October 2005


There once was a poet named Sam;
Into measureless caverns he swam,
Down the sacred Alph stream
In a laudanum dream,
Where he feasted on green eggs and ham.

October 2005

Design Comedy

Well, if your numeracy skills are up to understanding "esoteric" concepts like "orders of magnitude," you'll appreciate the absurdity. Read what Michael Behe was forced to admit under oath about a biological system he claimed was "irreducibly complex." Here's the summary:

And remember, the core of Behe's entire argument for ID is that irreducibly complex systems cannot evolve. Yet what does he admit under oath that his own study actually says? It says that IF you assume a population of bacteria on the entire earth that is 7 orders of magnitude less than the number of bacteria in a single ton of soil...and IF you assume that it undergoes only point mutations...and IF you rule out recombination, transposition, insertion/deletion, frame shift mutations and all of the other documented sources of mutation and genetic variation...and IF you assume that none of the intermediate steps would serve any function that might help them be preserved...THEN it would take 20,000 years (or 1/195,000th of the time bacteria have been on the earth) for a new complex trait requiring multiple interacting mutations - the very definition of an irreducibly complex system according to Behe - to develop and be fixed in a population.

It does make me wonder how much longer an intelligent guy like Behe can continue maintaining the cognitive dissonance. When will he (or when did he) realise how wrong he was?

Evil is like a song

At least in the ways people try to understand it.

I was reading an extract from a speech by Amos Oz and it triggered a few rambling thoughts. Consider two hypothetical people trying to understand the nature of song. Each has a very limited view, so please be patient with them.

The simple mystic asks: Is a song a spiritual gift? Was it waiting in the ether for its incarnation in human voice? Or, was it always part of its composer's heart, waiting to be expressed?

The simple mechanist claims: A song is a series of mathematically modelable pressure variations in the atmosphere. At the next level up, it's a broad pattern of smaller repeating and changing patterns of vibrations.

The mechanistic view can be used to analyse a song in great detail, but without studying how lyrics + music + personal memories + emotional state interact, we've fallen short of understanding the power of a song. It's an inadequate and extremely unsatisfying description, but that's no reason to throw away all that has been learned of the mechanical aspects of song and revert to the simple mystic's superstitious pondering.

So it is with our understanding of evil. The failure of modern social science to fully explain "evil" and understand the human condition is not a reason to reject all that has been gained. Discarding the findings of modern studies and reverting to superstitious stories that were formulated within a religious mind-set doesn't provide any enlightenment; it promotes ignorance. Blind romanticism may be more comfortable than the uncertainty and inadequacy of social science, but there is still a baby in the bath water (even if it's an ugly one).

Let's now return to Amos Oz. He states:

"Personally, I believe that every human being, in his or her heart of hearts, is capable of telling good from bad. Even when they pretend not to. We have all eaten from that tree of Eden whose full name is the tree of knowledge of good from evil.

The same distinction may apply to truth and lies: just as it is immensely difficult to define the truth, yet quite easy to smell a lie, it may sometimes be hard to define good; but evil has its unmistakable odour: every child knows what pain is. Therefore, each time we deliberately inflict pain on another, we know what we are doing. We are doing evil."

And later in his speech:

"Of course, we might occasionally take wrong turns. But even as we take a wrong turn, we still know what we are doing. We know the difference between good and evil, between inflicting pain and healing, between Goethe and Goebbels. Between Heine and Heydrich. Between Weimar and Buchenwald. Between individual responsibility and collective kitsch."

Oz hammers home his clear dichotomy of good and evil as if there were no such thing as a moral dilemma in this non-idealistic world. Sorry, Oz, it's not that easy in the real world. He also assumes each of us has not only a knowledge of the ramifications of our actions, but also perfect empathy. He claims that we all know what we are doing, deep down. These assumptions show that he hasn't learned the lessons learned by modern psychology. Time and time again we see the evil that arises when good natured people act on the sincerely held beliefs of their cultures. Some of the worst atrocities are committed by those who believe themselves to be doing the right thing for all the right reasons.

Fortunately the quoted excerpt ends with a sentiment with which I can agree:

"Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative. And finally, imagining the other - if you promise not to quote this little professional secret - imagining the other is also a deep and very subtle human pleasure."

Empathy is extremely important. In fact, I'd go so far as to define: Evil is the triumph of ignorance over empathy.

Feral Fascinations

Don't be afraid to tell me where you've been
As though I wouldn't understand the lure
Of wildness when compared with dull routine.
You'll never know what's howling on the moor
Unless you leave the mansion's nervous light
And gratify your passion to explore.
Don't worry that I'll run away in fright
Or shudder with revulsion and disdain
On finding you've been dancing with the night.
I'll never need to ask you to explain
Your feral fascinations and that spark
Of quickening your bearing can't contain.
Don't be afraid to lead me through the dark:
Those paw prints that you're following--they're mine.

Tap Dancing

He's Terrence the talented tap dancing tapir;
He struts with staccato; he stomps.
He proudly peruses reviews in the paper—
The raves for his rollicking romps.
With intricate clamor he clowns and he capers
To audiences awed at his art.
He's Terrence, a tormented tap dancing tapir
Who's hurting and heavy of heart...

While at the ballet in his tux and toupee
(To crank up his cultural learning)
A tapir, Bettina, a lean ballerina
Awakened an uncontrolled yearning.
She was svelte; she was slender; he swooned and surrendered
His soul at first sight to this dancer,
But the bouquet of blooms that he sent to her room
Was returned to our luckless romancer:

"Dear Terrence 'the talented tap dancing tapir',
So sorry to send back your gift.
Bettina's in need of no noisy shoe-scraper;
Distractions don't pay. Get my drift?
She shall not be catching the clog-clodding capers
You wryly refer to as 'art'.
In short, she's no time for a tap dancing tapir.
Sincerely, Bett's Manager, Bart."

Thus Terrence was thwarted; his cast was contorted;
In rage he could only see red.
Beset and besotted, he pondered and plotted
How Bart might be better off dead.
It chafed him and chewed him; each night it imbued
All his dreams with interminable torments,
So one night at Bart's flat—boots and cane, bowler hat—
He produced an impromptu performance.

Now Terrence (the talented tap dancing tapir)
Took breakfast and read of Bart's end.
"Police were perplexed," so it said in the paper,
"As to why one would trample the friend,
Mentor, manager, muse, chaperone and star-shaper
Of prima-performer Bettina."
At this our victorious tap dancing tapir
Guffawed like a half-wit hyena.

When tired of his braying he wrote to her saying,
"Dear Bettina, I offer my heart.
I guess my last gift had been given short shrift
By your kind but unfortunate Bart.
Though these flowers may fade, though my script be clichéd,
Still I'll struggle with pen and notepaper
To praise your perfection and offer affection,
Yours, Terrence, the tap dancing tapir."

Now Bett the athletic balletic performer
Was not too upset about Bart;
He was overprotective and lacking perspective
On issues pertaining to art.
In her dancing career it was her turn to steer
And she needed no drag from an anchor,
So to Terrence she wrote, going straight for the throat
Of this creepy old chauvinist canker:

"I saw you, you pig, in tuxedo and wig,
How you fixed on my feminine figure.
Then you ogled my thighs and I thought that your eyes
Would explode if they grew any bigger.
No, I don't need a randy old tap dancing dandy
To leer at my leotard with lust.
If your stalking won't cease I shall call the police
- Bettina in dread and disgust."

Now he's Terrence the talented tap dancing tapir;
He struts in his stories; he stomps.
He proudly peruses reviews in old papers—
The raves for his rollicking romps.
In colorless clamor he crows of his capers,
"Too good for that tutu-clad whore!"
He's Terrence, the talented tap dancing tapir,
Life sentenced, in cell twenty-four.

Gutsy Effort

Two Aussies had proved the connection:
H. pylori to gut insurrection.
Said Barry J Marshall,
"No—bellies are partial
to Helicobacter infection."

2005 Nobel Prize in medicine

More on Helicobacter in the Loom


PZ Myers reports on a laboratory-bred strain of mice that can regenerate after injury without scar tissue. Better material for PhaWRONGula I could not have expected.

I'm called The "Contract" Cleaner—a master of my trade,
But in Heber-Katz's lab last night my limits were displayed.
A broken cage, the signs of raging rodents round the room:
Just mice, mere silly mice, but still, I'd need more than my broom.

A man can make a mundane job rewarding if he's smart—
See simple tasks as challenges to solve by works of art.
My finely balanced pressure plate with cheese as murid lure
Was coupled to supports to hold a deadweight insecure.
(I must disclose the weights I chose to pin the pesky species
were stacks of Darwin's unknown work, The Origin of Squeeshies.)

At twelve o'clock I heard the knock as trap slapped on its prey.
At twelve-o-one the mouse had won. He'd shrugged and slipped away!
The mouse had thumbed his nose, but I suppose I mustn't grouse;
I'd built a better mousetrap but this beast's a better mouse.

I worried that this furried monster mouse may beat the rap,
So listen while I hasten to describe a better trap:

The opto-sensor trigger tips the Dewar flask, and then
It empties out its contents—dousing mouse in liquid N.
The icepick spring releases, shatters mousicle to bits
(And the pieces of the meeces can be added to your grits).

I baited then I waited, sitting down to read a book.
—Scurry, munch-munch, Slop! Crash! Tinkle!—so I stood and took a look.
As I watched, the mouse-frits melted, drew together in a pool,
To a mousey bloody puddle—while I waited like a fool.
The puddle writhed and wriggled; it was then my jaw fell slack.
It scampered off on regrown legs and giggled, "I'll be back."

So now I'm just The Cleaner—I'm limiting my claim.
I won't be cleaning science labs; I cannot bear the shame.
Those boffins in their labcoats mate a mouse with mousey spouse.
I'd build a better mousetrap, but they'd breed a better mouse.