Curiosities of a Rambling Mind

Science, Religion and Politics

September 4th, 2008 Posted in Blather, Politics | 2 Comments »

I am a person of Faith: I believe in a Divine Creative Force that put this universe together, and that we human beings are an intentional component of that creation. I am also a person of science that trusts the process by which we discover how our universe works. I live comfortably with both, and so I am often surprised and dismayed by what some would put forth as a fundamental conflict between two disparate world views—one held by religious folks, the other held by scientists.

I hesitate to call myself a scientist since I’m not actively involved in research, but I work with scientists, and I have a well-rounded (if perhaps superficial) educational background in several fields of scientific endeavor. I find that most general media sources (e.g., newspapers, nightly news), at least in the US, are quite unreliable in the reporting of science-based news. The public-at-large seems to be increasingly ignorant of the fundamental scientific process and its results, which may contribute to the perceived friction between hard-line religious groups and hard-core scientists. The increasing politicization over matters of scientific inquiry by the current presidential administration has exacerbated the problem by blurring the lines between ascertainable facts, belief structures, and public policy.

I believe that where some religious groups have got it wrong is that science is not a belief system: it is a method of inquiry, a means of discerning how the universe works, through observation and experimentation. Occasionally science discovers a property of the universe which comes into conflict with the tenets of a belief system. Inflexible belief systems resist integrating these new concepts into their structures, but eventually they’re forced to find a way to accommodate them—usually after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. If belief systems cannot adapt to new discoveries about how the universe works, they risk becoming irrelevant, out of touch with the world around them.

Where I think some scientists have got it wrong is that science is not capable of answering every question: it’s much better at determining “how” than “why” (e.g., how does my body turn the lunch I just ate into the energy to type this blather? vs. why am I on this planet typing this blather?); as the scientific method depends on repeatability and observation for results, there are limits to what it can ascertain (i.e., things that are not observable or repeatable are beyond the grasp of rigorous scientific proof). Early in the 20th century, both physics and mathematics discovered a few of their own limitations, e.g., the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem, respectively. And while it is true that science strives to be objective, it is also true that scientists have biases themselves: where data and observations are insufficient, gaps in theories may be filled in by intuition or past experience. However, theory must ultimately be supported by observation, or do better at predicting new behavior, in order to be accepted by a consensus of others in one’s field.

Where politicians seem to get it wrong is in choosing sides in scientific debates or distorting the scientific arguments for political purposes. Granted, a politician’s job is to take action, sometimes with incomplete information; but when more complete data come to light, it may become necessary to revise one’s opinions and theories, and new or different action may be required. The best leaders are those that make decisions based on the best data available, navigating uncertainty or confliciting information using intuition and/or past experience. If better intelligence comes along, then for all our sakes, PLEASE take corrective action. It should be dangerous business to stake one’s political career on the ever-shifting sands of unresolved scientific understanding. I find it reprehensible to distort or divert the search for scientific truth. To do so nullifies any value science may have for society because its results can no longer be trusted.

Beliefs are a choice. I choose to believe in a Deity in spite of what some would call a lack of direct evidence. This doesn’t make me unscientific (but I would be unscientific if I held beliefs that are contrary to direct evidence). But math and science never start with “nothing”: every proof or theory begins with a set of assumptions or starting conditions. We may each choose whether or not God may be a starting condition in our lives, and we should all be allowed to amend our own personal theories as we continue to live and collect new data.

Let us strive not to conform Truth to our will. Instead, let us be shaped by Truth as we continue to find its facets revealed to us. This is the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding journey. Or so I believe.

At the Start of a New Year

August 19th, 2008 Posted in Blather | 2 Comments »

January 1st has never felt like a beginning to me. Sure, the number on the calendar changes, but the real start of things happens around the end of August/beginning of September. This is when school starts, and this is what I consider the real beginning of the year. Of course the “school year” is an anachronism for most of us in the U.S.: there are so few of us tied to the notion of harvest season, after all. But summer vacation and “school days” are now cultural icons—part of the natural rhythm of our lives.

Public schools in my county went back into session this week, and my university starts classes next week. The college students have already begun their annual migration back to campus, and the roads are busy with vehicles and U-Hauls crammed full of life’s ammenities. I haven’t been a student for some time now, but the sight of kids toting boxes and hoisting laundry baskets laden with clean clothes takes me right back to my own first arrival on campus, my first dorm room, my first Rush Week frat party.

So even though the lazy days of summer are drawing to an end, and life with all its regularly-scheduled activities is about to spin up to full speed again, and though I’m not quite ready for it all… I can’t help it: I’m still a little bit excited, even giddy. There’s a whole new adventure about to begin.

Happy New Year, everyone!

If music be the food of love…

August 13th, 2008 Posted in Music / Art / Design | No Comments »

I spend quite a bit of my “free” time involved in music of various kinds. I’ve written a few things over the years, and I’ve posted some of these efforts under the Music page. There’s just one audio file to hear, and the rest are printed music scores. Check them out if such stuff interests you.

Baubles and bangles and beads

August 10th, 2008 Posted in Amortization Calculator, Music / Art / Design | No Comments »

Through trial and error I have played with the calculator’s web appearance. I think it looks more attractive, and I hope you do too. I would never claim to be a graphic designer, but I do what I can.

Credits:

Printing Schedules (again)

August 8th, 2008 Posted in Amortization Calculator | 6 Comments »

Hi, folks. I’ve heard from a few of you who have said that you have difficulty printing schedules, or that schedules produce a lot of blank pages. I still haven’t experienced this problem myself because I can’t test every browser/printer combination available.

However, I have tried to make some changes to the HTML that the calculator produces. For those of you who had printing problems, please give the calculator a try now, and let me know if things have improved any (or if they’ve gotten worse, or if nothing has changed).

Thanks!

Now printed schedules are just a bit gooder

July 30th, 2008 Posted in Amortization Calculator | 1 Comment »

It turns out there is HTML which can indicate which header material should be duplicated across multi-page tables: the <thead></thead> tags. So now that I’ve re-learned this and tweaked the calculator again, multi-page tables will have the column headings on each page when printed, provided your browser does the right thing. (I use Firefox for almost all my web-browsing needs.)

Time for a Reunion

July 23rd, 2008 Posted in Blather | No Comments »

If you’ve read my biographical data (and why would anyone…), you may have noticed that I traveled with a group called Up With People. There are some 20,000 alumni of this program scattered across the world now, and every summer the UWPIAA (our alumni association) puts together a reunion for us globe-trotters.

Tomorrow I leave for Tucson, AZ for a Reunion with my cast from 1988. We’ll be joined by about 1000 other travelers from UWP’s 40-year history. I’ll be back at home on Monday, but the blog shall be left unattended until then. I’ll be busy laughing, reminiscing, and partying my butt off.

May your road be as pleasant.

Where are the Abe’s and Tommy’s?

July 19th, 2008 Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Last night I was reading some excerpts written by Thomas Jefferson. I was nearly struck dumb by the strength and lucidity of his words. A few weeks ago I heard again the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. They bring tears to my eyes.

Then there’s George W, who also brings tears to my eyes, but for quite the opposite reason. Even when he does manage to string together a coherent sequence of words, he sounds patronizing and merely restates the obvious. During the campaign leading to his first election, Bush was named the candidate more people would like to drink a beer with: a man of the people, an average Joe, just like the rest of us. While I understand the sentiment, at another level, I also find this notion appalling.

How did we get to a place where we’ve managed to demonize intelligence, preferring to interact with the world, its plethora of cultures, and eons of history as if all things were simple and easily understood? Just because we wish it to be doesn’t make it true. As we’ve had sad opportunity to witness over the past 8 years, it takes a lot more than a winning smile, a firm handshake, a frat house full of cronies, and the occasional chancellorial backrub to run a country. Given our current state of affairs, I’d like our next President to be a brainiac. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring smart people to navigate the complexities of the world, to set a beacon so that others may follow, and to solve problems rather than create them. So I guess I’d prefer that our nation’s chief executive really be a cut above the Average Joe, perhaps even several notches above average.

Lincoln and Jefferson were both intelligent and spiritual men, and I yearn for the return to our national politics true statesmen such as these. It is the things for which we reach that define us, and these guys both reminded us of our highest and noblest ambitions. I’d have a beer with them any day of the week.

Blog Changes

July 17th, 2008 Posted in Blogging | 1 Comment »

Since this WordPress blogging software is so utterly cool, I’ve decided that I can probably import my old website data from my the old server into the blog itself. I’ll need to tweak and fine-tune a few things, I think, but this could give everything a consistent feel.

Hats off to the theme designer du jour (see the “Bob” link under “Meta”). And also to the photographer Benjamin Walls. They really spruce the place up.

More on rate-finding

July 16th, 2008 Posted in Amortization Calculator | 6 Comments »

In responding to a question in blog comments about rate-finding, I noticed that the calculator didn’t behave well if the Payment Amount could not pay off the loan after the Number of Regular Payments had elapsed, no matter how low the interest rate. To fix this, I added a test for the condition and have the calculator write an error message if necessary.

It’s a little surprising to still find bugs of this magnitude after all these years. :-) But hey, they’re still getting fixed, one by one.