Stupid Security Tricks

As another example of the idiocy of which our side in the 'war on terror' seems to have an inexhaustible supply I submit the following: In response to the Nigerian bomber fliers are no longer allowed to get out of their seat, use any of their personal items, must give up pillows and blankets and sit with hands visible for the last hour of their flight. That should be of enormous help.

Hmm. How might one thwart this clever roadblock to terrorists? One hopes that Al Qaeda is no more clever than our side and doesn't decide that there are other windows of opportunity during an 8 hour flight. I suppose next we'll all have to sit in our seats in a diaper with our hands over our heads.

Rather than asking us to give up our tiny pillows perhaps you can explain how a guy whose own father turned him in, payed for his ticket with cash, and had no luggage for an international flight didn't raise any flags. Guess the security guards were too busy rousting some old woman with a walker or checking out somebodies belt...


This is no fun at all!

Sorry for the whine. I am eyebrow deep in writing a grant proposal that is due next week.


Slack-jawed Disbelief

Slack-jawed disbelief. That's the only way I can describe the looks I got the other night when I dared to say something that I admired in the character of George W Bush. The proverbial pin drop could have been heard, but for the red roaring in the ears of some from the sudden spike in their blood pressure. What was this trait?

While I think he often took it to extremes, I do admire the fact that George W Bush did not always bow to the fickle will of the people while President. This despite the fact that his refusals usually coincided with him doing something with which I violently disagreed. But that is in fact the job of a President in a Republic. We vote for a block of someone's time and efforts. If we don't like what they do with that block, we are free to vote against them next time. We don't get to vote on every issue that arises during that time. If we did, there'd be no need for representatives. That is what Congress is for. Yes, one can attempt to govern using polling numbers and an obsession with consensus building that would warm the cockles of any corporate middle manager. But leadership is often about making a clear decision regardless of the din of voices surrounding you. It's realizing that every voice in the argument does not hold equal value - realizing that a big tent usually holds a lot of narrow self-interests, a generous filling of ignorance and a not a few stupid ones. Go to any local school board hearing and you'll see what I mean. Now multiply that a hundred million times and that's the world of the American President. Sometimes, for better or worse, the business of the nation requires that someone cuts through the morass to be the decider.


Parsimonious Vastness

Micheal referred to me as an logical positivist which got me thinking. I don't think that really describes how I think. For one, I am a huge believer in falsification, one of the pillars of modern science. But more, I'm just not a philosopher. For me, philosophy is where many scientific ideas germinate. It's a good place for that because it is less constrained by the confines of defined reality. That's not a slam. In the formative stages of ideas fewer limits can be great. But I have to admit that I don't find it a particularly useful place to hang about for extended periods of time. Too easy to loose one's way. Plus, I'm mostly interested in problem solving (a character trait that no doubt influenced my career choices) than philosophizing about it. More the engineer I suppose.

My own research began as a series of thought experiments imagining solutions to machine cognition. Almost all the imaginings were worthless. One survived these early trials well enough to be elevated to the status of research. From there it arguably became science. Definable testable, falsifiable and repeatable. All things that I adore when it comes to dealing with concrete problems.

So if I had a philosophy, what would it be? It's not skepticism since that's more of a methodology. Perhaps I should define my childlike definition of philosophy: Imagining reality. No not like a novelist but in a manner intended to make sense of the universe and find workable approaches to problems that are difficult to approach through my mastery of science. Notice I didn't say difficult for science. Just difficult for me. I'll get back to that. In other words, to me philosophy is an internally consistent world view that I haven't the tools to really test. It's stuff that makes logical sense and seems to work without meticulous proof. Few philosophy professors would probably like that definition but they are free to use their own and leave mine be.

My philosophy is equally simple: Parsimonious vastness. I have art to explain it.

In the Beginning there was ignorance... It was and is not good...

Imagine for a moment that this big blue oval represents human knowledge at some point in the past. Now add a new experience. The smaller bluish ovoids represent data which fits into the existing knowledge of the world. But what to do with that pesky green datum that lies outside of the known? The approach one takes is critical and says a lot about how you think.

If you're more of a materialist you approach the problem in this manner; you start from the assumption that the explanation for this inconvenient datum is that within our physical plain of existence (that which is testable, falsifiable, repeatable and logically consistent) there is a lot we don't yet know. This type of individual (call him Pliny for simplicity...) considers the errant datum an opportunity to expand the boundaries of physical knowledge. This isn't without logic since human history overflows with instances where this was exactly the case. The Plinyist is content to look for answers within this physical plain of reality until such time as there is data for which there can be no rational accounting.

Others see it far differently.

Their perception is that errant data is evidence of another plain of existence rather than just data beyond the current knowledge boundaries on the physical plain. This doesn't mean religion or religious plains of existence. There are many kinds of metaphysical universes. We see evidence of others in the writings of some of our associates. Metaphysical plains have some advantages over physical plains: metaphysical plains can have all sorts of special features and characteristics that allow one to fit pretty much whatever you want onto the framework. They create the special pattern recognition categories that reinforce belief in the plain over time. In time the metaphysical plain can look quite convincing except for the inability to either verify (beyond the anecdotal) or falsify its existence. Useful in philosophy - not so much in science. Physical plains cannot resort to magic so tend to be considered more boring and far less accommodating to our existential needs. Which is why we often prefer the metaphysical ones. In truth the physical one is far from boring - unaccommodating yes, but not boring.

In minds more inclined toward the metaphysical, the above event represents an intersection between the physical and the metaphysical like the diagram above. To me this is a very premature assumption.
Is it more likely that another undefinable plain of existence is at work or is it more likely that given the enormity of this universe and our relatively recent and puny efforts to better define the knowable, that we are just scratching the surface of what is possible on this plain of existence - the one we can actually define and test?
I'm forced to resort to another metaphor. Imagine that you are looking at the far horizon. You can't see beyond it of course. Is your first inclination that reality beyond your field of view is completely different from what you can see? Or is it likely that even though you can't see it, things over the horizon pretty much conform to the rules governing that which is under your nose? My first (pragmatist that I am) inclination is to figure they are until such time as it can be proven not to be the case by something more substantial than someone's word. I admit that this notion is a philosophy albeit a pretty simple one. Like the diagram below, the limits of our knowledge in no way encompass but a fraction of the information contained within this one universe like those little undiscovered pink bits. Maybe someday we'll encounter them and expand our naturalistic understanding; perhaps not. But our limitations do not warrant seeking alternate realities as a crutch. I suspect those undiscovered bits will still lie on the plain of this universe - and make it less likely that alternates will be required to explain anything. If there is anything that is unknowable I suspect it's more a volume, access and bandwidth problem rather than stuff off hiding on some other plain.

The universe is vast, our knowledge of it is small, so before we go off chasing other plains let's exhaust the one we can examine. We have a lot of exploring to do in this reality before we need consider others.

So what becomes of metaphysical plains in Plinydom? Some would fall back to the old God of the Gaps defense which allows metaphysical abstractions to live in smaller and smaller cubbyholes scattered between aspects of definable reality. That's where the parsimony kicks in. Simple solutions are not always the right ones, but in my opinion, (philosophy) mathematics provides some useful insights into these problems. If you solve complex problems you often end up with large sections of the equation which can be reduced. At some point the equation can't be reduced any further. When that happens, well you shouldn't go looking for any missing bits unless the equations don't provide relevant solutions. Math tends to be parsimonious - you end up with the minimum equation that solves the problem. Math also tends to do a great job of explaining the reality of this physical plain of existence we call the universe. One could be forgiven for thinking of this universe as a mathematical one since much of what we end up knowing is from that which can be reduced to mathematics. Sometimes you end up with constants or fudge factors to get the right answer. But that is usually just an indication that something is missing. And you should go look. Take Einsteins famous cosmological constant. He introduced it so that his equations would end up with solutions that were in keeping with his vision of a static universe when using the observed data which looked like a less content universe. Decades later this constant is seen less as a fudge factor and more as an indicator of the nature of a the particular expansion taking place in a universe that allows people like us to exist and debate our cosmic origins. At some point other fudge factors become so small that their influence can be safely ignored. Evoking the philosophy of cosmic parsimony it seems likely to moi that anything that can be ignored is probably an error of some kind in the first place. Ergo, at some point the gaps are too small to house anything of importance to this plain of existence. And if only negligible items remain then it doesn't bode well for the existence, or at least the intersection of alternate plains of existence to ours. Said another way, don't sweat the small stuff...

Others push back and have claimed that Satan is responsible for all this logically consistent data that skeptics such as I take as evidence of naturalism. As I discussed in my rebuke to Pascal's wager many moons ago, if Satan really is that powerful and clever then we are screwed in any case.

There may be another possibility that I've never seen described elsewhere: an alternate metaphysical explanation as to why so much seemingly can be explained through examinations of our physical reality that doesn't require Satan:

Talk about the weak force ;).

It's a simple philosophy but I'm basically a simple guy.


Based upon the comments made to this post thus far I thought the best way to respond would be more art. I want to address two related questions from my own perspective: 1) Is there a mechanistic explanation for every event, and 2) how do we account for disciplines that would seem to not be mechanistic such as anthropology, sociology, etc.? The diagram below will hopefully illustrate my answer.

Imagine that the green shapes represent disciplines such as the ones mentioned. In my opinion all these disciplines must intersect the physical plain of the universe which is largely defined by mathematical or physical laws limiting the range of experiences possible within the universe. In other words, at their core they must be governed by these laws. If ESP is not permitted by the structure and energy restrictions of this universe, it cannot, by definition affect psychology or any other behavioral science, for example. The limits of what is possible via anthropology are set by the physical plain. The exact events and occurrences within the discipline are not. Nor can they necessarily be predicted with certainty even knowing the physical limits. This is similar to weather forecasting. The range of possible weather conditions is limited by atmospheric physics, but chaotic responses within those limits make it hard to predict exactly what will occur. Much like the alphabet which limits written expression to a few characters, the range of meaningful combinations of those letters used to express ideas is huge. We can know what a writer will use to create his or her words but cannot predict the prose that will result. All we can say is that even if the words seem transcendent they probably aren't literally. All events within the set of possibilities contained within the set of these disciplines (green shapes) may not conform to a definable and repeatable mechanistic explanation - but none will violate the laws of nature and all must be able to be inferred from those laws. All sets of events are anchored to the limits of physical reality. Will this always be the case? Who knows. But it does show that the study of non-mechanistic disciplines is still very important even in a mechanistic universe. It also illustrates that chaotic disciplines in no way require alternate plains of existence to make sense in this one.



I say, therefore I am right. That is the central tenet of the fastest growing belief system in America - Webextentialism. We can see how disruptive a mere handful of protesters can be anywhere important ideas are being discussed. Multiply that a million times with all those fingers on the keyboard sharing all those insightful emails and postings and the signal to noise problem becomes almost impossible. There is no law that prevents those whose cognition is compromised by an unfortunate posture requiring that they breathe their own methane, from sharing their rather mucosally limited view of the world. A lot of it has to do with finger pointing. Uncomfortable with the notion that a great deal of our existence basically boils down to 'stuff happens' we are always looking for someone or something to blame. I suppose some of our believer friends could point out that 'God's mysterious will' was an extremely useful panacea against much of this unproductive hand wringing, and I don't necessarily disagree. But one would hope that we could get to a point where we'd approach these questions with a more scientific approach. It isn't hard to find examples of this sort of thing. But the particular example I will cite is regarding vaccinations.

In my not completely ill informed opinion, germ theory and vaccinations are highest in the Pantheon of medical science in numbers of lives saved. That vaccinations have saved millions of lives is without question. So successful have they been that thousands of people whose lives might well have been saved by them have no memory of the devastation wrought by epidemics of what we now think of as minor conditions. Take a look at the impact of these minor conditions on indigenous peoples across the globe and you might change your opinion. Vaccinations, like all effective prevention efforts, have a harder and harder time penetrating our thick skulls the further removed one is from the trigger events.

Of course there is much more to it but vaccines confer immunity to the individual to a particular agent by stimulating the reactive immune system that Jared nicely outlined over at Mors Dei. But that's only part of the effect. 'Herd Immunity' is just as important. Herd immunity is pretty much what it sounds like. If enough individuals within the population are immune, then the nasty agent has a much harder time finding suitable hosts and reproducing within the population. Your chances of encountering someone infected is reduced. Fewer hosts means fewer infections. Fewer hosts may also affect the mutation rate within the population of nasties. Vaccines are very much an example of being your brother's keeper.

Do vaccines occasionally cause problems? Duh! They are medical treatments. And like all medical treatments they are a double edged sword. That is true of any treatment. A fact that many woomeisters fail to come clean about. Anything used to treat a condition (including doing nothing) can have undesired consequences. Risk / benefit is an important consideration. The established complications of vaccines are well known and pretty rare. Most of the Webextentialist ranting about vaccines has nothing to do with any of the science.

I recommend that you visit the Respectful Insolence site (link is to the right) and read about the case of Desiree Jennings. I think it's a pretty good example of the phenomenon.


The Magical Mystery Tour

Heuristic today but gone tomorrow. Pattern recognition, or more correctly both true and false pattern recognition is a huge part of what makes us human. Literally immersed in input data from our universe we have evolved methods to segment, synthesize and analyze data sets which allows us to create heuristic patterns (short cuts and approximations) in our brains that we can use to deal with future scenarios more effectively and efficiently. This is an important trait considering the enormous amount of data that streams past us each day. if we can't filter and compact it into some kind of useful patterns, we would be in trouble. The shear size of the data set that just one of us is exposed to each day is amazing. And it is a drop in the cosmic ocean to what constitutes the data within the known universe. I'll circle back to that fact at the end.

A simple example of synthesizing data into useful patterns from many a childhood is the data combination of glowing red round objects, stove, heat, equals burned fingers and pain. Therefore we create a heuristic that prevents us from repeating that same mistake twice in most cases. These patterns are also flexible which allows us to get more mileage out of them. We don't necessarily need a separate blue flame heuristic to avoid getting our fingers singed. This is both good and bad depending on the quality or truth of the pattern. Some heuristics can best be labeled as instinctive behaviors no doubt refined over eons of natural selection. If you don't believe that humans exhibit instinctive behavior you've obviously never been to a singles bar, college commons, high school dance, etc.

Humans have been engaged in both practical and fanciful pattern recognition since before recorded history. We see patterns everywhere. Where they don't exist we make them up. Look at the night sky and you might see a hunter. Or you might just see a set of stars that are separated by hundreds of light years from any plane that our ancestors imagined containing poor Orion. If any messages from the aggregate that is Orion are being sent to any of our Houses even at the speed of light it's going to take a lot longer than the writers of horoscopes are likely to be willing to wait. Every rock, hill, mountain or valley has been assigned some extra-geologic significance at one time or another. Other than a few places like Easter Island or Mount Rushmore there's not much moi to it...

Heuristics and pattern recognition are good things and allow for all sorts of learning and problem solving based on prior experience. They are also potentially dangerous for one simple reason - the method by which we create and retain learned patterns is not required to be based in reality. It's based in feedback experience and repetition. Now in some cases that's fine and dandy such as our hot stove example. The burned finger heuristic reflects the basic physics of heat conduction and rapid oxidation to a high order. But a heuristic need not be grounded in objective reality for it to be adopted and reinforced over time. It just depends upon the criteria we establish to satisfy the conditions for the pattern. The more nebulous or coincidental the easier it is to satisfy the pattern and yell "see, I told you!". In fact as time and positive feedback continue, patterns and associations can actually become more and more resistant to change even in light of strong objective evidence. Not only that, but there is evidence that the more abstract the pattern, the more resistant it is to correction if false. It shouldn't take most of us long to reject a belief in a cold flame heuristic around the stove. But convincing people that fortune cookies really can't predict the future is tougher.

In other words we pattern recognizers often recognize patterns that we create in our minds but which may or may not be true objective patterns within the universe. And once we grab onto one we are loath to discard it. One of the best studied is the fascination with numerology. Large strings of numbers can be 'found' to contain all sorts of interesting patterns that say pretty much whatever the seeker is looking for. If not the Da Vinci Code would be less popular. This rose colored glass aspect of finding corroborating information in large sets of data is called confirmation bias. We establish a pattern of interest and then seek it out in new data sets. We may find the pattern but this has absolutely no bearing on whether the pattern represents anything more than coincident data in large data sets. It is a huge problem in human cognition and one of the aspects that the scientific method specifically combats. Our tendency is to accept patterns and their labels without performing the sort of constant process improvement that might result in our rejection of the pattern. Finding a coincident pattern of data is not the same thing as finding a true association and light years from proving true causation.

Addition: I'm adding this section in light of some comments to the original post for clarification.

Does this mean that only true cause and effect patterns have any validity outside of the arts? Not at all. There are many many instances where useful patterns can be inferred, but I believe this is key - they are logically inferred from other true cause and effect patterns. Epidemiology provides a great example (and one often butchered by lawyers). Take the example of a smokers and exposure to asbestos. We know from true cause and effect studies that smoking and asbestos individually can cause lung cancer. The mechanisms are well established and beyond reproach to anyone but a payed corporate apologist. We also know from studies that the combined risk is about 80x the baseline risk when the two are combined. From these known patterns we can infer that a new individual with mesothelioma who was exposed to asbestos probably got it from the asbestos even though we can't prove it 100%. This is a logical inference that makes perfect sense to anyone but a corporate liability attorney.

How is it possible for people to find these patterns unless they really exist? That is a common retort to any question about debatable patterns. A twisted metaphor may help. Remember the old saw about a huge number of monkeys banging away on typewriters? The story goes that given enough time one of the monkeys will randomly type out the works of Shakespeare. Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for sure - a human could look at all that typing and would for sure be able to find the works of Shakespeare on those pages and believe that there was some hidden meaning in it... This in large part is how psychics and other con artists make money. Supply a vague enough data set to a hungry mind and the mark will fill in the missing pieces and swear that you are a genius.

False heuristics are aided by a couple of other things as well. The universe supplies us with an almost infinite signal to noise problem similar to the task of finding an FM signal is a sea of noise. Pattern recognition, be it radio or human decision-making is challenged by the pattern recognition system's ability to pick the pattern out of the ocean of other data signals that are present as well. All that data has some meaning yes, but it rarely means what you think it means. For example, part of that static on your TV when tuned to an off air station is actually an echo of the Big Bang, but that doesn't mean that ET is calling you. While we're on that example we have confidence in that statement because this static is a unidirectional signal of precisely the right frequency and power that would be expected if it was steadily losing energy over the last 13 plus billion years.

Radio and TV signals have an easier time plucking useful data out of the ether because we have well defined parameters for the source pattern that aids us in finding the useful bits amongst the static and we know where to look for them. We are certain of what we are looking for. Much of human life lacks such well defined source patterns and we are free to make them up as we go along. As long as the pattern doesn't run headlong into the laws of physics we generally get a buy so false heuristics can flourish. The optimist's assertion that he can fly may be encouraged by the projectile motion he experiences while leaping form the roof of the skyscraper but eventually that 9.8 meter per second per second acceleration of Earth's gravity will close the loop on that particular false belief. Though others might watch the spectacle and be certain that he did not believe enough in his ability to fly and therefore failed (otherwise known as the Christian Scientist model of reality). Such is the power of abstract belief.

There are patterns in the din that are truths - gravity, thermodynamics, kinetic energy transfer, etc. Truths must by definition involve some universal data sets with demonstrable and repeatable cause and effect. But for every truth there are huge numbers of coincident data points that only gain significance when they are gathered into the net of a human's falsely created pattern. The universe appears nonplused by our beliefs one way or the other so most of the time it doesn't rub our noses in it when we are wrong. That doesn't mean that these false patterns have worth just that they have no impact on objective reality so other than us, no one or thing really cares.

For example, the facts of evolution are not warped by the disbelief of humans. We can't wish it away no matter how hard we try. All we can do is rob our society of using these facts to better understand our place in the cosmos and develop more rational ways to manage both the present and our future based upon a more truthful understanding of our actual nature. Better to cover our ears like Miracle Max and yell, "I'm not Listening!" We prefer our stories to the facts so we lose the opportunity to learn from reality. The stories may provide comfort but are not likely to be of much help when next they run up against the true nature of the universe.

With the enormity of the data stream that passes by our senses on a given day it is no wonder that amongst all the coincident data, that one can create associations to almost anything you can imagine. In reality, the amount of coincident data is orders of magnitude greater than the truly associated data which is vastly greater than the true cause and effect relationships. swimming around in the data. Creating heuristics involves establishing some set of data that is labeled as a pattern and linked to some effect. Again, notice that none of this requires that the pattern be truthful in any way. That is really key. As long as a pattern can be reinforced through experience, it will tend to thrive. So if we erroneously create a pattern recognition target the next time we will have an easier time seeing this pattern through a run away positive feedback loop. The more we look for the pattern the more likely we are able to see it and the stronger the urge to find the pattern and the greater is our belief in the validity of the pattern - regardless of any true cause and effect relationships. I leave the reader to consider examples of this phenomenon.

Contributing to all of this is probably the evolutionary history of problem solving. In the animal kingdom we see large numbers of examples of the most rudimentary problem solving relationships: danger avoidance, food gathering, and finding a suitable mate. That's where we came from so much of our more complex cognition must have developed from traits that controlled those basic building blocks. On this site I have repeated described modern man as descendants of those who ran. It's an apt description. Recall the old 'Lions in the tall grass' scenario. When dealing with a camouflaged and stealthy predator having an over developed trait to see facial patterns in all sorts of places along the savanna would probably have been a good thing to pass along to your offspring. Running away from any potentially dangerous pattern of visual inputs might mean that you dropped a meal unnecessarily from time to time but were invited to dinner far less often. What about the budding scientist in the group who insisted on examining true cause and effect? Lunch! This is a somewhat playful supposition of course but it does illustrate the fact that a case can be made for the selective advantage of reacting to perceived patterns absent constant corroboration or complete data. A process that would make us somewhat vulnerable to leaping to false conclusions. We congratulate ourselves for running away and convince ourselves that another lion was avoided whether or not one was present. The pattern is reinforced absent any kind of confirmation. In the case of crouching lions discretion is the better part of valor so this kind of avoidance behavior becomes well ingrained and there may be little selection pressure to be more analytical than running like hell. As long as the pattern is perceived as being valuable it will be retained.

There are many facets to human cognitive bias but our denial of negative data is key. Negative data is that which essentially rules out a certain set of conditions by its presence. It's hugely leveraged in good clinical diagnoses for example. In cause and effect analysis, negative data is usually the most predictive. Human cognition does not naturally accept this fact, riddled with confirmation bias as we are. Confirmation bias by definition is cherry picking of data to support a foregone conclusion. Pesky negative data is ignored. Look around at all the examples where this is alive and well. Again the huge data sets we encounter each day are rich grounds for cherry picking in support of all manner of questionable patterns. Some have argued that might not emphasis on negative data create another kind of bias? Not really because any viable model or pattern that truly represents reality must be able to account for the existence of this negative data. if not, the model is at best incomplete and at worst just plain wrong. There are instances of erroneous data of course but we still must account for even these errors if we want to be complete. Most people are satisfied with a much lower level of validation. If the model can't account for the negatives it does not constitute a false rejection of the positive elements since the model is false to begin with. How can one assess the positivity of data in a false model?

Where does that leave us? Unfortunately to most of us humans cause and effect means that I will assign a cause to what ever gives me the desired effect. Does this mean that people are seeing things that don't exist? Depends on how you define the problem. The raw data probably exists as long as the person is sane. What may or may not exist is any true significance to a specific pattern of data that has been created by an individual to label part of their individual experience. The fact that one 'sees' a pattern is far from proof that such a pattern actually exists in objective reality. A classic example is paranoia. One may see patterns of persecution where none actually exist. The paranoid may be actually interacting with others but the paranoid model projects false meanings on the raw data and infers motives that likely are pure fabrication. Yes, the individual did meet with the paranoid on such and such a date but was not involved in a galactic conspiracy to harvest his brain. It take much more than a personal sense that there is truth in these kinds of assertions. Human senses are extremely easy to confound. True relationships should be observable and predictive. And not retrospectively where confirmation bias can make almost any set of observations look interesting. With the ability to think abstractly the individual can seek refuge from the objective pattern recognition police in all sorts of out of the way places inaccessible to cause and effect analysis. By definition such patterns within the data sets of the universe must include intersections with imagined sets of data outside of this universe's data sets. We aren't talking about data within the universe such as molecular genetics which was unknown to Darwin. We are talking about data which is outside of our ability to detect it. That is a very convenient hiding place. Once that happens logic breaks down unless some objective way to incorporate the metaphysical data can be reliably and reproducibly identified. Those seeking refuge in extensions to the known or knowable will often assert that objective reality is just one way to determine truth. or that the scientific method is limited in some way that prevents it from assessing alternative realities. It can be argued that this is magical thinking seeking magical patterns within magical data sets. The existence of some reality beyond that which we can evaluate is a huge stretch that requires more than vigorous assertion to be convincing. So what is the moral of this story? We know that humans are vulnerable to all sorts of cognitive biases that result in our seeing patterns in data where no truth really exists. When this is put into the context of the immensity of the data sets in this universe it must make one pause - Logical assessment of the enormity of the ever expanding data set that comprises this universe and our human propensity for false pattern recognition suggests that the failure to identify relevant explanatory patterns within the natural confines of the universe is more likely due to faulty or inadequate human pattern recognition than any missing data or requirement for super-universal data sets.

NOTE: please forgive the unforgivable pun. Well, actually 2. And an ever so slight modification to a cultural icon.


Impossible Separation: The Role of Judicial Activism

Participatory democracy is alive and well. In Maine, the people once again have spoken - gays will continue to be viewed as undeserving of any of the privileges bestowed upon married couples. Make no mistake these are not rights ,they are privileges that our Nation and its States bestow. Not the basic rights of with whom one chooses to associate or co-habitate but the legal privileges that such unions automatically bestow to some.

It is also inescapable that most resistance to legalized gay unions is religiously based. What of our much touted separations of church and state? It doesn't exist in the voting booth. In a democracy people get to vote the way they wish. If religion is a big part of their lives they get to vote their religious values no matter what anyone else thinks about it. Bigots, saints, children of the enlightenment, educated and ignorant all get to vote. It is the cost of democracy. For most of us it's an impossible separation.

It's also just plain wrong in this case. It may be the will of the people but the people have been wrong before. That's why we have those nasty activist courts. Most people are incapable of separating their beliefs from what should be the law of the land. That's why courts have had to be color blind, gender indifferent and yes even blind to faith and beliefs. Activist courts have lead this nation, often unwillingly by its nose, toward greater equality for all of its citizens. The separation of church and state exists in our laws and is only as good as the courts that enforce it. It's why both right and left often hate the courts - they are least affected by our rhetoric. Yes, national amendments can overturn the courts but that is really really hard to do. We rant and rave about a lot of things but at the end of the day few really want to mess with the articles of the Constitution. It's one of the best protections against mob rule we have. It's hard to sustain that kind of angst through a national Constitutional debate process.

The people have spoken. But emotional and philosophical decisions made by the electorate don't always result in justice and sound laws. That's one of the reasons why the Founders created the Courts in the first place. The Courts get to decide if our personal opinions about some of our fellow countrymen should or should not be legally binding. Some call it activism but I think of it as a useful paternalism /maternalism that balances our basest instincts. Serious men and women on the bench mitigate the emotional rabble rousing of us in the masses. And we are all safer and more free because of it.

It's time for the law to recognize, as it has so many times in the past to our eventual common good, that being gay is just another of the faces of humanity. And one worthy of the same considerations as all those other democratically unpopular faces that went before it .


An Oregon Yankee in King James' Court: Pliny's Bogus Adventure

Returning again to the same well that makes him a fortune our old nexus of consternation, D'Sousa has a new book coming out - something about the scientific evidence for life after death. Perhaps unfairly, I do not hold out much hope for its truthiness. My lack of hope for such having something to do with the fact that if he was truthful in this book it would be a radical departure from his professional body of work. I doubt I'll be convinced by any of his near death experience stories. On this topic I have experience that DD lacks - A few years ago I took a very brief journey into that undiscovered country from whose borne I fortunately did return. The rub in this case being that perchance I do recall the dream that came.

It was one evening and I had what turned out to be a case of Adult Pertussis on top of my usual asthma. I was on the couch watching the tube with the family when I had one of those nasty paroxysms of cough that give whooping cough its bad name. A couple of times before I'd actually grayed out a bit while coughing. Not this time. I started to cough and cough and cough and cough. Next thing I knew I had a most unusual experience.

To this day I can remember it perfectly. I suddenly had the sensation of of slowly passing through a great vortex (tunnel) that was lined with snippets of imagery that was indistinct but all vaguely familiar. I was also immersed in sound. Sound as I've never heard before or since. It was almost musical but most like that THX Dolby sound set that Lucas used to have come on before movies a few years ago. You know the one that sounded like violins tuning before a concert.

I had the quite pleasant sensation of floating toward a part of the vortex where the images were getting less distinct and whiting out. It seemed very light at that end of the tunnel. I will never forget how completely peaceful it all seemed. More peaceful that any other experience of my life?

I was just drifting along when I heard something faint and pleading in the background. At first I couldn't make it out. As I tried to hear it better this new sound began to disturb my good karma. It sort of sounded like my wife's voice from a million miles away. as I listened it got louder and suddenly as I locked onto it, I had the sensation of traveling backward at great speed and falling backwards.

I 'landed' on the couch and so intense was the sensation of falling back, that I shot off the couch and almost scared my poor wife and daughter to death. They were crying and terrified. My wife told me I'd stopped breathing, turned blue and lost my pulse. She had started doing CPR on me.

I felt fine and uttered a phrase that she also remembers well as another of my classic matter of fact utterances, "Well that explains the wild-assed dream I just had."

She was rather determined that I go to the hospital. I didn't think it was necessary but all my friends and family sort of insisted. I went and politely endured the 2 days of poking ,testing and prodding that finally revealed cough syncope. The coughing had lead to profound bradyardia and I sort of, well, died for a few minutes.

I was surprised by the number of people who actually seemed distraught by my short bogus death.

One thing is for sure, I no longer fear the act of dying because if that's all there is to it, It ain't so bad. And that sense of peace was something.

Now on to DD. As one who has experienced this phenomenon I have a better appreciation of the way people describe the sensations than your average Joe. It's interesting as an amystic skeptic that precisely the same experience that many people describe as metaphysical seemed pretty natural to me even in retrospect. I can see how people have come up with the metaphors to describe the experience but having gone through it myself, I suspect that it's just people's way of trying to make sense of it, rather than exactly how it happened. I can see how someone using a personal context of religion could interpret the data they experienced in that light (no pun intended - ah who am I kidding - of course it was!).

The life flashing before your eyes was pretty consistent with the sense of whirling imagery all of which was vaguely familiar. I could see how one might describe it that way, but it really is a bad metaphor that is applied in retrospect I suppose.

The music - well there was a lot of sound rushing in that sounded vaguely musical but again that is more of a metaphor to describe a sensation that is hard to describe. I suspect that a lot of neurons were all firing as part of one last hurrah as the last oxygen molecules and sugars were being consumed.

Tunnels, lights all that last bit of energy being exerted and sensory outputs coming in from all directions with no frame of reference. The last little white light? I suspect it's just like that little white dot you used to see when you turned off an old TV set...

Floating and dissociated? Again just a metaphorical description of that sensory overload that was coming in out of context. Was it unpleasant? Not in the least actually. Not scary or un-nerving at all - except to the others in the room.

Though Mrs. Pliny has never really developed an appreciation for this part of the ordeal, for me, no doubt the best part of the entire experience was getting to use my favorite line from of one of my favorite authors when people called on me to see how I was doing -"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.."


Moral and Ethical Consistency 5.0: Is it Reasonable to 'Out' Political Supporters?

George Will's Sunday opinion piece takes gay marriage supporters to task for publishing and economically targeting individuals who signed petitions needed to get ballot measures preventing gay marriage on the books, such as California's measure 8. He is concerned that there has been a political and economic backlash to Catholic and Mormon groups for example that threw heavy dollar support toward passing these measures. He claims that some individuals have even lost their jobs as a result of having been outed. (WARNING: Intense irony well)

It's an interesting question, but before we talk about it I would like to point out that one might be forgiven for finding neoconservatives a bit disingenuous about strong arm political tactics of their opponents. I am not aware of any George Will columns bemoaning Swift-boating or the publishing of doctors who perform abortions home addresses on the Internet, but I may be mistaken, not having read all of his published works. My intent is not to smear Mr.Will, but merely to point out that many neoconservatives would appear to be less than blameless.

There is also the not so subtle point that publishing of names of those who support a ballot measure is completely truthful unless there is a rash of people using false identities to sign petitions. Lending support to political action is supposed to be public knowledge.

I have to admit that old Pliny is a bit ambivalent about this. Most of my ambivalence comes form living in a state with the most liberal free speech laws in the land. Not a day goes by where one is not forced by circumstance to pass by some lurid picture show and raucous bunch of true believers waving animal rights propaganda in front of a furrier or abortion pictures in front of a clinic, etc. Their rights to obsess about one aspect of life superceding my rights as a parent to protect children from images that are not appropriate. These individuals are waging economic war on their targets so it could be argued that what's good for the goose...

Nevertheless, the generally hateful tone that much of political discourse takes nowadays makes me pause.

Then again, it can be argued that the targets of repression have a right to know who are their accusers. And is it not sour grapes to complain that people who you loath and whose rights you want to restrict may decide to not put any of their money in your pocket? Consequences, consequences they are often a burden.

Will publishing names make people think twice before signing on to some political stance? No doubt but that might not be the worst thing.

It's a tough question and of course no one wants to promote any kind of political brown shirt process that frightens people away from taking a political stand in which they believe. Simply shouting down those who oppose you is not good democracy. But that is the nature of a taking a political stand - people get to see you standing there.


Submitted for you approval: Fiendish Tales from the Obamnion

Yes - it's that time again! Another of Pliny's discoveries from the literary vaults of run amok horror.

Further Tales of the creeping socialism!

by HP Lovecrap 2

Here I sit almost paralyzed with horror amongst the stacks in the library of old Miskotonic Tech. I must write quickly and hide my script amongst the pages of this poignant David Horwitz book where it will be forever safe from the prying eyes of HIS followers. They’ll never find these desperate last scribbles which are my last hope to save mankind from HIS evil clutches. Or at least all the members of our species worth saving. Even more within this book it is also safe from any future and wholly necessary book burning that may be required to purge wrong thinking from our midst. I could hardly be at greater peril if I were spray painting ‘Cthulhu Sucks! on the great doors of the mountains of madness than I am now. On the entry steps my valiant defenders, young Republicans all, are all that stands between me and the tainted hordes spilling out into the night streets like waves of rats at the end of Willard. I can hear the battle raging outside even now.
“You liberals can’t come in here!”

“Dude, what’s your problem? we’ve got papers to research. Get the %$&# out of the way.”

“NEVER! You cannot be allowed to sully these halls!”

“Yes we can.”
ARRRRGH!!! My brethren reel under the force of those words. A veritable taser to the senses, one brave fellow convulses on the steps sliding to the bottom like some trench coat laden slinky with a crew cut. A lifeless husk laid low by a fiendish lexicon. Many are brought to their knees - sort of like the Knights of Kne when confronted with an equally vile word.
“Stop! Don’t say that again, we beg you! Can you not show us the same mercy you would to a lazy bum on the street, an illegal immigrant or, as God does forbid, a gay?”
My poor comrades, no not comrades, I never said comrades! Never would! I’m no commie. I leave that to HIS followers. Fellow patriots, yes that is it. Lovers of America all which must be why we are constantly trying to f.....

“Dude. What the hell are you doing? All we said was ‘yes we can’ come into the library to do some work”.

AAAARRRRGH! Those words! Make the pain stop! For the love of Limbaugh, make it stop!”
They scatter in defeat. No match for Satan’s noir chant. Their ears bleeding. I cannot blame them. Their eyes gush tears like Glenn Beck confronted with, well, anything. (He cannot be blamed for that congenital affliction that positioned his bladder in such close proximity to his eyeballs.) No mere supply side mortal can resist the agony inflicted by those words. I must hurry before they find me. Though the verdant bile rushes to the back of my throat like an algae clogged stream in one of Al Gore’s books, I must continue.

For months we have fought against the insidious and ghastly forces let loose by an unsuspecting popular election that went horribly wrong. Who could have predicted that even DeBolt would fail to save democracy from itself. We who understand have vowed to fight with our last breaths, well actually with other’s last breaths, preferably minorities, because that is how we prefer it, but fight we do in our own way. Democracy has been shaken to its core because so many of the people have chosen unwisely. Democracy only works when our side wins! The party of Lincoln! The last one of ours who passed any civil rights legislation, but we remember and beat that dead horse until noting remains but 4 well polished horseshoes. WE fight their policies and proposals with powerful weapons of righteousness- metaphor, misdirection and misinformation - but it is the only way to stop the evil. Our only hope, and the only hope of the Nation which should do exactly as we say, to survive the creeping socialism. ARG! The thought sticks in my throat like some satanic strawberry milkshake loogie and abject horror threatens to consume what remains of the sanctity of my self-perceived sanity staving off surrender and shoring up my surviving sanguinity.

But I have seen it with my own eyes. I feared my orbs would be blighted with the reading so I furtively glanced at it with the corner of my eye so as to not lose all my sight. First tried reading it in a mirror but the text kept looking like the lyrics of the White Album so I had to just glance. That most dread of texts. No not the Koran or Talmud - or any of the Left Behind series - WORSE! Many think it only a legend but it is terrifyingly real! The Obamnion! To write those words curdles my blood and only by reciting the healing mantra, ‘fair and balanced, fair and balanced’, can my desperate and wrenched soul cling to my weary bones. Each page edge falls off into the black abyss that swallows or taxes men’s souls, or at least a sizable chunk of one’s net income if any of it’s vile prescriptions come to pass. Eating a plate of fried calamari in front of Dagon himself would not put me a greater risk than the mere reading of this abomination. To hold on we need only imagine what Jesus would do - you know, if he renounced everything he said and believed in and turned into his evil twin Skippy. That is our inerrant guide away from the malevolent and miserable maelstrom of miscreancy and malfeasance maintained within this monstrous missive.

I apologize if my story is not linear but the wind was fierce and all my talking points memos were scattered like dried leaves in a wind turbine. Dear reader it is my hope that I do not doom you merely through the relating of what that foul and icky tome contains! What ever you do - do not read it! Save your soul from becoming lunch to he who can trace an unbroken line through Hitler to the Old Ones themselves! Though Cthulhu wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic - he was more egalitarian. Considered ethnic diversity a pleasant way to introduce some variety into his steady diet of souls. DoH! By speaking his name aloud I have no doubt compounded my peril. He may even now be rearing up from his undisclosed location to add me to his catch of the day - or maybe just to accidentally shoot me in the face as I hear is now his way. Focus! Friends, do not fall victim to their retched facts and figures. Be content to shudder at the careful translations that clog your email inbox or which can be safely shared via the healing filter of Fox News. The original is too horrendous for one such as us to read without being consumed by dire insanity! Look too closely and evil will compel you to articulate a proper argument and engage in thoughtful discourse which of course would be surrendering to that same evil. Far better to remain distant and dismissive avoiding discourse while directing distain, distemper, disinformation, diatribe and discord, drinking less of their diatribe than a delirious and dehydrated dromedary until such time as they are driven to despair and the dread diabolical despoiler is dislodged by DeBolt determined Democracy.

Within its pages an insidious plot unfolds. All this reliance on science! Teaching children vile physics which claims that pulling oneself up with your own bootstraps is physically impossible. Not if God gives you a boost you atheist lap dogs and Sam Harris clones! All those dread lies told to the young. They must not be enticed by his apple. Hard work will make them successful! Oh the horror of such lies! Hard work will make their corporate owners successful or at least increase the bounty of their golden parachutes- at least until their job can be outsourced for the benefits of our 401K’s! Fight his facts - spread the word far and wide my friends. And take solace in the knowing that our message will be heard - the only frictionless surface in the universe is bullshit on the Internet.

The death panels! They are real my friends. But it is far worse than you imagined! The dark knowledge threatens to paralyze my pen even now which rattles in my hand like a stale Twizzler in a paint shaker. The fiends have enlisted brain eating zombies to perform the counseling as it is now called. Unsuspecting elderly will be herded into a room and white coat clad zombies will consume their brains like so many Hostess Snowballs. Well, not exactly like Hostess Snowballs because the brains will be fresh and far more flavorful, but you understand my meaning. Oh the cruelty of this cannibalistic cabal of criminally corrupted and barely corporeal cadavers!

Our healthplan is much much more loving and kind. The cold claims them so much more humanely once left on that ice-floe with none of the pain and terror of cranial cannibalism. They drift off to sleep and provide a Polar Bear alternative to all those cute little seal pups everyone adores.

Any that escape this cannibalistic counseling will be captured and ground up by the liberals for Soylent Green. And used not to feed the working man and his family tending our gardens or cleaning our houses off the books without benefits, but to feed homeless beggars who make our daily commute less pleasant. How many accidents have befallen hard working middle managers - caused by having to avert one’s eyes from those who have chosen to be poor! It’s a traffic hazard that could only been conceived in the horrid mind of the most hateful of the Old Ones.

More unholy language drips from the covers of the Obamnion like cheez-wiz from a Philly beefsteak sandwich on a freshly starched white dress shirt. Universal healthcare! The words say it all in the code of liberal doublespeak - universal - universe - extraterrestrial - code word for ALIENS! Illegal ones at that. Yes all those Mexicans who come to steal jobs from Americans who won’t be caught doing them will be covered. Healthcare for the children of the poor! They should be more careful and abstinent instead! Now if they could have kept them indefinitely in their wombs as fetuses we could see defending them, but once they are borne that’s a whole different story. Even infants can be fitted with proper bootstraps...

His plan is to consume everything around him and make everyone bow to his power - no wait sorry - that’s from the Walmartnium, it’s hard to remain focused amongst so many threats. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks and disdains the very notion of democracy - no that’s Cheney. Damn! My mind is being clouded by the close proximity of all this evil text.

This foul litany dares to claim that he is a native of this country! Yes, dear reader, the notion rips at my psyche like a Haliburten contractor before arbitration but we must be strong. What if he was born before we officially liberated those heathen islands from the clutches of those generations of Polynesian settlers constantly partaking of vile sex before marriage on long sandy beaches. Though many claim that such acts sound much better in the telling than in the practice due to the natural and considerable abrasive properties of sand - but I must remain focused and abstinent. Though the abstinent part seems to not be a problem for some reason since I joined the brave defenders. No doubt the coeds are enthralled by the false promise of liberalism. That's the only reason - I was just getting into the music on my iPod and tapping my foot in the restroom at the bus station coming back from that Defense of Marriage rally when that dreadful policeman tried to accost me. Why did that officer hate freedom so? Come to think of it, his name badge did say LeClar - that explains it! But I digress due to the heat of the moment. Fiendish francophile fabricator of fallaciously fecund falsehoods!

Friends do not lament the Hawaiian’s plight! It’s not like they were intelligently designed there in the first place! They were just early illegals squatting on land divinely promised our forefathers. Whose rows of hotels were foreseen and defended from the eastern peril - at least until they got smart and decided it was much easier to just buy the damn island. Focus! My thoughts are jerked hither and fro like a rubber pinata. Where were those Louisiana judges when we needed protection from this unholy spawn? Why did it have to happen in Hawaii? Why not in some place we he could have been properly shunned?

Another vile chapter describes his unholy bailout and Faustian bargain with big business - no wait. I kinda like that part since I have stock I’m trying to unload... Creeping socialism! anything that limits our inalienable right to take profit at any cost. He wants to take away our freedom! Never mind that protesters go to his rallies with slung AR-15’s while Cindy Sheehan was lead away for wearing a loaded T-shirt. Alas I am increasingly adrift in this alarmingly avuncular and all consuming alliterative apostasy. My mind snaps and darkness envelopes me like the straight jacket I used to have to wear before I was all better...


Happy Halloween.....


My Anniversary Post: Evolution of Functions Requiring Multiple Mutations

I realized that I had missed the one year anniversary of this little indulgence. Unable to think of anything particularly profound to say on my own accord, I decided to share, with an attempt at illustration, something which I find truly amazing. The evolutionary means by which a new function can come about as a result of a sequence of mutations. With some of you (that small set of actual visitors to Plinydom) far better versed in these subjects than I, it is with some reluctance that I posit this little exploration but please be kind and if errors are found, I will be only too happy to correct them. I'm a visual guy. I need imagery to solidify concepts in my mind and I often engage in thought experiments intended to visually represent complex (sometimes abstract) processes. It's my way of forestalling Alzheimer's - that and the NYT crossword. So here goes...
An argument against evolution is made that complex function changes cannot result from a process that requires multiple sequential mutations, by means of natural selection. This is part of Micheal Behe's arguments from irreducible complexity.

It's actually a question that is worth answering and the great work of a nearby academician, Dr Joe Thornton, from Oregon State seems to provide an elegant answer to this question. I find it elegant at least. The answer would appear to come from a better understanding of the various mechanisms available to evolution beyond natural selection. This is not to say that other mechanisms are not important but just to illustrate one pathway.

I know some will cringe at this falsehood but if we simplify things a great bit we can think of evolution as having 2 random and 2 nonrandom mechanisms that can effect changes for the purpose of this very high level conversation. On the random side we have genetic mutation, and genetic drift. On the nonrandom side we have natural and sexual selection. It's the combination of these forces that leads to the complexity we see from evolution. For this discussion the potential impact and contribution of sexual selection to evolution is ignored.

Imagine for a moment that this first simple drawing represents, at some time, 0, an organism's chromosome and one particular gene of interest (the blue one).

We know that a variety of factors can result in random mutations anywhere along the length of this chromosome and on occasion one may affect the sequence of base pairs within the Blue gene.

If we sampled this organism's population at a later time, 1, we might find evidence of two alleles to this gene present in the population. How can that be? Shouldn't natural selection end up favoring one over the other? Maybe but not necessarily. Depending upon the mutation and its location within the gene, the cascade of processes that the gene translation products are engaged in, etc., the effect on the proteins resulting from expression of the gene may be trivial or profound. If individuals with either allele function reasonably well, then the presence of either may have no impact on reproductive success of the organisms carrying either gene and all we would see, is an increase in genetic diversity within the population (both blue and green alleles where before only blue was present).

Life is not static so additional random mutations could pop up at any point in the same gene. Once again, any new allele may or may not confer an advantage or burden on the individual organism. If not, the mutation is essentially a neutral genetic change. Genetic diversity is increased within the population by the random process of mutation. In this case , as drawn in the next diagram, the population at some time, 2, may include three alleles - blue, green and now red.

Random mutations may increase the genetic diversity of a population but evolution's second random force may reduce it. (I say may, because deleterious mutations will generally be selected against.)

From time to time, completely random events, such as the one depicted in the next diagram may change the reproductive success of members of the population with total disregard for any genetic advantage or burden caused by a set of alleles. In other words, changes in the genetic make up of a population can result from something other than highly nonrandom natural selection. Stuff happens also would seem to apply to genetics as well as all other aspects of life.

In this example the random addition of a rock crushing the individuals with the blue and green alleles does in fact change the genetic makeup of the population. This despite any disadvantage of the green or blue allele. One doubts that the red allele would have improved the organism's crush resistance so its persistence is merely a case of luck. Now Red alleles predominate to the next generation. Random events which reduce the genetic diversity of a population are responsible for the second random effector of evolution: genetic drift. There is nothing adaptive about this change it's just at the level of 'it sucks to be you' for the blue and green alleles.

It also important to remember that up till now, there is no reason why another random mutation can't result in a return of the green or blue alleles given enough time. Evolutionary critics often cite this fact to suggest that genetic drift is not an important component of evolution since there is no net gain. That might be true if genetic drift occurred in isolation from the other forces of evolution. That of course isn't reality and in nature genetic drift is mated with the extremely nonrandom hand of natural selection.

Although genetic drift may not be able to effect the big adaptive changes we see in species, it appears to provide critical opportunities for those multi-stage changes needed to explain some complex adaptions. Genetic drift may in essence randomly tee up opportunities for complex changes by providing enough novel neutral alleles (i.e., mutations conferring no particular reproductive advantage or disadvantage) having some intermediate structure that itself, is neutral to the survival of the current generation, but very useful when combined with a later random mutation. In this example the peptide resulting from expression of the red allele is similar enough to that from the blue allele so as not to hinder the reproductive success of individuals with the red allele (neutral).

If it did, the red allele would not stay around for very long since natural selection suffers foolish alleles poorly.

But it is possible that this neutral red allele may provide a genetic beachhead for a later random mutation as is described in the drawing of a population at time, 3. Here the Red* allele represents a situation where an additional mutation has occurred somewhere in the Red allele. The eventual result is represented by the little spheroid addition to the peptide - caused by the new mutation or as a result of the combination of the new mutation and previous neutral ones.

This combination may provide a novel function previously absent, or improve upon an existing one. The same mutation might occur in an individual with the blue or green allele (resulting in a Blue* or Green* gene) but the resultant configuration might be detrimental and therefore be selected out. The Red* peptide need not be perfect in its new role just provide enough selection advantage to affected individuals for natural selection to work its magic. At this point natural selection can drive improvements in this new multi-stage mutation complex leading to further genetic wonders. Of course this refinement process is not in any way actively goal directed. Later refinements come about from the force of natural selection on subsequent random mutations within this complex that lead to improved survival.

And thus, a series of random events coupled with natural selection can give rise to the evolution of complex functions requiring multiple steps. I know I'm a geek but this is great stuff. I hope you enjoy it as well.


I Should be Flogged

Some people are claiming that there is a great schism underway in atheism - I don't believe it...


A Grand Metaphor From a Small Event

Most of the available seasonal flu vaccine in our area was distributed to private pharmacies. Unfortunately, pharmacists can’t administer vaccines to kids under 15. This policy wasn’t even lifted in the face of a global pandemic. Since very little vaccine was distributed to pediatricians, it ran out quickly and few kids got it. My wife, after a legion of phone calls to various places found out that Target was hosting a clinic and had vaccine for the kids. Target also accepts our insurance. My wife got to Target and a snippy RN told her the following:

Rent-a-nurse: “We aren’t taking insurance you’ll have to pay.”

Mrs Pliny: “ I called as was told that you took our insurance.”

Rent a nurse: “Well, they told you wrong. We aren’t with Target. You can call around if you want but nobody else has any vaccine, we have plenty, so we can do what we want.” (that is verbatim)

Later, Mrs Pliny asked. “My daughter is coming off a probable H1N1 flu about 2 weeks ago. Can she still get the vaccine?

Rent a Nurse: “you’ll have to ask them at the pharmacy. Make sure you do before you pay because we don’t give refunds.”

Mrs Pliny filled out the paperwork and stood in line to ask her question and pay. She asked the pharmacist who, and you can’t make this stuff up - walked over to rent a nurse and asked her. She said sure.

Mrs Pliny got back in the vaccine line where rent-a-nurse rudely gave her a hard time about who she was in reference to our daughter (Mrs Pliny and my daughter do differ substantially in ethnic appearance, but to my knowledge there is no black market in paying to get kids immunized...)

Rent-a-nurse: “She can’t get the vaccine if she’s been sick! Who told you she could?”

Job-patient Mrs Pliny: “You did when you sent us over the pharmacist who came over and asked you.”

Egg dripping from face Rent a Nurse: “Oh, well I guess it’s ok.”

Such a small event but such a grand metaphor for bureaucratic intransigence, short sighted guild policies and problems with for profit medical care. GUT help us when one of those avian bad-boys comes a calling.


H1N1: so much for the guidelines

Pliny is once again confused...

The CDC guidelines and recommendations for vaccination priority for H1N1 flu is as follows:(http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/vaccination/vaccine_keyfacts.htm)
  • pregnant women,
  • people who live with or provide care for infants younger than 6 months (e.g., parents, siblings, and day care providers),
  • health care and emergency medical services personnel,
  • people 6 months through 24 years of age, and,
  • people 25 years through 64 years of age who have certain medical conditions that put them at higher risk for influenza-related complications.
Old Pliny is in 2 of those categories: health and emergency worker with asthma.

Two of the county health services covering the counties Pliny works in decided to set up indigent health clinics in separate locations to immunize people 'who couldn't afford the vaccine'. No H1N1 vaccine was released to any of the hospitals in either county. No matter that these people work where most of the H1N1 patients congregate and where spread of the disease is most problematic. So much for the CDC guidelines.



And now, for something completely different... A shockingly bad short story idea, but I was in another of my moods... Proof positive that Pliny is a sappy romantic. I was short of good ideas so this will have to do for now. Yes I know that it plays fast and loose with time conventions but hey - it's a story!

Dr Brandon Ames watched a younger, and far softer version of himself kiss his wife and daughter goodbye just before they entered that TSA security zone at the airport. This earlier version looked immersed in all manner of the trivia of everyday life, not yet having anything truly of consequence with which to compare it. He watched as the girl and her mother navigated the maze shedding various clothing bits in a ritual of compliance with authority and a safety charade. The two people he loved most in all the world waved and blew his young echo kisses as they rounded the corner on their way to the gate. Off on that grand adventure that awaited. He saw himself hesitate for a few more moments lest he miss another glimpse of them. He saw the reddening in those young eyes at the thought of being apart from his family for even a short time as he headed off to exit the terminal. His old eyes blurred at the thought of that young man’s future and his own past. They always did.

The 18 minutes they spent in that security line turned out to be time very poorly spent. Five hours and 17 minutes into their flight, the well dressed young woman just ahead of Ames would detonate a bomb and kill all 271 people aboard. It would take 13 minutes and 17 seconds for the plane to hit the water from the time of that first desperate message from the cockpit. This moment, and his family's last fearful minutes alone had monopolized his nightmares and daydreams for 31 years. During the last 11 years of his life he had physically witnessed this ritual 19 times. He wasn't aware of that fact, of course. The physics didn't permit it.

This time would be different. This time the roster of souls bound for this flight held 272 names.

Ames didn't just relive this incident in his mind but in actual fact. This unlikely turn of events came about because Brandon Ames had been and was a time traveler.

He’d been working in theoretical physics at the time of his family’s death. The three of them were supposed to check out a new place to live and a career opportunity that lead in an exciting new direction. A last minute snag at the lab had meant that he’d had to reschedule his flight and had intended to meet them in 3 days. Instead he’d spent the last 42 years trying to live with that decision. Or rather in changing the history of that particular moment in time. He spent several fortunes building a team of experts and developing the technology that allowed him to fail over and again.

This time the plan was perfect. Of that he was certain. That thick manila envelope, as critical to success as what he was about to do, had been mailed. The recipient would know exactly what to do with it. He was confident of that.

Calm and patience, two attributes most would not have associated with him usually, were all that he felt waiting his turn at security. The little sealed 3 ounce toothpaste tube in his carry on didn’t warrant a second glance from the screeners. They might have reacted differently had they known that it contained enough DMSO and sedative to incapacitate dozens of adults. He didn't know it of course but his wasn’t the first time he had smuggled this concoction through security. But he had finally worked out the damning kinks in his previous attempts so that this time, it would be properly employed.

Near the gate, he could see Evelyn Gross staring off into space as she sat waiting to board the plane so she could murder 270 innocents. Thinking her life's journey was somehow more important than all these people's lives. He couldn’t seem to recall the revolutionary name she had adopted after seeing the light in the service of a god with an insatiable appetite for blood. Nor did he bother thinking about the perversely brilliant method used to conceal her explosives. It really didn't matter. It was irrelevant to the plan. Knowing what he knew of a probable shared history of which she was unaware, he managed a slightly ironic smile at seeing her in all her resurrected glory. He didn't care why she did it and never had. He was just determined to stop her from terrorizing his family.

If an observer could have witnessed all this outside of time they would have seen that this was to be his twentieth attempt at uncooking this particular egg. Each time he had attempted to alter the timeline before, the cascade of events evaporated in his hands. The timeline reverted to the same agony of loss as all that preceded it. In a perverse cycle of failure and loss he had preempted their boarding of the plane 7 times. He had gotten his earlier manifestation to alter their plans on 4 occasions. He had even killed Gross 3 times, thwarted her actions on the ground 3 times and twice in the air. Each triumph was reversed by cruel causality and the inescapable fact that absent the pain of his family’s loss, he would never have completed his work on time travel and thus would never come back to prevent the tragedy. He was not aware of the truth of this but understood the theory well enough.

He had no real way of knowing how many times he had tried and failed to alter the past. Just the building sense that this indeed was the case. Success always just beyond his grasp. This sense of recurring failure began to eat away at him almost as much as his original loss. He wondered if they suffered anew each time he tried and failed. Was his own obsession and grief dooming those he loved to an eternal hell. Imagining their demise once was more than he could bear. Imagining a recurrent loop of it was his own personal hell particularly if he were the cause.

There remained only one possible solution. If, as he came to suspect, the event itself could not be preempted then he would have to save his family on the plane without anyone knowing. The last few years of this particular loop had been devoted to the extraordinary task of synchronizing a time jump with extra passengers while the targets of the jump were in motion. Their existing technology, amazing as it was, allowed only jumps from fixed locations with identical mass. The only way to break the causality loop would be to rescue his loved ones just before the tragedy and catapult them to the future where they could live out their lives. A future where he had suffered and worked to perfect the time machine. They had to be on the plane and appear to die or else his young avatar would never complete the work that would allow them to be rescued in the first place. It was all rather convoluted.

A devoted team struggled along side him for years without success. Though it wasn’t a word that this group readily embraced it appeared that such a feat really was impossible. All but Ames gave up hope. None was present when Ames finally happened upon the solution that would break the cycle. He wondered how he had missed this for so many years. It wasn't a solution that his team would have considered. But their pasts were far different from his. All it took was to redefine the problem. And to redefine success.

He'd come to the lab a changed man that fateful morning. Gone was that guilt and infinite sorrow. Gone was the hope tightly bound by caution that had been with him on every previous attempt. His face beamed with the same radiance his family’s had when rounding that corner 42 years ago. He shook the hands of each of his team members and activated his new program that would finally break the chain.

By no accident, he was seated on the plane in the aisle seat next to them and had to fight to not stare. He noticed that his wife was losing a similar fight. He turned to her and she apologized, telling him how she was struck by his resemblance to her husband.

Ames smiled and told her that surely she wasn’t married to someone who looked as old and broken down as he. Angel that she was she was mortified that she might have offended him. He assured her that she had not. The sound of her beautiful voice after so long. No longer just an echo in his mind or an imperfect ort captured on some video or voice mail. His daughter's laugh and that impish twinkle in her eyes. All the years made worth it.

They talked for hours. It wasn’t something that either did readily with strangers. But it came easily this night. Her daughter chimed in from time to time and ended up telling him all about their coming trip and how she couldn’t wait for her father to join them. Both opened up about husband and father and Ames saw himself through the eyes of the two loves of his life. He was reminded once more why he had been unable to let go.

His watch chimed and he took leave to go to the lavatory ostensibly to take some medications. He walked past the murderer knowing that she would not terrorize his family this night. Not this time.

The ultimate plan was in motion. The baton had already been passed. This timeline would be preserved by a hall of mirrors army if need be. Any who might follow would have an easier road than he. At least part of their sorrow would be displaced by what was about to happen. He was sure of that as only one can know. They would never fail in the end. This timeline would be stable. Only one thing left to do.

When he got back to his seat he noticed that the little girl had something on her chin and handed her a tissue. He acted mortified when it was realized that the tissue had toothpaste all over it. He apologized again when the child’s mother wiped it away with her hands and told him it was no problem. He told them he would let them get some rest now since they both seemed to be very tired after their long day.

Five hours and 12 minutes into the flight, mother and daughter were at peace in each other's arms. Maybe they had dreamed of an adventure that would start tomorrow. He laid a blanket over them and had just enough time to take each of their hands before he drifted away to join them in this their last great adventure to a different and as yet undiscovered destination than the one planned. None of the three heard the explosion or felt the violence of the descent to the ocean below that came moments later. None felt fear or pain or longed for absent loved ones. The chain was broken.