“Stir-Fried Stochasticity” podcast: pilot episode

Cornelia the Happy Mutt with a tennis ballI’m still not sure I know why I have a desire to push recordings of my voice onto a more or less innocent worldwide population, but I do. And now I have a real theme to wrap an attempt at a podcast (or as I prefer – “oggcast”) around: scientific papers.

I finally got annoyed at press-release-based science stories one too many times, and thought to myself “why does almost nobody who does these stories at least cite the dang thing so I can go look it up and see what’s really in it, if they can’t be bothered to actually read and report on it themselves rather than just the press-release?” The story in question was the recent one about how babies understand dog-language (or something like that). Since I consider the dog to be a philosophical role-model, I wanted to read the actual paper and see if it was as silly as the headlines made it sound or (as I suspected) less flashy but more solid…but even “Science Daily” didn’t cite it.

Finally talking myself out of putting off doing audio recording, I tracked down the original paper, read it, and whipped out a rough show discussing what I found in the paper. I had fun doing it, so I’d like to turn it into a series.

I’ve put up a utilitarian page at http://bigroom.org/stirfry with both a built-in <audio> tag interface and direct-download links for both Ogg Vorbis and MP3 versions.

I’m still deciding exactly how I’m going to decide on the papers to cover – should I pick obscure, forgotten ones that almost nobody else would ever read again without me stumbling on them and talking about them? Classic papers? Papers related to recent news stories like this one? All of the above? Depending on how long I end up trying to make the episodes, perhaps starting with some kind of scientific question and then reporting on a selection of papers I dig up to address the question, or just a selection of papers on the same subject? I’ve already gotten a request for an episode on the theme of prokaryotic extracellular polysaccharides…

The rate at which I can convince myself to try to crank these out (and improve their quality) is directly proportional to how much interest there might be out there in them, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if you think this might be interesting. Please don’t let me slack off! Also, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about anything I mention in the show or the attached show notes.

If you don’t want to comment here, you can also email me at epicanis at bigroom.org.

Thank you, and good night…

This blog does not exist

I say that because in order to exist I must have used my computer to type it in, but George Berkeley “proved” that material things don’t exist. No pictures either this post, because after all my camera doesn’t exist, either.

Okay, the fact that I’ve got a whole cluster of time-sucking school stuff last week and this week to deal with is also a factor in keeping the posts here sparse at the moment. Berkeley just happens to be one of them.

Berkeley was what I would call a “philosophical” Empiricist (whereas I would describe myself as a “practical” empiricist – hence the “Applied” in this blog’s “Applied Empirical Naturalism” subtitle. Put simply, empiricism means that knowledge comes from observation via the senses. I’m a practical kind of guy, and I don’t think this in any way invalidates the use of the intellect to infer additional (testable) knowledge from one’s observations beyond what is directly observed. Berkeley, on the other hand, is a solipsist: he claims that nothing exists unless it is perceived – or is a perceiver.

His argument is a little hard to follow. As best I can tell, he’s starting with a Descartes-like observation that the only thing we ever actually experience are sensory perceptions. In other words, we can experience and know about the sensation of “heat”, but this sensation is just an idea in our minds. Even if there were something “behind” the sensation of heat that was causing it, we could not know anything about it directly, since we only ever experience the sensation.

In a way that is still not entirely clear to me, Berkeley then seems to take the leap from Descartes-style “the only thing I can be certain of existing from my direct observations are ideas, and my mind which contains them” to “since there is no direct empirical basis for claiming the existence of anything else, matter cannot be said to exist”.

Berkeley then goes on to claim that since only minds and ideas exist, and since there are some ideas that seem to be imposed on him (like if he sticks the idea of a red-hot-poker up the idea of his left nostril, he will have the idea of excruciating pain whether he wants to or not), that therefore there must be some other mind from which these ideas come. From this, he makes the leap to claiming that there must be an “infinite” mind which contains all these other ideas, by which he means God™.

This also gives him a convenient explanation for things existing when nobody’s looking at them. See, God is always looking at everything, so nothing that exists is ever not being perceived.

Personally, I’m finding myself wondering if his argument also leaves open the possibility of an animistic reality instead. He claims that everything we experience (including “sensible things”, i.e. things we see, feel, smell, etc.) is just an idea, and an idea existing without a mind is absurd. Instead of postulating the existence of an “infinite” mind, though, wouldn’t the notion that anything that exists actually does, itself, have a mind (or “spirit” if you prefer) also satisfactorily explain how things can continue to exist even when nobody is observing them? Berkeley makes the claim that inanimate objects don’t have minds…but he gives no justification for this claim. I mean, he admits that he can’t directly observe other people’s minds (or the “infinite” mind either) and therefore can’t prove that anyone but him exists, but he never claims that other people don’t exist. So why couldn’t the continued existence of the fork that I ate dinner with be due to the fork’s own mind?

That “thump” you may have imagined hearing was probably Berkeley turning over in his grave. Berkeley was, after all, a Bishop, going through this whole philosophical exercise out of hatred of “skeptics” and “atheists”, and it amuses me to imagine how appalled he’d be to have his arguments used to support something that he probably felt only “heathens” and “savages” would consider…

Yeah, I know, not much of a post, but I’m a bit overloaded at the moment. Nonetheless, more to follow this week over the next few days, at least.

#1 on Google!

Over on scienceblogs.com’s The World’s Fair, the author has started an amusing meme.

It goes like this: the challenge is to find 5 sets of search terms for which your own blog or site is the #1 hit on a Google search. Note that it is acceptable to quote specific phrases but of course it’s more impressive if you don’t. Here are 8 that (as I type this) for which this blog is the #1 hit (links go to the blog address that is the hit):

There was at least one other which I’m having trouble remembering at the moment. Perhaps I’ll update later if I remember what it was.

Stir-fried random…

Just a few brief random comments for the moment:

  • Am I the only one who is already completely sick and tired of the word “spooky”?
  • I think I’ve figured out what Descartes’ problem is. He’s gone on this meditation where he’s convinced himself that as far as he knows, nothing exists…except for himself. I think what happens next is that he gets horribly lonely, so when he realizes that his thoughts also exist with him, that’s when he developed that unwholesome passion for them and inability to bear leaving them that I’d previously mentioned. “But what kind of thing am I? I’m a thing that thinks. A thinking thing is what I am. But what kind of thing is that? Oh, yeah, I already said, it’s a thinking thing. Did I mention I was a thinking thing that thinks thoughts?….”. Okay, Descartes, we got it the first time…
  • One of my fellow “college science bloggers whose obscurity currently keeps them low in the vote totals” actually has a pretty neat blog. The Biourbanist focusses on features and attributes of urban areas. Well worth adding to your RSS feeds, I think. After you’ve already voted for me, of course…
  • I am currently attempting to put together my first netcast, in which I shall attempt to crunch an explanation of why microbial fuel cells work, in a form hopefully comprehensible to anyone with a good junior-high-school science education (or a mediocre high-school education, which is probably sadly more common), that fits into 90 seconds. Wish me luck.

More to follow…
UPDATE: Got the “pod”/netcast done – a real blog post on the subject of Microbial Fuel Cells to go with it may be found here tomorrow (Tuesday, October 16th) sometime, so long as nothing unexpected happens…

“Dog Philosophy”

But first, a quick request for information for anyone who happens by: where you live, what is the job market like for Ph.D. Geologists (with a background in stratigraphy, mining, and petroleum, among other things) and what kind of opportunities for non-medical biotechnology graduate programs are in your local colleges?

(And a quick side-question: is it obvious to most people that you get extra information if you hover over or click on things that look like this? I’ve never formally checked the usability of this trick for normal people…)

No login required to answer – they’ll appear as soon as I’ve filtered out any spam. Okay, on with the meat of this post.

In case anyone’s wondering what the “Epicanis” handle is all about: it’s a pun on the concept of “Dog Philosophy”, based on the name of the famous Greek philosopher “Epicurus” and the word “Canis”. Yes, I know, “Canis” is Latin, not Greek, but I figured “Epicanis” would be more a more recognizeable pun to most people than “Epicynus”.

Properly defining “Dog Philosophy” involves a joke which necessarily incorporates mild profanity and adult situations. In case any of the readers are of more delicate sensibilities, I present instead a more matter-of-fact (but sadly less funny) version.

Plato once famously wrote that dogs were philosophers. Like all philosophers that I know of, dogs consider the nature of what is real (metaphysics). To the dog, everything that exists external to the dog can be assigned to one of four categories:

  • Food
  • Toys
  • Companions
  • and

  • Everything Else, which is generally useless except as a surface for territory marking

You may wonder what that has to do with “Applied Empirical Naturalism” or science blogging.

The explanation is simple: science is fundamentally a method for examining the natural world to determine how and why it works. That’s what I like about science. One can find novel or unexpected applications of any system or thing by learning how and why they work, or in other words, it’s a method for, among other things, taking things from the “useless” category to one of the “useful” categories. Finding ways to make otherwise-useless things beneficially useful for people strikes me as a particularly rewarding purpose in life.

In addition to wanting to make the world a better place, I’m also kind to puppies and kittens and I think people should be nicer to one another.

(This shameless display of sympathy-solicitation has been brought to you by my participation in the following competition:)

Going to have to re-examine Socrates…

Figuratively speaking, of course, since he’s dead and all…

Man, Descartes so far is a serious disappointment. He seems to have an almost Dickensian tendency to verbal puffery (though thankfully the Descartes “Meditations” are much smaller than the big sack of tedium that was “David Copperfield”). It’s like he’s developed an unwholesome lust for his own thoughts and can’t keep his metaphysical hands off of them.

You’d think a guy clever enough to come up with “The Cogito™” could do better.

When I heard Descartes described years ago, I’d heard he started with “I think, therefore I am” and then from there proved the existence of The Supreme Being somehow. While I didn’t expect an unquestionable Proof, I did at least expect to see some spectacular theological philosophy taking place.

Instead, I (metaphorically, of course) show up at Descartes’ intellectual feast expecting some unique and exotic fare, only to see Descartes rummage around in his kitchen to come up with an old, freezer-burnt old package of leftover AquinasAnselm (oops), which he spottily defrosts in the consumer-grade-microwave of his argument. Bah. Not even worthy of dirtying my mental spork on. (There, do I sound arrogant enough to be an old-school philosopher myself yet?)

In other news: Celebration time! I’ve advanced all the way from 1st loser to 3rd loser! WOOHOO! It’s a bit of a jump to get up to the next tier (blogs getting an average of around 50-100 votes/day) but I can make it…

Calling on the entire internet to study for a Philosophy exam…

I’ll probably do two posts today, but only because this one is a preview and an attempt to gather opinions…

I find writing helps me think, and we’ve got a Philosophy exam day after tomorrow. We’ve got a “study sheet” with eight concepts and fourteen potential essay questions that might come up on the exam. Is anyone reading this particularly interested in any of these (some of these have been addressed in earlier posts, but here’s the whole list)?

Concepts: “valid argument”, “sound argument”, “a priori knowledge”, “a posteriori knowledge”, “epistemology”, “metaphysics”, “doctrine of recollection”, “Objective reality/formal reality”

Essay topics (in short):

  • Describing the “Socratic Method” and contrasting it with the sophist method.
  • Discuss some of the Socratic philosophical positions that might call into question the view that what is right for a person is whatever that person believes is right.
  • Discuss Socrates’ claims that evil harms the evildoer and that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and whether or not he’s justified in these claims
  • Critically discuss Socrates’ claim (at his trial) that he could not have been knowingly and willingly corrupting the youth
  • Discuss Socrates’ arguments in the “Apology” that death is not something to be feared
  • Discuss the “Learner’s Paradox” in the “Meno” (roughly – is it possible to “learn” something without being “taught”, and if so, how can this be?)
  • What was the point of the “slave boy” portion of the “Meno” (Socrates’ attempts to demonstrate that someone who doesn’t understand Geometry can come to have knowledge of geometry without being taught.)
  • Discuss Meno’s definition of “virtue” and Socrates’ objection to it
  • Discuss the distinction (in the “Meno”) between “true knowledge” and “opinion”, and how it relates to the question of whether virtue can be taught
  • From “Euthyphro”, discuss the issues around whether or not whether something is “pious” because The Gods love it, or if The Gods love it because it is “pious”.
  • State clearly and describe Descartes’ three levels of doubt
  • Discuss Descartes’ contention in the first Meditation that he cannot know if he is not dreaming
  • Discuss The Cogito (“I think, therefore I am” and why Descrates couldn’t instead say (for example) “I walk, therefore I am”
  • Discuss: “I hear a noise, I feel heat. These things are false since I am asleep. Yet I certainly do seem to see, hear, and feel warmth. This cannot be false.” (A quote from our translation of Descartes’…)

That’s what we’ve been given to work with. What are the odds that any of that is interesting to any of you? If so, please comment (no login required, and go ahead and put a fake email address in the comment form if it bothers you – as long as it doesn’t appear to be spam I’ll post it.). Come on, you’ll be doing me a favor, and you’ll automatically sound like a genius because we’re discussing philosophy.

Followup post later today…