Thursday, January 31, 2008

Evolution: lumpers vs. splitters

The NYTimes is running Dr. Olivia Judson's evolutionary biology BLOG again.

Her latest talks about the endless dialog in biology between lumpers and splitters--i.e., those whose view of evolution focuses on convergence vs. those who focus on historical happenstance. She talked about how cool it would be to run an experiment with 10,000 Earths for a few billion years to see what happened. Here's what I wrote in the Comments section:

I'd love to see that 10,000 Earths experiment. We'll need to add some conditions, though, based on the line of reasoning in the book Rare Earth, which I think has been pretty well substantiated.

1. The suns will all have to be yellow dwarfs like our sun (which is a common type, fortunately). Larger stars aren't stable enough--their temperature rises too quickly (in a cosmological timeframe) to allow any given planet to stay in that star's life zone (i.e. where a planet will have liquid water). Smaller stars build up heavier elements around the fusion core, then occasionally "burp," producing a solar blast that would nuke a planet in the life zone; plus that life zone would be so close to the star that a planet in that location would become gravitationally locked--one side hot enough to boil off the atmosphere, the other cold enough to freeze it.

2. The 10,000 Earths will need 10,000 Moons as big as ours. Our Moon stabilizes our Earth axially--that is, our North Pole is roughly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system in which the planets rotate around the Sun's equator.

Without the Moon the precession of the Earth around its poles would be much greater--it could even lean over so far that a pole faced the Sun. Life could exist on an Earth like this but probably nothing beyond bacteria, as its weather would be too violent for complex organisms.

3. To get our Moon, Earth got smacked by a protoplanet over 4B years ago, during the coalescence of the solar system; the Moon formed from crustal ejecta after this collision, first as a Saturn-like ring, then gradually forming the Moon (which is why it's all crust--no iron core).

None of this means there aren't 10,000 Earths with a moon like ours out there, rotating around a K2 star. It just means that unlike the densely populated universe science fiction generally promotes--planets with complex life like ours--Earths are few and faaar between.

That said, what'll happen on those 10K Earths--the ones that do have a humongous moon like ours & a nice stable K2 star?

Depends on whether you're a lumper or a splitter.

Splitters say it's like the Star Wars cafe--everything imaginable & then some.

Lumpers say maybe they'll mostly turn out like Earth.

Here’s my lumper pitch.

We started out thinking everything was fixed design, as per Genesis. Then we let go of that and assumed it was all chance. Now we know better. We’ve come to see how what we thought was accident turned out to be stark necessity.

For example, our eyes are close to our brains because nerve impulses travel too slowly to put ‘em any farther out. There are a bazillion more examples. What it boils down to is that just as our fantasy that life was everywhere, even on Venus and Mars, turned out to be wishful thinking, our fantasy that advanced life can be as diverse as we see in science fiction, that’s equally wishful thinking.

The proof for me came from scuba diving, which I’ve done all over the world, in depth (so to speak). You’d think the psychedelic variety we see on coral reefs would point me in the other direction, but after a while you start to see how much form follows function—and every critter’s character was hammered out on the anvil of convergent evolution.

And what ecological niche is more demanding than “advanced technology-using planetary top dog?” I bet this niche is mostly filled, across the universe, with bipedal, terrestrial hominids—and I could give you an evolutionary model that goes from coelocanthoids to us, showing how at every step every big alternative would have bit the dust.

People WANT the Star Wars cafĂ©, and for them I’m just being a buzz kill. But the presumption that advanced life forms must be wildly divergent is just that: a presumption. Let me remind readers of the principle of mediocrity—what we see is average.This is a powerful tool for scientific understanding when we’re hypothesizing. The only technological advanced life form (TALF) we know of is us. Your default assumption should be that other TALFs would look pretty much like us unless you can produce a compelling evolutionary model for something else—not the obverse.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hollywood encourages youth to smoke

A recent NYTimes editorial (1/17/8) discussed how prevalent smoking has become in Hollywood movies (75% across the board, including PG, PG-13, and R rated films). Perhaps even worse, they cites stats showing how the depiction of smoking decreased steadily from 1950 to 1990, but by 2002 it had increased again to the same level as it had been in 1950!

The editorial's subhead said "How do we stop young people from taking up smoking?"

I posted a comment to this editorial suggesting that they were asking the wrong question. Smokers die younger than non-smokers--so much younger that they impose a far lighter burden on the healthcare system, despite the expenses caused by their lung cancer/emphysema and whatnot.

So really we should be encouraging youth to smoke (just not around me, thank you).

An added plus: older people vote far more than younger people. By helping the most foolish ones to kill themselves off we'll improve the quality of the American polity. Everybody wins!

The editorial included reader comments, most of whom railed about nanny state-ism and slippery slope-o-rama. I agree with these sentiments.

However, smoking on movie SETS should be banned, for the same reason as smoking in restaurants and bars has been banned--as a safety hazard to those who work there--both the smokers and those forced to breathe their second-hand smoke.

If they want to show smoking, they're welcome to do the same thing they do if they want to show people being killed or spaceships breaking the speed of light--with CGI.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Response to reader comments to a NYTimes editorial about immigration

Of the first 105 respondents to your pro-illegal immigration editorial (, 39% agreed with your position, 49% opposed it, and 12% weren't clearly on one side or the other.

So even in the rarified atmophere of the New York Times' readership a strong plurality appears to oppose your stance on illegal immigration.

In reading all the comments I also observed that a large proportion of those favoring your editorial seemed to think they’d proven their point by calling us nativists or some such—i.e. they tried to change the subject from illegal immigration to our motives. This is a common logical fallacy beloved by both the New York Times editorial board and Karl Rove. Talk about strange bedfellows.

News flash! My motives have no bearing on the quality of my logic or the facts I cite. Hitler advocated the trains running on time. That doesn't make train timeliness bad, nor does my agreement (about trains running on time) make me a Hitler fan.

Namecalling is a hallmark of bigotry—yet in the illegal immigration debate such namecalling has become a hallmark of those who claim to oppose bigotry.

So even among your readers, half vigorously disagree with you. That demands a better response than this editorial’s mix of straw man arguments and namecalling. How about responding to the real arguments made in these comments?

For example, you ignored the fact that every illegal alien is a citizen of some other country—mainly Mexico. And in your proposals you would have American taxpayers pay for the Mexican kleptocracy’s exploitation of its people and the Mexican Catholic Church's domination of social policy there, resulting in Mexico's population exploding from 20 million in 1940 to over 100 million today, with fully half born into poverty, with few prospects for improvement there.

How is this America’s fault? And why does Mexico uniquely qualify for our succor? Of the world’s 139 or so nations, Mexico only ranks 48th in overall poverty. Frankly I’d rather help Iraq’s million Christians who, thanks to us, now mostly huddle in Syria and Jordan, with their money running out. Or how about the starving masses of the Congo, Chad, and Sudan, who face infinitely worse conditions than Mexicans do?

And how can you shill for the greedy plutocrats who mainly profit from illegals’ semi-slave labor? How can you urge the Democratic Party to further alienate itself from its traditional base of working-class Americans of every race and ethnicity in your passion for helping the citizens of Mexico? Illegal alien labor has depressed blue-collar wages 15-25%. Lastly, how can you propose the same amnesty+enforcement “solution” that failed 20 years ago? Another amnesty today will trigger another tidal wave of illegals. What then?

I could be like you. Heck, I speak Spanish. I've lived in Mexico. I'm comfortable in that culture. And I live in an affluent college town that isn't being inundated by illegals. What's happening affects me very little--just like you. But unlike you I care about Americans who don't have my advantages.

Response to yet another NYTmes diatribe about immigration

For the editorial board of the New York Times, illegal immigration is an ideological issue. For those of us who live in the border states it's an everyday in-your-face reality. My state--California--now ranks 48th among states educationally, as a direct result of our schools being flooded with the children of Mexican peasants, a majority of whom drop out before graduation. Our ERs are stuffed with same. Transnational criminal gangs have turned California's prisons into a battleground, while their compadres out on the streets are racially cleansing mixed neighborhoods of blacks.

You call us nativist and restrictionist. I call you isolated, arrogant, full of condescending advice about a reality you've never dealt with. Manhattan is a melting pot where "immigration" means great restaurants with cuisines from all over the world. In the border states it means the formation of a monolithic ethnic enclave comparable to Canada's thorn-in-its side Quebec. Today the most-watched TV station in LA broadcasts only in Spanish, and the Mexican flag decorates innumerable bumpers and back windows.

Nowhere in your hyperbolic editorial did you address the fact that business interests have exploited illegal aliens' labor to drive down blue-collar wages for everyone 15-25%. But I suppose poor whites and blacks--and Hispanic citizens, for that matter--are yesterday's news.

Worst of all, your editorial radiates a smug moral certainty also characteristic of the pronouncements of, say, fundamentalist Christians here or Wahhabist Muslims in the Middle East.

You treat our defense of our society, our culture, our very safety as so contemptible you need to do little more than label us "nativist" and get back to your morning latte.

There are positions that don't deserve respectful disagreement, to be sure. Creationism, for example. All the Creationists' anti-evolution arguments are complete nonsense, and the more scientific terms they use the more nonsensical they get.

So I'm not saying you should treat the two-thirds of Americans who oppose illegal immigration with respect just because. But your arguments and refutations demonstrate the shallowness of your approach. In this you exemplify Saul Steinberg's famous cartoon of the USA as seen though New Yorkers' eyes. You are parochials pretending to be sophisticates.

And the Democrats' candidates all say exactly the same thing as you do. Didn't you notice Barack Obama's extended refutation of the "deport them all" stance that no one has taken (that's called a Straw Man argument)? Didn't you notice Senator Clinton stating "No woman is illegal," then adding that no man is either? Is that what you'd say about the Saudi airplane bombers who were here illegally?

What you dismiss as "restrictionist" works just fine. If I have ants in my kitchen, I have to not leave food out. Then they go away. A majority of illegal aliens will self-deport if we make it impossible for them to earn money here--and to send money back to Mexico.

In your exegesis you failed to mention that you want America to pay for the Mexican government's exploitation of its people and the Catholic Church's domination of social policy there, resulting in Mexico's population exploding from 20 million in 1940 to over 100 million today--vastly more people than its economy can absorb.

How is America at fault for this? It's Mexico's kleptocracy and the 14th century attitude of its dominant religion that produced the population bomb Mexico desperately wants to deposit on our doorstep.

Meanwhile we erect a near-endless wait for the grad students and skilled professionals who want to live and work here, and the million Iraqi Christians our policies have deprived of home and country. Them we could use. More peasants we don't need. All they help is big business in its endless war on the working class--abetted by Volvo liberals like yourselves.

"We" didn't invite these illegal aliens here. Wealthy corporatists did, then outsourced their massive social burden to the taxpayer, while insourcing the profits of their cheap, uncomplaining labor to themselves.

How can you shill for the greedy plutocrats you oppose in every other editorial? How can you urge the Democratic Party to further alienate itself from its traditional base of working-class Americans of every race and ethnicity in your passion for Mexico's citizenry?

I could be like you. Heck, I speak Spanish. I've lived in Mexico. I'm comfortable in that culture. And I live in an affluent college town that isn't being inundated by illegals. What's happening affects me very little--just like you. But unlike you I care about Americans who don't have my advantages.

The New York Times publishing a science section article showing how partisans of the left and right don't process political information with the reasoning part of their brains. You should look up that article, then do some serious introspection.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Heartburn time

This election is giving me so much heartburn. For me every single candidate has at least one total knockout point attached to them.

I maintain that all other things being equal we should vote for a president/governor of the other party than the legislature. But it's also true that all things might not be equal.

It is true that any of the Republicans would veto any real universal healthcare plan--and the remarkably undemocratic structure of the Senate would probably let the mossbacks prevent overriding a presidential veto.

And all the Supreme Court's liberals--mainly moderate Republicans, but that's what "liberal" means on the Supreme Court today--are way old, and the conservative Republicans are relatively young and healthy. So this is another important consideration.

Romneywise, I have some insights into his philosophy, being married to a devout Mormon. But I learned more from reading about Eliza Dushku's mother. Eliza Dushku is an actress who played the renegade vampire slayer Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then later played Tru in Tru Calling and Kirtsten Dunst's sidekick in the movie Bring it On. Turns out her mom is a Mormon feminist (not an oxymoron!) and college professor whose bishop was Mitt Romney for several years. According to her, Romney isn't pandering to the religious far right--he always was like that. He's being honest about his beliefs. He was dishonest to the citizens of Massachusetts when he ran for Governor there, concealing his true beliefs, knowing he'd never get elected unless he seemed more liberal than he was and is.

There isn't a single liberal Republican in the GOP's candidate pool. And that term didn't used to be an oxymoron. There were lots of liberal Republicans. I was one of them as a voter, until the GOP was ethnically cleansed of everyone but radicals.

Of course, given the Winner Take All structure of our voting system, what I think doesn't matter even slightly here in California. All our state's electoral college votes will go to the Democratic candidate. Likewise what you think won't matter either unless you're in one of the relative handful of battleground states.

It would help our democracy enormously if the entire country went to proportional electoral college representation instead of winner take all. Then the candidates would have to listen to all Americans and not just the ones in those battleground states. The nation would still vote close to 50-50. I'm not saying this to give one party an advantage. I'm saying this because it would help all of us, regardless of party.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I don't understand how some people hate their own culture

When my spouse and I were in Indonesia a few months ago, one thing I noticed was how much the people loved their own culture. The Balinese, for example, swim in their culture. They love their Hindu religion, their family compounds in their home villages, their extended families, their island.

I like the Balinese--and their island--a lot. They're a great people and it's a great place. And they like Americans and America--we're their favorite visitors (along with the Japanese). However, the Balinese affection for us doesn't mean they want to turn Bali into America, or that they want a million Americans to move there. A few, sure. No prob. But not so many that their island becomes transformed into Balimerica. Despite their dependence on the tourist trade, they've worked hard to retain their cultural identity--and they've succeeded. Actually, the biggest imposition on the Balinese comes from Indonesia's Islamic officialdom, who have built imposing mosques around Bali, out of which blast the Muslem call to prayer through giant loudspeakers day and night. The Balinese hate it--hate the sheer acoustic imposition, hate the religious arrogance and intolerance it represents, hate their own helplessness to do anything about it.

It just floors me that so many illegal alien advocates show zero comprehension of these basic cultural facts. People. Like. Their. Own. Culture. And even when they welcome change, they just about never welcome seeing their own culture shoved aside and replaced with another one.

Why do so many amnesty advocates not get this? Why do some even go so far as to root for their own culture's demise?

When I was a college commie I knew a bunch of people like this. I figured they must have had tyrannical fathers, and they'd come to associate their country with Bad Dad. But that's just armchair psychologizing. I really don't know. Maybe I should get it. All intellectuals have to make their peace with their own society, because to some degree we'll always be strangers in our own land. Nevertheless I get it. I get Thanksgiving turkey dinner (even though I also love mole poblano [which was originally made with turkey of course]). I get Christian hymns and dreidels, even though I'm neither Christian nor Jewish. I get Ford F150 pickup trucks, even though I own a VW van. I get the Star Spangled Banner (which I can sing, unlike many Americans, despite its wide range, as long as it's transposed a bit). Do these people not get all this? Do the trappings of our culture fill them with fear and loathing?

Or are they like Neville Chamberlain seeking Peace in Our Time, without reckoning the long-term damage they're promoting?

None of this has any bearing of the validity of their arguments or ours. But it does have a bearing on the framework within which those arguments take place. If they place no value on our society--or even actively dislike it--then of course they should cheer on this invasion. Or if they reject nationality (without, of course, giving up the enormous benefits they derive from theirs) and the very idea of borders, then again they should cheer on this invasion. And any arguments my side would be irrelevant, since they all stand on different premises.

So let's argue premises--once those opposing America's identity and culture and sovereignty give up the benefits they derive from all that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Answer to a science denier (i.e. a Creationist)

This was a post to an evolution vs. creationism forum hosted by

Actually I put it to you that it's impossible to be a Creationist and a Christian. They're diametrically opposed theologies. Creationism is to Christianity what hominy grits is to fresh steamed corn on the cob. Grits takes corn and removes everything that's nourishing and healthy about it, then serves up what's left in bacon fat, usually.

That is, trying to shrink the Bible into a mere historical record--a thing of facts and dates--takes one's focus away from its purpose: to convey purpose, meaning, to make things luminous. That's exactly what Christ accused the Pharisees of doing--of focusing on the Letter, to the neglect of the Spirit. But the Letter without the Spirit is an empty chalice.

The theologian Karen Armstrong discusses this in her book The Battle For God (

It's a history of fundamentalism in all three Abrahamic religions, and though she's pretty opinionated, most of what she says is factual and should be readable by both the faithful and the faithless (so to speak).

Her thesis is that fundamentalism purports to restore each religion to what it was before the modern secular world, ah, evolved--but that they're actually modern reactions to secular empiricism that seek to co-opt secular analytic tools. But in doing so they destroy both religion and secular thought.

I can't prove what I'm about to say but I've got a strong hunch that them as wrote the Bible never imagined it would be treated as a big book of facts--that it was always about the whys of existence, not the whats.

But even if they did think it so, millions of Christians certainly think otherwise, including the two thirds of all American scientists who say they're Christians.

We insult the Discovery Institute because it's a perversion of both religion and science. I find it genuinely painful to watch its "documentaries" or try to read its writings. But I do agree that even if we mock something it crosses the line to stoop to childish namecalling and vulgarities. That always says more about the speaker than the spoken to.

I'm in the interesting position of being a pure empiricist (as opposed to, say, a theist or an atheist) who's been happily married to a devout Christian for decades, and with whom I attend church every Sunday. The reglious part means exactly nothing to me but I find the music inspiring, as well as the sense of community I perceive among the congregation, which, this being a college town, includes a number of PhDs, MDs, LLds etc. Also, curiously enough, my spouse belongs to a Christian religion that takes no stand on evolution one way or another--it simply stays out of it. And as for the Bible, it says that it is true "insofar as it has been correctly translated." I know both science accepters and science deniers in the congregation, though I generally associate more with the former than the latter, of course.

Science is not your enemy. Science only affirms and denies that which can be described and predicted quantitatively. So theology lies outside of science. That's why no scientist can be an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of god. A scientist, at most, should only reply to the question "Do you believe in God?" by saying "Sorry, I don't understand the question." Because in scientific terms God can only be described tautologically. That's not a knock on faith--I'm just saying faith isn't a scientific something. It's something else. Religious people can be studied anthropologically and psychologically but not the religion itself.

If you want an enemy, try our current President. He is the direct cause of more Christians being killed and ethnically "cleansed" than any single person in the last 50 years or more. You see, when we invaded and occupied Iraq, we did it with too few people to maintain civil order, as you can see from the guidelines in the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. In the absence of civil order, the only institution Saddam hadn't demolished was the religious institutions, and out of the Muslim ones came fanatical militias intent on, among other things, getting rid of the Christian subculture that had been in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years. So many Christians have been murdered and churches bombed that Iraq's million or so remaining Christians are mostly in Syria and Jordan. Iraq did the same thing to its Jews back around the time of Israel's establishment, BTW. I guess it's what Muslims do. But they wouldn't have done it if we'd invaded properly instead of violating every principle of war that Von Clausewitz had laid down, or not invaded at all and focused on the country that actually attacked us.

So Bush is the greatest enemy of Christianity on Earth today, along with the Republican Party poo-bahs that backed him up every moronic step of the way.

Do something about him if you want to defend Christianity. Even now you could be working to let those Christians come to America. We owe them, unlike the Mexicans who are actually coming over. Instead we have refused to let any but a handful of Iraqis immigrate, because to do so would be to admit the enormity of our blunders. Right now--today--literally a million Christians are huddled in refugee camps and cheap flats, running out of money, knowing not where they can turn. A majority are women and children and oldsters, because the Sunni and Shiite militias have killed so many of the able-bodied men.

Doesn't worrying about evolution's theoretical dissonance with what some imagine to be Christianity seem to be kind of...wrongly prioritizing things?

Answers to common assertions by immigration amnesty advocates

At the Democratic presidential candidate debate before the New Hampshire primary, none of the questions were about illegal immigration, because the mainstream media outlets that ran the debate decided that illegal immigration wasn't worth bringing up, since Democrats don't care about this issue and because all the candidates agree about what to do (grant them all amnesty except for felons except for felons guilty of identity theft I guess). I mentioned this on an immigration forum and was told by amnesty advocates on the forum that the mainstream media was right and anyway immigration was only a problem in the minds of loony racist right-wingers. Here's my response:

Re: "Immigration is a non-issue except in the border states."

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll of all registered voters last week asked what was "the most important issue to your vote for president?"
now December
Economy 34% 29%
Iraq 25% 23%
Healthcare 18% 20%
Immigration 10% 14%
Terrorism 9% 10%

However, immigration shows more variation between the parties than any other topic. It's the top issue for 20% of Republicans but only 4% of Democrats. So if all the Democratic contenders need is Democratic votes to win, they can safely ignore immigration--they can even pander to pro-illegal immigration special interest groups, as Clinton and Obama are vying with each other to do.

But Democrats can't get elected with only Democratic votes; nor can Republicans. For anyone to win he/she need independent centrist votes. And I'm pretty sure independents are nearly as concerned with illegal immigration as Republicans are.

Now of course the traditional tactic has been to pander to your party's base--the hard-liners--by telling them what they want to hear, then moderating your pitch after the convention to suck in the moderates. But that was before YouTube. Now you'd better tell any one special interest group only what you want the general electorate to hear.

The only real alternative is to pander to your side's special interests, then accuse moderates of being racist or somethingelse-ist if they challenge the pander. Both Clinton and Obama are already doing this sort of race-baiting, in the good old Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson mold.

To which I say--keep it up if you want John McCain to be our next president. YouTube brought down Senator Allen with his idiotic Macaca Moment. And the Left is just as vulnerable to this kind of exposure as the Right is.

re: "This wave of immigration will quickly assimilate just like immigrants always have."

To which I say--the Past isn't always Prologue. Things change, circumstances differ. Yes, you should know the lessons of history. In this case, immigrant waves have generally assimilated. But several things are different here. These immigrants' home country is next door. Previous waves of immigrants had to be more ambitious to get here. It's getting harder to cross the border, but it's still a lot different from traveling thousands of miles from your homeland and your culture to get here.

This means the vast numbers of Mexicans here have not had the pressure to assimilate--to learn English, to learn American culture--that any previous wave of migration has experienced. And it shows up in their children, who drop out of high school in astonishing numbers--so much so that California ranks 48th in the nation in dropout rates.

re: the blase attitude towards whoever happens to come here.

This is an area where liberals and conservatives differ profoundly. Conservatives say "Why should the government of Mexico be allowed to decide who immigrates to America?" Liberals say: "It's not the Mexicans' fault. They just want a place to live and work. We must accommodate them or we'd be inhumane racists." Conservatives answer: It's not our fault either. America should get to decide who lives here, just like every single other country on Earth believes.

And in this area I believe the vast majority of independents agree with the conservatives, even though they differ strongly with both religious fundamentalist conservatives and big business conservatives in their areas of interest.

And just because every previous wave of immigration has been accused of bringing in disease and crime and wage depression doesn't mean it's false. Actually previous large waves of immigration have depressed wages, as even liberal economist Paul Krugman has conceded. And the airy-fairy reassurance that some day wages will improve doesn't do much for Joe Lunchbox today, and it does even less for inner-city blacks.

Here's a way to bring up wages right away: check social security numbers and fire anyone who doesn't match and who, upon double-checking the facts, turns out to be a felon (remember, identity theft is a felony). Adopt a universal biometric ID, the bete noir of nearly all liberals and many conservatives. Amend the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship to any but the offspring of citizens. Deny all social services but emergency healthcare to illegal aliens.

Under those circumstances most will self-deport.

Of course liberals call all those measures cruel and unjust. But that's because they don't think much of the value of rule of law, which they regard as a meaningless abstraction. I know better because of the time I've spent in countries that don't have this. I bet most people who diss rule of law haven't had such experiences and are, consequently, talking through their hats.