Thursday, March 26, 2009

Skeptics' Circle 108

The 108th Skeptics' Circle has been posted, and since I'm a participant, I figured a link was in order.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wine at the Grocery

There are a couple of bills before the Tennessee legislature that, if passed, would permit grocery stores in the state to sell wine. Naturally there are lobbyists on both sides of this bill, but some of them are full of hot air.

Chuck Groover is the senior pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Mount Juliet. He argues that making wine available in more places will lead to more alcoholism.

“Convenience for a few should be the last justification for making higher alcohol-content drink, wine, more accessible to the public by allowing sale in grocery stores.”
Fine, Chuck. Why don’t you show us some statistical evidence that alcoholism rates are higher in states where wine is available in grocery stores compared to states where it isn’t?

Statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that Tennessee does, in fact, have one of the lowest alcohol consumption rates in the country. Average consumption in the US is 2.27 gallons per person per year, while the average consumption in Tennessee is less than 2.00 g/p/y. Is it because Tennessee doesn't allow wine to be sold in groceries?

Wikipedia conveniently has a comparison of alcohol laws by state, so let’s examine them.

Other states at the bottom of the consumption rate chart with Tennessee include Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia. Of these, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia (five out of nine) allow wine sales in grocery stores; Kentucky and West Virginia even allow distilled alcohol sales in grocery stores.

States that forbid wine sales in groceries include Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. Of these, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Wyoming (six out of fifteen) are at the top of the NIAAA charts with consumption rates greater than 2.50 g/p/y.

Where’s the connection, Chuck? I don’t have a big stake in this vote, but your reasoning (that wine sales in grocery stores increase alcoholism) doesn’t hold up to statistical analysis. More than half of the states at the low end of the alcohol consumption scale permit wine sales in groceries, and over a third of the states at the high end of the consumption scale forbid wine sales in groceries.

Perhaps Pastor Chuck should confine himself to Biblical arguments instead of making unsupported claims about the effects of wine availability on alcoholism rates.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Incompetent Design: Am I Refuted?

Randy Stimpson certainly thinks that he has definitely refuted the arguments I made about “specified complexity” way back in 2005.

I pointed out in my original article that two phrases of a given length (in which the same set of characters are available) are equally unlikely. Randy thinks that in my rebuttal of the probability argument against the Theory of Evolution, I somehow missed the point. I don't see how I did; maybe he's trying to introduce a new point.

To save length, I'll use my own character strings. Let's compare, shall we? If you read my previous article, these will be familiar.
My first trick was to put these phrases side-by-side, noting that the odds of drawing either at random was the same. I would ask, which of these contains “information”, though. Randy has added some criteria for information.
  1. It consists of properly spelled English words.
  2. It is grammatically correct.
  3. It makes sense.
Put that way, the first phrase obviously contains information; it lacks space and punctuation, but there's obviously a sensible phrase of English words in there. Of course, if you read my other article, you know that the second phrase also makes sense, it consists of two obscure (but related) words that I chose from another language. I was attempting to point out, at the time, that patterns and “information” are contextual: the first phrase is much more obviously information to an English-speaking audience than the second, but they both contain information. Now let's look at a really random string.
This string is not one that I carefully constructed. I set the caps lock and then just randomly pecked around the keyboard, only restricting myself to staying on the letters area and not hitting the same key twice in succession. Even so, I still managed to get a properly spelled English word by accident. Does that mean that this string contains information?

Randy's problem is that he thinks DNA must be constructed exactly like English sentences. Every word must be spelled correctly, the word order must be correct, and the sentence must be coherent when everything comes together the first time. Unfortunately for him, DNA doesn't look anything like that. DNA looks much more like my third string: it's mostly gibberish, but every once in a while there's an actual gene found in the DNA strand. An actual piece of DNA might look more like the following string.
Sure, it looks like gibberish at a glance, but if you sort through it carefully, you'll find all the words you need to make my first phrase in there (although you may notice that “THE” only appears in it once). This structure is analagous to the human genome. The great majority of the human genome doesn't code for anything, and the portions that do code for actual proteins are scattered all over it, not neatly organized.

Randy asks “What is the probability that a random character generator would produce a grammatically correct sequence of characters that makes sense?”, but it's not an accurate analogy, because DNA isn't a sequence of characters that make sense. It's a hodgepodge of genes in no particular order.

A more accurate question might be “What is the probability that a random character generator will produce a sequence of characters that forms an English word?” Notice that I accidentally came up with one within eight characters (honest, I did not put “FORM” in there on purpose).

Now, suppose that you have a rather faulty mechanism for reproducing your strings. Letters occasionally get added, removed, or substituted. In fact, whole sections can get moved around, duplicated, or deleted. Through many copies of copies, words will form. Some will get broken again, but some will stick around for a while. Suppose you start throwing out strings that don't have a particular word: you'll stop having strings that lack that word. As more words emerge, they, too, can become necessary in subsequent copies. After many copies of copies, what might you have? Something like my fourth string, perhaps?

To Randy I can only say, I don't think I'm the one getting it wrong.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Food Porn: India, Italy, and the Carribbean

I've had some cooking pictures sitting on the camera for a while, and I've finally gotten around to downloading them, so here's a mass food porn post. First, we made moong dal, a lentil curry, a while back. At least, we made it with red lentils; various recipes on the internet call for split peas and moong beans. The recipe for this one comes from a book, 50 Great Curries of India, by Camellia Panjabi.

Moong Dal
I think I'm okay sharing the recipe, since I had to do a bit of substituting. Besides, this is a free plug for the book, right? Anyway, the ingredients include...

  • 1 cup of red lentils
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes with green chilis
  • roughly one cubic inch of ginger root, peeled and chopped
  • 3 teaspoons of minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon of powdered tumeric
  • salt to taste
  • cilantro to taste (which is a lot, in my case)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter

I brought five cups of water to boil in a large pot, then added the lentils, tomatoes, ginger, most of the garlic, some salt, and the tumeric. When it came back to a boil, I lowered the heat, covered it, and let it simmer for half an hour. Then, I tossed in cilantro and let it simmer a bit more while I browned the remaining garlic in butter. The "golden brown and delicious" garlic then goes into the pot, and the curry can be served over rice. Better yet, put the moong dal and rice in a tortilla.

Second, I was scrounging for lunch one day and found we had some packaged gnocchi in the cupboard. A bit of net searching and a further check of on-hand ingredients later, I was able to make this sage-parmesan gnocchi (with a bit of grilled chicken thrown in).

Sage-Parmesan Gnocchi
And finally, tonight I really wanted to do something with some black beans that were already cooked, so I found a recipe for Jamaican Curried Rice. In the spirit of "fusion", it too goes well in a tortilla.

Jamaican Curried RiceAnd I actually remembered to take some pictures of the process for this one.

Jamaican Curried Rice 1Jamaican Curried Rice 2Jamaican Curried Rice 3

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

D&D: For Lack of a Better Topic

When in doubt, I can always write about D&D games. Last night, the storied picked up exactly where it left off; they had defeated the twigblights, but they were still a long way out in the woods.

Showing that they are, in fact, catching on, the party conducted a thorough search of the darkwood grove and turned up quite a bit of loot left behind by previous victims of the twigblights. This new wealth secured, they set about retracing their steps back to the village of Myre, which Eileen again managed without incident (with her +11 on Survival checks, she only needs to roll a 4 to navigate, even in pretty bad circumstances).

Arriving back in Myre, they found their contact, Alian, who arranged for them to travel back down river with some “lumberjacks” who were floating logs downstream to the lumber yards of the city of Reicha. The lumbermen had a barge loaded with smaller wood that floated in the mass, and there were a couple of canoes on board that they used when they needed to move around the river to break up log jams or keep logs from floating away. The number of logs wasn’t the huge, river-clogging mass that you might see from clear-cutting with modern equipment, but there were still quite a few, and the barge had to stop periodically to keep the whole shipment together. This meant that travel back downstream was considerably slower than their original trip upstream.

(Note: I really know next-to-nothing about how a real log flow would work, but my players don't either, so... yeah.)

Well, one of the stops to break a log jam seemed to be taking forever, and the barge captain sent someone out in the second boat to see what was taking so long. The party decided to help, but the remaining boat wouldn’t hold them all, so they decided to go log-skipping to shore and move up along the bank to where the first boat was trying to clear the log jam. Hilarity ensued as, one by one, the party members failed their Balance checks to stay standing on the floating, bobbing, rolling logs. Everyone ended up swimming at some point, and a couple of rescues were even necessary for people who went under amid the bobbing logs (hooray for strong-swimming half-orcs).

When everyone was finally on shore, they traipsed upstream to where the boats had met at the log jam. There, they found the first boatman dead, apparently stabbed from behind with a rough wooden stake. Suddenly alert to danger, Eileen spotted some kind of creature hidden among the floating logs and took a shot at it with her sling. She missed, and it took off, crawling away among the floating logs, it’s passage only marked by the occasional disturbance among them.

Krag (the half-orc) broke up the log jam, and the party returned to the barge, now watchful for danger. There were no further incidents that day, but Eileen spotted the creature again during her watch that night. She woke Krag and the others, but the creature again fled before they could try to engage it.

The trip downstream continued the next day. One of the boatmen went out to clear another log jam, and Wellby (the halfling ranger) spotted the creature on shore, apparently up to no good. Wellby took a shot with his bow that landed solidly on target, and the thing again fled. Wellby and the others set off for the shore, hoping to track the creature down, and that’s where the night’s session ended…