Saturday, December 30, 2006

100 New Laws!

Illinois residents, rejoice! As of January 1st, you will have 100 new laws telling you what aspect of your life the government has seen fit to poke its nose into.

Actually, it's not all bad. Most of it is just legislative odds and ends. Still, things seem to get more complicated all the time.

(Hat tip: Capitol Fax Blog)

The Myth of Climate Consensus?

I'm not entirely familiar with Hernando Today. Still, this article on a recent survey conducted by the National Registry of Environmental Professionals caught my interest (hat tip: Moonbattery). According to the survey, the idea that the scientific community is 99.9999%+ sold on global warming might be spurious. Their results:
  • 34 percent disagree that global warming is a serious problem facing the planet
  • 41 percent disagree that the planet's recent warmth "can be, in large part, attributed to human activity"
  • 71 percent disagree that recent hurricane activity is significantly attributable to human activity
  • 33 percent disagree that the U.S. government is not doing enough to address global warming
  • 47 percent disagree that international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol provide a solid framework for combating global climate change
The article doesn't get into the survey methodology, so I can't speak for the accuracy of these statistics. Still, if they're even remotely comparable to reality, then the claim that "scientists" as a whole are on board with Al Gore is at best misinformed and at worst deliberately misleading.

After browsing through the actual survey results, I do see a few problems with the article in question. For example, Hernando Today says that the survey participants exceeded 12,000; the reality is that is the number of participants in the NREP. The actual number of survey respondants was ~800. Still, the general reach of the article seems to be reflective of the survey results.

For me, the bottom line is that the general media is, at best, untrustworthy when it comes to scientific reporting. Most of those doing the punditry and reporting know little about the subjects they cover and tend to insert their own politics or opinions into the coverage. Yes, it's become convenient to let the larger media outlets act as the gatekeepers, crunching the swell of information out there into compact, digestible bits, but reality is a bit more complicated. The public at large would be much better served by having access to research and information, especially if more effort is poured into helping the public to interpret those results rather than simply telling them what the interpretation should be.

The internet age is bringing more of just that, but I'd prefer to see the transformation speed up a bit.

Post Christmas Wrap-Up

I guess it's been a few days since I've posted. You know how the Christmas holiday can be . . . family time, relatives, and of course, playing with all your new toys. I suppose I've neglected some of the more significant pieces of news, such as Saddam's recent demise, but what is there to say? He earned it.

Let's talk about something much more trivial but still fun.

Aside from family outings, what's been occupying my time recently? Well, Twilight Princess, for the most part, but that wasn't a Christmas gift. I'd bought that with my Wii, but held off since I figured it'd be best saved for after finals. (As an aside, I managed to pull off two A's and an A-, so a certain former research advisor can bite me)

In terms of Christmas gifts, I've been enjoying some time rocking out. I picked up a new bible. The New English Translation is pretty good, and relatively new, but the biggest draw to it (for me, at least, are the translator's notes. All 60k+ of them.

I have other reading to do, though. I received a copy of Robert Spencer's newest book. It seems interesting enough, and I love the premise: Why listen to endless "experts" tell you what Islam is all about when you can go straight to the source? The book is practically a synopsis of the Islamic scriptures and theological and scholarly commentary on Muhammad, especially those that shape the world around us today.

However, the book that's occupied most of my time thus far has been Mark Steyn's America Alone. I'm about 2/3 through the book, but it's been pretty gripping so far. The premise for the book is fairly similar to a column of his I wrote about before. Birth rates in the Western world are dismal; America is the only country with a replacement birthrate (2.1 children/woman), and the rest of the West is sinking past the point of no return. For example, Canada is similar to Europe as a whole (1.8) while the lowest point in Europe is sterile Spain (1.1). The problem is that between muslim immigration and the extraordinarily high birthrates of the incoming immigrants, Europe is going to be facing a demographic crunch in a few decades. What will happen to the culture of France if it becomes majority muslim? He also highlights the problems that the welfare state and politics will bring into this mix, but the end result seems to be that America, alone, will be the bastion of Western civilization in the coming generations.

Whether you agree or disagree, it's an interesting premise and a well-written book. My only gripe is that he hasn't taken a very scholarly approach to his book. While he cites countless statistics, facts, and stories, he uses no footnotes and offers no citations. So unless he says specifically where he found his data, you're left to wonder if it's real. I've no reason to think he'd make such things up; it's not like it would be hard to fact check the birth rate of these countries, but that's the type of criticism you open yourself up to if you're not thorough.

Anyhow, I'm distracted in the meantime, but things should be back to normal after the start of the new year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Stupid Flaming Protestor

It seems a man in California set both a Christmas tree, and himself, on fire in an attempt at a public protest. He was protesting that the local school board changed the names of "winter break" and "spring break" to "Christmas break" and "Easter break."

I tend not to fall into the victimized, "War against Christmas" mentality some Christians do. I call out silliness when I see it. If you want my opinion on this guy, glance up at that post title again.

Overreacting much? I can think of far worthier causes to self-immolate over.

Target Stops Che

Hey, here's a pleasant update: Target has yanked the Che Guevara CD case.

If only every story involving this lunatic had such a happy ending.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Target Sells Che

Target is now in the business of selling merchandise, in this case CD cases, with that infamous picture of Che Guevara, according to this article in Investor's Business Daily.

The editorial author is right, of course. Target does a disservice by selling such merchandise, if for no other reason than they're liable to tick off large numbers of customers and investors. Again.

Economic concerns aside, Guevara was a maniac. I've written about him on this blog before. Quite a while ago, in fact. (Try here, here, and here)

So, yeah. Not a wise choice, Target.

News Dump

Since I've been absent lately, I thought I might just toss out links to things I've found interesting lately.

Food Chemistry Blog

Harold McGee, a contributor to the NYT, has a blog about food science and chemistry. Check it out, it's neat-o.

Liquid Condom
This is interesting on two fronts. It's a liquid condom that a woman would insert, and at the internal pH it becomes a gel, more akin to a traditional condom's consistency. When exposed to semen, the pH change causes it to become liquid again, and to release an anti-HIV drug.

I haven't come up with any jokes about this yet, but the story just begs for them.

Sea creatures vs. CO2
Hm . . . a tiny sea creature eats tinier sea creatures that have absorbed dissolved CO2. Then, they excrete solid blocks of carbon rather than CO2. Apparently, the researchers are thinking this might be a way to minimize mankind's CO2 output. It seems difficult logistically, and I wonder how useful it would be to start dumping piles of solid carbon into the ocean, but it's an interesting concept. I wonder where they'll take it.

Nintendo recalls Wii straps
Hey, I haven't broken anything. Everyone else must be a moron.

Ban Ki-Moon snubs the French
Heh, silly French people. France insists that french remain the second official language of the UN, and that any Secretary General should be fluent in it. A French-Canadian asks the new guy, in french, what his thoughts are on it. His response? "Sorry, I didn't understand the language, could you translate that?" Hilarious.

Done

One semester down, two more to go. At least, two more for the master's degree. Check back when I'm 30 about that PhD.

In the meantime, I have the next four weeks off, so blogging should return to a normal pace.

In other news, I'm thinking of trying something new while I have the time off. This could be fun.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Well, the semester is nearly over. I have one exam next week, along with some grading to do. All in all, not a bad schedule. In my mind, I'm on break already.

It's been an . . . enlightening semester. I've learned a lot, both in my given field and in being a teacher. Should I ever become a professor, here are some things I am ready to apply:
  • All of your students are weasels.
Some of them are more weasily than others, but make no mistake, they are all weasels. If they can get out of work, they'll try their best. Extra points? They'll forfeit any notion of dignity to whine and beg for them. Any sign of weakness, and you'll hear accusations of incompetence and ill intent.

And they'll do anything they can to convince you they should have points for a grade they didn't turn in.
  • Your students are never prepared for class.
This is every teacher's bane, I suppose. Nobody reads the book. Then they complain when you expect them to come infused with, at the least, cursory knowledge of the topic at hand. I never realized how annoying this was until I actually was on the receiving end of it.

This goes beyond that, though. Students are never prepared for what class will require of them (tying into the weasel part). Your students will try to get as much credit as possible for as little work as possible. The problem will come when they suddenly realize that your idea of the "minimum" amount of work and their idea of the "minimum" are vastly different. They'll get angry (I did), they'll feel cheated (don't we all?), and they'll blame you (ah, memories). And they'll wonder why they received zero credit for turning in a lab report which reads, "This lab was too hard, so we couldn't do it."
  • Preparation is the key.
Always know how to do the problems you expect your students to do. They get cranky when you try to remember it in the middle of class.
  • Sometimes you have to have standards.
In some graduate courses, professors take a rather subjective view of grades. They base the letter assignments more around how much you comparatively learned as a group rather than look at a list of things they expected you to learn, since often times it can be hard to determine what it is you actually taught them. Yes, for some professors that is a problem.

However, this should not be the case for entry level courses. Putting the top 10% of students at an 'A' makes no sense if this is introductory material. It leads to awkward situations, like people with scores of 40% making B's and C's in a course, then moving on to the second part of the course and knowing nothing about the subject.

Finally,
  • The internet is not the place to talk badly about people who control your grades. Especially if they can see it.
We covered this one already. Still, it doesn't hurt to restate the obvious.

So there you have it. Lessons learned.

Addendum
  • If an exam is going to be all multiple choice, it is going to be scan-tron.
I'm not a happy grader at the moment.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Christianity's Credibility - Part 1

Oliver Thomas wrote an editorial in USA Today, not so long ago, about the credibility of Christianity. Specifically, he argues that Christianity, in opposing homosexuality and homosexual marriage, will lose all credibility and fade into the dustbin of history. There's a lot to parse in his editorial, so I thought I'd tackle the most important parts separately.
Religion's only real commodity, after all, is its moral authority. Lose that, and we lose our credibility. Lose credibility, and we might as well close up shop.
This statement I find quite interesting, because it works at an important truth without ever dealing with the truth itself.

The question this really strikes at is, from where does religion (in this case, Christianity) derive its moral authority? Based on the arguments Thomas makes, I would say that two answers could be argued: Either moral authority comes from the truth of the claims, or it comes from the people who grant it authority.

Thomas seems to be arguing the latter. It's not explicit; he makes his argument more of a "how could God condemn science?" kind of argument, likening homosexuality with Galileo's heliocentric apostacy. But in its essence, this is the argument he is making. Christianity would only have credibility if it learns to accept homosexuality. By regaining the credibility, it regains moral authority. The connection here is that Christianity won't attract followers if it doesn't have credibility (which, to those followers, only comes by accepting homosexuality). In the end, it almost seems as if Christianity must change its teachings to become palatable to the rest of the world.

I don't buy it. Moral authority derives from the truth behind that authority. If Jesus was just some schmo who conned a bunch of silly Jews in a backwoods Roman colony, what makes his views of how a man should live worth any more than the paper it's printed on? If Muhammad wasn't a prophet, but a paranoid schizaphrenic who suffered epileptic seizures, wouldn't that necessarily change the way people should interpret his example?

There's a lot to say here, yet. I'll continue this in a further post.

Christianity's Credibility - Part 2

Thomas goes on to argue about why Christianity ought to accept homosexuality:
This time, Christianity is in danger of squandering its moral authority by continuing its pattern of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the face of mounting scientific evidence that sexual orientation has little or nothing to do with choice. To the contrary, whether sexual orientation arises as a result of the mother's hormones or the child's brain structure or DNA, it is almost certainly an accident of birth. The point is this: Without choice, there can be no moral culpability.
This illustrates one of the reasons I dislike non-scientists writing about scientific issues. Thomas calls it a settled issue. I'm unaware of any scientific research that puts an ironclad, no-doubt-about -it seal on the issue.

It's been a while, but I seem to recall that most of the research doesn't effectively deal with the cause and effect relationship for biological traits that have been linked to homosexuality. Did the trait cause the homosexuality, or did the homosexuality cause the trait? Was it something that was set at birth, or did it occur during development? Again, it's been a while, but it's pretty bold to declare it an open-and-shut case.

Still, that's really beside the point he's arguing. "Without choice, there can be no moral culpability." This argument, I believe, is the achilles heel of his position.

"Without choice," Thomas says. What choice would that be? In general, it would be the choice to sin or not to sin. Thomas intends it be applied to homosexuality, but the general argument should be considered.

I tend not to argue with people when they say that being homosexual isn't a choice. I know that if someone told me not to be attracted to women, it'd take a good deal of brainwashing to make it stick, and even then I can't say relapse would be beyond possibility.

But the Bible never states that being homosexual is a sin. No, it says homosexual acts are sinful. This is a significant difference. I can't help my heterosexual inclinations, yet the Bible also condemns pre-marital sex, adultery, incest, and lust. Yes, I can lust after my wife (should I ever have one), but that's only one woman in the entire world. Is that significantly more restrictive than telling the homosexual that he cannot lust after men?

This is my conclusion, then: If Christianity holds me accountable for heterosexual lust, why shouldn't homosexual lust be made accountable, too? You could argue that no lust should be held as sin, but that is not the argument Thomas makes.

Christianity's Credibility - Part 3

Finally, I want to deal with Thomas' use of scripture to bolster his argument. He deals with it in three parts. I'll sum up his arguments:
  • The Old Testament condemns homosexuality, but Christians don't follow any of the other things in the OT, so why should they worry about this?
This is an argument I've seen before, and it is one that frustrates me in this case because it operates from a position of ignorance about Biblical theology. Thomas has had leadership in Southern Baptist organizations. He should know better.

Even a cursory glance at the Old Testament would tell someone that Christians don't follow most of its precepts. When was the last time you saw a priest butcher a goat and smear its blood on the altar? The reason we don't do so is because Jesus instituted a new covenant, different from the old. The old no longer had to be followed. This is a very important concept to Christian theology.

So then why do Christians even bother with the OT at all? Proper biblical theology acknowledges that the OT laws can be broken up into different types: Theological, Moral, Dietary, Ceremonial, Governmental, etc. The way those laws were split up is important, because the category can determine whether or not Christians should be concerned with it anymore. For example, why should Christians worry about following laws that only concerned the governance of Israel as a nation?

I won't delve into this any deeper, but of great importance is that many of the laws which fall into the theological and moral categories do so because they appear in the New Testament as well. This leads to Thomas' second argument:
  • Paul doesn't actually condemn homosexuality, just pederasty.
Thomas doesn't actually explain this argument very much. Yes, pederasty wasn't unheard of in Greek culture, but that doesn't mean homosexuality wasn't either.

Not to be graphic, but some of the pederasty that was present in Greek culture involved the older man putting his penis between the thighs of the younger man. No penetration was involved. While I'm sure Paul wouldn't have been keen on this, I don't think this is what he was referring to.

As a former professor explained to me, the Greeks had two words for homosexuals, and they were both related to sexual position. Forgive the crudeness of this, but of the two terms, one was for the giver, and the other was for the receiver. When Paul condemns homosexuals, he uses the word for the receiver. If Paul were merely condemning pederasty, he wouldn't have been condemning the receiver.

Even then, there's no hint in the Biblical record that he was talking about pederasty. The text offers no reason to accept that interpretation.
  • Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, so it's not a big deal.
This argument, once again, belies an ignorance of Biblical theology that is unbecoming of a man in Thomas' (former) position.

The Gospel narratives are not encyclopedic. They were meant to capture the essence of Jesus' time on Earth. The disciples would have spent less than three years with him. While there is much contained in those scriptures, it is certainly not three years worth of information. Does this mean that everything left out is completely unimportant?

Yes, this comes off as a "You can't prove he didn't talk about homosexuality" argument, and that ends up falling flat. After all, Christians aren't concerned with what Jesus might have said, we're concerned with what the Bible records him as having said.

But the New Testament is not just the Gospels. While Jesus is by far the most influential and important figure in the New Testament, he is not the only one of importance. The Pauline Epistles, making up a large portion of the NT, are where the condemnations of homosexuality can be found. If Thomas wants to argue that they shouldn't be part of the NT, that's fine, but that is a separate argument and he doesn't make it here. It's completely beside the point to say that Jesus didn't mention something. There's much that Jesus didn't mention that is still morally significant in Christianity.

________________________
This concludes my analysis of Thomas' column. A big hat tip to Dr. Mohler, who has a post about the subject and offers the information about Thomas' former position in the Baptist Church.

Winter Weather - 1 St. Louis - 0

Two days ago, it was almost 70 outside.

Today, everything is covered in a thick layer of ice. Estimates say that ~500k people in the region are without power (or were). Ours finally came back on after being off for about 15 hours overnight. Unfortunately, the net is still down; our satellite dish is probably drooping under the weight of ice, same as the trees all over the area.

Thank goodness for Wi-Fi at Panera, but I have to leave. Not sure when I'll be back to blogging, but it might be a while.