Friday, July 20, 2012

In defense of Daniel Dennett

I just finished reading this post that discussed Daniel Dennett's impromptu response to a lecture by William Lane Craig (WLC):

WLC goes first with a 45 minute presentation including three primary arguments:
  • the contingency argument
  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the teleological argument
After that, Dennett was given about 10-12 minutes to respond completely off the cuff and impromptu (starts at around 45:00 mark.  Wintery Knight wrote a point by point summary of Dennett's talk that was, in his own words, snarky.  I recommend you watch the video (at least Dan Dennett's part) before continuing.

I'll respond to each point individually

  • Craig’s three arguments are bulletproof, the premises are plausible, and grounded by the best cutting edge science we know today.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
What Dennett actually pointed out was that plausible sounding premises is not enough to support an argument.  As Philip Morrison said, "Perhaps we are alone in the universe, or perhaps that's not true.  Both alternatives are mind boggling."  Craig's arguments push our intuitions into realms where they haven't been tested or have been known to fail.  A premise that is intuitive at this point is no more helpful.

Consider my own favorite example: the speed of light.  It's completely intuitive and obvious that when you push something hard enough it will move faster.  But when you approach the speed of light, that intuition that we rely on every day to interact with our world completely breaks down.  Dennett makes the exact same point with quantum mechanics.
  • I cannot find anything wrong with his arguments right now, but maybe later when I go home it will come to me what’s wrong with them.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Dennett tentatively conceded the validity of the arguments structure and the development of conclusions from the premises.  But as I said before his argument was that the premises are probably not true, so Dennett was always attacking the soundness of the argument.  When he said, "I can't pin a formal reductio on them, at least I can't do it impromptu.  There was an awful lot going on in that talk" that's completely understandable.  Craig gave 45 minutes worth of arguments and developments and you expect Dennett to formally rebut them all in 2?  Besides, the very next thing Dennett says is I can point to some areas of suspicion.
  • But atheism is true even if all the evidence is against it today. I know it’s true by my blind faith. 
     -Wintery Knight Post 
I don't know where WK got this from.  I couldn't find anything like this in Dennett's talk.  Perhaps WK thinks Craig has presented solid evidence and since Dennett disagrees with that assessment he must be dogmatically defending a faith position against all evidence to the contrary.  Define Irony.
  • The world is so mysterious, and all the science of today will be overturned tomorrow so that atheism will be rational again. I have blind faith that this new evidence will be discovered any minute.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Dennett talked about the cutting edge of cosmology and quantum mechanics being counter-intuitive and in large parts mysterious.  He also said that cosmology is in "a wonderful snarl" with no clear consensus over origins, string theory, multi-verse theory, etc.  The gusto with which Craig jumps into this fray, picks sides, and only presents the critiques offered by his preferred outcome is something Dennett says he does not share.
  • Just because the cause of the beginning of time is eternal and the cause of the beginning of space is non-physical, the cause doesn’t have to be God.
  • “Maybe the cause of the universe is the idea of an apple, or the square root of 7″. (HE LITERALLY SAID THAT!) 
  • The principle of triangulation might have brought the entire physical universe into being out of nothing. 
  • I don’t understand anything about non-physical causation, even though I cannot even speak meaningful sentences unless I have a non-physical mind that is causing my body to emit the meaningful sentences in a non-determined manner.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Yes, he's a philosopher, we've established that already. Clearly from the context Dennett is not endorsing the view that the principle of triangulation or the square root of seven created the universe.  He's not a creationist.  He's trying to address the assumption by Craig that non-physical causation only makes sense with a personal God.  His analogy of triangulation "seems causal."  You say, "but that's not really causation; well it's something like creation."  And as Dr. Craig said earlier "It's not really like causation when God created the universe because it's not physical causation!"  What do we understand about non-physical causation?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  We're guessing here and our intuitions fail.

Finally WK is superimposing his own dualistic view of mind onto Dennett by assuming it's contradictory to deny non-physical causation while your mind is non-physically causing things.  It is as much as Dennett's life work to show that the mind is not like that at all.  This is probably the most egregious misrepresentation so far.
  • Alexander Vilenkin is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • Alan Guth is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • This science stuff is so complicated to me – so Craig can’t be right about it even though he’s published about it and debated it all with the best atheists on the planet.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Craig frequently mentions Vilenkin and Guth because they were authors of the BGV Singularity Theorem.  The theorem, as described by Craig, proves that the universe had a beginning.  Here's how Vilenkin described it in an interview with Victor Stenger

[Stenger] “Does your theorem prove that the universe must have had a beginning?” He immediately replied,

[Vilenkin] 'No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.':

Also, Caltech Cosmologist Sean Carroll weighed in on the issue:
'I think my answer would be fairly concise: no result derived on the basis of classical spacetime can be used to derive anything truly fundamental, since classical general relativity isn't right. You need to quantize gravity. The BGV [Borde, Guth, Vilenkin] singularity theorem is certainly interesting and important, because it helps us understand where classical GR breaks down, but it doesn't help us decide what to do when it breaks down. Surely there's no need to throw up our hands and declare that this puzzle can't be resolved within a materialist framework. Invoking God to fill this particular gap is just as premature and unwarranted as all the other gaps.'
Dennett only said that if they were here, they would disagree. Clearly, he was right.
  • If God is outside of time, then this is just deism, not theism. (This part is correct, but Craig believes that God enters into time at the moment of creation – so that it is not a deistic God)
     -Wintery Knight Post 
 This is only slightly incorrect.  Dennett referred to the changeless property of God, not the timeless  property.  A changeless God is a deist God at best.  Dennett's point is not that Craig has only thus far proven a deistic God and has more work to get to Theism; his point is that changelessness precludes the entity in question from ever being Theistic.  Even Craig's response that God entered into time at the moment of creation shows God making a radical change. 
  • If deism is true, then I can still be an atheist, because a Creator and Designer of the universe is compatible with atheism.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Deism is not compatible with atheism and Dennett never said such a thing.  What he said was in essence: if a deist God were to exist, I wouldn't care-it would make no impact on how I live my life or view the world.
  • I’m pretty sure that Craig doesn’t have any good arguments that can argue for Christianity – certainly not an historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on minimal facts, that he’s defended against the most prominent historians on the planet in public debates and in prestigous books and research journals.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Craig's "facts" of the resurrection argument is far from accepted by prominent historians.  Here's a couple starting points on the subject: Link Link Link

So in summary, Dennett's argument is not nearly as weak or ridiculous as WK thinks.  Dennett did an admirable job of questioning Craig's philosophical assumptions as one who does not share many of them.  Moreover he did it in 10 minutes which is equally impressive.  Craig can put out so many arguments in 5 minutes that it takes 5 hours to unpack and adequately address them all.  He's a tight speaker and his script is well rehearsed.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of TAM and T-shirts

So for those of you who, like me, have been trying to not pay too much attention to the sexism battles going on at FreeThoughtBlogs  and lots of other sites, here's the most recent happening.

A great number of feminist bloggers and activists have boycotted The Amazing Meeting in Vegas this year.  The most prominent group is the Skepchicks, led by Rebeca Watson et al.  Surly Amy decided to go to TAM anyways.  But when she got there, she saw Harriet Hall wearing this shirt:

Now, when I saw this I thought "Right on!"  A nice, simple unifying message: I don't choose to identify as a woman skeptic or a skep"chick", just a skeptic; we're all skeptics regardless of race, gender, or orientation and shouldn't need to specify.  I see this as a very positive feminist message, primarily that women shouldn't be treated or even named anything different just because they are women.

Unfortunately, Amy saw it differently:
I think one of the most hurtful things I experienced while attending TAM was Harriet Hall’s Tshirt that she wore three days in a row. I told her through tears, in the speakers’ lounge, that it was dehumanizing and gender/color blind and very hurtful to me specifically as a person who does have to deal with harassment regularly. I said I was glad she felt safe and that I wouldn’t have sent 22 women to the event if I didn’t think it was safe for them either. So who was she talking to?
OK, so it specifically singled out the term skepchick so it's a personal attack.  Alright, I'm sorry you saw it that way but I can understand that.  So how did the JREF handle it?
After I reported to them that the TAM twitter feed with the anonymous blogging from the event and Harriet’s shirt had upset me to the point of wanting to leave, I had security cameras trained on me and my table where I sat with my mother the entire time. A security/harassment person checked on me regularly. They said I was being monitored and recorded. It was intended, I was told, to help me feel safe but instead it just exacerbated the stress I felt. I changed my flight and left a day early.
So they took your claim very seriously, were concerned for your safety and continued to monitor the situation to make sure nothing happened to you?  What's wrong with that?  What if they had taken your statement and then left you to fend for yourself?  Would you be calling them out for not taking you seriously and ignoring blatant harassment? Probably.

I'm at a loss to understand what the proper response would have been if monitoring the situation and taking your concerns seriously is not appropriate.

Later in the comments thread, a poster named "Bob" offered a different perspective on the incident.
Hey, folks. I was actually there before during the Harriet Hall incident, and tried to be there for Amy because she was quite distressed. My name is likely in the report, since they took it down 
Within about 3 minutes of a trained staffer hearing that Amy felt singled out and targeted by attendees (and non-attendees on the hash tag), the anti-harassment person was in the speakers room, interviewing, gathering facts and formulating a response. Once statements had been taken, not 15 minutes later, he was on the phone with the head of the casino’s security to make sure that Amy was physically safe. And this wasn’t sexual harassment, but feeling singled out was enough trigger a MASSIVE response from the JREF. 
The volunteers were trained to have the consultant’s phone number on them at all times. When he was called, he did everything that he could to keep the situation from escalating and make sure that their guest was safe. I thought that real progress had been made, since Amy had decided to stay–I was really worried that she was going to leave.
I saw JREF take the issue seriously and act with consideration. Based on what I and others saw, it seems rather a stretch to use this incident as evidence that JREF/DJ does not care.
If what Bob says is true, then the JREF responded quickly and forcefully to even being singled out and feeling unwelcome.  It didn't even need to be sexual harassment to launch the JREF into action.  I would think that that's massive progress from any perspective.

But no, this t-shirt could become the next elevatorgate.  All that needs to happen is Richard Dawkins chiming in and we're back to square one. 

For a different, but much less friendly opinion of the incident, head over to Thunderf00t's latest post.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Transcript Tuesday: Walz V Tax Commission

I don't know why but I love reading transcripts from landmark court cases.  It really gives me a better understanding of the reasoning that led to the case law we have today.  These decisions come up almost daily in conversation (at least the type of conversations I have, maybe I'm weird).  
So, whenever I sit down and read one from now on I'll summarize and record my thoughts.  Hopefully it will help me remember them in more detail and further my understanding.

Alright, on to the first court case: Walz V Tax Commission (1970).

This was a landmark case in the case of Church Taxation. The plaintiff, a Christian property owner named Frederic Walz, sued the tax commission of New York City, arguing that the tax exemption for religious property forced him to make a contribution to religious bodies, thus violating his own freedom of religion. By exempting religious institutions from property taxes while they still enjoyed state services such as fire departments, Walz asserted that his tax burden needed to be increased proportionately to support these churches.

Walz also argued that the exemption amounted to a subsidy of religion, conferring an unfair advantage to religious organizations and violating the establishment clause of the 1st amendment.

The Tax Commission argued that singling religious institutions out from the class of exempt organizations just because they were religious would be a more egregious violation of the 1st amendment:
"...if you're going to say that religious institutions, who have the same legal standing, an economic standing, are nonprofit, engaged in charitable or education activities are thereby to be singled out and told that they can not enjoy the same exemption by reason those activities as other people, I do not see how you can face up to say that that does not inhibit religion in this country."-Mr. Rankin, Walz V Tax Commission

The court ruled in favor of the Tax Commission in a 8-1 vote, with Justice Douglas dissenting. The ruling hinged on two principles:

1. Churches receive the exemption as part of a class that includes hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, and other secular organizations. Thus the purpose of the law was deemed to not be establishing religion.

2. There is a difference between direct subsidy and tax exemption. By exempting religious institutions, there is "minimal and remote involvement between church and state and far less than taxation of churches." The court deemed exemptions to be a "benevolent neutrality" towards religion. Also, an exemption does not result in a direct transfer of funds from the government to the church. So even though the net result is the same, exempting churches is fundamentally different than paying them the exact amount they are taxed each year.

Justice Brennan summed up the difference quite nicely:
In the case of direct subsidy, the state forcibly diverts the income of both believers and nonbelievers to churches while in the case of an exemption, the state merely refrains from diverting to its own uses income independently generated by the churches through voluntary contributions.
Justice Douglas couldn't disagree more. Here is a bit of his dissent:
One of the best ways to 'establish' one or more religions is to subsidize them, which a tax exemption does...if believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers. A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of their faith… I conclude that this tax exemption is unconstitutional.

I'm inclined agree with Douglas and see the distinction between subsidy and exemption as spacious; the results are identical. But I also agree with the majority opinion of the court that singling out religion to be removed from the class of exempt organizations would probably be unconstitutional. What I would much rather see is that churches be made to qualify for that exemption under the same criteria that hospitals and non-profits have to meet. Currently, religious organizations are automatically exempt by virtue of being religious. But more on that later.

To close out, I love this little gem from the arguments for Walz. It raises a interesting questions about special treatment of religion even within the 1st amendment itself.
It is one thing to tax a preacher's property and another thing to tax his teaching.

For example, Mr. Justice Frankfurter said in very plain words, “it is alien to our constitutional system to suggest that it exempts church held lands from state taxation.” 
In other words, the Court itself has very plainly made the distinction from the direct exercise of religion not subject to a license task, and indeed, I hardly have to go further and state that if [the opposing] argument were true, would it mean that the great real estate holdings of our press and our T.V. organization should not be subject to tax because they are engaged in the exercise of the freedom of the press? 
It's hardly distinguishable. 
The land used by the New York Times to print its paper is just as much involved in the freedom of the press as the church building used in expressing religion.
-Mr. Ennis, Walz V Tax Commission (emphasis mine)

Amen Mr. Ennis. Amen

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Omniscience vs Rationality

Just came across an interesting concept in artificial intelligence.
Usually when we think of omniscience, we're thinking of an attribute of God a la Anselm.  But in artificial intelligence, omniscience has a different definition.

An omniscient agent knows the actual effects of its actions.

In other words, any AI program that knows the exactly what will happen for all its possible actions is omniscient.  By this definition, a good Tic-Tac-Toe AI is omniscient because it always knows the outcome.

By contrast, a rational system tries to get the best possible outcome given limited knowledge.  A chess AI would be a good example of this.  It's simply not possible with current tech to foresee every possible outcome or know the exact result of any given move.  But an AI can use its knowledge base to make rational decisions and still beat Garry Kasparov.

Further Reading:

Yahweh or Dr. Doom?

Kudos to the Ask an Atheist guys over in Washington for coming up with a brilliant example.  On the July 7th show, they invented a little game called "Yahweh or Doctor Doom?"  The rules are simple: guess if a quote is from the Old Testament deity or from the Marvelous comic book super-villain Dr. Victor Von Doom!

Since both are fond of speaking in third person, their names have been replaced with "Steve".  Also, any references to geography or time specific technologies have been redacted.

It sounds like it would be an easy game but it turns out it's harder than you think.  Try it for yourself.  It's more fun if you read them aloud in dramatic voice to your friends.

Yahweh or Dr. Doom?
1. "They will cringe at my approach and bow in my presence, and they will do it in fear for their very lives!  And I will be pleased!"

2. "Let all the world fear Steve!  Let all the people of the world revere him!"

3. "Serve Steve with fear, with trembling bow down in homage, lest Steve be angry and you perish from the way in a sudden blaze of anger.'

4. "Yes, the world is mine.  To mold as I see fit, to create a world as only Steve might."

5. "You will be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and an object of horror to the nations around you when I inflict punishment on you in anger and in wrath and with stinging rebuke.  I Steve have spoken! When I shoot at you with my deadly and destructive arrows of famine, I will shoot to destroy you.  I will bring more and more famine upon you and cut off your supply of food.  I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will leave you childless.  Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you.  I Steve have spoken!"

That's the end of the list Ask an Atheist came up with, but I can't resist adding a few of my own:

6. "Yet other enemies will come! Other battles will be fought! But no matter who the foe, Victory will be mine-for now, and for always!"

7. "I have looked into the future, I have seen how one violent action after another spins the world toward a future where all that remains is a burned out cinder."

8. "Cures for all diseases are found...hunger is abolished...and no one goes without.  In that world, there are laws.  To break even the slightest of these is to suffer immediate and terminal punishment"

9. "Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before Steve against the sun!"

10. "Their children shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes! Dash the young men to pieces...The children shall not be spared!"

11. "My vast and supreme will be done!"

12. "The clapping shall go on for another hour.  Have the first one who stops clapping brought out and killed."

13. "Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant."

14. "Only Steve dares to dream! All others serve."

15. "I do as I choose, and I answer to no one!"

16. "I have wiped out many nations, devastating their fortress walls and towers.  Their cities are now deserted; their streets are in silent ruin.  There are no survivors to even tell what happened.  I thought, 'Surely they will have reverence for me now! Surely they will listen to my warnings, so I won't need to strike again.' But no."

17. "Before this day is ended, mankind shall grovel helplessly at my feet."

18. "The welfare of my people is ever closest to my heart! What a pity I am so often forced to save you from yourselves!"

19. "I will make you as helpless as a blind man searching for a path. Your blood will be poured out into the dust, and your bodies will lie there rotting on the ground."

20. "Go up, my warriors! March against the land of rebels, a land that I will judge! Pursue, kill, and completely destroy them, as I have commanded you."

Go ahead and post your scores in the comments!

It's a lot harder than it sounds like isn't it?  What do you think? Any other suggestions?
Answers below

1. Doctor Doom.
2. Yahweh: Psalm 33:8
3. Yahweh: Psalm 2:11
4. Doctor Doom.
5. Yahweh: Ezekiel 5:15-17
6. Doctor Doom
7. Doctor Doom
8. Doctor Doom
9. Yahweh: Numbers 25:4
10. Yahweh Isaiah 13:16-18
11. Doctor Doom
12. Doctor Doom
13. Yahweh: 1 Sam 15:3
14. Doctor Doom
15. Doctor Doom
16. Yahweh: Zephaniah 3:6-10
17. Doctor Doom
18. Doctor Doom
19. Yahweh: Zephaniah 1:17
20. Yahweh: Jeremiah 50:21-22

Thursday, July 5, 2012

MN GOP. Better than Texas but still...

In case you haven't heard, the Texas GOP 2012 Platform is absolutely insane.
But seeing that got me thinking: "Surely all republicans aren't that bad?"  It seemed the easiest way to test this was to read the Minnesota GOP platform  for comparison.

Most of it was pretty sensible: roughly 90%.  There was one section that caught my eye though:

Emphasize Traditional American Values
We believe that every classroom should be required to display the United States flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. In keeping with our heritage, all history classes should include information about the important role religion played in our Nation’s founding, including study of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and other original sources.

We should continue to encourage the voluntary expression of religious beliefs and traditions of students. Specifically, educators who discuss creation science should be protected from disciplinary action and science standards should recognize that there is controversy pertaining to the theory of evolution.

We believe that K-12 public school teachers should not initiate discussion, teach lessons, or provide
resources to students on the topic of family structure, human sexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgenderism.

Instead, we should require that K-12 public school teachers teach about sexual abstinence, that premarital sex and extramarital sex is wrong, and that the use of contraceptives is not safe sex. We oppose the dispensing of or referral for birth control drugs and devices in schools.

Let me just respond to each paragraph in turn.

1. I think that patriotism is good, but it should be neither blind nor forced. Mandating the pledge has a taint of blind obedience about it that never sat well with me. Besides the supreme court has ruled conclusively on this and students are permitted to ignore any such mandate in Frazier v. Alexandre (2006).

As for national heritage, many religious people and many non-religious people were involved in creating our constitution, which together with the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment guarantees both religions free from government and government free from religions. The separation of church and state has led to both flourishing in ways we don't see in countries with established churches. Take the church of England for example, which has been reduced to utter irrelevance in the UK.

In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson spoke of a wall separation between church and state. Why were the Baptists so eager to build up that wall? They were being persecuted by the Congregationalists of Connecticut, their fellow Christians. The wall of separation has allowed religions to flourish and spread without interference from the government and by proxy other religions.

2. "We should continue to encourage the voluntary expression of religious beliefs and traditions of
students" In my estimation they don't need any help. Between YFC, FCA, CRU, Navigators, EQUIP, UMYS, JUMYS, and the students themselves there is plenty of voluntary expression going on. We don't need an illegal government intervention to encourage it, it's doing just fine. Also, the same law that prevents the government from encouraging these groups prevents the government from banning or silencing them as well.

I am surprised to see the words "Creation Science" as that phrase was ruled on explicitly in Edwards Vs. Aguilard (1987) and found to be unconstitutional to teach in schools. To say that teachers should be protected from prosecution for violating a supreme court ruling goes against the very core of our constitution. As to the "controversy" pertaining to the theory of evolution, there is no scientific controversy-only a political/religious one. The former type of controversy is the only type that should have any sway over what is taught in science classrooms.

‎3. This one is more difficult, because I do have reservations about having teachers give moral proclomations at the K-12 level. However, to not provide resources on this issue is equaly problematic because it perpetuates a culture of ignorance about the LGBTQ community. Utah has the highest teen suicide rate in the country in large part because they don't allow teens access to these resources. Gay teens are at high risk of suicide not because they are gay, but because they are told being gay is bad, different, queer, and many more unpleasant terms. Providing teens access to a community and rich, positive literature base is one of the best ways to help fix this problem. I see this plank as having the exact opposite effect: creating a sense of "other" and taboo around the issue. (Garofalo R, Cameron Wolf R, Wissow LS, et al. Sexual orientation
and risk of suicide attempts among a representative sample of youth.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1999;153:487–93)

4. I don't dispute that abstinence is effective as both birth control and an STI prevention, but Abstinence Only Education (AOE) isn't. Research by Kirby et al demonstrated that comprehensive sex ed was effective at promoting both abstinence AND other protective behaviors which together reduced teen pregnancy rates. Manlove Et Al described much the same effect for delaying onset of sexual activity. Abstinence is not 100% effective in preventing pregnancy or STIs as many teens fail in remaining abstinent.

These results are consistent with many other studies of the topic. To quote a meta-review of AOE by Santelli:
"Bearman and colleagues have examined the virginity pledge movement; they estimate that over
2.5 million adolescents have taken public “virginity
pledges.” They found that pledgers were more likely to
delay initiation of intercourse, 18 months on average for
adolescents aged 12–18 years. However, those pledgers
who failed at abstinence were less likely to use contraception after they did initiate sexual intercourse. At six-year
follow-up, the prevalence of STIs (chlamydia, gonorrhea,
trichomoniasis, and human papillomavirus [HPV]) was similar among those taking the abstinence pledge and nonpledgers.

Although pledgers tended to marry earlier
than non-pledgers, if married, most pledgers had vaginal
intercourse before marriage (88%). Virtually all non-pledgers who had married had sex before marriage (99%). Although pledgers had fewer sexual partners compared to
non-pledgers, they were less likely to report seeing a doctor
for an STI concern and were less likely to receive STI

I find these statistics appalling and eye-opening. If we really want to reduce the number of unwanted teen pregnancies, unsafe extramarital sex, and abortions (as I most certainly DO) then we must realize that AOE is at best an incomplete solution and at worse a direct cause of harm.

Texas (the great state whose GOP started this whole discussion) is home to perhaps the most adamant AOE program in the nation. Yet after it was introduced, their teen pregnancy rate increased to nearly 6.2%, the third highest in the nation. The REPEAT teen pregnancy rate is now the 2nd highest if I recall correctly.

J. Santelli et al. Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies
and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (2006) 72– 81

Kirby D. Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to
Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to
Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001

Manlove J, Romano-Papillo A, Ikramullah E. Not Yet: Programs to
Delay First Sex among Teens. Washington, DC: National Campaign
to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2004.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Enough Meta-Crap: On to the Robots!

Alright, I'll post more of my story and such later.  Now, I present a brief history of my favorite cool robots.

Big Dog demonstrates amazing balance and control over varied terrain.

The folks at University of Pennsylvania are doing some awesome stuff with quadrotors.

Robot snakes:

Cheetah Robots

When does a non-writer become a writer?

Writing has never come naturally to me.  I almost named this post "What the hell am I doing?"

I'm an engineer; the only writing practice I've had since freshman comp is writing technical documents (entirely devoid of 1st person) that are dry, descriptive, and boring.  Clearly writing compelling, persuasive, and interesting blog posts is not my strong suit.  But then again, maybe that's the point.  Writing proposals, technical documents, and lab reports every week leaves no chance to practice a more casual form of communication.  This blog will give me a chance to branch out and explore my writing style and rhetoric.

Normally when writing, I struggle and debate every single word and refuse to move on until each sentence has been perfected (an I rarely go back to revise my draft because I refuse to accept that it was flawed the first time).  But as I read more and more blogs and non-fiction books I've found that the style I enjoy most is more conversational.  When the author speaks to me directly and honestly I feel included in the conversation.  My favorite authors never just lay out facts and then explain them, they describe their own thought process as they explore the evidence and invite me to explore my own.  I want to emulate this type of writing.

So far, all of my posts have been a lightly edited stream of consciousness.  I don't set out with an outline and a fully fledged argument ready to persuade everyone to my viewpoint;  I think of something interesting to me and then start writing down my thoughts on the issue.  As I've said before this blog is meant to be a place to develop and articulate new ideas within myself.  I want to figure out what I believe through writing, not just write what I already know.

Also, it doesn't make much sense to preach to a following of 0.
Still: "If you build it, they will come."

A blog by any other name..

How to name your first and probably only blog?
The only advice I could find: A blog name should be short, easy to remember, and equal to the blog url.
I wanted to name it Tiny Robots, but it was taken (and inactive since 2004! Grr!).

Anyways, the name ties together almost all of my interests.  It is a reference to one of my favorite quotes:

"Sì, abbiamo un'anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot" – "Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots."

I first came across this quote when reading Dan Dennett's "Freedom Evolves".  It illustrates a materialistic compatibilist view of free will, and it does it using robots!

It touches on philosophy, science, robotics, religion, and by a large stretch of the imagination politics.  As such, it embodies everything that I want to talk about more or less.

To the point

Why am I doing this?  To be honest I don't quite know yet.  Hopefully by the end of this post I'll have it figured out.

Mostly I wanted a place to record my opinions and fun things I've learned about: a sort of public journal.  My views have changed radically on so many issues over the past 2 years that I'm still trying to piece the parts together.  I also realized that my brain is beginning to revise the history of my transition to make myself look better.  I don't want to delude myself into thinking I'm any smarter than I actually am, and I want to have a clear record of what I used to believe and why I changed.

I could keep a journal, but that doesn't allow me to reach out and interact with other perspectives and knowledge sets.  I strongly believe that the surest way to keep your beliefs firmly rooted in reality is to air them out in front of people who may disagree.  So, this blog was born.

What am I going to talk about?
Anything I want! It's my blog after all.
However, I do have a few areas of intense interest that will make up the bulk of my content.

  • Tiny Robots.  I'm an Electrical Engineer just starting out in the field of robotics.  I find robotics fascinating and every day something newer and cooler is invented that I just need to share.
  • Science: because it's Awesome!
  • Skepticism.  I identify myself as a skeptic, in the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, Carl Sagan, and Center For Inquiry sense.  I stumbled across the skeptic's movement about 3 years ago and it has become a central part of who I am, what I believe, and consequently how I go about life.
  • Politics.  I was born to a strongly republican family in a very conservative community and over the past few years I've shifted further and further to the left.  I consider myself a liberal leaning moderate at this point, but mostly when I talk about politics it will be when someone ticks me off by being idiotic.
  • Christian Apologetics and Religion in General.  I was an active youth apologist for about 8 years, and eventually that made me an atheist.   2+ years into my involvement in the skeptics movement, I had developed the mental toolset needed to honestly assess my own beliefs and slowly I transitioned into involvement in the atheism movement.
So that's the idea.  Perhaps I'm just talking to myself (and for a while at least I'm guaranteed to be), but I'm tired of just being a consumer of intellectual content.  It's time to jump over to the supply side and try to give back.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I will (hopefully-all experiments can fail).