Monday, June 25, 2007

I've been tagged

As Ginny pointed out, she and I are both now two times removed from PZ Myers: Possum Momma got tagged by him to write 8 random facts about herself, and we got tagged by her. So here you are.

The obligatory rules:

  1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
  2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  5. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog

1. I am a really good skier, or at least I used to be. It's easy to get the practice when you spend eight years living ten minutes from the base of a popular ski mountain. I've skied numerous trails rated double black diamond, and I loved moguls. I don't think I've skied in about ten years, although I still have my my own skis stashed in my garage. They are red and significantly taller than I am. The better you are, the bigger skis you use (adds speed but reduces maneuverability).

2. At one of my first real jobs in college, I worked in a La Jolla office that had a big window overlooking the beach. At the time, I didn't fully appreciate how unusually awesome that is.

3. I hardly drank alcohol at all until I was of legal age. I didn't have a major moral objection, I just didn't much like drinking and saw too many people thinking they were being witty and interesting while they were drunk and I was sober. There were ten guys living in my freshman dorm suite, and only two of us never drank. The other one was a Mormon.

4. I almost injured myself very badly while climbing down a fairly treacherous path cutting through a cliff to Black's Beach in San Diego. I made the trip pretty often. This one time, I was trying to hang down over a low drop, but I lost my grip. I fell a short distance and would have hit my head on a rock, but instead my head landed on my backpack, which had a towel inside. And yet I still don't believe in God.

5. At my bar mitzvah, the Torah portion that I read in Hebrew and gave a speech about was the passage containing "An eye for an eye."

6. The first girl I ever loved had been my friend since we were born two weeks apart in the same hospital. The friendship ended the day I said I was in love with her, because she didn't take that information well. Today she is a TV actress, who gets a lot of bit parts on popular shows. I've seen her on three or four shows but I'm long since over her.

7. I once got roughly yanked away from a museum display case by a guard in Paris, because I couldn't understand him when he told me I was standing too close.

8. I can't stand football, but I used to live in Auburn, Alabama, where college football is a major focus of the residents' social lives. My parents and I used to drive around fraternity row during the days leading up to football games, so we could look at all the incredibly elaborate motorized paper mache sculptures of Aubie the Tiger who was brutalizing the opposing team's mascot somehow (i.e., cooking them in a pot, running over them with a car, etc).

Now I'm supposed to tag some more people, but since most of the bloggers I know have already been tagged, there won't be too many. Sorry, but some of these require membership or special access.

  1. Keryn
  2. Gil (he doesn't seem to have a blog yet, but since one is available, it's high time he used it)
  3. Jeff Dee
  4. Martin Wagner
  5. Azzurra

If I forgot that I know more untagged people with blogs, please don't feel slighted, just email me! There's room for a few more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Evolutionary tradeoffs

And now it's time for: Ask Dr. Layman about evolution! A recently posed question about evolution at TMF:

Why didnt mammals ever evolve the ability to fly? Bats and flying squirrels dont count - they are odd. I mean real birdlike mammals. Flying with the eagles. Pecking with the pigeons.

After all they did evolve swimming like fish (dolphins and whales).

The answer, of course, is that they did. (Bats don't count? Whyever not?) But as the discussion progressed, the poster started reworking his question to ask why MOST mammals can't fly. He went on to point out the many advantages of flight (moving quicker to food, getting away from enemies, getting away from bad weather, etc) and concluded that there are no major down sides to flight. When someone pointed out that flying requires lighter bones and stronger muscles, and such additional adaptations, he asked why mammals don't just go ahead and evolve those things.

Of course no law prevents this from happening, as should be obvious by the fact that bats did evolve in exactly that way. But just because flight is good for some animals doesn't mean it's good for all animals. Not every feature which is helpful in some way should be assumed universally available. Every species has strengths and weaknesses, and the effect of evolution is that it sort of naturally "chooses" an area of specialization.

It's sort of like if you asked your dentist why he doesn't know how to do open heart surgery. You might say "Why couldn't you learn open heart surgery? Don't you think that would be a valuable skill for you to have?" No one would say that it's not a valuable skill, but based on his personal circumstances and choices, he's a dentist. He has a career in that. It wouldn't HURT to know about open heart surgery as well, but the payoff would not be good enough to justify the extra time and effort that goes into learning it.

Similarly, it's not bad for an animal to be able to fly. But it wouldn't be very useful for, say, a grizzly bear to evolve into a flying animal. Because moving in a direction that makes flight feasible would require certain features to change that would make it less good at being a grizzly bear.

While flight is a cool feature, so is being gigantic and strong. Cool features don't come for free; every cool feature you have requires higher intake of food (unless of course the cool feature is a highly efficient energy processing system). At some point, the set of features you have is already useful enough that adding one more cool feature is not useful enough to justify the energy cost. When that happens, your species doesn't get to keep the new mutations. Evolution works in small steps, and any trade-off which proves to be a bad one in the short term gets eliminated.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meanwhile, in gaming news...

Two words: Starcraft 2!!!!!!!

I didn't bother posting it earlier, but I might as well bring up the "Hell Yeah" moment I experienced a few weeks ago when it was announced. Like many gamers, Starcraft is an old, old love of mine, and I look forward to revisiting it next year.

In other gaming news, those of you who tried Kingdom of Loathing in the past should probably give it another look next week, when the NS13 update rolls out. The game's getting longer and tougher, the Naughty Sorceress is getting bigger and meaner.

But back to Starcraft. Ginny and I used to play cooperative games on our network all the time. We weren't world class but we were a competent team, sometimes taking on three or four computer opponents at a time. Even so, her own excitement at the announcement of Starcraft 2 surprised me, since she had hardly played games at all since Ben was born. I showed her the cinematic video of the marine getting armored up, and then later I got the gameplay video, which looks extremely cool.

Now she's interested again, and we've played a bunch of Starcraft 1, shaking the rust off our abilities. Yay! Blizzard is saving my marriage.

Just kidding honey! Not that it needed saving. :)

Criticizing Islam

One very frequently asked question asked of us on The Atheist Experience goes something like this: "Every time I watch you guys, you always seem to be bad-mouthing Christianity. There's lots of other bad religions out there. Why don't you criticize Islam more?" This question was asked again on last week's show, and then repeated in email, sparking a small internal debate on whether we should in fact be focusing more on Islam.

I contributed this to the discussion:

Please tell me, when was the last time that anyone called and tried to defend Islam as a true and correct worldview? When, in the entire history of our show, have we EVER been asked to defend atheism from Islam?

I imagine it has happened once or twice, though I can't personally remember a single time in the show's entire history. That's a history that goes back a good 10 years or so.

We don't spend time on Islam because nobody freakin' believes Islam. There are people in the world who do believe Islam, but those people mostly aren't watching our show. If they did, and they called or wrote to us, we'd take them on. Just like we take on every silly idea that
comes our way.

But the fact remains that it is a complete waste of time to go out of our way debunking something that everybody already knows isn't true. It would be amusing, but it wouldn't be any more relevant than spending an entire show debunking Santa Claus. It would be like spending an entire show explaining why putting your cat in the microwave is a bad idea. To all but a very, very tiny percentage of our audience, it would just be reaffirming something that's totally obvious to them.

Disclaimer: Not putting Islam on the same moral footing as a cat in a microwave, one way or the other.

I want to add that this is very different from me saying that Islam is not a serious threat to our culture. Sam Harris has pointed out many times that liberals have a tendency to overemphasize religious tolerance, and underplay the role of religion in inspiring people to do some really crazy stuff.

But our show is outreach. It's aimed at communicating with a culture that is largely dominated by Christianity. It is about dealing with things that we face on a daily basis here in the United States. Of course there's a lot of focus on Christianity; Christianity is what our culture wants to talk about.

What, you want more?

Several people have brought to my attention the fact that my blog is suffering from severe lack of updates.

Since the original reason for this blog's existence was to archive things that I wrote for the Motley Fool, I guess I'll return to my roots and browse for likely things to repost. Expect several updates in the next day or too.

Happy now?

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I heard this on the Rachel Maddow Show and found it amusing at the time.

A kid in the national spelling bee was asked to spell the word "Sardoodledom," which apparently means "melodramatic plot." The 11 year old kid couldn't spell the word until he stopped giggling about it.

The story was posted in several places, but Rachel Maddow's show is the only place where I could find the audio. That's why I cut out the audio portion of their coverage so you could listen to the audio here. It's cute.