02/17/13

Perfect Sense


Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

~~~~~

* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

02/16/13

On being a left wing pinko socialist


Amazon.My left-wing, pro-union friends would be amused to hear me called a “leftie.” They generally think of me as right as Steven Harper. The only difference to them, I suppose, is my unwillingness to sell Canada to the highest corporate bidder (Chinese or American…). My right-wing friends think I’m somewhere between Karl Marx and the late Jack Layton.

I’ve always thought of myself as a “political agnostic.” Probably due to years in the media where cynicism about politicians and politicians is rife. I pursue humanist goals,* not party goals. I simply have no faith in party politics.

I don’t see this as a refusal to take sides, merely a refusal to be drawn into the herd mentality of party politics. I take sides over issues, not over ideologies (which are akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). Sometimes I side with the government; other times with the opposition. It depends on how I understand the issue, and on my conscience, not what colour of party card I own.

Party politics are to social reality what creationism or astrology are to science. Parties do not give us, nor have they ever given us, a foolproof guide for economic, social or cultural pathfinding. All party platforms are fundamentally flawed because they always devolve down to being soapboxes for the party leader’s personal agendas. And as Lord Acton wrote,

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

I like municipal politics because they are, at least in small centres like Collingwood, free of the partisan squabbles we see at provincial and federal levels (barring, of course, a recent term). Party politics and municipal governance are a toxic, self-destructive mix that distracts councils from the real, local issues into shadowboxing over irrelevant ones.

Like most Canadians, I hover somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. Centrist, but not personally bound to any party. I can’t think of any party that has a platform I completely endorse, or one that has a platform I entirely reject. There are good and bad in all.**

Not only that, but policies and platforms shift over time. The Conservative policies under Diefenbaker were very different party than those under Harper, for example. The NDP of Broadbent and the NDP under Mulcair are different animals.

Question authority

Blind allegiance to party ends up being blind allegiance to the leader and his or her personal agendas. Political wisdom means you have to question authority, and challenge bad ideas. In party politics, that’s not allowed.

When I vote it is on how the candidates respond to questions, debate issues and appear to think on their feet – not how well they spout the party line. I try to judge political figures as individuals, not by their platform. I expect them to be credible, honest, logical, intelligent, and not ideological. I won’t vote for anyone who doesn’t have an open, questing and nimble mind (although sometimes the choice of local candidate isn’t always among intellectual giants…).

I am more concerned about what is promised for the greater good; what policies and legislation will benefit local residents, Ontarians or Canadians most, rather than which will best reinforce the party line.

To me party politics is a lot like religion: too much blind faith, not enough skepticism or secularism. Blind adherence to a platform is what has led Americans into their current quagmire. Far, far too many ideologues on both sides. It makes it impossible to accomplish anything in the US without an overwhelming majority.***

All that being said, Canada is a moderately socialist country in that we translate European humanist values into policy and law: we have general (but far from universal) health care, a modest welfare and social assistance system (despite Steven’s attempts to relegate the poor to workhouses…), a common educational system, a legal support system, a national broadcaster (despite Steven’s efforts to muzzle it), collective bargaining (also under siege) and we still have a modicum of control over our banks and (less so) corporations. These institutions and policies make up the core values of being a Canadian. Any attack on them is an attack on our identity, so I will always side with those who defend them.

~~~~~

* More properly, secular humanism, which Wikipedia notes, “…posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the humanist life stance emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions.” I would also call it Buddhist politics: “The Buddhist approach to political power is the moralization and the responsible use of public power.The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.” However, my approach to Buddhism is very secular and not religious; more along the lines of Batchelor and Flanagan.

** Well, perhaps the Tea Party can be excused from that statement, because I can’t think of a single good, logical, humanist thing in their platform.
A shining example of the good-and-bad paired in a party policy is the Ontario Liberals’ policy on green energy. The thrust is good (alternative energy is basically a good cause), but the implementation – including the lack of municipal input into the process – has been bad and very contentious. I really like Tim Hudak’s Ontario PC promise to reform the “alphabet soup” of redundant, interfering and excessive government agencies, but his promise to scrap existing green energy deals is economically foolish and counterproductive. Good and bad in both parties’ platforms.

*** From a Canadian point of view, the two US parties are both right wing; one (the Democrats) is just less right than the other. To label the Democrats “left-wing” let alone “socialist” shows a misunderstanding of the terminology. It is better to use alternative terms that relate to policies or proposed legislation such as pro-people (Democrat) versus pro-corporation (Republican), pro-middle-class (Dem) vs pro-rich (Rep), pro-gun-control (Dem) vs pro-weapons-manufacturers (Rep) and so on, when describing the differences.
The parties are also split along religious lines (the Republicans put much greater stock in promoting into law a particular subset of fundamentalist Christian values). I personally don’t like the Republican platform or most of its representatives because I am adamant about the separation of church and state.
Republican policies, too, are clearly aimed at benefitting the rich and the corporations rather than the American people and that offends my humanist views.
Many of the GOP members are, frankly, as smart as a bag of nails. So are some of the Democrats, but not nearly as many. I respect intelligence, not blind faith. So yes, I tend to side with the Democrats more than the Republicans because they make more sense and show they care more about the people they represent.

02/16/13

Albert and the Lion


Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

02/15/13

ID’s deep roots in creationism


Fundamentalist folliesProponents of creationism often try to deny that “intelligent” design (ID) is merely creationism wrapped in a fake lab coat to make it look like it’s pals with science. It isn’t. They’re not buddies, didn’t go to school together, and don’t ‘like’ each others Facebook pages.

ID is merely a tawdry, paper-thin attempt to hoodwink the gullible who can’t see past the plastic pocket protector that there’s a bible in the pocket. In part this is because the popular notion of what a theory is has devolved into a synonym for guess or an unproven assumption. But that’s not the scientific meaning of the word: “…a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science… Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.” Scientific method

ID is not even a hypothesis: it’s a statement of faith and its pseudo-scientific arguments have been well-debunked on better sites than this (i.e. Skeptico). It starts with belief and looks for ways to prove it, rejecting anything that counters that preconceived theology.
creationism masquerading as ID

The National Center of Science Education defines ID this way:

“Intelligent Design” creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
IDC proponents usually avoid explicit references to God, attempting to present a veneer of secular scientific inquiry. IDC proponents introduced some new phrases into anti-evolution rhetoric, such as “irreducible complexity” (Michael Behe: Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) and “specified complexity” (William Dembski: The Design Inference, 1998), but the basic principles behind these phrases have long histories in creationist attacks on evolution. Underlying both of these concepts, and foundational to IDC itself, is an early 19th century British theological view, the “argument from design.”

Despite angry denials from creationist supporters that ID is not the same, and instead ID is a form of scientific research, that’s balderdash. It’s the “wedge” strategy- the ID movement’s published methods for inserting their religious content into the secular world.
Creationist bingo

All they’ve done is use cut-n-paste to replace terms like creationism in their documents with scientific-sounding phrases like “intelligent” design. They haven’t changed the core religious nature of their argument. Common Sense Atheism documents this as a clumsy, but failed attempt to mislead the reader:

…consider how the term “intelligent design” was born. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “creation science” could not be taught in public schools because it advances a particular religion. That same year, a Creationist textbook called Of Pandas and People had been published using terms like “creationism” over 150 times. But after the defeat of Creationism in court, the editors replaced every instance of “creationism” with “intelligent design” and every instance of “creationists” with “design proponents.” In one case, part of the original term, “creationists,” was left behind by the editing process, rendering “cdesign proponentsists”… That the editors merely replaced “creationism” with the new term “intelligent design” is abundantly obvious when one compares various drafts of Of Pandas and People (originally called Biology and Creation)…

ID supporters universally identify the need for a “designer” as the mechanic behind the curtain, and all say it’s their own particular Christian deity. Wikipedia notes:

Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank. The Institute defines it as the proposition that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins” rather than “a religious-based idea”. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity.

A designer, logically, has to be a deity* but why only this particular one? I have yet to run across a single ID proponent who will say that designer is Shiva. Or Kali. Or Moloch. Or Ra. Or Odin. Or Zeus. Why not each one working as a team (because there’s no God in team)? All of the hundreds of other deities (thousands?) in world mythologies and religions are ignored and just one is elected as the only possible designer: the hairy thunderer of the New Testament. Not only are non-Christians excluded from ID, but so are Catholics. Only fundamentalist literalist Christians need apply.

Creationism poster

As Wikipedia also notes:

Scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design would require redefining science to allow supernatural explanations of observed phenomena, an approach its proponents describe as theistic realism or theistic science.

In other words, yes kids, Santa Claus really does put those presents under the Xmas trees of good children every year, millions of them simultaneously, all over the world, delivered from a sleigh that travels faster than light and, while seemingly small, actually has an infinite storage capacity. Never mind those wrapped boxes you found at the back of the closet last week. Those aren’t proof of another, more logical explanation of how the presents arrive. Belief is more important than observation, so don’t question our explanation. We’ll tell you what you need to know.
Creationist continuum
As noted in another article on the NSCE website:

Following creationist tradition, IDC proponents accept natural selection but deny that mutation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of one kind to another, such as chordates from echinoderms or humans and chimps from a common ancestor. The emergence of major anatomical body types and the origin of life, to choose just two examples popular among IDC followers, are phenomena supposedly too complex to be explained naturally; thus, IDC demands that a role be left for the intelligent designer — God.

About.com sums it up very well:

Intelligent Design is, like all other creationist movements, more about politics and religion than about science. Where Intelligent Design differs is that it was originally and deliberately conceived in explicitly political terms whereas earlier creationist movements tended to acquire political goals and principles over time. This is very important to understand because it reveals as false the pretensions of Intelligent Design apologists that they are involved in a scientific enterprise.

The US judicial system recognized the similarity between the two, as well (see this article). Judge Jones noted in the Dover School case:

ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism. One significant difference is that the words “God,” “creationism,” and “Genesis” have been systematically purged from ID explanations, and replaced by an unnamed “designer.”
Demonstrative charts introduced through Dr. [Barbara] Forrest show parallel arguments relating to the rejection of naturalism, evolution’s threat to culture and society, “abrupt appearance” implying divine creation, the exploitation of the same alleged gaps in the fossil record, the alleged inability of science to explain complex biological information like DNA, as well as the theme that proponents of each version of creationism merely aim to teach a scientific alternative to evolution to show its “strengths and weaknesses,” and to alert students to a supposed “controversy” in the scientific community. In addition, creationists made the same argument that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum supported creationism as Professors Behe and Minnich now make for ID.

ID cartoon
Talkreason.org has many good articles critiquing ID, but this one is particularly good because it deconstructs a description from the “Discovery Institute” (the political and religious organization that developed and promotes ID, and spreads the wedge):

Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.

You can’t research an act of god. Any god. What happens when you find something you can’t fully explain or understand? IDers would assign it to “the designer” then move on. Scientists would investigate further to try and provide an answer that doesn’t involve a supernatural cause. They would look to see what existing laws, theories or hypotheses are related and whether they apply. They would test, then retest, and test again until something made sense, long after IDers had shrugged their shoulders and given up looking.
ID trial arguments
ID is, like the notion of the flat earth, based not on observation, research and experimentation, but simply on blind faith.
Intelligent geography
Why would ID deserve any more research that, say, phrenology? ID has already decided the answer, so anything scientists find that explains outside that answer will be rejected by the IDers. They already start by rejecting science – evolution, cosmology, biology.
Common Sense Atheism does allow that creationism and ID are, semantically, different terms (although joined at the hip by their theological basis):

Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.
In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence… Remember, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are just words. They mean whatever we say they mean.

I agree, but I prefer to call it “ID creationism” so that the concept is not mis-identified by those who are not aware of the historical or political origins of the ID movement, and somehow mistakenly think that ID is actually something scientific.It isn’t. It’s claptrap masquerading as an “alternative” to science. Why should we pretend otherwise?

Watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on PBS. See more from NOVA.

~~~~~
* Clearly the whole argument fails if you don’t believe in this or any other deity. If it wasn’t Ganesh who made the world and all the cute bunnies and squirrels, then I ain’t buying it… but you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution: a modest education, and an open mind are all you need.

02/14/13

Maybe some people are just dense…


Not a tin foil hat...Story in today’s Science Daily: Why Some People Don’t Learn Well: EEG Shows Insufficient Processing of Information to Be Learned. While you might initially want to say “because they’re stupid,” (or Republicans), the authors reach a different conclusion. It may be that some people just don’t process information efficiently:

…the main problem is not that learning processes are inefficient per se, but that the brain insufficiently processes the information to be learned.

Which made me think…. it’s like eating. If you don’t chew your food sufficiently, it doesn’t get digested as well. I know a lot of people who don’t chew their data very well and get intellectual gas after every PowerPoint presentation… but perhaps it’s the way that data is presented (infographics and data visualization can really change the way people absorb content). Maybe if we presented the data differently we wouldn’t be subject to so much online wind…

But what about multitasking? Do people who multitask lose the ability to learn because their sensory attention is flitting about all over the place? I multitask all the time. Is it a bad proposition? Does multitasking actually make you stupid? Scary thought. Consider that we all do it – driving is a multitasking experience with several tons of metal at your disposal.

I guess it all depends on your alpha waves. The higher your alpha activity is, the researchers suggest, the better you learn (reminder: find a way to check own alpha wave activity):

A high level of alpha activity counts as a marker of the readiness of the brain to exploit new incoming information. Conversely, a strong decrease of alpha activity during sensory stimulation counts as an indicator that the brain processes stimuli particularly efficiently. The results, therefore, suggest that perception-based learning is highly dependent on how accessible the sensory information is. The alpha activity, as a marker of constantly changing brain states, modulates this accessibility.

So maybe you need to kick yourself under the table while learning in order to digest the intellectual gruel better? Well, not everyone. Some folks just don’t learn very well to start with. It’s genetic:

How well we learn depends on genetic aspects, the individual brain anatomy, and, not least, on attention.

And maybe it’s cultural or social. Are those kids with the TV-fed attention span of a gnat slow learners as a result? And if so, can kicking them under the table help get their flitty little brains into gear? Maybe. Even if it doesn’t I know some parents who will enjoy the kicking anyway. But some of those kids learn very well in other areas (like spatial mapping for first-person shooter games).

In the experiment, patients received mild electrical stimulation for 30 minutes before engaging on a learning experience. Then they were put through the learning gauntlet. It seemed to helped most of them learn better. But the experimenters also found that:

The higher the alpha activity before the passive training, the better the people learned. In addition, the more the alpha activity decreased during passive training, the more easily they learned.

Which suggests to me that the ones already disposed towards learning (alpha highs, better attention span) start with an advantage, and the 30-minute sensory interlude acted like a meditation session; calming and slowing down the alphas and providing focus. Gee, Buddhists have know that for a couple of millenia.

It doesn’t explain, however, why some folks can apply critical thinking (i.e. skepticism, analysis, logic) to what they learn and others are so gullible they consume claptrap like creationism, homeopathy and phrenology without question. All learning is not equal. Like the Kalama Sutra (the Buddhist doctrine on free inquiry) says:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

This is the motto of my own life: in essence, question everything. Don’t accept blindly. Don’t believe blindly. I would never have become one of Hoffer’s “true believers.”

Learning (and retaining) also may have something to do with the way we’re taught. According to this post on Psychotactics.com, we only retain a portion of what we learn based on both how it is presented and how it it is used:

To summarize the numbers (which sometimes get cited differently) learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.

As a voracious reader, I’d have to challenge that statistic, at least from my own experience. I like to think I retain a lot from what I read (mostly nonfiction).

So what do you need to do to retain what you’ve learned? Here’s the author’s advice:

So how do you avoid losing 90% of what you’ve learned?
Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc. (I wrote this article, ten minutes after reading these statistics online).

In other words, share it, debate it, challenge it. Good advice.* That’s often what I do here: I read something, then dissect it as I write about it in this blog. I read my posts to my wife, who then challenges me, corrects me and reinforces me. Or sometimes tells me I’m full of codswallop… but that never stopped me from writing about it.

So now it’s off to eBay to look for an alpha-wave monitor…

~~~~~

* Okay, he also says (read his post for the details):

The next time you pick up a book or watch a video, remember this .
Listening or reading something is just listening or reading.
It’s not real learning.
Real learning comes from making mistakes.
And mistakes come from implementation.
And that’s how you retain 90% of everything you learn.

I would like to debate with him about his conclusions.

02/12/13

Or maybe doomsday just postponed…


A story in Science Daily today talks about the effect that antibiotics used in animals has had on humans. Or rather, on antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are dangerous to humans.

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, is mirrored by the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs, effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases — in animals and humans.

Now this is hardly news. Concerns over unchecked use of antibiotics in farm animals have been raised for decades. The antibiotics have been working their way through the system and back into the environment where they came back to haunt us. As noted in this story,

Waters polluted by the ordure of pigs, poultry, or cattle represent a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes, both known and potentially novel. These resistance genes can be spread among different bacterial species by bacteriophage, bacteria-infecting viruses, according to a paper in the October Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“We found great quantities of bacteriophages carrying different antibiotic resistance genes in waters with fecal pollution from pigs, cattle, and poultry,” says Maite Muniesa of the University of Barcelona, Spain, an author on the study. “We demonstrated that the genes carried by the phages were able to generate resistance to a given antibiotic when introduced into other bacteria in laboratory conditions,” says Muniesa.

The Animal Health Institute assures us antibiotics are necessary to keep us safe:

Because antibiotic resistance is a public health concern, several layers of protection have been put in place to ensure that animal antibiotics do not affect public health.

But our concerns isn’t as great here as it is with one of our primary food suppliers: China. As Science Daily reports:

A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics — and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.
On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples…

Pretty scary. Environment Canada has commented on how antibiotics and other drugs fed to animals get into the environment:

The primary contaminants associated with manure include nitrate and ammonia, coliform bacteria, phosphorus, endocrine disrupters and other animal pharmaceuticals. Both the land use and waste management practices commonly employed on farms throughout Canada have impaired the quality of water resources on a regional basis (Rudolph et al. 1998). In a recent survey of farm drinking wells in Ontario, approximately one well in three was found to contain at least one contaminant commonly associated with agricultural activities, including nitrate or bacteria…

The risk is that these antibiotic-resistant microbes spread easily and rapidly, sharing their AR genes with other microbes:

Daily exposure to antibiotics, such as those in animal feed, allows microbes carrying ARGs to thrive. In some cases, these antibiotic resistant genes become highly mobile, meaning they can be transferred to other bacteria that can cause illness in humans. This is a big concern because the infections they cause can’t be treated with antibiotics.
ARGs can reach the general population through food crops, drinking water and interactions with farm workers. Because of this undesirable cycle, ARGs pose a potential global risk to human health and should be classified as pollutants, said Tiedje, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

The genes concentrate in sewage treatment plants, which become reservoirs of them, says this story:

Water discharged into lakes and rivers from municipal sewage treatment plants may contain significant concentrations of the genes that make bacteria antibiotic-resistant. That’s the conclusion of a new study on a sewage treatment plant on Lake Superior in the Duluth, Minn., harbor that appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Timothy M. LaPara and colleagues explain that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a major problem in medicine today — are abundant in the sewage that enters municipal wastewater treatment plants. Treatment is intended to kill the bacteria, and it removes many of the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance. However, genes or bacteria may be released in effluent from the plant. In an effort to determine the importance of municipal sewage treatment plants as sources of antibiotic resistance genes, the scientists studied releases of those genes at the Duluth facility.

These genes can be transferred to humans and affect our health. A 2010 story in Science Daily noted one growing impact on human health:

Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be transferred between humans and other animals, say researchers writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Microbiology. The findings will help health experts to assess how using antibiotics in food-producing animals can affect the treatment of common human infections.
Scientists from the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong examined Escherichia coli bacteria responsible for causing human urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacteria in faecal samples from humans and food-producing animals. They found an identical gene for antibiotic resistance was present in all the samples in similar proportions and locations, suggesting that the gene is likely to be transferred between bacteria residing in different hosts.
The gene, called aacC2, encodes resistance to a commonly-used antibiotic gentamicin and was found in approximately 80% of human and animal samples. What is more, this gene was found on sections of DNA that are known to swap between different bacterial populations. Both these factors, combined with the identical gene sequences led the researchers to suggest that aacC2 can transfer between separate populations of bacteria that colonise different species.
E. coli is responsible for 75-95% of human urinary tract infections. Surveys in recent years have shown that antibiotic resistance in this bacterium is increasing, making infections increasingly difficult to treat.

This seems to be a bigger problem for women than for men, according to this 2010 story:

Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), McGill researcher Amee Manges has discovered. Samples taken in the Montreal area between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the University of Guelph, provide strong new evidence that E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria originating from these food sources can cause common urinary tract infections.

As Greatist notes in this piece, the use of antibiotics in livestock is increasing rapidly:

…the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Pew research graphic

The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

About 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the USA are being fed to animals.
The widespread antibiotic use isn’t just harming us. It’s harming our entire environment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are showing up in soil, according to this story:

A team of scientists in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are reporting disturbing evidence that soil microbes have become progressively more resistant to antibiotics over the last 60 years. Surprisingly, this trend continues despite apparent more stringent rules on use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, and improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.

There is a lot more to write and research here, but I’ll leave this here for now with this quote from a story in The Guardian last fall:

The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)… a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.

So doomsday may yet be waiting in the wings… or in the soil, the water, and on our dinner plates.