Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What’s in a Name?

Except for a few years of my life we have always had Volkswagen’s in the family. I have fond memories of camping in the green 1970 transporter that my folks bought new while my dad was in graduate school. I remember the day in 1976 when my brothers and I tried to talk them into getting a VW Campmobile, a yellow one just like Pippi, but we ended up coming home with a Rabbit. Later we bought another Rabbit and then I bought a ’67 Beetle while I was in High School. Shortly after Victoria and I got married we found Pippi, our 1976 VW Campmobile. I’ve always had an affinity for the brand.

VW stopped making the Beetle for the US market in the late 70s. But in the mid 90s they announced that they were going to start production of their New Beetle. We were living in Salt Lake City at the time and Victoria and I made a trip to the dealership to see one. We weren’t in the market for another car. I was just curious about it.

After only a few minutes at the dealership I was ready to go. The car was nice but it just wasn’t what I had expected. The car was so different from the original Beetle that it left me pondering why they even continued to call it a Beetle. The Beetle, the original one designed by Dr. Porsche, had a flat-four air-cooled engine in the rear and was rear-wheel drive. All of those things are significant defining characteristics of the car. Yet this New Beetle had a straight-four, transversely mounted water-cooled engine in front of the car and was front-wheel drive. The New Beetle would resemble the original more if you drive it around backwards everywhere. Except for the rounded body styling it did not resemble the original at all. It was much more similar to the Golf, which I later found out the car was based on. Mechanically it was a Golf with just a throwback body styling. Don’t get me wrong, the Golf is a great car. It just ain’t a Beetle.

On the way home from the dealership I complained to Victoria and waxed philosophic about our experience. So how many details could they have changed and still made me comfortable with calling it a Beetle? I’ve blogged a little bit about this once before. I don’t know the answer to that question. But clearly they had changed too many for me. As cute as this new car was I just could not get comfortable with how drastically different it was. Why didn’t they just call it the VW Retro or something else? But as far as I was concerned it sure wasn’t a Beetle anymore.

For the past several years I’ve been going through a transformation too, not completely dissimilar to the example above.

For my whole life I’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormons to most of the world. Mormons have a set of core beliefs that define them. Since I was a young child most of my beliefs have fallen well within the guidelines of the church. I was comfortable calling myself a Mormon and they were comfortable with me.

Like any healthy mind should, I continued to learn. A calling I had teaching Aaron’s Sunday School class got me really studying about the church. I read just about every history and biography I could about the church. After finding more questions than answers using the official, church sanctioned materials I was prompted to look elsewhere for some of my answers. I just couldn’t make certain aspects of the church’s history and doctrine line up without digging a little deeper. As I uncovered new truths, new to me at least, I did my best to incorporate them into my set of beliefs and still continue to call myself a Mormon. One issue at a time and little by little I found myself having to really bend over backwards to make myself fit into the mold that the church was providing. (I’ll spare the specifics of the changes for other posts. I’ve already detailed many of them over the last few years.) How many defining characteristics of being a Mormon could I change and still identify with the name? Like VW did with their Beetle I was rearranging and redesigning massive amounts of technical details while still doing my best to keep a rough tribute to the original.

A few months ago I was in another teaching position at church. The lesson for that day called for me to teach a principle that I no longer believed. In fact I found the whole Old Testament story of genocide difficult to even read. Yet I was being asked to tell the story and then give the official position of the church as if I believed it. I just couldn’t do it. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Just as if I had walked to the back of the car, popped the latch and sat there looking at a spare tire and an otherwise empty trunk rather than the engine compartment I had expected to be there. Things had changed. And I couldn’t stand at the back of the car and pretend that there was an engine back there anymore.

The next week I asked to speak to our Bishop and I told him what I was going through. This would be the third Bishop I’d conveyed my struggle to. At the time I just asked to be released from the teaching position. I just couldn’t be honest with myself and still teach from the official lesson plan.

So on the cusp of this new year I look back at where I was and where I am now. I no longer have so many of the characteristics that used to defined me as a Mormon. My beliefs have changed. Like the Beetle, do I still deserve the name? Am I still a car with a flat-four air cooled engine in the rear with rear-wheel drive? Or have I evolved into something else that deserves a different name? Here’s a little bumper sticker philosophy for you. “If you were accused of being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict?” or in my case, “If I were accused of being a Mormon would there be enough evidence to convict?” I just don’t know anymore. So that round car based on the Golf that VW came out with in the 90s, I’m just not comfortable calling it a Beetle. And whatever I have evolved into in the last several years probably deserves to be called something else too. I’m just not sure what it is yet.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


A few weeks ago at church we had a guest speaker present a talk on the subject of obedience. Obedience is a common theme lately in LDS meetings. Despite the scriptural support to the contrary you’d think it was the greatest commandment in the law.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to express my puzzlement with a motivational story that was given during the talk. This speaker closed his 20 minute talk with a story about a boy who was lost in a mine. A group of boys had gone into a mine and one of the boys got separated form the rest of the group. When he didn’t come out they went back and retraced their steps. When they still didn’t find him the authorities were called and a full search was initiated.

A local man felt the need to go volunteer his services since he was familiar with the mine. When he showed up on site he was sent back home by the authorities, who assured him that they had it under control. This happened a few days in a row. The local man offered his services and was sent home every time.

On something like the forth or fifth day of the search the authorities were no closer to finding the boy and announced that they were going to call off the search. One last time the local man went and pleaded with the authorities to be allowed to look for the boy. They reluctantly agreed. Being more familiar with the mine than any of the other searchers so, far he was able to check out a little known passage and he found the boy in about 20 minutes.

Now here is my question. How in the world is a story about the virtues of obedience? If the boy had been obedient to his leaders in the first place he wouldn’t have been alone. If the leaders had been obedient to scout policy they wouldn’t have been in a mine in the first place. But they were not the focus of the story. The most glaring problem I had with it was the prime focus of the story, the local man’s actions. Since he knew the mine better if he had been disobedient and defied the so-called authorities the boy would have likely been found days earlier. I saw this as a story about perseverance to do what you know is right in spite of what you are being told, but obedience?

Sometimes I really enjoy the talks at church. Sometimes I may disagree with the concept but still understand it from their perspective. But this one just eluded me completely. I just couldn’t see how in the world this story would support the idea that we need to be obedient.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Merchants of Doubt

So the other day I was trying to convince one of my kids to stop playing video games and get studying one of the school subjects in which they aren’t doing very well. No response. So I looked at their grades so far and did my best to persuade them that if they didn’t do a remarkable job in the last few weeks of the semester that they likely would not pass the course. Again, no response. At this point I was getting more than a little irritated at the lack of action. “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?” The response I got, “You don’t know for sure that I’ll fail if I don’t study today and you can’t guarantee that I’ll pass if I do study right now.” This little logical fallacy is one that has bugged me for years. While it is true that I could not know for sure the outcome of doing homework it’s ridiculous to argue that playing video games is a better use of that time.

We see this type of fallacious reasoning all the time. Sometimes it is accidental. I know people who avoid the interstates because don’t know if there will be any construction work going on and they can’t be 100% sure that the off ramps will be open. Other people turn off all passenger side airbags because they can’t be 100% sure that theirs won’t be the one that goes off accidentally. I have even heard of one friend of mine who never wears his seat belt because he can’t be 100% sure that he won’t drive off a bridge and drown because he can’t get out of his car. All of these situations are based on an emotional response to something that had happened to them or a persuasive story they heard or saw on the news. Despite ample evidence to the contrary they still stick to that emotional assessment of risk and a desire for 100% surety.

What really bothers me is when others recognize this fact that you can never be 100% sure and exploit it for political and personal gains. Merchants of Doubt is the history of just such political exploitation of science and the public’s misunderstanding of certainty, statistics and risk.

Industry funded scientists focused on and magnified the uncertainty when dealing with the link between cancer and cigarette smoking. The implication being that since they can’t prove 100% that smoking is what gave this guy cancer then we don’t know what did. And therefore smoking is safe. Later on Industry funded scientists focused on and magnified the uncertainty when dealing with the consequences of the arms race. Then after that it was the link between industries and acid rain. Etc, etc, etc. Time and time again Industry funded experts have used the same tired script to justify their in action. What I found most surprising in this book is that time and time again it is the very same scientists pushing this uncertainty on the public, even when the topics are far afield of their area of training and expertise.

I took this book as a warnign to be skeptical anytime somebody encourages action or inaction just based on the fact that we can't be 100% certian. Do the research and weigh the risks. Sure, absolute certianty is rare, but relative certianty is much more common. I many not no for sure if I'm gonna get driven off a bridge, but I'm far more likely to get into an accident that does not involve a bridge and so I'm gonna continue to wear my seat belt. And the same goes for the other controvertial issues detailed in Merchants of Doubt.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Happend to Civility?

Here’s a not entirely hypothetical situation I’d like to discuss.
Suppose a friend came over to your house unannounced. You invite them in and they begin to tell you their views on what is wrong with everything from your politics to how to you raise your children. They quote celebrities and politicians to back up their position. You listen politely for a while. Then when they are finished you attempt to point out a few misquotations and other errors in the facts they presented to you. They then get insulted and react as if you are personally attacking them. They make one last speech and storm out of your house telling you that they never want to hear from you again.
The above example is an amalgam of several different events that have actually happened to me in the last couple months. It sounds absurd doesn’t it? But they really happened, several times. If this had happened to you how would you feel? Suppose this was a beloved family member, who you had great respect for, you just disagreed on politics? In my situation each time I just sat there stunned. Where did that come from? Why did they bring this to me?
Now I have concealed one small detail until now. These encounters didn’t happen in person. They happened via email. Yet other than that the details are correct. Why does the fact that their message came via an email excuse them the civility they might have granted me in person? Is it really so all or nothing with some people? What has happened to this world that we are so readily willing to cut all ties with people because we don’t march in lock step with them? Is their value as a person so contingent upon me accepting the premises of the email that they mass forwarded to everybody in their address book?
I share this because I am truly saddened. There are people that I have known for decades who have abandoned having any relationship with me because we disagree. What happened to having a civil disagreement? In many of my cases I didn’t even get around to stating my opinion. I was just correcting the facts they presented. It doesn’t bother me that we disagree on some points. But why can’t we discuss the issue civilly?
In stark contrast to these examples I do have a few close friends with whom I frequently disagree. I enjoy discussing things with them. I know that neither one of us is likely to have a complete change of opinion but the conversation is stimulating. And I believe that we are willing to accept when our opinions are based on flawed data and reconsider. I want to thank these friends for accepting me as one who is still looking for answers. I enjoy the search. I hope I never get so many answers that I no longer need the search. And I hope that no matter how much we may disagree you will still walk away knowing that I still value you as a person.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Different Monitors

I’ve been looking at buying a flat panel monitor for my wife’s computer. I had a friend of mine email me a link to the monitor he has. In the email he was bragging about the color definition on his monitor. I looked at the monitor online and then, with tongue firmly planted in my cheek, responded, “The color definition doesn’t look any better than my monitor.” He laughed and thought it was pretty funny and then suggested we head over to a computer store and look at one in real life.

The incident reminded me of the TV commercials where you’d see a whole bank of other TV’s and you get to compare the picture quality. As a kid I remember remarking to my dad about how stupid those ads were. We never even had a color TV so I got a kick out of a Magnavox commercial showing a bunch of color TVs and I only saw 6 relatively identical black and white images. Today it’s the same thing. You can brag about your 1080P HD images all you want. Showing me a picture of it is not going to convince me unless I already have a 1080P HD TV. And in that case I don’t need the advertisement.

Well y’all know how I think. I couldn’t help but take this experience and extrapolate it out to other aspects of life. How often do we try to relate to somebody else and not take into account how they would see it? Each of us has certain filters that we view the world through. Expose somebody to a new idea and they are going to experience it differently than we are based on those filters. Suppose a friend were confined to a wheelchair. She would likely see a youtube video of a rock climber with a whole different attitude than I would. It would remind me to get off my butt and work out a little bit more, but it may bring nothing but discouragement to her.

I see this same thing come up all the time in discussions. Take the topic of climate change. Many people are only looking through the filter of politics. And it is a very political issue. I have many friends who refuse to accept the science behind climate change because they are afraid of what the political ramifications might be, higher taxes, increased cooperation with other countries, etc, etc. All of these are honest political concerns and there is nothing wrong with debating them. When I put on my political filter I see much the same image that they do. But if we could look at it with another monitor, if we could set the political filters aside and look at the science alone, ignoring the politics for now, I think it’s much easier to see the real image.

Lately there has been a lot of press about some remarks that were made by an LDS general authority at last week’s General Conference. I think we have the same thing going on to a great extent with this issue too. Those in the gay community have their filter that they are looking through and the faithful members of the church and church leaders are looking through another. Both sides seem to be talking about the same event yet they each see it in completely different colors. I have my own opinions about this issue too. But I recognize that my perspective may not be any better than the others.

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions based on just our perspective. I’m not going to completely dismiss purchasing the monitor that my friend sent me until I check it out in person. Similarly I try not to completely dismiss anyone’s opinion or idea until I’ve at least attempted to view it through the same filters that they have. Now I still may not buy the new monitor or accept the other opinion. But at least I have made a solid attempt to view it in the most realistic way before I dismiss it or accept it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand"

I really miss you, Dad. I could use some help with your legacy.

Monday, October 04, 2010


I had an interesting discussion with a coworker last week. He had just driven back from out west and was relating his trip details to a few of us. Having driven across the country more times than I can count I threw my two cents into the conversation. I was curious as to which route he had taken. It turns out that he had taken one of the same stretches of road that I always take. He commented on how much he liked the road and I remarked about how annoying the road is.
Hwy-78 from Birmingham to Memphis will someday be incorporated into the interstate system. But currently the road is incomplete. The divided hwy part of it starts about 12 miles north of Birmingham and ends a few miles south of Memphis. Consequently if you hit either section at rush hour it can be miserable. Even if you miss rush hour your average speed is severally limited due to the miles of traffic lights.
Well this coworker commented that he just loved the road and I said it was moderately annoying because of the incomplete sections.

Him, “I just drove it yesterday. They’ve completed it.”

Me, “Well they must have completed it since I drove it in July”

Him, “It’s complete all the way except for those 12 miles in Birmingham and a few miles in Memphis.”

At this point he threw his elbows back and was waiting for me to respond.

Me, “I don’t know what else to say. You’ve just completely conceded my only point and you act like we still have something to disagree over.”

This was just a recent dramatic example, but I see people attaching qualifiers to statements and not realizing that the qualifier removes most if not all of the original meaning from the statement. A generic example would be something like, “All psychic predictions come true except those that don’t.” Okay? The statement would seem to be rather powerful, at first. Then the qualifier removed all of the bite. Such was the discussion with my coworker. The road is complete except for the parts that aren't. Once he had qualified the statement to exclude all the annoying parts of hwy-78 we were left with only the nice parts to discuss.

What I find frustrating is that in these types of situations I always feel like the other party walks away feeling like we still have some disagreement when we don’t. In this case we both enjoy the completed sections of hwy-78 and find the traffic lights through both big cities rather annoying.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Trying Not to be Cynical

So this morning I was approached by a woman at the gas station claiming her car had broken down and her kids were sleeping in the car. Yeah I know, it’s a typical panhandler line, but I was feeling charitable so I tried to help her and her kids out. I’d had a really bad week and I was projecting a little bit. If her week was half as bad as mine she could use someone to trust her.
Well to make a long story short: I never saw the kids or the truck and I got cussed out when I wouldn’t pay for a hotel room. I told her she could get out of my truck here or I could drop her off at the police station a block away.
Yeah I know it had all the signs of a scam from the beginning, but don’t they all? So here’s my question. How do you give people the benefit of a doubt without setting yourself up for being scammed? I stuck to my rule of helping rather than just giving them a handout. And I’m glad I did. But how do I now prevent this experience from jading me for next time? What tools do you use to tell who really needs help?

Friday, September 10, 2010

This a beautiful song to start with. This arrangement is just amazing.

Delivering Cakes

A few weeks ago a friend of mine gave a great talk at church. He brought up an example of a empathy that I thought was both funny and very profound. Have you ever been behind somebody in traffic who seemed to drive far too cautiously? As my wife would say, “Come on, what do you need, an embossed invitation to make a right turn?” From the perspective of everybody around them it may seem that they are doing things wrong. And our criticism of them may seem justified. But what if we don’t’ quite know the whole story? What if there is something going on inside the car that we are not privy to? What if they are responding completely appropriately considering the facts that they have before them?
In his talk my friend gave the example of how his wife likes to bake and decorate cakes. Occasionally he is asked to deliver the cake. Doing so he tends to take it very easy on the road, giving a lot of space fro braking if needed, avoiding quick starts at lights, and even seeming to need an embossed invitation to make a right turn. I could relate to this analogy pretty easily. Victoria and I also decorate cakes every now and then and I know how frustrating it can be when something doesn’t make it to the destination intact.
Lately I’ve been going through some struggles in my life and I feel like people are shouting at me and giving me the bird because they disagree with how I’m driving through them. If they only knew that I had a cake in the car and I’m trying to get it to its destination in one piece…

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Earlier this year I blogged about the logical fallacy “begging the question”. Take a second to re-read that post.
I had another rather frustrating example of begging the question today. At work we frequently get sent email notifications telling us to take some online training. It’s a great way for us to get covered on company polices and procedures at our own pace and without having to get together for a group meeting. So normally I don’t have any complaint.
Today I got one such email. The training class was scheduled to take 45 minutes and there was a quiz at the end that I had to pass in order to get credit. This is about average for these classes. Well after I looked at the class description it was clear that it didn’t pertain to me at all. It was about using a specific company program that I don’t use to track my corporate travel that I don't do and expenses that I don’t have. So I fired off an email essentially asking, “Why do I have to take a 45 minute course that does not apply at all to my job?” Now comes the logical fallacy. The answer that came back, “This course in mandatory for all managers.”
How’s that for a non-sequitor? I asked why is this course mandatory and the response, because it is mandatory.
So rather than debate the concept of begging the question with them for 45 minutes I just took the course and then, of course, blogged about it on my lunch hour.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Common Nonsense

A few months ago I heard a great podcast interview with Alexander Zaitchik about his new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. The interview was very eye opening and inspired me to read the book.
I’ve always felt that Glenn Beck was just a failed shock jock who couldn’t keep up with the likes of Howard Stern. So he switched to am radio and started using the same shock jock strategies and even some of the same skits to shock am listeners.
Zaitchik successfully illustrates that Beck is a brilliant marketer. He is always looking at how he can spin anything to promote himself. As a FM DJ he called and taunted the wife of a competing station on the air because she had recently had a miscarriage. When other people are genuinely distraught about a national tragedy, Beck is trying to figure out how he can make the event improve his brand. And for those of you who would like to claim that this was the “old Glenn” before he found Jesus and converted to Mormonism, I have seen no change at all in his strategies since. He switched sides on the Teri Schiavo case after he realized that siding with Michael Schiavo would be a death nail for his new am gig. He vilified liberals for opposing Bush’s polices “..while we have troops in harm’s way” yet didn’t think twice to compare Obama to Stalin and Satan while pretty much all of those troops are still “in harm’s way”.
I’ve always felt that’s Beck’s tears were just a tool to manipulate. Sure they may have been genuine at first, but they have grown to be a great marking strategy. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his emotional outbursts started shortly after he converted to Mormonism. Anybody who has attended an LDS, first Sunday service will recognize the pattern. You go up and stand before everybody and the firmness with which you believe something replaces logic, facts and evidence. Tears are just the ace in the hole. There can be no further argument on that issue once somebody has cried. I am sure that most of what happens on Sunday is genuine. With Beck I’m not so sure. Zaitchik interview several of Beck’s co-workers who detail examples of him getting all choked up before a commercial break then ordering a pizza on the phone and then turning the tears back on when he’s back on air. I’m just not buying it.
Another little strategy of Beck’s that he has commandeered from the LDS is church is his persecution complex. If people picket him or criticize it only can mean one thing. He is doing the right thing. Beck capitalizes on protests and disagreement and he has no desire for them to go away. His books are literally covered with quotes from those who oppose him. He eats it up.
His claim that his 8-28 rally was just “coincidentally” scheduled for the anniversary of Dr. Kings speech is very hollow. In my mind there are two options: 1. He didn’t know it was the same date. In which case he’s a moron and should have known. Or option 2. He knew full well and was planning on capitalizing on the controversy. Considering his history of doing things that upset his opposition and using their protests as free advertising I have to accept the later. As a shock jock he worked up PETA supporters into a lather and then relished the free publicity they gave him.
The really disgustng part of Beck’s rally and his whole “reclaim the civil rights” rhetoric is that it’s just patently false. Had he been a contemporary of King's he’d have been standing right beside his John Birch Society role models W. Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson condemning King as a communist.
In the book Zaitchik was referring to a couple Cleon Skousen books and he called them, “…elaborately imagined, feverishly argued, and poorly researched.” I think the same could also be said for everything I’ve hear come out of Glenn Beck’s mouth. I think Beck is counting on the ignorance of his audience. He expects them to just connect the dots the same what his conspiracy theory mind connects them on that chalkboard without any further research.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Victoria asked me to stop by the credit union to get a few buck to pay Eve’s piano teacher. There is only one teller open since they are trying to close. The guy at the teller is on his cell phone talking asking about his accounts and trying to figure out what he needs to do at the teller. The teller politely asks him to step aside so she can assist other customers while he gets what he needs form the call. So, I step up and give my account information to the teller. At this point the guy has finished his call and is standing only a few inches from me. He looks at my uniform shirt, sizes me up and says, “AT&T huh? I just wanna say that your phone service SUCKS!!” I was a little irritated from some other events of the day already but I forced some restraint. I simply turned to him, put my hands on my hips and stared. At this point he said, “No offense.” and took a step back. I turned back to the teller shaking my head and finished my transaction.
Then on the way home this kid in a little sports car is treating Hwy-78 like it’s Talladega and he’s Richard Petty. He gets so close behind my truck that I completely lost him in all of my mirrors. He passed me and began drafting this minivan next to me with less than a foot to spare. I honk to signal my displeasure at his driving and he returns by giving me a universal hand gesture and telling me to “go vacuum”. At least that’s what I think he said. My hearing isn’t what it used to be. I see him again about two miles down the road and he’s still only about 100 feet in front of me. Apparently all his NASCAR driving strategy gets him about 50 feet per mile.
This morning Aaron and I are headed to seminary. We stop at the light a the front of the subdivision. It turns green. I pause for a second and then start to make my left turn. Then out of nowhere going about 70 MPH a little 2-door comes in from the left and has to swerve all the way into the other lane to avoid us. We clearly had the light but, I lock the brakes and hit the horn. Again with the hand gesture.
I could go on and on. I actually have several more not-so-uplifting stories about society. But the common theme that I believe ties all of them together is selfishness. All of these people were soley focused on their own needs. I wish I could say that I saw changes in the future, but I don't. Increasingly our social and political world is dominatite by selfishness. Now, I full admit that there are some valiant exceptions to the rule. The last 24 hours have jsut seemed to have been dominated by the selfish.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Proceeding from a False Premise

One of my favorite lines from all of the Star Trek movies was in Star Trek 4. Spock was technically the Capitan. Kirk, then an Admiral, wanted to take command of the ship. He was tip-toeing around Spock’s feelings in even bringing up the subject. Spock responded,
“You proceed from a false assumption. I have no ego to bruise.”
I’ve always remembered that lesson from the fictional master of logic and tried to apply it in my life. Before I make something more difficult than it has to be or before I take something for granted I should make sure that all the information that I’ve used to make my decision is correct.

Suppose I was always losing my keys. If I had already accepted the premise that leprechauns exist then it would be easy for me to conclude that leprechauns were to blame every time I misplaced my keys. Accepting this solution would likely prevent me from identifying and correcting the real problem. Obviously the existence of leprechauns is a pretty far-fetched example. However, less silly examples happen all the time. People make assumptions that are based on no more proof than the evidence for existence of our little green Irish friends.

The other day I was listening to a speaker give a presentation about a new program that was available for those fighting various forms of addiction. He lost me early in his presentation because he proceeded from a false premise. He proudly announced that the program was “based on the proven effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous”. His false premise? That Alcoholics Anonymous has been proven effective. It’s very hard to objectively measure such results. It’s even more difficult when AA is very tightlipped about their effectiveness and resistant to outside studies to evaluate it. Some studies show that 95% of those who start AA end up drinking again. This makes me wonder what the rate is for those who just try to quite without AA. A recent study determined that,
“No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”

Now all this AA business aside; I have no idea how effective the program that was presented really is. I have no evidence either way. The point of this post was not to discredit that program at all. I only wished to point out the logical fallacy in the reasoning used to promote it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bumper Sticker logic

Friday on my lunch hour walk I saw a car with the following two bumper stickers.

I felt like taking a sharpie to the reamaining blank space and adding, "ergo the driver of this car sucks."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Political Cartoons

I've always been a big fan of political cartoons. It's nothing less than genius that they can make a point so succinctly that would take me paragraphs of rambling on. Here are a few recent examples:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I saw this on one of the VW forums and thought it was funny enough to share.


DRILL PRESS: A tall upright machine useful for suddenly snatching flat metal bar stock out of your hands so that it smacks you in the chest and flings your beverage across the room, denting the freshly-painted project which you had carefully set in the corner where nothing could get to it.

WIRE WHEEL: Cleans paint off bolts and then throws them somewhere under the workbench with the speed of light. Also removes fingerprints and hard-earned calluses from fingers in about the time it takes you to say, ’ "insert your favorite curse word"!’

SKIL SAW: A portable cutting tool used to make studs too short.

PLIERS: Used to round off bolt heads. Sometimes used in the creation of blood-blisters.

BELT SANDER: An electric sanding tool commonly used to convert minor touch-up jobs into major refinishing projects.

HACKSAW: One of a family of cutting tools built on the Ouija board principle… It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes.

VISE-GRIPS: Generally used after pliers to completely round off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

OXYACETYLENE TORCH: Used almost entirely for lighting various flammable objects in your shop on fire. Also handy for igniting the grease inside the wheel hub out of which you want to remove a bearing race.

TABLE SAW: A large stationary power tool commonly used to launch wood projectiles for testing wall integrity.

HYDRAULIC FLOOR JACK: Used for lowering an automobile to the ground after you have installed your new brake shoes , trapping the jack handle firmly under the bumper.

BAND SAW: A large stationary power saw primarily used by most shops to cut good aluminum sheet into smaller pieces that more easily fit into the trash can after you cut on the inside of the line instead of the outside edge.

TWO-TON ENGINE HOIST: A tool for testing the maximum tensile strength of everything you forgot to disconnect.

PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVER: Normally used to stab the vacuum seals under lids or for opening old-style paper-and-tin oil cans and splashing oil on your shirt; but can also be used, as the name implies, to strip out Phillips screw heads.

STRAIGHT SCREWDRIVER: A tool for opening paint cans. Sometimes used to convert common slotted screws into non-removable screws and butchering your palms in the process.

PRY BAR: A tool used to crumple the metal surrounding that clip or bracket you needed to remove in order to replace a 50 cent part.

HOSE CUTTER: A tool used to make hoses too short.

HAMMER: Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer nowadays is used as a kind of divining rod to locate the most expensive parts adjacent the object we are trying to hit.

UTILITY KNIFE: Used to open and slice through the contents of cardboard cartons delivered to your front door; works particularly well on contents such as seats, vinyl records, liquids in plastic bottles, collector magazines, refund checks, and rubber or plastic parts. Especially useful for slicing work clothes, but only while in use.

("Insert your favorite curse word") TOOL: Any handy tool that you grab and throw across the garage while yelling, "(Insert your favorite curse word)"! ’ at the top of your lungs. It is also, most often, the next tool that you will need

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Many Hats

While we were off at Philmont last month many of the camps that had historical significance also had reenactors. The staff would dress in early 1900s clothing and pretend that it was actually the early 1900s. I though it was a nice touch. When we showed up to the Miranda campsite they welcomed us as if we were a band of mountain men who had just showed up for their annual rendezvous. They had tepees set up and were wearing buckskin pans and shirts. Everything added to the feeling that it really was the early 1900s.

Later on that day I was very impressed with one particular reenactor. Caleb, the same guy who welcomed us to the mountain man rendezvous, led us over to the range to shot black powder rifles. As son as we were all on site he began to instruct us. “Let’s get something straight right up front. Until know I have been wearing the hat of a historical reenactor. I also wear the hat of a certified NRA range safety officer. I will not attempt to stay in character while we handle these firearms.”

I was comforted that Caleb had his priorities in order. Sure the historical part was fun but historically they wouldn’t have likely had eye protection or ear protection. And historically I’ll bet there were a bunch more injuries than I’d be willing to accept. I later learned that all of the camp staffers were Wilderness First Responders, backcountry EMTs. Just one more hat they wear and I’m sure that they have no reservation about again abandoning their historical reenactor roles and pulling out their CB radios when that need arises.

Caleb’s judgement about when it was appropriate to wear which hat got me thinking about the many hats that I wear. Husband, father, son, brother, scout leader, Sunday school teacher, co-worker, friend, etc. etc. Sure all of these roles are important. It would be nice if there was never any time when we had to choose one over the other. But the realities of life are such that we frequently have to choose. Wisdom comes in knowing when to take off one hat in favor of another. I thank Caleb for reminding me of this.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bad Universe

So one of my favorite astronomers, yes I have more than one favorite astronomer, appears that he is getting a series based on his book and blog.

Very cool! I might have to actually get something besides broadcast TV.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Being in the Woods

I recently got back from a two week backpacking trip with Aaron and some of the guys from his scout troop. Hence the complete lack of blog posts for so long. When I got back to work I made a comment to a friend that It was taking me quite a while to remember how to do my job after being in the woods for so long. He responded, “Isn’t it interesting how little time it take you to get used to being out in the woods?” I couldn’t agree more.
Here are a few pictures from the trip.

Political Calls

Me: Hi.
Caller: Mr. Taylor?
Me: This is Michael
Caller: Mr. Taylor?
Me: How can I help you?
Caller: I’m calling on behalf of the Linda Carsten for Congress campaign. Are you aware that Carsten’s opponent , B. J Pak opposes the Arizona immigration law that…
Me: Well good for him.
Caller: Excuse me?
Me: I said “good for him”. I too disagree with the Arizona law.
Caller: Can we count on your vote for Linda Carsten in November?
Me: Well I just stated that I disagree with her position on immigration. What else do you have to persuade me?
Caller: Thank you for your time.

I guess since I frequently vote in the Republican primaries that these callers just assume that I’m going to be an easy audience when they call. I really was serious when I wanted him to tell me what else the candidate he represented had to offer.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


One of the reasons I really enjoy rock climbing is because so much of what you learn on the rock carries over into our daily activities. Maybe this is just me but hear me out for a little bit.
A few weeks ago I guided a small group of boys form our church on a rock climbing trip. We went to a place that I know better than any other climbing area, Mount Yonah near Cleveland Georgia. After spending half the day climbing some relatively easy stuff a few of the guys wanted to do something harder. So I took Aaron and another boy, Alex, up to help me set up a few top ropes on the harder stuff. They had both shown considerable interest in learning how to safely set up the anchors. In order to get to the anchors for these routes we had to rappel off of the top of the rock which was over 200 feet tall and down to a ledge in the middle of the rock. I let Aaron rappel down to the ledge first since he had a little more experience than Alex. Alex would go next and I would come down to the ledge last. That way I could inspect everybody’s set-up before they rappelled.
So Aaron gets his rappel set and heads down to the ledge with no problem. That’s when all the drama started. You see the ledge was home to hundreds of biting ants. They were big red things with black abdomens. No sooner than Aaron got on the ledge and they were attacking his legs. It also seemed that the death of their sisters brought out even more worker ants to join in the attack. As bad as the ants were Aaron really had no choice but to stay on the ledge until Alex and I could get down to him, bring down the ropes and rappel the rest of the way to the ground.
So we did just that. Alex, knowing full well what he was getting into, rappelled down to the ledge, safely clipped into the anchors and proceeded to help Aaron slap off the ants until I could get down. I followed as quickly as I safely could and set up the ropes to get us off the rock. The whole process took about half an hour and we all had quite a few ant bites when the event was over.
I was very proud of Aaron and Alex for keeping their cool. It was a very stressful place to be. My biggest concern was that in spite of the ants they would abandon the relative safety of the ledge, unclip from the anchors and try to go over to another ledge without as many ants. They both realized that the ants were annoying but they weren’t deadly. Yet unclipping from the anchors to get away from them could be deadly. It’s in exactly these types of situations that it is even my important to do things correctly. Both the boys realized this and did everything they could to help me set up the anchors as fast a possible yet also as safely as possible.
As their guide for the trip I regret that they had to learn this lesson in such a stressful way but I’m glad that they learned that some things in life just aren’t worth the gamble. Many times in life what may seem like the quick and easy way to solve a problem may in fact be risking a whole lot more than if you patiently solved it the correct way.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

VW engine swap

We put the motor back in in about 30 minutes. We need to practice a little more.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Left at the Red Light

If you’ve ever asked for directions in Georgia it is very likely that you have been told at least once to “turn left at the red light”. I used to respond by saying something to the effect of, “How about I stop and wait until it turns green and then turn left?” This usually is met with a puzzled look on their face, as if they don’t even realize that they had encouraged me to break the law and potentially risk my life. You see in the south when you ask for directions the term “red light” actually means the next intersection with a traffic signal no matter what color it happens to be showing when you get there. I’ve learned to just enjoy this little colloquialism. I don’t bring it up to criticize well-meaning people who are just trying to help out, but I do get a little chuckle when I hear it.
Yesterday a friend showed me this story. This lady took the advice of Google Maps at the expense of her own common sense. She got hurt. And now she thinks it’s Google’s fault? I’d be willing to bet that this same person would “turn left at the red light” and then insist that it was the well-meaning guy at the Citgo’s fault for using a southern colloquialism that got her hurt.
It really amazes me how frequently people completely turn off thier brain and then think it's somebody else's fault.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Martin Gardner

When I was about 10 or 12 I went to my Dad’s office with him at CDC. He had to work on a project and I thought it was cool to hang out at his office in a real laboratory. I have a feeling that I was a lot like Noah an I was probably asking him far too many questions. Rather than just shut me out completely he looked for something that would keep my interest and yet still allow him to have an independent thought. He had a book on his desk that he handed me to read while I waited for him to finish his project.
The book was Aha Gotcha by Martin Gardner. It was a really fun read about several mathematical paradoxes and logical fallacies. Gardner used some very simple stick figures to illustrate each problem. This made it very appealing for a geeky little boy. The science was very deep but the cartoons made it fun to read.
This book was my first introduction to the concept of critical thinking. I frequently fall back on the lessons I learned by reading it. Gardner teaches us to not accept things at face value and look a little deeper into the problem and try to find the real solution and not just the paradox that you first perceive. I get a little chuckle when I see a magic trick and realize that I know the core of trick thanks to Gardner.
I was saddened by the news that Martin Gardner had died this weekend. I need to be sure that I do my part to make sure his legacy lives on. Yesterday I pulled my dad’s copy of Aha Gotcha off the shelf and thumbed through it. I’m gonna make a point to share it with my kids tonight.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Riding in Cars with Boys

This conversation took place while driving three ten year-old boys who are unapologetic geeks to the movies.

Noah: I'm telekinetic
Me: Oh really? Well if you're telekinetic raise my hand.
Me: But I really am telekinetic.
Boy1: Oh Yeah, prove it.
Me: I can make everybody in this car suddenly lurch forward.
At this point I was coming to a stop anyway so I hit the brakes a little harder that I normally would have.
Noah, Boy1 and Boy2: (in unison) That's not telekinetic. That's just kinetic.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

No Apology

I try to make it a habit to read books that are outside of my comfort zone. I just don’t think it’s healthy to walk around and only accept input that just reinforces what you already know or want to believe. So that’s why I decided to read No Apology: The Case for American Greatness by Mitt Romney.

Some have accused me of being an antagonist who just goes against the grain of those around me because I enjoy that. I’ve done a fair amount of introspection on this subject and I can completely accept why they might come to that conclusion. I do have a tendency to play devil’s advocate just for sake of a discussion. It often gets interpreted as having opinions that I don’t necessarily have. I find that I have to careful not to adopt an opinion or belief just because I took that position in a discussion. A few weeks ago I had a discussion about organic gardening with a friend. He took one side and I took another. My real views on the subject are on the same side of the aisle as the position I took with him, but I do not share some of the extreme positions that I used rhetorically in our discussion. Those points were just brought up to get both of us to think about the issue.

Spending so much of my life around other Mormons I get a lot of people who just assume that I’m a fan of Romney. I personally believe that many of these people would vote for him just because he was a Republican and a Mormon without doing any further research on his positions and views. So quite a few times I’ve asked people leading questions worded something like “How do you feel about Romney’s position on X?” They then give me their view on X and assume that since they are Mormon and Republican that the two must jive. All too often they do not and it is apparent that they haven’t really done their research on the positions of the man they trust with their vote.

So with this in mind I read No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. Now that I’m finished I think I’ve probably spent more time vetting this one particular candidate than I have ever spent on any other. I’m sure it’s the frequent subtle and not so subtle encouragements to give him my vote that have caused me to really be sure that I understand him. I just felt like I had to be sure that my opinions on Romney were based solely on the fact that I had gathered the facts on his positions and weighed them on their merits. I felt I had to make a conscious attempt to resist the knee-jerk reaction of going against the grain.

Had this book omitted the introduction I would have been able to accept it easier. Before chapter one even started Romney gives a list of things that the book is and what it is not. One thing he claimed that it was not was an attack on his opponents. Unfortunately, much of the book is exactly that, an attack on the policies of President Obama. As Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I think many of the President's positions deserve criticism. It’s just a little misleading when your introduction says you weren’t going to go down that road. The very title of the book is thinly veiled criticism of what he and other conservative have dubbed President Obama’s apology tour. I think an honest admission of fault is a sign of greatness and not a sign of weakness. I think we all know how hard it is to patch thing up with a friend or a family member when one side refuses to admit any wrong-doing. That being said I too think the President took it a little too far by showing up everywhere with his heart on his sleeve. I would add that all through this section I was very proud of Romney for always referring to the President as “President Obama” and not by a pejorative like so many other conservative writers do. Romney is a class act and his respect for the office even when he disagrees with its policies is something more of us could learn from.

If I were ever to vote for Romney it would be because of his profound understanding of finance and economics. His track record has proven this again and again. He has also showed that he has a clear ability to explain his position. The man is articulate and truly brilliant. I can’t for the life of me figure out how he lost the nomination. Perhaps it was that he was too articulate and didn’t have the folksy charm or the “wanna sit down and have a beer with” image.

I took a little bit of issue with his criticism of the Fair Tax. He has a different strategy for tax reform, actually one that I agree with more than the Fair Tax. But I was disappointed with how he defended his position. A common way to attack the Fair Tax has been, rather than to judge it on what it really is, to quote a few critics’ opinions of what it might look like once implemented and them destroy that straw man. He took the same tired path of ignoring the reduction in cost once the imbedded tax is removed and even increasing the new tax to a percentage that isn’t even proposed. Now, as I said, I actually like Mitt’s plan a little better since it doesn’t create such a huge windfall for the extremely rich. He just could have defended his position without having to take the same, logically flawed position that so many others have taken before him.

While speaking about Islamic fundamentalism Romney praised Jefferson for helping to create a form of government that is separate from religion. I found his praise of Jefferson comforting but also a little hypocritical from someone who so frequently uses his own religious views to attract votes and even thinks he is a better candidate because of his Mormon faith.

The chapters that I really found the most disheartening were the several chapters where he kept repeating the call for the U.S. to go back to its Cold War military strength. Romney’s foreign policy is little more than "peace through superior firepower" and might makes right. If we aren’t the world’s police officers then who would you choose? I found this false question amusing, and a little sad.

With these criticisms you might find it hard to believe that I am actually a little swayed towards voting for Romney based on reading this book. Right now his economic positions might be just what we need. I also was swayed by his immigration position (i.e. doing more to keep the most qualified immigrants in as well as protecting the borders). Despite my serious disagreements with his foreign policy right now his economic policies and tax reform ideas may be just what this country needs. I sure don’t see myself voting for him yet, but thanks to this book I’m more open-minded about him and I feel like I understand his views.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dad, Can we listen to another one of those “I’m Brian Dunning” programs?

I don’t remember what exactly prompted it, but Sunday evening we were on the way home from my mom’s house and the kids got started talking about evolution. At some point one of the younger two said that we evolved from monkeys. Then they got into a debate over whether it was monkeys or apes. I had to interject and tell them both that they were on the right track, but that neither one of them were technically correct. I did my best to explain that monkeys, apes and humans all had a common ancestor, but that it wasn’t a modern ape or monkey.
I got my wife hooked on listening to the Skeptoid podcast a year or so ago. She suggested that we let the kids listen to Brian Dunning’s explanation of this common misconception. So with a little searching on the iPhone I downloaded a few episodes. The kids enjoyed the first so I just let it run through a couple episodes. It made for a very nice and educational ride home.
Well yesterday I had Noah and Eve in the car and I had the radio on. Noah piped up and asked, “Dad, Can we listen to another one of those ‘I’m Brian Dunning’ programs?”. Not to be one to stand in the way of a 9 year-old and a 7 year-old who are curious about science, I handing him the iPhone and let him listen to a few episodes. After we got home he kept my phone and ran upstairs and listened to a few more. He was really excited that Brian actually had a video podcast too. So he probably spent and hour watching and listening to Skeptoid and InFact before he went to bed.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, particularly a lot of podcasts that focus on science and skepticism. I enjoy them all but several of them are not safe for children. It’s a shame because as I’ve demonstrated with this little story there is a market for at least a few kids. I want to thank Brian Dunning for doing such a great podcast and keeping it accessible to all ages. I encourage you all to check it out too, no matter how old you are.

Monday, May 10, 2010

That’s Not Fair

So last week Victoria was reading aloud a news article about some of the budget cut that the state is implementing for Georgia schools. Some of the cuts I agree with and others I think are really cutting to deep in the wrong areas. Anyway, not to get off track on a political discussion, one of the budget cuts called for cancelling a certain test that is currently required in 2nd grade. I think this is a good thing. I just feel that we have too much testing in order to qualify for federal moneys, etc, and not nearly enough teaching. Apparently the state agrees and felt that this test really wasn’t needed.
Well as Victoria was reading this article to me my 6th grader, upon hearing that her sibling will not have to take this 2nd grade test exclaimed, “That is so unfair!”. Hmm. This got me thinking. Why did she feel this way? So I asked her. Did she think the test was meaningful? No. Did she herself benefit from the test? No. Then why did she think it was unfair? After a little discussion I discovered that she thought the change was actually for the better but she was upset that they hadn’t done it while she was in 2nd grade.
I wonder how many times we have continued a tradition, a ritual, or anything that we didn’t like when we went through it just because we think it would be unfair for us to have to do something that those coming behind us didn’t have to do. How often do we put our kids through things just because that’s the way we had to do it? I wonder how deep this mindset penetrates our society. Last year Victoria read a book that had Chinese foot binding as a major theme. I wonder how many of these women did these to their daughters just because they felt it would be unfair for them to not go through it after they had. I wonder if there were any salve owners in the south who felt that slavery was wrong but that it would be unfair for them to try to work without them. I could go on but I think you get the point.
I’ve given my kids the “walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways” argument several times. When I do it I hope they are taking away from it that I think it’s cool that they have access to cell phones, the internet, and other modern conveniences. They should be thankful that they have all of these things. I sure hope they don’t think that I’m crying foul. Yes, I wish that I’d have had some of the benefits as a kid that they have now. But I would hate for them to think that I’m putting them through something that I disagree with just because I had to do it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Argument From Final Consequences

Today's logic fallacy comes to us courtesy of Rush Limbaugh. The Argument From Final Consequences is when someone attempt to prove that whoever benefited from something must have caused it. Not long after the terrorists attacks of 9-11-2001 several conspiracy theorists noticed that many of the civilian contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to Haliburton. Dick Cheney had financial interest in this company. Therefore, without any other evidence the conspiracy theorists concluded that Dick Cheney caused the attacks on the World Trade Center. It's ridiculous.
Now sure it may look suspicious if a man dies a few days after his wife takes out a larger life insurance policy. And that is definitely a red flag that should be investigated. But the timing of the benefit alone is not enough to prove anything.
Well today Rush Limbaugh is claiming that extremist environmentalists blew up the BP drilling rig in order to affect the upcoming vote on energy policy. Sure the timing is suspicious and if there is any evidence supporting it it should be seriously looked into. But the timing alone is not proof.
The logic is fallacious when it's left wing conspiracy theorists attacking Cheney. It's just as fallacious when it's Limbaugh attacking environmentalists.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More Noahisms

Noah: Dad how long have we had Earth Day?
Me: I think I saw somewhere that this was the 40th year.
N: And who invented Earth Day anyway?
M: I don't know, Noah. Why don't you look it up when we get home and then let us know what you found out.
N: Naaa. It was probably just some hippy.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Line Drawing Fallacy

Take a second and look at these four pictures:
image1 image2 image3 image4
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the cars here, there is a Volkswagen Thing and a Jeep. The question now is “Which is which?” The one that looks like a jacked up thing actually is 4-wheel drive and has the motor in the front and the one that looks like the Jeep has the motor in the rear.
These pictures reminded me of a logical fallacy called the Line Drawing Fallacy. I’m going to modify it from the way I first heard it in order to fit these pictures. Let’s suppose that I have two cars in the garage. A Volkswagen on the right and a Jeep on the left. One day I decide it would be fun to start swapping parts form one car and sticking them on the other. I start with a bumper. Then I move to fenders. Then on to the to more serious stuff, the suspension, the wheels, drive train, frame and on and on. When I’m finished I will have a complete Jeep on the right and a complete Volkswagen on the left. Now for the big question. At what point in the process did the Jeep become the VW and the VW become the Jeep? Was it when they swapped the frame? The motor? The hood emblem? So far there isn’t a logical fallacy, just a philosophical conundrum. But what if I challenged the identity of the cars like this? Since you can’t exactly answer when the VW became the Jeep then the car on the right must still be the VW even though it now has every single part of the original Jeep.
It kind of sounds absurd when you are talking about cars. Nevertheless, people make this fallacy of reason frequently. I hear it frequently in the debate about the definition of life. Some argue that since you can’t really define when a person became alive then we must have always been alive. The most egregious abuse of this concept came years ago during the trial of the officers who assaulted Rodney King. An attorney asked the question, “At what point did the officers use excessive force? Was it after the first hit, the second, the third?” He then went on to tell the jury that if they couldn’t define exactly when it became excessive then they couldn’t accurately define what excessive force meant and the officer was not guilty. The other attorney, recognizing the fallacy, approached the jury and took a book and slammed it against the table the exact number of times that King was hit. I think it was 23 times. He then said, “I don’t care exactly when their actions became excessive. It was somewhere between the first hit and the 23rd.” And that’s the correct answer here too. There are multiple shades of gray in our world. But that doesn’t mean that black is the same as white or that Jeeps are the same as VWs.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Your Inner Fish

At the recommendation of Teacherninja I recently read Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Thanks for the recommendation. I really enjoyed it.
Shubin is a paleontologist and it was his research that discovered Tiktalik, a fossil animal that was almost exactly what was predicted to have existed halfway between fish and land animals. Much of the book describes that expedition and the others that lead up to it.
The book does not stop at just Tiktalik. He builds on the similarities and spends a great deal of time showing how so much of biology is based on remarkably similar structures. He show how early in the development of nearly every embryo, chicken, fish, squirrel or human the same organs form from the same rows of cells in each species even though they may have drastically different uses in the final creature. I found these chapters very fascinating.
Shubin avoids pretty much entirely that political debate that is currently going on about teaching evolution in schools. I guess from his perspective evolution via natural selection is such an established fact he felt no need to defend it. I agree with this position. It was a science book and I don’t fault him for setting all politics aside and just speaking to the science. I would like to point out that Shubin’s discovery of Tiktalik was predicted by evolution and that Tiktalik made his appearance during the middle of the Dover school board’s attack on teaching evolution in school. I’m sure Shubin didn’t plan it this way, but at the same time the Dover school board had “experts” testifying that no transitional fossils had ever been found, Shubin was uncovering yet another transitional fossil.
I listened to this book on CD while working. I plan on going back and reading it for real when I get a chance. Some of the details in the middle of the book deserve more attention than I could give them just listening while working.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Our '76 VolksWagen Westfalia

I had a couple people ask why I hadn’t posted anything for a while. So I figured a little bit of an explanation was in order.
I have a confession to make. I've been having an affair with a high maintenance 34 year-old. She's really cute but she need a lot of attention. I've had to run errands for her on my lunch hours and she's made me spend most of my evenings with her lately. So she's been getting in hte way of some of typical blogging time.
Here are a few pictures.

Here she is. She's a 1976 Volkswagen Campmobile.

Eve loves to help me work on her. She's helping me change the fuel lines in this picutre.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sibling Solidarity

(This is another personal post that will likely upset some readers.)

I love my kids. Sure they can frustrate the hell out of me sometimes but I still love them. I didn’t enjoy being a teenager and I can tell that my two teenagers aren’t exactly digging it either. It seems that most of their troubles come from peer pressure; so-called friends attacking them, frequently physically, for their opinions and beliefs and trying to get them to just go along with the crowd. What’s really upsetting to them is that most of this criticism comes from people whom they think should know better, members of our church. As a parent few thing make me more proud than when one kid stands up for the other, especially in a situation where they really don’t have anything to gain my doing it. We had just such a situation last night. And although it was very traumatic for her, I couldn’t have been more proud of my oldest daughter.
A little back history: Aaron hasn’t been attending church at our ward for the better part of a year now. He has been arranging, on his own, to get rides back and forth from the Brocket Ward. He gets along with the kids in that ward better, they accept him and genuinely love him. In stark contrast, the kids in our ward tease him, call him a Satanist and frequently physically assault him. In his own words it is rather ironic that the least spiritual hours of his week are spent at church. He doesn’t participate in the Varsity scout program on Wednesday night. We’ve moved him to another troop that is a real community troop where sharing the same religious upbringing is not a requirement to hold positions. He gets along much better with these guys. On Wednesday he even arranges for rides over to Brockett to hang out with the kids from that ward that he gets along with so well. In the entire time that he has been attending that Ward only one person from our ward has asked about Aaron. He was genuinely concerned and I thanked him for caring and not forgetting about him. Not a single other person has given us the slightest clue that they’ve even noticed his absence. In stark contrast, the leaders from Brockett comment to us about how they enjoy having him there and miss him when he’s gone.
Well last night I dropped Rachel off at the church for her Young Women’s activity. She typically doesn’t have the same issues as Aaron so I was a little surprised when Victoria brought her home and she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong. Rachel then proceeded to ask if she too could attend Brockett Ward rather than our ward. Apparently even in his absence Aaron is still a topic of conversation. A few of the kids were making fun of him and it really upset Rachel. I found a bit odd that their primary criticism of Aaron is that he “believes in evolution”. Rachel has never been one to gossip and hence she refused to tell me which kids were involved. But she did say that it really surprised her because she had though that these kids were above that. Apparently she had spent half of the meeting outside crying and just waiting for us to come pick her up.
Rachel didn’t openly defy these kids, that’s just not her style, but she did refuse to be a part of what they were doing. They still fight like, well brothers and sisters, but when the chips are down it’s really nice to see them standing up for what they know is right. Rachel didn’t want to tell anybody, especially Aaron, about what happened. I thought that he needed to hear it. After he was dropped off from his activity at Brockett we talked about it and he gave his little sister a nice big hug.

I chose to post this in order to add my name to Rachel’s. I stand behind my family. You criticize one of us you criticize us all. And we won’t tolerate it.

As far as the chief complaint lobbied again Aaron goes, Evolution is a fact. Get used to it. It used to be a theory but it has long ago graduated to a fact as far as I am concerned. I would even go so far as to say that evolution is more of a fact than gravity. Gravity is still lacking a clear definition of how it works. Like evolution gravity has been tested and tested and tested thousands of times but gravity is still lacking a carrier. We don’t quite know how it works. We have hypothesized the existence of the graviton, but haven’t actually seen one. In contrast we have found DNA and natural selection, the elements that make evolution work. So in a very real sense there is more evidence supporting evolution than gravity. In the past when people have asked me if I “believe” evolution I’ve had to rephrase their question in my answer. Because belief requires faith I don’t think it applies to evolution. Faith is a belief without evidence or even in spite of the evidence. You just aren’t looking if you don’t see evidence of evolution. So I respond something like this, “I accept the overwhelming evidence that life evolved via natural selection.”

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality." The Dalai Lama
Wise words. It's a shame more people don't apply this same idea to thier own beliefs. I'm glad my kids are.

Monday, March 22, 2010

How Stuff Doesn't Necessarily Work

Years ago I had a friend try to explain to me how a clutch-less manual transmission works. I wasn’t quite getting the picture so I googled it. The first website that was suggested was The explanations were sufficiently “dumbed down” that you didn’t need to be a mechanical engineer to understand them, but technical enough that they satisfied my curiosity. The pictures and even the animations worked very well to give supporting explanations and imagery. So I bookmarked the site on my browser and began using it for just about any topic when I needed to break things down to more easy to understand terms. I was even pleasantly surprised that their section on telecommunications has come in handy in explaining to other engineers certain aspects of our job. So I signed up for their email newsletter. A couple times a week I would get updates to the site. It was a neat way to keep up on the latest technology and other topics.
Well I recently sent an email requesting that they unsubscribe me from that newsletter. I don’t know if they hare under new management or what but the focus of the site seems to have drastically changed. I’m kind of a stickler for certain things. Staying on topic is one of them. I don’t like it when politics strays into religion. Nor do I like it when religion strays into politics. I got annoyed when a channel called the History channel started airing programs about UFOs and ghosts. How in it world does either qualify as history? I now have a very similar criticism with
In my mind, before you give any pixel space at all to a topic on a site called How Stuff Works you have the burden of proving that it works. So I really got annoyed when last week they did a feature on the most compelling ghost photos. Huh? Why in the world would this qualify as how stuff works? So I got poking around and also found that they had a whole sections on complimentary and alternative medicine, the paranormal, and even reincarnation and other religious and mythological topics. I decided to read a few to see if they gave more than just the token sceptical treatment on the last few paragraphs. In a few instances they did give some skeptical treatments. One even gave a link to a lecture by Michael Shermer. But I still felt they gave these topics too credulous coverage.
In today’s page they had a cover story about acupuncture and hypnosis treatments for infertility. The benefits to infertility are only based on the fact that hypnosis and acupuncture reduce stress levels. Perhaps I missed it but nowhere in the article did they point out that just about anything else that lowers your stress levels would have that same effect, yoga, meditation, or just playing with a puppy.
I’m not gonna be one of those who disingenuously claims that I’m “never gonna go to this site again.” But now that they have tipped their hand and shown a desire to post anything that’ll get them web hits, regardless of weither it "works" or not, I can’t say I’d endorse it with the same enthusiasm as I used to. And they definitely will not be the final authority on any of my research from now on.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Manly Sweaty Doll Blogger Award.

I typically don't pass along these silly memes on my blog but what the heck.

I have been challenged to answer at least four of the following questions: Tell a couple of things about yourself, the name of your favorite guy book, your favorite sports moment, favorite MANLY MAN movie, favorite manly music, and your Favorite Food with No Nutritional Value.

1. I once swapped drivers in a moving car by going across the windshield Dukes Hazard style. Of course it was in a VW Rabbit and we weren't going all that fast.
2. I had a the coolest job a High School kid could have in 1983. I built and tested arcade games.
3. Favorite Guy Book: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, the most griping armchair mountaineering book every written. This book will either inspire you to climb big mountains or scare you to a life of sitting behind a remote control with little grey in between.
4. Favorite Sports Moment: Sid Bream outrunning Barry Bond's throw and just sliding in under the catch of Mike LaValliere to win the 1992 NLCS for the Braves.
5. Favorite Manly Movie: The Hunt For Red October, no explanation needed.
6. Favorite Manly Music: Lately I've been really digging Apocolyptica
7. Favorite Food with No Nutritional Value: That chocolate raspberry stuff at Brusters.

I'm not gonna tag anybody specifically but If you feel like participating knock yourself out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More on Logical Fallacies: Begging the Question

A few weeks ago I witnessed a wonderful demonstration of this logical fallacy at our weekly Boy Scout troop meeting. Our Senior Patrol Leader wanted to remind the older scouts about the importance of wearing our uniforms. It was also a good opportunity to inform the newer scouts how we do things. So at the end of the meeting he asked the entire group of boys and the adults as well, “When do we wear our class-A scout uniform?” I was very proud of him for taking the time to do a little educating and reinforming. But I share his frustration over what came next.
One after the other the boys and even a few adults started giving the vaguest answers possible.
“We are to wear our class-A uniform whenever you tell it is appropriate.”
“Wear it unless our leadership tells us it is inappropriate.”
“ The uniform is to be worn according to local troop policy.”
All of these answers are technically correct but can you see the frustration our Senior Patrol Leader must have faced? It’s as if each person was so worried about getting the answer wrong that they didn’t provide any information at all. They just restated the question in fancier language. None of the responses actually provided an answer. The question started with the word “when” and none of the responses gave a specific time or event. This is the logical fallacy know as begging the question. If the question itself is the only source you have for your response you are likely just begging the question.
Another quick example:
“How do we know if psychics can talk to dead people?”
“Because they are psychic.”

Finally the patrol leader restated the question in such a way that didn’t allow for any non-answer responses, “Give several specific examples of times when, according to troop policy and what our leaders have told us, we should be wearing our full class-A uniform”. At last he got some responses that actually educated the newer boys and reminded the older boys. “At all Troop meetings and Courts of Honor.” “While travelling to and from any campout.” “At evening assemblies during summer camp.” etc.

On a side note: Most people misuse the phrase begging the question. Rather than use it in the context I’ve just described they use it as if it is synonymous with “brings up the question” . If my daughter says “Noah won’t let me play with the snake.” That brings up a bunch of questions but it doesn’t beg any.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Where Men Win Glory

My Review of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

(Warning: There are a few spoilers)

First of all, I must confess that the only reason I chose to read this book was because I love Jon Krakauer’s work. As I pointed out last week I think he is an excellent investigative reporter. Even when the events he’s reporting on are partially concealed by the Alaskan back-country, the deadly slopes of the highest mountain in the world, secretive polygamist societies or in this case by the chaos and fog of war. I had made up my mind about Pat Tillman and was not really interested in devoting my reading time to this poster-boy of the war effort in Iraq. It was only my history with Krakauer’s work that made me reconsider my prejudices. And my preconceptions about Tillman couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since I don’t understand football I didn’t have any clue who Pat Tillman was before the Bush administration chose to make him the poster boy for the war effort when he turned his back on a $3,000,000 contract to join the Rangers and do his part to help out in the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think that football players are a special class of people so I saw his sacrifice as just the same as any other person who chose to put their life in danger to protect my rights. And I got a particular bee in my bonnet after his death when the right wing media tried to spin his death as meaning more than any other soldier’s death. Tillman put himself in harm’s way to protect my liberties. He literally gave his all. Yet so did thousands of other soldiers. Their future earning potential is irrelevant. They gave their lives for this country.
So I had pigeon-holed Pat Tillman, without any research on my part, as a mindless jock who just jumped behind the war effort because he’d heard Toby Keith’s song and wanted to go act it out. Indeed that is the way much of the talk show noise spun his enlistment. If you still believe this distortion of who Pat really was you will be very disappointed when you read the book.
Pat was probably one of the more literate people to ever wear an NFL jersey. When the other players on his team were buying the fanciest cars they could and just partying, Pat was being teased about driving his used Volvo to practice and spending most of his spare time completing his Master’s degree. Pat was a voracious reader. Among his favorite authors was Emerson, Thoreau, Homer and Noam Chomsky. The title of the book is a quote from the Odyssey, which Tillman particularly like and had a copy of it with him in Afghanistan.
Pat kept meticulous journals. Much of the book is quotes taken straight from these journals. At a couple points Krakauer used phrases that I thought were unnecessarily partisan. I thought that he was just putting his own opinions into the book which wouldn’t have been appropriate for an investigative report like this. Then I stepped back and realized that these weren’t Krakauer’s opinions, they were Tillman’s taken straight from his journals. With my preconception of Pat I just hadn’t expected him to make statements like, “the neo-conservative brain-trust in The White House” and “that cowboy at the helm”. Those were some of the nicer things that Pat said about his Commander-in-Chief. You see Pat really didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t think we had any business in Iraq at all. He and his brother, Kevin, had enlisted to assist in the war in Afghanistan. They were both very vocal and upset and felt tricked into fighting in a war they didn’t agree with.
Krakauer departed strictly from Tillman’s story for a little bit to give a history of U. S. friendly fire accidents. Although the press didn’t dwell on it too much the first confirmed deaths of the Iraq war were friendly-fire accidents. This short history of accidental fratricide in the military was necessary to show the predisposition of the military to covering up the facts. In a friendly fire death the investigative agency is the military itself. There is no other agency involved like there is with other accidents. In a plane crash the airline doesn’t investigate themselves. That task falls to the NTSB in order to avoid a conflict of interest. So with the military there is a serious conflict of interest and tendency to push the blame as far down the chain of command as possible. This section seemed hauntingly familiar and I kept thinking about Zimbardo’s work on situational evil.
The descriptions of war in this book are quite graphic and not for the squeamish. The day I finished the book I was so emotionally jarred by it that when I came home and saw my son taking joy in a war video game I just couldn’t stay quiet. He deserved to be criticized for his behavior, but I was definitely responding more to my feeling about this book than I was to his behavior.
“When the military is confronted with the fratricidal carnage that predictably results, denial and dissembling are its time honored responses of first resort.”
After Tillman’s death the extent to which the military and the government took to spin and cover up the specifics was particularly unnerving. The members of Pat’s unit were sworn to secrecy about the incident even from Pat’s brother, Kevin who was in the same unit. The doctor who performed Pat’s autopsy was denied the details of his death and ultimately refused to sign the official report because his investigation had been so hindered that he knew his autopsy was incomplete. Pat’s brain was never actually recovered. Pat’s uniform, body armor and personal effects were removed and burned in open defiance of military protocol. Along with the uniform was a notebook that Pat had been keeping his journal on while they were deployed. Of the two letters written for Pat’s posthumous Silver Star one was edited so much in the final edition that the author didn’t even recognize it and the other was unsigned and the alleged author did not remember even writing it.
I’m glad I read this book. It put a face on the men and women who are dying in our country's wars. I’m glad I got to know Tillman better. I still think it’s a shame that there isn’t a similar book written about every single soldier killed in action. The Bush administration unashamedly tried to spin Tillman’s story into a ideal of post 9-11 patriotism. Instead Tillman’s story became a story of unnecessary sacrifice, inept leadership and cover-up. But Pat’s legacy is stronger than that. Thanks his mother, brother, wife and this book Pat still refuses to be reduced to a stereotype and lives on in the lives of those he inspired.