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Finished The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins (3/5)

The audio version of this book is read by Richard Dawkins and some other Lalla Ward. This is mainly relevant because it meant that I got to spend 5 hours listening to British accents. =)

The book itself was good. Each chapter poses a question, gives some answers provided by traditional myths, and then talks about the real scientific answer. I'll lay out up front, that yes, Dawkins does use the Bible for some of his examples of myths, but except to the biblical literalists (especially of the Creationist variety), these are the parts that are generally taken to have a mythical element.

Also, while I'm on the disclaimers, this book focuses on where Dawkins does best -- explaining science in a manner accessible to the lay reader -- but it does veer just a little into rantiness in one of the later chapters.

Moving along, the questions and answers presented in this book should be broadly familiar to anyone who had an retained a decent science education, but there was the occasional moment of "so that's how it works!" illumination. For me, one such moment was the explanation of why the angle of the earth relative to the sun makes such a difference in perceived temperature [1]. From an educational standpoint, I think that this would be a really great book to get for a high school student or even an advanced middle school student.

[1] When the sun hits the earth at a shallower angle, the same amount of solar energy is spread over a wider area, so the energy received per square inch is decreased.
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The mistakes in our genome make a stronger case for evolution than the bits that are right. In essence, a common designer may have designed different creatures with the same "right bits", but why would an intelligent designer have put the same mistakes in two independently designed creatures?

I like the analogy with cheating. If two papers have the same mistakes (misspellings, odd grammatical errors, etc.), it is a pretty safe bet that one was copied from the other or they were both originated from a shared source.
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A very interesting NY Times article about The Moral Instinct. The article discusses possibilities for the genetic and neurological basis for moral sense; apparently there are parts of the brain that, when damaged, cause a person to lose their moral sense or their ability to work through even simple moral reasoning.

The article also discusses the universality of five spheres of moral sense ("harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity"). It then discussed how the idea of universal spheres of moral sense is not incompatible with the idea that different groups have different (and often incompatible) moral system. The short reason is that applying different spheres at different times can lead to vastly different conclusions. They give the example that a community that valued fairness could see some actions and label them as cronyism and corruption while a community that valued group loyalty could see this as giving back to your friends and not participating in that community as disloyal.

This brings up another point: when one group criticizes another as being "evil", they are usually not recognizing that the other group is probably acting from moral principles that they believe in just as strongly as the first group believes in their moral principles. Sometimes a person or group may take actions that they believe are not moral or they may have a warped sense of morality, but most of the time, if people really examined the beliefs of those they are opposed to, they could conclude that while they disagree with the moral basis of the actions of others, they do not deny that those actions do have a moral basis.

Finally, the article discusses how all of this does not lead to moral relativism but may, in fact, strengthen the moral reasoning people engage in. The reasoning behind this is that when people understand why they believe certain things are moral or immoral and others believe other things are moral or immoral, it will be easier to reach understanding and find a common moral ground to build off of.

Given that the article was, while deep for its kind, still just a paper article, I conclude that the ideas presented in the paper seem quite reasonable, but I am still open to a more in depth look into morality and instinct.
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This month, O'Reilly is having a series of essays by women in technology. Today's essay is by Maria Klawe, mathematician, computer scientist, and president of Harvey Mudd College. Klawe's essay is about the change that has happened over the last 50 years for women in technology. The essay is mostly optimistic. However, there are two areas where progress has been disappointing: computer science participation and leadership positions. I would start quoting the key bits, but I cannot choose just one (or two or three) paragraphs. Usually, it seems these kinds of essays ignore the progress or ignore the problems. This essay manages to address both. Read it!
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Finished She's Such a Geek: Women Write about Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff edited by Analee Newitz and Charlie Anders. This book is a collection of essays on women about what it is like to be a female nerd. The essays provide a view in the the huge number of ways one can be a geeky woman.

Some of the women are still working with science and technology, some have stopped, some never have (actually, a lot of them are now writers, but that, I would guess, is a sampling bias). Some of the women embraced their nerdiness from a young age, some denied it for a period, and some of them rejected their nerdiness for awhile. All of the women in this book love their particular brand of geekiness.

There are, I think, two main themes of the essays as a whole. The first is that we girl geeks exist (and are pretty awesome!). The second theme is how women cope with the societal conflict between being feminine and being a geek. Some of the girl geeks reconciled this by denying their femininity. Others divided their lives into the sphere where they were feminine and the sphere where they were geeky. Others decided that they could be both, expectations be damned.

I highly recommend this book.
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Finished E = MC2: A biography of the world's most famous equation by David Bodanis. Bodanis describes the history of the science leading up to Einstein's research and the related work that came after it. Emphasis on the word history here. While Bodanis does try to give the reader an intuition of the science (probably in ways that would make a real scientist cringe on occasion), it is not really his focus. The real focus is the story of the equation and the people involved in its history. While Bodanis does take some liberties speculating on the feelings and motivations of some of the participants, the book is full of interesting things that I did not know about the scientists. Also, by focusing on the equation, the reader gets to see a scientific history sliced in a unique and intriguing way. Altogether, a good fluffy science book.
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Note to myself and anyone else interested. There is an on going series of science lectures at the Seattle town hall. There are five more for the year, and some of them look interesting.
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1! NYT opinion piece on why taxes should be done automatically. Leastaways, for the people who need it. Being the bit of a control freak that I can be, I am not sure I would use it, but I suppose it would be nice for all those people who do not do anything too complicated anyway.

2! Bill Nye makes religious people sad. Ignoring the fact that reporting tries to make the most out of every little thing, the most surprising thing about the article was that someone walked out because Nye said the sun was a star and the moon a reflector. Yes, he said it in a way that was critical of a bit of the Bible, but honestly, how uptight can people get?

3! I have just discovered how useful it is that LJ saves drafts.

4! Some random person's opinion on language people vs IDE people. More on this later.
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Geocentrism! So ridiculous it's amusing.
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Seattle Times article on global warming.
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A quote from Madeleine L'Engle:
There are many theories today which I find immensely exciting theologically, but I want to sit lightly enough on it all so that if something new and perhaps contradictory is revealed I won't be thrown off-center, as were [are!] Darwin's frightened opponents, but will go on being excited about the marvelousness of being --- of snowflake and starfish and geranium and galaxy.
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Seeing as how President Bush has recently given his opinion that Intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in schools, I feel compelled to rant. As far as I can tell, the media and most people we hear about in the evolution/ID debate are very confused over what seems to me to be a very simple issue. ID is not a scientific theory. However, evolution, as the people in this debate seem to see it, is also not a scientific theory. The picture of evolution presented by the media is "evolution is a bunch of scientific mumbo jumbo which claims that everything happened completely randomly".

My understanding of evolution as a scientific theory is that it claims 1) organisms change slowly over time, 2) there exist(ed) organisms from which many current organisms are descended, 3) many anatomical and pysiological properties of organisms can be explained through adaption to environment. Now, there may be other points, but I am not a biologist, so I will leave it at that. The rest, whether all of this happens randomly or is guided or some mixture of the two, is an orthogonal concept which I think of as the philosophy of evolution. Philosophies of evolution are not scientific theories.

If I were choosing how evolution would be taught, I would separate it like this. There would be a section on the science of evolution and another on the philosophy of evolution. I would emphasize that the science is based on our best explanations of observations while the philosophy is based on what people think these explanations mean.

On a much more frivolous note, since the people who are against evolution being taught (or taught exclusively) take as one of their reasons gaps in our understanding of how it works, why do they not protest the teaching of relativity and quantum dynamics?


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Erika RS

May 2012

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