Monday, 2 January 2012

08:50 – I sent off the chapter on arthropods yesterday and got a good start on chordates, although I decided to change the focus from chordates to vertebrates. Right now, I’m shooting lots of photomicrographs. I’m using lots of images to minimize the need for readers to have complete sets of prepared slides. The images are not a perfect substitute for slides by any means, but they’re better than nothing, which is what many readers will have.

If I were doing this book again, I’d start by finding a high resolution video camera, say 6+ MP, and shooting video of all the slides, tweaking the focus as the video was captured. I’d then use stacking software to build composite images to eliminate depth of field problems. Of course, that would have added a lot more work, both in the shooting and the processing. Even on a fast six-core system with gobs of memory, processing a large stack of high resolution images into the composite could require many hours of processing per image.


After nine days at home, Barbara just headed back to work. Colin, of course, is now used to having her at home, which means he’s likely to be demonic for the next few days. He’s sitting outside my office door whining right now. I’m taking that as a warning.

The good news is that Colin may get to see snow before much longer. We’ve had shirt-sleeve weather for a couple of weeks, but the high today is to be only 41 °F (5 °C), with the low tonight 23° (-5°) and the high tomorrow 35° (2°). There’s supposedly a 10% chance of some snow tonight. It’s always fun to watch a puppy experiencing snow for the first time. They all instinctively spread their toes, making what Barbara and I call “snow paws”, to get better traction and avoid sinking into the snow. Then, when they come back indoors, they lie there chewing and spitting on their paws to get the ice out from between their toes.

Someone at the house down on the corner just called 911 for the second time in about a week. An elderly woman lives there with (I think) her grandson, who’s maybe 12 years old. According to the neighbors, the kid is a perv. I’m not sure if he’s officially a sex offender or what exactly he’s accused of doing. Something like exposing himself to little girls, I think. At any rate, the fire truck just showed up, followed in quick succession by the police and ambulance. Last time, I waited until the ambulance hauled her off. Jasmine told me later that she has severe asthma, so presumably that’s what caused the 911 call this morning as well.

That got me wondering how (or if) 911 calls are billed by the city. Does each person get a certain number of free 911 calls per year with additional calls being charged for? It seems strange to bill for emergency calls if there’s a true emergency, but on the other hand I know that 911 is often abused. So do the fire department and police and ambulance just keep responding to frequent calls from one home, or do they start charging after X number? Or do they judge whether a reasonable lay-person would have considered the problem to be an emergency worth calling 911 for? I would imagine they have to show up no matter what, given the potential consequences, not to mention lawsuits and bad publicity. But there has to be some kind of boy-who-cried-wolf option for declining service to serial 911 abusers, doesn’t there?


09:44 – We’ve had some discussion here recently about free will and my arguments that it does not exist. Jerry Coyne has an interesting post up this morning, which links to his full article in USA Today. If you still believe that free will exists, which of course you must if you’re a Christian, read this article and think about it.


14:19 – Also found on Jerry Coyne’s site: a baby Linux getting a tummy rub.

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28 Responses to Monday, 2 January 2012

  1. SteveF says:

    I believe that life, and in particular intelligent life, and in specific human life, was created to reverse thermodynamic decay and prevent the end of the universe. Mankind’s free will will play a major role in stopping the decline. However, in order to ensure that it is used in the proper way, there are rigid constraints on that free will.

    So much for the cosmology and theology. Eschatology doesn’t quite come into play, as we’re talking about preventing the end, but maybe I can work Eschertology into it. The real trick will be in coming up with doctrine and catechism that will have the hot babes flocking to me for support and guidance.

  2. Miles_Teg says:

    RBT wrote:

    “If you still believe that free will exists, which of course you must if you’re a Christian, read this article and think about it.”

    Wrong. Many Christians, including some Catholics and most or all “Reformed” believe in unconditional predestination. That is, “all events of every classification” have been predetermined from eternity past by God. You’re an atheist chemist because that’s what God predestined you to be. I had Coco Pops for breakfast today because that’s what God predestined for me. And *everything* is included, so a consistent Augustinian or Calvinist has to believe that God is the author of sin, although they deny it of course. It follows immediately from their beliefs.

  3. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    So your vicious, psychopathic god pre-condemns people and then tortures them for eternity for doing what he built them to do? That’s like a kid pulling wings off flies, but raised to the Nth degree.

  4. Chuck Waggoner says:

    Hmm. That article did not convince me AT ALL. In fact, it does the reverse by strong implications that man decides nothing, but some omnipotent source decides everything and man cannot escape it. I positively cannot agree that just because I made a decision — consciously or subconsciously — 6 seconds before I actually performed the action, that the decision, removed from the action, is proof positive that free will does not exist. That’s hogwash.

    To me, free will is already a loaded term, referring to nothing but religionist arguments about some supposed relationship between a god and man. More relevant to me is the relationship between instinct and whether reason actually overcomes instinct or enforces it. Free will is a straw man, and I have no interest in either proving or disproving its existence.

  5. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Jerry isn’t referring to “some omnipotent source” but merely to the fact that we are ultimately just collections of molecules, all of which are subject to the natural laws of chemistry and physics.

    I suspect your objections are rooted in your natural “Homo sapiens exceptionalism”. It’s very difficult for most humans to accept that we’re nothing special relative to other species. Now, I frankly confess a tendency toward the same bias. For example, I think human women are much prettier than, say, baboon women. But I also understand that male baboons have exactly the opposite opinion, and with exactly the same justification.

    If Colin goes after a bitch in heat, no one seems to object to the reality that he’s programmed to do that. He has no choice, no “free will”. But most people are deeply offended to be told that we’re no different at all. We’re also programmed, on the molecular level. None of “chose” our wives in any real sense, any more than they “chose” us. As it happens, I started the morning with a mug of Coke and then had a pot of tea. But I didn’t “decide” to do that. That was a programmed selection.

    What disturbs most people about this issue is that if people don’t have free will that destroys religion and it also destroys any support for the idea of “punishing” criminals for their actions or indeed “rehabilitating” them. That guy who just beat that little girl to death and then dismembered the body, for example, had no choice in the matter. But we can’t “punish” people for making the “wrong decision” if they can make no decisions at all.

    Not that I’m in favor of allowing criminals to continue committing crimes. That guy had no more choice about murdering that little girl than a rabid dog has about being rabid. But just as we kill the rabid dog, we’re fully within our rights to kill the child murderer. In fact, I’d say we have no choice in the matter.

  6. Miles_Teg says:

    RBT wrote:

    “So your vicious, psychopathic god pre-condemns people and then tortures them for eternity for doing what he built them to do? That’s like a kid pulling wings off flies, but raised to the Nth degree.”

    That’s what the Calvinists (and Augustinians – Dave, please correct me if I’m wrong) say he does. No, I’m not a Calvinist so I don’t but that. If the traditional Christian God does in fact exist he is the only agent who could predestine events as theorised by the Calvinists. But that’s impossible because that would make him the author of sin and make a mockery of the many claims that the Bible makes along the lines that “God is not willing that any should perish”. If Calvinism is true then God could simply predestine everyone to eternal life. This obviously doesn’t happen.

    But anyway, your original claim that Christians are forced to believe in free will is an error of fact. Some at least (and a fair few Muslims) are the hardest of hard determinists.

  7. Miles_Teg says:

    “I don’t but that.” *buy

  8. Miles_Teg says:

    Chuck, as far as I’m aware it’s not only religious people who posit free will. I think it’s necessary that free will be true in order to ethically punish people for crime – and that doesn’t need to be in a religious context.

    I studied this in a philosophy course way back in 1977 and was surprised as anyone to find that there were people who argued against free will. I think I went into that course believing in free will and came out a soft determinist, IIRC. The lecturer was a hard determinist.

  9. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    By definition, no theistic religion can be deterministic. If it’s all just a dance of the molecules, as it is, there’s neither need for nor room for a god.

  10. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Hmm. That article did not convince me AT ALL. In fact, it does the reverse by strong implications that man decides nothing, but some omnipotent source decides everything and man cannot escape it.

    Chuck, can’t you see that by arguing that free will exists, you’re supporting the magical thinking that you say you disbelieve? In effect, you’re arguing that the molecules aren’t controlled by natural law, but by some untestable supernatural force (such as your own thoughts).

  11. brad says:

    As an atheist, I can happily argue that free will exists. There are several different paths one can follow in this argument. I’m not always the best at expressing these kinds of ideas, but here’s a feeble attempt…

    First, We do not live in a simple Newtonian universe of billiard balls. At the very finest scale of physics, where quantum mechanics dominates, there are very good arguments that the universe contains randomness. Arguments for predeterminism are often tied to a Newtonian view of physics.

    Now, Jerry Coyne’s article tries to work on a deeper level: your brain is a computing device. It doesn’t do things randomly, so it must do them according to certain rules of computation. A decision at time T is driven by the physical state of my brain at that time. My decision is, in principle, derivable from the state of the neurons in my brain, which derives from the state of the chemicals within and between them.

    That’s true. In fact, it is trivially true: it simply describes the operation of the brain. The fact remains that it is my brain processing the information, and arriving at a result which I decide to act on. A different person might well reach a different result; the unique identity of a person is expressed in their actions and reactions to the world. Different people might act differently – I choose to take this action. Is that choice is driven by the sum of who I am? Of course it is; again, this is trivially true.

    Perhaps this goes to the heart of the definition of “free will”. I would argue that a will that is not “free” is one that has actions, results, or decisions imposed on it. A prisoner has lost some portion of free will; a slave has lost more. Insofar as the decisions come from within a person, that person has free will.

    Defining free will as something separate from the functioning of the brain simply makes no sense, unless one is religious. Even then, the decisions would be coming from a “spirit” or “soul”, which must then have its own way of functioning, so… We can tie ourselves in semantic loops, all to no purpose. Defining “free will” in an impossible-to-achieve fashion is just as silly as demanding that a logician give a truth value for “this statement is false”.

  12. Andy says:

    In San Diego they give you two 911 fire calls then after that they bill you. I know that because we built a large EMP simulator years ago and it would set off the fire alarm. We finally got smart and turned off the alarm.

  13. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Randomness all the way down to the quantum level is part of the mechanistic process that Coyne is talking about, and is in no sense evidence of the existence of free will. An honest die cast properly will come up one of six possible ways randomly, but that says nothing about the die (or the tosser) making a decision or having free will.

  14. brad says:

    “An honest die cast properly will come up one of six possible ways randomly, but that says nothing about the die (or the tosser) making a decision or having free will.”

    Sure, but that’s my point: you (and he) are defining free will so that it is by definition impossible to meet the criteria.

  15. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    If the term is to be meaningful, if only to deny the possibility of its existence, there’s no other way to define it. Coyne talks about religionists attempting to back and fill by redefining the term into meaninglessness.

  16. OFD says:

    “…I had Coco Pops for breakfast today because that’s what God predestined for me.”

    That wasn’t God; it was Satan, the Father of Lies. He told you they tasted great and no harm done, didn’t he?

    He also loves it when people don’t believe in him. Makes things easier. Read the Screwtape Letters, by the late Clive Staples Lewis.

    You are correct, Greg, on the Calvinists believing in determinism and pre-destination, etc. It is a virus that has poisoned Christianity for hundreds of years now. Most Protestants believe in some variation of it, and unfortunately a few Catholics, but it is wrong. In fact, most of the Christians with whom most people on this board seem to come into contact are Calvinists of one sort or another. This virus has also infected the body politic and the culture at large since the days of the Mayflower Compact.

    And it would seem to me that Jerry Coyne would have his hands full just defending yon Scepter’d Isle from the inundating hordes of hadjis who have every intention of making him and his fellow Brits submit to sharia and the greater Caliphate or die, while his fellow Brits in power make it a lot easier for them to do so. There was no such threat from either the Anglican Communion there or the vestiges of Holy Mother Church which still remain on the islands.

    And was it Coco Pops or Cocoa Puffs? You know, koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs?

    Just had a minor snow squall blow through here, with the flakes resembling rock salt and bouncing off the ground. Naturally some morons failed to slow down and we also just had four ambulances flash by. Apparently there is a substantial portion of the population that is physiologically incapable of using common sense and slowing down and putting their fucking lights on. With any luck at all, it is these cretins who will not survive the mass die-offs coming our way in the next decades.

    Back to work tomorrow to probably reboot maybe a half-dozen blade or x-86 RH servers out of around three-thousand. If it was a Windows shop, I would have been working round the clock through the holidays. Praise God Almighty, from Whom all blessings flow! And Linus Torvalds. And the late Dennis Ritchie.

  17. Raymond Thompson says:

    If it was a Windows shop, I would have been working round the clock through the holidays.

    Windows shop where I work. Of course not on your scale. But I have not rebooted my Windows servers in over a year. The servers have rebooted because of update installation (something that should be done with caution with Linux) around 3:00AM and all the boxes came back up by themselves. One reboot was for an extended power outage. I was not there when power went out and the UPS eventually ran out of battery power. When power was restored all the servers came back up. I only knew about the power outage because of the logs.

    I think it is largely in the care and feeding of the devices. Maybe it is pre-destination.

  18. SteveF says:

    Apparently there is a substantial portion of the population that is physiologically incapable of using common sense and slowing down and putting their fucking lights on. With any luck at all, it is these cretins who will not survive the mass die-offs coming our way in the next decades.

    The problem is, a lot of the worst morons on the road realize, if only subconsciously or empirically, that they are morons, and equip themselves with 3-ton SUVs with cattle catchers on the front. They may die in droves if there’s a collapse, but until then they’re taking an awful lot of innocents with them.

    About twenty years ago I was at a party where I was privileged to listen to some 20-ish girl talk about her many, many car accidents. In one recent accident she’d been driving an SUV and plowed into someone and it’s too bad the people in the other car were hurt but she herself was ok and that’s the most important thing. And she talked her daddy into buying her an even bigger SUV to replace it, just to be sure she’d be OK after her next accident. I gave some thought to killing or blinding her right there because she was an obviously dangerous sociopath, but there were too many witnesses. It’s also notable that the audience was split between supporting her and thinking she needed to lose her license, with many of the supporters probably doing so because she was young, short, and cute. I wonder if she was able to avoid tickets because she quivered her lip at the cop. Or if her (apparently wealthy) father got them bargained down to non-moving violations.

    There’s a legal principle, the name of which escapes me, which basically means cost shifting. Case at hand, if you drive an SUV poorly, you’re more likely to injure someone else than if you drive a small vehicle poorly. Insurance and registration rates should reflect this, but they seem not to. This is also one of the areas where I’d support government intervention: if you have three accidents in a two-year period, you’re not allowed to drive any vehicle weighing more than 2400 pounds, say.

  19. SteveF says:

    Carnsarndablangit. Only the first paragraph of my previous comment was supposed to be a blockquote.

  20. Dave B. says:

    This WordPress plugin allows the editing of comments. Unfortunately it isn’t tested with version 3.3 of WordPress yet. But if our host is still running Version 3.2.1 of WordPress, it will work.

  21. SteveF says:

    When I page-backed to look at the comment I typed (I was wondering what I did wrong, as I always double-check comments before submitting) I saw that the /blockquote tag was there, and spelled correctly, but “blo” appeared different than “ckquote” — different font or half-point size difference or something. I have no idea what happened there, but I’m sure it’s all caused by global warming.

  22. OFD says:

    “I think it is largely in the care and feeding of the devices. Maybe it is pre-destination.”

    No sir; that is free will writ large, of course.

    “I have no idea what happened there, but I’m sure it’s all caused by global warming.”

    Again, sir; free will.

    It is ubiquitous, sir. Take heed accordingly.

    ” I gave some thought to killing or blinding her right there because she was an obviously dangerous sociopath, but there were too many witnesses. ”

    I have come round to favoring this as a solution, though previously only for recidivist DUI mofos, since taking their licenses is hilariously ineffective. But now I see the logic of extending this to clearly dangerous sociopaths such as apparently abound on Our Nation’s highways and byways. I used to think amputation was the answer, but since the damn medico geniuses have come up with all these nifty prostheses that enable the formerly badly crippled and ruined to now exceed the capabilities of ordinary schmucks like the rest of us, I fear that will no longer be of any use. And now we hear talk of causing the blind to “see” and without divine intervention.

    Looks like death is the way to go here; I reckon self-defense, as in the Church’s definition of ‘just war’ is the key. No other recourse; diplomacy and other legal channels don’t work; waste the mofos. They use their free will to endanger themselves and the rest of us, and we shall use ours, as our host has expressed earlier, to rid the earth of them.

    Man, this new year is turning out GREAT so far! Solutions at hand!

  23. Chuck Waggoner says:

    Chuck says:
    Hmm. That article did not convince me AT ALL. In fact, it does the reverse by strong implications that man decides nothing, but some omnipotent source decides everything and man cannot escape it.

    Robert Bruce Thompson says:
    Chuck, can’t you see that by arguing that free will exists, you’re supporting the magical thinking that you say you disbelieve? In effect, you’re arguing that the molecules aren’t controlled by natural law, but by some untestable supernatural force (such as your own thoughts).

    No. The term is loaded, IMO, and cannot escape a connection with some endowment by a supreme being. If my decisions are all made by some higher power and I am simply an automaton carrying out instructions, then the religionists would still claim I possess free will because choice exists in the first place. Randomness, chemical conditions over which I have little or no control, still do not prevent me from always turning left at every juncture for the rest of the day–essentially rolling a 6 with every throw. It may be quite unproductive for me to do that, but I can. As Brad points out, my ability to do that is part of who I am. That my ability to choose is part of some endowment by a higher power — called free will — is what I reject.

  24. Miles_Teg says:

    OFD wrote:

    “And was it Coco Pops or Cocoa Puffs? You know, koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs? ”

    Coco Pops: http://www.kellogg.com.au/Home/Products/Cereal/CocoPops/tabid/323/Default.aspx

  25. Lynn McGuire says:

    Nice tribute to Dennis Ritchie:
    http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=20120101

  26. BGrigg says:

    Nope, it was Cocoa Puffs!

  27. Dave B. says:

    Alas, it appears the comment plugin I mentioned earlier is no longer free.

  28. Chad says:

    I’ve always preferred Serendipity to WordPress. Probably because it’s not WordPress and I get a kick out of bucking trends. Unfortunately, it’s not as popular so web hosts don’t typically have a one-click install for it. I come from a web development background, so setting it up is an easy exercise for me, but may frustrate someone not practiced at such things.

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