Monday, December 18, 2006

The Effects of Sticky Tape on Cats

This video seems like it a joke (a cruel joke on the poor kitty), but I found it fascinating. What does this tell us about cat navigation?
Permalink 10:43 PM

John McCain Beaten by a Girl

Via Atrios, we see that the most recent Newsweek poll shows Hilary Clinton beating John McCain 50%-43%. And yet Newsweek (and everyone else) is ignoring this. American journalism is a paradigm example of bad science---you start with your conclusion (in this case, McCain has the inside track for 2008). Then you go about hunting for evidence to back up your conclusion, and burying evidence to the contrary.
Permalink 9:48 PM

Gandhi's Nonviolence: Can it really work?

From The Harvard Gazette: (via 3Quarks Daily)


The nonviolent principles of Mohandas Gandhi may be the only way to bring peace to the world, Gandhi's granddaughter said. Human rights activist and former South African member of parliament Ela Gandhi told about 160 people gathered in Harvard Law School's Pound Hall that violent victory sows the seeds of its own destruction. It is only through nonviolent resistance and dispute resolution, the focus of Mohandas Gandhi's Satyagraha philosophy, that the world can become a peaceful place, she said.

I've been thinking about Gandhi recently in response to the news of relentless violence in Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya and elsewhere. On the one hand, where ethnic hatred runs so high, one is led to assume the worst for nonviolent resistance: that the nonviolent will just be slaughtered like lambs. On the other hand, the slaughter is happening anyway. How could it possibly be any worse?

I have no idea whether any of the bloody conflicts in the world today could be turned around by a modern-day Gandhi. But we are seeing in Iraq that even the most powerful army in the history of the world is unable to bring peace through sheer military force.
Permalink 9:15 PM

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas Sermon for Heathens

Religion has been a force in American politics for years now. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, James Dobson's Focus on the Family have all had enormous influence on the Republican Party and thereby the country. For better or for worse. (Okay, it's for worse, actually). In comparison, nonbelievers (and politically liberal believers) have typically kept a low profile (so low that there is not a single prominent atheist politician).

However, there seems to be a trend in the last year or so for atheists to become more outspoken about religion. Biologist and blogger PZ Meyers (his blog is Pharyngula) has been especially scathing in his denunciation of religious belief, which he dismisses as superstition. Other famous atheists that have been in the news recently include biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), comedian Julia Sweeney (Letting Go of God), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), and Brian Flemming (The God Who Wasn't There). Are we heading for a showdown between atheists and believers? Believers have the advantage when it comes to numbers (less than 10 percent of the population of the US identify themselves as atheists), but atheists have the advantage when it comes to brainpower (among top scientists, believers are in the minority).

One thing that both religious conservatives and the New Atheists agree on is the role of belief in religion. To be a Christian means at a minimum that one accepts the following factual claims:
  • God exists, and He created the universe and watches over all its creatures.
  • There is a second life waiting for us after death, that will either be a reward or a punishment.
  • Jesus was the son of God. He performed miracles, was put to death, and arose from the dead.
In contrast, though, my mother never thought that religion had anything really to do with belief in such factual claims. My mother is as good a Christian as I have met, and she doesn't believe in any of that. She doesn't literally believe that there is a personal God who created the world. She doesn't literally believe that Jesus performed miracles, or that he arose from the dead. She doesn't literally believe that good people spend eternity in Heaven or that bad people spend eternity in Hell. In spite of these heresies, she has for her whole life attended church regularly, participated in the choir, taught Sunday school, and raised her children and grandchildren to be Christian. What does that make her?

It isn't as if she has been pretending all this time. She wasn't the type to harangue others with here philosophy, but she would quietly tell you her thoughts if you asked. But mostly to her, being a Christian was not about beliefs at all. It was about an attitude towards the world. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor. Be a Good Samaritan. Seek out the poor, the unloved, the misfits, those who society rejects. Love even those who don't love you back. Her goal was to live as she believed Jesus taught us to live. What is important is how we treat each other in this life. The miracles, the Virgin birth, the resurrection, Heaven and Hell are all just stories whose only purpose is to open our hearts to the possibility of miracles in this life, and to encourage us to become part of the miracle.

I've tried to live up to my mother's religion; to be good without the bribery of Heaven or the threat of Hell. This religion does not divide Christians from Muslims from Jews from Buddhists from atheists. If you love the world and the people in (that word always included animals for her), then you and my mother are on the same team.

Merry Christmas!
Permalink 10:14 PM

Monday, December 04, 2006

Genetically Engineered Proteins Generate Hydrogen from Sunlight

Here's a very exciting scientific development:
Professors Tsuchida and Komatsu from Waseda University, Japan, in collaboration with Imperial College London, have combined two molecules that occur naturally in blood to engineer a molecular complex that uses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, says research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

From ScienceDaily

This could potentially lead to a boom for hydrogen-based fuel. Hydrogen is the perfect fuel in many ways, because burning it produces only water. No greenhouse gases, no pollution. Unfortunately, the only way to get hydrogen is to use electrolysis, which requires large amounts of electricity, which is often produced by fossil fuels. This biological alternative to electrolysis promises completely carbon-free energy.
Permalink 5:27 PM