Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Big question

A better question than asking if you are a monotheist, atheist, deist, polytheist, pantheist agnostic or any other combination of the above (indeed if that is at all possible) is one’s answer to the following:

Why does non-human initiated suffering occur (ie. Deaths by natural disaster, most disease etc)? (Human initiated suffering is more easily explained by the free will argument which sets up a whole avenue of debate that is not the intention of this thread).

The following is a list of the common answers given

a. They just do. Humans are nothing special. Change occurs and humans suffer as a consequence. Mother nature is a bitch at times.
b. God wants to teach us a lesson that will help us grow as a people
c. God is angry with us for our evil.
d. The answer will be revealed in time. God knows why. Those who suffer will be rewarded later if they are good.
e. God knows the full picture. We don’t. What we see is suffering may not actually be suffering
f. God wants to help but God is not all-powerful. There are forces beyond his control.
g. The Aliens are toying with us.
h. We are paying the price for errors in past lives.
i. We suffer now but will be rewarded in the future
j. I have no clue. Lets move on and deal with it.
k. God is evil. He indeed may be a demon.
l. Suffering makes us understand God more.
m. We really don’t mean that much to God….in all honesty he doesn’t care one way or the other.
n. God designed the universe but sits back now and certainly doesn’t micromanage.
o. The group of angels that God entrusted the micromanagement to are on strike.
p. Different Gods are battling with each other. This is the consequence of the fight.
q. Its all part of a giant conspiracy controlled by the Illuminati and their shape shifting extra-terrestrial bosses.
r. Random fluctuations of a butterflies wings….Chaos man.
s. God is being held hostage by Satan.
t. God is testing our faith.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ten Misconceptions people have about Evolution

1. Evolution is a Theory.
Correction – It’s a fact in that it does occur. Nevertheless the exact impact of the various factors that are behind it are up for theoretical debate.

2. Evolution has a direction
Correction – Direction implies a goal. There is no goal to evolution, nor is there any purpose it is merely a consequence of a variety of interacting factors.

3. Charles Darwin came up with the idea of Evolution.
Correction – No, he didn’t. The idea has origins in Ancient Greece and has persisted throughout western scientific history (although not with the mainstream support that creationist ideas had). Various scientists have tried to explain what its principle ‘cause’ was (including Darwin’s famous grandfather Erasmus Darwin) however it was ‘Chucky’ himself who came up with the idea of natural selection as the chief phenomenon that drives the process.

4. Natural Selection is the only driver behind evolution
Correction- Natural Selection is a powerful force but it is not the only mechanism. Genetic Drift can be important too.

5. Charles Darwin wrote the definitive all encompassing work on the evolutionary mechanism.

Correction – Darwin’s work on the Galapagos Islands (during his voyage on the HMS Beagle) were critical to the formulation of his ideas on Natural Selection but his work was far from complete. He had no understanding of the Mendelian Genetics (let alone DNA) and in a sense produced more of a macro approach to the science than anything else.

6. Darwin was a the only scientist at the time thinking along these lines re: natural selection

Correction – Much overlooked in the history of this fascinating topic is the work of Alfred Russel Wallace who had reached similar conclusions to Wallace. Darwin published before Wallace (although Wallace had notified Darwin beforehand of the conclusions that he had reached). Wallace was the product of a working class environment and in a time when class distinction was all important in British society Darwin’s ties to the establishment may have given him the edge in this regard.

7. Evolution causes organisms to improve over time.

Correction – This again implies direction. Evolutionary change favours organisms that are better adapted to the environment at the time. However if the environment had to change these better adapted organisms may find themselves on the short end of the stick and out competed by their peers who they currently dominate. In summary it is the environment that is the key.

8. Evolution explains the origin of life.

Correction – Actually it doesn’t. Science has several useful ideas how this may have happened (it also may not be a one time event), almost all of it biochemical, but the issue is far from being meaningfully resolved.

9. Darwin removed the necessity to believe in a God as a creator.

Correction – This is the classic Richard Dawkins argument that has some merit in a world of strict materialism but it still fails to answer the origin of life question mentioned in 8. In addition it is indeed possible that there may be subtle forces at play that drive evolutionary change that our material based science cannot elucidate. If God is indeed all powerful, then God can act with pure subtlety, bypassing our best efforts to notice such action. Remember our science is limited and has constraints defined by sensory and rational limits.

10. Certain features are most certainly intelligently designed.

Correction: Intelligent Design constructs (eg. clotting mechanisms, Flagella in bacteria, the eye) are an illusion driven by an innate human need to see purpose and meaning within pattern. Structures proposed by ID proponents may exhibit facets of design but these can be explained adequately by natural selections without the need to bring in a designer. Besides some designs thought to be intelligent fall short of the description…most notably the blind spot in the retina, our pharynx (which increases choking risks) and the narrowness of the female birth canal.

TV Series of Note

I don't watch much TV ...maybe three hours a week all honesty I prefer reading, writing, pissing on dogma (and leftists in the process) and annoying Dina. However I have managed largely through efficient selection to watch a couple of great shows over the last eight years or so. My Top Nine list would read (don't have enough for a top ten list):

1. The Walking Dead
2. Breaking Bad
3. Big Bang Theory
4. House
5. The Strain
6. House of Cards
7. Orange is the New Black
8. Boston Public (binged watched this)
9. Weeds (First four seasons then it seriously jumped the killer whale...forget about the shark)

I am working on the Americans and Under the Dome so I will let you know how those turn out. Since my watching extravaganza includes zombies, meth production, physics geeks, vampires, corrupt Democrats, women's prisons, dysfunctional high schools and dope dealing housewives, I am starting to wonder what this says about me. Now its true that some of these apparently disparate themes are not as unrelated as one would think at first glance. In fact all eight of them converge at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration but that can't be the answer. I bathe too often to be part of the Occupy crowd and there is that small issue of an ideological difference that spans a chasm bigger than the hole in Willie Nelson's bank balance. Suffice it to say I am without an answer at present so I will place it comfortably in the warmer oven and head off to participate in something even less knowable - deciphering my daughter's fashion preferences.

On Anti-Vaccine Hysteria

One reality that more often that not screams stupid is when the radical left and right come together on an issue that almost every reasonable voice on the center rejects. Typical examples include the negation of Israel’s right to exist, all too frequent 911 conspiracy theories, and the support of such charming personalities as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The latest cause célèbres to come to the fore is the dangerous anti-vaccine hysteria that seems to have crept into the thinking of those who navigate under the illusion of a purple sky.

While leftist anti-vaxxers normally case their argument in the context of nature battling artificial toxins (with a touch of corporate greed mixed in) those on the right of sanity are driven by the need to equate vaccines with some giant government conspiracy. Both viewpoints are dangerous and go against the single greatest weapon that we have against the slide into the sewer of wretched superstition – scientific evidence. Vaccines work and their development together with antiseptics, antibiotics and germ theory itself represent our most potent artillery in the fight against pathogenic diseases.

The demise of smallpox, polio, diptheria, neonatal tetanus, whooping cough and measles can all be credited to vaccines. The smallpox vaccine alone is estimated to have saved the lives of five million people annually.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

My Economic rant for the day.........

Pragmatism is indeed an American tradition/philosophy and many a president has deferred to such a policy in their tenure. FDR was no exception. However when one digs past the ‘myth’ that encapsulates the 32nd president it is evident that there are many fault lines that run through his presidency. I won’t get into his abuse of democracy in loading the Supreme Court with judges favourable to his political stance, or his anaemic response to the Holocaust, nor will I address the way he was consistently manipulated by Stalin in a series of dealings that set the stage for the Cold War. He did however have the foresight to realize that the US was the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and endeavoured despite much local opposition (many of whom argued along pragmatic lines) in assisting the UK and later the USSR (via the Atlantic Charter, Cash and Carry, Lend Lease etc) in their war efforts. This in spite of a popular (and arguably utilitarian) belief that such intervention was not necessarily in the best interests of the nation.

However there is much debate surrounding the efficacy of the New Deal, an initiative driven by an early form of Keynesian deficit spending, in turning around the economy. To begin with many people believe erroneously that FDR’s predecessor Herbert Hoover was a do-nothing President who steadfastly argued that the economy would turn around on its own. This is not the case. Hoover intervened significantly – he raised the top tax bracket from 25% to 63% (an increase that Obama can only dream about) and upped corporate tax. Like FDR (with the TVA program) Hoover championed big construction projects (most noteworthy the Dam that bears his name today). He greatly increased federal building programs and through his support of the Federal Farm Board provided the foundation for the Agricultural Adjustment Act (a cornerstone of the New Deal). These attempts at fiscal activism did not help, neither did the protectionist Smoot-Tawley Tariff that was designed to safeguard local US industry.

Hoover was an interventionist at heart and the record shows clearly that he clashed with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who favoured a hands-off-approach during the ten years in which he held this post.
What Roosevelt did was extend the policies of Hoover in an attempt to increase consumption. The economy did improve (but then the base was so low to begin with) but unemployment rates continued in the double digits until 1942 when the war effort was in full swing. US GDP rates finally matched their 1929 levels but this did not occur until 1937 and then subsequently dipped again when the US went into a secondary recession (at the time when the New Deal was in full swing). Also private consumption remained low (Wasn’t this the point of the New Deal?).

In researching FDR’s economic initiatives it appears as though many of the policies were cosmetic and made more sense politically than economically. The nation had to be assured that government was working for them and that’s what Roosevelt did. However the Depression dragged on for a considerable amount of time and the New Deal (following on from Hoover’s proto-‘New Deal’) seems to have delayed the natural recovery that is evident with all economic cycles (and that Obama and co. disingenuously take credit for in today’s context)

In the early 1920s, 1960s and 1980s significant economic downturns were cut short by tax reduction policy (+ managed spending). This however was not the policy followed by either Messrs Hoover or Roosevelt.

Political situation in Yemen

The Houthi Shi'ites are fighting against their Sunni adversaries but there is one thing they both agree on...each side hates the US and Israel. Like Syria there is no faction worth supporting here. File this under Jack the Ripper meets Ted Bundy.

On the Federal US Debt - Some Comments

Indeed I am a critic of Obama (no surprise there) but I am not a fan of George Bush either. The Iraq war was a bad idea (strategically as well as economically) and did play a huge role in pumping up the debt (lets not forget though that this was a war supported by many Democrats as well so no party is clean on this front – 58% of Democrat Senators voted for the war including Joe Biden himself).

Tax Cuts work to generate revenue if they are coupled with a decrease in spending (Bush did not do this). Lets look at some evidence – In the 1920s tax rates were slashed from over 70% to less than 25%. Revenues actually rose from $700 million + change to just over $1100 million – an increase of 60% or so. Kennedy did something similar in the 60’s reducing the top rate from 90% to 70% - revenues climbed by 62% (33% if you adjust for inflation).

By the 1970s many taxpayers had been pushed into higher tax brackets (by bracket creep). Enter the Reagan tax cuts of the early 80s that saw tax revenue increase by a whopping 99%. Now I no what you are thinking…Wasn’t Reagan responsible for the bulging deficit to begin with? To some extent…yes…but remember that Reagan did not follow the cardinal rule of reducing spending at the same time as dropping tax rates. The same was true of Bush Jr. almost twenty years later. However the world of the 80s was a different place and Reagan had the menace of the Cold War to deal with. A topic for another time.

So where does this leave Obama? – Well he obviously had faith in the tax cuts, in fact he signed a bill to extend them by two years in 2010. Where Obama went wrong though was just like the Republicans he increased spending, largely through his stimulus package and other initiatives – remember he also had a war to fight in Afghanistan (and later Libya) – and so the debt went up.

In summary there is strong evidence that tax cuts increase tax revenue but it has to be coupled with substantial decrease in spending to offset deficit risk. Both Bush and Obama kept tax rates low (to their credit) but both presided over notable increases in government spending that nullified these gains and have driven up the spiralling debt.

In terms of absolute numbers the debt has increased more under Obama than Bush but both have failed to demonstrate the necessary fiscal acumen that the holder of the Oval Office justifiably owes future generations.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Genocide in Africa

Why is it that genocide in African countries is so overlooked? I remember Rwanda in 1994 where 800,000 Tutsis and Moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu extremists. The world neglected to intervene (Clinton and Albright were loathe to admit that this was genocide in the first place) and far more attention was given to the Eurocentric Bosnian conflict that claimed considerably less lives. We argue that black lives matter but when the chips are down the world doesn't care (including so-called civil rights leaders in the US). Its disgraceful. The same attitude defined our response to the Biafra genocide, Darfur, the civil war in Liberia, Mugabe's post independence ethnic cleansing of the Matabele, the Mozambique Civil War, Sierre Leone, the turbulent Obote-Idi Amin Era in Uganda, the Angolan Civil War, War in the Congo and of course moderrn day slavery which is still rife in Mauritania and other West African countries (by some estimates there are 8 million slaves in Africa.

On Existentialism

Existentialism is a powerful philosophy in that it brings to the center and defines as paramount our very existence. In short it argues that we exist in a world where we are capable of thought and action and that we are ultimately responsible for creating our very own meaning. We must therefore embrace life but be mindful to live with the consequences of our doing. Our actions truly define us. Many existentialists have tended to see the philosophy as a natural consequence of their atheism but not all existentialists are/were atheists (Kierkegaard and Buber both believed in God). The image of Jean Paul Sartre is often associated with existentialism but a reading of his work shows that he borrowed heavily from Nietzche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard and clearly built on a dynamic that preceded him. Some have criticized the philosophy for setting itself up in a world of no purpose, a bleak dystopia of zero absolutes. I don’t see it that way. In fact I believe that it gives the individual something to aspire to. It returns one’s destiny to ourselves (where it should always belong) and nullifies the noise of mysticism that only serves to disrupt our rational thought.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Twenty Things Obama has got wrong during his presidency

1. Race Relations - His rhetoric and the presence of race-baiters in his administration such as Attorney-General Eric Holder have further inflamed this volatile issue. For a post-racial president Obama has done very little to heal the animosity that exists between the races (I personally believe that there is only one race – the Human Race but the left continues to keep the race construct alive). His handling of the Skip Gates and Trayvon Martin affairs are testament to this. In addition the tainted figures of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are regular visitors to the White House. It is well known that these two characters are regular problem makers (not solvers). Why then does Obama still give them the time of day?

2. Increased the US National Debt with a series of ill-conceived bailout policies and misguided Neo-Keynesian initiatives that has further made the great nation into the largest debtor entity in the history of western civilization. More debt has been built up under Obama than under any other president in US history. In fact the debt now stands at 105% of GDP.

3. Choked the Keystone Pipeline - which would have created much needed jobs in the US, solidified relations with Canada and provided a source of oil independent of the Middle East.

4. Killed several NASA initiatives (Moon , Mars etc)…Nobody is sure what the Administration does these days…This is a great shame as former Democrat Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were at the forefront advocating for NASA.

5. Wasted a large amount of taxpayer dollars on silly environmental initiatives such as Clash for Clunkers and Solyndra that have proved to be dismal failures.

6. Signed an environmental agreement with China which very much favours the latter giving them license to pollute for some time, while placing stronger environmental restrictions on the US.

7. Has promoted a PC culture in the armed forces that stifles criticism of Islam and favours sensitivity training over common sense. This was best seen in the secrecy surrounding the Nidal Malik Jihadist inspired killings. Obama’s relations with the US military have been poor at best. He has dismissed several generals and clashed bitterly with his first three Defence Secretaries: Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel.

8. Has failed to take a tough enough stance against Iran. His policies have rewarded the Mullahs with the gift of ‘time’ as they continue building up their nuclear enrichment program.

9. Threw a poorly handled and nebulous Obamacare strategy down the throats of the American people in a way that threatens the integrity of American healthcare coverage on many levels.

10. Pushed through an illegal immigrant amnesty directives that jeopardizes the rule of law and rewards those guilty of bypassing the system. His decision to go ahead with the so-called DREAM Act, which has failed repeatedly to pass through Congress, represents a huge slap in the face to those Americans seeking to enter the US legally. It is also doubtful whether the directives will stem the flow of illegal immigration.

11. Released several terrorists in exchange for Army deserter Bowe Berghdahl. Has released other terrorists as well who will no doubt reward the US by continuing their Jihad against the Great Satan.

12. Continues to use John Kerry as a blunt instrument to bash Israel over the head while ignoring Palestinian indiscretions. State Dept has poured much money into Hamas backed regime in Gaza who continue to advocate for the destruction of the State of Israel.

13. Used the IRS to investigate conservative organizations with many of the e-mails associated with this somehow ‘disappearing’.

14. Was caught on Microphone offering the Russians more flexibility on Missile Control. Talk about transparency. Ouch.

15. The Veterans Affair Scandal.

16. Endorsed the disaster known as the Arab Spring that has made the Middle East an even more volatile region than before. Sacrificed US ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but did little to support popular anti-Mullah protests in Iran.

17. Withdrew US troops prematurely from Iraq thereby facilitating the rise of ISIS.

18. Did not provide the necessary support to the US Staff in the Benghazi embassy attack (in fact it seems that neglected several briefings on this issue). His administration also lied to the public about the origins of the attacks blaming it on a cheap anti-Muslim movie while playing down the obvious Jihadist elements behind the killings. Shame on congressional Republicans for not following through with greater vigilance on this national security travesty.

19. Takes credit for US economic success (driven largely by the pro-market ‘Red State’ of Texas) that has occurred despite his actions rather than because of it. Administration continues to downplay the rise in U6 unemployment in the country that has risen during his term of office.

20. Has given a much needed lifeline to the Castros in Cuba who head a regime with a notoriously poor human rights record. Neglects to take Cuba to task for their assistance as torturers/interrogators of US POWs in Vietnam.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Personal Ranking of the Most Important Battles of World War Two

1. Stalingrad 2. Battle of Britain 3. Pearl Harbor 4. Atlantic 5. Normandy 6. Moscow 7. Kursk 8. Midway 9. Guadalcanal 10. Leningrad 11. El Alamein 12. Ardennes Bulge 13. Tunis 14. Leyte Gulf 15. Dunkirk 16. Mediterranean 17. Anzio 18. Iwo Jima 19. Okinawa 20. Tobruk 21. Arnhem 22. Coral Sea 23. Phillipines 24. Warsaw 25. Crete 26. Hong Kong 27. Norway 28. Monte Cassino 29. Corregidor 30. Gazala

Obama has a few positives to his credit

Just to show that I am objective here are Ten Things Obama has got right in his presidency 1. Removed the unnecessary restrictions on Stem Cell Research

2. Championed the Drone Strategy for assassination of Taliban Jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan (FYI though…The Drone strategy actually started under Bush).

3. Slapped Sony for caving into North Korea on the hacker issue (if indeed that is the full story….only time will tell).

4. Helped Israel (somewhat) access Steel Dome Missile protection system. Also limited his criticism of Israel during the last Gaza debacle.

5. Showed support for the Ukraine against Russian belligerency in the Crimea.

6. Maintained Robert Gates as Secretary of Defence during the crucial withdrawal period from Iraq.

7. Initiated the STEM program which will hopefully catalyze greater interest in science and technology for American students.

8. Obamacare – (on one level…yes) – I do believe that it will help those at the lowest income levels obtain the necessary health care protection that they need.

9. Gave the go ahead for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden

10. Helped rid the world of Muammar Gaddafi…although the alternative may be worse.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pity Ontario...

The Auditor-General reveals that the Ontario 'Lie'brals have blown over eight billion dollars with not much to show for it. Report seems a bit harsh but even if it were remotely accurate this is still disturbing. I am not sure what is more pathetic? The lack of respect that the Grits have for taxpayer money or the electorate, who keep voting these nimrods back into power.

Twelve Years in........What I have learnt as a science teacher?

1. Students care more about fairness than anything else. This seems to be a very strong human sentiment.

2. Make yourself approachable.

3. Kids don’t stay angry for a long time (unlike adults who can hold grudges for years).

4. Hands-on lab work is important for the learning experience in the sciences.

5. Don’t kill the fun of labs by burying the kids in one lab report after another.

6. Treat your students as human beings. Respect them and they will respect you.

7. Don’t underestimate the power of busy work but it should not be the mainstay of your teaching.

8. Nothing beats a strong explanation.

9. Keep learning as a teacher. Aim to know your subject matter inside out.

10. Encourage questioning but don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer. Don’t BS the kids they are smarter than you think.

11. Set the standards from day one and don’t deviate from them.

12. Frequent mini quizzes ensure consistent learning. Kids may hate the idea initially but will grow to accept them as it ensures continuous learning and less cramming for larger unit tests.

13. Homework allocated must be useful. It has to reinforce the big ideas.

14. Make sure the kids know what the big ideas are. Don’t let them focus on the grains of sands while ignoring the dunes.

15. Movies shown in class must be relevant and if possible entertaining.

16. Use humour when teaching. It makes the kids relaxed and they learn better that way. I am the king of puns (not always good ones either).

17. Have a realistic marking scheme that rewards methodology and thinking even if the final answer is incorrect.

18. Remember that your kids are human beings. Each class is different. Every student is unique. You may be teaching the same course (or subject matter) but your presentation of the material should be adjusted accordingly.

19. Keep challenging yourself to be a better teacher. Never stagnate.

20. Present both sides of a controversial issue when fostering discussion.

21. Make sure that the students are aware of the practical applications of the theory that they are learning.

22. Encourage innovative answers that step outside the framework of the traditional solution.

23. Challenge your students to make connections between the content learnt in one discipline with that of another eg. electric fields in physics can explain ion balances in the human body or Newton’s laws are very useful in kinesiology.

24. Use technology in the classroom but don’t let the technology overwhelm the environment so that the human element is sacrificed.

25. Make sure that you deliver the material to the students in an organized manner. Ask yourself….What misconceptions need to be addressed at each stage of the learning?

26. Hand back tests and assignments as soon as possible. The Kids like that and it will pay dividends as the end.

27. Worksheets are not an outdated learning tool. If they are well crafted in a manner that shows a progression towards high orders of thinking the students will gain from them.

28. Use the internet for teaching resources but modify accordingly. Customize to maximize learning.

29. Don’t let the kids bully you for extra marks on a test. There are occasions where extra marks are warranted but this is not always the case. Be flexible but firm.

30. Student groups must be balanced. Rotate group spokespersons and make sure that the spokesperson keeps the group on track.

31. Listen to the ideas and advice of other teachers even if they are not that practical (you can modify based on your own experience if you see fit).

32. Field Trips should align with the curriculum and just like in-class movies must serve as a vehicle for learning.

33. Build up a vast library of testing resources so that you don’t fall into the trap of recycling tests.

34. Lab Reports must be neatly presented. Make sure the students are aware of the positive impression that neatness conveys.

35. Be creative in your projects. I have had the students build pinball machines, Rube Goldberg devices, toys, bridges, trebuchets/catapults, kaleidoscopes in the past. Other projects have included graphic novels, children stories (focusing on a scientific theme), in-class debates and factory visits. Science Fair projects have their place but need to be well monitored.

36. Encourage your stronger students to write the myriad of interschool competitions available. Kids thrive from the challenge and will surprise you.

37. When speaking to the class. Make the sessions as dynamic as possible, The Socratic two-way method of questioning is powerful but one has to make a conscious effort to allow more voices in the classroom are heard.

38. Offer extra help as often as possible.

39. Make sure that supply teachers have very clear instructions. When you are absent those classes should not transform into a ‘lost’ period.

40. Above all else…Enjoy your teaching. Kids pick up on that and it benefits both them and you.