Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Jose Saramago's Blindness is the story of a city hit by an epidemic of 'while blindness.' This superbly well-written tale is insightful, evocative and harrowing. Indeed, I found aspects of it too distressing, so much so that I was angered with the plot and the book itself. To be direct, I have very little need or desire to read about fictional rape. If I want to think about such a horrific situation, I can reference various real situations. The book was very interesting, but turned into a story (similar to Lord of the Flies) that I was not seeking. I should say that I think the story is quite a plausible one (save initial and subsequent one or two logical flaws), so my objection is not on those grounds. Consequently, I cannot fully recommend this book, but I do believe others will find the overall experience more beneficial than I did.

One of the many parts I liked:
"With the passing of time, as well as the social evolution and genetic exchange, we ended up putting our conscience in the colour of blood and in the salt of tears, and, as if that were not enough, we made our eyes into a kind of mirror turned inwards, with the result that they often show without reserve what we are verbally trying to deny." (p. 17)

My interpretation is that Saramago is describing how our empathy developed over the evolutionary history of our organisms, in that we actually care or have concern when we see red blood or witness tears falling. What a wonderful way of expressing that occurrence.

Oh, 'justice'...

This story delighted me.

(A secondary delight, mainly from necessary absurdity, was the line 'core of Dartmouth, near Halifax' which seems to be required for those elsewhere in Canada to understand the location of the story, yet for those living in the two communities, such a description would rarely occur.)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Political Bias

Recently, an fMRI study was presented investigating the areas of the brain activated when biased people read political statements.

"Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here," said Dr. Drew Westen.

The part that I liked was at the end:

'It is possible to override these biases, Dr. Westen said, "but you have to engage in ruthless self reflection, to say, 'All right, I know what I want to believe, but I have to be honest.' "

'He added, "It speaks to the character of the discourse that this quality is rarely talked about in politics."'

I guess psychology is a bit better in that biases are often discussed and everyone (should) realize(s) they have them, but most areas of thought of most (if not all) people have some degree of bias. Thus, depending on what you are trying to achieve, 'ruthless self-reflection' is probably a good way to go. (I think I might like 'relentless' better.)

Fossils are neat

Friday, January 27, 2006

Interviews: Dennett, Dawkins & Colbert

Dennett discusses ID, evolution and religious ideas.

Dawkins discusses evolution plus various other things.

Colbert discusses truthiness, the nature of his show and his education.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

From the world of Science...

13 things that do not make sense (written in 2005, mostly physics related)

Spacecraft skin that can heal itself?

Britain's evolutionary ignorance (Shame on you, old chap!)

Reminder: there are other theories of gravity

Policing matters, duh (so, we need monkeys not pigs?)

Sex helps public speaking stress? (sketchy. Does this mean large, hollow podiums will be produced?)

Don't forget, we're going to pluto (Hooray... Disneyland?)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Suicidal Terrorism

I had the impression that most suicide bombings were by religious fanatics, and Islamic ones at that. I realized I might be wrong as I was reading an article in the Toronto Star about Robert A. Pape and his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

"In his book, Pape examined 315 suicide bombings that occurred from 1980 through 2003. Only 43 per cent came from religiously affiliated groups, he found, while the rest were carried out by secular groups. And 70 per cent of the suicide attackers, whether motivated by religion or not, were Christian."

This is quite interesting. Of course, it would be better to have all the details (name, affiliation, location, date... etc) of the bombings, but this information definitely makes me think twice about misattribution of such acts.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Vote and/or Die

Today is election day in Canada. The 2004 federal election saw a voter turnout of about 60%.
Not an inspiring figure.

In 2005, Iraqis voted three times(!): to elect an interim parliment (Jan); approve a new constitution (Oct); and to vote for a permanent parliment (Dec). The voter turnout was lower than Canada's, but not that different (between 50 and 60 percent it seems).

For nearly all Canadians, there is little risk of death from external sources during the voting process. Please realize the preciousness of the opportunities we have in this great country. Some do not vote because of apathy as they feel that it won't make a difference.
Well, you are right. It won't, because you didn't vote.

Show me the Wealth!

I just read an interview with Edward Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University and author of Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. You can read the interview here.

Some excerpts:
"In 1998... the top 5 percent had more wealth than the remaining 95 percent of the population, collectively."

"The richest 10 percent of families own about 85 percent of all outstanding stocks. They own about 85 percent of all financial securities, 90 percent of all business assets."

MM: In broad outlines, how would you structure such a tax?
Wolff: I would model it after the Swiss system, which I think is a pretty fair system. It would be a progressive tax. In the United States, the first $250,000 of wealth would be exempt from the tax. That would exclude 80 percent of all families. The tax would increase at increments, starting out at .2 percent from about $250,000 to $500,000. The marginal rate would go up to .4 percent from $500,000 to $1 million, and then to .6 percent from a $1 million to $5 million, and then to .8 thereafter.

It would not be a very severe tax. In fact, the loading charges on most mutual funds are typically of the order of 1 or 2 percent. It would not be an onerous tax, but it could raise about $60 billion annually. Eighty percent of families would pay nothing, and 95 percent of families would pay less than $1,000. It would really only affect very rich families.

(As I know very little about the taxation systems of various countries, that idea was very surprising to me. Wow... imagine that. I wonder if there are any cons (i.e., people not caring about certain things because they are not paying in) if that model is used).

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

I just finished reading Singer's 1972 Famine, Affluence, and Morality in which he discusses the nature of moral obligation as it relates to those in famine (starvation, poverty..etc). As I think this is a very important issue, please read the article and think about the issues presented.

A crude summary:
Assumption one: "...suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad."
Assumption two: "...if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."
Conclusion: "...our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed."

Though seemingly radical, I have trouble finding flaws in his argument. How about you?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Alternet Chomsky Interview

It's informative and not too long. Click it!


What do you think should be done in Iraq?

Well, the first thing that should be done in Iraq is for us to be serious about what's going on. There is almost no serious discussion, I'm sorry to say, across the spectrum, of the question of withdrawal. The reason for that is that we are under a rigid doctrine in the West, a religious fanaticism, that says we must believe that the United States would have invaded Iraq even if its main product was lettuce and pickles, and the oil resources of the world were in Central Africa. Anyone who doesn't believe that is condemned as a conspiracy theorist, a Marxist, a madman, or something. Well, you know, if you have three gray cells functioning, you know that that's perfect nonsense. The U.S. invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources, mostly untapped, and it's right in the heart of the world's energy system.

How will the U.S. deal with China as a superpower?

What's the problem with China?

Well, competing for resources, for example.

NC: Well, if you believe in markets, the way we're supposed to, compete for resources through the market. So what's the problem? The problem is that the United States doesn't like the way it's coming out. Well, too bad. Who has ever liked the way it's coming out when you're not winning? China isn't any kind of threat. We can make it a threat. If you increase the military threats against China, then they will respond. And they're already doing it. They'll respond by building up their military forces, their offensive military capacity, and that's a threat. So, yeah, we can force them to become a threat.

(The 'three grey cells' made me laugh outloud and his 'market' point is a good one)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Rick Mercer Report

The Rick Mercer Report had some funny stuff this week. Go here and click on "Youth Vote" under top 5 videos this week. That kid shamed me :P.
(also try the Lacoma pain relief one)

A snippet of knowledge

Male circumcision reduces HIV risk by 60%.
(from Guardian)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Actually, either way

"If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." - Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

How many people in the world live in extreme poverty?

(Completely copied from here)

Dear Yahoo!:
How many people in the world live in extreme poverty?
London, England
Dear Kelly:
According to NetAid, over a billion people, or roughly one in six, live in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than US$1 a day.

The World Bank goes on to define moderate poverty as basic subsistence living, on $1 to $2 a day. All told, nearly half the world's population lives in poverty -- that's 2.8 billion people living on less than two dollars a day.

Some other facts to keep in mind:

  • Each year over 8 million people die because they are simply too poor to stay alive.
  • More than 800 million people go hungry every day.
  • The gross domestic product of the poorest 48 nations is less than the wealth of the world's three richest people.
  • Thirty-thousand children die every day due to hunger and treatable illnesses.
  • 6 million children die every year before their fifth birthday, as a result of malnutrition.
You can find detailed poverty assessments of specific geographical regions on the World Bank's PovertyNet. And if you're interested in learning how the World Bank comes up with its poverty statistics, take a look at PovcalNet.

The goal of the Millennium Campaign is to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. And the aim of the One Campaign is to direct an additional 1 percent of the United States budget towards eradicating global poverty.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Reason's Dennett Interview (2003)

I just read a fantastic interview of Dennett from ReasonOnline.
(For people that know me, they know I (almost) heart Dan Dennett. For those that don't, now you do. Either way, you should read part of it. Why? Because I'm projecting my feelings onto you, of course!)

Three excerpts(all from Dennett):

1) If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there's lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There's no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There's been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it's all independent of determinism.

2) One of the main points of my book is that if you want to see the distinctions that matter, you have to look at higher levels. The difference between a responsible brain and a nonresponsible one -- not irresponsible, but nonresponsible -- is not a difference in the physics.
It is a difference in the organization of that brain. It is a difference in the capacity of that brain to respond to information, to respond to reason, to be able to reflect.

Reflection is a really important feature of human competence. If you're simply unable to notice what you're doing and what the implications of that are, then you're not as responsible as somebody who can.

3) Morality is the cultural artifact for improving the circumstances under which we have to act.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Avain Flu: Dilemma and Vaccine Limitations

Over the holidays I was reading a surprising Toronto Star article that said the avain flu virus will kill strongest first. Whaaaa?!
Basically, what happens is that younger, healthy people have a stronger immune response to avian flu that can end up being fatal. More specifically, "when infected with avian flu, proteins called cykotines alert our immune system to the presence of the virus. Scientists think healthy immune system overreact to the information, causing what is called a 'cykotine storm. The victim's immune system subsequently floods the lungs with T-cells, which attack infected tissue and cause hemorrhagic symptoms, suffocating the victim in [their] own immune response. The same phenomenon was seen in SARS cases."
In case you are wondering what you should do, keeping a healthy, balanced immune system is still the best option, but do not try to boost it unnecessarily.

Experts believe that the avian flu would be similar to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 in which (according to the CDC) "nearly half of those who died were young, healthy adults." As for numbers, a Discover article (describing two reports) said the Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans and 20 million people worldwide. (For your comparison: US pop in 1918 ~ 100 million, now it is almost 300 million. World pop in 1918 ~ 1 billion, now it is over 6 billion). This could be a big problem.

Vaccine concern are occuring because the manufacturing process would take about 8 months because they are using technology from 1940. (This part may just be US relevant) The three companies that make flu shots are capable of only producing 150 million doses a year and the it is possible the avian flu could evolve to bypass the new vaccine or one in production.

I am definitely not one for fear-mongering, but I thought this information important because it corrected a mistaken assumption I had and made me see the validity of much of the concern.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Phh... I could do that.

I wonder if I'll always find kungfu acrobatics cool?
(I hope!)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Stewart & Colbert

I believe The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report make up the funniest hour of television Monday to Thursday. (Oh, how I've missed them. :D)
Go Watch!!!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Coldplay iPod

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Words, body moves and Jesus (and Chuck!)

Salman Rushdie does a great piece regarding the treachery of 'extraordinary rendition.'
18 tricks of your body, neat stuff.
In a very amusing case, a judge orders a priest to prove Christ exists. ("abuse of popular credulity?" Hmmm, maybe I could levy some lawsuits against... well, almost every person.)

Lastly, I can see the moon while I type this. :D

Addendum: Chuck Norris knows about 'the random facts.' That is so funny to me.

Monday, January 09, 2006

What is your Dangerous Idea?

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

This question, and the answers of various intellectuals, are available on Edge.
(scroll down halfway for the beginning of the answers)

For those who love intellectual stimulation, this is a great idea.
(there are 119 original essays)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Saddam and US

Bushflash's "Thank for the memories."
Well done.

Why Do Women Smoke?

"Despite global trends indicating an overall decline, cigarette smoking is increasing among women in high-income countries and is highest among women of reproductive age."

The above is from a molecular psychiatry paper. The basic finding was that "that background factors, psychological characteristics and genetic variation in nicotinic cholinergic receptors contribute independently or interactively to smoking initiation and to severity of nicotine dependence in young women." Though that seems obvious, actual data is very important to confirm or disconfirm our intuitions.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Green Day - Jesus of Suburbia

[Part I: Jesus of Suburbia ]

I'm the son of rage and love
The Jesus of suburbia
From the bible of none of the above
On a steady diet of
Soda pop and Ritalin
No one ever died for my sins in hell
As far as I can tell
At least the ones I got away with

But there's nothing wrong with me
This is how I'm supposed to be
In a land of make believe
That don't believe in me

Get my television fix
Sitting on my crucifix
The living room of my private womb
While the moms and Brads are away
To fall in love and fall in debt
To alcohol and cigarettes
And Mary Jane to keep me insane
And doing someone else's cocaine

[Part II: City Of The Damned]

At the center of the Earth
In the parking lot
Of the 7-11 were I was taught
The motto was just a lie
It says "home is were your heart is"
But what a shame
Cause everyone's heart
Doesn't beat the same
We're beating out of time

City of the dead
At the end of another lost highway
Signs misleading to nowhere
City of the damned
Lost children with dirty faces today
No one really seems to care

I read the graffiti
In the bathroom stall
Like the holy scriptures of a shopping mall
And so it seemed to confess
It didn't say much
But it only confirmed that
The center of the earth
Is the end of the world
And I could really care less

[Part III: I don't care]

I don't care if you don't
I don't care if you don't care [x5]

Everyone is so full of shit
Burn and raised by hipocrites
Hearts recycled but never saved
From the cradle to the grave
We are the kids of war and peace
From Anaheim to the middle east
We are the stories and disciples
Of the Jesus of Suburbia
Land of make believe
And it don't believe in me
Land of make believe
And I don't believe
And I don't care!

[Part IV: Dearly beloved]

Dearly beloved are you listening?
I can't remember a word that you were saying
Are we demented or am I disturbed?
The space that's in between insane and insecure
Oh therapy, can you please fill the void?
Am I retarded or am I just overjoyed?
Nobody's perfect and I stand accused
For lack of a better word, and that's my best excuse

[Part V: Tales of another broken home]

To live and not to breathe
Is to die in tragedy
To run, to run away
To find what you believe
And I leave behind
This hurricane of fucking lies
I lost my faith to this
This town that don't exist

So I run
I run away
To the light of masochists
And I leave behind
This hurricane of fucking lies
And I walked this line
A million and one fucking times
But not this time

I don't feel any shame
I wont apologize

When there ain't nowhere you can go
Running away from pain
When you've been victimized
Tales from another broken home

I hate Punk'd

The title pretty much says it all. I watched 10 minutes of it while at home. Triple-H seemed to enjoy the experience while Avril was crying and seemed distraught. I guess some celebrities deserve it, but making someone experience anger, anxiety, sadness or fear as a gag just isn't that funny to me.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Is Wiki Whack?

Many have heard about the recent failing of Wikipedia regarding false information in a biographic entry, but might not have heard about the recent study reclaiming some of that wiki goodness. Nature conducted a comparison between Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia Britannica measuring inaccuracies in a sample of science entries. Score: Wiki 4, EnBrit 3.
Meaning, Wiki is not as accurate, but it is close.

For more on this read the Nature link or a CBC Viewpoint by Strauss. He does a better job than this post and he adds the knowledge that Wiki immediately began to attempt correcting the inaccurate entries while Britannica did not seem so enthused.
Of course Wiki is not perfect, but it's not bad for something that started in 2001. The other issue is that people will use Wiki anyway, so it is time to get more experts writing and more expert editors editing.


Here are the province-by-province unemployment rates for December, with the November rate in parentheses:

—Newfoundland 15.5 (15.0)
—Prince Edward Island 10.9 (10.6)
—Nova Scotia 8.5 (8.2)
—New Brunswick 9.6 (9.5)
—Quebec 8.2 (8.0)
—Ontario 6.2 (6.2)
—Manitoba 4.2 (4.2)
—Saskatchewan 5.2 (5.2)
—Alberta 4.1 (4.1)
—British Columbia 5.1 (4.9)

March of the Penguins

Cute little documentary. Recurring thoughts/themes:
1) It is really easy to anthropomorphize ('enabled' by the narration).
2) It is interesting that processes that appear quite inefficient can be effective enough.
3) Baby penguins are adorable!
4) Organisms competing for resources over millions of years created me.
(and upon watching a bit of the bonus material, "Some people will have dedication for something of which I would have none.")

America the Real?

"If you ever want to know what America really looks like – and I direct this chiefly toward the residents of the coastal cities who tend to write about America most frequently – I would suggest you abandon the airports. The only people in airports are rich people. Take a bus from Sioux City to Kansas City, via Omaha and Maryville. Here is where America lives, more often than not overweight, beset by children, fast-food fed, television-dulled, strongly perfumed, running low on options and telling their stories to whomever will listen, hatching schemes, self-dramatizing, preaching doomed sermons, dreaming of being other people in other lives."
- Steve Almond, CandyFreak
(I feel I should mention that the above passage is atypical)

The World is an Interesting place

From the Globe and Mail, Thursday, January 5, 2006 by Graeme Smith.
YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA -- Gennady Varlamov, 67, never wondered much about his childhood during the Second World War. He assumed he grew up in a happy family, living with his mother in a three-room wooden house in a village near the Ural Mountains. It was a modest place, with no electricity or running water, but Mr. Varlamov remembers it as a pleasant home with a garden and farm animals.

His questions started in October of 1993, when he suffered a bad headache. In retrospect, he says, it was probably just a flu symptom. But he went to the doctor anyway, and was referred for X-rays at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, the industrial city at the western edge of Siberia where he lives as a pensioner and part-time security guard at a military tank factory.

An elderly neuropathologist gave him the results, with a quizzical look on his face. Three sewing needles were lodged in Mr. Varlamov's brain, near the top of his skull. Mr. Varlamov still has the doctor's diagnosis, scrawled in blue ballpoint: Three needles -- with lengths of 6, 5.4, and 4 centimetres -- and an average thickness of 0.01 millimetres each.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

C & H - Sunrise, Sunset

Watterson illustrates a parent's temptation to misuse the authority that they possess.