Recent Interesting Science Articles (Dec’07)

Probably the most talked about scientific issue that’s been making the rounds recently is the news is that not only has human evolution not stopped since the advent of modern technology, a previously popular view, but has in fact actually accelerated. As this article in ABC News notes, in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, researchers discovered that by comparing the DNA of humans and chimpanzees since the two species diverged six million years ago there were not enough differences between the two sets of DNA to account for the currently observed rate of change. Therefore, they take this to mean that human evolution has substantially accelerated since the appearance of modern humans 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Moreover, they find that different populations of humans have been evolving in different ways. The lighter skin colour of Asians and Europeans compared to Africans is one example, as an adaptation to allow more absorption of vitamin D in areas with less sun. Another example is the disappearance of the lactase enzyme that allows digestion of fresh milk in China and most of Africa where dairy farming is less common than in Europe.

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A Game: Gears of War (PC)

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Ever since lead designer Cliff Bleszinski famously posted photos of himself hobnobbing with celebrities at E3 while promoting this game on the SomethingAwful forums, I’d been predisposed to dislike Gears of War. It didn’t help that the look and feel of the game leans heavily towards testosterone-fueled machismo of the worst sort. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me when I finally got my hands on the PC version this month and found it to be a more than decent game.

The machismo is all there of course: huge guns with chainsaws for bayonets, grunts with big bulging muscles and anatomically implausible jawlines who make frequent references to kicking ass and toughing it out while the only female presence is a lieutenant who is mostly heard and not seen. The well above average dialogue however manages the difficult task of making it seem familiar rather ridiculous. Combined with the excellent duck-and-cover mechanics and satisfying shooting action, it adds up to a very playable shooter.

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Transubstantiation in “The Confusion”

I’ve been working through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for the past several weeks. With three volumes in total and more than a thousand pages per volume, this is certainly a monumental undertaking. In addition, to even understand what’s going on in the books, I have to make repeated forays to Wikipedia to brush up on my knowledge of 17th and 18th century history. This means that it will be a while before I can post a complete review of the books.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the second book in the cycle, The Confusion, which mocks the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. I suppose that the episode must be fictional, but it makes for a fine example of the writing in the Baroque Cycle, with its attention to historical detail and intricate observations of the scientific, religious, economic, political and social dynamics of the time.

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A Christmas at the Beach

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I went with my wife and a couple of work colleagues to a beach west of Honiara in the Solomon Islands on Christmas. Pictured above is us together with the two children of one of my colleagues. As a fairly unremarkable beach outing, only the children actually played in the water and the adults merely dipped their toes. Of particular note is that the two children have been bugging me to get some games for them but since their father’s laptop only has a Centrino processor and integrated video my choices were limited. So I decided to give them my old copy of Starcraft, which I bought many years ago in Gabon, Africa. This seemed to appeal to them after I taught them some basics. The elder one was somewhat dumbfounded though when I remarked that when the game originally came out, he was only 1 year old. I spent some time in the afternoon helping them beat a Starcraft level.

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A Game: Dwarf Fortress

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So, I’ve been messing around with Dwarf Fortress for a while now. Its full name is actually Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress but I figure the game, with the kind of graphics it has, or lack thereof, doesn’t need any more strikes against it. The game has been available as an alpha-state, free download since August last year, but the ASCII graphics intimidated me too much to try it. However, I’ve been hearing plenty of good things about it, and since Bay 12 Games recently added a Z-level to it and other players have made it easier on the eyes with modded tilesets, I finally plucked up my courage to give it a whirl.

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Ayn Rand and Me (Part 2)

What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love – he was not man.

– Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged

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[This is Part 2 of a planned 3 part series on Ayn Rand and her philosophy and its influence on my life. You can read Part 1 here. This part covers some of Ayn Rand’s early life and details more of her philosophy and how it directly influenced my personal development.]

In many ways, Ayn Rand’s life showed a determination and even an obsession as strong as any of her fictional characters. Born in 1905 to a middle-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia, she witnessed firsthand the horrors of communism when her family’s pharmacy was seized by the Soviets in the revolution of 1917. At the University of Petrograd (the city’s new name given by the Soviets in place of St. Petersburg), she studied history, including American history, and became an admirer of American ideals. In 1925, she finally received permission to travel to America, on the pretext of visiting relatives, but by then she had already decided never to return to Russia.

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Philosophy Embraces Empirical Experiments?

A thought-provoking article entitled “The New New Philosophy” published recently in the New York Times Magazine covers a recent trend among philosophers to embrace empirical experiments. As the article notes, philosophers have traditionally tended to be rather snooty towards during actual empirical work, preferring to think of themselves as pure workers of the mind who need nothing but pencil and paper and a comfortable armchair.

Of course, philosophy has tried to be more scientific before, notably postmodernism’s ridiculous efforts to dress up their nonsense in scientism, in order to steal back some of the glory and respect that philosophy has lost since natural philosophy became science. But in my opinion at least, this new acceptance of empiricism is much more likely to yield interesting results. As I alluded to in my review of Irrational Man, philosophers have tended to assume than mere reflection is sufficient to reveal the secrets of the human psyche, while ignoring how discoveries in neurology have allowed us to examine in ever more intimate detail how the brain really works.

The article offers the opinion that while empirical work may raise interesting new questions for philosophers, it would not be able to settle them. I think that this is somewhat over-simplified. At the very least, objective knowledge of the processes that drive emotions, intentions and thought itself would seem render invalid many lines of philosophical inquiry. For example, Ayn Rand believed that reason should precede emotions such that we should use reason to determine how we should feel and then adjust our feelings accordingly, while neurologists now believe that feeling itself is a part of the reasoning process. Similarly many philosophers believe that existential angst is indicative of a great gap in human existence that must be filled either by religion or some other ideal. Perhaps it is only indicative of those philosophers’ lack of access to anti-depression medication.

The unexamined life is a life not worth living