Friday, October 29, 2010

What I Learned... On NPR: Breathe Deep and... Taste?

You have bitter taste receptors... in your lungs. Today on NPR's "Science Friday" show I learned that researchers from the University of Maryland had discovered taste receptors identical to those found in the mouth that are responsible for bitter taste.

What's awesome is that when stimulated these cause the bronchial tubes to loosen (more so than any known drug): in other words, this could lead to a very good treatment for asthma. Brilliant!

You can listen to the podcast of the NPR interview here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

TV Review: Stephen Moffat's Time Travelling Detective

Okay, so he's not really time travelling, Stephen Moffat's Sherlock Holmes has simply been set in modern London. There's more than one reason I've called him a time traveler though. Moffat's brilliant, eccentric, obnoxious "high functioning sociopath" Sherlock Holmes is more than a little reminiscent of the latest incarnation of the time travelling Doctor from Doctor Who. That's fine by me, Moffat's a brilliant writer and I'm all for getting to see another eccentric genius written by him. And actually, Sherlock isn't entirely like Matt Smith's Doctor, he's more like him turned up to eleven (pardon the pun). He's got all the genius and condescension without the sympathy. I suppose it could annoy some (even wore a bit on me at times) but on the whole I'd say it's brilliant.

Watson is also good, though I understand quite changed from his original, and the rest of the supporting cast do their jobs quite nicely. The dialogue between the character's is fantastically witty (plenty of laughs to be had) and there's plenty of clever references to Sherlock canon.

The plot is fun too, and it even seems to be setting up for a pretty interesting arc involving the slow revealing of an archnemesis and the question of just how sane our hero really is.

If had any complaint so far, it would be that the actor playing Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a mumbler, and when he gets to talking a mile a minute it can be hard to understand him. Oh well.

Keep up the good work Moffat.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What I learned... on NPR: Nutritious Nukes

As angry as I may be at NPR, I still greatly enjoy the show, and I learn quite a bit from it - sometimes what I learn are important issues, sometimes it's just fun information. So my first "What I learned..." is going to be about something I learned on NPR.

What I learned...

Surprisingly, and quite the opposite of what you'd expect, if you're going to cook veggies and you want to maintain their nutritional value, the best option is not boiling or even steaming, but... cooking them in the microwave.

Yes, the microwave is the best way to cook something.

Who knew?

What I learned...: A New Blog Series

I'm starting up a new series on this blog called "What I learned..." In it, I'm going to discuss various interesting bits of trivia I pick up that I'd like to share, be they from school, books, the radio or others. These will be quick snappy posts that I hope you'll enjoy.

Life: Blog, Blog, Blog

While I'm on about plugging blogs.

Diversity of Lions

Here's the blog of my friend Fernando Rojas, another brilliant fellow (also with a great sense of humor).

Check it out.

Life: Another Blog Lives!

Fresh of the blag-o-press comes a new blog. It's a baby right now, so there's not much, but when there is I can promise it will be good. The blog is owned by my friend Brett Stroud, who is, seriously, one of the smartest people I know. Highly recommend you check it out, especially as he gets it rolling.

Brett A. Stroud Blog


Politics: NPR's Ethic Violation (An Angry Rant)

You've probably heard by now if you watch the news - NPR has fired Juan Williams, one of their political analysts, for comments he made about Muslims on the O'Reilly factor. The comment made, by the way, concerned an honest expression of a reaction he sometimes has towards Muslims. He goes on to argue, against O'Reilly's nuttery, that we have to make the distinction between radical, militant Islam, and the rest of Islam.

I really don't have much to say about this, except that NPR's decision enrages me. His comments in no way effected his position as a news analyst for NPR, nor do they reflect on NPR. Further, they're not even bigoted (a distinction has to be made between "This is how I react to things sometimes" and "this is how one should react to things).

Frankly, I find what NPR has done to be disgusting. They supposedly fired Williams over an ethical violation, but in reality it is they who have committed the ethical violation. I don't care how disgusting they found his comments, if it did not effect his work at NPR, they had no business firing him. Doing so was dishonest of them as a news organization. They acted on the basis of their political bias, which is not, in theory, the duty of a news organization. They were apparently seeking to protect their reputation, but as far as I'm concerned they have only damaged it.

This isn't even mentioning the terrible way they went about his firing.

By the way, it's not that Juan Williams is some favorite of mine - I hadn't even heard of him before today. I'm even inclined to distrust people who are willing to go on the O'Reilly Factor - the pundits at Fox are all of them nuts. No, it's the principle of the thing.

NPR, you've really screwed up this time.

Here's the full segment from the O'Reilly Factor (try not to get to distracted by O'Reilly being a jerk).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: Dresden Files, Book 1, Storm Front

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is a very manly man. He takes hits like the rest of them, then he takes some more. He could give up, but people are counting on him, the women are beautiful, and Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is a manly man.

That, I think, provides a fairly adequate summary of the two (really one-and-a-half) Dresden Files books I've read so far. As you may be able to tell from my sarcastic introduction, this formula has begun to wear a bit half way through the second book, but I shouldn't be too harsh on on these books. After all, they're fun, page-turning, and drenched with enough testosterone to make Daniel Craig weep with inadequacy.

But where was I? Oh yes, Storm Front. This is the first book in a rather long series, and sets the tone of manly manliness and magic that seems like its going to be the blueprint for the series. The main character is a private detective of a very special sort operation out of Chicago. He's special because he happens to be a wizard (a manly wizard). In this first adventure, Harry helps the police department to solve a very mysterious murder, whilst dealing with threats from a magical council, and another small case on the side that, well, don't want to spoil too much...

So, like I said, the books fun and should keep you turning the pages. Though, of the people I know who've read this book, reactions have varied quite a bit. My sister thinks they're silly, my friend Fernando seems to think them fairly average, and they are my ex-girlfriend's favorite series. Nobody, at any rate, thinks them terrible.

Give it a read if your in the mood for some pulp. And manliness.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Philosophy: Metaethics - What is Morality?

A few days ago, I made a post regarding what I considered to be a confusion in the public debate over homosexuality. Since then, that post has gotten quite a few comments, and things recently drifted into the area of metaethics.

Wait. Metaethics? 

Yes, nice term. What does it mean? Within philosophy, analytic philosophy in particular, definition is an important part of the game. For example, defining the question, as I discussed in my last post, is a very important task. "Metaethics," is the field within philosophy that aims to "define the question" of ethics. It asks questions like "What is morality in the first place," "Generally speaking, what makes an action wrong or right," "Is morality absolute?" 

For example, our culture tends to have three metaethical theories in mind when it talks about morality. The first, the one you usually see associated with conservatives. Wrong and right are objective features of the world, written laws in some book. For every moral question, there is a definite answer. It is, on this view, our duty to follow the law.

In contrast to this, there's a utilitarianism, by way of some muddled existentialism and romanticism, that holds that what is right is tied into happiness - specifically the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This usually takes some form of the maxim "do what you want as long as it doesn't hurt others" - though often phrased in more nuanced ways. This view is usually also mixed in with a relativism that holds morality to have no absolutes. Of course, that isn't necessarily the case, and most hold at least the "no harm" maxim to be an absolute.  

Finally, there's those out there who are simply metaethical nihilists. There is no morality, no right and wrong, not even any harm principle. One make act morally, but it's simply out of convenience. 

Unfortunately, the fact that most people don't think about metaethics can also lead to a lot of confusion. Those in the first category, for example, will often confuse those who hold to the harm principle with nihilists, thinking them to literally have no morals.

And actually, those in the second camp sometimes make a similar mistake. Namely, they come to think that morality is only what the other side is talking about - a code of specific rights and wrongs, and they conclude that that's really a matter of personal choice (thus "morality is a matter of personal choice"). The actual utilitarian morality they hold to isn't thought by them to be morality at all, but simply a fact. 

There are actually been quite a few other metaethical theories of importance, among them contractualism and virtue ethics. The latter of the two may actually get discussion in an upcoming post, because it's at the very least historically important. For now though, I just wanted to outline the field of metaethics, and lay out what seem to be the two most dominate views today. I also hope this might get you thinking about what metaethical assumptions you might be making - both about yourself and about those with whom you disagree. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Philosophy: Asking the Wrong Questions (About Homosexuality)

When faced with a difficult philosophical quandary, it is often important to investigate whether or not the right question is even being asked. All too often, it seems to happen that two sides of a debate end up talking past each other, or arguing on an issue that isn’t actually relevant to the question at hand.

One such irrelevant questions has become central in the debate about homosexuality in the public sphere – whether or not homosexuality is “natural.” By natural, I take most people to mean genetically determined, while the opposite camp would call it a choice.

But what are we trying to get at here? There is, of course, a purely scientific question of whether or not homosexuality is genetic, but that is not the question as it appears in public debate. Rather, it seems to me clear that what is being investigated is of a moral nature. In the end, what people are fighting about is whether homosexuality is wrong or right.

Given that this is really what the debate is, the question arises – is the genetic “naturalness” of homosexuality even relevant? It seems to me that both sides of the issue have assumed it is, but might they be making a mistake?

There are many “natural” things most people would still judge to be wrong. There are genetic diseases, for example, and it even seems that there are born sociopaths. Both of these things are genetically “natural” and both are things we would eliminate given the chance.

Conversely, many “unnatural” things are quite good. I think, for one, that most Americans think government is ultimately a good thing , yet government could hardly be called natural, and a cure for cancer, if we developed one, would similarly be “unnatural.”

So, let us imagine homosexuality is, in fact, simply a matter of choice. Would the game be up? Would gay-rights activists throw up their arms in despair and admit they were wrong all along? Of course not, because the question of whether it is right or wrong still stands.

Or imagine the opposite case – homosexuality is proved to be genetic beyond any shadow of a doubt, so thoroughly that no one thinks it can be disputed. Again, those who oppose homosexuality would continue to do so, because the question of right would still not be answered.

I have mostly avoided this particular topic on my blog, and, for the most part, I plan on continuing this policy, as I’m not much of a fan of being flamed. However, I wanted to, without coming down on either side of the issue, air my thoughts on this confusion.

Thank you, and have a good night. 

Life: Sickness and Blagness

I'm sick. I can't sleep. So, naturally, my mind wanders to philosophy, and philosophy finds its way into the form of a blog. I've finally written a new post, and it will be up here shortly - it's on a nice controversial topic too.