Dan Gardner, voice of reason

Dan Gardner, a columnist in the Ottawa Citizen, has this to say:

…a series of books doing quite well on bestseller lists — by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, soon, Christopher Hitchens — argues it’s time to be a lot less deferential to faith, and I have to say I find it hard to disagree. After all, we live in a time when blowing children to bits is an increasingly popular form of worship….Over on that side are the insane religious fanatics who fly jets into skyscrapers and march around with signs saying “God Hates Fags.” Over there are fanatical atheists.

Then there’s the problem on the other side — among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins who have been labelled “fanatics.” Now, it is absolutely true that Dawkins’ tone is often as charming as fingernails dragged slowly down a chalkboard. But just what is the core of Dawkins’ radical message?

Well, it goes something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so.

That’s it. That’s the whole, crazy, fanatical package….

When the Pope says that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow travellers say, well, prove it….

And for this, it is Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic on par with faith-saturated madmen who sacrifice children to an invisible spirit.

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

Here’s a book about another undervalued moment in American history: women qualified to be astronauts were repeatedly frustrated by a space program that kept moving the goalposts with the sole purpose of excluding them. First, potential astronauts had to pass certain physical and psychological tests, including sensory deprivation, in which they outstripped male candidates by many hours. Yet they were never seriously considered. When women passed that, they were required to be experienced pilots. When experienced pilots stepped up, they were required to be jet pilots. When they bought their own jet and logged the requisite hours, I they were required to have yet another kind of experience that they simply couldn’t get: testing military jet fighters. All that to be strapped into a can and blasted off.

"The Thing with Three Souls"

Yesterday’s New York Times piece about Philip K. Dick:

His early novels, written in two weeks or less, were published in double-decker Ace paperbacks that included two books in one, with a lurid cover for each. An editor once remarked,

‘If the Holy Bible were printed as an Ace Double, it would be cut down to two 20,000-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as Master of Chaos and the New Testament as The Thing with Three Souls.’

Hat tip to Kseniya from the Pharyngula comments.

Darwin and Punctuated Equilibrium

In general, Darwin insisted on writing of evolution as very slow and gradual. But his own colleague T. H. Huxley pointed out that he was hobbling the process unnecessarily by referring to it as always gradual. It is slow, if we’re talking of the formation of most species under most natural conditions. I think that Darwin’s own cautious nature and hatred of conflict led him to characterize evolution as slow, on the grounds that it would be less upsetting for everyone if it were.

But when conditions change rapidly, especially if generations are short, species sometimes change rapidly as well. The British people inadvertently supplied a new environment for mosquitoes when they dug subway tunnels under the streets of London. And, obligingly, mosquitoes that found their way into the system and stayed there developed into a new species (Culex molestus), unwilling to breed with its surface-dwelling, bird-biting neighbours (Culex pipiens). The underground mosquitoes learned to feed on rats, mice, and people. (They tormented the people of London during the Blitz, when the subways were used as air raid shelters.) The first section of the London Underground opened in 1863, and the new species was noticed in 1988, a span of 125 years. Of course, a generation of mosquitoes is only 3 weeks long, so 125 years is about 1700 generations if the underground mosquitoes were able to breed all year ’round. There are even genetic differences between the mosquitoes on different subway lines. So a small population can diverge rapidly from its main branch. (See “Rapid Speciation” for more examples.)

In a stable environment, the long-term stability of forms is only to be expected, since organisms are well adapted and any change tends to make them less so. But under selective pressure from changed conditions, a group can change rapidly. If a population on the fringes of a territory has adapted earlier to conditions that become more common, the “fringe” group can spread back into the main group’s territory. That can explain why, sometimes, a different form appears in the fossil record but the few, isolated transitional fossils of their changing are hard to find and perhaps never formed. This, more or less, is punctuated equilibrium: long periods of well-adapted fossils enjoying their optimum fitness, followed by changing conditions and their rapid replacement by a different form. It’s still descent with modification by natural selection upon variation. It’s still a natural process; and in our eyes it takes a long time.

In spite of Darwin’s usual public insistence on “gradualism,” which became really prominent after the attacks on the first edition of On the Origin of Species, he recognized the punctuated process as a likely scenario in evolution. Here it is, in his own words, from “Transmutation Notebook E:”

The more I think, the more convinced I am, that extinction plays greater part than transmutation. — Do species migrate & die out.?—

In the place where any species is most common, we need not look for change, because its numbers show it is perfectly adapted; it [is] where few stray ones are, that change may be anticipated, & this would look like fresh Creation. The gardener separates a plant he wishes to vary…

U.S. National Public Radio program “Speaking of Faith” has worked with the Cambridge University Library and Darwin scholar David Kohn to provide an online tour of Darwin’s Notebooks and sketches (whence I borrowed this image).

Outpouring of support for independent judiciary

The people have spoken. In Pakistan, An attempt to intimidate the Chief Justice and force him to resign has backfired. In an unprecedented outpouring of support, the people, lawyers, civil service, and unions, rallied to support the judge. Aitzaz Ahsan, lead counsel for Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, says that

“The people have given their verdict against the military rule and in support of independence of judiciary, sovereignty of the Constitution and rule of law.”

The article continues…. “[President] Musharraf’s decision of March 9 to remove Justice Iftikhar has backfired. It has put the country on an uncertain course and posed the first most serious threat to his rule.

“The chief justice defied intimidation and inducements during five excruciating hours in the Army House on March 9 when Musharraf handed him over the chargesheet and asked him to resign. Later for next four days, he was kept in confinement, severed from outside world in an abortive bid to break his will. On March 13, he came out of his home to face presidential reference in the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and insisted to walk down the 3km distance instead of accepting police car [transport].

“The manner of the removal of the highest judicial official in the country and the treatment meted out to him outraged the entire nation. Lawyers, political parties and civil society activists were up in arms and decided to boycott court, stage rallies across the country and outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad at every hearing date.”

Usability for Content Management Systems

James Robertson of Step Two Designs has just published a new article titled “Eleven usability principles for CMS products“:

* minimise the number of options
* be robust and error-proof
* provide task-based interfaces
* hide implementation details
* meet core usability guidelines
* match authors’ mental models
* support both frequent and infrequent users
* provide efficient user interfaces
* provide help and instructions
* minimise training required
* support self-sufficiency

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