, and I did see any number of funnel clouds. In Minnesota, however, I actually experienced one first hand.

For those of you who have not had the the joy of experiencing one, tornadic weather is very creepy, the whole air feels funny, very heavy, sometimes with cool drafts shooting through it. During the day, the sky looks weird, usually a strange grey or black, with definite overtones of a sickly green.

The tornado I experienced is perhaps the most bizarre spectacle I've witnessed in my entire life. I was about 12, and Dad and I were on our way to play golf. As we drove toward the course, the sky looked stranger and stranger. Then, we spotted a potential funnel cloud, so we turned around and headed home. Just as we arrived in the driveway, the sirens went off, and we took cover under the basement stairs. I remember the sound as extraordinarily loud, though it was nothing like the freight train tornados are often compared to.

As is often the case, the tornado itself was on the trailing edge of the storm. But unlike most such storms, this one was followed by bright sunlight, not a cloud in sky. So when all was finally quiet and we could see through the windows that it was now sunny, we came out to see what, if any, damage the storm had done. As it turned out, the tornado had passed within 200 feet of our house, so debris strewn everywhere—clothes, insulation, a doll, etc.—but that wasn't the spectacle.

We lived on the edge of a smallish farming community, and the tornado had stopped about a mile out of town in a field of corn. I mean stopped. The tornado had not gone away. No, it had just stopped, as if to take a final bow and let us admire it in all its glory. So there it was, sitting under bright blue skies, dust rising from the ground, its funnel glistening white specked with the bright colors of wreckage spinning merrily about. If it was a most bizzare spectacle, it was also intensely beautiful.

- UN-Appointment -

So much for advise and consent.