Archive for December 2008

Annals of Dumb: Playboy Edition/misplaced facticity edition

December 17, 2008

Via Huffington Post I discover that Playboy‘s Mexican edition has committed the predictable folly of placing on its cover a strategically partially dressed young woman to whom has been attached the caption “Te Adoramus Marìa.”

To no sentient being’s surprise this has aroused ire amongst the faithful, the more so because the edition came out the day before the celebration of the Day of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.  The predictable round of apology and disclaimers has begun and this will pass as another minor skirmish in the eternal war between desire and faith…or whatever pompousity commentators will come up with to mark the occasion.

But what got me was not the cover, nor the very nice young lady depicted, nor  her garment, meant, I think to evoke a kind of demure prayer shawl but looking like nothing so much as the tablecloth you pull out when the children are going to be sitting elsewhere.   No, it was this line:

Playboy magazine apologized for a controversial cover featuring a scantily-clad woman resembling the Virgin Mary, Reuters reported. (Italics added)

Resembling?  Really?

I could go all serious here, and storm at the feckless fact-averse who cannot seem to face the notion that we don’t know who Mary was (not to mention the uncheckable sourcing  backing up the claim of a particular sexual status), and hence have no clue about the appearance of one amongst all the  young mothers – to -be in the Roman province of Galilee about two thousand years ago.

It may be conventional to depict Mary as a young, often dark-haired beauty, and the woman on the Playboy cover matches that broad description — but then so do lots of people who do not greatly resemble each other. (Think, e.g. of Halle Berry and Sarah Silverman, just to take two folks off the top of my head.  And thanks for The Great Schlepp, Sarah, as long as we’re here.)

But rather than go into some long discourse on this as an illustration one of the ways in which claims of established fact by the faithful take forms unintelligible to scientific rationalists–and vice versa,  I figured out how I could boil the whole argument down to  the old Catskills punch line.  Looking at the Playboy cover, all I could think was,

“Funny.  She doesn’t look Jewish.”

Image:  El Greco, “The Assumption of the Virgin,” 1577


Getting Ready for 200/150: “How Many Removes From Charles?” Edition

December 16, 2008

As everyone with a pulse and an interest in science knows, 2009 is the big Darwin year — the 200th anniversary of his birth (February 12) and the 150th of the publication of The Origin.  I will in a week or so have some news about what Inverse Square — or a derivative thereof — is doing to join the chorus on that one; I think I’ve got something shaping up that the community will enjoy.

In the meantime, and as I get stuck into my prep for that project, just a quick thought as I peered at the Darwin/Wedgewood family tree Janet Browne helpfully included at the front of the Voyaging volume of her Darwin magnum opus.  There I found that Darwin’s latest-surviving child, Leonard.  Leonard Darwin was born in 1850, before the Crimean War, the Sepoy MutinyAme–the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and the American Civil War; and he saw the end of World War II, India’s independence and the effective end of the British Empire, all before his death  in 1948.*  And, not to overlook the most important factoid, young Leonard would have been a curious eight year old just as his father was in the midst of his most intense labors distilling the work of decades into the book that became The Origin of Species.

That skein of history would be remarkable enough just for one man’s memory, but what struck me was the thought that my f Uncle David, born and raised in England, with an army background (and subsequent career of his own) that could have led him to Major Darwin (Royal Engineers), might indeed have exchanged a conversational commonplace or two with the son of the man whose birth and work we celebrate soon.

All of which is to point out the obvious — and perhaps one tangential thought not quite so banal. The distance between anyone reading this and Charles Darwin is not that great.  It is entirely imaginable to have had a conversation with someone you know or knew who could have heard the stories of life at Down House from someone who watched and listened as Charles Darwin assembled his argument.  The middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the very center of a revolution in ideas seem very far away when we toss around anniversary numbers like a bicentennial, or one hundred and fifty years since this or that.  They are not, at least by the measure of human memory.  She danced with a man who danced with woman who danced with the Prince of Wales; we are that close to Charles and his pigeons and all the rest.

Nothing new there — just a reminder of the numbers.  But the thought that crossed my  mind as I wondered if my uncle did in fact ever meet Leonard (as above–I had not known to ask, of course, until the chance-met glance at the bottom of the family tree) was that Richard Dawkins may have missed the point of his own reflection that he too would have been a believer before Darwin.

If you follow my sense of the slenderness of the gap that separates us in the passage of generations, of the transfer of ideas and culture that pass from grandparent to grandchild at so near a remove from Charles Darwin’s in his study in 1859, then the broken chain of belief that separates Dawkins from Victoria’s (or Emma Darwin’s) Anglican God is very short indeed.

And that thought made me wonder  if the heat and urgency I read in Dawkins’ atheism seems a little misplaced.  Without wandering too far into this thicket, it does seem to me worth remembering that it has been a very short time in the history of human society, and a still shorter time if the person-person touch of memory matters, since Darwin’s thought  struck its blow to conventional faith.

It takes some time for big ideas to sink in.  (For a biblical example, as long as we are on the subject, God through Moses affirmed the equality of women, at least as far as inheritance and rights of property go, in the Book of Numbers, which dates back 3,400 years ago or so.  That thought took a while to penetrate, did it not?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin’s rigorous materialism takes some getting used to; that part of the point of 2009 is to confront not just Darwin’s thinking, but the success of the research program that his work (and that of many others, of course) set in motion.  I’m confident, that is, not angry — and I remember that we have not been inside this world view for any length of time at all.  One hundred and fifty years?  The lives my uncle’s life has touched — mine and those before me — stretch back before then.  Easily.

*Here from the Wikipedia entry on Leonard Darwin linked above, is John Maynard Keynes take on Charles’s son, who proves to have just a hint of the wasp about him in his turn:

Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece’s “very personal account”: “Leonard Darwin’s life covered so vast an epoch of change in men’s ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown …” (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), “I neither like him nor trust him … But he’s very clever …”

Image: Auguste Renoir:  “La danse à la campagne,” 1883.

What I Think About the Hour Before the Dentist Goes Medieval on my Gumline:

December 15, 2008

Deep scaling (don’t askWarning. Don’t click on that link.  Really gross image on the other side) to come at the disgustingly appropriate appointment time of 2:30 (my eight year-old liked that one).  So I digress, in any way I can.  I’m sure there are important matters of science and society to consider, but I’m thinking blood and molars, so it’ll all have to wait.

To that end, consider this piece of delightful Boston v. Los Angeles trash talk — from the LA Times, no less!:

The Celtics and Lakers can even be defined by their color analysts. Tom Heinsohn is a hulking beast who looks like a hitman. Mychal Thompson is from the Bahamas and wears sandals and puka shells.  Heinsohn is Tony Soprano, Thompson is Bob Marley.

If the Celtics had Laker Girls, they would be Janet Reno and Madeline Albright.

The Lakers are fast and fun and athletic and entertaining and pretty as can be.  I love the Lakers!  I say, to heck with the tacos!  Headbands for everyone!   Or free passes to Lamar’s favorite day spa.

Let them score 120, give up 110 and we can all all go home happy, without the angst.

As Paul McCartney was just telling me, Let It Be.

Think of it like this: The Celtics are Rottweilers, the Lakers French Poodles. The Celtics bite your arm off. The Lakers win Best in Show.

If the Celtics were a video game, they’d be Grand Theft Auto.  The Lakers are Tickle Me Elmo.

In movie terms, the Lakers are Paul Newman, the Celtics Charles Bronson. Newman made better movies, aesthetically he was the one you wanted to watch and paid to see.

Except of course that it was Bronson who kills everyone in the end.

— Ted Green

Monday Rude Humor: Einstein on Simultanaeity Edition

December 15, 2008

A much quoted quip by Einstein goes something like this:

Spend a minute with your hand on a hot stove, and it feels like an hour.  Spend an hour with a pretty girl, and it feels like a minute.  That’s relativity!

Hidden within relativity, if not the joke, is the insight derived from Einstein’s analysis of the relativity of simultanaeity.  Think the famous lighting/train thought experiment.

Now comes xkcd’s reanalysis of the concept, to which, this being a family blog, I will link, and not embed.

Enjoy the week…..

Further to “Darwinism” as Rhetoric: Up From Comments Edition

December 14, 2008

I should learn from commenter (and blogger) JRE on the virtues of concision, as he expresses in a couple of hundred words here what I labored to put in more than a thousand in (a) my critique of Archbishop John Habgood’s misuse of the term “Darwinism” and (b) the boom I lowered on the good cleric’s defender, Mid Anglican blogger Leslie Darrow.

JRE writes:

It is clear that Leslie Dellow has discovered a tree, and missed the forest, with

I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense …

Yes, “Darwinism” is pejorative, and no, it is not pejorative simply because “ism” is tacked onto someone’s name. A great scientist is frequently honored by having his or her name attached to a species, a physical unit, a constant, an observed relationship (or “law”), even an interpretation of the natural world (as in “neo-Darwinian synthesis”) — but never to an entire field of study. The reason is that the universe of knowledge does not belong to any researcher, however brilliant. Once a community of natural scientists had confirmed and expanded Darwin’s findings to the point that no reasonable person doubted their validity, the field was “evolutionary biology.” Darwin was, and is, rightly honored as the greatest pioneer in that field, but he doesn’t own it any more.

We see the same tactic employed wherever some group wants to oppose an established body of science for political or philosophical reasons. It’s been a long time since the germ theory of disease was controversial, so we don’t hear microbiology referred to as “Pasteurism.” But there are still those uncomfortable with vaccination or antibiotics, and for whom it is always “Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine” rather than plain old medicine. Similarly, we often hear those who resist the political or economic consequences of discoveries in climatology speak of the “church of Al Gore” because — in this context — a religious reference is a pejorative. I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.

Exactly so…and I’ll have more to say soon about the unfortunate trope a-building on environmentalism as religion — something that needs to be pushed back against hard and fast.

Image:  See here for details.  I’m being deliberately obscure, so that those that are interested can guess the relevance to this post.  Hint:  once you get past the first order connection, consider this, then this.

On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

December 11, 2008

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.


Cold Weather Beer Thoughts

December 11, 2008

Following up an exceptionally episodic series on the craft, science and literature of beer (“ah, that was a mug pint of proper 1420, that was…”) I offer the fruits of my finally googling a question that had nagged at me for a while:  what the hell is the difference between stout and porter anyway?

That led me to this delightful thread, and to this magisterial answer from the Campaign for Real Ale:

Porter was a London style that turned the brewing industry upside down early in the 18th century. It was a dark brown beer – 19th-century versions became jet black – that was originally a blend of brown ale, pale ale and ‘stale’ or well-matured ale. It acquired the name Porter as a result of its popularity among London’s street-market workers. At the time, a generic term for the strongest or stoutest beer in a brewery was stout.

The strongest versions of Porter were known as Stout Porter, reduced over the years to simply Stout. Such vast quantities of Porter and Stout flooded into Ireland from London and Bristol that a Dublin brewer named Arthur Guinness decided to fashion his own interpretation of the style. The beers were strong – 6% for Porter, 7% or 8% for Stout. Guinness in Dublin blended some unmalted roasted barley and in so doing produced a style known as Dry Irish Stout. Restrictions on making roasted malts in Britain during World War One led to the demise of Porter and Stout and left the market to the Irish. In recent years, smaller craft brewers in Britain have rekindled an interest in the style, though in keeping with modern drinking habits, strengths have been reduced. Look for profound dark and roasted malt character with raisin and sultana fruit, espresso or cappuccino coffee, liquorice and molasses, all underscored by hefty hop bitterness. Porters are complex in flavour, range from 4% to 6.5% and are typically black or dark brown; the darkness comes from the use of dark malts unlike stouts which use roasted malted barley. Stouts can be dry or sweet and range from 4% to 8% ABV.

In the discussion linked above, I particularly liked the description of the recent trend in American brewing to produce monstrously strong beers as “kamikaze beers.”  Precisely so.

And yes, in case you were wondering, I’m staring out a plate glass window onto grey pavement, spitting rain, and temperatures in the thirties.  Perfect weather (if not yet quite the perfect time) for some black beer.