Monday, December 22, 2008


I saw a video today of Randy Pausch's last lecture. He talked about achieving his childhood goals and the importance of inspiring the next generation to dream of doing great things in the future as well. One of the things I would like to do is take my time and learn how use wood in the building of useful things, nice things like furniture, like Roy Underhill or Norm Abram makes. I enrolled in a woodworking class in junior high school (a sort of right of passage in America) and didn't really take it seriously. There is a lot to learn, but I only want to learn as much as I need to do what I want. The first thing I'd like to build is a nice aquarium stand for a few aquariums. I looked up do-it-yourself articles on how to make one, and they range from the extremely simple stack of cinder blocks approach through to the use of some joinery methods. I might use commercially available stand construction as a guide. The cost of building versus buying pre-made might be interesting to find out. I could take my time and make something nice. The key it seems is to use good materials, like straight wood, and measure accurately for each cut. Now that I think about it, there are actually at least 12 things I would like to make... this could take a while. To the drawing board!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

a convenient fiction

On my way to work today I was listening to "O Holy Night" on a local radio station that plays Christmas music nonstop this time of year. It is a beautiful song that was composed in 1847. The religious subject gave me pause for thought and reason for hope. Religion can only be enjoyed by suspending rational thought. I cannot pretend it is still alive and well in the world today. No, it is sick and diseased. It cannot withstand the assault of criticism, a fact that atheists take much sadistic delight in pointing out. Reformationists like John Shelby Spong and Gretta Vosper are engaged in a futile struggle to salvage anything after allowing criticism to do its work. Christianity will not survive, it is an anachronistic world view, a misrepresentation of reality, and faith in it can be a very dangerous thing to have. We should never mistake illusion for reality, or place our faith in something that has no rightful claim to it.

But we live in a world of illusion, not just in religion but everywhere. And though we try to escape it by pursing physicalism, the philosophical perspective of science, I think honesty demands we admit that illusion pervades everything. It may be true that all we can be assured of in life is naked experience, but I think illusion is not something to be ostracized from our minds. It should be acknowledged and enjoyed for what it is. Illusion is, after all, the mother of reason. This Christmas season, I plan to acknowledge illusion and enjoy it. If believing religion is reality has led humanity down the wrong path many times before, perhaps believing it is illusion will take the teeth out of it and prevent us from doing so again. We don't need to get rid of it or substantially change its content, but just change the way we look at it. Then we can still enjoy it in much the same way we did before. Fact or fiction has little to do with pleasure.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

concentric spheres of social groups from local to global

I was thinking about how my life is fairly well laid out before me and I like what I see. It seems to be just maintaining and improving what I already have at this point, to a large extent. I was reviewing a workbook on citizenship completed by one of my students and began to reflect on the inclusion of this value in most ethical systems. Off the top of my head the definition of citizenship that comes quickly to my mind is a quote from Spock in The Wrath of Khan: the needs of the many usually outweigh the needs of the few. You're right, usually wasn't part of the original quote, but I don't think it is an absolutely true statement anyway. So what does it mean to be a citizen? A lot of social service organizations are built around this ideal, and I think Thomas Paine along with many other early writers had a lot to say about this subject. Incidentally, recently a civics class has become a requirement in the UK educational system. Is citizenship the same as patriotism or nationalism? No. Further explorations may be forthcoming...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

gift me, and gift me again

May I advocate intelligent gift giving this holiday season? An online gift registry that allows the listing of items from multiple retailers is ideal. It could even allow several people to contribute money towards the purchase of more expensive gifts that are often passed over by gift buyers with a fixed price range and no means of contacting others with whom they could collaborate.

Here are the features of one application, Family Gift Exchange, available on the Internet:
View and manage your:
Wishlist - The items you want
Non-wishlist - The items you don't want
Recommendation list - The items other people think you want

Have your own individual login
Indicate relevent website or purchase location for gifts.
Make recommendations for other users.
Choose whether recommendations are visible to the person you are recommending a gift for.
Approve or unapprove the (visible) recommendations made for you.
Indicate to other users that you have purchased an item on someone's list (without the recipient being able to see that you have purchased it).
Customize site colors, logo, and family name for your own family or group.
Easy to use. Even has a HELP page.
No longer just for weddings and baby showers, gift registries are for any gift giving occasion, including Christmas and birthdays! Why not? Wikipedia has pages with descriptions and examples of gift registries and online gift lists.

fairy flies

Fairy flies (Mymaridae) caught my attention when I saw a micrograph of one and was immediately struck by the unusual appearance of the wings. They looked more like small feathers. Due to the extremely small size of these insects they have a different approach to flight and would appear to be at the mercy of the slightest breeze, like any aeolian plankton. Not surprisingly, they can be found just about anywhere on Earth. Next summer I think I will take more notice of the chalcid wasps around my home, the broader taxonomic group to which fairy flies belong.

Monday, December 8, 2008

infinite food chains

What you eat is only as good as what it ate, which was only as good as what it ate, which was only as good as what it ate, which was only as good as what it ate, which was only as good as what it ate...

Yet another (potentially) infinitely regressing cycle! You can thank Ned Rozell for bringing this poetic theme to mind in the latest installment of his always interesting column, Alaska Science Forum.