Monday, June 28, 2010

Quote of the Day

The state of affairs in which ordinary people can discover the Supernatural only by abstruse reasoning is recent and, by historical standards, abnormal. All over the world, until quite modern times, the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of the philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition; they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life. In the conditions produced by a century or so of Naturalism, plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, have made a ghastly mistake; a mistake which will not be the less fatal because the corruptions of those in authority rendered it very excusable. On the other hand, it may be that the Power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which once reserved only for the sages? Is the distinction between wise and simple to disappear because all are now expected to become wise? If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go; to stay here is death.

C. S. Lewis

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Pilgrim's Chorus

Here's another one of my favorite pieces of music: The Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. It starts off pretty quiet, so you might have to turn it up, but be prepared to turn it down as it develops.

I haven't seen the sheet music for the Pilgrim's Chorus, but I have for the Overture to Tannhäuser (at least a piano arrangement of it) which has the same theme and is also incredible; you can listen to it in two parts here and here (another lovely arrangement can be heard here). I was surprised because it was written in 3/4 time, that is, three quarter notes per measure. But each quarter note is divided into triplets, so if he had wanted to account for this in the time signature, Wagner could have written it in 9/8. But that's not even the weirdest part: each triplet is further subdivided into triplets as well. If you wanted to account for this in the time signature, you would have to write it in 27/16. Which is insane.

Monday, June 21, 2010

This is cool

For Father's Day my wife got me a custom made t-shirt. It has the famous silhouette of Che Guevara.

Except it's surrounded by a red circle with a line going through it. Like this.

Above the image is a single word, a portmanteau:


On the back of the shirt it says:



Saturday, June 19, 2010


An archivist at the Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium in New York state was curious about some vaguely-labeled film canisters in the basement. The films inside had been recorded on a pallophotophone and, oddly, there aren't any more around on which to play the recordings. He managed to get two engineers interested in figuring them out. One of them managed to build -- from scratch, over two years -- a working pallophotophone.

That by itself is extremely cool. What is even cooler is that when they listened to them, they heard a speech delivered by Thomas Edison. It was broadcast live in 1929 when Edison was 82 years old, he shared the stage with President Hoover and Henry Ford, and you can listen to it here. There were other gems as well, but the fact that we can hear Edison's voice over 80 years later makes me feel like a time-traveler.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


-- Further steps towards curing cancer.

-- I remember claims in 2003 that Iraq may have sent WMDs and other material to Syria, but there is apparently a new chorus suggesting there is some evidence supporting it. Via Patterico.

-- More on private business in space.

-- This is just heartbreaking. A disturbingly large number of couples who go through incredible difficulties trying to get pregnant and are eventually successful with in-vitro fertilization, end up aborting the babies for "social reasons".

-- I hadn't heard this song in years, but after listening to it again I remembered something I thought about it when it was popular: the guitar solo is one of the clearest expressions of hell I've ever heard. I don't mean that it's a bad solo at all, I mean it expresses in audible form what I think a damned soul would feel.

-- Japan is testing a solar sail to see if a spacecraft can be propelled by the sun's rays. Photos at the link. Also, Japan's spaceship that landed on an asteroid several years ago, took samples, and then had difficulty returning to Earth ... has returned to Earth. Very cool.

-- The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Afghanistan has immense mineral resources, trillions of dollars worth. I think this is a very good thing: the Afghanistan economy is based on non-perishable crops like opium, because they lack the infrastructure to make farming perishable goods profitable. This discovery would give them the ability to be economically independent, which in turn would give them the ability to be militarily independent. Of course, it will be years before the benefits will be realized, and there will undoubtedly be the danger of corruption.

-- Bill Vallicella has some great posts on Nietzsche of late. Start here, then go here, and then here. The latter post is only incidentally about Nietzsche, as it deals with a silly misconception of the Imago Dei doctrine, and two of the posts deal with the book Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief. And if you still need some more, read this.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Dennis Moore Paradox

I've given some caveats on my political views before to suggest that they not be taken too seriously. For example, I've seen my views change enough in the past to make me suspicious of those I currently hold.

I thought of another caveat, and I can't believe I forgot to mention it before. It is this: the good policies of today can very quickly create an even worse situation than what they were meant to help. Often it can even cause harm to the very people it is meant to help. I'm not referring here to immediate side effects that produce the opposite of what was intended. I mean something that really does help people or promote a just cause which then, years later, ends up preventing the good it had previously promoted, and hurts people the same way as what it was trying to prevent -- sometimes even the same people. Within a decade or a generation, the legislation that was meant to help the poor becomes one of the primary means of oppressing them. The righteous political cause of today paradoxically turns into the very evil it was trying to combat. The point being that when we tie ourselves to a particular political party or cause, we can very easily end up fighting against the things we originally were fighting for, the reasons why we tied ourselves to that party or cause in the first place.

I call this the Dennis Moore Paradox. To understand this reference, watch the following economics video.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"The alien who lives among you", part 1

Update (Oct. 17, 2014): I temporarily removed the content of this post because it has some similarities with an article I wrote that was published in an academic journal about a year ago. Even though a blogpost probably doesn't count as having previously published the material, I took the content of this post offline in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, with the intention of restoring it after a year had passed. Since it's been a year, the original post is below.

There have been some interesting recent reports that two moons of the outer planets may have some form of life. Titan, which orbits Saturn, is often cited as a potential life-site because it meets one of the necessary conditions for life (high nitrogen content). The recent claims are that acetylene is rare on Titan's surface, and that hydrogen may be flowing down to the surface and disappearing. Both hydrogen and acetylene could theoretically be "consumed" by some primitive form of life on the surface, so their absence may be indicative of such processes actually taking place. More interesting (to me at least) is the unusual suggestion that Io may have some form of life, despite its proximity to Jupiter and its magnetosphere. The suggestion is that it might live deep under the surface, although it seems purely speculative to me.

Some say (and many more think) that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would essentially refute Christianity, since it would show that we don't need to appeal to God to explain our origins, or because it would contradict certain Christian doctrines about humanity's importance to God. Unfortunately it can be difficult to refute because it's difficult to find out what the actual argument is. Any attempt to address it, therefore, runs the distinct possibility of attacking a strawman. Nevertheless, I shall soldier on.

As far as I can tell, the argument is something along these lines:

a) If life or the remains of life are found beyond the earth,
b) then life would be a common phenomenon.
c) Therefore, it would be the product of natural processes.
d) Therefore, life would not be the product of supernatural process(es) or agent(s).

Two other conclusions are often drawn, although it's not clear whether they are drawn from b), c), or d). They are:

e) Therefore, the Christian claim that human beings are especially important to God is highly implausible.
f) Therefore, the Christian claim that God was incarnated as a human being (as opposed to one of the other myriad forms of life) is likewise highly implausible.

Now the philosophically minded will notice that this is a spectacularly poor argument. f) does not follow from a), b), c), d), e), or their conjunction; e), likewise, does not follow from a) through d); d) does not follow from c); c) does not follow from b); and b) does not follow from a). I'll go over each of these alleged inferences in turn, with the first below. For now I'll just point to how this charge fits into the metanarrative that science and Christianity are at odds with each other, and this because science is slowly but surely refuting Christianity. This is the conflict thesis -- James calls it the conflict myth -- and it is almost entirely rejected by historians of science.

So, first, does a) lead to b)? If we find life elsewhere in the universe, will it imply that life is a common phenomenon? Well, if we're talking about our solar system, the answer is no. Take Mars for example. Finding life or the remains of life on Mars would not indicate that life is common, for the simple reason that over the last few billion years, at least a hundred million tons of Earth has been dumped on Mars, most (not all) due to meteor collisions sending Earth material out into the solar system. The odds that none of it contained any biological material is remote in the extreme, although much of it would probably have been broken down by radiation. Hugh Ross has been predicting since at least the late 1980s that the remains of life will inevitably be discovered on Mars simply due to this cross-contamination. And this is true for virtually all possible life-sites in the solar system, including the moons around the outer planets: any biological material we find would be better explained as having its origin on Earth.

Moreover, the Anthropic Principle places severe limitations on what conditions must be met in order for life to exist on a planetary body. It must have a particular axial tilt, magnetic field, a moon of a particular size and distance, must orbit a particular type of star of a particular age at a particular distance, etc. There are several dozen such conditions. The only body that meets these conditions in the solar system is the Earth. There are sometimes sensationalistic claims that Mars might have had liquid water on its surface at some point in the past and so might have harbored life (since the presence of liquid water is one of the necessary preconditions). But this ignores the multiple other conditions that are not met by Mars or any other potential life sites in the solar system.

But what about beyond the solar system? What if we find life on planets orbiting other stars? Wouldn't that prove that life is ubiquitous in the universe? Again, the Anthropic Principle puts severe limitations on how many places in the universe could naturally support life. So, for example, the planet has to be in a spiral galaxy (not a common type of galaxy), and be between spiral arms. In any other place within any other type of galaxy there would be too much stellar radiation to allow life. Additionally, it has to exist in a very particular stellar neighborhood: nearby white dwarf binary stars which have lost some of their stellar material to interstellar space (this is the only natural source of fluorine, which is necessary for life); near enough to past supernovae to obtain the necessary heavy elements produced, but not so near as to receive too much radiation from them; etc. The point being that, even if we do find life elsewhere in the universe, it wouldn't contradict the Anthropic Principle's claim (which is recognized by all the relevant scientists) that most places are hostile to life, and so there are relatively few potential life sites in the universe. Indeed, when factoring all of the necessary preconditions into the equation, the odds of another planet anywhere in the universe being naturally capable of supporting advanced life is zero. Part of the problem here is whether we're talking about simple life forms or complex, perhaps complex enough to be intelligent and have a civilization. The more complex the life form, the more anthropic coincidences must be met in order for it to exist. Conversely, simple forms of life do not have to meet as many requirements, but it's still no walk in the park. The most popular book addressing this issue is Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, by geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee. They argue that while simple forms of life may be common in the universe, advanced life almost certainly is not.

Of course, some may continue to ask, what if we find that other forms of life are everywhere in the universe? Wouldn't that refute the claims being made here? Well, the discovery that life is ubiquitous in the universe would certainly refute the claim that life is not ubiquitous. In the same way, the discovery that E does not equal mc2 would refute the claim that it does, and the discovery that earth is at the center of the universe would refute the claims that it's not. So it's not a very interesting line of argument. But, ignoring that, if we find other forms of life out there, the anthropic coincidences should certainly be looked at again to see if they merely represented a failure of imagination. Perhaps our conception of "life" was too narrow. But if, after looking at them, they still hold, then the occurrence of advanced life would have to be fit into the claim that the odds of there being a planet capable of supporting advanced life anywhere in the universe is too remote to be considered a realistic possibility. But that will be the subject of the next post.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Friday, June 11, 2010

A thought on the Helen Thomas kerfuffle

Of the many possible responses to those who suggest that Jews are actually Europeans (since there was a large Jewish population in Europe for a long time), I would like to focus on this:

You know who never thought the Jews were Europeans? Jews and Europeans.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The New Space Programs

I mentioned SpaceX's rocket achieving orbit below. For some larger context about its significance, see here. And for some background on how private enterprise is advancing in space, see here. Both links via Instapundit. And while we're on the subject, I've added the National Space Society to my Website Seeing list on the sidebar.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


-- James posts on getting his hearing back via a cochlear implant. Very, very cool.

-- I'd never heard this before, but Japan waged germ warfare during World War Two.

-- A satirical Onion headline from 12 years ago: "Area Woman Tired Of Men Staring At Her Breast Implants." From a Maine newspaper a couple of months ago: "About two dozen women marched topless from Longfellow Square to Tommy's Park this afternoon in an effort to erase what they see as a double standard on male and female nudity. ... Ty McDowell, who organized the march, said she was "enraged" by the turnout of men attracted to the demonstration. The purpose, she said, was for society to have the same reaction to a woman walking around topless as it does to men without shirts on." (via Dr. Helen) In 1998 it was a joke. Today it's still a joke, but in a different way.

-- Here's a nice photo of the International Space Station passing by Jupiter, in daytime no less. And here's photos and a short video showing the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission docking with the ISS as they transit across the sun.

-- There's a new movie out about Hypatia of Alexandria which, apparently (I haven't seen it), focuses on the mythical destruction of the great library of Alexandria in order to propagate the mythical conflict between science and Christianity throughout history. An interesting review of the movie is at Armarium Magnum (a follow-up to a post he wrote a year ago), but if you want a quicker rundown, check out Michael Flynn.

-- When I was in the Marines, I once got up on stage at a club filled with several hundred drunk Army soldiers, grabbed a microphone, and sang a song mocking and denigrating the Army and praising the Marine Corps. For this, a friend of mine (a soldier himself) nicknamed me "Balls". But this guy, wow.

-- A space elevator in seven years? Maybe we could have the technology necessary to build it in seven (although I doubt it), but I can't believe it could be up and running in that short of a time.

-- 5 True War Stories That Put Every Action Movie to Shame.

-- The scramjet test that I mentioned last week worked gloriously. It's exciting to see this stuff finally coming to fruition.

-- Three people in Germany were killed when a recently-discovered bomb from World War Two blew up. This happens on the Continent from time to time. A few months ago, I read about a bomb discovered near Ghent that was allegedly from World War One, although I can't find anything about it online now.

-- This ticks me off.

-- This week, after dark, you'll be able to see three planets (well, four if you look down). Saturn, Mars, and Venus will all be visible about an hour after sunset.

-- SpaceX's Falcon 9 has achieved Earth orbit. Also very, very cool.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thought of the Day

A cape is just a bib that was put on backwards. And vice-versa.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ronin and Religion

I left my copy of Ronin in the States, and sometimes I miss it. I really love this movie: it has two of the best chase scenes ever filmed, it's well-acted, and whatever you think about the French, Jean Reno is just one of the coolest guys around.

I like movies because I think they are our modern parables. Movies often have a worldview behind them, a point they're trying to make. Sometimes it's obscure, sometimes it's obvious. (Dude Where's My Car? is clearly neo-post-deconstructionist, for example.)

In Ronin Robert DeNiro is one of several mercenaries hired for a job. They are all former spies, agents, whatever from the Cold War, and now that it's over, they have nothing else they can do. "Ronin" were samurais without masters in feudal Japan, and there is a famous story about the 47 Ronin: their master was killed by another lord, thus disgracing and dishonoring them. So they plotted for a long time, and then finally killed their master's betrayer. The mercenaries in Ronin are in much the same situation: their masters, the causes to which they have hired themselves out, are no longer in need of their services.

An interesting part of the movie is when some French Guy (FrG) tells DeNiro (DeN) about the 47 Ronin:

FrG: And then one night they struck, slipping into the castle of their lord's betrayer, killing him.
DeN: Nice. I like that. My kind of job.
FrG: There's something more. All 47 of them committed seppuku -- ritual suicide -- in the courtyard of the castle.
DeN: Well that I don't like so much.
FrG: But you understand it.
DeN: What do you mean I understand it?
FrG: The warrior code. The delight in the battle, you understand that, yes? But also something more. You understand there is something outside yourself that has to be served. And when that need is gone -- when belief has died -- what are you? A man without a master.

This touches on the concept of religion. Religion claims that we are not made "for" ourselves, but for another. Since we're made this way, simply living for ourselves can never bring true happiness, joy, satisfaction, peace, etc. "There is something outside yourself that has to be served." As Augustine put it, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee". Or as Pascal put it, there is a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We can try to fill it with other things, but only God can really fill it.