Archive for November 2007

Comparitive Religious Studies – Updated

November 30, 2007

Your brain on Islam.
Your brain on Christianity.

Any questions?

Update: Terry Mattingly at Get Religion makes the distinction I failed to make yesterday between Moslims and Islamists. I’ve been troubled all day by my failure. He quotes (and links to) a passage from Time magazine, which to him, seems “obvious”:

I’m not saying that I know exactly what these “obvious” facts mean, right now. But here’s the bottom line:

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute.

“There is a sort of ‘who is the best Muslim?’ competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down,” he said.

Surely that statement is depressing reading for mainstream Muslims.

It Keeps On Going, and Going, and Going…

November 30, 2007

Last month I mentioned seeing Comet 17/p Holmes. It’s still quite visible, especially now that the moon isn’t flooding the sky with light.

That little p in it’s name indicates it’s a periodic comet, and yes, it has been seen many times since it’s discovery in 1892. The comet orbits the sun in the area between Mars and Jupiter. I went looking for it’s period – the time it takes to make an orbit – and came up empty. It turns out that it has no real regular period, because the orbit of Holmes is strongly affected by Jupiter. In fact, in 1908 the orbit was changed enough that astronomers “lost” the comet until 1964.

The big mystery is what caused the comet to brighten so dramatically in October. So far there is no good explanation.

Studies with ground-based observatories show that Comet Holmes has been emitting a rather typical combination of water and other compounds. Weaver, Lisse, and others managed to commandeer the Hubble Space Telescope for one orbit’s observations on each of three nights in late October and early November. The blandness of these images argues that the nucleus didn’t break apart wholesale, as was the fate of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in April 2006.

So was it hit by something? – an asteroid perhaps?

One possible explanation that’s almost certainly not correct is that it was struck by an asteroidal fragment. Although this comet occupies the realm between Mars and Jupiter, its orbital inclination (19°) actually keeps 17P/Holmes well separated from most denizens of the asteroid belt. Moreover, counting the outbursts that occurred during and after its discovery in 1892, three collisions would be needed to explain all the activity.


November 30, 2007

Ever play the game where you tell a secret to someone, who then tells it to someone, to tells it to someone… until it comes back to you? The secret … um … evolves.

So the final rendition is that drinkers of Molson’s and Labatt’s beer (and I’ll betchya Carling’s Black Label) are destroying the planet!

Having grown up on the US side of the Peace Bridge (“I have too much blood in my beer stream right now…urp”) I resemble that remark!

I would have guessed that the original secret was that the tiny explosions of a gazillion beer bubbles have been shown to cause global warming.

Close, but no cigar.

Getting rid of vintage “beer fridges” – secondary fridges which many North American and Australian homes boast – could have a significant impact on household greenhouse gas emissions, suggests a new study.

Beer fridges are additional fridges that are generally used to keep beer and other drinks cold on top of a household’s primary fridge for food. One in three Canadian households has a second fridge, many of which are ageing, energy-guzzling models, according to Denise Young, a researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.

How To Raise Smart Kids

November 29, 2007

Is Scientific American telling us that teachers should give “an A for effort”? From the article The Secret to Raising Smart Kids by Carol Dweck:

[A]ttributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an ! early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

I may have cherry picked this quote unfairly, but nonetheless, my experience tells me something else is going on here.

It seems almost self-evidently true (a “duh” thing, really), that kids (or anyone) who thinks their intelligence is fixed will also think that if something is difficult for them, then it is their deficiency that is to blame. They might as well not try. Next step, run away!

I contend that the popular culture has worsened the problem, particularly since the days of Ferris Bueller, by 1) making effortless success seem “cool” (and the only real measure of intelligence) and 2) conflating cleverness with intelligence. The sad result is that anyone who achieves success has to be seen as born with it (because effort delegitimizes the success) and cheating becomes justified (because short cuts are clever). We’ve popularized the idea that success must seem effortless, no matter what.

I used to teach the martial arts, and my Sensi’s goal was to have us teach it to anyone who came through the door. Everyone it touched, he reasoned, would benefit, and so I had students who ranged in age from 3 and a half (cute little blond girl – with parents watching over) to a 64 year old gentleman (who wanted to feel a little more secure in his job at St. Elisabeth’s). Because there was so such thing a social promotion, every student participated fully, even to sparing. The one thing not allowed was the word “can’t”.

How do you teach a student “You can” when he or she insists “I can’t”?

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? First the teacher must be able. Period. Second, the teacher must know, positively, that yes indeed, the student can. Usually, that’s easy. Sheesh – for me, it was as each as knowing (and believing) that if I can do it, anyone can. Often, the teacher has seen others do it (whatever it is) with far larger obstacles in the way. Finally, the teacher must be willing to make the effort to help the student over his particular hurdles. That’s harder, and often depends on the teacher’s experience. Is it any different teaching math to 9 year olds?

I realize that teaching a small group of self-selected, and therefore motivated, people is different than the situation in a public school, but it ain’t that different. The answers look the same to me regardless.

So no, raising smarter kids is not a matter of rewarding effort, or even rewarding success (though it seems that little rewards for success at intervals works effectively in most cultures). It’s much more important to make the – not child, the student, for it applies to all of us – understand that the limitations we place on ourselves are the biggest obstacles to our success. And we can almost certainly always remove those.

Oh Venus, Make My Wish Come True

November 29, 2007

This blew me away.

The latest results from the [Venus Express] mission were presented today at a press conference held at ESA headquarters in Paris, and will appear in the 29 November issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Then I discovered here that the animation was only an artist’s rendition.

The Religion of Peace?

November 29, 2007

[Note: Since composing this, the news wires have reported that British teacher Gillian Gibbons guilty of insulting religion, and have sentenced her to 15 days in prison.]

According to my religious beliefs I’m supposed to be very, very leery of judging. But I recognize evil when I see it. Name a teddy bear after a student in the Sudan, and just look at what can happen:

Mrs Gibbons faces 40 lashes and a year in jail after being charged with insulting Islam. Reports today suggested the complaint against her had been made by a secretary at the school.

Apparently, some followers of Islam there think that is not the appropriate punishment.

Extreme Islamic groups said Mrs Gibbons “must die” and urged Muslims to hold street protests after prayers tomorrow.

Yes, yes – bluster and threats. I know. But what I also know is that even the mere threat, make that threats, against this woman insult and discredit Islam, incite religious violence and show contempt for religious beliefs. And those who make these threats, starting from the two parents who complained about the naming of the toy, if they really exist, through the agents of the state that have incarcerated her, the judge that sits in trial today, to the Imam, Hassan Al Turabi (who will be called as an expert witness, and who is a supporter of Osama Bin Laden), should face trial under Sharia law for those crimes.

To me, that would look like justice.

The Moons of Barsoom

November 28, 2007

The Planetary Society has pictures of Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its CRISM camara.

Be amazed. Be very amazed.

And I’m amazed at the spectral resolution of CRISM also. Since it has 544 data points for each pixel, each in separate wavelengths, the spacial resolution is only a bonus. The real science is in the ability to understand the surface composition of an object. The “geology” (we need a better word!) of a Martian moon is about to be deciphered.