Friday, February 22, 2008

Eurovision and Kosovo

The key attraction of the Eurovision song contest for British viewers is the wry tones of Terry Wogan as he berates the participant countries for their comically blatant tactical voting. You know -- the Greeks always vote for the Cypriots and vice-versa; the Scandinavian countries vote for each other; no-one votes for France.

No different then, is the blase list of International reactions to the Declaration of Independence of Kosovo, which might better be titled "Countries that have bits that might at some point want to break off refuse to recognise Kosovo":

China --- Taiwan (no really?)
Canada --- Quebec
Russia --- multiple parts but notably Chechnya
Cyprus --- self-explanatory
Spain --- Gibraltarian Sovereignty remains unresolved; the Basque country
Argentina --- are still after the Falkland Islands

It is so good to see that the compelling moral case for Kosovan independence has been considered in such great detail by these countries!


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Expedition to Idaho: Reconnaisance

Having arrived safely in Idaho, John's dad took us yesterday in his plane to have an aerial look at Sawtooth Lake by Mount Regan, and moreover to check for the risk of avalanches and to verify the roads are clear. Everything looks good, and so we'll be setting off today (Sunday) to camp at the bottom of the mountain and hike up over the next couple of days (it's not very far - only a few miles - but we'll be carrying heavy packs and snowshoeing so it'll be tough going). We should be back Friday, so expect to see amazing photos then! Weather is very clear for the next two days, and should be okay after that with some chance of snow.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Darwin's Birthday: Intelligent Design on Trial

In celebration of Darwin's 199th birthday, the Case Evolutionary Biology Department screened PBS's documentary "Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial", which I went to see. The documentary concerns the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District court case in which a group of parents took their local School District to court to prevent a statement promoting Intelligent Design as a theory from being read to the class

"The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments."

and furthermore, both parties asked the judge to rule as to whether ID is a scientific theory or not.

Of course, ID is not a theory: it does not generate falsifiable predictions, nor is it sufficiently well-defined to allow it to be selected from a number of possible explanations in the Bayesian/Popperian sense. ID is a rewrapped form of Creationism, which is a religious and not scientific explanation for the existence of the world. It is, moreover, part of an avowed strategy by Evangelical Christians such as the Discovery Institute with their Wedge Strategy to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God".

[Note to non-americans reading: The case seems rather strange to non-americans. In the UK for example, high schools curricula are determined by the National Curriculum and not by LEAs, which are in any case organized at the UK County level (equivalent to the US state level) and not at the City/Burrough/Parish level.]

The documentary is well worth watching and raises some interesting questions: What is Science? Who should control school curricula? On the other hand, as my friend Chris Ryan pointed out, the argument against ID by invoking the constitutional ban on promotion of Religion by Congress (and therefore by schools through their devolved power) is something of a red herring. ID ought not to be taught in Science lessons not because it is religion, but because it is not Science

On the other hand, the documentary did a great job, through the testimony of noted biologists like Kenneth Miller, of expounding the evidence consistent with the theory of natural selection, such as intermediate fossils such as Tiktaalikmodern genetic theory, and debunking the myth of irreducible complexity in cell elements such as Microbial Flagella. (One might profitably have added the emerging field of paleogeneology with such fascinating things as the recovery of ancient retroviruses from the human genome). Moreover, by reconstructing the testimony of the ID proponents such as Michael Behe (who is also in fact a Professor of Biology), the documentary cast the case for ID in its strongest form, which is important as it is often pejoratively attacked in far weaker forms.

The bottom line is that, thankfully, in Judge Jone's Opinion

"ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community."

Quite right.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

CWRU Ski Club trip to Seven Springs

Yesterday the Case Ski & Snowboard Club went to Seven Springs, PA. It's a fun resort, a lot bigger than Brandywine with probably enough trails to satisfy a full weekend trip. The trails are definitely more skiier friendly (most of them are a bit narrow), but as you can see from the resort map a cool feature is that there are plenty of beginner trails as well as the usual more difficult ones. I think actually, that the easy Lost Boy and Lost Girl trails are some of the most interesting trails to snowboard despite their simplicity. Certain of the more difficult trails are steep but a little dull. All in all, the weather wasn't bad; coverage in places was a little thin but it snowed whilst we were out on the slopes so there some nice fresh powder around that made things fun.

Andreas and Daria came on the trip, and considering neither of them had snowboarded before did amazingly well. They started off in the beginner's area and were soon developing speed control, balance and turning skills. I imagine it hurt – I remember my first day ever in Sexten, Italy! – but they were extremely brave and tried out the Fawn Lane trail. They made it down great if with many wipeouts!

Friday, February 8, 2008

NY State Must Recognise Canadian Gay Marriage, says court

According to the Ohio Gay People's Chronicle, an appeals court in the state of New York has ruled that NY state must recognise a gay marriage in Canada, just as it recognises marriage for other people. The state could theoretically legislate to not recognise LGBT marriages from other countries, but it must recognise them unless and until it does so.

A good result.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury backs Sharia Law

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview on the BBC Radio programme The World at One (reported on the BBC website and somewhat less charitably in the Guardian) has suggested that Muslims ought to have the option of settling marital and financial matters in a Sharia court.

The Archbishop suggests that this would work in a similar manner to the Beth Din or religious courts used by Orthodox Jews for certain matters; this is permitted since UK law permits parties to settle Civil questions with a third-party arbiter provided that this is acceptable to both parties. 

I am deeply concerned about such a proposal. Self evidently, it seems to violate the principle of equality before the law. It also propagates the belief that Muslims in the UK are somehow separate from the rest of us (they are not: they are British, they make a valuable contribution to Britain and they are welcome to live here). Thirdly, it is ridiculous to suggest that a religious arbiter can be neutral. Whilst religions can threaten to excommunicate---which they are entitled to do so---or apply psychological pressure such as disincentives for noncompliance such as the threat of damnation, etc. the requirement for mutual consent can never be sufficient to ensure justice; the imbalance of power is too great. And not to put too fine a point on things, I am certain that muslim women's rights groups will see significant problems with the inherently male bias in such courts.

Perhaps the Archbishop is trying to mend relations with the muslim community after last months outburst that from the Bishop of Rochester that Islamic Extremism has created no-go areas in Britain (have a laugh; read the Daily Mail version). If so, such outreach is laudible, but would be better directed towards calling for the highlighting.

And yes, he mentioned gay adoption. Again proliferating that ridiculous story...... perhaps this was simply another attempt at garnering media coverage for an institution that is frought by division and increasingly irrelevant to society at large.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

First Time Driving and City Wheels

I guess I really can't let my first time driving in the States pass without making some sort of comment. I passed my Ohio test two weeks ago, and because I'm saving to buy a decent car rather than a wreck, I joined the City Wheels programme. You get to use a shared car at a cost of $7 (including gas and insurance and 20 miles of usage) per hour. It's great for use around the Greater Cleveland area, and not so good for longer trips (you can hire a car cheaper); but there's a lot of stuff around here that you can't really get to by public transport and you can with a car. Case in point: on Saturday night I went to Brandywine for some sick night-snowboarding. So much fun.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sunday, February 3, 2008

So much for the Superbowl

So the Patriots lost thanks to a last-quarter push by the Giants. Wes Welker was still the hottest guy on the field..... apparently a "wide receiver". ROTFL.

Being a Former Colonial Power does not mean that you can't object to abuses of human rights.

When you live in a country like the UK, a Former Colonial Power, where we live in a state of amnesia about our Former Colonial Past, you are very often tempted to complain about other countries' abuses of their citizens human rights, about some of their politicians' attempts rather shameless abuses of democracy. The rebuttal is predictable and swift: "Do not impose your European values on us." This sort of ad-hominem argument, alas, does not negate our charges.

Today's article by Ian Burama in the Observer makes this point beautifully: Culture is no excuse for China denying its people democracy

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Stewie Griffin is Gay.... And the Parents Television Council Don't Like It

Shamelessly stolen from the Malcontent's blog (which I guess was in turn spotted on the Advocate): If it wasn't already screaming at you, Stewie Griffin from family is gay. Hilariously, the Parents Television Council think that 

"Even though it is an animated series, Family Guy it is not recommended for children of any age". 

It's rather funny that these self-appointed guardians of the public's morality feel that anyone who programmes that do not fit in with their Victorian view of the world should not be broadcast. Worse, they put pressure on advertisers not to sponsor such programmes. The unwillingness to offend, and the lack of impetus to challenge viewers explain in part why America's television is so inferior to that of the United Kingdom. 

What sort of shows do these people approve of? "Family-friendly show promoting responsible themes and traditional values." So single-parents, gay people, unmarried couples and the rest are not "families", are not supposed to be on television, and children are not supposed to see them? As Seth McFarlane said 

"....they’re just rotten to the core. For an organization that prides itself on Christian values–I mean, I’m an atheist, so what do I know?–they spend their entire day hating people."

Scientific Exchange of Information

Exchange of information between scientists is crucial to the development of science, and yet there is a tension between making that information freely available, sharing it with colleagues and so forth, and the rigid and archaic system of copyrights that journals operate under. So it was gratifying to read a short essay on the history of Phys Rev Lett by a former editor that contained an explicit recognition of this tension:

"With the Xerox, ubiquitous after 1965, the production of high-quality copies of a paper was trivial and the dissemination of preprints expanded greatly. We Physical Review Letters editors understood that we neither could, nor should, attempt to interfere with this kind of prepublication information transfer."