29 July 2008 part II

Workout notes Lead a yoga-lattes class (yoga and pilates mix) and then walked 5 miles outside; I did 11 minutes slowly and then did some 2-1 (two minutes hard, 1 easy) to average about 12:30-12:40 a mile.

The right leg hurt just a bit (calf; behind the knee) but this is somewhat normal give the frequent storms that we’ve had. Frequent weather change bothers my “3 surgery” knee and sometimes the pain shows up behind the knee.

Posts will be all over the place today.
Here is the rough order:
1. Shooting at hte Knoxville UU church: another UU church holds a vigil.
2. Troublesome incident in Peoria; a Peoria UU is murdered under weird circumstances.
3. National politics: factcheck calls “foul” on a McCain attack ad.
4. Science: the “nature of glass” remains a scientific mystery!
5. Religion: yes, a recent survey shows some Muslim college students too comfortable with killing for a religious cause. But this attitude is not exclusive to Muslims.
6. Yet another new blog: though I surf for various topics, I often end up on blogs written by scientists or other academics.
7. Trivia about Monty Python’s film Life of Brian
8. Comments of books that I’ve recently finished: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb, One Car Caravan by Walter Shapiro.

Shooting at the Knoxville UU church: a UU on the Daily Kos reacts. This type of candlelight vigil is typical of what a UU congregation does, in terms of prayer services and the like.

Peoria, IL area UU- related issue. A new church member has been murdered by her son. That is bad enough; unfortunately some other ugly details are coming out.


Bond was set at $2.5 million Monday for a Peoria man accused of strangling his mother last week.

The death occurred sometime Thursday, when John Finnegan, 20, entered his mother’s room, found her sleeping and “swiftly killed her emotionlessly,” Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons said in court, repeating what Finnegan reportedly told detectives.

Mary Finnegan, 43, was found dead around noon Friday, when her other son, 23, stopped by her house and found her naked and wrapped in bedding.

During a five-minute bond hearing in Peoria County Circuit Court, Lyons said the situation had “peculiar” overtones. He cited a “consensual but inappropriate” sexual relationship that had existed between John and Mary Finnegan for about four years. John Finnegan said he and his mother had sex the day before he allegedly killed her.

Finnegan initially denied killing his mother but later told police he felt like he was “bottled up with rage.” He also told detectives he sexually assaulted his mother’s body and then tried to kill himself.

Lyons said Finnegan first tried to drown himself in the bathtub before trying to overdose on various household medications and pills. When that didn’t work, he grabbed some money and left the house in his mother’s car.

Of course, I have not read any place where evidence for this “relationship” has been confirmed by evidence. The mother had been bi-polar.

She had been a Roman Catholic but since had started attending the local UU church as was a casual friend of people that I know.

National Politics

Factcheck shows that McCain’s latest ad has a false insinuation.

A new McCain ad says Obama “made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.”

McCain’s facts are literally true, but his insinuation – that the visit was canceled because of the press ban or the desire for gym time – is false. In fact, Obama visited wounded troops earlier – without cameras or press – both in the U.S. and Iraq. And his gym workouts are a daily routine.

The Obama campaign canceled the visit with wounded troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Obama says, when he learned that the Pentagon would not allow him to bring along a retired Air Force major general who is serving as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. Obama says that “triggered then a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political.”

Not much has changed; as Obama claimed (while campaigning in the South Carolina primary): “they just make stuff up”:

Science Glass is, of course, common. But why does glass form? Believe it or not, this process is not as well understood (on a molecular level) as you might think.

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries. Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new. The tale contains a grain of truth about glass resembling a liquid, however. The arrangement of atoms and molecules in glass is indistinguishable from that of a liquid. But how can a liquid be as strikingly hard as glass? They’re the thickest and gooiest of liquids and the most disordered and structureless of rigid solids,” said Peter Harrowell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia, speaking of glasses, which can be formed from different raw materials. “They sit right at this really profound sort of puzzle.”

Philip W. Anderson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Princeton, wrote in 1995: “The deepest and most interesting unsolved problem in solid state theory is probably the theory of the nature of glass and the glass transition.” He added, “This could be the next breakthrough in the coming decade.” Thirteen years later, scientists still disagree, with some vehemence, about the nature of glass.

Killing in the name of god. Friendly Atheist points to a survey taken in a British university which surveys the attitudes of Muslim college students. 60 percent of students in Muslim student societies say that killing for one’s religion could be justified (remember this is the subset of students in these societies). That is troublesome. But is this unique to Islam? A study suggests otherwise:

In this extended quote I have taken from the book (starting on p. 255), Dawkins summarizes the results of what he calls “[A] horrifying study by the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin”:

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli school children, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’. . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 percent) in the middle with partial approval.

But when these same acts were done by a fictional Chinese general:

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75 percent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

Note about my source: this is yet another good blog that I’ve stumbled onto. Here is an interesting post from this blog:

Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny.

Here is something interesting: I find that I have my most open disagreements with those I am closest to. For example: I’ve frequently spoken of my friend Tracy Harris. She teaches at my university (and is a published author too) and we often go to road races together.

We were discussing the Israel-Palestine situation. I went on and on and she smiled. She said: “perhaps your opinions might be better formed if you knew something about the subject you are discussing” and gave me a reading suggestion. 🙂 The book was Oh Jerusalem.

Oh yes, we remain good friends. 🙂

Life of Brian tidbit The Life of Brian (Monty Python) is one of my favorite films. Here is one of the funniest scenes:

Here is the tidbit: the soldiers that you see are not Monty Python members; they are extras. They were put in the scene with no instructions other than: “try your best to keep a straight face”. They had no idea what the Pontious Pilate character was going to do. What you see is an authentic attempt to keep a straight face.

Books I am paid on a 10 month contract, hence I really do have a 30 day summer vacation (taken with my daughter). I get to blog, think about mathematics, workout and read books.

Here are a few that I have recently finished:

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Ok, this was my second pass. This differs from Dawkins The God Delusion in that Hitchens discusses several religions and points out what damage these religions have caused; the book is more historical.

Dawkins takes on religion, but mostly focuses on irrational thinking. Hitchens focuses more on how religion encourages tribalism and encourages bad actions and intolerance. There is some overlap but the points of view are slightly different. I can recommend both without reservation.

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. This book mostly focuses on markets and why one should be skeptical of things like “fool proof algorithms” and “records of past performance”. None of the statistical methods he cites are new, but it is interesting to see these methods applied to financial markets.

He points out that there are too many hidden variables and too much randomness to apply, say, the methods of modeling in physics to model financial markets. He also makes the following point: suppose you have millions and millions of monkeys making financial market predictions. Chances are that at least one monkey will be right every time (up to now). Our tendency is to label that monkey as a genius.

Hence, when determining those who know the market the best, we should also examine how that person’s recommendations have worked had the “improbable but possible” catastrophic event had happened; he calls these “rare events.”

One Car Caravan by Walter Shapiro. This was about the 2004 Democratic primary and mostly focused on the events that occurred prior to the Iowa caucuses. His main point appears to be that we tend to choose candidates on personality; after all, most Democrats don’t differ that much with regards to the issues.

Also, the stories about the various campaign events (gatherings in houses, speeches, forums) and how the various candidates acted in these. A political junkie will love this book.


July 29, 2008 - Posted by | books, Friends, humor, mccain, obama, Peoria, Peoria/local, politics, politics/social, religion, republicans, science, training

1 Comment »

  1. The Monty Python was just what I needed to cheer up my day :)! Thanks!

    Comment by Tammy | July 29, 2008 | Reply

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