Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Heart Boobies

There is an ongoing brannigan occurring between overlapping communities of online atheists. It involves allegations of atheist-on-atheist sexual harassment. The alleged behavior ranges from troll-like online comments to physical in-person groping.

That these activities may occur with a backdrop of much more horrible truly misogynistic activities does not diminish the importance of stopping them. I think that most misogynistic activities occur outside of the sphere of atheists, and may even serve to spur people into giving up on their theistic deity to find peace and peace of mind. Some truly horrible activities occur in areas that are accidentally connected with atheists, and ignoring these to inflate the damage caused by something like a few icky online remarks is not right.

Some of the online comments are way out there. Many spew from the same open sewers every time there appears to be an opportunity for attention. Does pointing out these individuals' contributions to the online stench help to shut them up or does it encourage them? I tend to ignore them, and so any list of contributors and their contributions that I might compile would be woefully incomprehensive.

One online personality, who calls himself “The Amazing Atheist” is often pointed out to me as an example of the evils of atheism. “This is what becomes of people if they turn their back on Jesus Christ” I am told. He is also a favorite source of immature sexual harassment vitriol by those that have made it their multi-year mission to combat these things. He also thinks cannibalism is good. The only reply that has sufficed has been for me to say: “He is a crazy person, and I hope he can find Jesus”.

Two of the accidentally atheist-connected magisteria that harbor misogynistic evils are medicine and universities. Luckily both of these are changing for the better, but not as fast as they should.

Many universities, for instance, have begun to define rape based on the severity of an assault rather than an inability to ignore the victim. The number of rape investigations has increased, and the gap between the number of reported rapes and rape investigations has decreased in many cases. For academic atheists assailing the sexual assault policies of institutions is the same as attacking ones employer or potential employer; it is an exercise that can appear prudent to avoid.

In medicine advances in the treatment of women’s health issues have long trailed general or men’s health issues. Advances in women’s specific treatments often takes a back seat to image or reproductive issues. I’ve seen a number of articles about women getting prophylactic double mastectomies, and I can’t remember any of them treating it as an acceptable general course of action; the women come across as paranoid. And I’m sure the world would like a new anti-cancer drug, but not if it also provides a safe and effective abortion. The issues are more important to many people than women are.

Breast cancer is an iconic women’s health issue. We all know someone who has had or will have breast cancer. As many as one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. It is more than twice as common as the next leading cancer in women. Hundreds of thousands of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US this year, and almost 40,000 will die of it.

Actually, the number of women who die of breast cancer each year in the US has been steadily decreasing for two decades. A very important reason breast cancer’s mortality rate has been decreasing is that people are looking for it, and talking about it. This brings together money, interest, and diagnosis-ready patients; these are the elements society needs to effectively field a treatment.

Innovation has also contributed, and newly announced discoveries will likely decrease both the morbidity and mortality associated with breast cancer even further.

One group -the Keep A Breast Foundation- produced and sold hundreds of silicone rubber “I ’heart’ Boobies” bracelets. Their mission “is to eradicate breast cancer for future generations. We provide support programs for young people impacted by cancer and educate people about prevention, early detection, and cancer-causing toxins in our everyday environment.

The use of a transparent double-entendre to promote KAB’s message was wildly popular. They became a fashion statement much like the yellow LiveStrong bracelets they resembled.

Because of the sexual allusion the bracelets were soon banned in many places; especially schools. In marched septuagenarian breast cancer survivors applauding the attention a cure for the disease that caused them so much suffering had garnered. Some bans were rescinded, but other groups continued to insist their interpretation of the bracelets as sexual statements trumped anyone else’s opinion.

Rebecca Watson (of Elevatorgate fame) has recently derided the I ’heart’ Boobies statement as a example of sexual harassment. She describes it as an example of an egregiously bad add on to an otherwise unacceptable calendar. People who wear bracelets with the ” I ’heart’ Boobies” statement are obvious “Giant S**theads”.

“ [The calendar] comes with a “Geeks ’heart’ Boobies” bracelet, so you can tell everyone you meet what a giant s**thead you are without saying a single word.” – Rebecca Watson (yeah I censored the language for her in the quote)

Despite Watson’s desire to re-frame the message as one of harassment most people have seen it as a tremendously positive, and fun, way of addressing a terrible disease of women. In fact the idea of fun, and sexy, ways of addressing other women’s issues has undoubtedly gotten a boost from the I ’heart’ Boobies bracelet campaign.

In an obvious parallel to the Bracelet’s message Jennifer McCreight loosely organized an “event” she dubbed “Boobquake” that took place on 26 April 2010. An Iranian cleric had suggested that too many women showing cleavage resulted in earthquakes. McCreight encouraged women to show their cleavage at a specified time to try and stimulate an earthquake. Though a significant earthquake (6.5) was registered in Taiwan on the day of the event it came to early to be a product of the cleavage show.

McCreight succeded in getting hundreds of women, and even more men apparently, talking about how women are talked about. And boobies…people talked a lot about boobies in response to boobquake.

There was a counter event to McCreight’s Boobquake called Brainquake. In it women were supposed to show off their awards, cv’s and degrees. The organizers of Brainquake thought that McCreight’s Boobquake was too sexualized and provocative. I would never of even heard about Brainquake if I was not searching the internets trying to find the exact date of McCreight’s event.

Slutwalks, though less directly influenced by the I ’heart’ boobies campaign, were at least encouraged by the wild popularity of the KAB foundations double entendre. In enlightened communities all over women dressed provocatively, and carried signs that said things like:

“No means No, 
Yes means Yes”. 

Interestingly, many of the slutwalks helped to nudge universities into re-defining their institutional approach to rape prevention. People were talking about women’s rights, and things were being done to protect those rights.

Interest in any of these issues is not an intrinsic result of being an atheist. I have opinions, and this is my blog so I can express them at will, but I express them only as a result of my own personal idealism. I am an atheist, and I sometimes talk about that as well.

So when I suggest that you support the advancement of women’s health issues I appeal to the fact that you have mothers, sisters, daughters, and lovers who would be healthier if these issues were addressed.

When I suggest that you demand that universities regularly re-think their rape prevention strategies until there are no more rapes on their campuses I suggest it because women should feel safe on campus. When I prod a bit more and suggest that professors and other employees of universities have an enhanced ability to make a difference in the safety of the women on their campuses I don’t suggest that only atheist professors pay attention to this issue.

I do not make any of these suggestions because I am an atheist.

Of course…it doesn’t hurt that I’m an atheist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Keshe Airlines

Rumor has it that the world is a different place than it was just last year. I have been told that there are scientists diligently working on the application of amazing new knowledge that will transform everything. The problems of reality slip away into a glorious soft-focus future where we all wear turquoise jewelry, and talk with our minds.

On September 21st (Just last Friday) the Keshe foundation released “the first phase of its Free Energy Technology systems to all scientists around the world simultaneously, for production and duplication.”

Just what will this first phase bring? One application spelled out in the Keshe foundation’s July 23rd announcement was: “From that point on, international borders will cease to have any real significance. This is because, once the first flight system has been built and put into operation by public, the time of travel for example from Tehran to New York will be about 10 minutes maximum.”

I have no idea why anyone would want to take a direct flight from Tehran to New York. The delay at immigrations would be unbelievable. One would pretty much fly over Paris on the way, and just changing planes there would make the visa situation much more manageable.

Then there are all the problems with jetlag when one travels at almost 50 times the speed of sound. I’m sure that just skipping along the upper atmosphere at several times the terminal velocity of a meteor can seriously mess with one’s hair. Not that there would be anyone to see your hair when you landed.

Tehran is 9,879 kilometers, as the plane flies, from New York City. In order to traverse that distance in 10 minutes (discounting those long waits taxiing along the runway) one must travel at 16,465 meters per second. A 747 weighs in at about 442,253 kilograms full. So assuming that despite the anticipation of delays at immigration the plane is mostly full the cruising commuter jet will have a total energy of almost 6 X10^13 Joules. This is about 15 kilotons of energy, or about three quarters the amount of energy in the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

They also claim that the commuter craft made by this first phase of technology “will not be detectable with present radar technology.” as if air traffic controllers did not already have enough troubles.

Mehran Keshe is the mastermind behind these world-changing ideas. I watched a rather extended interview of him recorded on YouTube. Mehran appears to be able to synergistically combine the incredible powers of both dangerous quantities of hallucinogenic drugs and a very significant exhaust leak. At one point in the interview he breaks out a few vials. He explains that they are room temperature liquid carbon dioxide and methane. I’ve seen liquid methane and carbon dioxide, and they looked nothing like what was in the vials he was casually swirling with his bare hands.

These things have a lot of applications. And if you look at the CO2 in the liquid state It’s very much the color of the brain of the human. This allows us to build the next generation of computers.” - Mehran Keshe September 2012

I always suspected there was a connection between dry ice and the reason I did not ever like Windows NT.

According to Keshe and his group they have already supplied this world-ending technology to the Iranian government, and the Iranian government has already used the technology to bring down a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone. Harnessing a fusion reaction that manipulates dark matter, regular matter, and antimatter Iranian flying saucer engineers used force fileds to gently pluck the spy drone out of the air.

Perhaps the same Iranian future tech allowed some higher-ups in the Iranian government to go back in time and kill Hitler. That would explain why Iran is such a hotbed of holocaust-deniers…they know that they have actually prevented the holocaust from ever happening.

So...you might ask…what happened to Ann Frank and everyone else. I don’t know, but I can guess.

In order to prevent a temporal time-space paradox the former holocaust victims were transported to a planet orbiting a sun just beyond Kolob. There Mitt Romney’s father George is the local god, and he has seen to it that the six million Jewish people have been re-baptized into a new “lost” tribe of Israel.

I am afraid that until my new car develops an exhaust leak the intricate details of life the universe and everything according to Keshe will elude me. Perhaps I should go out on the porch, and breathe in the fresh scent of blissful ignorance. A storm has cleared the air of a smoglike smoke that has been clinging to the valley for weeks now. If I am lucky I should be able to see the mushroom clouds rising from Salt Lake International Airport that should signify the arrival of late-morning commuters flying in from LAX and LaGuardia.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Advice Column

I do not often get asked for dating advice.

When I do I am torn between several ways of approaching dispensing the advice.

Should I deliver it in a contemplative Guru on the mountaintop way?

Perhaps I should indulge some self help pseudo-psychology name-dropping: Jung? Leo Buscaglia? Skinner? Jack Kevorkian? Freud? Rhonda Byrne? Stephen Covey? Josef Mengele? Deepak Chopra? Richard Bach? M. Scott Peck? Frida Kahlo?

Actually I don’t think I would ever attempt emulating Rhonda Byrne or Stephen Covey.

My best received dating advice is usually non-topical like:
“If you pull the pin, wait three seconds and run like hell”

Should I just listen and nod? I am often forced to do this as many people who  talk about dating, whether they are asking for advice or not, make no sense. It shows respect to nod while listening. Asking questions that uncovers the incomprehensible core of a statement is rude. {Just nod and pretend like you understand what I mean by that if you do not.}

I have been told that dating in the state of Utah is especially difficult. One young woman described multiple first dates where she would tell the prospective partner that she could not (or maybe it was did not want to) have any more kids. She said this was a “dealbreaker” for most men, and that she brought it up on the first date because she did not want to have to “waste a bunch of time”.

I tried to just smile and nod, but I think a “What are you talking about?” may have slipped out.

Another interesting concept is that of “project guys” . Some women will apparently date men that they feel the need to “work on” in order for them to become “acceptable”. Admittedly I am usually presented with this concept in a hindsight reference: “I don’t want to date another project”. This is common enough that I usually catch myself in time to knowingly smile as I listen and nod.

Modern dating is apparently divided into three parts:

1) Going over the CV. I personally think the idea of online dating sites is wonderful. However several people that make the mistake of telling me about using them make light of overstating qualifications, education, or work experience on their CV. The idea is apparently that “Everybody does it” or “I want to date someone who would not necessarily go out with me”. The use of carefully selected highly flattering pictures which may be years out of date is standard practice.

2) The interview aka the 1st date. This is apparently a modern invention which replaces actually doing something with another person which you both might enjoy. I suppose this is a necessary transition phase to slowly morph from being a fictional online character into a human, but it seems to be a poor replacement for “Here we are doing something together that we enjoy why don’t we go do something similar just the two of us?”. [Note to history buffs: There was apparently something in olden days called a "first date"  but was a very different thing]

3) The actual dating. One reason I do not get asked for advice is that I have apparently never been really good at this. Some people are wickedly good at this phase.
One woman told me about how she endured miles of bike riding that left her bruised and chaffed to bleeding to “get to” a particular guy. When I suggested that her bike did not fit right she remarked that she married him and never rode again; “Fixed that problem” she said.
Another woman, who I imagine has a huge collection of high heels and clothing to match, has taken up fishing. She now knows the names of all sorts of lures and tackle components. She even sounds like she really enjoys it when she talks about it, and I hope she does. There are tons of people who love fishing, and it is wonderful to be introduced to something that you discover you really enjoy by someone you are developing a relationship with.
My male friends often talk about not wanting to be seen with people like me so as to not offend the person they are dating.

The persistent idea that the early phases are designed to minimize the potential for lost time by “wasting time with someone it is just not going to work out with” suggests that there is an end-game. There is some measure of success.

“Not being alone” is an often supplied measure of success, but “wasting time” with people prevents being alone. Is there some more subjective companionship that requires more than just proximal co-existence? Is this a plea for intimacy?

Getting married is a popular goal ascribed to other people’s dating end-game. You would think if this were the measure those folks who get married multiple times would be considered the best at dating. However, past marriages too-often appear to be strings of ex-riddled children. If there is a positive it hides under mounds of baggage; at least amongst the very few successful serial brides and grooms I know.

I –of course- like the nauseatingly-sweet goals: “grow old together”, “Have someone that really knows you”, “Just trusting someone”, “a Life partner”…and of course “Love”.

Despite the fact that I like to imagine such ephemeral goals advice should be easily distinguished from simply vomiting up rainbows. All advice, especially dating advice, should be concrete, and based on actual fact. For instance:

M18 Claymore mines have the words “FRONT TOWARD ENEMY” inscribed on one side. Know which side is which when you set stuff up.”


Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In a few days we will all be able to celebrate the autumnal equinox, and the North Pole will enter a period of almost six months of night. Right now it is sunset, and with each passing hour the sun creeps closer to the horizon; it will take almost three days to finally sink below the curvature of the earth. It is the end of a long day there, and on the arctic scale it has been a long hot day.

The melting of the arctic sea ice really stopped a few days ago when the temperatures began dipping into freezing closer to the arctic circle (66N); that far south they have been enjoying several hours of night for each spin of the earth for a couple months now, and they will not know a 24-hour night till December.

Cool chart from Wikipedia

I have written about this year's record sea-ice melt before, and it looks like the final record will be set at 3.4 million square kilometers. This is a big (or perhaps I should say small) number in a number of ways.

First, this represents an ice-pack that is just a hair over half the mean 1979-2000 ice pack size. I think that when we hit that halfway mark everyone who does not own a bicycle immediately gets a gold star to put on the bumper of their SUV.

Secondly there is supposed to be some type of major weather effect. The extra energy is supposed to force the jet stream into some sort of apocalyptic undulation that will intermittently bring shockingly cold air into southern latitudes. I don’t really know about this one, and by “don’t really know” I mean that and not “I really do know but I am skeptical”. It makes sense that having something unprecedented happen on a global scale should have some sort of global effect. I anticipate this winter will be one big event where statistics are collected and compared; kinda like baseball only more exciting, and without the player strikes.

I’ve often pictured the arctic sea ice as a giant white sheet. This image is incorrect for much of the year. I expect that it will be closer to the truth after the first thousand hours of night, but right now it is not. I was recently reading the blog of Julienne Stroeve who is riding through the arctic ice on the Arctic Sunrise (A Geenpeace ship). At almost 83N she was traveling through water that was 60% free of ice.

Instead of a featureless white icefield the arctic sea ice is a fractal-patterned slush. Floes of varying sizes bump and grind until the swiftly approaching darkness will stitch them back together.

Nearer the tip of the globe (The North pole –not the magnetic north pole, but the northernmost point on the globe- is at 90N) some of the ice floes are large enough to appear continuous.

On Friday 20 April 2012 Jamie Morison, principal investigator for the North Pole Environmental Observatory, called out on his Iridium phone to announce that the first of two polar webcams were deployed. Here is a picture from that webcam showing the Arctic sunset.

Camera 1 http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/np2012/2012-cam1.mov

Unfortunately there is nobody around right now to wipe off the lens for Camera #1, and so we are left with a strangely ironic picture of the sunset partially obstructed with droplets of liquid water.

The next day, Saturday 21 April 2012, Matvei Shparo and Boris Smolin arrived at the Noth pole with their group of seven kids ages 15 to 18. They had skied there. It was the fifth ski trip for Shparo and Smolin, who had been the first to ski to the North Pole under their own power in 2007; they began on 22 December 2007, and arrived at the North Pole on 14 March 2008. The 2007-2008 trip covered over 1000km. The 2012 trip with the kids was considerably shorter.

On Sunday 22 April 2012 Jamie called up to announce that camera #2 was deployed, and it is transmitting better pictures right now.

Camera 2 http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/np2012/2012-cam2.mov

The exact time of the Autumnal Equinox will be Saturday September 22, 8:49 A.M. mountain time. On this day the setting sun in the northern hemisphere announces the feast of Mabon. Nimble individuals will dance in the flickering shadows of candlelight while serving roasted pumpkin and curried tofu.

And the arctic Webcams will go dark.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Finnegans Genome

I had a little fun writing yesterday’s post. In today’s post I’m going to look at two other popular arguments against evolution. The first is that there is never any new genetic information produced, and the second is that all mutations are harmful.

These two assertions are often combined, so it is convenient to tackle them together in one post.

Natural selection merely rearranges genetic information supplied by God at the time of creation.
All mutations have proved to be harmful.

Yesterday’s post was crafted to show that probabilities are governed by rules. This is a central concept for the theory of evolution. Depending on the pathway to a particular sequence the likelihood of that sequence developing can be dramatically reduced. I gave one example of a sequence that might take billions of years to be realized developing in a quarter of an hour. The premise of yesterday’s post was independent of what the sequence would be. Today’s questions deal with the sequence.

One of the interesting things about these two questions is that they are based on incompatible premises. Mutations are essentially new information. So if mutations are at all (harmful or otherwise) there must be new information introduced into the genome.

There must be some other meaning for "information" or "new"in order for both of these questions to make sense at the same time.

I sometimes answer this question with a description of a simple experiment.

1) Grow a large batch of bacteria starting with a single bacterial cell that is susceptible to a particular antibiotic. The particular antibiotic binds to a particular transfer RNA molecule in the bacteria.  Sequence the tRNA gene.

2) Add more medium and the antibiotic to the culture. Without the antibiotic the number of bacteria would increase, but most of them are killed by the antibiotic. Some do grow, and eventually you have a large batch of resistant bacteria.  Sequence the tRNA gene.

3)  Notice that the two tRNA genes are different. The difference is new information introduced by a beneficial mutation.

This is such a terribly simple experiment that variations of it are being conducted right now in beginning microbiology labs all over the world. It takes about three days to perform. I could substitute any number of selective traits to generate the same result.

Mutations occur, they are the result of new information being incorporated into a genome, and through natural selection beneficial mutations are identified.

I know what you are probably thinking: “If it were that simple these questions would no longer be asked”. The reason why such an elegant experiment cannot dispel these questions is that the creationist is often using definitions of information and new that you may be unfamiliar with.

To be fair the concept of “information” is exciting and somewhat fluid. What do you need in order to really mean something? How can you tell if one thing means more than another? And perhaps most important:
What do you really mean by this?

There are objective measures of potential information content in a sequence. They can be applied to any sequence; even sequences of letters that make up works of literature. Two books do not necessarily have the same information if they use the same alphabet. Two poems that use the same number of each letter may be quite different. However, it becomes more likely that two works contain different information if they differ in word count, letter usage, or any number of content-independent measurements.

Meaning is more subjective. Two people reading Finnegans Wake might think it means two different things; for that matter one person reading Finnegans Wake might think it means two different things, and under the right circumstances might write a well-received dissertation contrasting them.

Subjectively the information in a sequence makes sense in context. Finnegans Wake, for instance, might make no sense in my hands; a Russian translation of it doubly so. This situation might appear to exert a stabilizing influence on the information content of a sequence by applying interpretation pressure from each observer, but it actually does the opposite. In the natural world the information in genomes is interpreted in a huge array of contexts, and if meaning is tied to context there is a huge amount of continually new information in the genome with no changes in the underlying sequence.

It is through natural selection that the meaning is most conclusively interpreted.

If the idea of information can be subjective the idea of harm must be positively arbitrary. 

I remember being told the parable of the antlers more than once.  Out in the open field the bucks with the largest antlers were the most successful at passing along their genomes, but when the hunters came the small antlered bucks disappeared into the densest brush while their big-antlered cousins got hung up.  I think there is an allusion to the story of Absalom in that parable. 

The tome that is Finnegans Wake can also serve to illustrate this point.  A graduate student that discovers a committee that shares their obsession with Finnegans Wake might think think that graduate school is a breeze, but once they graduate they will be eating cat food while decrying the lack of academic jobs. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Double plus special

One of the reasons why I am so immediately recognizable as a very poor atheist is that I am always talking about stuff other than the non-existence of god. I have gone to some very modest trouble to re-gain my atheist cred by talking about the non-existence of god, and this post is another in that -probably futile- effort.

There is apparently a group of atheists who have moved beyond the simple non-existence of god, and onto atheism plus. I doubt they would ever accept me due to the fact that I spend way too much time talking about my personal humanist opinions, and not enough time getting down to the process of non-belief to move on from that to pluss-ness. I had once hoped to be a double-plus-good atheist, but then -y'know- you have kids and life and stuff gets in the way.

So the other day I'm being “taken down” by a creationist for my foolish ideas about evolution. Every once in a while I engage in such conversations. I do not do it often as it is irritating. Theoretically there are people who both understand evolution, and disbelieve it. Of those there may even be some who disbelieve evolution for rational reasons that can be communicated. All the evolution-deniers I've had the experience of talking with have argued from a position of ignorance; most have steadfastly maintained that evolution cannot be understood.

So most conversations with creationists start form the mutually accepted common ground of their ignorance in something I understand. Then, and this is when things become -for a brief instant- amusing, the creationist attempts to develop an argument that is supposed to prove that I don't understand evolution either.

The ignorance of the creationist is usually cloaked in a set of rhetorical constructs. For the sake of argument I will call these rhetorical constructs arguments. The argument I was presented with the other day was the improbability construct.

Most of the time an argument with any true believer (TB) will drift into whatever topic the TB wants to hear their voice talking about at any particular moment. Maintaining a focus on a particular topic can bore most TB into disinterest. It would be interesting to find a creationist that was honest enough to explain that they believed in creationism simply because they did not have the attention span needed to understand evolution.

The argument I was presented with was the “All this could not happen by chance” argument. For the sake of expediency I'll call this the infinite improbability argument (IIA).

There are things that are highly improbable, and we can describe that property.

Elementary probability is usually taught by relying on random number generators. One of the most popular is dice. Most professors trying to teach elementary probability will be heard saying something like this: “Roll a six-sided die, and the probability of getting any number is one divided by six”.

This translates to a probability of 0.16666... If we had a ten-sided die the probability would be 1/10 or 0.1. I don't know how to make a ten-sided die, but one can make a twenty-sided icosahedral die. If one marks two sides of the icosahedral die with each number between one and ten the probability of rolling any number with that die is 2/20 or 0.1 (the same as the theoretical ten-sided die).

I've always liked ten-sided dice because they make the arithmetic so much more transparent. This can be important when conversationally dealing with the IIA.

The next thing the elementary probability professor does is begin combining probabilities. There are a handful of simple tricks and games the professor refers to, and here is one: “The probability of rolling two specific numbers in a sequence is the product of rolling each of the number individually”.

In other words, the probability of rolling an eight and then another eight is 0.1X0.1 or 0.01. The longer the sequence the smaller the probability, and the probability decreases geometrically. One does not need a very long sequence to have a very low probability of ever rolling it...or does one?

There are about 32 million seconds in a year (31,536,000 in a non-leap year) so we would only expect to have a 0.33 probability of rolling a sequence with a one-in-a-hundred million probability in a year if it took about a second to roll the dice each time. A sequence with a one-in-a-hundred million probability is only eight numbers long. Add just nine more numbers to the sequence and there is only a 0.3 probability of rolling the sequence in a span of one billion years. That is only a seventeen-number long sequence. What about a sequence of thousands of numbers that captured the complexity of the human genome?

To keep the arithmetic under control I usually imagine a sequence of 100 numbers. This long a sequence is long enough to be virtually impossible, but short enough to handle on most pocket calculators.

It is interesting to point out that any roll of one hundred ten-sided dice will produce a sequence that is astronomically improbable. Yet once you roll the dice there in front of you is an astronomically improbable sequence. When you really think about it we are -each and every one of us- impossible, but here we are.

If we roll one ten-sided dice about 60 times we are almost certain to get any number we want off the die. In other words, if I want to roll a 10 it will probably take me less than 60 tries. If it takes me a second to roll a die once I will be almost certain to roll any number on that die in less than a minute.

If I roll the first number on a sequence, and then roll the second I can roll a 17-number sequence in about a quarter of an hour. Contrast that with well over one billion years if we roll them all at once and hope to see the sequence, and then re-roll all of them if we do not.

It should take less than two hours of sequential rolling to roll the impossible 100-number sequence.

In this way the same physical process of generating randomness allows accumulation of information in a non-random way to create an impossibly-complex set of information.

The IIA then becomes an argument about rules rather than intrinsic qualities of probability.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Either today or tomorrow both of the super-kids will be bussed out to see a movie called “Bully”. I have only seen the trailers to it, but it appears to be a tear-jerking documentary about bullying in schools. Simply watching the trailer was rather traumatic; how anyone could one watch the fragile composure of a parent relating the suicide of their child without being brought to the point of tears is beyond me. I expect both super-kids to come home with part of their humanity in a basket.

Perhaps I should pick up some chocolate to have on hand?

There is a lot of interest in bullying as of late. There are marches, and legislation, and movies like “Bully”. I understand that “Bully” is one of the better movies, but, as I mentioned earlier, I have not had the opportunity to see it.

When I was in junior high school I was a skinny wanna-be nerd. I was a little too big to be a first-choice target, but occasionally I had to be kept in line. On one such occasion a very early-blooming muscle-bound son of a successful lawyer squared off with me in the just after gym-class-let-out-and-the-teacher-is-gone time. It started with hair-fag comments, and moved onto wimp-fag comments. I quipped back that short hair and climbing the rope attached to the gym's ceiling to the top were not required to find the rapidly developing females of the school attractive; I don’t remember the exact words, but I like to think that they were inspired and annoying. In reality I was scared all out of proportion to the amount of damage this kid could cause me in the few minutes the class was left alone.

This situation is different from organized bullying. There were bystanders, but no pack of attackers. I’m sure there is some psychological archetype for this type of encounter that is named for a particular wolf-pack dominance activity.

Pack attacks are much more damaging. When Mitt Romney led his pack of dogs into a calculated attack on John Lauber they quickly overwhelmed their victim. Decades later some of Mitt’s pack still vividly recalled John struggling and screaming as they held him down while Mitt cut his offensively-bleached hair with a pair of scissors.

I never really thought my hair was all that long in junior high. I was always burning bits of the front off, and in an attempt to straighten the random damage my mother created what was mockingly called a “bowl cut”. I thought that growing my hair out might give me a rockstar look. I already had the skinny malformed physique that comes as standard equipment on non-athletic adolescent boys. However, in that decade that looked back on the 60s with sequin-studded smiles hair that covered the ears could be called “long”, and so I had long hair.

In pack bullying some of the participants are traumatized by the activities. Thomas Buford who was destined to become a lawyer when he participated in the Mitt-lead attack on John Lauber is quoted as saying “To this day it still troubles me”.

In my junior high gymnasium the first punch left me stinging, and I dodged the second. I thought about running, and even took a couple steps.  But the attacker had always been a much faster runner than me, and I had not begun my run in a useful direction; like in the direction of a door. It looked to me like there were people in the way of all my exits. A small group had gathered to see someone getting a thrashing, and it looked like it was going to be happening to me. They would not be disappointed.

Phillip Maxwell was also a member of Mitt’s pack when they attacked John Lauber. He is quoted as telling ABC news decades after the attack that: “when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it.”

The people gathering to watch my imminent demise (in truth it was probably like 8 people, but it felt like a big crowd at the time) probably saw something different in my eyes. When I found I could not run away I decided that my only option was to kill my attacker. That is the way it is with some kids. I’m sure there are kids who have a stable and realistic concept of the world’s workings, but I was not one of them. I seriously doubt I had the capacity to kill anyone with my bare hands, but nevertheless I made up my mind to do it.

Attacks on kids can cause damage that outstrips the magnitude of the physical assault. Sometimes it is due to synergistic damage caused by the total weight of troubles that can befall a young kid. Sometimes it is an impotent support system that misses the clues that a refusal to ask for help can cover. John’s older sister who could have provided assistance to him after the attack was ‘doing her own thing’, and John apparently never directly asked for help. That his life was not all a prep-school education might prepare one for was probably due to a number of factors, but years later John Lauber would still recall the horror he felt during the attack Mitt led.

In physical damage the attack by Mitt-Pack on John had as much lasting effect as a bad trip to the barber. In psychological damage it was an assault that violated John intimately. He did not remember it as a relatively harmless prank. Almost a decade before he died John Lauber would be confronted by a third member of the Mitt-pack. David Seed ran into John in Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

Seed had never forgotten the attack and offered Lauber an apology, saying “I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in the situation”.

John is quoted as replying: “It was horrible”.

I probably looked horrible as I stuck back at my attacker. My hair, which was always greasy, undoubtedly caught some of the spittle sprayed from my attack scream. I had never even been in a fistfight so I was a little unsure about how to go about killing someone with my bare hands, but I knew one had to scream first. My attacker was taken off guard, and turned slightly to give me room to do whatever I was going to do.

Many of John’s family did not recall John ever speaking of the Mitt-Pack incident. John died in 2004 so he cannot be asked. The only first hand reports are those of Romney’s fellow Mitt-Packers. They all described the attack as shameful, insensitive, and horrific. There is no way to capture the damage done to John by plumbing the depth of some of his attackers’ remorse.

If I sprung like a wild animal onto my junior high attacker the animal would have been a very awkward squid. I flung my legs and arms as far out as their respective joints would allow. I knew that connecting with my intended target was an important part of fist fighting, and that I would need to connect a few times before I could render him lifeless.

Somewhere between my determinedly homicidal attack and his momentary decision to maybe run we collided. I sort of ran up onto his back and my arms and legs got tangled in him. Instead of a deadly kung-fu strike we formed a human knot and fell down.

I then realized that one of my arms was tangled around his neck, and I began to squeeze. I had stumbled into a sort of choke-hold, and he could not untangle me enough to get free. Strangely enough he would later say that he did think I was going to kill him, and had actually lost consciousness for a while. Looking back I’m not sure that was possible as the collected students pulled us apart, and the teacher returned before there was any real time to effectively be blacked out.

But I had beaten up one of the biggest bullies in the school, and I was IT. A couple days later I would get into another fight which ended with more predictable results, and I decided that being IT sucked. After those dust-ups I went most of junior high without any further violence. The fact that the bully whom I choked decided my attack was a gesture that demanded friendship did not hurt my violence-free middle-school tenure.

My newly won friend did not consider himself to be a bully. We discussed times I witnessed him assaulting other kids, and he either did not remember them, or thought everyone –including the victim- thought they were having some kind of ‘fun’.

In my experience there is a twisted kind of bully who does not recall their actions, or worse, twists the recollection into jovial fantasy.

Mitt Romney says that he does not recall the attack on John Lauber. He recalls “pranks” but no attacks.

The junior high bullying was not the end of my “friend’s” violence. He would spend some time in a criminal psychiatric institution.

I like to think that spending your life living the fantasies that you concoct for moral justification can stress the human mind to the breaking point.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

North Utah

The US could learn a thing or two about representative democracy. Specifically we could learn how to defuse the damaging effects of stubborn partisanship. Most people believe that human interaction works better when there is agreement. But who amongst us agrees on everything?

Well…there used to be a government in Iraq that agreed on everything. On October 15th 2002 Saddam Hussein won a referendum for a new term in office with –get this- 100% of the 11,454,638 votes. His infinite margin of victory is all the more impressive due to the high turnout.

More recently, on 8 March 2009, the North Koreans achieved an impressive 99.98% voter turnout for their elections. !00% of the votes were cast for Kim Jong-Il and his Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland.

Of course, unlike the Iraqi referendum of 2002 there was only one choice for leader on the North Korean ballot. Within the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland there were several parties vying for parliamentary seats, and the Worker’s Party of Korea only won 87.5% of the parliament.

Contrast the relatively poor showing of the North Korean Worker’s Party with Mitt Romney’s showing in the Utah Republican Primary (93.05%). Perhaps the people of North Korea could learn a thing or two about how to run a democracy from the residents of Utah?

I make these connections as a cathartic balm to to soothe the chafing of my electoral frustration. Due to the winner-takes-all nature of the Electoral College process of electing a president my Utah vote will have no effect on the outcome of the election. No matter which of the two major candidates I vote for. The overwhelming majority that Romney will enjoy in Utah mutes any effect anyone’s vote will have here. The only horse-race question about the election is whether Romney will receive: a three-to-one, a four-to-one, or a five-to-one majority.

In an uncharacteristic fit of martyrdom I have been approaching the election with a attitude of duty before sense. I would cast my futile vote, and then wit for news about how overwhelmingly futile it was this election cycle. Not a very pleasantly motivating thought.

Politics should be strategic. I often tell people in areas that actually have two political parties that any vote is just a choice for the best available alternative, and not an opportunity to provide input on what the alternatives should be. Strategically choose what the next step in social progress should be. If your vote has a remote possibility of helping a slightly better candidate win over a clearly bad candidate it is better to vote for them than someone who has no chance. It all sounds very calculated, and it should be.

Somehow I took my rhetoric to heart, and began believing that I should act as if I was making the same sort of calculated decision in spite of the glaringly obvious data showing that I was not. My choice and the choice of all Utah residents is different than that of much of the rest of the nation.

I came to this realization while reading comments left on my last post. Vicar made a point that should have been so obvious to me that for weeks the red outline of the face-palm should be clearly visible on my face.

The realization is this: there are third parties with targeted platforms. Although these parties cannot elect a president those which receive enough votes have their issues courted by the major parties in the next election cycle.

I can have my voice heard. It simply will take a while, and I have to trade my delusion of electoral potency for a little strategic sense.

I can feel the light of epiphany warming my upturned face.


Friday, September 7, 2012


I’m trying to wrap my head around some numbers. I generally like the stories numbers can tell. Statistics can provide an insight into events that anecdotes hide. Mapping statistical evidence onto sensory data can be like getting a new sense; a sense of reality.

Unfortunately statistics are more prone to falsification than the natural senses are prone to neurological glitches; for instance a larger percentage of the statistics I have been given have turned out outright lies than things I’ve seen have turned out to have been optical illusions.

Statistics are often no fun to bring up in conversations. Unpleasant sensory stimuli can be. I’ve heard people laughing over having detected someone’s flatulence by its odor, but I have rarely heard people laughing over having discovered that something they thought was true did not fit statistical evidence.

Discovering that one is wrong can sometimes be exhilarating, but is usually more comfortably done in private.

Most statistics have no impact on previously held positions in my mind. Despite the fact that I actively try to think about many things there is more data about the world than I have even considered.

There is an old expression for unrelatedness of information to a particular train of thought. It goes something like this: “What has that got to do with the price of beans in China?”

Did you know that you can get a ton of beans from China for about $1,000.00 (minimum order 20 toms)?

So, I’m trying to wrap my head around some numbers. They are TV show ratings, and I don’t watch TV. It is not so much what the ratings mean; it is what they really mean.

The National conventions of the two political parties worth noting in the USA have come and gone over the past couple of weeks. These are televised extravaganzas where a great number of political speeches defining the proposed direction of the competing national interests are delivered with great rhetorical vigor. I have listened to a few on YouTube, and have become convinced that it is inconceivable that anyone could vote differently from the way I have decided to vote.  I mean ... how could anyone think that way?

However, many of the people with direct TV access to the National conventions did not watch them. Instead many people watched a show called “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”. The Republican National Convention actually lost out to “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” when they went head-to-head; The Democratic National Convention narrowly beat out “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”.

So what is this show that is more important to the American people than there next president you might ask? I wanted to know as well. It only took a few seconds of searching to find out that it was a spinoff of a show called “Toddlers and Tiaras” , which is a reality show based on kid beauty pageants like the one featured in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”. Honey Boo-Boo is the nickname of one 6-year-old girl who regularly drinks a mixture of red-bull and m Mountain Dew her mother mixes for her, and then acts spastic. Here is a clip that purportedly captures the tone of the show.

There may be more to the show, but I’m not inclined to research it further. I very much liked the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”, but finding out these types of pageants are real is icky.

So what does it say about the status of America’s republic that “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” is equally, or more, popular than the national political conventions?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Saratoga Springs

Twice a year the LDS church holds a conference where the leaders present the latest in religious guidance for the world’s Mormons. Much of it is feel-good stuff about everything being nice. I rarely watch much of it so my impression of it is skewed. I imagine much of it to be like the Republican National Convention recently held in Tampa Florida. In fact I imagine many of the same people speaking at both events.

I should really make a list of everyone and make notes about their messages, but I probably won’t. It would require listening to multiple dusty speeches. What I do know from my cursory examination is that there were an incredible amount of Mormons on stage. This was no accident as the GOP wanted to highlight now nice Mormons, and by extension their nominee, are. The GOP has apparently wholeheartedly embraced the LDS church as its own.

I should point out that I (and every other Utah resident who wants their vote to count) have been a republican for many years. I think it is about time that the GOP embraced the Mormons, and expanded their religious base from just the simple flavors of Christianity. The Mormons wholeheartedly embraced the GOP decades ago, and it is about time that they got some reciprocal love.

And talking about Love

I listened to one RNC speech by a Mia Love. She is the Mayor of Saratoga Springs, a small bedroom community nestled between the Provo and Salt Lake areas. Saratoga Springs had a big fire called the “dump Fire” caused by exploding targets igniting brush while some folks were target shooting at a dump near town.

The dump fire caused evacuations in nearby Eagle Mountain; another bedroom community. Eagle mountain is known for its rumored polygamist homes and its low percentage of blacks. When small bedroom communities spring out of nowhere they often appear to be owned by a particular developer. Bigg Homes was the developer for Eagle Mountain.

I think “Bigg Homes” is a great name for a developer that specializes in McMansions.

Bigg Homes got in a bit of a bind for advertising Eagle mountain by pointing out (amongst other things like clean air and great views ; Utah has a lot of this stuff you really should come out and see for yourself) that is had: “Black race population percentage significantly below state average." On the Bigg Homes website the words “significantly below” were bolded for emphasis. Bigg homes took down the offensive statement and David Adams (Bigg’s co-owner) said to the Salt Lake Tribune: "We apologize if that offended anybody. It wasn't our intention … Frankly, it is offensive to me, too."

Mia Love is running to become the first African American female congressperson in the state of Utah. The community of Eagle Mountain will be in her district.

Love was born in Brooklyn to Haitian-Immigrant parents just three years before the LDS church lifted their ban on African Americans in “the priesthood” (which in the LDS church is a title usually conferred on boys shortly after their 8th birthday). She was raised in Connecticut where she met a Caucasian Mormon missionary in 1997 who spirited her off to Utah and planted three children in her. Seven years after landing in Utah she was on the city council for Saratoga Springs, and four years after that, in January of 2010, she was Mayor.

Saratoga Springs was incorporated the same year that Mia came to Utah. It is over 21 square miles in size. This puts its population density at slightly less than one-and-a-half persons per acre. Eventually Saratoga Springs hopes to grow to a population of 100,000. That would bring its density up to almost seven-and-a-half people per acre. This would still be well below the national urban average of 1,200 people per acre.

Mia was speaking at the RNC to show that there are African-American women both in the LDS church and in political office for the GOP. Mia is recognized for many things in addition to her being dark skinned. She received support from the Susan B Anthony List for her anti-abortion stance. In fact she has distanced herself from politics based on her skin color by vowing to “join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out”.

I was directed to listen to her speech by someone who compared her speech to that of Barak Obama’s at the 2004 DNC. I saw it a couple days later, and was not incredibly moved by it or her delivery of it. However, I knew that storm clouds were gathering as she spoke.

Not only literally in the form of hurricane Isaac near Tampa, but literally in the form of thunderstorms over her town of Saratoga Springs in Utah.

The rain came down and washed the fire-stripped hills into the streets in torrents of mud. Cars were washed away in the brown goo. Several people’s basements were actually filled with mud.

The next day Mia’s full-color picture graced the Salt Lake tribune. She was wearing a pink Aeropostale Tee-shirt and denim Capri pants. Though she was shorter that the three sparkly-fresh white folks in the picture with her, she commanded their attention. She points off into the distance. I imagined her saying to the man in the canary-yellow shirt: “that mud over there is real icky, and if you get any on that yellow shirt you will never get it out”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

150 MPH

So I’m driving a new car. It is a Corolla; perhaps one of the most utilitarian cars invented by humankind. I like it.

Utah is one of those states with better places to be than to go to. I like getting places with gas to spare.

I would probably get a Smart Car, but I also like getting places with my family and some stuff. I can’t really do that with a smart car.

I can’t figure out why the speedometer on the Corolla goes to 150 MPH (almost 242 kilometers per hour). I can only imagine this car reaching that speed if careening down a cliff-like incline. Faced with the real possibility of bodily injury in such a situation I don’t think I would be studying the speedometer to figure out if I was going 135 or 140 MPH.

The real problem with this ambitious high end on the Corolla’s speedometer is that the resolution for most of the speeds that the Corolla can actually go is diminished. I have actually gotten speeding tickets for sub-warp speeds, and I would like to know the difference between 34 and 37 MPH. With the Corolla’s speedometer this is tricky.