Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beyond Belief 2006

There was some great great discussion at Beyond Belief 2006 Conference; fifteen hours of video can be found here. I'm a little way into it. Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer were all great, a good interplay of ideas and approaches.

Just finished listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson — what a character. An astrophysicist and an entertaining and compelling speaker. One area really struck me. He briefly recounted the events of 9/11/2001 and pointed out a comment made by President Bush soon thereafter in which he said in a lame attempt to distinguish "we" from "they" — they who flew those into buildings — that "our God is the God who named the stars." An astoundingly idiotic statement regardless of the facts, but infinitely more stupid given the facts as Neil then pointed out. That of all the stars which do have names, two thirds of them have Arabic names! And he shows slide after slide of lists of Arabic named stars.

How does it happen, Neil asks, that the sky is filled with stars with Arabic names. It happens because of a particularly fertile period of Islamic culture from beginning around 800 A.D. and continuing to around 1100 A.D. in which Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, open to all peoples, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all ideas. A free and open exchange of information was permitted, contributing greatly to the corpus of mathematical and scientific knowledge the time. The legacy is still with us, not just in star names - we use arabic numerals, and the words algebra, algorithm, and logarithm are of Arab origin, for example. Their contributions gave them naming rights. All this is traceable to this specific 300 year period in the middle east.

Then, disaster. In the 12th century, this clown, Imam Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 A.D.), a scholar of sorts decrees that mathematics is the work of the devil. He codifies an Islamic philosophy which completely rejects a rational worldview — that causal events are not the product of material conjunctions, but rather the immediate presence and will of God. He denounces the philosophy and methods of the great intellectual thinkers of Ancient Greece — Aristotle, Plato, Socrates — an intellectual tradition upon which many Islamic philosophers previously drew.

Revelation replaced investigation. Game over. Islamic culture has never recovered since. And 9/11 is just one sad legacy of this turnabout. Neil concludes his comments on Islam with the observation that something like one Muslim scientist, or maybe two, has ever won the Nobel Prize, as opposed to about one quarter of them being Jews. Doing the maths, with the about a billion Muslims on earth and only about 15 million Jews, statistically, almost all Nobel Prizes should be going to Muslims! Instead, we've got only one or two. All because of al-Ghazali. Fascinating.

Science is interesting, and if you don't agree, you can fuck off. — New Scientist Magazine

Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them. — Jules Verne

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sprained Ankle

I went out for a 10 mile run on Sunday, only to have it cut short by a misstep at 3.5 miles (22:30). I don't know how it happened, I've run hundreds of miles around this lake. I was at the far end, taking a left turn, a couple other runners coming toward me, I guess that forced me into a tight squeeze. I'm cruising nicely at a 6:30 pace, then bam, it's like I hit a wall, I hear myself letting out a primitive unceremonious grunt.

I feel my left ankle disappear from existence and I buckle, falling, rolling, onto the grass writhing in pain. I'm flashing on my Thanksgiving 2003 Turkey Trot where I severely sprained the same left ankle, and like an idiot, ego, continued running, up on the toes, and ended up with a much worse injury and a full four month running hiatus. After a minute or so, the pain precipitously subsides, nice! And I almost feel like I can get up and run, and I try, and could, but alas, I am no longer a complete idiot, I have learned, stop, you're done. I got to a phone and called my wife for a ride home.

This sucks, but oh well, okay, it is, I think, not as bad as it could have been. Certainly not as bad as 2003, I'm RICE-ing like crazy. Actually I don't do the compression component - is that really useful, beyond the initial injury? I'm icing like a madman, ibuprofen, rest. I'm able to walk, stand, balance, hop even. It's the kind of mild sprain I experienced in September on the Thompson Island 4K in which I think I could actually run, if I were very very careful to land just right. I figure/hope I'm out for 1-2 weeks, then back carefully with an ACE bandage. This just makes me more thankful for any running ability, and increases my incentive to get well and to get back at it.

I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion — Charles Darwin

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Feaster Five

Feaster Five, Andover, Massachusetts, 8:30 AM. The rain held back and it was a cloudy and brisk Thanksgiving Day, 40F or so. Hadn't run for four days, since 7.2 miles around the lake on Saturday; I've been nursing a new injury, extensor tendonitis on my right foot.

Very crowded, around 6000 runners for the 5K and 5M, both starting together, I'm going for the 5 miler, 5K is too intense for me. I didn't get a good starting position at all, even after I crossed the starting line it was at least a quarter mile before I could get into any kind of decent pace at all, dodging slower runners like a madman.

First mile mostly a gradual uphill climb toward the center of town, a relief when it flattened out, split off from the 5K runners. Recovering from uphill then slowly building up pace, relaxing pretty good but cruising. Worrying about keeping up the pace at 2 miles, but decided to risk it and not pull back; I want to feel deserving of my pending feast. At 3 miles I know I've got a shot at keeping it up.

Heading down one street I hear the Rocky theme blaring, it picks me up, I start shadow boxing even, getting strong now! Met up with the slower 5K runners, and that really picks me up because I'm flying past them at an alarming rate, it's great! I'm sub-6:00, I'm pushing but I'm still relaxed, I could slow but it wouldn't really be any less effort, I'm definitely on a roll, and with a small pack of 5 milers with me.

Pulled out ahead of them at 4 miles, I know I've got a shot at a PR if I don't blow it, starting to die, guts from here out, it's gonna hurt. Gentle downhills help keep my pace up though. Then the finish up ahead around the corner, another quarter, but uphill all the way there, pushing, Garmin shows I've got a chance at sub-30:30, driving hard to the finish. Then I get passed by a guy I thought I'd left behind in the pack; I couldn't run that fast on a fresh sprint, he's flying, you got it champ.

I'm rather surprised, pleasantly so, with my performance, a 5 mile PR - 30:10! And a 4 mile PR - last 4 at 23:57, last 5K at 18:25. Average pace of 6:02. And unusual for me, negative splits: 6:12, 6:09, 6:09, 5:51, 5:48. Came in 29th out of 2334. A tough race, but especially in retrospect, surprisingly strong, relaxed, and controlled. I think a sub-30:00 5 miler is definitely within my ability.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is a site is great, a nice array of interviews with interesting thinkers on life, the universe, and everything, e.g. Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Ursula Goodenough, Karen Armstrong, Monsignor Lorenzo Albaceta, et.al. — MeaningOfLife.tv

Here's neat nice animation of the inside of a cell — The Inner Life of a Cell

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Three days off after the Veterans Memorial 11K. Today, 7.1 miles, Longfellow-Charles-Smoots double loop+. 7 @ 46:40; splits: 6:30, 6:32, 6:34, 6:51, 6:46, 6:35, 6:52; average pace: 6:40.

Richard Dawkins interview. Good, evil, religion, and especially Dawkins' own personal experience with religious belief. Like myself, he became essentially a non-believer at around age 9, when confronted with the existence of other competing religions. He had an Anglican upbringing; myself, Baptist. — Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

11K on 11/11 at 11:11

Veterans Memorial 11K (6.82 miles) in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Held every year on 11/11 at 11:11am, a veritable orgy of 11's. And with a cannon start. This year we were instructed to have a moment of silence just before the start, eveyone's silent with heads bowed ... BAM!!! The canon goes off signalling the start of the race, scared the b'jesus out of half the crowd, I nearly jumped out of my socks.

Fairly tough course, around Spot Pond, long gradual ups and downs, pushing fairly hard, hoping for sub-6:20 average pace, no dice, ended up with 43:35 (6:23 average pace. Actually hit the 10K mark at 39:15, 6:20 pace, beating my age 22 record from 1982, woohoo. But that last 0.6 was a long gradual uphill and I was dying. Splits: 6:04, 6:15, 6:24, 6:24, 6:39, 6:21, 5:26 (6:38). Placed 4th overall out of 257, placed 1st in age group and received a major award for my efforts.

God doesn’t just make the world, he does something much more wonderful. He makes the world make itself.

— Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thursday, November 09, 2006

7 Miles

After 10.4 miles on Sunday, 10 @ 1:07:30, 6:45 average pace, splits: 6:35, 6:44, 6:37, 6:40, 6:42, 6:40, 6:48, 6:57, 7:12 (hill), 6:30. Today, Longfellow-Charles-Smoots double loop+, 7 miles, Garmin was messed up, but 46 minutes total, 6:34 average pace. Left adductor is getting better, no real issues. A course record actually, running fast mostly to get back to fix my issues with IntelliJ, turns out I just neglected to compile in debug mode! Argghhh.

When I was a child I used to pray to God for a bicycle. But then I realized that God doesn't work in that way — so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness. — Emo Philips

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Don't Panic

After four days off to give the left adductor a break, Friday, 7 miles, Longfellow-Charles-Smoots double loop+, average 6:42 pace or so. Sunday, 10 miles, 6:45 average pace, splits: 6:35, 6:44, 6:37, 6:40, 6:42, 6:40, 6:48, 6:57, 7:12 (hill), 6:30. I think the time off was well worth it, adductor seems mostly okay.

Finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, great stuff. And then went out and rented the DVD, released posthumously after Adams' untimely unexistence. This may be blasphony to die hard Adams fans, but I rather liked the movie, my kids did too, in fact I liked it quite a lot. And in some ways more than the book even. I didn't expect it to be this good.

It was fun, and funny, imaginative, delightful, and wonderous, and quite true to the spirit of the book, and adaptive to the medium. Much bad sentiment toward it from Adams fans, judging from Amazon feedback. But it smacked to me of, how do I put this, fan elitism, how so often hard core fans of famous musical artists pan their later stuff, after it becomes popular; the early stuff before it was popular is always the best, e.g. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elliot Smith. Maybe some truth, maybe not, but it usually smells of dogma to me.

The kids loved it, some favorite parts were, well, right off that bat, the "So long and thanks for all the fish" opening, they thought that was just a riot, and Marvin, the Paranoid Android (is this the origin of the title for the Radiohead song?), they just took an instant liking to the maniacally depressive robot, and the whale spontaneously incarnated into existence by the Infinite Improbability Drive, contemplating its own brief existence while hurling toward Magrathea - what's happening .. why am I here ... what is my purpose in life ... this is really exciting ... what's this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast ... ground! ... I wonder if it will be friends with me. Thud!

That pretty much sums out our lot, doesn't it. Deep. Reminds me of a scene from the movie 1985 Henry Jaglom film Always where Andre Gregory says something like (I wish I could find an exact quote), life is like a stone which you rub and rub and smooth and polish and mull over, and just about when you think you have the answer, BAM! you die! Hahaha.

Speaking of Radiohead, it seems like the phrase OK Computer was uttered more that once or twice in the book and the movie, is there a connection? Too tired to Google (God, I despise that verb.) Oh, and another possible Radiohead connection, the use of what I think is an obscure word — myxomatosis — in the book, the title of a song on Hail to the Thief.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Salmon of Doubt

A happy little surprise greeted at home this evening - a gift certificate to a sporting good store. My prize for my 2nd place age group placing in Sunday's 5K. I must have misread the results after the race. But alas, no running since then, the left adductor has felt brittle. Maybe tomorrow.

I'm thrilled to have discovered Douglas Adams. And I'm appalled that I missed the boat on him in the early 80's when "Hitchhiker" was all the rage. I was in college and working at a bookstore at the time; copies of Hitchhiker were flying off the shelves. It was a TV series and I watched it occasionally, lightly amused, but having not read any of it, I never appreciated Adams. What a dolt I was! Though I should just be thankful I suppose, as I now get to appreciate him fresh, unlike his veteran fans.

Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins, one of my favorite writers/thinkers, were actually mutual fans and, because of that, great friends (Dawkins wrote Adams a fan letter after reading Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, twice in a row.) Adams introduced Dawkins to the woman who would become his wife (Lalla Ward, an actress who appeared in Doctor Who). And Dawkins delivered a eulogy for Adams after his untimely death (heart attack) at 49 in 2001.

I've been listening to The Salmon of Doubt on audio. Absolutely delightful! Published posthumously, from the hard drive of Adams' Mac. The reader, Simon Jones, who played Bridey in Brideshead Revisited, is perfect. I adore that particular variety of English accent. I've always been slightly fascinated at the variety of British accents
— from John Lennon (agreeable) to the BBC (dreadful) — I wonder if anyone's cataloged them. Anyway, if you're not familiar with this book/CD, please check it out; you will want to thank me for bringing it to your attention.

This is what Adams said to me this morning on my drive to work (channeling through Simon Jones) about Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote, a very short piece by Jorges Borges, who I'm really only familiar with because of a one page piece which has always tickled me called Borges and I. So I went to the bookstore straight away at lunch to check it out, it's only six pages. I'm not nearly erudite enough to appreciate the piece right way, but once I waded through the initial section, it was quite engaging. Basically a literary criticism of a fictitious author (re) writing Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, from scratch, word for word, literally, but from a contemporary point of view rather than from a 1602 point of view. Very clever.

But in the process of browsing, I came across a Borges essay entitled The Nothingness of Personality. Jesus Christ, where the hell was this when I really needed it — when I was seven or eight years old! I've been contemplating and working out the details of nothingness, free will, determinism, god, consciousness, the self, and existence feverishly since then. This quote, actually attributed to Schopenhaur:

An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.

This quote made me very happy indeed. I've never heard this expressed quite this way, in exactly the way I've been feeling it for many many years. I will suppress my urge prattle on and on about. Either you get it or you don't.