Thursday, October 16, 2003

Enforced praying

I heard a story from my stepdaughter last weekend. She lives with her dad in "the heartland" -- the center of Texas. She considers herself an atheist; her dad used to be an atheist but is now questionable. Dad's wife is a Christian.

At her junior high school, they had one of those "pray around the flagpole" events where students meet before school. This is generally not a problem since it is supposed to be organized by students and ignored by the school administration.

Only not in this case. Her first class is P.E., and her coach instructed everyone to be there at the earlier time in the morning. He said "If anyone has any religious objections then you have to come and tell me and I'll let you off." But if anyone doesn't show up and doesn't voice a religious objection, they have to undergo "attitude adjusters." According to stepdaughter, that means extra laps and push-ups.

So my stepdaughter dutifully told the coach that she's not coming because she's an atheist. Everyone heard her. One girl told her they can't be friends anymore. Many others picked arguments.

People think that school prayer is harmless, but I think this is a good example of what happens when the school gets involved with religion. That coach was way out of line. She shouldn't HAVE to tell him about her religious beliefs. She shouldn't be put in the situation of making her classmates hostile at her. It's frankly none of his damn business.

Seems to me that teachers taking it upon themselves to identify who belongs to what religion is the first step in something more sinister. I would expand on that, but I don't want to invoke Godwin's law.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Report on the Texas State Board of Education hearings

On Wednesday, September 20, 2003, several members of the Atheist Community of Austin attended a hearing at the State Board of Education to discuss science books. I testified in this hearing, and you can see my testimony posted previously on this blog.

Note (added 5/16/05): Some of the audio links may not work, as they were originally posted at the ACA web site before being copied to this blog. If enough interest is expressed in feedback, I may upload the audio files to a new location.

Part 1: The first page of speakers

To begin with, I'd like to say that the setup of the hearings was a complete farce.

Our friends at the Texas Freedom Network had an advance copy of the schedule of speakers, and they were kind enough to spend time going through the list and identifying everyone they could. They printed up a version of the list in which all pro-evolution speakers were shaded gray; then they gave us copies. Of the 150 speakers who were originally signed up, over half (I think 77) were originally identified as such, but it seems like quite a lot more were actually on our side.

However, you wouldn't have known this if you only watched the first few hours or so, because of the first page of 40 speakers, 35 were creationists. Another thing we noticed was that the board (most notably Terri Leo) had a tendency to try to dismiss many of the pro-science speakers as quickly as possible, while keeping the creationists on the stand to answer softball questions. At first people were staying on the stand for an average of ten minutes each. Later they began to speed up a bit, but we also took breaks. According to my notes, the initial flood of creationists ended at about 7:00.

By that time, of course most of the press had left. In fact, I walked into the hall during a break at around 5:30, and an anchor from Fox News was doing a wrap-up at that time. I didn't get to hear what he was saying. By the time we got to speaker number 41, four out of the five cameras were gone. And I think the remaining camera belonged to the court reporter, who had to stay anyway.

So anyway, if you're a "fair and balanced" news man, what impression do you think you're going to wind up with? Gee, lots of concerned citizens speaking out about evolution. Sure is a big, hot controversy. Most Texans seem to favor the practice of highlighting errors in textbooks. Well, I'm Chet Ubetcha for Fox News, good night.

But of course, after page one, nearly every remaining speaker (with a few scattered exceptions) was speaking against the creationists. And these were Texas educators, UT professors, professional biologists, and one Nobel Laureate. The real guys. Many people stuck it out to the end, including myself. Many others did not. Some, including a few board members, gave up around midnight.

Now, if you were an actual unbiased observer, you might think it's highly unlikely that the list could "just happen" to arrange itself in such a peculiar order. One might even say that it seems as though some evidence of "intelligent design" must be rearing its head, don't you think? You would, of course, be right. According to some people I spoke with, it sounded as if the front end of the hearing was stacked by Terri Leo, an extreme right wing creationist board member. It seems that before the hearings were public knowledge, Terri privately contacted a number of creationists, including her good friends at the Discovery Institute, and got them signed up immediately. Everyone else had to speak in the order which they became aware of the proceedings and requested a speaking role.

Furthermore, Ms. Leo had a certain incredibly annoying habit of blatantly fawning over many of the creationist speakers who had degrees or other trappings of credibility. Often she would keep them on the stand, supposedly asking them tough questions, but frequently rambling on at great length about her own personal opinions on what they had said. In other words, she had her own regular three minute speeches, which she would launch into at the drop of a hat any time she agreed with a speaker.

Okay, I'm through with Terri for the moment, though I'll get back to her.

Before the testimony began, many of the board members expressed concern about how many speakers there were, and how long this might go on. One person pointed out that since there were so many Texans, maybe they should move all the out of state speakers to last. (There were only eight.) They agreed on that, except for Terri. (Sorry, I said I'd stop talking about her, but...) She was quite upset that some of her star witnesses were moved to the end. Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Bruce Chapman (head of the Discovery Institute) were all from out of state. However, William Dembski is from Baylor, so he got to speak in turn. He was one of the top forty. You'll notice that Terri Leo complained bitterly about Jonathan Wells not being able to "defend himself" when I spoke (about four minutes into the clip).

On the other hand, many of our side's heavy hitters were also moved to last. This included Robert Pennock as well as NCSE representatives Eugenie Scott and Alan Gishlick. So that was part of the reason I chose to stick out the entire night.

Besides myself, there were seven other people from the Atheist Community of Austin. Six were there to speak. In order they were: John Koonz, Michelle Gadush, Russell Glasser, Don Baker, Steve Elliott, and Martin Wagner. Two were just there to watch and lend moral support: Jeff Jones and Don Lawrence. We all sat in one corner of the room, quietly heckling the proceedings. Not being disruptive or anything; just sort of snickering, making whispered comments like "No it isn't!", "What a load of crap!" and that sort of thing. We also made several new friends with members of the TFN, many of whom were just as astounded as we were at the cluelessness of the creationist mob.

So I've said that thirty-five of the first forty speakers were creationists. One of the remaining five was John Koonz, a Texas teacher. During his presentation, John said that creationists habitually misrepresent their opponents and supporters, and falsely use out of context quotes. One of the board members asked John if he had an example of this behavior. John looked very uncomfortable as he said he didn't have anything specific "but I sent many examples in my mailed written testimony." They said they didn't have that yet.

During this uncomfortable pause, I had flipped over my talk and was pointing out Don Baker (who was sitting on my left) that I had a choice misquote by Jonathan Wells. Don nodded and said "Go for it!" I wasn't sure I should do that, but after getting egged on a bit, I finally agreed. I came running toward John intending to place the paper in front of him, but he just started walking away as I approached. I said "I had a quote for you, but never mind."

As I started walking back to my seat, one of the board members called me back. "Are you from Texas?" he asked. "Yes I am," I answered. "If he has an example, I'd like to hear about it," the guy said. So I presented the quote myself, getting to speak several hours ahead of my time. Here it is:

Using the research of Michael Majerus, Jonathan Wells claims, "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." In an online response, Majerus said:

"This is just wrong. Dr. Wells, who gives the impression in his response that he has read my book, obviously has not. If he had, he would have seen that in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 I myself have recorded 168 peppered moths on tree trunks or at trunk/branch joins. If Dr Wells wishes his views to be taken seriously, he should ensure that his research is thorough."

You can read the original source of this quote by following this link. Apparently no one had an answer to it, although I think I got some murmurs from the audience. The board said "Thank you," so I went back to sit down. Then another one said "Who was that young man who just spoke?" I stood up and shouted across the room "Russell Glasser, I'm speaker number 73." Somebody took notes. I think Terri Leo probably started preparing to ambush me at that point. You can listen to my speech if you want to hear the results.

Part 2: Creationism evolves

Before going on to cover more speeches of the evening, I'd like to make some general comments about the tone of the creationists. And to introduce this topic, I'll say a few words about my meeting at the end of the night with Robert Pennock. Dr. Pennock is a philosophy of science professor at Michigan State University. His has written two books which I think should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what the creationists are up to right now. Here are some links:
Tower of Babel
Intelligent Design and its Critics

Of all the authors I have read oncreationism, Pennock is the one who seems to most understand the modern counterparts of creationists, Intelligent Design theorists. He isn't afraid of their seemingly impressive science degrees, and he isn't fooled by their attempts to dress up in scientific clothing. If you only read about young earth creationists or even old earth evolution deniers, you're really not getting the complete picture of what's going on today. Creationists are learning to better and better hide their motivations. But as Pennock points out, the more they obscure their own points, the less they can claim to be doing anything that resembles real science. Real science is about concrete predictions and evidence. Intelligent Design is about legalism and smart-sounding mathematical hand-waving.

It was around midnight when Martin Wagner pointed out a man sitting on the floor and asked if that was Pennock. I realized I had no idea what he looked like, although this guy was way younger than I imagined. So after asking someone else to make sure it was the right guy, I went up and introduced myself. He turned out to be a very nice guy and seemed flattered by the attention. He also said he'd enjoyed my speech.

Much later that night, after everyone had finally gotten their chance to speak, I went to talk to him again. "I'd like to make an observation about the creationist arguments we saw tonight. I think creationism is evolving."

"That was the first sentence in my book," he replied.

Pause. "Oh, in that case I must have stolen it from you." (D'OH!)

So I went on to outline what he already knows: that creationists have changed continuously since the Scopes trial. First they wanted to ban evolution from being taught. Then they wanted to require Biblical creationism to be taught on equal footing. Then they started changing it to "Scientific Creationism" so that it wouldn't sound so much like religion. Then, just within the last ten years, it morphed into "Intelligent Design", where they don't even TALK about the so-called creator anymore.

But tonight, I went on to say, I think we observed something that I've never seen before. The Intelligent Design position is now so firmly identified with creationists that they've even started to back away from that position too. Now they don't claim to be trying to slip ID into textbooks; they won't even admit that their agenda is promoting ID. Instead, they are reduced to nitpicking evolution and nothing more.

Yes, there were some bumpkin creationists last night, who argued about the impossibility of an old earth and how "belief in" evolution causes teen suicide, nihilism, gout, and slow internet connections. But by and large, the great majority of those testifying against evolution had a very different strategy. They weren't trying to get ID put in the books. They weren't trying to remove evolution from the books. They were trying to introduce "errors" in the evolutionary sections.

These errors were mostly cribbed from Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Advance word got out about that to many people, and as a result lots of presentations were responses to Wells. I'll cover that later, but right now I'll repeat my favorite comment. One scientist used the cover of Icons as a visual aid, and in his talk he said something like this: "I have read this book. If this sort of writing were submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, I would reject it without a need for further explanation. In fact I would have a hard time accepting this book as a submission in an undergraduate writing class."

So lots of ID speakers covered the bullet points found in Icons. This included peppered moths, Haeckel embryos, the tree of life, beneficial mutations, etc., etc. The phrase "strengths and weaknesses" was used by many, many speakers last night, as in: "All we want is to to do a more robust job of teaching evolution -- both its strengths and weaknesses. We actually want MORE to be taught about evolution, not less." This was repeated so many times, not only by the speakers but also by Terri Leo in her customary rants, that I'm sure it was stressed quite often in the briefing papers and talking points that were distributed.

As Dr. Alan Gishlick (from NCSE) eloquently pointed out in one of the last speeches of the night: "If these examples that we've talked about endlessly tonight are as flawed as some critics have claimed, then why don't they ask that they be removed [from the textbooks entirely]? Instead they're asking you to leave them in, and then criticize them. This would have the effect of teachers saying 'Well, we've just made you learn this and now we're going to tell you it's wrong.'"

That's really what the Discovery Institute members were there for. They wanted to stick in their misleading examples of how evolution is bad science. Anyone who's read "The Wedge Strategy" (which was excellently explained by Martin Wagner, whose speech is now available on my web site) knows that this is a first step in a long term strategy. After trying to make school kids absorb this idea that evolution is full of holes, the next step is to claim "Oh, evolution is just not working; guess the only alternative is ID." And then, in the longer term, they hope to abolish evolution entirely and bring back Biblical Creationism.

Everybody knows this is what they want. Phillip Johnson has said it. Jonathan Wells has said it. William Dembski has more or less said it. But they're pretending they didn't say it. Scientists don't buy this story, which is why they're trying to avoid people who actually know things and switch tactics to stacking the school boards with creationists, so they can pass this gibberish off as science for kids and make it a matter of public record.

But the point that I made to Dr. Pennock -- and I think he agreed with me -- is that the creationists have had to slow down their strategy even more than they previously planned to. When questioned, lots of the Discovery Institute people actually went so far as to deny that they were trying to get schools to teach ID. They stammered and hemmed and hawed and said "Well yes, our institute ALSO supports ID researchers, but really this is an entirely separate issue, you see." The first out of town speaker had a hell of this time answering this question, and it was quite funny to hear how impatient one of the school board members got as he asked "Forget the institute. Would YOU, PERSONALLY, want to see ID taught in these books?"

In the original "Wedge Strategy" document, the idea of the wedge is described like this: "If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a 'wedge' that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points."

When I visualize this wedge, what I picture is Phillip Johnson running at an enormous granite cliff, and poking at the side of it with a plastic toothpick, all the while cackling "Heh heh heh... it'll come crashing down any minute now."

So I asked Robert, how much farther does he think creationism will evolve? And his reply was: "I don't think they can go much farther. If they back away from their positions any more, they won't have anything left to talk about."

Part 3: More details of the creationist speakers

In this section, I'll be making quotes from the hearing transcript that is now available online from the Texas SBOE (click to download PDF file). Anytime you see a page number mentioned, this is from the transcript.

So the first forty speakers were heavily weighted towards creationism proponents. Here are some quick highlights of those four hours:

  • A speaker claimed he was brainwashed by being taught evolution.

  • Many speakers said "We have no desire to water down science, we just want to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution."

  • A young girl who was a high school junior earnestly argued that evolution is the cause of murder and teen suicide, and it teaches young people that they're not responsible for their actions.

  • Later, an older hick creationist made a similar claim: "Everyone has the nature of humanity or the nature of animals. Evolution teaches us to embrace our animal nature. Kids shoot each other in schools because they learned evolution and are not responsible for their actions." A board member bristled at this. She said she wanted to challenge this earlier but didn't want to pick on the high school kid. "I guess I'm the usual aberration. I studied evolution in school. I think I'm responsible and I do not subscribe to that concept." Ouch.

  • We were told that the question of origins is not science but philosophy.

  • We were informed that gravity, unlike evolution, is a fact rather than a theory. Why? Because, and I quote, "You can see gravity!"

  • During a particularly bad science-mangling presentation, Jeff Jones said to me: "This is what happens when you let mechnanical engineers call themselves scientists." On, there is an informal rule known as "The Salem Hypothesis." The Salem Hypothesis states that any creationist who claims academic credentials will, in most cases, turn out to be an engineer. This was confirmed many times over during the night. There were a heck of a lot of engineers who were referring to themselves as science experts.

  • The board caught on to this at some point, and one chemical engineer was asked point blank "Do you have any BIOLOGY credentials?" He did some nice tap dancing around the question.

  • We learned that kids would be more interested in science if there was more controversy. To that end, science classes should be "more like the Jerry Springer show." Seriously. (Later, when I told Jeff Dee about this suggestion, he said: "That's a great idea! And in return, I would like to be invited to your church so that we can make that more like the Jerry Springer show too. I'll hit somebody with a chair. I promise.")

  • A school teacher told a heart rending story of how she was encouraged to "dig deeper" into her subjects to engage students' interest... on every subject except evolution. When she tried to "dig deeper" there (i.e., teach these now-infamous "strengths and weaknesses") she was strong-armed by the school administration to stop digging quite THAT deep. It was a ripping good conspiracy story. No, actually I'm lying. She was boring.

  • An old guy brought a stack of nickels to the podium with him. Apparently he was out to illustrate a revolutionary new scientific claim: when you drop nickels, they fall down. You can read this for yourself in the transcript, starting on page 160, but you won't get the full effect. He lifted up his nickels very slowly and dropped them. Several times in a row. Most people would explain this amazing concept in about seven words and move on. (By the way, he was an engineer.)

  • A man who started out by touting his Ph.D. told us that "A law outranks a theory." This obviously brings to mind the question: A Ph.D in WHAT?? Three guesses. (Hint: engineering.)

As you can tell, the creationist speakers were something of a mixed bag. Members of the Discovery Institute and other people who had a clue about DI's strategy were scrupulously avoiding all mention of creationism, the age of the earth, and Intelligent Design. Meanwhile, blissfully unaware, the local folks were cheerfully shooting their comrades in the foot by mangling science, promoting religion, asking for the complete abolition of evolutionary theory from the books, and unintentionally insulting board members.

One creationist was praised by a board member for having read the textbooks and coming up with specific textual issues to discuss. She said she appreciated the effort to directly address the textbooks, and by implication, she criticized people who were coming to speak about general topics without bringing up a particular flaw in the books.

This sounds reasonable, but in fact it puts the pro-science speakers at a disadvantage. We're arguing that the textbooks are fine the way they are, and that the creationists are nitpicking and coming up with non-errors to insert in books. We are criticizing FUTURE changes to the books, and supporting current teaching methods. There is no way to do this by pointing to a particular page of the existing books.

The specific text he was criticizing (transcript p 107) was: "So is evolution a fact or a theory? It is both." and "It is useful to review, analyze and critique the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory." The latter sentence was criticized for being hypocritical.

One fellow by the name of J. Budziszeski spoke (p 132). After straining my memory, I remembered hearing him frequently as a guest on "The Bible Answer Man" radio show. JB talked about how teaching evolution amounts to "propaganda", and used language like "dogma" and "orthodoxy" to equate science with religion. Then he proposed, again, that criticisms of Darwinism be taught in textbooks.

By this time, the board members had heard a fair bit about scientific standards of criticism and peer reviewed literature and standards. Because of this, they asked Budziszeski: "[A]re these purported weaknesses supported by science -- empirical scientific research? And what standard should we, as a Board, not being scientists, use to make that decision? Would it be peer-reviewed scientific literature?"

Of course, the answer IS that you need to refer to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. But J. couldn't say that, because that would completely eliminate the point he was trying to make. So he repeated his charges that students are indoctrinated, and said "What do you mean by 'a standard'? I think the standard is this: If what you find is that scientists are, in fact, disputing these things, then that controversy should be discussed." In other words: it doesn't matter that if the "scientists" are biologists or not; it doesn't matter if they've had their claims formally studied or not. If any scientist from any field says says something is a weakness in any context, then it is. Again: it's Jerry Springer science.

He did claim that "This controversy has appeared in peer-review journals." No mention of which ones, or whether they were in fact biology journals.

Throughout all this was the ever-present specter of the creationist minority within the Board of Education. None, of course, more prominent than Terri Leo. After agreeing with a speech, she would frequently keep the speaker on the stand for several extra minutes by asking them softball questions. She would also expand on their point in her own speeches for minutes on end and then finish with "Can you comment on that?" (Examples: pp 56, 66) During the pro-evolution speeches, she would argue against them -- though not nearly as often as she extended time used by the creationists.

Another, subtler board member was Don McLeroy. It wasn't clear at first that McLeroy was another creationist. His favorite tactic was to ask evolutionists "Do you think the theory of evolution is more strongly supported than [pick one: atomic theory, gravity, heliocentric theory, etc.]. You can catch this by listening to Amanda Walker's speech. He also appears to mock Robert Pennock for claiming something along those lines (518). He never seemed to follow up on the question after getting an answer, so I'm unclear exactly what his point was, other than perhaps trying to make evolution supporters look overzealous.

By the end of the night his position became a lot clearer. On page 508 you can hear him glowing praise Michael Behe. When Jonathan Wells spoke at last, he complimented Jonathan Wells by pointing out that his name was brought up more than Darwin.

I'll just wrap up this section with two more excerpts from my notes:

  1. "Piltdown man?!? Is this guy reading straight from the Chick tract?"
  2. Early in the hearings I was sitting behind a teacher named Amanda Walker. At one point she was showing a friend that Jonathan Wells himself had signed her copy of Icons of Evolution. It read: "To Amanda - brilliant, but totally wrong." I shouldn't have been looking over her shoulder, but I couldn't resist. I leaned forward and whispered: "How nice of him. He not only signed your book, he also described it."

Part 4: Highlights from the rest of the evening

Now that complete transcript of the hearings (in pdf format) is available, I won't summarize the arguments that were made throughout the rest of the evening. Instead, I'll quote some highlights from my favorite speeches and tell you what page number to go to so you can read the speeches for yourself.

Roger Paynter, page 157

This notable speech was given by a Baptist preacher against treating the Bible as science. Paynter is the person that Samantha Smoot referred to in her speech (see below) who got accosted by members of the Discovery Institute in the hall.

"Asking science to reflect on theological issues is out of the realm of science and beyond the scope of what the scientific community needs to be doing. If a scientist is a person of faith, and many are, that scientist still has to teach and research from an objective scientific point of view to retain any credibility.

"It is my deep conviction that creation flows from the hand of the creator, God, but that is a statement of faith and not something that I or anyone else can prove in a scientific experiment. It is not verifiable and repeatable. To lead children to believe otherwise is a disservice to them, a disservice to science, and most of all, a diminishment of the grandeur of God. We should take biology as seriously as we take the Bible, knowing that whatever we learn is true is not a threat to God, nor by the way, is it news to him."

Ken Evers-Hood, page 187

Another preacher. Many Baptists made a surprisingly good showing that night.

"First off, it is the arcane scientific minutia, that at least I have been hearing for the last several hours, pretending to the same status as the majority academy. I haven't heard anybody's been speaking from majority academies. I hear folks from institutes. When my child is looking to get into college, he's not going to be looking to get into the Discovery Institute. He's looking to get into UT."

Donna Howard, page 201

I'm highlighting this speech because it was among the most surprising presentations. It was a scathing attack on the school board itself and the ridiculous process of allowing politicians to decide the content of science classes. They didn't ask her any questions or speak any longer than her allotted time, of course.

"SBOE members are in no position to be debating science. That debate belongs in the scientific community. It is not your job."

"Meaningful oversight of this process is thwarted when SBOE members misuse the process to further personal agendas."

"Just as we have imposed higher standards on our students, we should require higher standards of our State Board of Education. In fact, we should be able to reject the actions of this Board due to factual errors or at least errors of omission, the omission of rationality and reason."

Amanda Walker, page 237 (audio)

Austin science teacher.

"The question here today is not whether or not evolution is a solid theory. The vast majority of the scientific community and the data from many labs worldwide confirm that evolution is the mechanism by which new species arise.

"The question here today is whether we Texans will allow our religious beliefs to damage the study of science in Texas when our students rely on us to make decisions that will enrich their educational opportunities."

Steven Weinberg, page 296 (audio)

Steven Weinberg is the Nobel Laureate physicist.

"The courts... are presented with testimony or testimony is offered, for example, that someone knows that a certain crime wasn't committed because he has psychic powers or someone sues someone in tort because he's been injured by witchcraft. According to current doctrines, the Court does not allow those arguments to go to the jury because the Court would not be doing its job. The Court must decide that those things are not science. And the way the Court does is by asking: What -- do these ideas have general scientific acceptance? Does witchcraft have general scientific acceptance? Well, clearly, it doesn't. And those -- that testimony will not be allowed to go to the jury.

"How then can we allow ideas which don't have general scientific acceptance to go to high school students, not an adult jury? If we do, we are not -- or you are not doing your job of deciding what is there that is controversial. And that might be an interesting subject to be discussed, as for example the rate of evolution, the question of whether it's smooth, punctuated by jumps or whether it's -- or whether it's just gradual. These are interesting questions which are still controversial which could go to students and give them a chance to exercise their judgment.

"But you're not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, anymore than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury."

Eric Hillis, page 316

Eric was a real dynamite 16 year old high school honors student. He is a student of Amanda Walker (see above). He gave an excellent speech, with delivery and content that was head and shoulders above many adults speaking that night. He received massive applause, which was well deserved.

"I plan to take AP biology in my upcoming senior or junior year, so I hope to use one of these AP textbooks in the future. I looked at nine of the 11 textbooks that are up for consideration tonight.

"When I took biology last year, my teacher taught about the different scientific evidence that supports Darwin's Theory of Evolution by natural selection. But she also talked about the different weaknesses that Darwin's original ideas had and that scientists have discovered since then. For instance, Darwin did not understand genetics as we do today. And he proposed only the mechanism of selection to account for evolution. In biology class, we learned about the many advancements in genetics and evolution that have been made since Darwin, such as genetic drift and the founder effects. So I looked at these textbooks to see if the strengths and the weaknesses of Darwin's ideas were thoroughly explained.

"I found examples in each book that discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of Darwin's ideas."

Russell Glasser, page 329 (audio, text)

This was undoubtedly the best speech of the evening. Just kidding. :)

As I had predicted in the story of part one, Terri Leo went after me with some questions, but I seem to have stopped her in her tracks.

"The purpose of a science class isn't to let kids 'decide for themselves' whether fringe science is real science. We don't put holocaust deniers side by side with World War II historians in history textbooks and let students 'decide for themselves' which ones are right. And we don't spend time in physics classes teaching cold fusion."

(Responding to Terri Leo) "I am not at all disputing that Dr. Wells holds legitimate degrees. ...I said that his ideas come from outside the scientific community because they're not published in peer-reviewed papers. It doesn't just take a bunch of initials after your name to make you be doing legitimate science. In order to do science correctly, you have to start with the evidence and lead to a conclusion, not start with a conclusion and then misrepresent evidence that's already available so that you could confirm what you already think you knew."

Edward Theriot, page 368

"One of the issues is the Tree of Life. The product of evolution is the Tree of Life and the principle that all life is related through that tree. The brief point I want to make here today in my three minutes is that these trees are not just a result of assumptions about evolution, but they make various predictions about evolution and other parts of Earth history that lead to other tests.

" I work on ocean, lake and pond scum, specifically diatoms. ...In Yellowstone Lake, I discovered a diatom that just lives in Yellowstone Lake. I did one of these comparative analyses I was talking about without reference to the fossil record and determined that that was most closely related to a group of other things in this genus. ...And it's said that the ancestor of the thing in Yellowstone Lake should look just like niagarae.

"Well guess what? After that, we cored the lake, went all through the core. There's an 11,000-year record at the bottom of the lake. All through the lake was these diatoms. At the bottom, it looked like niagarae within 1,000 years -- and I have samples at 40-year intervals -- this thing just slowly becomes Yellowstone ensis."

David Cannabella, page 379

"I've also read another book, the Icons of Evolution. ...This book is by one of the fellows of the Discovery Institute, Dr. Jonathan Wells, and it claims that much of what we teach about evolution is wrong.

"I have to say, as an editor of peer-reviewed journals, I have never read a supposedly scientific book that distorts basic facts as much as this one does. This book is slickly written, but it is full of half truths and errors of fact. This book has no original research and, in fact, it reads pretty much like a badly written term paper. In fact, I'm planning to use parts of this book in my course this semester to teach students how not to write about science.

"Additionally, I personally know 12 of the biologists who are cited in this book whose work is directly cited. Everyone of them feels that their quotes are taken out of context and misconstrue the intent of their original scientific papers. If an author submitted to me a scientific paper for peer-review in our Journal of Systematic Biology and took quotes out of context as this book does, it would be sent back with no further consideration."

Samantha Smoot, page 391 (audio)

Sam Smoot is head of the Texas Freedom Network, and wow, her speech was an eye-opener. Deviating from her prepared speech, Sam spent some of her time doing a recap of the Discovery Institute's behavior that evening.

"I want to deviate from my written statement and also add: Things have not only gotten away from science, I believe they've gotten out of hand. We had a Discovery Institute spokesperson say that science should be more like the Jerry Springer show. We had a Discovery Institute fellow mislead you earlier today about his affiliation. We had a Discovery Institute person you'll hear from later tonight on a radio show in San Antonio a couple months ago compare me and others to Nazis. And just a couple of hours ago, a minister who testified to you all was followed out into the hall by four people from the Discovery Institute who surrounded him, got in his face and one of them slapped him on the back and called him a bastard. I think things are out of hand here."

Incidentally, the person who allegedly called the minister a bastard later approached Samantha and claimed that he called him "pastor". Our own Jeff Jones, however, was present during the incident in question, and says that BOTH words were definitely spoken. According to Jeff, the DI people were angry because they'd assumed that the minister (we think it was Roger Paynter) would be on their side, and they tried to coordinate his speech ahead of time. They said "This all would have been avoided if you'd returned our calls."

John Yeaman, page 407

" a theologian, I want to say, we're often tempted to look for God -- a lot of people are tempted to look for God in the distant, the unknown, to find God in what is not known. And I've always preached that that is wrong, because those unknowns get known. And the effect is to get rid of God."

Martin Wagner, page 423 (audio, text)

This is our own Martin Wagner of ACA, and he did a smashing job of presenting the Wedge Strategy and revealing the real agenda of the Discovery Institute.

"A document titled 'The Wedge Strategy' produced by the Discovery Institute states that the goal of ID is purposefully religious: 'Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.' Jonathan Wells, in an article titled, Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second PhD., confesses, 'I asked God what He wanted me to do with my life, and the answer came not only through my prayers, but also through Father's many talks to us, and through my studies... my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism..." And William Dembski, in a book revealingly titled Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, plainly states, 'any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.'

"The claim that ID does not have a hidden religious agenda is actually kind of true; if these published remarks are any indication, what ID has is an overt religious agenda."

John Marshall, page 429

Some nice jabs at the hidden agenda of the Discovery Institute:

"I saw that everyone agrees that we're going to teach evolution to our children. I thought that's great. And everyone agrees that we're not going to put any type of creationism in the workbooks -- in the books, the textbooks. That's great. I saw we're not going to put any intelligent design in there either, which I'm very happy for, because I think it would be thrown out by the courts very quickly. So that's good.

"So what I'm wondering about is, what the heck are we doing here and why are we talking about this stuff? Because you know, why is the Discovery Institute here? It really worries me.

" point is that there are some hidden agendas here. And you hear them in the questions. You hear them in the questions to the people who are getting up to speak. There are some people here who are on this committee, on this SBOE, who have some hidden agendas. And I really wish everyone would come clean. And Discovery Institute, too, I wish you guys would come clean, whoever you guys are."

"...I read [Jonathan Wells'] article "Survival of the Fakest." And it started off as this innocent graduate student learning about biology. And lo and behold, he finds inaccuracies and discrepancies and it just makes him challenge everything.

"Well, what got me mad was later, I read that article that was just referred to where he explains how -- and this predates the "Survival of the Fakest," this article that he writes that he says, I'm going to devote my life to kill Darwinism, to destroy it. I have the exact quote in my speaker notes."

Andrew Riggsby, page 433

"To use a historical parallel, we would rightly object to a book which used the story of Washington and the cherry tree, but you don't fix that problem by questioning the existence of our first president."

"Doubting the overall the pattern of evolution on these grounds is like doubting that Texans at the Alamo were killed in battle because we don't know exactly who killed Bowie or Crockett."

"Or, in one last historical parallel, I can't figure out how the Egyptians built those pyramids, so I guess they didn't."

Michael Marty, page 441

"Good evening. It's been, I think, an extraordinary evening to watch a complete course in evolutionary biology taught in three-minute segments by 120 guest professors."

"What I'd like to point to is the educational system is a complex, interacting machine with many, many parts. They are the tests that the students take, there are the standards that the educators imposed, there are the textbooks that are supplied, there are the certification exams the teachers take, there are the courses that they take at the universities for which they learn the things that they will then be tested on and the certification exams upon which they go to the school and teach it all to the students.

"Now, what's quite dramatic about the things being talked about here today is discussion of changing one little piece in that system. It's like looking into a complicated working engine and saying, I think it would work better if that gear were changed. I'm going to make it bigger. And someone says, well, shouldn't we stop the car? And he says, no, I'll do it on the fly."

Part 5: And now let's welcome our very special guest stars...

Testimony from Texas natives ended around 12:30 AM, if I remember correctly. (I'll go back and check the tapes a little later.) That left the eight distinguished guests from out of town who had come to speak to the board. Apart from William Dembski, who spoke much earlier that afternoon, these were all the big shots on both sides.

John West of the Discovery Institute, whose testimony appears on page 487 of the transcript (listen to audio) got thrown a curve ball by one of the board members who had actually been paying attention to everyone else's testimony. We all know that the Discovery Institute reps like to pretend they're being extremely subtle and clever when they launch their attacks on evolution. If they don't want to be perceived as anti-science, they say they're supporting stronger science. If they don't want to be associated with young earth rubes, they emphatically state that they're not creationists. And if they don't happen to be talking about Intelligent Design on this particular occasion, by God, nobody had better impugn their honor by accusing them of slipping ID into textbooks.

But Dr. Bernal, the questioner, just wasn't buying it. Here's the excerpt from West:

DR. BERNAL: "Somebody identified the work that you-all do in Discovery as a political movement. In a political movement, the first thrust or one of the first thrusts was for you to attack the weaknesses, supposedly, or the things that you perceive to be the mistakes or the errors of evolution. After you complete that, then you come in with intelligent design and try to impose that as a science."
MR. WEST: "Well --"
DR. BERNAL: "Is that part of your program?"
MR. WEST: " far as the political movement and stuff, that is very interesting. Of course, this is a highly-charged issue. There's no question about that. But let's -- if you really want to be honest -- I mean, I listened, just like you did, for eight, nine, ten hours, people stigmatize my motives, make all sorts of charges and say motives are important. Well, then, let's really -- if you -- let's be fair about that. I encourage you all to go to a web-site called If you think that only the motives on this side -- you know, there's these people are motivated by religion who just can't stand evolution and there's no sort of science in it. Some of the people that you're hearing from are what I would call evangelist really for Darwinism. And I encourage you, go to -- many of their names, not some of the people here. Actually, some of the people who do do activities. ...I encourage you to go to this web-site and see how they talk about Darwin. It's almost like a saint. I mean, it really is. And worshipful. ...And so, you know, there are agendas on all sides. And -- but what should be in the textbooks is what is provable science."
MR. BERNAL: "When I first talked to you -- when I first asked you, it seemed like the beginning and the end was just to be a critic about the mistakes made by the people that believe in evolution. And now, you've kind of gone into -- into political mode that you do have another design. And that is, after you weaken the whole program of evolution, you're going to come in with ID, with intelligent design, and try to impose that."
MR. WEST: "No, I didn't intend to say that. I don't think I said that. What I said --"
MR. BERNAL: "I think you implied it, though."
MR. WEST: "What I -- well, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. ...But what's before you I said, while we do support scientists who work on intelligent design -- and that's true. We've never made any apologies for that fact. But that is an emerging theory. And so there are legitimate questions about how well-established does a theory have to be as an alternative before you put in textbooks?"
MR. BERNAL: "Okay. But give me a direct, honest answer. Would you want to impose ID as a science into the textbooks?"
MR. WEST: "Impose it? I --"
DR. BERNAL: "Yeah, put it in. Include it. Is that your position, personally?"
MR. WEST: "Personally, my -- no, personally my position --"

Well, you get the idea. It goes on like that for several minutes. Terri Leo also jumps in and adds to the chaos for a bit. She even goes so far as to claim that there are agnostics who support Intelligent Design Theory, to which the obvious response would be "Yeah? Name one." The whole thing is really pretty funny. I wish I had the full audio for this, but I had never heard of John West, so I didn't bother recording him until I realized I was missing the fun.

Michael Behe (page 506; audio) did his usual presentation about the flagellum and irreducible complexity -- a concept which, of course, has never been peer reviewed (to this reporter's knowledge) and which has been roundly debunked by a whole lot of other scientists. Creationist board member Don McLeroy made some obsequious comments at the end of his speech about how great his book was.

Eugenie Scott, Alan Gishlick, and Robert Pennock all had excellent presentation; I can't add a lot to their words other than what I've already said in part two, so I'll just suggest that you click their names and listen to them for yourself.

And finally, Jonathan Wells got his turn in the light. Don McLeroy also had words of high praise for Wells, stating "Your name has been brought up tonight more than Charles Darwin's, so obviously you must be having an impact." Well, of course Wells was brought up a lot. He gave the board their briefing, after all. His organization orchestrated the entire farce we had just witnessed. I'm not so sure he's happy about the fact that everybody knows they were trying to influence the board behind the scenes.

Part 6: The envelope please... and the winner is...

On November 6, 2003, the State Board of Education voted to approve all 11 biology textbooks. Read the story at CNN.

Finally, a complete transcript of the hearings (in pdf format) is also available in pdf format.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Testimony from the Texas State Board of Education Hearings

This speech was delivered before the Texas State Board of Education on September 20, 2003.

My name is Russell Glasser. I'm a software engineer at IBM. I have a ten-year-old stepdaughter who studies science in the Round Rock school district, and a sixteen-month-old son who will someday do the same. My parents both have PhD's in physics, and my father is involved in fusion research at Los Alamos National Lab.

Fourteen years ago, my father taught me what happens when you do science without sticking to the scientific method. Two chemists named Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have discovered something called "cold fusion". If true, it would mean that we could produce a virtually unlimited supply of energy at very low cost.

But Pons and Fleischmann chose to promote their ideas in a questionable manner. Instead of publishing papers in scientific journals that told other scientists how to repeat their experiments, they went straight to the press and told them that they'd made a breakthrough.

Their ideas were dead wrong, but they couldn't have known this because they didn't invite outside criticism. They didn't follow the peer review process that is a vital part of science. By trying to skip that process and go straight to the public, they wound up embarrassing themselves.

Unfortunately, I can see the same thing potentially happening to science education in Texas. Since evolution is scientific, there are legitimate criticisms of it. Science thrives on criticism. But many books that attack evolution come from outside the scientific community.

An example of such a book is Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Dr. Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute, and an advisor of this school board. He holds a PhD in Biology, but like Pons and Fleischmann, Dr. Wells has failed to follow the scientific method. His assaults on evolution are published in a book that's only found in popular bookstores, and not papers in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

One example of Wells' work is his treatment of the peppered moth. In the papers that I have distributed to the board, I describe how Wells falsely used research done by geneticist Michael Majerus to make it appear that it refutes evolution. Majerus himself explains how Wells misrepresented him.

Science is designed to be self-correcting, and that's a good lesson to teach in our classes. But ultimately, published scientists figure out what constitutes legitimate science and then schools teach what they have found. It makes no sense to do this process backwards.

The purpose of a science class isn't to let kids "decide for themselves" whether fringe science is real science. We don't put holocaust deniers side by side with World War II historians in history textbooks and let students "decide for themselves" which ones are right. And we don't spend time in physics classes teaching cold fusion. A reasonable plan would be to let scientists agree on what is correct science first, and then bring their work to Texas textbooks.

Jonathan Wells and the Peppered Moth

(This was not read during the hearings, but handed in as part of the written testimony)

Jonathan Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute and the author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? In his book, Wells argues that scientists frequently "misrepresent the truth" when presenting the evidence for evolution to the public. The book runs through ten such "icons," frequently using the work of mainstream scientists to bolster his point. Ironically in light of his thesis, Wells misrepresents the content of the work that he cites. His discussion of the peppered moth in chapter seven is an example.

Many biology textbooks use peppered moths as an illustration of natural selection in action. Typically, the books contain a series of photographs that display a light-colored moth and a darker moth side by side on a light-colored tree trunk, and the same moths on a darker tree trunk. These pictures show how moths blend in against certain backgrounds, making them safer from predators. Scientists have observed that birds find (and eat) fewer light-colored moths in areas dominated by light-colored wood, and they find (and eat) fewer dark-colored moths in areas dominated by darker, polluted wood. As a result, most peppered moths in light-colored areas are light colored, and most peppered moths in dark-colored areas are dark.

In Icons of Evolution, Dr. Wells bases his arguments on a book by Michael Majerus entitled Melanism: Evolution in Action. Wells argues that the peppered moth story is fake. He relies on two main points. First, he suggests that scientists are being dishonest because the moths in the pictures are dead moths pinned to trees. But the books do not claim to be showing an action shot of moths. They are merely illustrating how color affects visibility.

Second, Wells claims that the pictures are irrelevant because "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." This is false, as he would have known if he had actually bothered to read all of Majerus' own book. As Dr. Majerus himself said in an online rebuttal of Wells' claims:

"This is just wrong. Dr. Wells, who gives the impression in his response that he has read my book, obviously has not. If he had, he would have seen that in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 I myself have recorded 168 peppered moths on tree trunks or at trunk/branch joins. If Dr Wells' wishes his views to be taken seriously, he should ensure that his research is thorough."

A scientist must start with the evidence and let it lead him to a conclusion. Instead, Wells started with his conclusion and distorted or misunderstood the facts in an effort to support the conclusion he had already reached. Using Jonathan Wells as an authority to attack science in textbooks is bad policy.

Letter from Michael Majerus to Donald Frack
"Icon of Obfuscation": an online review of Icons of Evolution
Majerus, M. E. N. (1998). Melanism: evolution in action. Oxford University Press

Thursday, July 17, 2003

PC vs console gaming

Will PC gaming ever be fully replaced by consoles? My guess is no, and it mostly boils down to one reason: input.

My two favorite types of games are still (a) strategy, and (b) shooters. And I find it very hard to see myself comfortably playing either one of them on a console.

Strategy games come in two flavors: real-time (Warcraft) and turn-based (Heroes of Might and Magic). For real-time strategy, the mouse is ESSENTIAL to move fast enough to manage everything on the screen. For both of them, precision clicking is required at least ten times a minute. Try doing that with a hand held controller. I have, when I rented Starcraft 64 for my Nintendo. It's very hard. In order to make up somewhat for this difficulty, Blizzard doubled the number of units you can select at once, and created a "highlight everything on the screen" button. This helps macro-management, but not micro. There is no good way to quickly select a caster and target a spell where you need it. With a turn-based game these issues are eased a bit -- and I know that Heroes designer Gus Smedstad has said himself that he doesn't like the twitch reflex aspect of Warcraft. But even with no time pressure, clicking an area of the screen with a joystick is extremely frustrating, and if you have to do it often enough, it can get old fast.

Then there's the keyboard -- hotkeys. Not everybody takes the trouble to learn them, but I think everyone who does would agree with me that they can't live without them anymore. So many interface issues just seem to go away when you can quickly type "H" to switch heroes, "E" to end the day, "BH" to build a town hall, "C" for a chain lightning spell. Having an entire board full of free keys, most of which have letters and numbers for quick mnemonic reference, is a huge help.

Many action type games rely on the same dynamic. Just imagine trying to play Diablo II with a joystick. I think I could handle moving my character that way, even though choosing a target from the crowd around you would be tricky. Especially with a spellcaster or bow user. But there's no way I can see handling the multitude of other tasks that make Diablo an interesting game - all the inventory managing, skill switching, character adjusting, potion guzzling, etc. We're not talking about some overly complicated game that people hate. We're talking about one of the best selling PC games of all time, and we're talking about a game that I've personally introduced to at least five non-gamers, with a very high success rate.

As for first person shooters, they're mostly unplayable on a console. I won't touch the stuff, myself. I played James Bond and Perfect Dark, two of the most highly praised shooters on the Nintendo 64. Hate them. Metroid Prime made it easy to aim, but I think it was a fluke. And in any case, auto-aiming just isn't the same as precision mouse aiming, and I don't think it will ever catch on in the multi-player arena the way Quake and Counter-Strike have.

The interface issues we're talking about are far from insignificant. Many consoles have tried to introduce keyboards and mice, but they haven't caught on. Not surprising, either. They just don't work in a comfy armchair. And one more issue I can think of that doesn't work on a console is the ability to save lots of games. You have a hard time playing Serious Sam without a dozen quicksaves in memory, even if you didn't have the aiming issues. And few console games I can recall give you the ability to just load up an old save file and begin play from any point in the game that you wish. You have to start over.

Don't get me wrong, I like kicking back and playing a relaxing game on the Cube. So far, Zelda is my favorite. But even Zelda hasn't really compelled me to keep playing it after winning. In the end, the games that have real staying power for me are the ones that are deep enough to require all the extra depth that you only get on a full featured computer.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

For my dad on Father's Day

Memories of growing up with my father, Alan Glasser

It's father's day, and the beginning of my second year as an actual father. I would like my father to know how much I appreciate him.

In the last five years, dad lost both of his parents, Milton and Jean Glasser. I had not visited my grandparents for several years before they died, and I felt very guilty about this. In fact, I was afraid that Grandma Jean had never even seen pictures of me with my family, because I am a notorious procrastinator and I never sent any. I posted plenty of pictures on my web site, but Jean was a little too old to catch up with the online trend, so I would have had to send them by regular post. Luckily, dad told me that he had brought her pictures himself. I was extremely grateful.

A few weeks after she died, we all got together and had an informal memorial service for both Jean and Milton -- dad, mom, me, my sister Keryn, and dad's wife Marg-Anne. I had a lot of things on my mind to say about my grandparents, but when the time came I felt too emotional to be coherent. I could only say things in bits and pieces. Dad read a very moving tribute that he had written about them. I thought it was a shame that they didn't get to hear it in person.

Well, I'm sure that dad has many decades of life left, but I don't want to feel the same way when he's gone. That's why I needed to write this now.

Early years

The earliest memory I have of my dad is of him fighting a big blue hairy monster to rescue my yellow lollipop.

Of course the monster wasn't real, but the lollipops were. There was a mall in Princeton Junction which sold huge round yellow lollipops, and I always got them. I guess I was about three years old. My dad was a born story teller, and he made up a story for me to make sure I would never be scared of monsters.

In the story, a big blue monster (probably Harry Monster from Sesame Street) tried to steal my lollipop, but dad ran out to the parking lot and tackled him, and not only did the monster buy me a new lollipop, but he had to apologize to me personally. It was great. I don't know how many times I heard that story, but judging from how well I remember it, it must have been a lot.

Dad read a lot of stories to me, and he played a lot of physical games with me that I still remember. He would lie on his back on the bed and bounce me on his knees, saying: "To market, to market, to buy a fat PIG! Home again, home again, jiggity jiggity jig!" I can also remember him telling me about my name. I was named after Bertrand Russell, and he told me that Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. What's a mathematician? It's a person who "plays with numbers". I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded like fun.

As a scientist, dad has always valued knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity. Many times I have been discouraged by an academic subject, and he has encouraged me to stick with it and find the interesting parts. When I was first starting school, I wasn't very good at math, because it seemed to heavily rely on memorizing things on flash cards. Dad told me to be patient, because things would get better. When I got older, he bought me books with mathematical games in them. He took me and some classmates to a lecture by a logician named Raymond Smullyan when I was 11 or 12, and it had a profound effect on me. Once I understood that math could be fun and engage your mind, as opposed to the way I had learned it in elementary school, I really learned to appreciate it.

I can also remember a similar experience with biology. I had a terrible biology teacher in high school, Mr. Max. Everything about the class seemed like rote memorization. Dad kept telling me, "Don't worry, when you get to the part about evolution, it will all make sense. Biology is much more exciting when you understand how it works through evolution." I kept an eye on the evolution chapter, and kept waiting to get there... and we skipped it. No explanation given. It turned out that Mr. Max was either a creationist himself, or afraid to start controversy by teaching the subject. Dad was livid; he went to the principal of the school and raised a big stink. I don't know what happened in the end -- I still didn't learn evolution in that class -- but I appreciated the effort. Maybe future students benefitted from this. As for me, dad gave me and my best friend Gil our first lecture on evolution that day in the car. Gil was Catholic, and he always had the idea that it was bad to believe in evolution, but he was surprised that it was so simple and obvious. He was also surprised when dad told him that the pope had said evolution was okay. I made a point of taking a full course on evolution when I got to college, and I finally saw his point. Evolution DID make biology all make sense. After I graduated, I started reading more and more about the subject, and now I am even something of an expert on the creation/evolution controversy.

All through my high school years, we commuted to Los Alamos together. We lived in Santa Fe, and Los Alamos (where dad worked at the lab) was a 45 minute drive away. It would have been easier to go to school in Santa Fe, but my parents agreed that Los Alamos had a much better school system, and Santa Fe was reputed to have something of a problem with gangs. So, the result was that my dad spent an hour and a half together every week day in the car. Sometimes we made good use of the time, sometimes we didn't. For the first year we drove with my best friend Gilbert Quintana, who went to LAHS with me until his sophomore year, and then he decided to go back to Santa Fe. During that year, dad gave us a crash course education in classical music. He had us identify composers and types of music. Every time he played a fugue, he would give a dollar to the first one who yelled "Fugue!" In exchange, Gil gave us a crash course in his favorite rock music. That didn't stick with dad as long, but he was very patient about it.

Those were four years I spent as sort of a surly teenager, so I know that dad had to put up with a lot sometimes. Sometimes we would argue about homework or bad grades. Sometimes I would just sit there in sullen silence and not talk. Sometimes I would reach over aggressively and turn off the radio, which was usually playing NPR, so I could do some last minute homework before school. There were some personality clashes, but dad didn't let it hurt our relationship.


I learned to be a staunch, outspoken atheist from dad. Dad comes from a long line of atheists; his father and grandfather both were, which made me a fourth generation atheist. My parents were understandably worried that I would get into trouble with the other kids, especially since we moved to Alabama at about the same time that I was starting to come to grips with atheism. Dad took a job at a college in Alabama, and my parents told me a story of how they went to visit there before we moved. During their visit, they spotted a theater that was playing Monty Python's "The Life of Brian", a sacreligious farce that lampooned the life of Jesus. They said to each other, "Okay, this place can't be all that bad." The next day when they were leaving, they drove past the same theater and people were picketing it.

Well, dad's fears were well founded in a way. I started arguing with my neighborhood friends when I was six or seven. The first time I was stumped by a question was when one of them asked me, "If there's no God, then who made the world?" I went right back to dad and asked him, "What do we believe, that The Nothing made the world?" And he explained some arguments to me. When word got out around school that I was an atheist, I was treated as something of an oddity. Kids used to come up to me after school and show their friends: "Here, watch this. Do you believe in God?" "No," I said. And they would walk away, saying "Isn't that weird?" I don't think I ever got beaten up by anyone for that, though. From dad, I learned that atheism was a simple, logical position to take, and he never acted like it was a position to take because it was counter-cultural, so I didn't either.

As I grew up, I became more confident in my atheism. I got involved in several different venues where I learned how to argue. One was the high school debate club, which involved staying in Los Alamos late at night once a week. Another was the message boards on Prodigy, which we signed up for when I was 18. When I argued with people, I often had to come back to dad and asked him what he would say about this or that point. Even as I went through college, he was usual the first person I called when I had a question about most academic subjects, especially politics.

Dad also helped to launch my life long passion for computer gaming. I first saw "Pac-Man" when I was six years old, at the Godfather's Pizza place that we always went to. I made my mom play it, but I wouldn't play it myself. The game scared me, the way you always had to run from these monsters that were chasing you. Everybody dies in the end. For a long time I loved to watch those games but I wouldn't play them. Finally, one day he gave me a quarter in a supermarket, and said "Here, I order you to go play that game." I even remember that the game was "Jungle Hunt". Once I played it, I realized that it was actually fun, and "dying" really wasn't that bad.

We were early adopters of home computers. We had our first IBM PC around 1983, when they were first available. A lot of other kids had Ataris at home, but I don't think anyone else had a computer for many years. Some of dad's friends designed PC based clones of commercial arcade games, so we always got a lot of free games. Dad and I actually had a friendly rivalry in some games. He always had the high score at "PC-Man". One day I came very close to beating his score, and he was right behind me, watching and encouraging. I almost did it, but I died needing ten more points -- which I would have gotten by eating just ONE MORE DOT. I never made it that far again. However, I think I finally broke his record at Frogger.

It's funny remembering this, because later when I became a much bigger game enthusiast, I didn't really think that Dad liked games for some reason. But he used to play games with me a lot, and I can remember walking into our home office at 3 AM and finding him playing Solitaire. Later, he would take me on special trips to the arcade to watch people play Dragon's Lair, the first LaserDisc based game, which was hand drawn by the former Disney animator Don Bluth.

It didn't stop there, though; dad made it a point of getting me to learn how to program too. One of the first magazines for kids about computers was "Enter", and I wanted a subscription mostly because they had articles about games. But dad would only buy me a subscription if I promised to do some of the BASIC programming exercises in the magazines. I knew how to print my name and do simple "goto" logic, but that wasn't enough. I remember how he tried to teach me about arrays. It was frustrating at first, and I just didn't get it for a while, but eventually I did it. Later, he made me write a program that he used to illustrate some simple trignometry. I wouldn't get any trig in class for years to come, but he got me started.

In my sophomore year of high school, he convinced me to take an advanced programming class in Pascal. It was taught by my geometry teacher from Freshman year, Mr. Laeser. Dad recognized a truly inspiring teacher when he saw one, and knew I should spend more time with Laeser. I was the youngest student in that class, but I did very well in it. At the end of the year, Mr. Laeser made a competition to see whose program could output the most consecutive prime numbers in five minutes. Thanks to a lot of extra instruction from my dad, I won. Well, WE won. I was in fierce competition with another student named Yoseif right up until the day of the contest. Even Mr. Laeser's teaching aide had a much slower program in the end.

When I went to college, I started out as a physics major, just like him. But after almost two years of physics classes, I realized my heart wasn't really in it. I was not making bad grades in physics, but I realized that I wasn't nearly as interested in the subject as I was in programming. Dad always told me that you should plan to center your life around doing what you enjoy, and he never pushed me to go into the same career he had. In fact, he encouraged me to switch my major to computer science once it became clear that I wasn't as turned on by physics.

Another thing I remember is that dad was a guy who could take crazy ideas and make them become reality. When I was 11 years old, he took my sister and me to see a local production of "H.M.S. Pinafore". It was a wonderful performance, and it made me a devoted fan of Gilbert and Sullivan for the rest of my life. But the real surprise was when my dad suggested that we get the entire family to perform "The Mikado" for my Bar Mitzvah party. To show that he was serious, he actually went out and hired the director of Pinafore, Manos Clements.

Looking back

When I tell my wife about my experiences with my father, she often tells me she's amazed that we got along so well. I suppose it is a bit abnormal, in a way. In fact, dad commented on this once, when we were driving to Los Alamos. He said, "You know, kids your age aren't supposed to get along with their fathers." "Yeah, so I've heard," I replied. "We really ought to try harder to have a normal relationship," he said. "Go ahead," I said. In a completely flat voice, he said, "You rotten kid." "Get off my back, old man," I answered in the same voice. Then we laughed and he said "My heart's not really in it."

Well, it would be wrong to say that we had a perfect relationship. I think we had an unusually good one, but I also remember that dad had a temper which usually manifested itself when I was having academic problems. I nearly got kicked out of a private school when I was 12 for failing to do my work. I also got some very bad grades in both my first quarter at high school, and my first quarter at college. Those were some tough times for both of us, and dad would often vent his anger by shouting or using heavy sarcasm.

Nevertheless, when I look back on those times, they seem to pale into insignificance compared with the good memories. As an adult, my relationship with him is better than ever. We discuss politics by email, we recommend books and articles for each other to read, and we chat on the phone almost every week. He has consulted me several times about computer issues, making it clear that he values my opinions in the areas where I am an expert. That makes me feel valuable and proud of myself.

Some of the things I have learned from my dad are:

  • That knowledge and intelligence are valuable.
  • That you shouldn't believe or do things just because other people are doing them; nor should you only do the opposite of what everyone does.
  • That life is meaningful because of the experiences we have, and the people we share them with.
  • That you shouldn't assume people are stupid just because they disagree with you -- they may have fundamentally different ways of looking at life which make sense to them.
  • That doing something you enjoy is one of the most important career choices you can make.
  • That crazy ideas are worth chasing.
  • That true creativity is one of the rarest commodities in the world.

Now that I have been a father for a little over a year, I realize more than ever how much I learned from my dad. I find myself searching on Amazon for the same books that he used to read to me. My most recent purchase was "The Great Blueness". It was out of print, but I took the time to find a reasonably priced used copy. I also do the "To market" chant with my son, and play Gilbert and Sullivan for him.

I hear a lot of stories from people who regret that they never got a chance to tell their loved ones how much they mean to them. I don't want to be one of those people. I love you, dad. Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC, *****)

Bias warning: I'm a TREMENDOUS fan of Blizzard Entertainment. They are my favorite game company, and have been since shortly after I discovered Warcraft II in 1996 or so. I was tutoring a kid in programming, and I went to his house one day and he was playing online with his friend. All these colorful cartoon characters were running around the screen hitting each other, and the thing that most caught my attention was how when he clicked on something, everything had different lines of funny dialogue. I downloaded the demo, and bought the game the next day.

Since then, I have bought every Blizzard game I could within a week or so of its release -- Diablo, Starcraft, Diablo II, Warcraft III, and all the associated expansion packs. The release of a new Blizzard game is one thing I really look forward to and keep an eye out for its release.

So I chose to go to a special midnight sale at GameStop on the night it was released, July 3, 2002. GameStop was a madhouse. I expected five or ten die-hards milling around the store. Instead, there were about thirty or forty geeks waiting in an agonizingly slow line, clutching their pre-order receipts. I even ran into some friends there, a couple with whom I played Diablo in the past. Collector's Edition for him and regular for her.

The biggest thing new players will notice is, of course, that the game is in 3D. The models look good, especially considering that there are often dozens or hundreds on screen at once. The game loses very littlein translation from 2D sprites, they are still the same cartoon figures that we have come to know. Only now you can rotate and zoom the camera a bit to get a better look at them. When you click on them a bunch, they still make annoyed comments. Orc grunts say "Hey, are you poking me AGAIN?" And after that, "Actually, that's starting to feel good."

The other major change from previous games is the emphasis on heroes. You can have up to three of them, although new players will want to limit themselves to one until they are more comfortable with the micro-management aspects. Heroes gain levels and powers as the game goes on, so eventually they are far more powerful than any standard unit in the game. This totally changes the game dynamic from that of Starcraft, where the focus was "Make a million units and throw them at the enemy", instead forcing you to get experience for your own heroes and tactically decide how to fight the opponent's heroes.

The plot begins right in the tutorial, so first time players may want to play through the tutorial even if they feel like they know what they are doing. At first the game centers on Thrall, an orc hero who was supposed to be the main character in Blizzard's cancelled adventure game, "Lord of the Clans". Players also initially meet Grom Hellscream, who doesn't have quite the same funny screechy voice as in Warcraft II. After completing the tutorial, players switch to the new character of Prince Arthas, a human Paladin. I won't mention what happens to Arthas, as that would be a large spoiler for the game's pretty well written story, but I will say that Arthas will figure in as a character in more than one campaign.

By focusing on heroes, Blizzard made the game more personal. You can't relate to a group of 24 marines facing off against 48 zerglings; but you can feel a personal stake in the lives of your heroes in the game. The Starcraft campaigns had heroes like Jim Raynor and Fenix, but these "heroes" could not be brought back once dead, so they had to sit in the back of the base or fight on the flanks of your army all the time. By contrast, Arthas can be resurrected at the altar of kings; he is a valuable spellcaster; and he improves the more he fights. Arthas actually feels like he is your hero, who leads your army, not a wimp who needs a bunch of bodyguards to do the dirty work for him.

The cinematics are standard fare for Blizzard, which means "Better than anything appearing in other games, and on par with the CGI in many movies." When you first watch the movies, you should notice how detailed people look. King Terenas has beard stubble, jowls, and a very distinctive haggard expression. In close-up views, people who haven't seen Final Fantasy (the movie) will probably marvel and say they've never seen such life-like humans.

As far as gameplay goes, it's the little interface interface tweaks that push this one over the line from a good to outstanding game. Like the way you can order one unit to cast spells while still keeping a large army selected. The way you can cast spells on your own units using the portrait interface. The ability to hotkey multiple buildings and rally them all on your heroes, so troops run straight to the battle as soon as they finish training. Spells with autocasting that can be switched on and off. Small touches, but important.

The system is quite different from what Starcrafters are used to. You don't get a long list of game names to try your luck on. Instead, the game features automatic matching. You choose what kind of game you want to play -- map name and style (1v1, 2v2, etc). Then it searches for a game that meets your specifications.

With the addition of the "upkeep" concept, Blizzard changes the dynamic of multi-player gameplay as well. Keeping a large army on hand costs you an "income tax", so if you keep many troops around for a long time, you will wind up far behind on resources. The strategy of "turtling" in your base and building up to maximum army size is no longer viable. Because of this, the focus of the game is much more on strategic attacks, and the role of heroes is emphasized, because the heroes tend to be exceptionally powerful in the late game, while armies are proportionally less powerful. The rule of the game is, don't stay in high upkeep: "spend" those soldiers and go fight your opponent.

Single player levels are many and varied. About half the episodes are standard "build up a base and destroy your enemies" type levels. The rest are levels with small armies and no bases. Ordinarily I hate the latter, because I like to build. But having heroes with constantly improving abilities keeps it interesting, and they really feel like RPG quests. The quests themselves differ widely; there are stealth levels, levels where you simultaneously build a base and scout out adventures with a hero party, levels where you have to escort NPC's to a safe location; levels where you get computer-controlled allies, etc.

Overall, Warcraft 3 is a fine strategy game and will give many months of enjoyment.

Score: ***** out of 5.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

The Hacker's Diet

This is absolutely required reading for overweight computer nerds.

Health and diet is something I've never been particularly interested in, but the Hacker's Diet has done a pretty good job of breaking through my wall of boredom and getting me recognize why I should care. Even though I had two years of college physics, I never really understood this relation between calories and weight. I exercise, but it's sporadic at best. What John Walker did is take the complicated stuff at make it really simple and quantifiable. I love the rubber bag analogy. And I get it now that total calories =~ total weight, so eating x-y calories instead of x calories will cause a loss of a measurable number of pounds over time.

All this must be trivially, stupidly obvious to anyone who's ever thought about it, but I never have. The idea that you can actually quantify it and put numbers on your eating habits that directly correlate to weight movement is interesting. It's an important principle for investors too -- the idea of measuring your progress and making yourself accountable to a bottom line.

I'll admit, I balked when I read that you have to plan your meals. But then I read about the feedback loop, and I relaxed. Why, if I have a good feedback loop, then I don't have to perfectly measure the number of calories I eat. I'll learn to eyeball the right amount of food, and then if I am consistently overestimating how much I can eat, the chart will tell me within a week. All I have to do is pay attention to the number of calories in the kinds of things I eat, until I can get an intuitive feeling for how much is the right amount.

16 days ago, I downloaded the Palm Pilot tools with the intention of measuring my weight. I had a wildly inaccurate scale that gave nearly random readings, so I went and bought a decent one. At first I didn't change my eating much, but as I saw the little calorie readings on my graph, I started treating it like a game (how many big negative numbers can you generate?) and action followed naturally.

I don't know for sure if it's working yet. When I bought my scale, it moved my average weight down by a few pounds, so my previous readings are all wrong. But I DO know that I'm eating less. Just paying attention to what goes in makes a huge difference. I mean, geez, did you know that a double cheeseburger, fries, and a drink is nearly 2/3 of what I should eat all DAY? Even though the book says you don't need to stop eating the kind of foods you're used to, I'm gaining an appreciation for eating healthier. After all, if I eat food with fewer calories, I can eat more of it and feel full while still knowing I won't increase my weight. Not only that, but it's cheaper. If I bring light lunches from home instead of buying fast food most days, I get to keep more of my weekly pocket money to buy gadgets. Who doesn't want that?

I also finally started the exercise ladder. I've been doing it reliably for four days. Moved up to level two yesterday. I plan to go up pretty quickly, since I'm not in such terrible shape right now.

This morning, my wife suggested that maybe I should read another book on health, which she's been trying to make me read for years. She said "I think that it's a great step you've taken by eating fewer calories, but maybe the idea that it doesn't matter what kind of food you eat is a little more simplisitic than it should be."

To my surprise, I said "Okay." See? All of a sudden, I'm interested.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Dreamcatcher (movie, **) and thoughts on Stephen King

Warning: this review contains small spoilers for "The Stand" and "The Tommyknockers."

There's a problem I've had with Stephen King for many years, ever since I read "The Stand." Very few of his books have ever really worked for me.

What bugs me about The Stand is that the initial story is brilliant. There is a creeping disease that gradually kills 99% of the world population, leaving the survivors terrified and adrift in a world full of corpses. It's brilliantly written, and it can keep you up at nights. My favorite part is a single chapter where the story jumps from person to person, watching the disease get passed along and using descriptive language like "For a tip, he gave the waitress a dollar that was crawling with death."

But after the disease finishes taking its toll, what happens next? You get a group of people having dreams about this sweet old lady, and they gather at her house... and then there's an evil guy who turns out to be a demon or something. Eventually it turns into a ridiculous battle of good vs. evil, and you have something that started out as a very good and disturbingly realistic story, which turns into a comic book.

I also read "The Tommyknockers." Again, scary beginning, with some odd change coming over the people of one town, at first giving them some sort of telepathic powers, and gradually brainwashing them and causing them to turn on outsiders and others who don't get involved in the groupthink. But what turns out to be the cause? Aliens. The hero has to fight on a spaceship. It's silly.

And now we have "Dreamcatcher," which I have not read, but it follows the same pattern. It starts with characters who have an interesting power, and we have a backstory that causes us to care about them. Then we get them trapped in a small town where people are dying and they can't leave, and there's some terrifying wormy things that we get brief glimpses of. Seriously creepy. The first half of the movie is a perverse pleasure to people who enjoy horror movies done right.

But this movie also becomes a comic book, when we get the cliche giant faceless alien and the insane military commander. Ginny and I discussed the movie afterwards and tried to pin down at what point the movie "jumped the shark." We decided it happened the first time the redheaded guy started talking like John Cleese. Sorry folks, somebody should have pointed out to the director that John Cleese is not scary. After that it was, once again, not a horror movie but a comic book.

I have a new theory.

Stephen King really knows how to write good horror. I mean, he is the best known horror writer in America; that has to count for something, right? And I've seen it. I've been wrapped up in his books before. I know the man can write.

I think that King's greatest talent is coming up with a scary scenario. He probably gets an idea in his head, and he thinks "Wow, now that would be seriously creepy." And then he writes a book around that.

But at some point, more often than not, he gets stuck. He has already accomplished the scene that he had in his head, and he doesn't know what to do next. So he starts writing a completely different story. He says "Aw hell, lets just throw some demons and aliens in there." Once he loses the original thread, it shows. But he can't just abandon the book, so he writes the new book, which didn't begin with a great idea. So the endgame of his original story is a mess.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Misery remains my all-time favorite Stephen King book. King is 100% true to his original high concept from beginning to end. He starts with a guy being held captive by a scary insane lady who wants to keep him. As the book goes on, the insane lady is revealed to be even more insane than we thought. Most of the terror is psychological, seen through the eyes of the main character. No supernatural element is ever introduced. And his victory in the end is over the same scary lady that was imprisoning him through the entire book. It was a satisfying ending.

Ginny tells me that Cujo was similar, although I haven't read it.

One more book that I think represents King at his best is called "Eyes of the Dragon". This isn't even a horror novel. It's more like a fairy tale for young adults. It has scary parts in it, but it's really about telling a story. It has supernatural elements like magic in it, but the magical theme is established from the beginning, so King never violates the spirit of the story that he originally set out to tell.

At first I thought that King is good at writing psychology and bad at writing about magic, but I've come to realize that he's pretty good at both... as long as he sticks to one or the other.

Score: ** out of 5.