Tuesday, October 28, 2008

LHC Rap Re-re-re-redux

In the previous post, I mentioned a rap that I wrote for our campus group as well as was intended to be presented at the end of the speech in the previous post. My apologies for anything that is incorrect in the rap as it was hastily written and reproduced here mostly for humorous reasons.

So you say you want to learn about the LHC
Watchin' Youtube's featured vid rap-u-mentary
Some kids they got together and wouldn't you know
They be spittin' rhymes suited for an after school show.

Now let me profess that mine aren't much better,
Go on draft a complaint, send your congressman a letter,
Doesn't really matter cause in a few weeks
Two particles will collide, science knows us off our feet.

Bosons and Quarks sound like canines off the Jetsens,
Mr. Spacely, aptly named, couldn't make the projections
That scientists seek to prove or disprove in this tube,
While you update your Facebook status like you're some kind of noob.

"We're all gonna die..." you say. "Drop to your knees to survive."
Throw your hands to the sky and worship some lie.
"The end of the world is upon, apocalypse is nigh!"
Shut up before I clock you for perpetuating lies.

The truth of the matter is the collider is really safe,
It's not a tool of destruction for the human race,
Rather observing conditions post "The Big Bang"
Looking for new stuff forming to explain everything.
Well maybe not everything, but stuff we still don't know
Screens attached to the vacuum this will surely show.

Should a black hole be created, that necessitates a "pop"
Hawking Radiation explains why it'll just stop
And cease to be existing in a blink of an eye,
Fact 451: We're not gonna die.
Spaghetiffication will just have to wait,
No made scientists here, no one to create
That which so many uninformed fear
Science! Come on! We won't just disappear.

So when the collider shoots two streams of particles at each other,
I'll stand and I'll smile while you cry for your mother,
In this day in age, we've got plenty of problems
'Nough as it is, without stopping science from solving 'em.

The Speech Never Given

The following is a transcript of a presentation I was to give at the Texas Freethought Convention before I found myself not actually on the list of speakers.

The past few days have been quite frantic for me in regards to speaking here today. I was only recently substituted for the president of our group who could not be here. As of last night, I still wasn't sure what to speak about. Asking friends and strangers on 6th Street (in Austin) yielded a plethora of drunken ideas.

One fellow gave me a list of people I should quote. Another offered to give me a $100 bar tab if I got on stage and told dead baby jokes. I even had one person tell me multiple times that I should drop as many movie titles as possible into my speech and see who can catch the most for prizes.

So of course this means I actually wrote all of this speech just this morning. Imagine how I felt when I awoke this morning and checked the convention's website to see if a finalized schedule had been posted so I'd know exactly how long I had to write this - and instead found that my name wasn't on the list!

Wow, I thought, I'm supposed to speak at a freethought convention that is full of atheists and agnostics, but I'm not on the list??? This must be how God would be feeling if he were here today.

Of course this led me to spend a good bit of time daydreaming the scenario of God actually showing up to speak. "Could you check again please? See if I'm listed under The Holy Spirit. C'mon, I'm kind of a big deal after all."

This morphed into another scenario in which I imagined it being an agnostic at the table God approached - "I'm sorry sir, we don't have evidence either way to prove whether or not you're on the list to speak."

This is the part of the speech where I've written in a section that if no one has been laughing, that I should slowly back away from the mic and make a mad dash for the nearest exit.

Obviously, I'm still at the mic, so hopefully this means there's been plenty of laughter.

And that brings me to the serious part of my presentation... if you can still take me seriously.

I'm here representing the Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists group from the University of Texas at Dallas located not in Dallas but in Richardson, Texas - one of the most densely conservative parts of the state. Let me tell you, it's been a tough road. While some of our members have conspiracy theories about lost room reservations or delayed approval of applications for the groups existence, nothing has been more prominent an issue in the running of the club than helping people to overcome the hardships associated with being an atheist comfortable enough to tell their parents or list it on their Facebook/Myspace profile for all of their friends to see.

One of the ways I try to help people is through the use of humor. See, this is the part where the jokes at the beginning start to serve more of a purpose than that of killing time.

I find that if you can find a way to make a person laugh, it makes them more comfortable in the environment you're approaching them in. Of course there are inappropriate jokes, and as some believe, inappropriate times to tell them.

However, I've utilized our meeting times as a way to get the humor of life across. The first meeting of this semester was a large BBQ we put on with a presentation I constructed on the history and goals of the club on giant sheets of paper that were alternated with humorous hand-drawn illustrations of pirate ships and people worshiping mundane objects.

As nervous as I was then, which is far less nervous than I am now, it was a hit! Members felt at ease and were comfortable mingling after that because everyone was in a better mood since they had all shared several laughs together, many at the expense of our officers.

At another meeting shortly there after, I created a rap in response to the Large Hadron Collider rap that was popular on Youtube. Where as their rap explained with the LHC does, mine was more about quelling the fears associated with being unfamiliar with the LHC. If someone one offers to buy me a drink at the end of this, I'll seriously perform the rap for all of you in just a minute.

Now I've done my share of amateur stand up, and my friends and I can accurately quote entire episodes of Futurama or Family Guy, but its a much different ball game when you're in an academic or serious environment, but I assure you that humor has many benefits.

It has definitely made our A.S.H. club more social which has lead to some people making new friends, others finding boyfriends or girlfriends, or in my case, finding a new guitarist for our Rock Band team.

Speaking of Rock Band, over the summer we were tabling at a freshman orientation and we found ourselves placed directly next to FOCUS, one of the most prominent religious organizations at UTD. On a whim we began joking with them about how our team was so much better at Rock Band than theirs. That joking is leading towards a joint effort of our clubs to hold a tournament for a secular charity with this Christian group.

Having that has given us a stool to stand on in establishing a presence of our group amongst other organizations at the school and we've now been invited to partake in a dialog as well as a debate with several other groups. This is largely in part because we have a relaxed group that likes to entertain each other and keep things light hearted in a group that could easily find itself in a very different and not very fun state of affairs.

The late comedian George Carlin once said "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately." While I myself lack the wit and the courage to cross this line, I do think it is important for those of us that embrace humor in the Freethought movement to know where it's at - just get a feel for it, maybe poke at the line with a stick, but you don't have to cross it. This side can be just as humorous and hopefully its been much more productive.

Thank you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

"Pluto Is Not A Planet... Get over it." --Neil deGrasse Tyson

As Randall Munroe reminds us in his often witty and memorable comic xkcd, there are many different emotions still involved in the discussion of the planethood of Pluto and other objects in our Solar System and it's been over 2 years since the demotion. In the past, I've found myself to take a somewhat middle of the road position. Pluto used to be a planet, but is no longer. Plain and simple. I've even used the moniker PlutoWasAPlanet for XboxLive and other internet services and it always attracts laughter when I mention the name to people.

And that's how I feel we should approach something like this - with laughter. One of the most popular groups on Facebook is the When I was your age, Pluto was a planet group - there are over 1.3 million users in the group. I used to be one of them until I read more and found out just how different Pluto is from the rest of the bodies in our solar system that we call planets.

According to Resolution B5 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the definition of a planet is as follows:

A planet is a celestial body that

  • (a) is in orbit around the Sun

  • (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and 

  • (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. 

Further down in the resolution, Pluto is specifically reclassified as a "Dwarf Planet" by the established definitions. Thus Pluto is not currently a planet, but Pluto WAS a planet at one point. As the above comic illustrates though, perhaps Pluto never should have been called a planet. As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in a transcript from Nova ScienceNow, we have faced this problem before:

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Did you know that in 1801 a new planet was discovered orbiting between Mars and Jupiter?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of New York's Hayden Planetarium.
NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: They called it Ceres. And they looked some more, and they found another planet, and another and another. The count of planets in the early 1800s was greater than it is today, thirteen planets in the solar system. And they kept looking, and the numbers kept growing. And they were running out of names, and they realized that, rather than counting new planets, they had discovered a new swath of real estate in the solar system called the asteroid belt.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So Ceres became an unplanet, and was re-designated to a new class. And it became the biggest asteroid.
NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: So we've been there before. We know how to demote something.

Of course, back in the 1800s, we presumably hadn't established the mnemonic devices those of us learned in elementary school and hold onto so dearly. Don't lie - you remember the one you were taught. Mine was "My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas." I guess now it should be changed to "My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nothing." The 'P' in Pluto now stands for the period in the sentence. Pluto has become nothing more than punctuation, but without that punctuation we'd have an incomplete thought, so it still plays a vital role in the structure of our Solar Sentence System. I suggest that in the future we all take a scientifc approach to similar events should they happen again. We should be light hearted and not become angry with science when an idea or notion we cherish has been changed. That just means science is doing its job in establishing logical rules that we can follow in the classification of objects instead of catering to people that love a cartoon dog so much that it bled into astronomy.

Of course, I wonder how the world will react when more people realize that When I was your age, the Brontosaurus was a dinosaur.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Networking With Your Professors

This blog is mostly for the random student that happens upon this blog.

I've learned in my 6 years of college that networking with my professors has played a vital role in establishing myself as a noteworthy person on campus. Not only have I utilized my interactions with these leaders to further my academic career, I've also grown close enough to some of them to consider them to be friends... perhaps even one day colleagues.

I strongly urge the student reader to not be afraid or bashful when it comes to speaking with professors. Feel free to email them with not only quandaries of their class, but also discussions and questions of related material. Almost as often as I send a link to a friend of mine on AIM, I hop onto my email and send it to a professor with a spin on my perspective and see how they react. After this initial correspondence, it makes it easier to approach them in person.

The beauty of getting a professor to know you not just by your name but by your face is that they feel obligated at the point to acknowledge you in passing. This encourages them to strike up a temporary conversation, even if it's just a few pleasantries or jokes, that further reinforces your presence in their mind.

Eventually, you can become comfortable enough with a teacher to use them as a research outside of academia. You can ask them to be a reference on a job application or you can ask if they know anyone in the related field that can help you find a job. Often times I find myself unsure of who to contact about an event on campus that I'd like to participate in or create, and this professors often have the ability to speed the process along greatly.

I personally have used my connections to get 3 jobs now as well as access to speakers to participate in multiple computer game conferences that a former student organization of myself used to hold. I invite them to BBQs and events at my house and on occasion I have been offered similar invitations.

I can not stress how important it has been to me to develop a personal connection to most, if not all, of my professors (at least relative to my major). I wouldn't be where I am today i.e. quickly approaching my masters, a year and a half of professional level design on a AAA title under my belt, and confident in my intellectual abilities enough to be proud of myself and to think that one day I will make an impact on this world that might be memorable of foot note in a history book.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

There's no "I" in Teme....

A local group that I attend called The Doubters Club was recently asked to review a video from the TED website in which Susan Blackmore discusses Genes, Memes and her freshly coined term, Temes, and be prepared to discuss it at the next meeting. Shortly before the meeting was to occur, I sat down with my fellow atheist friend Aaron and discussed the logistics of the video. I strongly encourage you to watch the video before continuing on with this blog post, however, I hope you do not take that as me advocating the message in anyway.

Alright, so you've watched it? I'm sorry for having wasted your time. Now I'm not here to argue with or hate on memetics at all, this has already been accomplished other places on the net much more eloquently than I ever could have put it. I'm here to discuss the idea of the 3rd replicator that Blackmore has proposed - the teme, or techno-meme, as that was our task for the Doubters Club meeting. From what I can gather, she has not fully identified what a teme is beyond that it is a meme in technology that replicates itself. She gives no specific examples, though she mentions several times that we're closer than she realized to reaching temes. I keep wondering if Skynet is the closest thing we have seen imagined to a teme.

My notes from the 20 minute segment are about a page long, though I'm not sure I even wrote anything of relevance down. Terms like Pandoran species and evolutionary algorithm are thrown around like buzz words in a corporate meeting. SYNERGY! (I hate that word so much). Dennet is quoted with his statement of "design out of chaos without the aid of mind." Language is called a parasite and the Drake Equation is evoked for no good reason. It almost seems as though Blackmore is struggling with keeping memetics as a plausible field of study and is trying to build up toward a term that she herself came up with in hopes to further a stalling idea.

To me it seems that a teme is nothing more than a meme that a piece of technology has come up with instead of a human. Well, as she said, we're not quite there, so it'll be when we've created a computer that can simulate human thought processes on a scale well enough to come up with a meme - something that will happen in the future. However, if it's a piece of technology mimicking the process of the human mind, then we can foresee it as something we should have been able to come up with ourselves, given enough time to take into account the speed at which a computer can "think" versus a human. So to me it doesn't seem like that would be a teme at all.

So is a teme a robot that can construct a robot much like itself with slight improvements? Well that doesn't seem like a techno-meme - it just seems like an invention and surely we are 50+ years away from a robot with such an ability. Instead, the only real plausible idea from a teme is for a gathering of something such as software programs that simultaneously running begin to develop a consciousness beyond that of what the programs were programmed to do and then that have the ability to replicate itself. This would not be unlike how DNA strands come together and form genes or how our neurons come together and form conscious thought.

If this is of which she is referring, it still confuses me as to why she invoked the Drake Equation and rewrote it. In her new equation, she uses the levels of replicators to help determine the probability of finding intelligent life on other planets. Twice in the equation is a variable based off the 3rd replicator - F-r3 (the fraction of planets with a 3rd level replicator) and L (the fraction of a planet's life for which R3 survives). Well currently here on Earth, the F-R3 is 0 as we have not yet created our first teme. Thus we are not represented in 2 of the 5 factors in her equation and I'm sure anyone who you talk to will not refute that there is intelligent life on Earth (maybe not in politics, but at least on some parts of the planet). The equation, much like the Drake Equation, is there as a guesstimate device, not an accurate means of predicting life in our galaxy for sure. the variables are so unknown that to seriously consider any numbers to come out of them would be utterly absurd. Yet, Blackmore stresses this as a main point in her presentation, so obviously to her it has some sort of significance.

Even after having contemplated this for the past few days, I'm still struggling to understand how someone with so little information on a subject (temes) has been able to spread the meme of temes throughout the internet and have people write in favor or support of the subject. Many of the criticisms of memes, if not all of them, are already transferable over to that of the teme. TEMES DON'T EVEN EXIST YET! How are we supposed to study them? We can predict all we want, but it's a waste of time. We' be better of using our energy in a more productive manner than worrying about saving the world from terminators that haven't even been invented yet.

Plus, we can always just call on John Conner to save us in that case.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Let's Get Rid of Darwinism"

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article entitled "Let's Get Rid of Darwinism" from the New York Times website. As bold of a statement as that is, I quickly clicked the link to see who was fighting one of the greatest scientists we've ever seen and why they wanted to rid the world of Darwinism. I immediately immersed myself in the article and it turns out that it's about getting rid of the terminology, not the ideas. Turns out there was no reason to get steamed up over this one.

As the author discusses, many of Darwin's statements and ideas have been turned into deep fields of study, while at the same time new information has come to light that has put some of his ideas into their grave. Any true scientist, when approached with information and evidence that might contradict their life's work but is presented as incontrovertible and indisputable would have a right to feel a sense of exhaustion, but should also be willing to accept the findings with arms wide open. I'd like to think that Darwin would be one of those men that could openly admit that some of his stuff was wrong.

Be that as it may, Darwin was a huge contributor to ideas that have driven biology into a mainstream science. As the author of this article so eloquently puts it, however, it is time "to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed."

As a fan of Darwin and a reader of Origin of the Species as well as other works of his, I must wholeheartedly agree. Darwinism is a term that no longer is associated with the specific findings of a man. Yes, his voyage on The Beagle led to a great deal of discoveries that we can attribute to Darwin, and while his findings remain unchanged, the theories he came up with have been refined and are not the same ideas today. They have changed and many scientists have contributed to evolutionary biology and revolutionized his ideas in ways he could not have done at the time. To falsely credit all of their achievements to one man by giving evolution a moniker that does not do justice to those studying and making breakthroughs in the field now is simply unjust. Don't get me wrong, he is a founder and should be respected and honored for his discoveries, but to use the name Darwinism to describe that which Darwin never even lived to read about just seems so irrational to me.

As the friend who sent this pointed out to me, there are other examples of systems named after a specific individual that we can correlate to this situation. One might throw into the conversation Newtonian mechanics, or Copernican heliocentrism, "to show that sometimes 'systems of thought' can be useful even when they're wrong, but more successful models like quantum mechanics or general relativity don't get eponym-ized because it's the theory that's important."

As an atheist, I've witnessed far too many of my fellow non-believers putting Darwin on a pedestal and worshipping him as some sort of idol. Many do this with the Four Horsemen and others as well. Sure, go ahead and be fervent about someone or list them as a hero on your Myspace page, but don't forget about the ideas behind them. Yes, these great men have shared with us information, ideas and opinions that have brought the world into an age of enlightenment, but it is these ideas and their thoughts that we should grasp on to. In the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, one of the Four Horsemen and a huge advocate of Darwin and evolutionary biology (note: not Darwinism :P), there is a chapter titled "Memes: The New Replicators." In this part of the book, Dawkins relates that ideas and cultural phenomena are like genes in that they are passed from individuals, but they are not bound by direct transmission of DNA. Our genes that are passed on in our lineage are halved every generation, but if one of us comes up with a brilliant idea, it can be passed on in whole to others not in our families. Yes, it may be bastardized in the future or by others, but that is part of evolution.

In genetics, a mutation occurs and is passed on. In some cases the mutation is beneficial and eventually spreads throughout a population. We do not, however, specifically single out that individual and treat it as a savior. It is designated as the originator, or founder if you will, and is studied and can be thanked if one so wishes. The gene is what is passed on, and eventually it will evolve and possibly mutate again into a more beneficial or refined gene. Eventually, the original gene, and the being with the mutation, are nothing more than a footnote in textbooks. While not exactly under the same governance of order as a gene, memes should be treated similarly. The founder of an idea should be respected for coming up with an idea, but it is the idea that is beneficial to us specifically and we should recognize that the idea will eventually change beyond the original scope of the person it came from.

To call evolutionary biology "Darwinism" is a tribute to a man, but it is disrespectful to a meme that has now evolved on its own into an amazing branch of science that has had the input of a great number of people to help refine it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Recruiting into an Atheist Organization

I'm an active officer in our university's atheist group on campus that has recently been started up. Previously, we had another organization of which I was a member of that fell apart due to various reasons.

This new organization, however, seems to be run by a group of strong-willed, like minded individuals who can keep this club active and quite strong. One of the main goals of this summer has been to work on our recruitment of new members. What better way to do this than through the Freshman Orientation Organization Fairs?

We had one such fair this past Sunday and we had many students stop by and sign up for more information as well as talk to us about what the organization is about. For each person that signed up, however, we had 2 freshmen (often with their families), literally speed up and turn away from our booth. Several made under-their-breath statements just loud enough for those of us in earshot to make out what they said. Needless to say, more often than not, they weren't the kindest of words.

A few families approached our booth and spoke with us and later I noticed them signing up for information at several of the Christian organizations the school also has. I enjoyed speaking with these individuals and they seemed genuinely interested in learning about our club, but I wonder if they were interested in finding out if we were heathens more so than a group trying to bring individuals together that have similar beliefs or wish to learn more about atheism and its related schools of thought.

In the past, I've often felt scared to admit my atheism to my friends. For the entirety of my life, atheists have been the most hated demographic in America. It wasn't until later in college when I found the first atheist group on campus that I felt comfortable with actively talking about it.

I hope this new group will provide the ability and strength to freely admit their atheism to the incoming freshmen as well as other students. I feel much more comfortable with who I am and what I believe. In fact, I can now stand at a booth and admit to complete strangers that I am atheist and I help run an organization of atheists. It's very liberating and I hope to be able to share this with new members.

The fall is quickly approaching and I'm excited to get a move on things and find out what other students would like to see com from this organization. I've got a series of lectures I want to write and deliver, we have many social events such as bowling and BBQs planned, and we'd like to bring in guest speakers and go on field trips with the group.

Even after last night's fiasco in the Home Run Derby, I'm not sure I've ever been more proud to be an atheist than I am right now. Let's hope that I, as well as everyone else involved with this group or blog, can keep the momentum up.