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.