Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A REAL raise in minimum wage

"I'm tired of your crap! I work way too hard to put up with all the garbage this job throws at me, and for what? Some measly pittance? You start paying me more, or I'm taking my services elsewhere! What do you say to that, eh?"

. . .

"On second thought, I think my compensation is more than adequate, sir."

Hat tip: Slublog

Monday, July 30, 2007

Massively-Multiplayer Science

It's always been that way, hasn't it? Still, an article appearing in the latest issue of Science left me with curiosity, though not much more respect for the usefulness, for the work of sociologists.

A researcher has taken to studying virtual worlds, including such popular destinations as Second Life and World of Warcraft, where in the latter he has 11 characters. Having always carried a bit of skepticism for the work of sociology, I take this to be somewhat of an excuse to play MMOs all day on the NSF's dime. His research assistants must be pleased as punch to have him as their advisor.

Still, as much as he talks of finding interesting things to study about social interaction and the reproduction of social elements in the virtual worlds, I can't help but wonder whether the 14-35 year old, basement-dwelling male population has that much to offer.

But then, science can be funny like that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter: OOTP Video game

First, let's preface this: Yes, I'm a huge nerd.

Now that the confessional is done, I should tell you that I've been playing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the Wii. Despite outward appearances, it's actually pretty fun.

Have you seen the movie yet? I wouldn't suggest playing the game if you haven't. The game follows the movie closely, both in story and in visuals. As you progress through the game, you can unlock interviews with the cast and the designers, detailing how they used the cast members' faces as models for the in game characters. In fact, 22 of the cast members provide voices for the game. The game feels authentically as if you've been plopped down into Harry Potter's shoes, at least in the movie.

*Spoilers ahead*

Unfortunately, because there are so many parts of the book/movie that can't be translated well into a game, the story bounces around a lot. By the time you're done with the tutorial, you're already organizing the DA.

Additionally, small inconsistencies crop up as well. Harry is supposed to "teach" people as part of the DA. However, whenever it's time for a new spell to come up, Hermione is the one teaching it to you first. A minor quibble, since the player has to learn the moves, but purists would do well to take the bug out of their butt before picking this one up.

The charm of the game is the control scheme. The nunchuck controls Harry's movement while the wii-mote is waved around like a wand. Moving the controller in certain ways will activate certain spells, such as Wingardium Leviosa (levitate objects), Accio (draw objects towards you), and Reparo (repair objects). You'll use your small arsenal of spells to solve the puzzles you're confronted with, although some of them won't make much sense.

The largest part of the game is Hogwarts itself. You're free to wander the entire campus (using your Marauder's Map for guidance, of course), discovering little secrets here and there along the way. This is both great and tedious; as many hours as I've spent in this game, most of it has been in the way of chores around the castle. You'll find yourself fixing statues, reassembling suits of armor, putting paintings back on the wall, sweeping up puddles of water, and more. If you enjoy games that have oodles of secrets and easter eggs, especially Harry Potter easter eggs, then this part will be right up your alley. Otherwise, it's just something interesting to do while you roam the vast corridors of Hogwarts.

While there are minor frustrations to be found, both in game play and in implementation, the experience is still entertaining. I've had fun running around, solving puzzles and exploring the castle. The developers were even able to license the music from the movie, which does wonders for bringing the game world to life.

Nuts to Gamespot. I give this one a 7/10. If you're a Harry Potter fan and own a Wii, go get this game.

Update
Wow. I hadn't finished the game when I wrote this earlier, but now I have. This game is short. If you don't spend your time wandering around doing the "sidequests" (finding easter eggs), the game is very fast. Find the DA . . . make trouble for Umbridge . . . fight the Deatheaters/Voldemort . . . the end. Yikes.

What's disappointing is the Ministry of Magic scenes. With as much as the movie left out, this would have been a perfect place for the game to recapture some of the scenes from the book. This would have been a terrific place to explore, have some puzzles, etc. Instead, it played out as one long cutscene. What an utter waste of the material.

I have to regrade this one to a 5/10. The game still has all the charm it had before, and it's still neat to run around, find secrets, see the interviews, hear the music and the voices.

But.

For $50, I expect quite a bit more game time than this one offered. Without the padding of the secrets to discover, this game would be almost empty. It seems to be a case of "movie tie-in," which never bodes well for a game.

Which is such a shame, as I was enjoying this one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2007

John Edwards, eat your heart out

Oh, this is just too delicious for words. My all time "favorite" politician, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has put himself in hot water. Apparently, right before his most recent State of the State speech, G-Rod payed a make-up artist $600 to doll him up and offer advice on ideal lighting. Worse yet, he paid for it with state funds.

This guy makes John Edwards look like an amateur. I think we have a new 'Silky Pony' or 'Pink Sapphire' or whatever people are calling him these days.

In all seriousness, I hope they do correct the error, but does anyone not see him for what he is now? A man who claims to be so concerned for the poor and downtrodden that he wants to spend money Illinois doesn't have on universal healthcare, yet he'll spend that same money on make-up? He's not a hero, he's an opportunist.

I hope the Illinois GOP is paying attention, because this will make for incredibly effective commercial material when Rod's up for re-election.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

When Cultures Collide

I've been mulling this post over for a while, even though there's nothing really critical in it. I've just noticed some oddities lately and thought I might share them. As much as we might complain about foreign cultures not assimilating to Western/American culture, you do see signs of it sometimes. These transitory stages of a changing culture can be interesting, even amusing, to observe. In this case, both of my observations relate to Islamic customs regarding women's attire.

As I'm sure you know, many muslim women wear the hijab, the scarf covering most of the head and neck. A while back, I saw a woman wearing the hijab talking as she walked. She was alone, so I assumed she was using a headset to a cell phone. (This in itself has become an oddity. We used to think that people talking to themselves were insane. Now we just assume they're on the phone. Sometimes I think the difference is negligible.)

However, when she came within closer inspection, I realized I'd been wrong. Oh, she was on a cell phone all right. In her case, though, she'd simply slipped the whole thing into her hijab, wrapped so tightly that it held the phone to her ear. I thought to myself, "There's something you don't see every day." Maybe it's just me, but I found it amusing.

My other anecdote could be filed in a similar category as my previous musings on "Christian cleavage."

Universal Studios in Orlando has a section called "City Walk." It's filled with restaurants, many of which become night clubs after hours, so it's not unusual to see a stream of people coming in for late night revelry.

One night, when we were on our way in for dinner, I saw a group of three muslim women also heading in, noticeable for their hijabs. As I understand it, the veil is to be worn for purposes of modesty, which is typically taken a few steps further with burkhas and nikabs (The veil covering all but the eyes). Most muslim women I've seen in America, even if they're not wearing burkhas, will still wear full length clothing all the time (pants, long skirts, long sleeved shirts, etc.).

So, I was somewhat confused by the dress of these women. Yes, they were still wearing long clothing, but it was long clothing made about as sexy as you can make it. The skirts were tight, their shirts and jackets too, and cut low enough to start showing off some skin. They were even wearing high heels, which I'd always been told were to help show off one's posterior. In all, slightly less "modest" than the head scarf might lead you to believe.

Now, I'm making no judgements on these women, nor saying I'd prefer them in that hideous amorphous bundle ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia. As I said before, I find the convergence of American culture, with its "sexy" clothing, and Islamic culture, with the hijab and its expectation of modesty, to be somewhat amusing.

Silly anecdotes, yes, but this blog is all about the silly.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another meme? Don't mind if I do

The rules are simple…Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
Anywyn tagged Slublog, and he notified me. Sounds like fun. I don't usually talk about myself on here, but why not?

1. Both of them mentioned this, but it holds true for me as well; I like to read when I eat. My day usually doesn't begin until I've had my bowl of Cheerios with the opinions page. Unfortunately, my cat likes to enjoy my Cheerios too, usually while laying on the paper.

2. I'm terrible at first impressions. So many of my friends have told me that I came off as a pompous jerk at the start, but only later discovered the better part within. I'm never quite sure how to take that news.

3. I hate exercising. Not that you wouldn't realize it looking at my physique, but it's so intimidating doing it in front of other people. There's always either some high school football player watching me lift and thinking, "He's benching 90? Aw, that's adorable!" or an attractive woman walking into the room right at the end of my sets, only to see me struggling with a set of 5 lb. weights. Terrific.

4. I love spicy food. There's not a lot of places that can get food spicy enough for me. I've eaten Hooters' "infamous" wings once, and their spiciest sauce was nothing. Sometimes my father and I will eat jalapeƱos straight from the jar.

5. I'm terrible at small talk. I've always been told that in polite company, or when first meeting someone, there are three things you don't talk about: Politics, religion, and money. I don't know much about the third, and as you can tell, the other two are about the only things I can talk endlessly about. Most social gatherings, people start talking about American Idol and I find myself wondering how I could turn it into a blogpost. And here we are.

6. My ideal wardrobe is somewhat unorthodox. If you ever watch Two and a Half Men, pay attention to Charlie Sheen's outfits. I'd dress that way if I could find enough shirts like that which didn't have dragons all over them.

7. I play trombone. Well, "played" might be the better term. I haven't touched the thing in years. I just haven't had occasion to pick it up. It's not like a guitar that you can just pick it up and start jammin' and your friends think you're this awesome hipster. Nothing kills a party faster than a rousing trombone solo.

8. I hate theme parks. Sorry, I know people think they're great fun, but I just don't do roller coasters. I get motion sick pretty easily, so even relatively gentle rides are enough for me. Incidentally, this makes flying an intolerable chore for me, too. Although, my hate for flying isn't just the motion. You can survive a car accident. How many people survive plane crashes?

Wasn't that fun? Now comes the hard part . . . I'm not sure a lot of the blogs I read would respond to something like this. Let's see here . . . Nicole, Dr. Church, The Expert, Murphy . . . you're all on notice.

It's like a koala crapped a rainbow in my brain!

So, my friend Nicole introduced me to this online game called Odd Pawn. It's a game of thinking and riddles, but for the internet age.

A lot of it will ask you to solve the puzzle by using Photoshop (or something similar) to look for clues in a picture, solve an anagram to get a clue, find clues in the source code for the actual page, or even just utilize Google effectively. It's a pretty clever approach to puzzles in the internet age.

The first 10 levels act like a tutorial, teaching you to utilize the various "tools" you'll need to find the answer. After that, they're brutally unforgiving. When they stop asking actual questions is when I get confused, or providing much in the way of clues. Some of them require you to be familiar with certain concepts, so you're out of luck if you're not. Suffice it to say, it made my brain jump for joy and weep for mercy simultaneously.

Take a stab at it and let me know how far you made it. I left off at level 15.

God of the Psychological Gap

If you read any of the Amazon.com reviews related to The Language of God (see my review here), you'd know that one of the common complaints about Collins's book is that, while he decries the use of "God of the Gaps" type explanations, he seems to fall into one himself, no pun intended.
Side note: I can't recall anymore. Is it correct to say Collins' or Collins's?
The complaint stems from Collins emphasis on CS Lewis's "moral law." He thinks that our inability to escape certain aspects of morality and altruism is an indication of divine origin. His critics argue that Collins essentially brushes off evolution-based, scientific arguments for the origins of human morality and settles for a "God of the Gaps" himself.

This has led me to ponder the problem a bit. How do you explain human morality from a naturalistic perspective?

As a scientist, I can only say that basing the answer on principles of evolutionary theory is no better than philosophical rhetoric. It leaves you with a hypothesis, and hypotheses must be tested if you're looking for a scientific answer.

So, how do you examine the origins of human morality? I can think of only two ways: Animal studies and computer models.

Here's an example of such a study: Researchers took rats and put them in connected cages with a wire mesh between them. Rats on one side of the cage would pull a lever, which caused rats on the other side to receive a treat (an oat flake). In Science magazine's most recent podcast, they talked about a similar study involving monkies and watermelon slices.

The results showed that untrained rats who were paired with trained rats in these scenarios became more likely to pull the lever for others. The study is thought to indicate something about altruism in rats, which might indicate origins for humanity.

Hm . . . maybe. I'm not so certain. First, they used rats who were trained to pull the lever. I'm not sure you can use this as any sort of indication of natural behavior. But then the untrained rats picked up on the behavior. Was this reciprocity, or were they imitating the observed behavior? I can't conclude which way, being neither an animal behavior specialist nor able to view their data, but I'm left quite skeptical. Such controlled situations do not go very far in convincing me that animals further down the evolutionary ladder imitate our uniquely human traits.

Then what of computer studies? The most recent Science podcast discussed a computer model for the development of justice systems in societies. The researcher on the other end of the phone tended to mumble quite a bit (they all do), but I gathered that "people" in the model tended to opt out of justice systems because doing actual punishment was too costly to society. Involvement became higher when other conditions were added in, though now I don't recall what those were.

I'm not really sure what this would indicate about humanity, but I'm a big skeptic of computer models of this nature. It's the old GIGO principle: Garbage In, Garbage Out. In other words, because you are programming into this model all of your assumptions and preconceptions, as well as putting a hard limit on the variables involved, the model is going to come out in a very specific way. If those assumptions are off or you've neglected variables, the model is worthless.
From my perspective, human behavior is too complicated to accurately model with computers. Yes, you can use observed principles and averages to predict outcomes, but this will never substitute for the wild unpredictability of human nature.

(Of course, Scott Adams would have a thing or two to say about the "unpredictability" of human nature, but that's not the issue at hand)

So, what's the conclusion here? I must admit my ignorance on the subject. I don't know hardly anything about the field, so there might be much more convincing studies out there. However, animal studies and computer models, at least from what I've seen, don't convince me.

This doesn't completely exonerate Collins in the "God of the Gap" accusation, but I think it's a start.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

If you can't beat 'em, sue 'em

Seeing the clashes between homosexuals and different churches in the news is always interesting. I can't help but wonder why gays and lesbians focus so intently on church approval, either by persuasion or by force of lawsuit, but they seem to want it badly. I suppose it speaks to something philosophical, something about human nature and the appeal of the church. Hm . . .

In any event, a lesbian couple in New Jersey is suing a Methodist group because they were denied facility use for their civil union ceremony.

Now, they're not suing a church. The facility is a campground, which makes things a bit more interesting. Still, because it is a campground owned and run by Methodist organization, I don't foresee the lawsuit going anywhere. The couple is arguing that the campground is public domain and you can't discriminate when it comes to public domain. Any judge who decided that a campground owned by a religious organization is public property would not only be barking up the wrong tree, but opening up an insane can of worms. It seems as though that could lead to any religious property being labeled public domain, and that would pretty much send that whole "church/state" part of the 1st Amendment out the window.

Again, I don't see the lawsuit going anywhere. I find the entire case rather interesting, though. What is the purpose here? Is it that the campground holds some sort of religious significance to the two? Or is it a political goal, attempting to make the Methodist church (among others, if the lawsuit were successful) bow to the will of the homosexual activists? The article doesn't say. Either would come with interesting implications and consequences.

Still, I'm curious to see how this will play out.

Hat tip: Moonbattery

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer Movies! Yeah!

I must admit, the summer movie season has been very good to us this year. Spiderman 3, Shrek 3, Harry Potter 5 in a week . . . yes, sequels, but I enjoyed them, despite their flaws.

I saw a few other new movies lately, and thought I'd offer my snippet of a review(s).

Transformers
To be honest, there's nothing I can say about this that Shamus didn't say quite eloquently. The movie is a technical marvel, and quite a joy to just observe. That said, some of the camera work left you feeling like you just stepped out of the Tilt-a-Whirl, and some aspects of the story just didn't pass the fantasy filter, even in a movie about giant robots from outer-space.

Still, he's right: It's like everything was turned up to 11 and left that way until the credits rolled. And for those of us who like action movies, that is a good thing. Go see it.

Ratatouille
I've always been a huge fan of Pixar's work. The Incredibles was a movie that took me back to 5th grade, watching X-Men on Saturday mornings and ready to tape pencils to the back of my hands and pretend to be Wolverine. Great movie.

This movie really hits the mark. It's a comedy, and it is really satisfying, even for adults. There was hardly a moment I wasn't laughing in the theatre, so it did the job for me. And, as usual, the short film Pixar always has before the main feature is there, and this one's a hoot. I can't recommend this movie enough.

On a bit of a side note, I payed some attention to the graphics when I saw Shrek 3, and again when I saw Ratatouille. Dreamworks really improved their graphics, as far as I can tell, since Shrek 2. Everything just looked phenomenal. Pixar made great improvements for Ratatouille, but they didn't seem as pronounced as those Dreamworks made. Still, Pixar always did a good job, so it's not as big of a deal.

I still have to see Live Free or Die Hard, and I can't wait to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I'm not sure what else is in the summer movie line-up, but it's been so very good so far.

A Muslim Christian or a Christian Muslim?

Perhaps you heard about this a few weeks ago: An Episcopal priest made the news because she declared herself to be both a Christian and a Muslim. Sound silly? It ought to. Such a synthesis is only possible when both faiths are stripped of everything that makes them meaningful and are reduced to banal platitudes and empty theology. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon in the Episcopal church in America, at least if the news stories are any indication.

In any event, the church hasn't descended too far into lunacy, as she's been stripped of her position and leadership roles for a year. I imagine she'll need to rethink her faiths until then. She seems a bit defiant, but a year is a long time.

Hat tip: Dr. Mohler

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Review: The Language of God

I'm actually not quite done with the book, but the last chapter is more of an addendum, discussing bioethics for Christians, so it's not well connected to the rest of the book. At this point, I feel it fair to review the main argument of the book. I can't fault Collings as a scientist. The guy helped crack open the human genome! As a philosopher, however, he leaves me wanting.

There are three general parts to the book. In part I, Collins writes about his own journey of faith, borrowing heavily from CS Lewis' Mere Christianity to describe how he left atheism, and describe the general conflict of worldviews inherent in the "evolution vs. Christianity" battle. Part II is Collins' attempt to describe the more recent findings of science as they relate to the conflict (cosmology, microbiology, etc.) and either show how they work to the advantage of Christianity or use them to rebut the arguments of literalist creationists.

It's in this part that I start to feel frustrated with the book. Though Collins' is right to keep a firm grasp on the science and use it to knock down some of the loonier arguments made by others, I feel that he abuses some of the arguments. He constantly harps on the "God of the Gaps," assigning God as a black box to cover up anything we don't understand. Which is fine, he rightly finds this argument lacking. However, I fear he takes it too far.

If you believe that God is in control of the universe, that no atom vibrates without God's approval, then it is not wrong to say that God causes some phenomena. It strikes me as unfair to confuse the agent and the mechanism, but Collins bundles them together everytime. Collins simply takes to task those who would insert "a miracle" (i.e. magic) when asked for the mechanism.

In a related note, Collins also does not handle the Creationist arguments well. Essentially, when using the complexity of the human genome to point out the evidence for human evolution and common ancestry, he continually asks, "Why would God do X if we weren't descended from a common ancestor?" This is a poor argument, stemming from the same logical fallacy as the question of evil ("Why does God allow evil?"). It results in someone saying, "God couldn't have done this because I wouldn't do it this way." But can you presume to know the mind of God so much as to say so? Would you limit God so much? Granted, the argument does have some merit, but Collins handles it poorly.

Finally, in part III, Collins explores the four philosophical possibilities, and explains why his works and the others don't. They are Atheism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Theistic Evolution (or BioLogos, as he prefers to call it). I'll give Collins credit that he spends a chapter or two examining Genesis and quoting Augustine in arguing for a non-literal interpretation of the text. However, I'm afraid he never takes things all the way.

Collins never fully explains what his position is. He tends to float around it, arguing for the existence of God and the truth of evolutionary theory (and all that goes with it), but then doesn't really go much further. There's a bit of flowery, poetic language about how beautiful and graceful life and science are and how God couldn't be anywhere else but there, but he declines to go into further detail. When it comes to the heart of his philosophy, he leaves it at, "God does evolution."

I'm not sure he ever intended to go further in the book with his philosophy than that, or whether he himself has explored it any further. The major purpose of the book was to show that Christianity must not be antithetical to science, and that science does not disprove Christianity. This he does a decent job of, but he leaves people who have already reached those conclusions hanging at the end of the book.

If you've not explored the general Science vs. God philosphy before then the book makes a great introduction for you, especially if you're in either of the camps described in the paragraph above. However, for people like myself, trying to nail down the specifics of where theology and science must ultimately coincide, the book will not answer many questions.

I give it a 6/10. Good, not great.