Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thoughts of the day

- What if religion is literally a childhood comfort blanket? I don't mean figuratively, but literally. Its central theme of "spirit" as the foundation for existence might be an unconscious refinement on and expression of the childhood wish and expectation for the world to change as a result of simply wishing it to change. Prayer and heaven are the two most prominent manifestations of this religious philosophy;

- When someone says that you're "over-analyzing" something, it's often because they want to continue acting in a reprehensible manner, or at least to not have to confront something they've done. "Over"-analysis means that you're stepping over the self-enclosing line that this person has drawn in the sand so that they don't have to reflect on their own behaviour. You're "over"-analyzing because you're providing a good analysis that sweeps past their bullshit. When you find yourself telling someone to stop over-analyzing what you've done, you should pause and check yourself in case you're actually acting like a dip-shit. I'm not saying that genuine over-analysis doesn't occur; there is such a thing as look too much into something beyond the point that it serves anyone's interests to do so. But it's also a cheap excuse and fall-back position that's used by people who want maximum freedom of action to act in ways that suck;

- Richard Dawkins and Laurence Krauss are atheists but they believe in the creation of the universe from nothing, which means they're still infected with philosophical idealism, the opponent of philosophical materialism. Physicists like Krauss mistake their equations and mathematical concepts for physical reality, and forget that experimental results must still be interpreted through a philosophical worldview. I'm reading and listening to philosopher Glenn Borchardt (author of a book called "The Scientific Worldview"). He says: the real opposite of creationism isn't evolutionary biology, but conservation. Matter and motion are eternal, and neither can be created nor destroyed. The universe had no beginning and will have no end. There is never genuine creation in the physical sense, only reconfiguration of ever-moving matter. Those who claim that the universe will one day "disappear" or that it had a "beginning" are peddling religion, not science, which posits that the context in which all events occur is one that already includes matter, motion and the interactions of matter in motion;

- richarddawkins.net is making itself increasingly irrelevant by ignoring political-economy. Lacking a concrete analysis of the situation in the world, Dawkins and the other "New Atheists" tend strongly towards casting everything in terms of "rational vs irrational", and thereby irrationally sideline the material underpinnings of religious belief. Another irony of this is that Dawkins and other "New Atheists" tend to subscribe to cosmogony - the doctrine that the universe had a beginning. They also subscribe to all manner of indeterministic and idealist notions typical of "physics" these days.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Okay, this is pretty cool

video

The cars of Mad Max: Fury Road. Video from Jalopnik on YouTube. Sorry for the quality (visit the YouTube link for HD. Directly linking to a movie on Blogger doesn't seem to work anymore).

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Thoughts on Michael Crichton's 'Jurassic Park'

I've finally read Jurassic Park, twenty-something years after I first held a copy in my hands as a child in a K-Mart store while the movie was playing in the theaters (sadly, I never did get to see it on the big screen). Even at that young age, I could tell that there was some heavy stuff in the book and that it was a techno-thriller roller coaster.

I'm pleased to say that my expectations have been fully met and even exceeded. Even with some of the faulty science, the book is indeed chillingly life-like, as well as being an awesome adventure/horror story.

I was surprised at the very substantial differences between the book and the film. The book is certainly much, much darker, and belongs in the genre of proper science-horror, while the movie is a science-fiction adventure with some gruesome elements. I'd love to see a movie that's really true to the book, though I can totally understand why Spielberg would never have been able to pull that off. An epic and groundbreaking film about dinosaurs has to be marketable to children and their parents, so the violence obviously had to be toned down a great deal. I love the movie as much as anyone (in fact I drove to the site where the gates were filmed in Kauai during my recent field trip to Hawaii, and I watched the movie pretty much immediately after getting back to California), but in some respects, I appreciate the book even more. Partly this is because of its darkness, but also because of its greater technical detail. I especially enjoyed the explanations offered by Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoreatician depicted by Jeff Goldblum in the movie, as to why the park would fail. To be fair, these explanations were a bit of a stretch, as were the techniques for resurrecting dinosaurs, but these represented artistic allowances for drawing the reader into the story and getting them to think about its underlying themes. It's almost certainly impossible for dinosaurs to ever be re-constructed using DNA sitting in the bellies of amber-entombed mosquitos, but that's fine. It's science fiction, after all.

However, there were some things I found hard to stomach that detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the book. The part where the Tyrannosaurus is pulling Tim into its mouth with its tongue (don't worry, Tim doesn't die!) was certainly very creepy and memorable, but a bit too fanciful. T. rex's tongue might have had such dexterity (who knows?), but manuevouring living prey in that manner seems like a dicey business, given that prey can fight back, and the tongue is a pretty delicate organ. And the way the Rex kept pursuing Grant and the kids was hard to take seriously, since the dinosaur had already killed an Apatosaurus which it had to guard against a smaller tyrannosaur in the vicinity. Why would Rexy expend precious time and energy chasing after prey many dozens of times more petite than what it had killed, which also had to be defended against a rival? Perhaps it just enjoyed hunting after being fed goats for so long, but still, it was weird.

There were also a number of annoying outright scientific errors. At one point, dinosaurs are mentioned as having "mammalian descendants", which dinosaurs most certainly didn't. Probably Chrichton meant successors, as "descendants" has a clear evolutionary meaning. There is strong evidence that birds were descended from dinosaurs - specifically, from, or genealogically near, the group of theropods known as the Dromeasauridae, of which the iconic Velociraptor was a member - but even here an erroneous claim is made when dinosaurs are described as "fundamentally birds". No, dinosaurs weren't "fundamentally birds". Birds are desceneded from a particular lineage of dinosaurs, and the largest sub-divisions of the Dinosauria were very different to one another. The group we call "dinosaurs" comprised about known 350 species (though the palaeontologist Jack Horner, who worked as a scientific consultant for the movie, thinks that many supposed species didn't actually exist and were merely the sub-adult individuals of proper species), many of them large herbivores like Apatosaurus (dropped in favor of Brachiosaurus in the movie) which were surely not very bird-like at all and were only distantly related to the Dromeasauridae. This also reminds me of an annoying error in the movie, when Tim says that the dinosaurs "turned into birds, and that's where they all went." NO, that's not where they "all went", Tim. Learn your phylogenetics. They really did go extinct, and into the ground is where they all went, except for the clade Aves (birds). All the rest died.

Ian Malcolm also comes across as downright anti-science at times, making some rather broad-brush caricatures about science and scientists. But he did make a nice juxtaposition to John Hammond, who is a proper sociopath in the book. Hammond really is a dick, who at one point even mentions to Henry Wu, the chief geneticist, that "personally, I would never help mankind." What a dick! The film adaptation of Hammond was far more likeable, though he retained a touch of the book version's blinding arrogance and short-sightedness.

My favorite Jurassic Park error has to do with the nomenclature of Velociraptor. The actual animal was called Velociraptor mongoliensis, but Chrichton wanted to base the vicious killers in the story on Deinonychus antirrhopus, which was much more closely matched to a human in terms of size (Velociraptor was nearer the size of a chicken). However, given that "Velociraptor" sounds so fricken cool, Chrichton chose the name of this genus and bolted on "antirrhopus" as its specific name, producing a fictitious animal. Interestingly, it turned out not to be pure sci-fi after all, when fossil remains of a terrifying dinosaur called Utahraptor, which was even larger than the raptors depicted in the book and film, was discovered about a year after the movie was released.

The book made me think about whether bringing dinosaurs back is a good. Frankly, I don't think it would be, not in this world where everything is being turned into a commodity. This isn't because I think the dinosaurs would necessarily escape or wreak havoc. I'm actually much more worried about the dinosaurs themselves, who would have to live in a world dictated to them by corporate overlords. It's a certainty that these animals would be treated as attractions first and foremost, which means that were they do to something unexpected and dangerous, a lot of people would lose their shit and see them as "monsters". Some idiots would even thirst for revenge if one of these animals were to kill a person. If that happened, I would at least hope that the raptors would break out of their pens and eat the corporate types.

Other groups of people would also have less than pure intentions towards the poor dinos. They can be divided into two categories: exploiters, and ideological opponents. Among the exploiters would be game hunters, seeking the glory of the kill, and biotechnology companies, seeking to patent and profit from biological processes and genes (or to test drugs). The ideological opponents would include religious extremists, who would see these animals as a violation of God's will (or as outright abominations in their own right and false idols to humanity's mastery of science) and would try to kill the dinosaurs or the people working with them; and certain animal rights activists, who might try to release the dinosaurs and just end up causing a biological crisis which won't be fun for anyone, least of all the dinosaurs they'd be trying to help.

So, no, I don't think dinosaurs and capitalism would mix very well. Dinosaurs might do well in a situation where the productive forces of society are dedicated to fulfilling the needs and wants of the masses of people of the world while preserving the natural world in a state of renewable health, where the scientific and ideological level of people has been raised way, way above the current pitiful playing field, and where people have a deep sense for their connectedness with nature. Right now, there are just too many archaic and irrational notions embedded into human culture, juxtaposed with the equally bad and ruthless logic of capitalist accumulation, for me to feel good about bringing back these wonderful creatures.

Jurassic Park is a stark and beautiful warning about the dangers of fusing scientific power with arrogance. I love this book, and really recommend it to anyone who's watched the movie. Read it!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hawaii

As part of my postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley, I went to Hawaii to do field collections. Here are some photos from that trip. Some of the photos from Maui and Moloka'i were taken by Adam Martinez from the University of Georgia, who assisted me with the work. I also thank Dr. Emily Moran of UC Merced for her help in O'ahu, and Dr. Jared Bernard and Prof. Russell Messing of the Agricultural Research Center, Kaua'i, for all their help and enthusiasm in Kaua'i.

Maui:



 
 


 
 
























 


 

 









  
 
 
Molokai:
 
 
 




























 
 

 
 





 
 
 
 


 

 
 
 
 


O'ahu:



















Kaua'i:
 






































A big Mahalo to Hawaii. I'll never forget you.