28 September 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

I recently finished my first cover-to-cover reading of a book by Richard Dawkins; his recently published The Greatest Show on Earth. The brief review is: a beautiful book that is filled with Dawkins' regular (and tedious) diatribes against creationism.

Dawkins carefully presents the preponderance of evidence supporting evolution from diverse disciplines: molecular biology, paleontology, geology, chemistry, etc. It's a wonderful book for people who don't often think about evolution; it weaves together the interesting stories from all these areas of research in a way that inspires awe at the complexity of life, and amazement at the simple theory that fits all the pieces together.

On the other hand, as another reviewer, Chet Raymo, pointed out, there's not a hell of a lot that a well informed reader wouldn't know (especially if he or she had read Dawkins' previous tomes). This begs the question:
To whom, then, is it addressed? Presumably to the fair minded but not so well informed person who has heard a lot about the evolution wars and wants to know just why scientists are so confident that they are right. If this is the case, I would have thought it best if Dawkins had left out the snarky and condescending comments about creationists. Admittedly, they are easy targets, and perhaps Dawkins by temperament cannot resist taking pot shots (I do it myself), but the book would work best, I believe, as a persuader of the unpersuaded if he had let the evidence stand on its own, untainted by polemic.
In fact, I dismissed as overblown Dawkins' insistence that we need to convince anyone of the reality of evolution, with the exception of schoolteachers and scientists. I think that most people who choose not to believe in evolution are doing so not because they've carefully weighed the facts and been persuaded by creationism, but rather because it's part of their religious upbringing and they choose not to believe in evolution (which is, after all, their right).

I'm slightly less confident of this assertion after seeing craziness like this 50 page introduction to On the Origin of Species by evangelist nutjob Ray Comfort and pimped by Kirk Cameron (of all people). Comfort presents seductive, but completely false rebuttals to many of the topics discussed in The Greatest Show on Earth (as well as throwing in random quotations by Adolf Hitler). I can see how a sensible person could be convinced by his arguments, even though when viewed from an informed perspective one can immediately see that they are designed to seem plausible without actually being supported by any scientific facts.

Still, at the end of the day I don't really care very much whether the average American believes in evolution or not, as long as it doesn't extend to the active suppression of scientific thought. Raymo is right that Dawkins is preaching to the choir in a serious way here. If his goal is to change minds he needs to be less of a blowhard about his topic.

25 September 2009

The google gestalt

I noticed something a little bit creepy while googling for something a while ago, and encountered it again today. What happens is this:

Start typing a term into google these days and it will drop down a list of auto-completed suggestions. For example, if I enter "foonyor" it thinks I just can't spell very well and makes suggestions like "funny games" and "funny jokes" etc. The key is that google considers what you've typed so far and then cross references it with what other people out there in the ether have ended up typing after beginning in the same way.

If you type in somebody's name, you'll often get a suggested keyword that reflects what other people have been trying to find about them. For instance, the top suggestion for completing "Gordon Brown" is "youtube" because of his recent bumbling attempt to engage the youth of Britain via the intertubes.

Where things become a bit creepy is when you're searching for someone less famous and you get to see what other people are trying to learn about them. Today's weird example involves my former colleague (and all-around genius) Pardis Sabeti, currently an Assistant Professor at Harvard. Here's the ten suggested completions after typing in her name:

  1. married
  2. harvard
  3. lab
  4. thousand days [ed: this is the name of her band]
  5. biography
  6. boyfriend
  7. wiki
  8. band
  9. facebook
  10. cnn
How messed up is it that "married" is number 1 (and that boyfriend is in there too)?!? If you read about her background you'll find out that Pardis is ridiculously smart and successful (and sings lead vocals in that band) but all the internet creeps want to know is whether she's available!

03 September 2009

Autotune the news

The intro (Biden) section of episode 8 of Autotune the News actually sounds pretty sweet: