Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Your autopsy is in 5 days."

At least that's what it looked like first, out of the corner of my eye.  Rather than being some sort of threat, though, it was a notice about the automatic rent payment I have scheduled:  
Your autopay is in 5 days.

In unrelated (I hope) news, lunch today consisted of Velveeta Shells & Cheese mixed with 7 oz. of hummus and a can of unsalted green peas, with green Tabasco sauce to taste.  I'm not sure what my mother would have thought of such a concoction, but the taste wasn't at all bad; with both the cheese sauce and the hummus, it was very creamy.  I would have thrown in some green salsa, but I've used all that up and will have to get more.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ethics for Science

Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle

The National Science Foundation now expects every project they fund -- especially ones in which the development of students is a crucial part -- to include a component teaching or reinforcing ethics.  So, for the last three years, every student in the Research Experience for Undergraduates at Marshall University has participated in an informal course on ethics based on Fundamentals of Ethics for Scientists and Engineers by Seebauer and Barry.  If and when the grant is renewed, the course will now be taught for college credit as PS 220:  Ethics for Science.

The new ethics course takes the same starting point as Seebauer and Barry's book:  "classical virtue theory," which was first clearly described by Aristotle.  This is a robust philosophical approach to ethics which has the advantage of being the basis of much of the thought and culture at the foundation of our whole legal system.  Virtue theory was chosen to overcome several problems.

1.  Most presentations of ethics for scientists and engineers seem to be only about how to avoid trouble with the law (or employers).  Of course, no one wants trouble, but merely avoiding trouble is not exactly ethics.  For one thing, laws provide only minimal guidance, usually in terms of things we may not do.  For another, although we may hope that laws are ethically correct, there is more than enough variation in laws from place to place and from time to time to prove that this cannot possibly always be the case -- unless one assumes that ethics is only the study of what is imposed by those in power, in which case the word ethics is superfluous.

2.  A surprising number of students do not know the difference between ethics as a philosophical study and an anthropological study of the beliefs and practices of people around the world.  The latter certainly can be an interesting subject for study, too, but it is not the same thing as ethics.  The difference is analogous to that between an historical study of the actual battles of World War II and a cultural study of the newsreels and propaganda films produced.  Of course, in many cases the confusion of anthropology for ethics has the purpose of denying that there is an ethical reality to study at all.  It is as though an historian were to look at American, British, Soviet, German, and Japanese newsreels and, noting the contradictions, conclude that World War II was nothing but a myth.

It is a mistake to think, though, that Aristotle was unaware of the variation in beliefs and practices or failed to take them into account.  On the contrary, very early in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle identifies the ultimate goal of "political science" (the science of living in a community -- not exactly the same as our modern political science):
Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another- and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension.
Not only do different people have conflicting opinions about what "happiness" is, so do different cultures.  To take the silly example of the Star Trek universe, the Klingons thought happiness was "honor", the Vulcans thought it was self-control and "logic", the Ferengi thought it was wealth, and the Terrans (Earthlings) thought it was exploration, or maybe being smug and condescendingly nice. Aristotle was willing to consider all these possibilities and more, but each proposition would have to stand or fall on its own merits.

3.  Many students will be of the opinion that the only alternative to a shallow, noncommittal ethics is divine command theory.  Although divine command theory is very ancient, it is inherently nonrational, if not irrational, making it a poor subject for philosophical investigation.  Conclusions reached through divine command theory are also obviously unpersuasive to anyone with different religious beliefs.

It should be pointed out, though, that the traditional belief (stronger in some religious traditions than in others, to be sure) is that reason alone and divine command produce the same basic ethical conclusions -- sort of how the same mechanics can be derived from either Newton's Laws or from the Principle of Least Action.  In support of this is the fact that there are striking similarities in the basic ethical conclusions of societies with very different religious beliefs. 

o o O o o

At this point, you may be thinking, "OK, I get the 'ethics,' but where does the 'for science' come in?"  Well, Introductory Physics for Engineers is, at its core, introductory physics; the only role engineering plays is in the selection of examples and problems.  The situation is analogous in this course:  ethics for scientists must make contact with the broad field of ethics, but the examples and problems are selected to reflect difficulties that a scientist might well encounter as a scientist, that is, in the role of student, researcher, instructor, mentor, or employee.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cardinal Wuerl at the Inauguration

I was just reading a posting on the Get Religion blog regarding the press coverage of the religious aspects of the recent presidential inauguration, which includes the fact that Cardinal Wuerl read Matthew 6:25-34 at an interfaith ceremony at St. John's Episcopal Church.  Terry Mattingly doesn't follow it up, but he does comment, "Now that’s a rather interesting piece of Gospel material there."  Indeed.  Since the cardinal did not preach at this service, I'm not sure why he chose this passage, but at any rate the last sentence it contains is, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

For many people, myself included, that suits the the whole inauguration to a T.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Eye of the Tiber on Manti Te'o

Eye of the Tiber, which is sort of the Catholic equivalent to the Onion Dome, has the best take so far on the Manti Te'o fiasco. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

John Wilkes Booth, This Guy Ain't

Surely I'm not the only one who thinks this was all an act?

Am I to believe that the 25 year old would-be assassin makes it this far -- past the guards, up onto the platform, within inches of his target's head -- only to be overcome by the Kung Fu of a 58 year old politician?  Or that while getting the gun and working his way through security, he never really thought ahead to what he would do if he got a clear shot?  Assassination ain't brain surgery, folks -- at least, not very tidy brain surgery.

Add to this the fact that the gun he used, though dangerous at very short range, is designed to be non-lethal, and this begins to look as phony as Te'o's girlfriend. 

Tsunamis and the Colonization of Islands

The story I have always heard about how islands are colonized by terrestrial animals like lizards, turtles, and rodents has never made sense; even if a storm washes one or two trees out to sea, how likely is it that a tree will have a surviving male and female of the same species, or that two trees, on with a male and one with a female, will wash ashore on the same island?  It certainly seems like it would be outrageously rare, especially when coupled with the fact that if the female arrives first, the male must follow before she dies, or vice versa.  Of course, I had in mind a thunderstorm, or even a storm front, but I don't think even a hurricane or typhoon would make much difference. 

A tsunami would be a different story, though.  As we have seen all too clearly, a big one would affect a much broader region of coast, simultaneously washing out to sea countless trees, animals, whatever.  An animal would not need to be in the tree to start with; it might well find itself swept off shore and only later find a "raft" floating nearby.  On the other hand, if a given species of lizard or rat favored a particular type of tree, animals of that species might find themselves arriving on the same island at nearly the same time, just as the action of wind and wave has coordinated the arrival of oyster buoys and refrigerators from Japan.

I'm not sure how this could be tested.  Maybe a correlation could be found between coasts that are unusually subject to large tsunamis -- places like Japan, Indonesia, and Peru -- with the origins of colonizing small animals.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cycles of Time

I've been reading Cycles of Time by Roger Penrose off and on since about Thanksgiving.  It's a very spotty book.  The main idea is interesting, but not convincing.  The organization is atrocious, with the refrain I'll explain this more fully in Chapter 3 repeated about 10 times too often, but the biggest problem with the book is that the level of detail, though greater in some chapters and lesser in others, generally falls into an awkward middle ground that will intimidate and confuse the general reader while simultaneously frustrating physicists and mathematicians that it is not specific enough to really evaluate. 

The basic problems which Penrose wants to address are

  • Why does the Second Law of Thermodynamics give time a direction -- and the same direction for everywhere in the universe, out to the most distant galaxies?
  • Did the Big Bang have a cause, and if so, what?
  • What is the ultimate fate of the universe?
  • What is dark matter?

Penrose addresses all of these issues by suggesting what he calls Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC).  The gist of the idea is that in the extremely distant future, the so-called "Heat Death of the Universe" will take place, with nothing left but increasingly low-frequency photons, gravity waves (mostly from the supermassive black holes in the centers of colliding galaxies), and, ever-so-rarely, a remaining electron or positron (the antimatter counterpart of the electron).  In an almost empty world, there are fewer and fewer events; yet time is only meaningful as a measure between events.  Due to the accelerating expansion of the universe, an infinite amount of time corresponds to only a finite number of events.  After those events have happened, what then?  Does this question even have meaning?

The only way to really deal with such questions is with advanced mathematics, but a physical analogy (one that Plato would have liked) can help with the basic idea.  Imagine a kind of projector consisting of a bright lamp surrounded by a spherical shade.  Holes in the shade allow light to fall onto a nearby wall, making (perhaps) a star field, like in a planetarium.  If the holes in the shade are evenly spaced, though, they will not evenly cover the wall with "stars"; the "stars" will be denser towards the center, near the lamp, and sparser towards far from the lamp.  No matter how large the wall, though, only holes on one side of the spherical shade will cast light on it.  If all we could see were the "stars" on the wall, we still might realize that they corresponded to evenly spaced holes on the spherical lamp shade, and we might wonder if holes continued to be evenly spaced on the other side of the lamp shade. 

To translate this back to Penrose's topic, the "stars" would represent events -- the interaction of matter and energy -- and distances on the wall, measured from the point closest to the lamp, would represent time.  Distances on the lamp shade itself would correspond to "conformal time", and the two halves of the shade would be different "aeons".  

Penrose argues that the transition from one aeon to another produces what looks like, from one side, a Big Bang, and from the other side, a Heat Death.  He further claims that to make this mathematically tidy, 

  • it is necessary to introduce something that would behave like the mysterious Dark Matter;
  • it would solve the problem of the initial thermodynamic state of the universe after the Big Bang (with a high temperature but an overall low entropy that can subsequently increase, as necessary for the Second Law of Thermodynamics); and 
  • it would remove the need for Inflation in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang.  

So far, so good; this seems to be wrapping up some loose ends.  He even claims that correlations in the Cosmic Microwave Background are suggestively similar to what might be expected from Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC).  CCC also seems to require that electrons and other particles eventually become massless; on the one hand, there is absolutely no evidence for this, but on the other, it could take place over an inconceivably long time span, making the change of mass imperceptibly small over the last 13 billion years.  

Since it seems impossible to devise any experiment or observation that will add substantial support to CCC -- and without such, this is not really physics -- it's just mathematically sophisticated science fiction.  Good historical fiction stands in the same relationship to real historical research:  the research may inform the fiction; the fiction may contradict nothing which is known from the research; the fiction may be plausible and even give insight into the research; but the fiction is fiction and not research.

It is also worth mentioning that the real motivation for this book is obviously philosophical, not physical.  Penrose admits to finding the now-traditional narrative of the Heat Death of the Universe disappointingly dreary and hopeless; this is not the kind of story he or any of us want to believe.  At the same time, Penrose is very much a modern man, and modern man does not like how a creation at the Big Bang seems to imply a Creator.  This was Fred Hoyle's objection to the Big Bang (he coined the term in mockery) and his motivation for devising the Steady State Theory.  CCC differs dramatically from Steady State Theory in all the details, but the essence of it remains the same; as they said so often in Battlestar Galactica, "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."  Both the Steady State Theory and CCC provide a model of physical reality without real beginning or real end, and certainly with no real purpose.

It is noteworthy that in a situation like this, it is the atheist who is painted into a corner by his dogma, not the Christian.  The Christian must believe that the universe has a Creator and a purpose, but he need not insist that these facts will be manifest in the structure of nature or its laws -- other than that nature should have structure and laws, which is one of the reasons modern science originated in a monotheistic culture.  The Christian would not be troubled if In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum were scrawled in great letters across the Cosmic Microwave Background, but neither is he troubled that it is not.  He is free to consider both possibilities.  The atheist has no such freedom.  He must eradicate every hint of a Creator, even if that means resorting to speculations about "times" before the Big Bang and "times" after a literally infinite count of centuries.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Child's Play

For those not clear on why it's stupid to suspend kids for playing "cops and robbers" and pretending their hands are guns:
  1. Are you going to suspend kids for playing with toy cars when they don't have valid drivers' licences?  
  2. Even Obama does not want to take guns away from police.  On the contrary, the trend is for police to complain that they are outgunned because they lack fully automatic weapons (which are great at mowing down a crowd of bystanders, but not so hot if you're trying to limit casualties in a civilian environment).
  3. It is a very serious offense -- a canonical crime that can lead to an iterdict (similar to an excommunication) -- to simulate the Mass.  This is about a deliberate sacrilege by adults, though.  It has nothing to do with kids playing Mass. That's because the Church has been around for two thousand years and knows the difference between play and reality.
I actually feel bad about even writing about such nonsense.  Isn't this obvious to everyone?  Yes, it must surely be. Why then do we have so many zero-tolerance rules?

I think it's because we are the laziest generation of humans to populate this country, if not to walk the earth.  That's what zero-tolerance means:  We are too lazy to distinguish serious from trivial.  It's what a flat, across-the-board cut means:  We are too lazy to prioritize.  It's what "I made a hard decision" means:  "I was too lazy to find the right answer."

Monday, January 14, 2013

How to Hunt Bigfoot

How silly.  You don't use dogs to hunt Bigfoot; you use falcons.  Falcons are natural, so there can be no question of the Sasquatch using some sensitivity to electronics to evade them; falcons have a literal birds-eye view; and falcons (unlike dogs) have no reason to fear Bigfoot, since they can easily stay out of Bigfoot's reach.  

Maybe an even better choice would be the turkey vulture, due to its sense of smell -- if anyone could find a way to train a turkey vulture, it might have an advantage in finding a smelly Bigfoot.

Best of all, use a Thunderbird.  The bird is big enough to grab Bigfoot and bring him back to you.  If you can't get the bird, though, you can use the muscle car.  Bigfoot will hear you coming and give you the bird.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Alabama 42 / Notre Dame 14

I have two basic reasons for being very happy with Alabama's win over Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game:
1.  I graduated from Alabama.
2.  I am Catholic. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Earlier this morning I read in another blog about the vast difference between angels as described in the Bible and in Christian tradition and angels as conceived by contemporary society.  It is easy to assume that people are being carelessly poetic when they talk as though angels are the ghosts of "good" people (usually anyone who was "nice", or at least not totally monstrous -- there is rarely significant overlap with the Catholic teaching on the communion of Saints) or that they are basically just like humans with a few neat abilities (to become invisible, to teleport, and immortality, for example).   

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation
I really like the representation of the angel Gabriel in Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation".

Angels are very different from that.  They are spirits that were never human or even truly incarnate, which means being a union of body and soul.  Christian teaching is not consistent with the idea that our bodies are "merely shells"; thus
  • reincarnation is impossible (it would mean the same soul going into a different body), 
  • at the Resurrection Christ rose in His own body, He did not create a new one and leave the old one in the tomb, and
  • the general resurrection will reunite both the blessed and the damned with their own bodies.
Yes, when angels reveal themselves, they appear to have bodies.  If they didn't, we couldn't see them and would not know how to interact with them.  In some cases, they are apparently present only to the mind of the person to whom they reveal themselves, but in others they seem to control a kind of tangible puppet, though that is no more a part of them than a puppet is a part of the puppeteer.  Also, note that the descriptions of angels are frequently almost incomprehensible -- almost impossible to visualize.  I think the reason for this is to emphasize that angels are indeed very different than anything we meet in our everyday lives.

When I imagine angels, though, I now think back to a very odd dream I had about a dozen years ago.  

I dreamed I was in the Holy Land, and there was a line of elderly Israelis waiting to catch the next bus.  Suddenly a van spun around the corner and crashed into a wall.  I knew somehow that this was a partially botched terrorist attempt on the line of people waiting for the bus; the van contained two liquid chemicals, each harmless in itself, that would create a powerful poison gas when mixed.

For some reason I was not really worried about my own safety or that of the people standing in line, but I was very concerned for a little girl who continued playing near the van, which even then was leaking chemicals.  I said something to her (I don't remember the exact details of much of the conversation), but she told me it was all right:  as Michael is the angel of protection for the Jewish people, so she was the angel of death.  She was there to escort the elderly Jews to their final destinations.  Then my eyes were opened. 

Anyone who has been to church much at all will be familiar with the expression "my eyes were opened", but the actual experience of it was something of a shock.  Basically, I noticed that I had been seeing all along that she was completely white -- not just white like a piece of paper, but glowing white like a fluorescent bulb, or, to very slightly paraphrase Matthew 28:3, "Her countenance was as lightning, and her raiment as snow" -- although, really, her raiment was also glowing.  The experience was something like the difference between the way a city or building looks when you first see it, without knowing where things are or how they relate to each other, and how it looks when you have lived or worked in it for a few years; or how a piece of music like the 1812 Overture sounds different when you understand the meaning behind the musical themes.  Even closer is the experience I have had a few times in which I have passed a sign without reading it but been able to remember it clearly enough to read it in my memory.

In my dream I was shocked at this discovery, but not really alarmed.  She was not evil, she was simply carrying out a duty God had given her, and since I am not Jewish, she had no business with me.  She was, however, a being whose very nature demanded respect.  Forget all the silly nonsense people say about how they would do this or that "cute" thing if they were to meet an angel or God; they don't know what they are talking about.  So although I wondered for a moment where she was taking them, I did not ask; it seemed to be none of my business and an impertinent question, and asking an impertinent question of one such as herself simply Is Not Done.  Likewise, I felt that it would be possible to reach out and touch her, but that this would be both inappropriate and unwise; I was sure she would burn my hand, not like fire burns with heat, but like liquid nitrogen burns with cold.

That was all the dream, or at least all I remember of it.  It surprised me in that I had always imagined the angel of death before as either being just one angel (like the Grim Reaper) or maybe being each person's individual guardian angel; the idea of a different angel of death for each nation had never occurred to me, though it does seem to fit well with certain Scriptural passages, especially Daniel 10:13, and with the angelic hierarchy.  Maybe such an angel of death would be a Principality.

Yes, I know all this was just a dream, and that

Like one grasping at shadows or chasing the wind,so anyone who believes in dreams.What is seen in dreams is a reflection,the likeness of a face looking at itself.-- Sirach 34:2,3 (NAB)
I do not take this to be anything more than food for thought, but it has given me much to think about.  

One last thing.   A year or two after having this dream, I told a Jewish friend that I had had a very strange dream in which I met the angel of death for the Jewish people.  I was afraid he would take offense at this, but he was not only a friend, he was also very reasonable.  The question he asked in response, though, gave me the shivers:  "What did she look like?"  Until I had the dream, I had never thought of any angel of death as female, but that is the Jewish tradition.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Garden of Eden

Maybe this beautiful world is, in a sense, the Garden of Eden.  In it we are tempted and sin, and we are all eventually driven out of it, with the cherubim and the flaming sword to prevent us from coming back before the end of time.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Florida Boys Shouldn't Drive in the Snow

I had been planning to drive up to visit my friend "Nothy Lane" for some time, but "Winter Storm Euclid" made my planned departure date ill-advised, so I delayed until Saturday, December 29 -- just in time to find myself caught in "Winter Storm Freyr".  (For what it's worth, I consider these names "hot air".)  The snow was no problem until about Akron, but by Cleveland the roads were beginning to be seriously icy.  I slowed down to 45 or 50 mph, at any rate just a bit slower than most of the other cars, but just east of Cleveland I began to fishtail before swinging around about 250 degrees and winding up on the (normally grassy) median, facing back towards my lane and slightly into traffic.

Several things went well for me in this.
  • My pickup did not flip over.  I like the visibility of riding higher than in a car, but it does add to the risk of a rollover.
  • No other cars were particularly close to me, so no other vehicles were involved in the accident at all.
  • There was no damage to the truck or injury to me.
  • The accident left me completely off the road, not partly on the road where other cars might hit me. 
I must thank the anonymous local good Samaritans who checked to make sure I was OK and who found and returned my suitcase.  I had not realized that my luggage had been thrown out of my camper shell, but it had popped the locked door of the camper open without difficulty. 

In retrospect it's not that hard to see how this happened.  In the spin, my truck would have probably taken about 2 seconds to make a complete rotation around its center of mass.  The tailgate was probably about 4 meters behind the truck's center of mass, which means the centrifugal (pseudo-) force on the suitcase would have been about 4 times its weight.  I have a tendency to over-pack, so my suitcase probably weighed about 40 lbs.  The resulting 160 lbs of force at the base of the camper shell door was easily enough to pop it open.

Miraculous medal

One last thing.  I was wearing my Miraculous Medal when this happened.  I will make sure to wear it more regularly now -- especially when travelling!