Shared Links for May 21st

Shared Links for Mar 31st

Shared Links for Mar 11th

  • The Missing $1,000,000 Tax Bracket – There's a fair amount of debate over what the "top marginal tax rate" should be, but it's infrequently noted that there's actually vastly more variation in the income threshold at which that rate becomes applicable. In inflation adjusted dollars, it's fluctuated between around $80,000 (Regan) and $80,000,000 (!) during the Depression. Ignoring this while debating the highest income tax rate is kind of absurd. (tagged: usa tax policy )
  • True Traffic Tales – Ah, bikes and cars living harmoniously together. (tagged: cartoon bicycle transportation )
  • Evangelical Climate Initiative – A Christian take on climate change, given its reality, what is the appropriate response for a conscientious person of faith? From my point of view as an atheist, it's not so important what other peoples' motivations are for taking action, as long as they take action. I'm curious how this has been received by the evangelical movement. (tagged: religion climate science christian green )
  • Sailfish Cooperating to Hunt Sardines – I had no idea sailfish were so colorful (and changeable), let alone this cooperative. Glad National Geographic still exists, even if our maps no longer have "Terra Incognita" on them (tagged: fish cooperation nature )
  • Communicating the Second Premise: Whether Obama or Bush, Values Drive Science Policy Decisions – A good look at the division between science facts/findings and science policy in the context of stem cell research and Bush's vs. Obama's take on it. Facts alone do not imply any "shoulds". We need values to tell us what's right or wrong. Sometimes those values are so obvious we don't even think about them, and sometimes they're not, especially when new and poorly understood technology is involved. (tagged: science policy obama bush stemcells biology )

Shared Links for Feb 28th

Shared Links for Feb 23rd

  • Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers – I just don't buy the lament of the newspapermen. If the papers were subsidizing the collection of "real" news with ads, how sure are we that people ever wanted news? Why exactly should we believe that there ever was some public interest at heart in journalism? I'd say it's just as likely that the fragmentation of digital media, and the trend toward tabloid fluff, is an indication that nobody (or at least, not enough people) really cared about the "serious" news in the first place. Disaggregated, opinionated, (truly) non-profit journalism will certainly be different than the muckrakers, or Big Media, but it's unclear to me that it will be worse in any way for government transparency, or democratic interchange. (tagged: technology media government transparency democracy )
  • The Crisis of Credit Visualized – Another great popularly accessible explanation of how we got into this mess, this time in cartoon form. Too bad there weren't any regulators in the story! (tagged: economy crisis financial animation mortgage subprime )
  • Bank insolvency: tips & tricks – Never, ever, feed a zombie bank. The great thing (or, one great thing) about blogs is that you can talk about serious and technical issues, using analogies to zombies. Try that in the Economist, or the WSJ. (tagged: economics finance stimulus bailout fed banks zombie )
  • Ann Druyan Talks About Science, Religion, Wonder, Awe, and Carl Sagan – Musings from Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's partner) on how we might apply the wonder of the cosmos, as revealed by science, toward the creation of naturalist spiritual communities. (tagged: science religion sagan atheism naturalism cosmos spirituality )
  • There's no reason for non-recourse – Options are valuable. That's why we have markets for them. The trillion dollars worth of non-recourse loans (cf pawnbroker) which the Fed is apparently about to offer up to the finance industry, will, because they are non-recourse, lead to a misvaluation of the assets being bought, even if they're being bought by private entities, because the penalty for non-repayment is simply forfeiting the asset (which might very well end up being worthless). The Fed is acting like a pawn shop, but a dumb one: what pawn shop in its right mind would let you exchange your cubic zirconia for half the value of a diamond? (tagged: finance economics crisis bailout fed geithner bernanke )

Shared Links for Feb 11th – Feb 12th

Francis Collins has no evidence for God

I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing.  However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it).  You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website.  It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Continue reading Francis Collins has no evidence for God

What is Human

The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.

I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans.  People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum.  Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me.  I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef.  This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.

What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans?  When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?

A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human.  The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification?  Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.

Look who’s irrational now… everyone!

Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Texas, has just published the results of a survey of American religious belief.  One of the findings, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is that

…conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion.

This comes right after the paragraph in which it is revealed that 55% of Americans believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, and preventing harm from coming to them, and that 45% of Americans have had at least 2 “religious encounters”, such as:

…hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues.

Unsurprisingly, the presumably Baptist researchers concluded that such experiences are central to American religion, and that adhering to a conservative brand of Christianity conveys resistance to belief in “the occult and paranormal”, ignoring the fact that the “religious encounters” are in fact instances of the paranormal.  They may be Christian paranormal, but they’re still paranormal: “denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope or understanding of normal scientific understanding” or if you prefer, Christian occult: “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena”.

I’m sure there’s a wealth of information in the survey results regarding the supernaturalist beliefs of Americans, but from this non-theist, naturalist’s point of view, the main result is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not engage in skeptical inquiry.  Their domains of credulity may be distinct (guardian angels vs. bigfoot) but on the whole, they are happy to accept extraordinary claims without any evidence backing them up.

I’m potentially open to an argument that rationality and skepticism are not neccesarily always favorable.  The second life lesson Robert McNamara put forward in The Fog of War was: “Rationality will not save us.”  He was speaking in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which several nominally rational people almost brought about a thermonuclear holocaust, and the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other cities in WWII.  The Tradgedy of the Commons is a failure based entirely on rational individual behavior, as was the tulipomania from which our financial system is currently suffering a serious hangover.  But on average, I’d say rationality and skeptical inquiry are things we (humanity) could do with a bit more of.

The Keeping of the Light

Several years ago, Yuk Yung noted, either in seminar or at one of his lunch talks, that overall, as a system, the Earth, including its biosphere, actually does not consume energy.  This isn’t so surprising if you think of it like a lifeless rock – of course a spinning asteroid being shone upon somewhere between Jupiter and Mars isn’t consuming energy, it’s just absorbing and re-radiating, by σT4.  It re-radiates at a lower temperature than the sun, and it re-radiates isotropically; the quality of the energy changes, its entropy increases, but the amount of energy coming out, of course, is the same as that which is coming in, barring any interesting chemistry that might take place as a result of the incident radiation.

For some reason, the same statement, applied to the Earth, seems stranger.  We think of life as consuming energy somehow, but really it doesn’t.  At most, the Earth system acts as a temporary energy buffer, as our indigenous biology catalyzes the formation of chemical bonds, using mostly sunlight as a power source.  But by now, overall, the Earth is in almost perfect energetic equilibrium.  The light comes in at nearly 6000 °K, and it comes in nearly parallel.  It leaves at a few hundred degrees Kelvin, and in all directions.  All that’s changed is the entropy, unless there’s a net creation (or destruction) of ions or chemical bonds, or a change in temperature, on the way through.  Somehow, life extracts order from this flow of energy.  “We eat negative entropy.”, Yuk said.  We consume information, transmuting the physical order of the star’s light into the chemical order of life.  We grasp at it as it passes through, and in that grasping, live.

The material with which we encode this order, with which we briefly hold the light, is itself also the product of stars.  I’ve known this since I watched Cosmos as a kid.  We are the “stuff” of stars, but somehow the fact that our order is also somehow tied up in the order of stars, quite literally, seems odder.  We’re some kind of entropically driven reaction.

It seems to me that this physical reality is ripe for mythologizing.

The stars are great unknowing givers.  They are radiant, and generous, and terrible.  They can receive nothing in return for their gifts, incinerating their lovers.  They say to us, without knowing, “Take this light and hold it.  Use it as it passes through you, to know, and to perhaps preserve, against the chaos, and cold dark emptiness of space.”  And so we are become the receivers of the light, composed of the cold cinders of the stars.  We keep the light that only they can make, but which they cannot hold.  I think it’s a difficult and sacred thing to do, to just keep holding on.