Guess what makes Josh McDowell cry?

I think the loony Christian apologist has got something right. He has identified the greatest threat to Christianity:

The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not.

Hooray for the internet!

Now here is the problem, going all the way back, when Al Gore invented the Internet [he said jokingly], I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].

Somebody should book this guy for the next skeptics’ conference — he’ll make everyone very happy.

Help me put the Bergman-Myers debate on YouTube!

I’ve received a suggestion that one potential source of a lot of the recent nonsensical creationist literature-quoting has a plausible source: Jerry Bergman. That guy is completely nuts, as I learned in a debate a while back; he’s also pretentious while not knowing much, and he’s painfully prolific, publishing lots in fringey creationist pseudo-journals.

So now I have a technical question. I have a DVD copy of that wretched debate, and I’ve even gone so far as to rip it, and now have five MP4 files sitting on my computer (I also have a folder of the raw ripped files, a bunch of .bup, .ifo, .vob files). And that leads to a terribly naive question: how do I put them on youtube? I’ve had no trouble uploading short, simple things to youtube, but this is about two hours worth of video. I just want to click on something that will segment the files as necessary and neatly upload them without me having to fuss over them. Any experts willing to give me suggestions? I am only going to do this on a Mac, so don’t tell me about PC solutions.

Alternatively, if someone else would like to host them and put them online in their youtube account, I’d be happy to email them or put them on a server somewhere for downloading. Just let me know how.

I’ll look into some of the suggestions I’ve been given. For now, though, I’ve tossed up the files on a free hosting service — if anyone wants to download and do something with these, feel free, and if you put them on youtube or vimeo send me a link to let me know.

What’s the matter with Andrew Brown’s brain?

He’s completely lost me again. Brown has a couple of posts up complaining about people referring to mental illness as a “brain disease” and confusing mind with brain — he seems to deplore the growing recognition that the mind is entirely a product of the brain, and that psychology is built on a physical substrate, which leads to what he thinks is a premature reduction of mind to brain. He’s not making an argument from dualism, though; the gist of his complaint is that you can’t deduce thoughts from the structure of the brain, therefore it’s an invalid approach.

That doesn’t make any sense. We also don’t have a consistent, predictable way of deriving the structure of the brain from behavior, but we don’t use that as an excuse to dismiss studying behavior, and it’s not an argument that we need to distinguish mind from brain. We’ll never have a complete description of any brain sufficient to derive thoughts from physiology; so? Time to face the truth and recognize that your mind is entirely produced by chemistry and electrophysiology and molecular biology of the brain, nothing more, and I find no reason to take offense when people are aware that a cup of coffee, the sun shining in your face, or a hug from your children cause biological changes to your brain.

I find the prospects exciting, not annoying. Here’s an example: scientists have created an artificial hippocampal nucleus on a chip. What they did was record the electrical activity from area CA1 of the hippocampus while rats were learning a memory task, and then stuck a device in their brains that played back that sequence into the hippocampus. When they pharmaceutically silenced CA1, which normally inhibits learning, and ran the chip instead, learning was restored. When they used the chip without the CA1 inhibitor, learning was enhanced.

Nobody understands exactly how this works, but there’s no denying that the function of this part of the brain is produced by patterned electrical activity. Incomplete understanding shouldn’t be a barrier to recognizing the reality staring us in our face.

Besides, I’d love to augment my brain with silicon. Although, to be honest, I’d rather test it on my students first — they won’t mind getting a chip implanted to help them learn, right?

Networking is good

I feel a little bit guilty saying this: every time I write about Jonah Lehrer, it seems to be about jumping on his ideas, even though I think he’s a good writer and his other ideas, the ones I don’t carp about, are interesting. The last time was when I criticized his noise about how science is falling, and now he’s gotten on the “The internet is making us stupider” bandwagon. I think it is a silly argument; it’s essentially saying that making the exchange of ideas more free leads to greater ignorance about the diversity of opinions out there.

It’s just not true. I’m an admitted lefty liberal type, but one thing the internet has done is made it possible for me to see what righty rethuglicans are saying, and I do read them…usually so I can point and laugh, but still, I’m more aware of the range of ideas fermenting in American culture than I was 20 years ago.

But I can stop picking on Lehrer now. John Hawks does a fabulous job of dismantling the argument. Letting the arguments bloom does not mean that we’re suddenly blinded!

Very tangentially related, I also recommend this fascinating analysis of the size of social networks. It argues that there are measurable cognitive limits to the size of social groupings primates can recognize, and it’s correlated with brain size. From our cranial capacity and studies of other primates, it’s predicted that we ought to be able to cope with roughly 150 friends at a time, and an analysis of social networks shows that that is actually about right — people on Twitter typically maintain interactive contact with between 100 and 200 people at most, and any more than that is overwhelming.

So I checked my Twitter account, and I see that I’m following precisely…167 people. I feel so average now.

Another reason to dread the airport

On my last flight, I sat next to a woman who had the worst case of fear of flying I’ve ever seen. She spent the entire trip clutching the armrests and breaking into frequent bouts of tears; when I asked if there was anything I could do, she said, no, she knew it was completely irrational, but she just felt extreme terror every time she got in an airplane.

I wonder if she’d pass this new ridiculous test Homeland Security is installing in airports?

Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned.

Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person’s gaze, to judge a subject’s state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.

Feeling anxious about the job interview you’re flying to? You will be strip-searched. Angry because the incompetent boob at the ticket counter bumped you from your flight? Your body cavities must be inspected. Steely in your resolve, forthright in your determination to strike the infidel? Welcome aboard!

I predict that, like most of the security theater we go through now, there will be huge numbers of false positives to keep TSA busy, and there will be no real terrorists caught. It’s like the tiger repellent rock from the Simpsons…

Only difference is that this rock is going to cost us at least tens of millions of dollars.

I don’t want any more magic gadgets. I’m just hoping for the day that they come to their senses and let us keep our shoes on.

Small town movie theater tech

I was reading Roger Ebert’s lament over the disgraceful decline of quality in theater projection (a function of theater owners who just don’t care anymore and the corrupting influence of bad 3D), and then I remembered that last year I took some pictures of the funky old technology in our local movie house, the Morris Theatre.


This is a classy old place, a bit run down now, but once it was the entertainment center for the whole community. It was built in the 1940s, and it’s very old school: a single screen, so you don’t get many choices here. What’s playing this week is what’s playing this week. That’s fine, though, since you don’t go just for the movie, but for the atmosphere and to sample the different audiences that show up for different movies.

Anyway, my daughter, Skatje worked there until she graduated from college and abandoned us to move hundreds of miles away and leave us desolated and lonely, and so one evening when I was the only customer in the theater (that sometimes happens, and then I get the whole big screen to myself, which is not economically viable, but that’s a whole different matter), I puttered about getting in the way and seeing what was involved. I took a few pictures. I don’t know if they’ll make sense — the room was awesomely cluttered and complicated.

[Read more…]

Misery on the screen

You can’t get riper nerd schadenfreude from anywhere but a bad powerpoint competition.


There are some real horrors at that link, but they unfortunately miss a trick: the greatest suffering is not inflicted by the single slide, but by the endless flood of one bad slide after another.

I have suffered through a presentation by Kent Hovind: 3 hours nonstop, and over 700 slides. My brain yet bears the awful scars.

What is really important

the total number of hours consumed by Angry Birds players world-wide is roughly 200 million minutes a DAY, which translates into 1.2 billion hours a year. To compare, all person-hours spent creating and updating Wikipedia totals about 100 million hours over the entire life span of Wikipedia.

The rest of the article is an interesting analysis of what makes Angry Birds addictive. I found it persuasive, anyway: I’ve never played it, and now I never will, just like I’ll never try that first taste of cocaine.

Do not taunt Anonymous

I agreed with Doctorow that the recent shutdown of the Westboro loons was a stunt by WBC itself. Now Anonymous has spoken out in an interview with Shirley Phelps-Roper denying any involvement. Here’s the hilarious bit, though: midway through the interview, after Phelps-Roper’s prolonged ranting and raving, the Anonymous spokesman calmly announces that they were going to shut down one of her sites, right then and there. And he did.

In the immortal lines of Ash: “Good, bad, I’m the one with the gun.” Do not tease the guys with the high tech weapon when all you’ve got to defend yourself is a loony book of Iron Age dogma.