Monthly Archives: April 2005

‘Ware Walpurgis Night

As I write this post, midnight approaches the east coast of the US. This would be an excellent time to reacquaint yourself with the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft, whose various short stories and novellas often invoked the occult symbology of Walpurgis Night. Like the more widely known All Hallows Eve (Halloween or Samhain), this is allegedly a time of occult power that precedes a holy day. In this case, the holy day is in honor of Saint Walburga (whose name is also rendered as “Walpurgis”).

Lovecraft’s brand of horror has its fair share of nasty things that go bump in the night, but his contribution to the genre lies more in the development of a more intellectually grounded sort of tale. Lovecraft’s monsters are usually not merely creatures that are butt-ugly and kill people right and left; no, in many cases, the monsters are indisputably more intelligent than the human who is left to relate the first-person narratives that Lovecraft often wrote. Their power comes in no small part from upsetting or overturning the comfortable world view of the protagonist and setting his very sanity at risk. (If Lovecraft ever wrote a story in the first person from the perspective of a female protagonist, I missed it.)

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

from The Quotations Page

As entertaining as the frisson of fear that reading Lovecraft induces might be, I’d have to disagree with Lovecraft’s assessment of the general mental stability of mankind. There are a lot of possible reactions to the sorts of horrors that Lovecraft introduces in his stories, but simple retreat into insanity is a lot less likely than I think Lovecraft makes it out to be.

Live CDs Collected

Skip Evans sent me a link for a page that presents a long list of LiveCDs — CD-ROMs that your computer can boot from (if your computer can boot from CD-ROM, a fairly common capability for machine manufactured from the mid-1990s onward).

There are venerable LiveCDs, including Knoppix that boots a Debian Linux OS, and FreeSBIE that boots to FreeBSD 5.3. But there are a plethora of other LiveCDs listed, ranging from 2MB boot images to rescue CDs to firewalls to servers and pure gaming CDs. These boot to an operating system without requiring you to change anything in your current computer setup. They can let you try out a different operating system, or do some specific function without the need to install anything to your hard disk.

I’ve used Knoppix, FreeSBIE, and Chronomium LiveCDs before. Chronomium is a LiveCD that boots Linux, downloads virus definitions over the internet, and checks a Windows machine for viruses. That is utterly cool, since sometimes you simply do not want to boot an infected Windows machine. While I haven’t run FreeSBIE through all its paces yet, it has nearly everything I’d be looking for in a desktop FreeBSD installation. Knoppix has proved useful in several circumstances as a test platform. Its autodetection routines give an early heads-up on hardware problems. I also used Knoppix to partition and format twenty 4GB compact flash cards to use FAT16 with a 64K cluster size so that the Pocket PCs Diane is using in her field research can access the whole space.

One LiveCD that I just downloaded this evening is the Insert LiveCD. It is a “rescue” type system, slimmed down to fit on a credit card sized CD media. I’ll burn off a couple of those to put one in my wallet and another in my backpack, so that I have a basic test and recovery tool on-hand everywhere I go.

The Quantian LiveCD also looks interesting. Its reason for being is to provide a scientific research LiveCD. It comes with the GNU R statistics system and all its Unix compatible modules, the Octave matrix manipulation application (similar to Matlab), and has computer clustering code as part of the CD. So if you want to put together your own cluster for supercomputing on the cheap, this is one way to do it.

Check it out…

Dr. Eugenie Scott on “Hardball”

Dr. Eugenie Scott appeared on the MSNBC interview show “Hardball” on April 21st. There is a transcript available here. Along with host Chris Matthews, there was Reverend Terry Fox on the program. The topic was the push in Kansas to change public school science standards.

The transcript shows that the whole segment was just over 1600 words in length, about as much as two typical op-ed pieces in a newspaper. What the transcript also shows is that Matthews allotted himself about 700 words, Fox 560 words, and just 329 words for Scott. (I didn’t remove all the extra identifying words, so these numbers are on the high side.) What two op-ed pieces might have yielded in coherence was utterly lost in the chop-it-up, run-over-the-guest presentation style Matthews uses. I’m going to reconstruct Dr. Scott’s contribution here…

EUGENIE C. SCOTT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION: Well, I think you put your finger right on the problem, Chris.

You expressed one Christian position, which is called theistic evolution. That.s the view that God created through the process of evolution. There are many forms of theistic evolution. Reverend Fox expressed another Christian position, which is called special creation, which is, God created everything all at one time in its present form.

Now, Reverend Fox was talking about teaching both. There’s more than two. And we haven’t even exhausted Christianity, much less all the other possible religions of the world. And I think the question that we really ought to be asking is, what are we supposed to be teaching in high school science class? Because that’s what this issue is
really all about. And what we should be teaching in high school science class is the consensus view of science, which is that living things have common ancestors.

And we know some mechanisms that bring this about. And we have some ideas about the pattern, that this change through time took place. This is what we should be teaching.

Not religious views masquerading as science.

[Fox claims that there’s more than 1,000 views of evolution.]

SCOTT: Well, that’s actually not… [Matthews interrupts to query Fox.]

[Matthews asks what harm there is in teaching religious theory as well as science.]

SCOTT: I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching comparative religion. I think we should know more about religion, just as we should know more about science.

But what we’re talking about is, what do you teach in a science class? People on my side of this issue are perfectly happy to have religion described. But that’s not what is going on. They want to advocate a specific religious view and pretend that it’s science. That just simply is not good education.

[Matthews asks whether Scott believes that everything was an accident of development.]

SCOTT: Well, I’m talking about what we teach in the high school science class.

[Matthews presses Dr. Scott for her personal beliefs.]

SCOTT: Who cares? Who cares what Genie Scott believes? That’s, you know…

SCOTT: My own personal philosophy?

[Matthews asks Dr. Scott whether it was all “one big accident”.]

SCOTT: It is…

[Matthews doesn’t allow Dr. Scott to answer his question, but rather asserts that most people don’t believe that it was “one big accident”.]

SCOTT: And many Christians believe that God had a hand.

In summary, we have the following points.

  • Special creation is a sectarian religious viewpoint without scientific standing.
  • Evolutionary biology is compatible with the beliefs of many theists.
  • Religious views should be examined in a non-science comparative religions class.
  • In science classes, teach the consensus view. For biology, this means common descent.

Related article: Article by Demere and Walsh on the “fairness” argument.

Noise in Oceans Concerns Scientists

A report in Foster’s Online, “Oceans getting louder, but effects still unclear” notes rising levels of human-made noise in the oceans. Chris Clark at Cornell University is quoted,

“Their world is just being collapsed,” Clark said. “They rely so heavily on sound. They can’t see anything.”

The article also notes the likely reaction of businesses and policy makers:

Businesses and the military are unlikely to make major changes before more is known.

Brandon Southall, an acoustics researcher at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, said better research is urgently needed.

“People are inherently tied to the ocean for food, for cures to diseases, for weather,” he said. “We’re figuring out things are more interconnected than we ever could have originally envisioned.”

I found the following statement interesting:

Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there’s evidence marine mammals are changing their sound patterns or rates, which could show their normal communication has been disrupted.

I think I’ll try to see what studies Reynolds is referring to with this statement. My view is that we don’t yet have a good baseline on what constitutes a normal pattern of sound use. It doesn’t help that model species, like the bottlenose dolphin, have such extreme variability in vocalizations.

It’s the Economy…

Some time ago, I noted the poor economic prospects that await us if we neglect good science education or allow pseudo-science to be established as if it were science.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, “Bush Disarms, Unilaterally”, Thomas L. Friedman makes a similar point. Friedman notes that the Bush administration has made essentially no effort to enhance access to fast, reliable, cheap broadband in the USA. This is allowing other nations (Japan, Korea, China, and India are given special mention) to surpass the USA in availability of broadband Internet to households.

Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. But you need to be at a certain level to be able to claim your share of a global pie that is both expanding and becoming more complex. Tax cuts can’t solve every problem. This administration – which often seems more interested in indulging creationism than spurring creativity – is doing a very poor job of preparing the country for that next level.

Point taken here, at least.

Update: Other papers are picking up the Friedman op-ed, some without requiring a login:

International Herald Tribune

An Anniversary

About this time of morning one year ago, my surgeon was telling
me that I needed emergency surgery for a ruptured colon.

There were some dark times there, and pain enough to accompany
them. But Diane remained my steadfast companion and support, there to
send me off to surgery and there to help me when I was coming out of
anesthesia. I’ve had the goodwill and support of my family, on both
sides of the aisle, as it were. Willard and Margaret, Sam and
Marguerite, Joe B. and Pat, they helped me when I was pretty
helpless. My friends gave me their best wishes and often their
company; Mark, Genie, Glenn, Nick, Alan, Jean, Dave, and others.
And many more wrote to tell me that I was in their prayers, and I am
grateful to all of you.

Recovery has been slow, but things have proceeded. I’ve taken up work
again, and continued with things going toward my zoological research.
I was able to review a paper for the Acoustical Society of America a
couple of weeks ago, and contribute to a paper on linking behavioral
states and types of click trains in bottlenose dolphins. There are
three papers in various states of getting through clearance and
submission, and more in various stages of writing up. I’m getting to
know some of the people at U.C. Davis where Diane has her postdoc, and
there’s the possibility of some research collaboration there. It’s
been a pleasure to collaborate with the crew at the Panda’s Thumb and to be able to
be a part of the TalkOrigins
Archive Foundation

And Diane and I were able to get out a little bit with the hawks and
dogs before the end of various hunting seasons. Though I tired fairly
rapidly, it was good to be in the field again. I’m hopeful that my
condition will be better come the hunting season at the end of summer,
and we’ll be able to go afield more often than was the case this year.

A Week Flies By

This past week just kind of slid right by me. I’m feeling mostly OK, with occasional twinges and sometimes a not-so-good reaction to a particular meal. Work is keeping me quite busy. With that and the critter maintenance that Diane normally handles being my responsibility while she is off collecting data, there just isn’t a lot of spare time left for blogging. I did have a post on Panda’s Thumb that criticized an op-ed piece by David Berlinski. Berlinski participated in the comment section.

We have a duck. This bird was bought as a duckling and was intended as a training aid for Ritka, our young Vizsla. Diane asked for a mallard. Well, there is certainly a mallard somewhere in this duck’s ancestry, but it also appears to have a recent contribution of domestic goose based on its size now. It is quite a substantial duck, and beyond Ritka’s ability to pick up. In the duck’s section of the yard, we certainly have no issues with snails anymore. There’s a batch of poultry feed, so I go out a couple of times a day and give the duck a helping of feed. As you can imagine, I now have quite a positive association for this duck, who comes waddling over at a brisk pace on my appearance.

Some pics of Diane’s gear and departure back on the 2nd:

The audio recording units (HP Ipaq H5550s with Core Sound’s PDAudio-CF and Mic2496):

Diane, microphone covers, and the already stuffed vehicle:

Gail, Diane, and vehicle just before departure: