Octavo Dia

Saturday, April 28, 2007

They're just acting out

It seems to me that if the protesters are throwing Molotov cocktails, the police are showing remarkable restraint by using water cannons.

Pinker, again

Pinker made a very silly argument in How the Mind Works. He said that our ideal of a beautiful landscape are shaped by mystery: "Paths bending around hills, meandering streams, gaps in foliage, undulating land, and partly blocked views grab our interest by hinting that the land may have important features that could be discovered by future exploration."

I have a better explanation, using his paradigm, which he almost hit upon. Hills create usable water. Hills means springs and streams and ponds. Such an environment, where the water is channeled and concentrated in many areas, is much more conducive to human life than flat land where, as it is in the flat areas of the African savanna (and in the American West when we still had enormous herds of wild bison), water is concentrated in a few pans which are highly polluted by animals and highly vulnerable to predation by those same animals.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Missing the forest

In an earlier post, I pointed out an instance in which the scriptural "Tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was converted into "the tree of knowledge" to support a technophobe, Luddite interpretation of Christianity. I found another reference, this time in a piece of narrative criticism "Environmentalism as Religion", that uses "the tree of knowledge" in the same manner to the same end:

"There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all."

Friday, April 20, 2007


I have run across a number of people who take issue with heaven and hell. So, I thought, what if heaven and hell didn't exist? Would there be any reason to believe in Christianity, other than to avoid punishment or be rewarded? (For the sake of argument, I'll assume that these doctrines are not tied in with the nature of God.) I would say that, if Christianity were true, we should believe it whether we are rewarded or not. Such a Christianity reminds me very much of the manly Viking fatalism: "The gods will be defeated, yet I serve the gods."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No way

The BBC reports that China dumps 14 billion tons of waste into the Yangtze every year. I don't buy it. That's more than ten tons of waste per inhabitant of China. That wouldn't include airborne pollution, or landfilled waste, or waste dumped in other rivers. I think they meant million.

I dream of Gini

Income distribution is correlated with tax evasion.

I'm Civing it

Noumenon explained to me why I'm so enamored of the scenarios in the Civilization franchise. I play the game until I find a killer strategy, and then the game becomes boring, because winning is a given. However, scenarios tweak the rules and change the balance enough to make you need new killer strategies. In one of the Civ III Conquest tutorials, for example, it was set up like a race between civs, until I discovered that the real way to win was via banditry. After that discovery, it was so easy to win, and so dull. That's probably why I loved the WWII scenario in Civ II so much. The Neutrals were so terribly underpowered that developing a killer strategy took forever.

Monday, April 16, 2007


It seems to have become a reflexive action whenever there is a military engagement: accuse them of genocide. PBS has an article which claims that "using the definitions of both Lemkin and the Convention, and placing them within the context of the larger category of crime against humanity in general, there have really only been three genuine examples of genocide during the course of the twentieth century: that of the Armenians by the Young Turks in 1915, that of the Jews and Gypsies by the Nazis and, in 1994, that of the Tutsis by the Hutu racists."

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Pi Kappa Delta, the public speaking society I was in, in college had a unique method of determining which school would be top ranked. Large schools, such as UCLA, would bring dozens of competitors to the tournament, whereas small schools could bring only a handful. A few dozen mediocre performers would still accumulate more points than a couple of stellar performers, so they needed a way to adjust the point rankings. The solution they hit upon was rather brilliant. Points were accumulated every year of competition, and the winner had their tally reduced to zero. The large schools would lap the small schools several times, but eventually, the small schools would win their place in the sun.

I've been thinking about a means of applying such a scenario to the political sphere, and I believe I have found it: the European Union. Currently, the E.U. presidency rotates among the member states, but it has just about reached its practical limit with the current number of members. Plus, whenever Luxemburg's turn comes, it's difficult not to smile to oneself. What if the E.U. adopted a points method for the presidency? The large countries would have proportionally more turns in the presidency, but the small countries, over time, would still be represented.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Be very very quiet

I was reading How the Mind Works, and Pinker commented the reason we don't see woolly rhinoceroses and other ice age creatures is that humans quickly hunted them to extinction. That made remember an article from a National Geographic issue on Africa, which said that Africa had such extensive mega-fauna because they had "co-evolved" with humans, and thus had adapted to human hunting techniques.

For some reason, these two arguments made me think, what if the situation was reversed? What if Africa was as devoid of mega-fauna as Europe, and the rest of the world was overrun with mastodons and their ilk? It would be obvious, right? The mega-fauna in Africa had been hunted out millennia ago. It would only be a matter of time for the rest of the world.

It seems to me that an situation that can be reversed and produce an equally valid explanation is bunk. A better explanation, to me, is that Africa is a climate ill-suited for humans. The burgeoning of plant and insect life makes agriculture hard and disease rampant. Add the difficulty in technology transfer of Guns, Germs, and Steel and the non-extinction of Africa's large animals requires no evolutionary explanation at all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Falling Flat

I was reading the comments over at the Dilbert Blog, and once again, someone said, "We used to believe that the earth was flat!" And I started to wonder where the heck the flat earth meme came from. I mean, Plato knew the Earth was round, they did an experiment with showing how the sun's light entered wells at different angles depending how far south you went. Ptolemy, the go-to guy for Medieval astronomy, in his Almagest, knew that the stars were light years away (in Book I, Chapter 5 he says that the earth could be considered as a point in comparison to the distances involved), and his diagrams of the geocentric universe all depict a round earth. In Columbus' day, everyone knew the earth was round, it was just that Columbus had dramatically miscalculated the distances, so he set off on a journey that was a suicide mission, and would have been had he not hit an unknown continent.

I figured that Answers in Genesis has probably taken more "flat earth" flak than just about anyone, so I searched their site for the flat earth. They have an article called, "Who Invented the Flat Earth" which answers my questions. While they have lists of heretical "church fathers" who believed the earth was flat, and were denounced for it, and some later writers who were attacking the Roman Church, it seems, from the article, that the most likely source is Washington Irving's historical fiction "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus." It had an appeal broad enough, which an academic work would not, to implant the flat earth meme into our society.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mary quite contrary

Just something about the Jesus Family Tomb controversy that I haven't seen elsewhere. In John 20:16, when Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus after the Resurrection, she addresses him as "Rabboni" or "Teacher". Given that she must have been absolutely stunned by the appearance alive of one whose death she had witnessed, one can assume that her form of address was the habitual way of addressing him. If they were indeed married, one would expect a far more intimate name, rather than his professional title, to be used.

Bad grammar or bad taste?

The Wisconsin State Journal had an article for Easter discussing the controversy between whether Jesus rose from the dead or was raised from the dead. Since Scripture uses both forms, one can safely say that he did both, and it is dependent on the dual nature of Christ (which the author mentions toward the end). Christ rose as the King that conquered death, but he was also raised as a man by the conquering King.

Original Righteousness

As I said in response to a comment a while ago, I have been having trouble with the concept of original sin. It is patently necessary to the Christian faith, but it smacks of unfairness. I heard one response, that original sin is unfair, but it is by no means unjust. A better interpretation, in my view, and one with which I am contented, is derived from Genesis 5:1b, 3: "When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.... When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth."

This means that we are not in the image of God--a point I should have made in response to The Atheist Jew--we are in the image and likeness of Adam. This is hugely important. If Adam no longer had his original righteousness, he could no longer pass it down. The doctrine of original sin seems terribly unfair--why should we be held to account just because Adam and Even sinned? However, if Adam had a get out of jail free card, his original righteousness, and lost it, then we are all judged solely on our own merits.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Science Illiteracy

An article about science illiteracy produced these two gems:

At the beginning of the article:

200 million Americans out there who cannot read a simple story in, say, Technology Review or the New York Times science section and understand even the basics of DNA or microchips or global warming. This level of science illiteracy may explain why over 40 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution

At the end of the article:

One of Miller's findings that may surprise many Americans is that Europeans and Japanese actually rate slightly lower in science literacy. To be sure, these same populations also have a much higher percentage of people who accept evolution and other basic scientific theories.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Blind Giant

I've wondered, of late, whether the U.S. view of war is unduly shaped by our late entry into so many wars. Both World Wars were half over by the time we entered. The Philippine War was an extension of the war against the Spanish. The Spanish American War as a whole was us intervening in an insurgency. The wars that we aren't so fond of, Korea, Vietnam and the present Gulf War, were wars that we joined from almost the beginning. (Yes I know you can dispute Vietnam, but you can divide that into several wars just as easily as you can lump it together.)

Straw Man

From Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works p. 16:

"Man's capacity for evil is never far from our minds, and it is easy to think that evil just comes along with intelligence as part of its very essence. It is a recurring theme in our cultural tradition; Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Promethean fire and Pandora's box, the rampaging Golem, Faust's bargain, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the adventures of Pinocchio, Frankenstein's monster, the murderous apes and mutinous HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey."

The statement is correct in its essence, we do have a cultural history of equating knowledge with evil. However, he misquotes Scripture to make it serve his point. It is not "The Tree of Knowledge" but "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." While this may be innocuous, it has the all to common effect of casting Christians as close-minded and anti-scientific, whereas in reality it is saying that knowing God's Will, and determining not to do it, is wrong.

Free Won't

Recent experiments, such as this one, have brought the subject of free will up again. As always, it is a slippery concept, but let us assume, for the sake of argument, that free will does not exist, that behavior, had we enough knowledge of background causality, is entirely predictable.

While I might be entering into heresy, let me argue that our free will is not unlimited. 2 Peter 2:19 states, "They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity--for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him." The analogy of being enslaved to sin is common throughout the New Testament: Galatians 5:1, 7; 1 Corinthians 9:1, 21; and the mother lode in Roman's 6. However, that chapter of Roman's also describes us as being slaves to righteousness.

A slave is, by definition, one whose freedom is constrained. If we are slaves to sin, can we then not sin? Is not sin our master? We are therefore helpless in our sin--one does not have to be conscious, as we understand it, to sin (since the penalty of sin is death, and the unborn can quite apparently die, they must, consequently, be sinners). Therefore, we do not have free will not to sin. We are free to sin as much as we want, but sin stops us from not sinning.