Friday, September 30, 2005

Incompetent Design and Specified Complexity

In the course of my correspondence with “mike” (the ID apologist), he pointed me at a couple of links to ID information sites. I guess he hoped they would convince me that ID really is scientific and non-religious. Of course, the sites he directed me to do nothing of the sort. They’ve yet to show me a non-religious person who thinks ID is good science, and they repeat all of the usual false claims about the so-called “theory” of Intelligent Design (as well as the usual false claims about the Theory of Evolution).

One thing that I did learn, though, is that the ID community has backed away from the “irreducible complexity” argument (since it’s been shot to pieces so many times, I guess) and brought forth its red-headed step child: “specified complexity”.

“Specified complexity” is the notion that if a structure is both unlikely and fits a recognizable pattern, something more than natural forces must be at work. A common example is Mount Rushmore. Every mountain is unique, so any given mountain feature is unlikely, and all mountains are therefore complex. Mount Rushmore, however, also fits a recognizable pattern of four specific human faces. It therefore has “specified complexity” that indicates intelligent design.

For simpler examples, they’ll use a string of letters. In the example on one of mike’s reference sites, you draw Scrabble tiles from a bag at random and line them up. To keep the math simple, we’ll assume that the bag has one of each letter and that you replace each tile you draw with another just like it. Suppose you draw this string of twenty-eight letters…


What are the odds of drawing that particular string of letters in that order? Something like 1 in 4*10^39 (four followed by thirty-nine zeroes). It’s extraordinarily unlikely that you would randomly draw that particular string of letters. Now let’s draw another one.

What are the odds of drawing that string at random? Exactly the same. You might be fooled into thinking that the second string is more likely, though, because it looks more random. It doesn’t fit a recognizable pattern (English words that form a phrase that most Americans know). In fact, it resembles a sequence we would expect to see when drawing letters randomly from a bag or banging randomly at a keyboard; a string of letters with no recognizable meaning.

The problem with identifying “specified complexity” is that you have to have a context in which to recognize it. We recognize Mount Rushmore as “specifically complex” because we’ve seen many mountains, and we have expectations of what mountains shaped by the natural forces of continental drift and erosion will look like. We also have expectations of what man-made sculptures look like. On Mount Rushmore, we see shapes which are inconsistent with our expecations about natural mountains and consistent with our expectations about man-made sculptures, so we recognize a deliberate design.

But how do you recognize “specified complexity” without a context? If you were not familiar with mountains and sculptures and human faces, would you have any reason to think Mount Rushmore was the result of design instead of natural forces? It may not be as clear then.

Let’s use the simpler example of our letter strings. Suppose you were from a very obscure community in the remotest part of China. You don’t speak English, and you haven’t even seen the English alphabet. Under those circumstances, would the first string of letters look any more “specific” to you than the second? If you answered yes, ask yourself if the second string looks any more specific if you know that Omecihuatl and Acuecucyoticihuati are the names of goddesses from Aztec mythology.

This is the problem when ID advocates claim that they recognize the signs of design in something like the structure of the human eye or the bacterial flagellum: they have no basis for comparison. They don’t have a context in which to differentiate a designed structure from a natural structure. They can’t say, “We recognize that this bacterial flagellum is designed, because we’ve seen numerous examples of natural flagella and artificial flagella, and this one is consistent with the artificial ones.”

“Specific complexity” is a smoke screen, because there is no way to tell a designed biological structure from a natural biological structure. Consequently, there is no way to test a biological structure to determine if it is the product of design or natural forces. A claim that is not testable is not scientific.

I have to throw out a big credit to Jason Rosenhouse, the author of Evolutionblog, who wrote an excellent article that addresses the same subject for CSICOP.

Darwin's Chainsaw

This was apparently linked all over the place the first time Aeire posted it. I think it's time for history to repeat itself. Yes, it's a silly comic strip, but it's still funny.

Queen of Wands

Thursday, September 29, 2005

30-Second Movie Re-enactments

Just for fun, visit Angry Alien for some hysterical film shorts. Of course, they're much funnier if you've seen the movies in question...

Response to an ID Apologist

A fellow posting as "mike" responded to an article at Evolutionblog with some of the typical claims about Intelligent Design "Theory": it's not religious, it's based on science, etc. I posted a response on his weblog, but I thought I'd repeat it here.

Evolutionblog said...
Introducing ID into science classes is purely a device for using the public schools to promote religious propaganda
And mike responded with...
That's a subjective statement. I can also argue that promoting evolution promotes a religion as it is filled with inexplainable holes regarding the origins of life. Are you to believe in evolution in spite of these holes? You may if you have enough "faith" in evolution. And if you do then you can certainly construe it as being just another religious movement.
The claim that ID is just a device for promoting religious ideas in public schools isn't a subjective statement; it's an observation of the facts. Please, mike, name some ID promoters who are not doing it for religious reasons. The Discovery Institute has made their religious motivations plain, as have the pro-ID members of the Dover school board (when they think there aren't any reporters listening).
ID is no way religious. It may be liked by those religous, but that's hardly the same as it promoting a religious view. ID simply proposes that some "intelligent creator" created life. Whether that intelligent creator be something that religious institutions use to their benefit or not is not the fault of the theory of ID itself, but rather of the subjective religious believer.
ID is inherently religious. If you don't agree, please name some people who take it seriously who are not religious; name someone who seriously thinks that life was intelligently designed by someone other than God. ID is just Creationism repackaged to slip past the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and "Intelligent Designer" is just a nudge-nudge, wink-wink reference to God.
The legal issue being adjudicated here is whether the crazy people have managed
to be sufficiently dishonest about their religious motivations. That is all.

If the movement by the school board were truely religiously motivated then it would NOT be ID they'd be promoting here but rather Creationism.
The same people now promoting ID are the people who were trying to push Creationism just a few decades ago. Creationism got shot down by the courts because it was obviously an effort to push religion in the classroom, so they're now trying to disguise the religion enough to get it through by saying "Intelligent Designer" instead of "God".

The only mystery I see is this: How did a school district that managed to elect an anti-science majority to their school board manage to attract such a stellar group of science teachers?

The reason why you have such a "stellar" group of science teachers is because ID makes sense; especially when you compare it to the flawed macroevolutionary theory. The only "anti-science majority" is from those that believe macroevolution occurred by "chance"!

Mike completely missed the point; I'll chalk that up to a simple mis-reading of the statement in Evolutionblog. The science teachers are consistently resisting efforts to make them teach ID as if it were science. It's the school board that's promoting the idea. If ID is science based, then its backers should be making predictions and testing them to build evidence that other scientists will accept instead of trying to peddle the idea to school kids who haven't got enough experience to see through an Appeal to Ignorance fallacy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

SCA: Instructing at Fighters' Collegium

The Shire of An Dun Theine is hosting the Kingdom Fighters' Collegium this year, and Seneschal Ricarte Berenguer Halcon de Catalonia (known as "Hawk") has asked me to teach a class on fencing in the style of Joseph Swetnam.

I've mentioned Swetnam before. He's the author of Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, a manual on rapier fencing published in 1617. Unlike his contemporary, George Silver, Swetnam was a great fan of the long-bladed rapier, especially with a long dagger to accompany it.

For the most part, Swetnam's style is what fencers in the modern SCA would call a "range game". He prefers to stand well back from his opponent, using distance and the threat of a counterthrust as primary defenses. An attacker will have to cover a lot of ground to land a thrust and even more for a cut, giving the defender plenty of time to parry and counterthrust. Of course, this could lead to long, tedious duels, but Swetnam (who was a prize fighter in England) was much more concerned with staying alive than he was with finishing a duel quickly.

I'll be discussing Swetnam's stances for the single rapier and for rapier and dagger. Basic parries, basic attacks, and feints will all be up for discussion. I can also bring up a couple of the "tricks" that I've discovered in the course of my Swetnam research.

The Kingdom Fighters' Collegium is schedule for the weekend of November 12th at the Woodsmen of the World camp in Royal, Alabama.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

WoW: Sunday with the Shaman

A while back, I visited Ragefire Chasm with Gondul, but I forgot to take snapshots of some of the creatures I fought. Well, I've been playing Haokan recently, and I tried taking him into the Chasm with just a Hunter in support. We didn't die or anything, but it became pretty clear when we started pulling three Ragefire Troggs at a time and just barely surviving that we would soon be in over our heads. We therefore chose wisdom over insane valor and retreated. Nonetheless, I did manage to get a couple more images during the expedition.

In addition to the Troggs, I managed to capture a better image of the Earthborers that you encounter as you first enter the dungeon. Paying more careful attention to the messages on my screen during this trip, I determined that Earthborers are not poisonous; they're acidic. The acid reduces your armor values for a fairly long time after exposure. This means you take more damage if you're under attack, but it's harmless between fights and you can just wait for it to wear off if you want.

Haokan achieved Level 20 during the expedition into Ragefire Chasm, and that allowed me to purchase the Ghost Wolf spell. This enables him to transform into a ghostly wolf that can run considerably faster than our happy little Tauren. Having Ghost Wolf is almost as good as having a proper mount.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

WoW: Back to Earthen Ring

I got up early this morning and wasted some time playing World of Warcraft, since the SCA business meeting is tonight and I therefore won't want to leave work early. I went back to Earthen Ring to play Haokan for a while, and I worked on some quests near the neutral town of Ratchet. On the way, I decided to build up my unarmed combat skill by boxing raptors to death.

Building up unarmed skill turned out to be a good thing, as the Freebooters and Marines that you encounter on the Merchant Coast south of Ratchet are pretty good with disarming techniques.

Ratchet, as I said, is a neutral town. That's why I was able to calmly share a table with an Alliance character at the Broken Keel tavern, as shown below.

Of course, I have to wonder how Magilia would have reacted if she weren't "Away From Keyboard" at the time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What the Psychics Said About 2005 Hurricanes

These are predictions regarding the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season that I found by Googling “psychic hurricane prediction 2005”. As far as I can tell, these were posted on the dates specified on the web page and not altered since, although some editorial updates have been added to some of them. Quotes were take from the pages on September 21, 2005.

On February 11, 2005, the Mystic Tarot said that “This 2005 Hurricane season will bring a needed change to Florida residents, and rest from the storms of last year. We predict a relatively quite hurricane season with little activity, and no major hurricanes striking Florida. We anticipate that Florida will be spared more damages like the ones caused by the hurricanes of 2004.” Emphasis theirs.

Of course, hurricane Dennis hit Florida in July, and hurricane Katrina cut a swath across Florida before going on to do even more damage in Mississippi and Louisiana in August.

On Thursday December 16, 2004, the Psychic School predicted “6 major hurricanes for Caribbean, Mexico and East Coast – two affecting Florida and Georgia.

Hmmm… no mention of Louisiana or Mississippi.

Five-Star Psychic Advice had no hurricane predictions, but watch out for Mt. Saint Helens to erupt between October 13th and 19th. Also, Bob Barker (of the The Price is Right fame) supposedly died in January, June, or July.

Dr. Louis Turi predicted an “Increase in destructive weather patterns leading to volcanic eruptions, larger quakes and hurricanes. Costal cities to suffer severely from nature's forces during the night hours.

First, volcanoes and earthquakes have nothing to do with the weather. Second, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi at 6:10 am CDT and did most of its damage during the day, not "during the night hours". Finally and least significantly, the spelling of "coastal" came with the cut-and-paste.

The Aquarius Metaphysical Newspaper published 2005 predictions from several psychics, including…
Elizabeth”, who apparently had no premonitions about hurricanes;
Tricia McCannon, who didn’t see it coming, either;
*Name removed*, who was just as oblivious;
Cathy H. Burroughs, who was also blind;
Dr. Kate Brooks, who said “The currents of the oceans and the winds are changing” but also said “It will be three years before the full effect of these changes are felt”; and
Queen Mother”, who saw nothing about hurricanes, but did foresee that “Michael Jackson will be convicted and will serve time.

Update: I received a request to remove the name of one of the "psychics" from Aquarius because he was creating confusion with someone else of the same name, which was apparently generating some undeserved negative feedback. The link to the original article is still valid.

Six clueless “psychics” in one convenient package.

“World Reknowned Clairvoyant Psychic” Rose Ann Schwab saw nothing about hurricanes in 2005.

Naturally none of them made any predictions that might tell us what Hurricane Rita is going to do, either. I’m simply stunned (or not) by the accuracy of these psychics. It’s almost like they were just guessing what might happen.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

First Pewter Casting

Yes, at last, I managed to get all of the necessary equipment together and find time to try to cast some simple pewter medallions using an open-top mold that I carved from plaster quite a long time ago. Come see my first effort, and prepare to be duly unimpressed.

In the following picture, you see the basic requirements for casting pewter. These include a full-face protective mask, welding gloves, a pot, a ladel, a mold, some pliers, the metal itself, and a source of heat (not just the lighter, you'll see the propane burner later).

Step one of the process is to melt the pewter. For this I have a small pot which will never serve any other purpose. My bar of pewter had to be brutally downsized with a hacksaw to fit into the pot. In the image below, you can see the pewter starting to melt (I only used about two-thirds of the original bar).

It didn't take terribly long for all of the pewter in the pot to melt. I then put the ladel in the pot to warm up, so it it wouldn't be excessively cooling the pewter on the way to the mold.

Shortly thereafter I was ready to cast my first piece. My first attempt to ladel pewter smoothly onto the mold was less than stellar.

Not that I was particularly worried about getting a clean pour on my first try. I managed to get pewter in just the "target area" in future attempts. It's what the cast piece looks like that matters, anyway. Well, that didn't turn out too well either.

The important side of the finished piece looks pretty dreadful. Much of the design doesn't show up at all, and what is there doesn't have much definition. It looks like I'll need to carve a deeper, clearer design if I want to get a good piece. I cast a few more just to see if the mold needed to warm up, and they all came out about the same. Sometimes the metal bubbled mysteriously while cooling on the mold; I'm not sure what that was about, although Fjorleif and I have a hypothesis about water in the mold vaporizing and bubbling up through the pewter.

I also got a lot of debris of some sort, shown in the picture below. I got lots of it in the ladel and on the surface of the metal in the pot. I'm wondering if this is some sort of tin oxide forming on the surface of the hot metal or something else entirely. I'll have to ask around (feel free to post a comment if you know what's happening here).

That's it for my first try at casting pewter. I'll try deepening this mold and carving another one, as well, and I'll try to remember to take pictures of that part of the process, too.

EDIT: I've made a somewhat-more-successful second effort.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Not Much to Report

My article on the Scooby Doo incident in Orlando will be in the Skeptics' Circle at decorabilia tomorrow. You've probably already read it, but you can go there to check out the other good stuff.

I managed to get in a little bit of World of Warcraft over the past couple of days, which was harder than you think since my firewall suddenly decided to start blocking WoW's communication after I installed the 1.7 patch. Nonetheless, I managed to get it working, and Beufle has now reached Level 10 while Gondul has reached Level 15. Grimbor and Haokan continue to languish, as the Earthen Ring server continues to be so busy that I get a "waiting in queue" message when I try to connect to it.

I don't expect to make it to Tavern Brawl this weekend, but I may finally make it up to Murray on Sunday to teach a dance class to the Shire of Redewolfe.

In closing, here's a totally gratuitous picture of Gondul in the Barrens.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Spooky Scam: Call in the Meddling Kids

Apparently would-be restaurateur Christopher Chung has decided that he can’t move into an Orlando building he leased because it’s haunted. He has refused to pay the rent he owes, so the owner of the building is suing him. This sounds perfectly sensible to me: if you sign a lease and then refuse to pay the rent, you owe the landlord.

Apparently the Mr. Chung doesn’t see it that way. It seems that he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and his beliefs “require him to avoid encountering or having any association with spirits or demons.” Fair enough, I say. All he needs to do is show reasonable evidence that there are, in fact, spirits or demons inhabiting the premises. Well, maybe not all, since I doubt there was a “void if haunted” clause in the lease he signed, but anyway…

Mr. Chung obviously doesn’t have any real evidence of supernatural activities. Oh, his lawyer says that "There have been several documented reports from subcontractors and others of having seen ghosts or apparitions in the restaurant at night," but people imagine spooks all the time, and I’m sure there hasn’t been a serious investigation by reputable scientists.

Hey, this would be an ideal opportunity for Mr. Chung to sign up for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. If he can show reasonable evidence that the building is haunted, he can potentially win his case and make an extra million dollars in the bargain. Sounds like a win-win situation for him to me.

On the other hand, I think it’s much more likely that Mr. Chung decided after-the-signing that he didn’t really like the terms of his lease, so – in a move worthy of a Scooby-Doo villain – he cooked up this “haunted building” scam to get out of it without paying the landlord.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

WoW: First Run Through Ragefire Chasm

I managed to find a party for my first trip through Ragefire Chasm last night. Ragefire Chasm is an instance dungeon in the caves beneath the Horde capital city of Orgrimmar; you reach it through the part of town known as the Cleft of Shadows, where Warlocks go for training. The Chasm is designed for characters of level 13-18; my group had...

  • Gondul (me), a level 13 priest
  • Sheiza, a level 17 warrior
  • Zulazzi, a level 14 priest
  • Nobakim, a level 12 warlock
  • Ironbroly, a level 11 hunter
The first monsters you encounter in the dungeon are the little serpent things you see at right. Don't be fooled by their size; they're elites, so try to only fight one at a time. They're also poisonous, as you can tell by the green cast of Sheiza (pronounced SHEE-zah, btw) and me. There's a pack of these little beasties waiting for your group just inside the entrance to the dungeon, and you could easily have all of them on you if you're not careful.

A little way past the serpents you'll encounter your first molten elemental. I daresay that fire-based damage isn't going to do them much harm, nor will nature-based damage. I had to work very hard to keep Sheiza healthy if we drew the attention of more than one of these things at a time, so engage them carefully.

Past the first elemental, you'll across a natural bridge through a large chasm and reach a sort of platform at the end. This platform is full of troggs, which are humanoids that anyone who has adventured in Dun Morogh (Dwarf lands) will recognize. Sorry I didn't get a screen capture of them on this trip. Like most dungeon monsters, these are elites, so try not to engage too many at a time. You should be able to draw one or two out of a clump with a ranged attack; any more than that and you could be in trouble. Furthermore, some of them are spellcasters. We got wiped out a couple of times by these guys by drawing too many.

You have a choice of directions after you clear the platform. We went upward toward the Slayer Cavern. This goes up and reverses your course, so you climb parallel to the bridge you crossed earlier. At the end, you'll reverse course again. Along the way, you'll fight a series of molten elementals and some more serpents.

The Slayer Cavern is basically a huge lake of lava with rock platforms connected by bridges. In the center, at the "hub" of the "wheel" of rock, is Taragaman the Hungerer (seen at right). He's a boss monster and the object of a quest. Where each of the "spokes" meets the "rim" of the wheel, there's a platform full of Burning Blade orcs: Warlocks and Cultists. On Sheiza's advice, we worked through most of the orcs first so we wouldn't have them unexpectedly joining the fight after we engaged Taragaman. We had a couple of wipeouts just on them. Taragaman alone seemed like a pushover by comparison.
    Lessons learned:

    Lecture your group in advance whether you think they need it or not. Ironbroly had apparently never been in an instance dungeon before, and he kept trying to fight like he was going solo against monsters in the wilderness. That just won't work in a dungeon, where any given monster is probably three times tougher than a monster of the same level that you'd find in the wilderness.

    The worst incident was in a fight with some of the warlocks and cultists around Taragaman. I could see from the beginning that we'd attracted too many monsters, but I hadn't healed or done anything else to become involved in the fight yet. I therefore told everyone that I was hanging out so I could resurrect the party after the monsters beat them and returned to their stations. Ironbroly either didn't notice or didn't understand, and he ran from the fight hoping to save himself. Stupid idea: dungeon monsters will chase you down and they will catch you. Worse, he led them straight by me, which made them notice me. Consequently, they jumped on me as soon as they finished him, and the entire party was wiped out.

    Oh well, we got ourselves back together and killed Taragaman, anyway. Gondul gained a level, some nice gloves, a good cloak, and a knife to disenchant for magical essence out of the experience, too. Things could have been worse.

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    There's a Scumbag Born Every Minute

    I received the following warning from my employer via email today...

    There have been several reports of fraudulent Hurricane Katrina websites and emails in the past few days. These websites and emails claim to be part of the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts. Some of these emails and websites contain viruses, and others are phishing attempts to trick users into disclosing personal information.

    In response to these fraudulent websites and emails, IT&S Information Security will send an email to all Outlook users later today, alerting them to the risk of these scams.
    As if it weren't bad enough to have deranged psychos shooting at rescue workers in the disaster area, there are some greedy pieces of dirt out there trying to take advantage of the carnage by diverting the money you intend to donate for hurricane relief into their own grubby little pockets. It shames me to have to acknowledge such people as members of the same species as me.

    That being said, avoid responding to emails soliciting donations for hurricane relief. Go directly to the website of an organization known to do disaster relief (like the Red Cross) or donate through a local church or other charitable organization with good credentials.

    Saturday, September 03, 2005

    An Overdue Picture

    If you're a particularly alert reader, you may have noticed that I changed the World of Warcraft section of my sidebar to not show the characters on the Feathermoon server that I haven't played in months and to add my new characters on the Scarlet Crusade server. If you're that observant, you may also have noticed a character named Beufle that you haven't seen a picture of yet. Well, it's time to rectify that deficiency.

    That's my Alliance character on Scarlet Crusade, Beufle the gnome rogue. Fear his stabbity death.

    Friday, September 02, 2005

    Skeptic Time Again

    Yesterday was Skeptic's Circle Thursday. I was a slacker with nothing to add for this edition, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't check out what some of the other alert people in the world have to say.