Saturday, April 21, 2007

Why arguing intelligent design is unproductive

I grew up reading many books on how to argue creationism, to defend the faith from the evolutionists. When I got to college, I saw that arguing creationism wasn't working at all. This was very strange, because I knew all the arguments. What I didn't realize for a very long time is that science interprets itself. Science is a communal endeavor, and it grows through discussions, not arguments. The standard of truth in science is now basically postmodern.

Science is very different now than it was a hundred years ago; it is staggering under its own weight. Science has become a community of specialists. About a half a dozen people in the world understand what it is that I'm doing for my research right now, and why it's important. If anyone outside of that very small group wanted to double-check my work, it would probably take him weeks of reading old journal articles, doodling on marker boards, asking questions, and messing about with computer simulations written in Fortran.

When articles that I write go up for peer review, the validity of my work is considered by some of the few people who can actually understand it. The confidence that scientists outside that circle can place on my work rests on the trustworthiness of my reviewers. In short, scientific truth is determined by the community. This is a postmodern standard of truth.

We scientists would like it if everything we knew in science could be reasoned from first principles, or tested quickly and easily in a lab setting. We don't want to have to use a postmodern standard of truth, but we have little choice. It's not quite so bad as it sounds; because science is based on experimentation, observation, and reason, it doesn't become unhinged from reality nearly as quickly as disciplines which are based more on opinion and ideology. And science works; we've sent astronauts to the moon, our life expectancies are much improved over what they were a hundred years ago, and I can buy a pizza for a dollar and cook it in four minutes.

If I, as an individual, were to argue against the consensus of the entire scientific community, I would be presumptuous. Thomas had the luxury of being able to touch the holes in Jesus' hands and feet, and the wound in his side; then he could believe. The scientific community is composed of people who are as skeptical as Thomas, but, when it comes to theory of origin, the evidence is not as plain to us as it was to Thomas. No one person can understand biochemistry in sufficient detail to be able to consider whether it is probable that even a single cell came about by chance. When it comes to problems that require such a high degree of specialization, it is unreasonable to expect a scientist to take my word over that of the community.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Why I like a chalk quote

Previously, I mentioned that some people on campus are writing little tidbits on the exterior walls of the academic buildings. I want to write a little musing on this quote:

Life contains two tragedies.
One is to not get your heart's desire.
The other is to get it.

We see the first tragedy all the time in the movies, but we rarely see the second. In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby loses his status as the top NASCAR driver. In Stranger than Fiction and in Joe Versus the Volcano men wrestle with their mortality. In UHF, George Newman's struggle is finding a lifestyle that grants him the freedom to imagine. In I Heart Huckabees, Tommy Corn and Albert Markovski want to protect the environment. In all of these movies, the hero's struggle is in trying to gain or keep his heart's desire.

More rare, though, are movies about a hero already having his heart's desire and suffering in the despair, "Is this all there is?". (The Aviator is a notable exception.) This is odd, because this suffering is very real, it happens all the time to rich, successful, famous people. When you hit the top, where do you go but down?

When I saw Return of the King for the first time, I was overwhelmed at the end. The Fellowship led the fight against Evil and won, but what next? Aragorn had a kingdom to rule, Sam had a family to love, and Frodo and Gandalf left for the Undying Lands. But what happened to Legolas and Gimli? The Hobbits had been fighting for their homes, Aragorn, for his kingdom, but Legolas and Gimli were fighting because they were warriors -- that's what they do. What does a warrior do when there's no one left to fight?

Dogs chase cars. What would a dog do if it caught one?

"I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New Product Idea: Placebluetooth

I like to talk to myself, but people look at me funny when I do.

Solution: Placebluetooth. It looks like a Bluetooth headset, but it doesn't actually do anything. Except make me look not-crazy!

(Note: The "place" in Placebluetooth isn't pronounced like a place you go, it's like the "place" in "placebo".)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tragedy Reveals Insanity

I remember April 20, 1999. I was in eighth grade at the time. Being 420 day, there was mild disorder at my school, students acting out a lot. We had a sub for math class, and we were so mean to her that (I kid you not) the entire class got referred to the office twice. We answered all of the math questions with 420, asked the sub about what she thought of Dawson's Creek (she was an avid fan), and were generally obnoxious. It was good fun, though. That was sixth period. At some point during seventh period, the last for the day, word was drifting through the school about someone getting shot in Colorado. When I got home, I watched the news.

The next day, my school was closed. When we got back, we heard that the killers were goth kids who played Doom and listened to Marilyn Manson. We had school closed another time that year, from a bogus bomb threat. Trenchcoats were banned from the school dress code.

I remember September 11, 2001. I was riding to community college, I think with Matthew. We heard something strange on the radio about the World Trade Center and an airplane. I sat through my 9:35 AM western civ class, and went to physics class after that. Campus closed before lab was supposed to start; everyone went home. I hitched a ride from one of the other math tutors. When I got home, I watched the news.

The next day would have been my first day working at the Army Research Lab, but the military base was closed. We heard it was radical Muslim terrorists. I wondered if it was the end of the world; I'd seen the Left Behind movie and knew that the end of the world had something to do with mayhem in the Middle East. I saw this article on The Onion once, and it reminds me of the mentality we had shortly after 9/11. We baked cakes, had candlelight vigils, memorial services. The Senate sang "God Bless America".

What I find striking about attacks and massacres is that we follow a pattern; each tragedy is basically the same as the one before. The evil event happens, then we close schools or businesses for a day, we mourn the loss with candles and American-flag cakes, and then we have a witch hunt. People who play violent video games or Dungeons and Dragons, watch violent movies, listen to rock or metal, social outcasts, religious radicals, and the neurologically atypical, we now know, are the most likely to go on a killing spree.

The witch hunt is my personal favorite phase of the recovery process, because I find that, with each new killing spree, I fit the profile of a mass murderer more fully, which is funny, because I don't feel like a mass murderer. I flinch when I set mousetraps, afraid I'll get snapped. I just happen to like Dungeons and Dragons, Half-Life 2, Reservoir Dogs, Metallica, and Jesus, and I have ADD and anxiety problems.

I don't understand the American response to tragedy. At least, I hope I don't. I hope my best guess as to why we act the way we do is incorrect.

On September 11, about 3,000 people died. We baked American flag cakes, had candle light vigils, and the Senate sang "God Bless America". Every day, kids die from hunger and preventable disease, ten times as many as died in the attacks on September 11. Why does death get our attention some times, but not others?

Perhaps poverty and starvation, the AIDS epidemic, disease from bad drinking water, and the slave trade don't make good news, because you can't express the evil behind the pain in a sound byte. We remember the image of flames and smoke coming out of the World Trade Center. Starving kids don't make for captivating TV. If that were all there were to the inconsistency of mourning American tragedies while ignoring global atrocities, that would be awful, but, still, understandable.

But, then again, the Indian Ocean Tsunami was newsworthy. There was wreckage and devastation. There were before and after pictures. Before: village. After: debris. And there is no debating the severity of the devastation: 180,00 people died -- sixty times the number that died from the September 11 attacks. The Tsunami made the news, and some people gave to the Red Cross, but where were the candlelight vigils and car ribbons saying "Support Burma"?

Here's my hypothesis, and I hope it's wrong. I think we care most about tragedies when they happen to people like us because our response to tragedy is rooted not in mercy and grief, but in fear; we react the most when we see people die in ways that remind us that we could die tomorrow. I see the starving kids on the commercials on TV, and I feel guilty, perhaps, or pity, but not fear. I see starving kids and think, "They are dying and need help", but, other college kids get shot, and I think, "I could get shot, too." And then Seinfeld comes back on, and Kramer makes a salad in the shower, and I laugh, because, seriously, who makes salad in the shower? That's gross!

Perhaps this explains why we pay attention to mass murders here, while ignoring mass starvation overseas. I can't think of any other reason why we bake cakes and have memorial services and make Facebook groups in memory of the dead, while we generally fail to act to help those who are still living. This inconsistency enrages me; our response to tragedy is not compassion, it is the American folk religion. Not that I am not grieved by the losses at Virginia Tech on Monday, it's just that it makes more sense to me to grieve a thousand times that every day, for the kids who are starving. I just can't mourn enough. I can't start a thousand Facebook groups a day, or have a thousand moments of silence, or a thousand memorial services. If the deaths from 9/11 were worth a cake, I'd need to bake ten cakes a day to keep up with deaths from starvation, as if that would help matters.

I'm frustrated because I don't feel nearly enough empathy for starving kids, AIDS victims, the poor, and slaves, and you can tell I'm not doing enough because I continue buying and consuming and tuning out.

What about the witch hunts? Those get to me.

Here's my hypothesis on the witch hunts, and, again, I hope I'm wrong. I think the witch hunts come about because, at the back of our minds, we're not only asking "What if I get shot, too?" but "What if I go on a killing spree, too?" We listen carefully, trying to find some way to prove that we are categorically different from the killers, so we don't have to worry that we'll become them. Victims enter the heaven of being remembered as martyrs, murderers are sent to the hell of being remembered as villains. The murderers get remembered longer than the victims, most of the time. Can you name one person killed by Jack the Ripper? Lizzie Borden we might remember as having killed her father and stepmother with an axe, but we don't remember either of the victims' names.

So we blame Dungeons and Dragons, violent video games, extremist religion, atypical neurology, so that we know for sure that we are, in fact, good people, incapable of causing such an atrocity. We can continue to feel good about ourselves by refusing to empathize with killers.

The way that I find myself responding to Columbine, to 9/11, and now, to the Virginia Tech shootings, is identification with the killers, because I can't help but relate. Like Dylan and Eric, I like violent video games. Like the September 11 killers, I am deeply religious, and concerned with some of the same global issues that they were. Like Cho Seung-Hui, I am a loner who listens to alt rock. I don't see what's so very different about us. I suppose I was a bit dismissive earlier about how I'll obviously never become a mass murderer. I am capable of the same evils that these killers are; my evils just don't make the news.

For people like me, we have an alternative way of coping with the idea that we could be evil, we victimize the killers, and shift the blame elsewhere; this happened after Columbine. It's been explained to me that Eric and Dylan were excluded, and if someone had just reached out to them, the Columbine massacre could have been prevented; the real fault lies on the football players and cheerleaders who overturned some outcast's lunch tray. Then, we outcasts cope by blaming and hating the popular kids.

I can fool myself into thinking that nerds and losers like me aren't evil, just misunderstood; when we do wrong, it's the fault of the society around us placing on us undue pressure. But I know what I'm doing. I take pride in being a hipster, but I know that in shifting the blame, I affirming that I'm a mainstream American, the only difference is I'm wearing Groucho glasses.

The only authentic way for me to rebel against this culture is to say that I am capable of great evil, I do great evil. It's not the D&D, or the video games, the music, the religion, or the ADD and anxiety. It's not the American society around me. I am evil; I could attribute it to negative external influences, but don't really need the help in being evil. I'm worse than the mass murderers; at least, they're being consistent within their world views of despair and martyrdom. I am a hypocrite. I don't do that much more for social justice than the average American, I just talk about it more. I'm lazy and afraid and judgmental.

To stay there, to revel in the despair of my evil, is nihilism. It would work, but it's too easy of a way out. I think that I'm too good and important and unique to do that. I could try to change, to become better than I am, but I have tried to change, and it's gotten me right where I am. I try to find Life by changing myself. I can't stand Madonna, and she's doing the exact same thing that I am, shaping her image to become the woman she wants people to see, and she's been doing it longer than I have, and she's better at it than I ever will be.

"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mac Getting Things Done Applications

I'm ADD. The most direct way that this impacts making code, doing dishes, and writing a letter to Grandma is that I have difficulty in clarifying the exact steps that I need to do to get a project done, and so I get really overwhelmed and go watch the GodTube (Slogan: Broadcast Him). Then, it's three hours later, and I don't know how that happened.

The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology has been priceless for me. Merlin Mann on 43 Folders probably has the best musings on the topic, on the whole Interweb, so I won't be too pedantic in describing the method.

The shortest summary of GTD that I can give is:
  1. Break down each complex project you have to do into short, concrete steps
  2. Categorize each step in each project according to contexts
  3. When working, try to do a handful of things with the same context at the same time, even if they're from different projects
(Yes, I know there are five steps to GTD, and these three correspond to about two-and-a-half of those. These three steps here are the most important, in my opinion, to a GTD app.)

The kicker is that you have to re-collate your task lists depending on whether you're planning (sort tasks by project) or working (sort tasks by context). The method lends itself to simple, specialized applications that can do this one thing and do it well. The remainder of this post is 1-paragraph reviews of nine GTD applications for Mac; I've tried each of these personally.

My idea of an optimum GTD app is the following:
  1. Sorts tasks by projects and contexts, and doesn't do much more
  2. Cooperates with Quicksilver
  3. Tight keyboard commands -- almost to the point of being easy to use cheerfully, keyboard-only
Other people do not share my philosophy, and I respect that; if you're looking for something else, my reviews won't be so helpful. Also, I only consider apps that run locally on a Mac (webapps put me too close to Interweb distractions).

Each review is of the form:
Name of app
Which of my three criterion does this app meet?
One line review
One paragraph review

Kinkless GTD
Free, requires OmniOutliner Pro
Probably Merlin Mann's favorite GTD app
Simple, QuickSilver, Keyboard
Kinkless was the first GTD app I ever tried, and I still like it very much. It's a set of Applescripts running on OmniOutliner Pro, which is pricey, if you don't have it, but worth the money, and not just for Kinkless. I quit using kGTD for one reason: you have to manually sync, and, for a sufficiently large GTD database, this takes about 30 seconds. While I'm waiting for the sync, I mosey on over to, and all of a sudden, it's three hours later, and I don't know how that happened. I can't afford any program that takes 30 seconds to do anything. The developer of Kinkless is helping Omni make OmniFocus, and so Kinkless is dormant indefinitely.

Simple, QuickSilver
My favorite GTD app
I like Actiontastic because it syncs instantly and automatically and does only does three things (inbox, planning, and doing), so I don't waste time fiddling with it. My beef is that the interface is clunky; you can't drag-n-drop multiple items simultaneously, and you can't enter a context or project using the keyboard alone -- I'm a keyboard-only junkie. This should be changed in the 1.0 release, coming in a couple of months. Until then, it's good enough for me. Bonus: a web app that syncs with your local app is forthcoming.

Free, donationware
GTD app that does more than I want it to, and not very well.
iGTD has some very nice features, like a calendar to specify a due date, flagging several tasks that become viewable separately from the rest of the task list, and projects broken down hierarchically into sub-projects. However, having the tasks viewed in six tabs, with, at worst, something like eight sub-tabs, is excessive. The keyboard interface is about as clunky as that of Actiontastic, but with so much more to do, this is even more of a hindrance. I could take an app as complicated as this, but it really needs good documentation for the idiosyncratic interface; the documentation is cursory, in moderately broken English. iGTD is rapidly becoming popular, but it looks like many of the iGTD users haven't considered Actiontastic. Yann provides a good discussion of the differences between the two, and explains why Actiontastic is his preferred choice, and for slightly different reasons than my own.

Midnight Inbox
Shareware, $35
So big, it could invade Tokyo, plus it has a "yak timer"
Midnight Inbox is much more polished than, say, iGTD; if you're a fan of GTD apps that can do everything, this is a good one. I'm not, though. There are six major modes you can work in, which makes sense, on a certain level, because this puts the entire GTD methodology (5 steps + reference material) in one app. The thing is, though, that there doesn't need to be a one-to-one correspondence between steps in GTD and features in a GTD app. For example, collect and process don't need to be separate modes; when I collect, I dump stuff into the in bucket, and when I process, I kick stuff out of the bucket, I use one bucket in two ways. When I do monthly review, I take a notebook to a coffee shop, and respond to a questionnaire I wrote for myself -- I don't want to touch my GTD app that I use for my runway-level decisions.

Shareware, $20
Quicksilver, Keyboard
Buggy and poorly organized
This one isn't worth considering at all. There is no good reason that a dialog box has to pop up for each task I add. There is no good reason that, although I specify a new project or context in the new task dialog box, a corresponding project or context is not created. There is no good reason that a task can be viewed in detail in a side panel *and* in a dialog box. And then, in my five minutes of playing with it, two or three widgets have gone invisible and reappeared. This scares me.

25 pounds
Middle of the road in terms of complexity, feels like a beta.
The keyboard interface is okay, but not as tight as it should be; for example, the space bar doesn't do anything when it could be used to check a completed action. The only way to edit a task is in a dialog that is very busy. It does more than Actiontastic or Ghost Action, but less than Kinkless or Midnight Inbox. Not worth the price.

Thinking Rock
A handy starter app
It's made out of Java, so it doesn't feel like a Mac app, which is a bad thing. The interface relies on icons with meanings that only make sense when you see what they mean. For example, "Do ASAP" is a running man and "Delegated" is an index finger, which makes sense, but when I see an index finger, I don't instinctively think, "Oh, that's the universal symbol for delegation." I like the idea of a GTD app that looks like the flowchart in the Getting Things Done book, which is helpful for someone learning the methodology. However, it still falls under the same problem as Midnight Inbox of trying to force a one-to-one relationship between steps in GTD and modes in an application, which isn't necessary for users familiar with GTD. Thinking Rock might work as training wheels for someone just starting to learn GTD, and, out of the several applications reviewed here that try to do all of GTD, this one seems to do that most plainly. I don't have much use for it, though.

Got a spare monitor?
Only Photoshop is allowed to have multiple windows. I use two monitors, and this one app's four windows that come up at startup cover both of them. What you're supposed to do with these four windows isn't as obvious as it ought to be. I spent about 15 minutes with this app, and didn't get anywhere. I would have tried harder, but it just took starting the app up to tell that it was trying to do more than I'd like a GTD app to do; I didn't really need to go any further.

Ghost Action
Shareware, $20
Simple, QuickSilver
Ghost Action = Actiontastic + $20
Ghost Action is very similar to Actiontastic. The only obvious difference in their appearance is that Ghost Action uses the Cocoa brushed aluminum interface (like Finder), while Actiontastic has a plain, grey gradient (like iTunes). And Ghost Action has a calendar widget. Both can sync with iCal or an iPod, both have essentially identical interfaces. It's really quite freaky how similar they are. But Actiontastic is free.

GTD is very simple. I want a program that sorts tasks by context or project, and doesn't do much more. I don't want an app that does all of GTD, because some GTD has to happen on index cards, when I need to collect an idea, but I'm not near my computer. Some GTD happens in a coffee shop, when I ponder high-level things like where my energy goes and why I've avoided doing the dishes this past week.

Stuff on a calendar is technically GTD, but calendar programs are already quite good at managing hard landscape, and don't need to have GTD ideas of project, context, and energy put on them -- if I have a meeting on Wednesday at 2:30, I have a meeting on Wednesday at 2:30, and it doesn't matter if I don't have the energy for the meeting, or if it fits with the main project or context I'm working on that I day, I still have to go to the meeting. Yet, I see hard landscape being mixed with next actions in most of these apps, in ways that they probably shouldn't mix.

In mechanical engineering design, we have a saying: "No one needs a drill. Some people need holes, though." I don't need a GTD app. I need to do the dishes, make code, and write a letter to Grandma, and I need a little help figuring out when and how to do those things.

Chalk Quotes

On campus, someone (probably a performance art major) has written quotes in chalk in foot-tall letters on the sides of various brick buildings. I like this quote:

Life contains two tragedies.
One is to not get your heart's desire.
The other is to get it.

Someone else wrote a quote, paraphrased here:

I wrote in chalk on a building
This make me poignant

My roommate, Matt, would like to write this quote:
Just because you're offended
Doesn't mean you're right

Amazon Purchase

I like buying things from Amazon, because my orders are processed by robots, so no one asks questions. Just now, I placed an order for:
  • Barth for Armchair Theologians
  • Joe Versus the Volcano (the first Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie)
  • Muppet Show: Music Mayhem & More (CD)
  • They Were Eleven (quite possibly, the worst anime in the universe)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Pirate Joke

Q. What did the pirate say when his ninja friend died or purchased an agricultural complex?
A. He bought the farrrm!

Monday, April 2, 2007

A story about the earth and the sky

Ignatius didn't look at the sky, so he couldn't see the sun. Bob didn't look at the earth, so he couldn't see the car in the swimming pool. Neither looked in a mirror to see what his eyes looked like.

Not trying to be cryptic

Our generation doesn't believe in propositional truths. We believe in story truths. I'm experimenting with conveying transcendental truth with stories. Can transcendental truth be so true that you only need to tell a story to convey it?

I'm not trying to be cryptic as I tell stories, but, rather, I'm experimenting with communication, to see if storytelling is the least cryptic way to communicate. Let's see how this works.