Sunday, April 24, 2011

Belief and Assumptions, part 4

A friend just posted a link to an article on a similar topic to my Belief and Assumptions series, only much better-researched. It takes my line of thought a few steps further, explaining how peoples' "deeply-held views" (i.e. assumptions, in my terminology) affect how we view facts. The results were pretty scary. You should read the article, but in a nutshell, peoples' preexisting beliefs change how they view and believe the same (factual) evidence, and the manner in which it is presented can also affect their reactions; people accept evidence that confirms their beliefs, and look for ways to disprove evidence that contradicts them. This is distressing. How can we argue objectively if we're able to twist the facts to fit our preconceptions? Now I understand how two people can leave a debate each being more convinced of their own position than when they came in.

Given their lethal effect on objectivity and consensus, I'm starting to think assumptions should be avoided whenever possible. I say "whenever possible" because, as I already argued, quite a few basic assumptions are needed to function in life. Hold on loosely to your convictions, no matter how right they seem to you. The only exception I make is for my belief that God created all things, that He sent His Son to die so we won't be separated from Him by sin, that He is coming back to cement His reign over all things, and that His love is better than life. Happy Easter!

On Alcohol

I've been 21 for a little over nine months now. Apparently in America it's a tradition to go out drinking for your 21st birthday--can't wait any longer, right? Well, I was on summer project for my 21st birthday, where we weren't allowed to drink, so I just had some blazin' wings instead. After getting back I tried some beer and wine at home--disgusting! They pretty much tasted like something you'd clean a drain with. I swore off alcohol and couldn't imagine why anyone would drink the stuff. Since then, my friends (particularly my good friend Evan, who has become something of a beer connoisseur since turning 21) have been working on me to "see the light". All kinds of rhetoric about it being an "acquired taste".

Finally, after the Good Friday service at Hope Community Church we decided to go to Pizza Luce. Being in the company of good and trusted friends, I decided to give it another chance and let them pick an alcoholic beverage they thought I'd enjoy (the same challenge I'd extended to my dad before). Nathan settled on some English Strongbow cider and I went to town. Unlike the other stuff I'd tried, the noxious taste of the alcohol didn't drown out everything else and I could taste the apples, which was nice for a change. I ended up finishing mine before anyone else, mostly because I drank it like I would drink any other beverage. Apparently that's a mistake.

The results were...interesting. Basically I got chronically dizzy. I also found everything a bit funnier, but it's hard to tell if that wasn't just the fun night with good friends I was having. It wasn't really enjoyable and I still don't get the whole hype about getting "buzzed". What's so fun about being dizzy? Either way, I definitely wouldn't have trusted myself to operate a motor vehicle that night. So, you shouldn't drink and drive. I was still able to figure out the tip easily, so maybe drinking and deriving is okay after all.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


I've been a proud omnivore for nearly my entire life. Well, there was a period after we visited Cabela's, but I got over that partly because it was getting too hard to feed me. And 1 Corinthians 10:26-26 makes God's position on vegetarianism clear. (Just kidding) But while browsing a random Facebook thread (I can't even remember what it was), I stumbled across the most convincing argument for avoiding meat I've heard. Let me paraphase.

If you've taken a biology class (or especially a biogeography class), you may know what a trophic level is. It's basically an organism's level in the food chain, with primary producers (plants) at the lowest level and apex predators at the highest. Most of the animals we eat (i.e. cows, pigs, etc.) eat plants and are therefore second-level primary consumers. Obviously the energy in living matter originates in the sun; plants take in the sun's energy by photosynthesis to grow, and are then eaten by animals and their energy passed on. So far so good, right?

Well, if you scroll down to the section titled biomass transfer efficiency, you'll see an explanation of the problem I saw pointed out. The transfer of energy from one trophic level to the next is inefficient; most of the energy organisms take in goes towards basic metabolism, with only 10% actually stored by growing. This means that the energy we get by eating (for example) a steak is one tenth the energy from plants that went into producing that steak (by being eaten by the cow).

The timing of this thought was more or less perfect, as today I drove out to celebrate Easter prematurely with my family. To get there, we drove for about three hours, mostly through endless fields of feed corn. Feed corn that, of course, goes to feed cattle that we will likely eat later. Imagine how many more people we could feed if instead of growing feed corn in that space, we grew something humans could actually eat? The world's arable land is limited, and if feeding people is our ultimate objective, it's more efficient to do it directly.

This is a purely pragmatic, not a moral, argument for avoiding meat (which is different than how it was originally presented). It doesn't indicate that we should give up meat altogether, merely that we should question how we use our arable land. There are probably lots of holes in the argument as I presented it, but the basics of it were new to me and quite interesting. Please post comments or corrections.

Rules of Double Monopoly

  • Play with two complete Monopoly sets. Two boards, two sets of properties, two sets of cards, etc. Place the boards next to each other.
  • When a player would advance to the 'GO' space on the board their piece is currently on, they move to the other board's 'GO' space instead. Similarly, if a player would move to a space that is behind them on their current board, they move to that space on the other board. i.e. if a player is on Free Parking and gets a card saying to advance to St. Charles Place, they advance to the St. Charles Place on the other board instead. (They pass GO on the new board and collect $200 as usual)
  • Keep property and Chance/Community Chest cards separated by the board they came from.
  • If a player gets a card saying to pay money, they place the money in the middle of the board they are currently on (to be collected by the player who lands on the Free Parking space of that board).
  • A player is said to have a 'monopoly' on a color if they have at least half the properties of that color. i.e. any three of the six orange properties between the two boards or any two of the four dark blue properties count as a monopoly.
  • If a player had developed a monopoly on a color and gets another property of that color, they cannot build up any of the already-developed properties of that color until the new one 'catches up'.
  • If a player has two undeveloped non-railroad, non-utility properties of the same name that aren't part of a monopoly, the rent on them is doubled.
  • What to do if a player has at least three utilities or five railroads is up to you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No Greater Love: A Good Friday Meditation

For those who don't follow the Christian calendar, today is Good Friday--the day we celebrate the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. I think Good Friday can get swept under the rug of unconsciousness, what with Easter coming up in two days. But this is undeserved. Yes, Easter is about Jesus' supreme triumph over death, which is awesome and gives us hope for a future with no weakness, no sickness, no decay, and no suffering. But something equally essential took place on the first Good Friday. The huge gap between man and God that we'd carved out with our sins, which previously was impassable, was bridged. Our iniquities that had separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2) were canceled, paid in full. God's righteous fury against our sins, which should have resulted in our destruction, was taken out on His own perfect Son instead. Anyone could come before God now, justified and clean. As if to demonstrate this, the Bible says that the curtain in the temple of Jerusalem, which separated the Most Holy Place where God was believed to dwell from the rest of the temple, was torn in half when Jesus died. The message was no doubt clear to the Jews: God no longer resided in one particular place, and He no longer had to be sought and petitioned by trained priests and holy rituals. Now anyone could come before God.

But there is more significance to Christ's death on the cross. It is held up by John as the supreme example of what love is: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us." (1 John 3:16) Later he writes, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His song as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (4:10) Christ on the cross is the perfect example of God's perfect, relentless, costly love. Compare it with  the kind words of a Hallmark greeting card, or the depravity and selfishness passed off as "love" in the media. God didn't just say He loved us, He showed it off by giving up His own Son to give us the greatest gift in history. Just as He didn't spare His Son, He calls us to love Him with our whole selves, holding nothing back. This is the God who created all things, the God that Christians serve, and the God who wants everyone in the world to know and be known by Him.

Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New Name

Behold, the blag known as Fractal's Great Big Internet Book of Thoughts is no more! As I've been getting more and more serious about my blog as an output buffer for my brain, I've found that the old name's lack of seriousness increasingly clashed with my intentions. (Thank goodness I didn't go with my original idea: 'Thoughts, Ruminations, Ponderings, and Maunderings") No, I'm not going to go into a detailed explanation of the meanings of the new name (I count at least three), but some should be fairly obvious. Thank you to everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise thought about my blog! I'll try and get something more substantive up later...eventually...when I have time.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Today was the second-to-last showing of the student-run Xperimental Theatre's much-anticipated show, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: The Musical! Incredibly exciting show; I hope you got the chance to see it. We anticipated massive demand for it, and so we managed to fit 84 seats in the theatre and 8 shows in the run, but even this proved not to be enough. I've been house managing tonight and we had literally dozens of people show up without reservations, hoping to see the show. It was with a heavy heart that we informed most of them that they wouldn't be able to get in. Apparently we didn't emphasize the fact that reservations were required enough.

But then, about 20 minutes before the show's start, the director talked it over with the cast and crew and decided to put on a second show! We got to tell everyone we'd turned away (who hadn't already left) that they would be able to come in! I'm sitting outside the second show now; apparently we filled the house about halfway again.

Anyway, this whole mess struck me as an example of grace. No one, especially not the house managers, thought these people would get to see the show. They should have gone home disappointed. Only a last-minute intervention by the director (who is amazing, by the way) reversed their plight. The way I described it, the parallels with our situation with God are clear. The corruption in all of our hearts and its fulfillment in the evil we all do separate us from God in His perfection. The fate we justly deserve is condemnation, but Jesus' intervention--in the form of His sacrificially paying the penalty for us--lets us have communion with God anyway.

If you realize the depth of the problem this switchup solves--our unimaginable 'screwed'-ness--then the gospel will be the best news you've ever heard. I was ecstatic to be able to tell people they'd be able to see the show after all, let alone how happy they must have been! Grace really is amazing--unnatural, unjust, and essential.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Belief and Assumptions, part 3

I just finished reading a fascinating book, The Fire in the Equations by Kitty Ferguson. I've actually owned it for years but had put off reading it, thinking it would be about how "science points to God" like Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator. What it was actually about pleasantly surprised me. The book was basically a detailed exploration of advances in modern physics, biology, and philosophy and their implications for philosophy and religion. The author explores the issues in great depth, but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions on the existence of God and in fact chooses not to reveal her own beliefs. She explores issues that often come up in religious debates, like the origin of life and the universe and free will, and ultimately decides that the evidence doesn't point--conclusively--towards the existence or nonexistence of God. The answer is beyond our ability to prove.

The book resonated with a line of thought I've been developing for years. "Prove to me that God exists" has become a defiant challenge I've heard issued by many atheists and skeptics. Often it is met by Christians or other believers with an equally defiant "prove that God doesn't exist." What I am arguing is that this debate, this clash of intellectual brinkmanship, is meaningless. Every piece of evidence that religion has brought to bear to suggest the existence of God--the necessity of a first cause, the existence of complex life or apparent design, our consciousness or sense of good and evil--science has found at least a plausible explanation for. Likewise, try as they may, skeptics have been unable to deal a decisive deathblow to religious thought. One can hardly expect science, the study of the natural, to tell us about the existence of the supernatural. Other arguments like the existence of apparent evil in the world, while convincing to a skeptic, can be turned to point in the other direction under a religious worldview. Whatever religious/philosophical camp you're in, everything seems explainable. Depending on your assumptions, you can draw any number of conclusions from the same evidence.

Not only does the evidence make sense under your worldview, I think it has to. Our preconceptions color and shape our perceptions, guiding us to conclusions that make sense under our assumptions. This became evident to me as I was reading about scientific theories on the beginning of the universe. Apparently Stephen Hawking postulated a theory that time itself somehow "curves back on itself" as you go back in time so that the universe need not have a beginning. The Big Bang theory, once considered a powerful argument for the existence of a creator, is no longer necessarily so. Science found a way to escape from this conclusion. Far from proven, but at least plausible (if you believe in modern physics). If we only ever consider our worldview's interpretation of the information around us, it leads to close-mindedness and (I think) stagnation. If we consider other views and notice that they explain something better (a terribly subjective term) than ours, the door is opened to the possibility of growth and change to our worldview.

Okay, I was kind of surprised by how dense I was writing there. My goal is to 'level the playing field', at least a bit, in the discourse between religion and skepticism, two forces powerfully opposed to each other in American culture. Just as we Christians can claim the moral high ground on issues and use it to justify ourselves, I think opponents to religion like to claim the intellectual high ground by representing their views as reasonable, rational, well thought-out, and commonsense, whereas religion is unfounded superstition that spits upon reason. Richard Dawkins, one of the leaders of the "new atheist" movement of late, describes faith as "belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." I think this is an unfair criticism. Yes, because no one has proved that the God of the Bible exists, Christian belief does require faith that goes beyond what the evidence can tell us. It requires us to decide to attribute our existence to the work of a Creator, our sense of 'ought'-ness to the Spirit of God in us, and evil in the world to our own inherent fallen-ness. There are other explanations for these things, but by faith we choose to believe what we believe.

But what the new atheists fail to realize is that their own position also requires faith! Their worldview is just as built on assumptions--which I have already argued are unavoidable--as the Christian one. Faced with the same questions the Christian faces, they choose the scientific, naturalistic answers instead. Their choice was not inevitable--as the lives of Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis show, they could have chosen quite differently and lived intellectually fulfilled lives. They, too, went beyond what the mere evidence could prove in developing their worldview. As much as opponents of apologists like to point out our "God of the gaps", the fact is that those gaps exist and it's up to us to choose how to fill them--with God, science, or something else. Perhaps not consciously, but at some level, these assumptions are there. People don't like having unanswered questions--'gaps' in their worldview, and will try to figure things out from their chosen starting point.

So, ultimately, neither (and I would even say no commonly held) worldview can claim to be 'purely rational', the product of unbiased interpretation of the evidence from science and our experience. If we stick only with what the evidence directly tells us, refusing to make faith-based leaps, we won't get very far indeed--without some basic assumptions, we might not even get outside our own existence. Everyone makes assumptions and uses faith of some kind in forming their worldview, and none of us are entitled to look down on others for doing so. Now, can we please move on?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

101st Post OStravaganza

Disclaimer: I forgot Blogspot counts drafts in your total, so this isn't actually the 101th post.

Okay, that last post was just to let off the 100-posts pressure. Maybe I'll do something really cool at 150, or 200. Anyway, on to the topic I really wanted to discuss: operating system wars!

As a computer science major who went to an all-Mac high school, I've had plenty of exposure to all three major OS families: Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It's something I've thought a lot about, since your OS can drastically affect how you compute. I've also read a fantastic essay by Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, on the subject as well as the command-line-versus-graphical-interface question. I recommend this book to everyone (especially to my fellow nerds, but it's not too hard for non-technical readers). I'll lend you my copy if you want; it's a fairly quick read. I don't think I can improve on anything he said, but here are my few cents.

When I say "operating system", I'll probably evoke a few different responses. Most of you, I think, will recall familiar features of OSes--the visual design of Mac OS X or constant crashes of Windows, for instance. Maybe some of you will remember a specific incident that caused you to switch, or at least changed your opinion of your chosen OS significantly. You might call to mind the iconic companies behind the software and their media coverage. Computer science majors, at least those of us who have studied operating systems, will also realize all the behind-the-scenes tasks operating systems have to perform to connect software with the underlying hardware smoothly.

I'm still learning about this underlying implementation, and I don't think there is too much concern over the low-level differences between OSes.  (Except to the extent that it's affected by higher-level decisions I'll get to later) This post is mostly going to address the parts of operating systems that the user can see (which is all most people are aware of anyway).

Let's start with the philosophies of the three main OS families. (Overgeneralization ahead!) As far as I can tell, Microsoft markets Windows as a functional, all-purpose OS for the masses. Considering its market share, this makes sense. And on top of that, Microsoft has mindshare on its side. Hate it or love it, Windows has become the default choice for most users. Virtually all non-Mac computers come with it installed, and most people don't care enough to change it. It's become a fact of life for individuals and even more, I think, for businesses. The continuing existence of Internet Explorer 6, a nearly ten-year-old browser that came with Windows XP, is still a powerful influence on web design. (Even Microsoft wishes its users would upgrade) For people who are used to it, they don't even have to ask "why Windows?", but rather "why not Windows?" In his essay, Neal Stephenson writes that besides an OS, Microsoft is selling users the idea that they are "getting something for their money, engaging in a respectable business transaction."

On to Apple. Mac OS is the operating system I have the least experience with; nearly all the computers in my high school were Macs, but I've barely touched one since. Still, they're a constant presence on campus and in my classes, gleaming silver and white slabs of technology marked as "not Windows" by the logo on the back of their screens. (A quick aside: the "Mac vs. PC" debate, as it stands, is meaningless; "PC" simply stands for "personal computer", so a Mac, a Windows machine, and my laptop are all technically PCs.) As Stephenson writes, when Apple started out with the first graphical operating system in 1984 it took the computing world by storm. It was elegant, revolutionary, and just plain "cool"; Microsoft, with its primitive-by-comparison MS-DOS, was reduced to catching up. Of course, things have shifted considerably since then as Apple fell behind, then become "cool" again with the release of Mac OS X and its constantly-updated lines of gadgets. I'm going to avoid the separate issue of the slavish buying behavior of some Apple fans for now and focus on the company itself. In my experience, while Windows has been marketed as an all-purpose, workhorse OS, Mac OS is especially pushed towards creative, nontechnical types who aren't afraid to "think different", armed with a simple, attractive interface and a suite of applications to assist creative work.

And then, there is Linux, the oft-ignored third OS (or rather, family of OSes). Part of my inspiration for this post was a Facebook poll repeating the ancient question, "Mac or PC?", to which I responded "No Linux?". For those who aren't familiar with what Linux is, it's originally a kernel (the underlying, hardware-software interface part of the OS) written by Linus Torvalds and some other hackers in the early 90s to imitate the classic Unix operating system. This kernel and the various applications surrounding it (all free and open-source) are packaged and distributed by both individuals and companies, either free or for a nominal fee for support. Of course, since the source code is all freely available, support is easy to get from the hacker community. The decentralized, non-corporate nature of Linux is radically different than Microsoft and Apple's approaches. It is cooperative rather than competitive, and in the world of bits where the only limiting factor is ingenuity, it works and works well.

Anyway, this post is getting surprisingly long and I should get to my actual impressions of the operating systems. I've been using Windows basically as long as I've been using computers (I may have some early memories of MS-DOS, but I'd have to ask my dad) For most of that time, I've had nothing to compare it to (except an earlier Mac OS at my cousins' house, which I mostly remember for the single-button mouse and the "close window" button being in a different place). When I used Macs in high school, it was mostly for schoolwork and once I got over the two Ctrl buttons(!?) and single-button mouse (again), I was able to do what I needed on these computer and didn't think too much of them. I affected a disdain for Macs, but I couldn't really have backed it up if questioned.

So it wasn't really until I got to college and got into my computer science major that I started to care about the differences between operating systems. The required programming made me quite well-aware of how frustrating programming on Windows is. I've had bad experiences with IDEs, so I got by programming on Notepad, which didn't work terribly well. And installing a new programming language was an ordeal. I became increasingly aware of the usefulness of the ITLabs computers, which mostly ran the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. They had lots of useful free software I already used, and programming was easy since they had every language I needed.

Eventually my interest led me to get a second hard drive for my desktop so I could install Ubuntu on one and try it for myself. Programming and testing my code was made much easier by being able to remotely access lab computers and work from them. Then during Christmas break, I made Ubuntu the only operating system on my laptop. Not even exaggerating: it has changed my life. It has allowed me to work on my research anytime, anywhere. As I learn more about the command line and other Unix tricks, it's almost intoxicating to see what cool stuff I can do. Where I used to get distracted in class reading random articles or something, now I struggle to keep focused rather than obsessively coding or writing more shell scripts. Closed-source operating systems put limits on what you can do in the guise of being helpful and avoiding confusions, but Linux has no limits, besides your skill. There's also the fact that my computer boots up in less than a minute rather than Windows 7's 5-10, that the OS uses about a fifth as much memory as before, and that I have never had a crash or any serious problems with Ubuntu since I've started using it.

I would call Ubuntu and other Linux distributions "white box" operating systems. Everything in their functionality is open to the user; you can do practically anything if you know what you're doing. Of course, this doesn't mean they're user-unfriendly; Ubuntu has a simple, yet powerful interface for files and applications, makes it much easier to change settings than Windows, and has its own "app store" for getting software (only all of it is free). Using it has been an absolute joy and I recommend that everyone at least give it a look. (You can even put it onto a bootable flash drive without affecting your current OS)

Mac OS X, on the other hand, is more of a "black box" (ironic given the casing of all Apple's hardware). Just like the computer it runs on, it is hermetically sealed, its inner workings hidden from the user under slick interfaces. And for many people, this is okay. Not everyone has the time or the interest to master Unix. Even Neal Stephenson admits to sometimes wanting an OS that hides its underlying complexity and makes some difficult decisions for him--and since he wrote his essay, Mac OS X has become that operating system for him. Though I certainly don't agree with all their business or technological practices, I'll admit that Apple certainly seems to have succeeded at making a computer (or tablet or whatever) for non-techies who want to work on real problems, not on the technology.

I would describe Windows, on the other hand, as the "grey box" of operating systems. It attempts to get out of the way and hide its complexity like Mac OS does to allow users to work on the problem, not on the computer, but its frequent problems and failures force users to gain a working knowledge of its hidden workings anyway. And with the closed nature of its software, help is harder to come by for it. I still keep Windows around for compatibility with Office documents, games, and iTunes, but I dream of a day when I can leave it for Linux entirely. (Especially when Windows 7 just hangs and does nothing for several minutes)

Ultimately, I hope more people will become aware of Linux and the existence of a completely free, easy-to-use, powerful OS. Ignorance of Linux is a key factor in Microsoft's dominant "mindshare" of the market. I also want to raise awareness of current issues with OSes and what goes on "behind the GUI", so to speak. Please post comments!

100th Post!!1!1!!!

Woo, 100 posts of randomness! We made it happen, interlunk! I'm feeling some pressure to post on something awesome. Too much pressure, in fact. Instead, here is a quick comic of some philosophical Goombas I drew on my Wacom tablet. Enjoy.