Friday, October 26, 2007

Blogging will be light for the duration

Two forces are conspiring to keep my posting light at the moment.

1. My current client's firewall settings disallow posts to the DD, although I can read from the site.

2. The Boston Red Sox are thumping the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.

Depending on circumstances, the lull should abate on or before next Friday.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Lockean Conundrum

Edward Feser argues that we are all Lockeans now, though he sees an inherent contradiction in Locke's simultaneous rejection of Scholastic Natural Law theory and his founding the theory of individual human rights on a theological premise:

In the beginning (of our story, anyway) were the Middle Ages, and the relative political, cultural, religious, and intellectual unity that characterized them. This unity was never perfect, but it was extensive enough that the traditional label "Christendom" aptly describes the civilization of the period. Two events shattered this unity: the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The first event put private individual conscience in place of public institutional authority, splintering Christianity into innumerable sects and setting off a series of bloody religious wars. The second dethroned the Scholasticism that had given an intellectual foundation to medieval civilization, seeking to replace it with a philosophy more conducive to justifying the political, religious, and intellectual individualism that the Reformation had spawned, while reigning in the chaos it unleashed. (As Ralph McInerny has put it, modern philosophy can to some extent be described as "the Reformation carried on by other means.")

There is, of course, a lot more to the story than this; the point is to highlight the factors most relevant to understanding Locke's concerns. (In previous TCS Daily articles, I have had more to say about Scholasticism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.) A devotee of the Enlightenment, Locke sought to replace Scholasticism with a new empiricist foundation for philosophy and science, to promote individual rights and religious toleration, and to curb the dogmatic subjectivism or "enthusiasm" associated with some varieties of Protestantism. A sincere Protestant himself, he also thought that much of this could be accomplished only given certain theological premises; and as we shall see, his thinking on this was by no means an arbitrary byproduct of his religious views devoid of independent intellectual motivation.

Scholasticism was a complex intellectual phenomenon, but for our purposes we might focus on its commitment to certain key ideas derived from Aristotle's metaphysics. Among these was essentialism, the thesis that everything that exists has a fixed essence or nature, also known as a "substantial form." Hence the essence or substantial form of a human being is to be a rational animal; and a person retains this essence even when he or she fails to manifest it perfectly, due to incomplete development, say (as in a fetus) or injury (as in someone with brain damage). In addition to this, the Scholastics followed Aristotle in affirming the existence of final causes - ends, purposes, or goal-directedness inherent throughout the natural order, independent of any mind, and in particular of human interests. Thus a bodily organ like the heart, for example, has the end, purpose, or function of pumping blood, the moon has a natural end or tendency toward motion around the earth, fire has a natural end or tendency toward the generation of heat, and so on and so forth. (Contrary to a standard caricature, these ends or goals were not taken to be conscious ones: The heart has the end or goal of pumping blood and the moon of going around the earth, but obviously they don't think about doing these things; they just do them. For Aristotle and the Scholastics, conscious goal-seeking of the sort human beings and other animals exhibit exists against a larger background of unconscious goal-directedness or teleology permeating nature.)

Now these metaphysical ideas had dramatic practical repercussions for morality and politics. For human beings, like everything else, have on the Scholastic view an essence or nature, and this essence or nature entails that they and their various capacities, from reason on down to the lowest biological faculty, have various final causes or natural ends or purposes. All of this, on the Scholastic view, is entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. But this essence and these final causes determine what is good for us: If it is of our very essence or nature that we and our various capacities have certain goals, ends, or purposes, then we cannot flourish except by living in a way that is conducive to the realization of these goals, ends, or purposes. Hence morality has a foundation that is also entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. This is, in a nutshell, the idea of natural law. Later Scholastic thinkers developed on this basis a theory of natural rights, on which a person's right to something - his life, say, or his property, or whatever - is grounded in his obligations under natural law to pursue various ends. If the natural law obliges you to pursue X, and the only way you can pursue X is via Y, then you must have the right to Y, otherwise you would be unable to fulfill your moral obligations. Hence, for example, since not being killed or deprived of a certain domain of free action is a prerequisite to performing any actions at all, including moral ones, you must have a right not to be killed or deprived of personal liberty, all things being equal. (The usual caveats apply for those guilty of serious crimes.)

It is all much more complicated than this, of course, but that is perhaps enough to set the stage for Locke. Modern philosophy and science, as represented by thinkers like Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, and so forth, are defined perhaps more than anything else by their rejection of Aristotelian Scholasticism, and in particular of the notions of final cause and substantial forms or essences. For the moderns, there are, appearances notwithstanding, no final causes or substantial forms in nature at all, or at least none we can know about. Hence science ought in their view to proceed on the assumption that the objects of its inquiries are comprised of inherently meaningless material elements governed by purposeless chains of mechanical cause and effect. This was not a "discovery"; it was a methodological stipulation, and it remains nothing more than that to this day. The reasons for making it were complicated, but chief among them were an obsession with quantifying nature in the hopes of making it more amenable to technological manipulation, and - not least - a desire to undermine what such thinkers regarded as the dogmatism of the Scholastic system. (It is also far more intellectually problematic than most people realize; indeed, the thinkers who made this historic intellectual shift understood its problems much better than do contemporary thinkers, who, generally speaking, simply take it for granted unreflectively and uncritically. I briefly discuss some of the problems with it here.)

Locke was thoroughly committed to this new "Mechanical Philosophy," as it was called. To provide it with intellectual foundations, and further to undermine the authority of Scholasticism, he developed his empiricist theory of knowledge and a corresponding metaphysics to replace the Aristotelian one. One result of this was a system of thought that severely curtailed metaphysical inquiry and any religious conclusions that might be based upon it. This skepticism, while by no means total, served to justify a doctrine of religious toleration: Since, given Locke's empiricism, there is very little to be had in the way of genuine knowledge where religion is concerned, we ought to tolerate a wide diversity of religious opinions.

Yet Locke was also intent on defending a doctrine of inviolable natural rights against thinkers like Hobbes and Filmer, whose advocacy of absolute state power threatened the individual liberty the Reformation and Enlightenment were supposed to have ushered in. How could this be done given his abandonment of the Scholastic foundations of natural law? Locke's solution was to draw very definite limits to his theological minimalism. In line with his Scholastic predecessors, he argued that the existence of God could be established through pure reason, by means of a version of the traditional cosmological argument. But to prove the existence of God is just to prove the existence of a divine creator of the world, including human beings. Hence reason shows that we are, as Locke puts it, God's "workmanship," "sent into the world by his order, and about his business." And given Locke's famous theory of property - that what starts out unowned can be acquired by "mixing one's labor" with it, as you might acquire a piece of fruit by plucking it from a tree - it follows that we are God's property. Indeed, since God created us ex nihilo or out of nothing, his ownership of us is even more absolute than our ownership of anything we can acquire out of raw materials we did not make. So to harm another human being in his life, liberty, or possessions is in effect to damage what belongs to God, to violate divine property rights. Talk of individual human rights, then, is a kind of shorthand for God's rights over us: I must treat you as if you had a right to your life, liberty, and property, because to do otherwise would be to offend against God. At the same time, our rights are not absolute; because we belong to God, we cannot damage ourselves (through suicide or debauched living, say) any more than we can harm others.

There is a rich irony in this. Modern people tend to assume that medieval thinkers regarded morality as grounded in arbitrary divine commands backed by hellfire, and that it was modern thinkers who moved us away from this crude understanding. Yet in fact the Scholastics thought that, at least to a very large extent, the demands of morality can be determined through unaided reason via a philosophical investigation of human nature. If something is good or bad for you given your nature, it is good or bad for you whether or not God created that nature; hence the question of God's existence can be bracketed off. But Locke, like other early modern philosophers, denied that there is, or at least that we could know that there is, such a thing as human nature in the sense that the Scholastics had in mind, viz. the having of a fixed essence or substantial form together with its inherent natural ends or purposes. Lacking this metaphysical foundation for his doctrine of natural rights, Locke, the Enlightened foe of Scholasticism, has no choice but to appeal directly to God's will for us.

Locke, as well as all of us, do have a choice. We can appeal directly to our will for ourselves. The problem with Scholasticism, as described by Feser, is that it is impossible to establish inherent natural ends of physical entities because such a determination assumes a purposeful agent directing the entities. You can't say that the natural end of fire is to produce heat because one is assuming a creator or director of the fire wants heat as the natural end of fire. But it can be said that heat is a property of fire. Likewise one can say that human beings have a nature which substantially determines the most harmonious ways of arranging affairs between individuals in society. Though, without access to God's mind, if it exists, one can't know the inherent natural ends of that nature with regard to Him, but one can know the inherent natural ends that people apply their own natures toward.

So crucial, in Locke's thinking, is the existence of God to the possibility of natural rights, that he was led to deny that toleration ought to be extended to atheists. For "the taking away of God," he said, "though but even in thought, dissolves all." It is sometimes thought that his motivation was a mere prejudicial belief that atheists could not be trusted to abide by their promises and oaths. But it goes deeper than that. Whether or not this or that individual atheist happens to want to live a moral life, Locke's view is that atheism necessarily undermines the rational foundation for doing so. It is inherently subversive of public morality, whatever the motivations of its adherents. Contemporary conservatives would not go so far as to deny toleration to atheists, but many of them would sympathize with the view that at least a generic theism ought to inform public life, and that the moral and political order is unlikely to be stable without it.

In other respects too, contemporary conservatives are bound to find Locke's thought congenial, despite his status as one of the founding fathers of the broad liberal tradition in political philosophy. As was just indicated, Locke's criterion for denying toleration to a view was its tendency to subvert public order. This led him to refuse toleration not only to atheists, but also to any religious doctrine which bound its adherents to give their primary allegiance to a foreign power. Notoriously, this led him to hold that Roman Catholics ought not to be tolerated either, given their allegiance to the Pope. Obviously, contemporary conservatives would not agree with him on this. But many of them would say that radical forms of Islam, whose proponents' first (and indeed only) loyalty is to the international Muslim jihad rather than to the countries in which they happen to reside, have no right to expect the same treatment afforded to other religious communities. Whatever dangers some civil libertarians might see in such an attitude, it is certainly a very Lockean one.

A tacit Lockeanism may also underlie the attitudes many American conservatives have taken to international affairs in the post-9/11 world. Locke famously held that "all princes and rulers of independent governments, all through the world, are in a state of nature," meaning that the position of every government with respect to every other one is analogous to the relationship between individuals in circumstances where no government exists. This is so, in Locke's view, "whether they [i.e. 'princes and rulers'] are, or are not, in league with others: for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic." An international treaty, on this view, even if it establishes norms of international law or an organization like the United Nations, does not count as an exit from the state of nature as long as it falls short of the establishment of a world government. When you add to these theses the consideration that for Locke, "in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature" - that is, where no government exists, everyone has the right to punish violations of the natural law - it is easy to see why someone might conclude that in the international context, any particular government has the right unilaterally to punish another government for its violations of the law of nature (whether these violations involve reneging on its agreements, mistreating its citizens, or whatever). In particular, it is easy to see why many American conservatives would hold that the United States had every right to intervene in Iraq beginning in 2003.

Lockean considerations could even be applied to a defense of the controversial way in which the United States has treated enemy combatants in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Locke also famously argued that "captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties... cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society." In Locke's view, since someone who fights in defense of an unjust cause has forfeited his very right to life, he has no grounds to complain if he suffers some lesser punishment instead. At least with respect to those combatants who have engaged in terrorism, then, a defender of American policy could argue on Lockean grounds that there is no moral difficulty in detaining such persons indefinitely or applying to them rough or humiliating methods of interrogation.

None of this is intended as either a defense or a criticism of U. S. foreign policy, which is not the subject of this essay. The point is rather to underline the extent to which the thinking of many contemporary American conservatives reflects a broadly Lockean worldview. Indeed, a strong case could be made that modern conservatism (at least in the British and American contexts) represents a more purely Lockean point of view than that of contemporary liberals and libertarians, who also look to Locke for inspiration. Modern liberals would advocate a far more extensive redistribution of wealth than Locke could have tolerated, in the name of an economic interpretation of human equality that he would have rejected. Libertarians, by contrast, would radically scale back government in ways that Locke did not and would not advocate, eliminating public assistance for the needy and decriminalizing so-called "victimless crimes," all on the basis of a theory of rights very different from Locke's own. Both liberals and libertarians would eschew the theological foundations of Locke's political philosophy and his advocacy of a privileged place for religion (or at least a minimal theism) in the public square. There is a sense, then, in which today's conservatives are really just liberals of an old-fashioned Lockean sort who seek to preserve Locke's moderate liberal legacy "whole and undefiled" against the more radical contemporary liberals and libertarians who would, in their view, distort it by separating Locke's interest in liberty and equality from his commitment to religion and public order.

The "liberal" Locke

This does not entail, however, that contemporary liberals and libertarians do not have a Lockean leg to stand on; far from it. For one thing, whatever Locke's own intentions, the philosophical doctrines he put in place of Scholasticism do in fact tend to undermine even the few elements of that older worldview that he sought to preserve. As his successor David Hume was to show, empiricism, when followed through consistently, undercuts the notion of causation underlying cosmological arguments for God's existence. (It also undercuts the notion of causation underlying scientific inquiry, and indeed, the possibility of any knowledge at all. But that is another story.) The result is that Locke's theological minimalism collapses into a complete skepticism about religious claims in general - something Locke's liberal successors have quite naturally taken to justify removing even Locke's generic theism from any privileged place in the public square. And without either God or the Scholastic conception of human nature, the limits Locke would put on our rights disappear, opening the door to libertinism in the sphere of personal morality.

Locke's doctrine of religious toleration had in any case rested on a very restricted conception of what we could claim genuinely to know where religion is concerned. "Every church is orthodox to itself," Locke said, evincing the view that religious doctrines about which various denominations disagree must be treated by government as mere subjective preferences that ought to have, unlike his generic theism, no influence on public policy. He also went so far as to insist that "toleration" - not doctrinal orthodoxy, not apostolic succession, not antiquity, not holiness, but commitment to a modern liberal political ideal - is "the chief characteristical mark of the true church." When you combine all this with the radical religious skepticism entailed (however unwittingly) by Locke's empiricism, it is but a very short step to the conclusion that religious opinions as such and in general are as subjective as tastes in ice cream, ought to be kept out of the public square entirely, and are "reasonable" only to the extent that they subordinate themselves to the liberal conception of justice. John Locke is transformed thereby into John Rawls.

In opposition to the Scholastic view that the essences or natures of things are objective, existing independently of the human mind, Locke argued that "the essences of the species [under which things fall]... are of man's making." Thus, what counts as a member or this or that class of things is ultimately a matter of human convention rather than objective fact. Locke also famously held that what is essential to being a person is continuity of consciousness of the sort manifested in memory, rather than membership in the biological category homo sapiens. In these doctrines lay the seeds of the view that it is up to us to decide whether certain human beings count as persons, and that fetuses and those in "persistent vegetative states," since they are not conscious, ought not be afforded that status, or the rights that go with it. Though Locke himself would no doubt have been horrified at the fact, contemporary defenders of abortion and euthanasia have very solidly Lockean grounds for their position.

In several ways, then, Locke's epistemological and metaphysical views have implications that are far more congenial to the opinions of present-day liberals and libertarians than they are to those of conservatives. It is natural, then, if liberals and libertarians who reject Locke's theism but sympathize with some of his other epistemological and metaphysical views might see themselves as perfectly justified in picking and choosing those aspects of his political philosophy that they like and reinterpreting them along less conservative lines, even if the reinterpretation is sometimes a fairly radical one. Though their Lockeanism is less pure as a result, it may be more philosophically coherent.

Here many conservatives, though they are on the whole closer to Locke's own way of thinking, may for that reason find themselves in greater philosophical difficulty. For contemporary conservative intellectuals seem by and large to endorse the intellectual revolution that Locke and his fellow modern philosophers inaugurated. No less than their liberal counterparts, they tend to see the world in broadly empiricist terms, and regard science rather than metaphysics as the paradigm of genuine knowledge. Like Locke, most of them reject the suggestion that belief in substantial forms, final causes, and other Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysical notions is essential to a proper understanding of morality. They are also, in their own way, as beholden to the rhetoric of individual freedom and skepticism about authority as any modern liberal or libertarian. To the extent that these philosophical attitudes have the unconservative implications mentioned above, then, the conservative Lockean position seems threatened with the same incoherence that Locke's own position manifests. Liberals and libertarians, while less true to the letter of Locke's philosophy, can plausibly claim to be more true to the radical spirit that underlies it.


The lesson would seem to be this. Those who seek to appropriate Locke's legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all. One must either endorse Locke's revisionist metaphysics - his rejection of objective essences and final causes in nature, his reductionistic account of the nature of persons, and so forth - and abandon the traditional moral and religious elements of his philosophy; or, if one wants to maintain these conservative elements, one must reject the revisionist metaphysics, and return to something like the Scholastic worldview it replaced. One must be either a radical or a reactionary. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to be a Lockean.

I don't see a problem here, since the success of our form of government is not dependent on the fidelity to which it adheres to Locke's formulation of his theory, but on the fact that it works. Locke grasped upon an idea of how to best balance the powers of the state and religious authority against the freedoms of the individual, and it was a brilliant idea that proved highly successful. But idea men like Locke are sometimes off the mark when explaining why their idea works. Inevitably human progress is a trial and error affair, and philosophical ideas as such are not as important in ensuring the continued success of a new innovation as they are in generating an idea that leads to an experiment.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fast Facts Nation Redux

In July I posted on a lengthy article by Gary Taubes exposing the pseudo-science behind the anti fat campaign that inadvertently ignited an obesity epidemic in the US. John Tierney follows up with an article in the New York Times chronicling the shameful collapse of scientific peer review and the strong-arming of medical experts by political pressure groups that led to one of the costliest abuses of science and the public trust in US history.

In 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes. Alluding to his office’s famous 1964 report on the perils of smoking, Dr. Koop announced that the American diet was a problem of “comparable” magnitude, chiefly because of the high-fat foods that were causing coronary heart disease and other deadly ailments.

He introduced his report with these words: “The depth of the science base underlying its findings is even more impressive than that for tobacco and health in 1964.”

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros.

It may seem bizarre that a surgeon general could go so wrong. After all, wasn’t it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal “food pyramid” telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

I think we need a wall of separation between science and state.

Backpedaling for Jesus

The Catholic Church is finally learning which side of empirical facts to bet its theology on. It took the Church 350 years to formally withdraw its condemnation of Galileo. It hasn't waited that long to weigh in on Charles Darwin. In 1996 Pope John Paul II assented to the truth of the Theory of Evolution - sort of.

In a widely noticed message on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, sent on October 22, 1996, John Paul II noted that, while there are several theories of evolution, the fact of the evolution of the human body from lower forms of life is “more than a hypothesis.” But human life, he insisted, was separated from all that is less than human by an “ontological difference.” The spiritual soul, said the pope, does not simply emerge from the forces of living matter nor is it a mere epiphenomenon of matter. Faith enables us to affirm that the human soul is immediately created by God.

The pope was interpreted in some circles as having accepted the neo-Darwinian view that evolution is sufficiently explained by random mutations and natural selection (or “survival of the fittest”) without any kind of governing purpose or finality. Seeking to offset this misreading, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, published on July 7, 2005, an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he quoted a series of pronouncements of John Paul II to the contrary. For example, the pope declared at a General Audience of July 19, 1985: “The evolution of human beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality, which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.” In this connection, the pope said that to ascribe human evolution to sheer chance would be an abdication of human intelligence.

Cardinal Schönborn was also able to cite Pope Benedict XVI, who stated in his inauguration Mass as pope on April 24, 2005: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

Cardinal Schönborn’s article was interpreted by many readers as a rejection of evolution. Some letters to the editor accused him of favoring a retrograde form of creationism and of contradicting John Paul II. They seemed unable to grasp the fact that he was speaking the language of classical philosophy and was not opting for any particular scientific position. His critique was directed against those neo-Darwinists who pronounced on philosophical and theological questions by the methods of natural science.

When it comes to science the Church is like Lucille Ball in a skit from one of her early shows where she disguises herself as a dancer in one of her husband Rickie's night club shows. Not knowing the choreography, she tries to fit in with the other dancers, but she's always a step behind. But she's hopeful that noone will pick up on her missteps.

After stating that the Church is in agreement with the TofE, Cardinal Dulles goes on to point out all the ways that it falls short:

Theistic evolutionism, like classical Darwinism, refrains from asserting any divine intervention in the process of evolution. It concedes that the emergence of living bodies, including the human, can be accounted for on the empirical level by random mutations and survival of the fittest.

But theistic evolutionism rejects the atheistic conclusions of Dawkins and his cohorts. The physical sciences, it maintains, are not the sole acceptable source of truth and certitude. Science has a real though limited competence. It can tell us a great deal about the processes that can be observed or controlled by the senses and by instruments, but it has no way of answering deeper questions involving reality as a whole. Far from being able to replace religion, it cannot begin to tell us what brought the world into existence, nor why the world exists, nor what our ultimate destiny is, nor how we should act in order to be the kind of persons we ought to be

If religion was a source of truth and certitude, the world wouldn't be divided amongst 5 or so major religions and many times more sects. All religion can add to what science tells us about what brought the world into existence are myths, legends and folktales. Which are fine as far as they go, but they bring no certainty. The reason that the Church has had to backpedal so furiously in the wake of the scientific revolution is that it has imagined that its spinners of legends and folktales were in the certainty business.

In tune with this school of thought, the English mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne holds that Darwinism is incapable of explaining why multicellular plants and animals arise when single cellular organisms seem to cope with the environment quite successfully. There must be in the universe a thrust toward higher and more-complex forms. The Georgetown professor John F. Haught, in a recent defense of the same point of view, notes that natural science achieves exact results by restricting itself to measurable phenomena, ignoring deeper questions about meaning and purpose. By its method, it filters out subjectivity, feeling, and striving, all of which are essential to a full theory of cognition. Materialistic Darwinism is incapable of explaining why the universe gives rise to subjectivity, feeling, and striving.

And neither can religion. All religion can say is that subjectivity, feeling and striving come from "spirit", or "soul", which is like saying that light comes from "shiny stuff". It's just giving a name to the phenomenon in question without an explanation.

But the backpedaling from Darwinism continues:

Several centuries ago, a group of philosophers known as Deists held the theory that God had created the universe and ceased at that point to have any further influence. Most Christians firmly disagreed, holding that God continues to act in history. In the course of centuries, he gave revelations to his prophets; he worked miracles; he sent his own Son to become a man; he raised Jesus from the dead. If God is so active in the supernatural order, producing effects that are publicly observable, it is difficult to rule out on principle all interventions in the process of evolution. Why should God be capable of creating the world from nothing but incapable of acting within the world he has made? The tendency today is to say that creation was not complete at the origins of the universe but continues as the universe develops in complexity.

Phillip E. Johnson, a leader in the Intelligent Design movement, has accused the Christian Darwinists of falling into an updated Deism, exiling God “to the shadowy realm before the Big Bang,” where he “must do nothing that might cause trouble between theists and scientific naturalists.”

It's not that God is incapable of acting within the world he has made, its just that the best, most successful explanations for how the world as recorded by experience works are posited on the assumption that He doesn't. Why should scientists make any room for the divine assist in their theories when they get their best results by leaving it out? Johnson thinks he's arguing with the arrogance of scientists, but he's really arguing with the success of the materialist assumption.

Atheistic scientists often write as though the only valid manner of reasoning is that current in modern science: to make precise observations and measurements of phenomena, to frame hypotheses to account for the evidence, and to confirm or disconfirm the hypotheses by experiments. I find it hard to imagine anyone coming to belief in God by this route.

Who said that the purpose of science is to facilitate a belief in God? But Cardinal Dulles unwittingly admits to the incompatibility of science and religious faith here. He's essentially saying here that the scientific method won't provide any evidence upon which to base a belief in God. So much for reason buttressing faith!

It is true, of course, that the beauty and order of nature has often moved people to believe in God as creator. The eternal power and majesty of God, says St. Paul, is manifest to all from the things God has made. To the people of Lystra, Paul proclaimed that God has never left himself without witness, “for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Christian philosophers have fashioned rigorous proofs based on these spontaneous insights. But these deductive proofs do not rely upon modern scientific method.

St Paul also said that Christ is a stumbling block to the Greeks, and the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. Paul was no fan of deductive proofs.

"Justin Barrett, an evolutionary psychologist now at Oxford, is also a practicing Christian. He believes that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good God crafted human beings to be in loving relationship with him and with one another."

Whatever happened to Man's fallen nature, and the natural depravity of man? I'm no Calvinist, but it doesn't take one to say that if God crafted human beings to be in loving relationships with one another, then He has a quality control problem.

Cardinal Dulles rambles on, but the Church's defensiveness with regard to science isn't hard to detect. What starts out as a discussion of Darwin's theory of Evolution, a theory we are told that the Church accepts, turns into a self-conscious apologetic for why the Church is still needed to protect the world from Godless atheism. But the longer that the world gets along with Godless atheism without destroying itself, the less compelling the Church's warning becomes.

Monday Afternoon Puzzler

Speaking only for Team Testosterone, it wouldn't occur to me that there had been a sudden onslaught of unawareness.

However, based upon the number of women entering this store, located in an upscale shopping district, there is a crisis afoot.

Dunno, it seems to me they are using a battering ram on a wide open door.

On the other hand, should humanity be facing a burgeoning awareness crisis, you'd think the best shirt would be no shirt at all.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Vietnam Syndrome RIP 1972-2007

A strange silence has fallen over the Iraq war debate in the past month. News reports of American war deaths and suicide bombings have dried up. Calls by Democrat legislators and presidential candidates to de-fund the war effort and force a timetable for troop withdrawals have ceased. Yet no-one in the mainstream media will come right out and declare what they all know to be true: the war in Iraq is over. We won. Mission accomplished.

Bartle Bull of the Prospect has no such reticence. In an admirably concise but thorough history of the conflict he makes it clear why the conflict is essentially over, and how it arrived at that point. From his analysis it also becomes blindingly obvious why the Bush strategy to stay the course, and even to escalate the conflict with the surge of the past year was the right strategy, and that every Democrat attempt to paint the war as a Vietnam quagmire that was doomed to failure was wrong.

Iraq's Sunnis would not be needing the help of the US today had the Sunni leadership not made a historic miscalculation back in 2004. Saddam, a rational man, made an understandable but fatal misjudgement about the people he was up against, and paid for it with his throne and his neck. His Sunni supporters did not learn from this. Thinking they were dealing with the post-Vietnam America of Carter, Reagan and Clinton, they took up arms to prevent the Americans from delivering on their promise of an Iraq that could freely choose its leaders. The habit of centuries of overlordship also fed the Sunni miscalculation: to them, Shia control was unthinkable and so the insurgency was sure to succeed.

By the second half of 2004, the insurgency had had six months to show what it was capable of, and it became clear that its goal could not be the military defeat of the Americans. The Sunnis were now fighting not for a military victory but a political one, to win in the US congress and the newsrooms of CNN and the New York Times the war they could not win in the alleys and date palm groves of Mesopotamia.

With regard to violence against their fellow Iraqis, the Sunni strategy revealed itself quickly to be an effort to provoke the Shias into full-fledged communal violence and civil war. Such a conflagration would be so hot that even Bush's Americans would run for home. The key moment in this strategy was the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra. Until then, the Shias had shown great restraint at the stream of Sunni provocations. Shia cells targeted Wahhabis and Baathists, but mostly left the Sunni populace alone. Under the steadying influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their religious leader, the Shias endured mass slaughters in markets, buses and schools throughout 2004, 2005 and early 2006 without large-scale retaliation. As the main beneficiaries from the new Iraq, the Shias could only lose from a prolonged civil war.

The Samarra bombing seemed briefly to be the final straw. The Shia death squads, most associated with the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, long chafing under Sistani's restraining hand, were let slip. Neighbourhood cleansing began in much of Baghdad and went on for a year until Petraeus's surge began in February. It continues in many places where his troops are not present.

The world held its breath after Samarra: here, we thought, comes the cataclysm, the civil war that many had feared and that others had sought for three years. But it never happened. The Shia backlash in parts of Baghdad was vicious, and the Sunnis were more or less kicked out of much of the city. But over 18 months later, it is clear that the Shias were too sensible to go all the way. It was never a civil war: no battle lines or uniforms, no secession, no attempt to seize power or impose constitutional change, no parallel governments, not even any public leaders or aims. The Sunnis rolled the dice, launched the battle of Baghdad and lost. Now they are begging for an accommodation with Shia Iraq.

What is the evidence for this? This summer, Maliki's office reached out to Baathist ex-soldiers and officers and received 48,600 requests for jobs in uniform; he made room for 5,000 of them, found civil service jobs for another 7,000, and put the rest of them on a full pension. Meanwhile leading Baathists have told Time magazine they want to be in the government; the 1920 Revolution Brigade—a Sunni insurgent group—is reportedly patrolling the streets of Diyala with the 3rd infantry division, and the Sunni Islamic Army in Iraq is telling al Jazeera it may negotiate with the Americans. The anecdotes coming out of Baghdad confirm the trend. The drawing rooms of the capital's dealmakers are full of Baathists, cap in hand. They are terrified of the Shia death squads and want to share in the pie when the oil starts flowing. Both Izzat al-Douri, the more prestigious of the two main Baathist leaders, and Mohamed Younis al Ahmed, the more lethal, have been reaching out from neighbouring countries to negotiate an accommodation. Since the summer, the news coming out on the Sunni front has consistently been in this one, inevitable direction.

The Shia story was different. There have been two broad tendencies in Iraq's Shia politics: the pro-Iranian camp and the nationalist camp. Iraq has two great traditional pro-Iranian Shia parties—Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (the former SCIRI). They fought Saddam from exile and spent the wilderness years in Iran. Opposed to these two is the al-Sadr movement, which—under Muqtada al-Sadr's father Mohammad Sadeq, killed by Saddam's men in 1999—fought Saddam from inside Iraq and kept its sense of anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalism intact. Of these tendencies, only al-Sadr's rose up to fight the Americans.

Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement of a unilateral six-month ceasefire on 29th August was significant, but not for the reasons most apparent. Al-Sadr actually stopped fighting the Americans three years ago. He rose up against them twice in 2004, but since the end of his second uprising, his Mahdi army has focused its violence on Wahhabis and Baathists, with frequent clashes against other Shia factions. Al-Sadr's movement is splintered and immature. Its less legitimate fringes have been active in sectarian cleansing. Many who do have ties to his movement frequently work beyond his control. Some of these tendencies continue to direct violence against the coalition, but this is negligible compared to the force of a true Sadrist resistance, as anyone who was in Najaf or Sadr City in 2004 will attest. Since this spring, US troops have been comfortably based in Sadr City—the giant Baghdad slum that is the power base of the Sadrists.

In mid-September, the al-Sadr parliamentary bloc withdrew its support for Maliki's government, without providing a public explanation. This repeats a pattern. In April, al-Sadr withdrew his ministers from the cabinet in ostensible protest at the remaining presence of the coalition forces; while in December 2006 he did the same thing in protest at a meeting between Maliki and Bush. Each of these exercises was greeted as Iraq's latest cataclysm, but, in the latter two cases, a month or two later al-Sadr's chiefs were quietly back fronting the ministries that their minions had continued to run in their absence. The point is that having al-Sadr playing political games rather than military ones is the most positive thing that could be happening in Iraq.

Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's most successful, popular and important politician, has underwritten Iraq's progress towards legitimate politics since late 2004. His sense of Iraqi nationalism will never allow Iranian dominance; his fraternal stance towards the peaceful Sunni tendencies, and the sheer size and passion of his movement, make his support for the project of reconstruction and pluralism in Iraq the most important political factor in the country. Prospect readers will not be surprised to read that al-Sadr is on the right side of the key issues, and that this is helping Iraq get over its transition from 35 years of Baathism's murderous apartheid (see "Iraq's rebel democrats," Prospect June 2005). Since 2004 I have pointed out that al-Sadr, as leader of the country's largest popular movement, has more to win from a functioning electoral politics than from fighting the Americans who guaranteed the polls that liberated his people, or from fighting the Iraqi government of which he is himself the joint largest part.

As we have noted, the real al-Sadr ceasefire began three years ago. But by saying publicly, again, that his men are putting down their guns, al-Sadr is declaring in the most unequivocal way that the violence in Iraq is not in his name.

Iranian-made rockets will continue to kill British and American soldiers. Saudi Wahhabis will continue to blow up marketplaces, employment queues and Shia mosques when they can. Iraqi criminals will continue to bully their neighbourhoods into homogeneities that will give the strongest more leverage, although even this tide is turning in most places where Petraeus's surge has reached. Bodies will continue to pile up in the ditches of Doura and east Baghdad as the country goes through the final spasm of the reckoning that was always going to attend the end of 35 years of brutal Sunni rule.

But in terms of national politics, there is nothing left to fight for. The only Iraqis still fighting for more than local factional advantage and criminal dominance are the irrational actors: the Sunni fundamentalists, who number but a thousand or two men-at-arms, most of them not Iraqi. Like other Wahhabi attacks on Iraq in 1805 and 1925, the current one will end soon enough. As the maturing Iraqi state gets control of its borders, and as Iraq's Sunni neighbours recognise that a Shia Iraq must be dealt with, the flow of foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria will start to dry up. Even today, for all the bloodshed it causes, the violence hardly affects the bigger picture: suicide bombs go off, dozens of innocents die, the Shias mostly hold back and Iraq's tough life goes on.

The thing to understand about Democrat defeatism, both during Vietnam and Iraq, is that it wasn't so much driven by a conviction that we cannot win, but a conviction that we should not win. The Democrat vision of America is of an arrogant power that can only make the world worse by attempting to fight for democratic principles. No matter how miserable a nation's people might be under the yoke of an oppressive cultural or political tyranny, they believe that things can only get worse by actually confronting those tyrannies with force.

I'm hoping that one of the legacies of the US victory in Iraq is that the Vietnam Syndrome is put to rest for good, and that the majority of American citizens finally realize that the US is a force for good in the world. One can hope.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Slam Dunk

Proposition: We should not be so reluctant to promote the superiority of Western Values.

The link is to an MP3 podcast of a panel debate held a couple days ago in England.

Maybe it is just I, but the anti side was so lame they must have consumed most of the available handicapped parking.

At no point did they even attempt to elucidate an alternative, superior set of values.

At most points, they gave the impression they simultaneously had not read the question, had read it, but didn't understand it, and read it, agreed with it, but didn't understand their agreement.

Throughout, they mistook failing to live up to those values as the values themselves, and, particularly Professor Dalrymple, excused non-Westerners of any responsibility for their own actions.

Tariq Ramadan does a good rant, but really needs to practice misdirection to make it somewhat less transparently obvious.

I had always thought the Left analytically challenged. This is another data point in support.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Note to Self: Next Time, Enjoy the Product After the Harvest...

Police Stumble Upon Massive Indoor Pot Farm

October 9, 2007, (SF Bay area)

[All emphasis added]
OAKLAND -- Oakland police peeked through a door during a welfare check late Monday and could not believe what they were seeing. The two-story home was jammed packed with marijuana plants with an estimated street value of nearly $3.5 million.

Authorities said the bust was one of the largest in the city's history and when all was collected and bagged by Oakland police and DEA agents early Tuesday nearly 3400 plants had been seized.

Police initially were called to the home by a neighbor concerned because the home's garage door [...] had been ajar for a few days and the Mercedes parked in the gated driveway had not moved.

When officers entered the garage they noticed an inside door was open. Clearly visible was an indoor jungle of marijuana plants.

Agents said there were so many plants in the newly built home that it was hard to walk around. They added that it appeared the owner had also jerry rigged an illegal power source for lighting...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Quick, More Carbon Dioxide! Oh, wait, CO2 is barely a greenhouse gas...

Thanks, Global Warming!
By Chris Mayer

"The sea route running along the Arctic coastline of North America, normally clogged with thick ice - is nearly ice free for the first time since records began." - "Northwest Passage Is Now Plain Sailing," Guardian Unlimited, Aug. 28
[Emphasis added]

[Why] the sudden interest in the Arctic? There are two big reasons. First, thanks to global warming, deposits of natural resources once layered over in impenetrable ice are now easier to get at. Second, thanks to melting ice, some previously icebound shipping lanes are opening up. [...]

As a treasure trove of natural resources, the Arctic boggles the mind. By some informal estimates, the region holds 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. It could also hold massive amounts of crystallized methane - another potential fuel source. More formal surveys are under way by the Arctic lottery hopefuls. So in time, we'll know more about what Mother Nature has cooked up in the oven beneath the icy Arctic crust.

Minerals galore also lie untouched below the cold blue polar sea. One day, the region could be home to the undersea mining of copper, zinc, cobalt and diamonds.

In truth, these resources are still a long way from being developed. The climate is incredibly harsh, and easier-to-get-at resources still exist on the fringes of the Arctic. As an oil and gas story, this one has a long fuse.

The Arctic thaw's more immediate and bigger impact will be as a shipping lane. Since Aug. 21, the Northwest Passage has been open to navigation and free of ice for the first time. "Analysts... confirm that the passage is almost completely clear and that the region is more open than it has ever been since the advent of routine monitoring in 1972," reports the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans along the northern coast of North America. To pass through here from China on your way to Europe is about 5,000 miles shorter than going through the Panama or Suez canals.

As the Financial Times observes, "A ship traveling at 21 knots between Rotterdam and Yokohama takes 29 days if it goes via the Cape of Good Hope, 22 days via the Suez Canal and just 15 days if it goes across the Arctic Ocean."

An oil tanker could make the trip from the Russian port city of Murmansk to the east coast of Canada in a week by crossing the Arctic Ocean. That is about half the time it takes to get an oil tanker from Abu Dhabi to Galveston, Texas. [...]

More than 90% of all goods in the world, measured by tonnage, make their way by sea. [...] In recent years, the volume of container shipments has grown 5-7% annually - basically, doubling every 10-15 years.

The ships carrying those containers are getting bigger, and the old canals can't hold these new seafaring beasts of burden as they once did. The Suez Canal can still handle the largest current container ships, but not the next generation.

The Panama Canal is even smaller. It's too small for ships that are now common on longer shipping routes. Panama plans to deepen its channels and make them wider. But even so, the new Panama Canal won't be able to service the next generation of ships.

So it looks like the world will have a new navigable ocean. The effects on trade could be immense. Much shorter shipping distances and quicker shipping times will lower the cost of doing business. It could lead to big increases in trade and, certainly, a major shift in sea lanes.

A freer-flowing Arctic Ocean would also bring fish stocks north - with fishing fleets not far behind. It could mean a new boom in fishing for salmon, cod, herring and smelt...

Halo 3 is for Children

[All emphasis added.]

Can the PlayStation 3 aid cancer research?
An experimental science project reaches epic proportions courtesy of Sony's powerful processor.
By Ben Silverman
14 May 2007

While gamers endlessly bicker about which system will come out on top of the console war, a group of inventive scientists at Stanford University are concerned with a very different kind of battle - the fight against incurable diseases.

The university's Folding@home project focuses on protein folding, a chemical process that may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of diseases like Alzheimer's, Cystic Fibrosis, Hodgkin's and various other cancers. The team has created a program that simulates the nearly infinite number of ways proteins can fold, a system that requires a massive amount of computational power.

Instead of taxing resources by building a battalion of supercomputers to crunch the data, the Folding@home team decided to tap into the vast quantity of lonely home computers in the wild. And it worked -- since the program's inception in October of 2000, hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks have lent their computers' unused processing power to the project, effectively creating one of the largest distributed computing networks in the world.

But once kindhearted PS3 owners got involved, the numbers went from solid to staggering. Folding@home was tucked into a recent PS3 firmware update as a small icon found in the Network section of the console's front end, allowing users to willingly join the program in a few quick clicks. It has since blossomed, with over 250,000 registered PS3 owners donating enormous amounts of spare power in the name of philanthropic science.

"The PS3 turnout has been amazing, greatly exceeding our expectations and allowing us to push our work dramatically forward," said Folding@home lead Vijay Pande.

"Thanks to PS3, we have performed simulations in the first few weeks that would normally take us more than a year to calculate. We are now gearing up for new simulations that will continue our current studies of Alzheimer's and other diseases."

How significant is the sudden rise in computing power? In roughly one month, PS3s alone have more than doubled the output of all other operating systems combined, pushing the project towards achieving an unheard of petaflop of processing power. That's burlier than the world's fastest supercomputer.

Though much of Folding@home's PS3 success can be attributed to its ease of use -- the program can be set to run in the middle of the night, folding proteins while you snooze -- it's also tailored to appeal to the gamer mindset. Users can easily join "teams" of folders and watch as they rise or fall in the official rankings. A snazzy graphical interface shows the protein folding process itself in real-time; users can toggle between the traditional 'spheres and sticks' chemistry class model or a more organic (and somewhat creepy) fluid representation. You can even scan the globe for other PS3 folders denoted as tiny yellow lights.

Sony isn't the only one interested in lending some helping RAM. Microsoft spokesman Peter Moore has come out publicly in support of the program, though the Folding@home crew is skeptical that the Xbox 360 can handle the data as quickly as the PS3. Those are fightin' words, to be sure, but for once, the two companies are fighting on the same side.


Shock burns cable thief beyond recognition
Mon Oct 8, 2007

BERLIN (Reuters) - A thief in Germany was charred beyond recognition by a 10,000 volt electric shock when he tried to steal a live copper cable, authorities said Monday.

Police in the western city of Duisburg found the 32-year-old man's blackened remains by a set of cable cutters and pile of non-live cables he had already stolen.

Only because one of his hands survived incineration were officers able to identify the man as German of Kazakh origin.

"His fingerprints were already logged on police files," a local police spokesman said. "The force of the shock was so great that the hand was severed from his body."

Too Cool !

A Soviet Poster A Day

I love Communist art.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Soul or No Soul?

No, this isn't an idea for a new TV game show, but the central question of neuroscience, as described in the book "The Spiritual Brain - A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul" by Mario Beauregard. Bryan Appleyard review the book and describes the difficulties for both camps in the debate, the materialists and the spiritualists:
Neuroscience is a combat zone. It is here, in the human brain, that the final conflict between materialism and, to invent a word, soulism is being fought. For materialists, the outcome is not in doubt. Our minds, our selves, our awareness are merely the outcome of the electrical activity of the few pounds of hyperconnected matter between our ears. All claims to the contrary are wishful thinking or superstitious remnants.

But the materialists have two problems. Their certainty of victory is, for the moment, a leap of faith. There is no clear scientific consensus on how the brain produces the higher functions we call being human. And, second, the great mystery, the ultimate hard question, remains: How does matter produce mind, how can it? Irrespective of religious belief, immaterialism cannot easily be dismissed. What is the nature of what I am thinking and feeling now? To tell me that it is all a by-product of my brain is to tell me nothing. What I am is at least as real as the chair I am sitting on, and what I am seems to be immaterial.

Hard scientists and militant atheists tend to dismiss this as spilt religion or philosophical hair-splitting, a futile pursuit of an artifact of language. But all serious thinkers understand the problem. Most, however, will fall back on what the philosopher of science Karl Popper called "promissory materialism." We will, one day, find the material answers because, in essence, we must. There simply cannot be anything other than matter.

The problem with the spiritualist's position is that it can't be disproved. It posits a parallel reality, totally invisible to the material realm, but which is the causal agent behind activities in it. Materialist science can never disprove the existence of the spiritual realm, but it can discover material explanations that make spiritual explanations redundant. I'm not sure how a materialist neuroscience could ever pound the last nail in the coffin of soulism, for it seems there will always be a gap between a description of the interactions of physical structures within the brain and the subjective experience of consciousness.

The great strength of his position is the folly of the materialists. Beauregard continually draws attention to the scientifically dubious basis of their leap of faith. They argue that it must be so and then set about proving it. Their triumphalism - driven by big publishing deals - is their greatest weakness.

Why is it folly? Materialism has continually yielded new knowledge about the universe. It is a winning horse. It may be a leap of faith to believe that this horse will continue its winning ways, but the other horse in the race, spiritualism, never wins at all. It never even leaves the starting gate. The spiritualist leap of faith is to hope that the materialist horse will someday break a leg and be pulled from the race, and the spiritualist horse will win by default.

It is not a weakness that materialism has not yet explained everything. It is a strength that it continues to yield new and better explanations of things. Even if it doesn't provide the final, indisputable explanation for consciousness, it will provide ever better explanations of the mind that will benefit people with mental illnesses. I'm one of those who has benefited. Had the study of the mind never progressed beyond spiritualist hand-waving, I wouldn't be benefiting from the development of anti-depressants. Materialism has made the lives of countless millions of people better. So why are so many people against it?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Duck's Memory Bag - 1960

I was three years old when the theme from "A Summer Place" by Percy Faith and his orchestra became a hit. I don't remember when I first heard this song, but it was some time after, probably 1963 or 1964. My father purchased a reel to reel tape player/recorder, and the Greatest Hits of Percy Faith was one of the first reels that he bought. He'd play it on Sunday mornings after church, and I grew to love with this breezy, schmaltzy, waltzy, ethereal tune. The 60's musical counterculture, with all its edginess, was still a few years from full rebellious bloom.

If Susan's Husband's theory of conservation of angst is correct, then Percy Faith represented the angst-balancing maestro of heart-lightening fantasy for the war-weary Greatest Generation.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bigger Is Better, Except When It’s Not

Published: September 27, 2007

[It] turns out that there are rules governed by physics to explain why the best distance runners look so different from the best swimmers or rowers and why being big is beneficial for some sports and not others. [...]

The rules of physics say that distance cycling and distance running are for small people. Rowing and swimming are for people who are big. The physics is so exact that when [Dr. Niels H. Secher, an anesthesiologist, exercise researcher and rower at the University of Copenhagen] tried to predict how fast competitive rowers could go, based only on their sizes and the weights of their boats, he was accurate to within 1 percent.

At first glance, a big rower (and elite male rowers can weigh as much as 250 pounds) may seem to be at a disadvantage trying to row hard enough to push a boat through the water. But because water buoys the boat, weight becomes less of an issue compared with the enormous benefits of having strong muscles.

Their bigger muscles allow bigger people to use more oxygen, giving them more power. It’s like having a bigger motor, Dr. Secher said. Bigger muscles, with their larger cross-section, also are stronger. And bigger muscles can store more glycogen, their fuel for short intense spurts.

The same reasoning explains why elite swimmers are big. Great male swimmers often are 6 feet 4 inches tall, and muscular. And because of the advantage that large muscles give for sprints over short distances, the shorter the distance an athlete must swim, the greater the advantage it is to be big. [...]

Distance running is different. Tall people naturally have longer strides, but stride length, it turns out, does not determine speed. Running requires that you lift your body off the ground with each step, propelling yourself forward. The more you weigh, the harder you have to work to lift your body and the slower you will be.

The best runners are small and light, with slim legs. “If you have large legs, you have to move a big load,” Dr. Secher said. “The smaller you are, the better you are.”

Of course, there are a few exceptions to the scaling rules. There was the Australian runner Derek Clayton, who weighed 160 pounds and set a world marathon mark in 1969.

And there is Tom Fleming, who won the New York City Marathon in 1973 and 1975. He is 6-foot-1, and while he ran his fastest marathon, 2 hours 12 minutes, weighing 159 pounds, he ran the Boston Marathon in 2 hours 14 minutes weighing 179 pounds. “I tell people that’s the fat-man record of Boston,” he said.

The tallest elite marathoner today, Robert Cheruiyot, is 6-foot-2. But he weighs only 143 pounds. Most elite male marathoners, [Dr. Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic] notes, are between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-11 and weigh between 120 and 140 pounds. In distance running, he said, “you just don’t find many big people.” ...

Amusing, Now That We've Won

We remember visiting the Soviet Union in the mid-'80s. We were on a Soviet commercial airplane from Moscow to Minsk, a distance of several hundred miles. Next to us there was a young woman with a toilet seat in her lap.

When we tried to fasten our seat belt we noticed that it didn't work.

"Don't worry about that," she said. "They never work." Then, lifting hers in the air... "Look, mine's not even attached to anything."

Later, we asked:

"Why are you carrying a toilet seat?"

"Oh...there aren't any toilet seats in Minsk. So, I went to Moscow to buy one. You know, all the airline prices are controlled. So, the flight only cost me about $10. And the toilet seat only cost about $1.50. You just have to find one!"

~ Bill Bonner

More Reasons Why the Middle East, and by Extension Muslim Aggression, Will be Kaput by Mid-century

Oh, and of course: "'Peak Oil' - so what."
Ethanol, schmethanol
From The Economist print edition

[All emphasis added.]
SOMETIMES you do things simply because you know how to. People have known how to make ethanol since the dawn of civilisation, if not before. [...] Yet such things do not stop ethanol from being a lousy fuel. To solve that, the biotechnologists argue, you need to make a better fuel. [...]

The first step on the road has been butanol. This is also a type of alcohol that can be made by fermenting sugar (though the fermentation is done by a species of bacterium rather than by yeast), and it has some advantages over ethanol. It has more carbon atoms in its molecules (four, instead of two), which means more energy per litre—though it is still only 85% as rich as petrol. It also has a lower tendency to absorb water from the atmosphere.

A joint venture between DuPont, a large American chemical company, and BP, a British energy firm, has worked out how to industrialise the process of making biobutanol, as the chemical is commonly known when it is the product of fermentation. Although BP plans to start selling the stuff in the next few weeks (mixed with petrol, to start with), the truth is that butanol is not all that much better than ethanol. The interesting activity is elsewhere.

One route might be to go for yet-larger (and thus energy-richer) alcohol molecules. Any simple alcohol is composed of a number of carbon and hydrogen atoms (like a hydrocarbon such as petrol) together with a single oxygen atom. In practice, this game of topping up the carbon content to make a better fuel stops with octanol (eight carbon atoms) as anything bigger tends to freeze at temperatures that might be encountered in winter. But living things are familiar with alcohols. Their enzymes are geared up to cope with them. This makes the biotechnologists' task that much easier.

The idea of engineering enzymes to make octanol was what first brought Codexis, a small biotechnology firm based in Redwood City, California, into the field. [...] Codexis controls most of the important patents for what is known as molecular evolution. [...] It creates lots of variations on a theme, throws away the ones it does not want, and shuffles the rest in a process akin to sex. It then repeats the process on the survivors until something useful emerges. [...] The result, according to Codexis's boss, Alan Shaw, is enzymes that can perform chemical transformations unknown in nature. [...]

Codexis's attention [is now focused] on molecules even more chemically similar to petrol. The twist that Codexis brings is that unlike petrol, of which each batch from the refinery is chemically different from the others (because the crude oil from which it is derived is an arbitrary mixture of hydrocarbon molecules), biopetrol could be turned out exactly the same, again and again, and thus designed to have the optimal mixture of properties required of a motor fuel.

Exactly which molecules Codexis is most interested in these days, Dr Shaw is not yet willing to say. But Amyris Biotechnologies, which is also based in California, [...] has been working on a type of isoprenoid (a class of chemicals that include rubber).

Unlike Codexis, which deals in purified enzymes, Amyris employs a technique called synthetic biology, which turns living organisms into chemical reactors by assembling novel biochemical pathways within them. [Amyris founder] Dr Keasling and his colleagues scour the world for suitable enzymes, tweak them to make them work better, then sew the genes for the tweaked enzymes into a bacterium that thus turns out the desired product. [...]

Isoprenoids have the advantage that, like alcohols, they are part of the natural biochemistry of many organisms. Enzymes to handle them are thus easy to come by. They have the additional advantage that some are pure hydrocarbons, like petrol. With a little judicious searching, Amyris thinks it has come up with isoprenoids that have the right characteristics to substitute for petrol.

The third Californian firm in the business, LS9 of San Carlos, [...] also uses synthetic biology, but it has concentrated on controlling the pathways that make fatty acids. Like alcohols, fatty acids are molecules that have lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, and a small amount of oxygen (in their case two oxygen atoms, rather than one). Plant oils consist of fatty acids combined with glycerol—and these fatty acids (for example, those from palm oil) are the main raw material for the biodiesel already sold today.

LS9 has used its technology to turn microbes into factories for fatty acids containing between eight and 20 carbon atoms—the optimal number for biodiesel. But it also plans to make what it calls “biocrude”. In this case the fatty acids would have 18-30 carbon atoms, and the final stage of the synthetic pathway would clip off the oxygen atoms to create pure hydrocarbons. This biocrude could be fed directly into existing oil refineries, without any need to modify them...

Yay us.

Sign o' the Times

Wal-Mart chops toy prices extra early
World's largest retailer ignites holiday price war in October by announcing deep discounts on some holiday toys.

By Parija B. Kavilanz, senior writer
October 1 2007

NEW YORK ( -- It's only the first day of October but Wal-Mart set the ball rolling on holiday price wars Monday by announcing deep discounts on some popular toys for the holiday shopping season. [...]

Typically, November and December account for as much as 50 percent of retailers' annual profits and sales...

It ain't 'cause they think the economy's firing on all cylinders and the upcoming shopping season's going to be a blockbuster...