Saturday, February 26, 2011


Lorigen Engineering from JimTheFilm on Vimeo.
This movie looks very interesting to me (H/T Mary Meets Dolly). From the plot:
Being steadily crushed under the weight of debt, unemployment, and increasing isolation, Jim reaches a breaking point. Over a game of solitary Russian roulette he contemplates an unspeakable act of violence as a way of leaving his mark. He is stopped short by a vision of his deceased wife who convinces him that he should instead focus his remaining resources into an act of creation. Armed with his wife’s frozen eggs and a new resolve, Jim secures the services of a large biotech firm to help him create an heir who will be engineered to overcome the obstacles of common men.

Meanwhile in the distant future Niskaa, the leader of a group of genetically modified beings, controls a race of worker clones in a super-industrialized, post-human Earth. As he tries to restore his decrepit empire he comes face to face with a young clone that shows an unprecedented capacity for reason and empathy. Somehow connected to Jim via dreams, the clone manifests secrets of Nature that Niskaa has not accounted for…
Here is the web site for the movie, and the trailer. Caveat - I have not seen this movie, just what I present here.

I think clones connected through dreams is a bit off-beat, but still, the trailer looks good and it has the potential to be a decent cautionary tale genre sci-fi thriller. When I first heard the title of the movie I thought of Huckleberry Finn (which has sadly, or humorously, been in the news lately) and it would have been a potential theme if only the child had been named Jim instead of the father.

If you are interested in similar films until this comes to a theater near you, try the excellent movie The Island and Gattaca. Know of any other similar films worth watching?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Live Action is OK by me

So I've been reading various blogs about the "Lying for Jesus" question, and have some interesting (ot me) observations. Several people are still uncomfortable with Live Action's actions. Some justify it without stating a principle. I haven't seen anyone come up with a principle that satisfies me that it is OK to hide the Jews but not cheat on taxes.

Let me be clear. I basically agree with Peter Kreeft that what Live Action did, and what police do, and what people did in Rwanda and Nazi Germany are all related, and are all OK. I just would like to see more than a "search your feelings - you know it to be true" answer. So in the absence of a definitive principle I'm going to fall back on my initial take - someone does not have the right to information that will cause them to sin.

Case in point. I recently received a phone call from someone - I'll call him Joe to preserve his anonymity. Joe has been using his next door neighbor's internet service for a while. They have no password on their wireless router and rather than spending money on his own subscription, he just uses theirs. It seems Joe bought a printer, and was calling me because I am the "computer guy". Joe's printer is a wireless printer, and he was afraid to connect it to his neighbor's network for fear of getting caught. I confirmed for him that if he hooked up his wireless printer to his neighbor's wireless network, they would "see" it when they printed from their computer, and in fact might print things on it in his house. I suggested it was time he get his own internet service, which he went ahead and did.

Now, I could have told Joe that he could use the USB cable from his old printer and plug it into the USB port on the back of his new printer, and forgo using it wirelessly at all. The neighbors would not know he had a printer and he could continue to steal their service. I chose not to reveal that truth to him. Did Joe have the "right' to use me as an enabler for his sin? I say "no". In fact, it I had mentioned that to him I would be complicit in his theft.

Unlike the Jews or Tutsi situations, this is not a matter of life and death, nor did I have to directly say something untrue, but merely not speak everything I could, but I think the principle stands. The Nazi does not have the right to use me to find a Jew, and PP does not have the right to use Live Action to help them continue to kill the innocent.

Making stuff dumber

A friend recommended the Nova series "Making Stuff". According to the series description it is a four part series that explores the materials that "will shape our future." So I stuck it on the old TiVo list and this past week watched the beginning of "Making Stuff Smaller" with my son. It was a torturous reminder of why I stopped watching Nova, and after about 15 minutes we gave up.

Now, I'm not the most brilliant guy in the world, but I am a science geek. Is it too much to ask that the science in a science show should be correct? In the 15 minutes I saw, there were numerous examples of wrong "stuff." Let's look at one example, the invention of the pocket watch.

Prior to the 15th century clocks used pendulums to count the passage of time. They were replaced, according to the show, by the main spring, which turned a gear. But wait! The mainspring didn't replace the pendulum, it replaced the weights that powered the pendulum clock. The thing that replaced the pendulum was the flywheel.

You see, a clock needs an oscillator to provide a steady time base. Every oscillator has two forces, which vary over time. One force drives the system out of equilibrium by putting energy into it, and the other force returns the system to equilibrium. In a pendulum clock, the energy provided by a falling weight is used to swing the pendulum to one side, and gravity pulls it back toward the center. The inertia of the moving pendulum and force of gravity make a system that has a very definite frequency, which is useful for keeping time.

In a mechanical watch the mainspring provides energy to a flywheel called a balance wheel, which has a spring that returns it to the starting position. Like the pendulum, the inertia of the balance wheel and force of the spring control the frequency of the oscillator.

The mainspring was important for creating watches. A falling weight isn't convenient to carry around, and any movement will change the direction/force of the weight. What the mainspring did which was unique was provide a (nearly) constant force. Most springs have a force which is proportional to the amount the spring is compressed.

Likewise, the balance wheel replacing the pendulum was an important feature for much the same reason. However, a scientist (or even a science show host) should know the difference. It's like saying the gas tank replaced the horse, in the invention of the car.

But it gets worse. They the go one to say that the mainspring was replaced by the quartz crystal. Whoa! In a quartz watch it is the battery that replaces the mainspring. The crystal replaces the balance wheel. So we're back to taking about the oscillator, not the power source.

First off, they skipped over an entire generation of watch technology, the tuning fork. In the 1960s, Bulova came out with the tuning fork watch. A transistor oscillator was regulated by a small tuning fork that vibrated at a determined frequency. In this case, a magnetic field pushes the tuning fork and the springiness of the metal in the tuning fork returns it to equilibrium.

The tuning fork was replaced later by the quartz crystal. Back to the show. According to them, quart vibrates when an electric current is passed through it. Wrong again! Quartz is a piezoelectric material, which means it changes shape (slightly) when a voltage is applied across it. When that voltage is removed, the quartz returns to its original shape. Like the pendulum, and the balance wheel, the time it takes to return to equilibrium determines the frequency of the oscillator.

According to the show, the quartz crystal chops time into "millionths of a second". Wrong again! The quart crystal in digital watches typically oscillates at a frequency of 32,768 Hz, or oscillations per second. There are 2 reasons for this. First off, each oscillation requires energy. A high frequency crystal would drain your watch battery in weeks. Secondly, it is very easy in the digital world to divide by 2, and 32,768 is 215 so simply dividing by two 15 times gives a time base of 1 second.

What about those watches that do 1/100th of a second? They use the 1/256th and signal and fudge it by combining the results of when dividing it by two and three. Who's going to notice that their stopwatch is sometimes slightly off in the 1/100s digit?

To make matters worse, the show misses the whole point of the quartz crystal. They claim the reason to use quartz is because it is cheap. It is that, but the real reason is accuracy. Every material has a property called CTE, or coefficient of thermal expansion. This is a measurement of how much the material expands or contracts when the temperature changes.

Prior to the quartz crystal oscillator, every watch or clock suffered from this problem. The arm of the pendulum would get longer with increased temperature, and it would swing slower, making the clock lose time. When it was cold, the pendulum would contract and the clock would run faster. The amount of change might be very small, but since it is affecting the rate of the clock, over time the errors would accumulate. Likewise, the balance wheel would increase or decrease in diameter, which made it run slower or faster. The tuning fork's length would change, making it ring at a different frequency.

The cool thing about the way the quartz crystal oscillates is that the frequency is related to the ratio of its length to width. Assuming the entire crystal is the same temperature that ratio will be the same, no matter what the temperature.

The show didn't appear to be getting any better, as the next segment started with a completely fallacious description of semiconductors. I just had to turn it off.

The sad thing is that these are really cool things, but the makers of the show spent more time making fancy graphics, when an hour with a textbook (or 10 minutes of googling) would have given them a show that actually taught something.

[N.B. Since I started writing this I had time to watch "Making Things Cleaner" which is about energy conservation - it was just as good as "Making Things Smaller". Ugh.]

Monday, February 21, 2011

On pitching in

My family has always been "pitching-iners" - volunteers at heart. And yet, despite all the things I volunteered for - from soup kitchens to cleaning erasers - I never volunteered for anything at church. Well, almost never - I did volunteer to help the communications committee with their web site (which did not go so well). So about two years ago I was surprised to suddenly see my name listed as lector (OK, technically reader, but they call it lector and so will I in this post) for mass the following week. I had never volunteered for it, and upon asking around nobody else had either.

Now those of you who know me IRL (in real life) should know I am not comfortable with public speaking. Yes, I've given a speech or two in my day, and in a small group of friends I am fine. But to stand in front of strangers? Um, no. However, there were two important differences that made me consider fulfilling the role. First off, it's just reading, not any original words. I am a pretty good reader (as my kids will attest to). Secondly it was Lent, and I was trying to figure out something I could do to strengthen my faith. What better way than to go outside my comfort zone and read the bible to boot?

I got a rough idea of what I was supposed to do and was told not to worry because our pastor is a very understanding man. That Sunday I showed up to find that we had a guest priest, and that this was to be a special mass due to some event (I honestly don't remember what). I introduced myself to Fr. I-don't-remember-his-name and confessed it was my first time so if I screwed up would he be gentle. He was very nice, and I didn't screw up, although I was so nervous I almost dropped the lectionary. At the end of mass he thanked me publicly for doing this for the first time and the congregation clapped - something I most certainly did not want to have happen.

Well, what made me think of this, and blog about it is that almost two years have gone by, and I have done the job dozens of times, but just this last week I was sitting in the pew waiting to get up and read the second reading and it occurred to me - this was the first time I felt like it was "routine" and not uncomfortable. I got through the reading just fine and after mass even got some compliments on my reading. Of course, the material was good (1 Cor 3:16-23).

My sincere apologies to those who read this expecting some "moral" or "insight" - it's just something I was thinking about. I guess if there is any at all it would be to encourage you to get up and do something good, even if it's outside your comfort zone. By the way, for those who don't know me IRL, that is not me in the photo above.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This should scare you is reporting on the US government creating "fake" social media personae to spread propaganda and spy on private citizens. From the article:
The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage "fake people" on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.

The contract calls for the development of "Persona Management Software" which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online. The job listing was discussed in recently leaked emails from the private security firm HBGary after an attack by internet activist last week.
The software enables the government to shield its identity through a number of different methods including the ability to assign unique IP addresses to each persona and the ability to make it appear as though the user is posting from other locations around the world.
...Even the most restrictive and security conscious of persons can be exploited. Through the targeting and information reconnaissance phase, a person’s hometown and high school will be revealed. An adversary can create a account at the same high school and year and find out people you went to high school with that do not have Facebook accounts, then create the account and send a friend request. Under the mutual friend decision, which is where most people can be exploited, an adversary can look at a targets friend list if it is exposed and find a targets most socially promiscuous friends, the ones that have over 300-500 friends, friend them to develop mutual friends before sending a friend request to the target. To that end friend’s accounts can be compromised and used to post malicious material to a targets wall. When choosing to participate in social media an individual is only as protected as his/her weakest friend."
So nice to live in the land of the free under the most transparent administration ever. Just remember, "Arbeit Macht Frei!" I leave you with this quote:
If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one's own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What's a spiritual bouquet?

This is something very beautiful and relatively new to me. You all know what a bouquet of flowers is - a pretty arrangement of a bunch of flowers. Well, imagine the same thing, but instead of flowers, it's made up of masses, prayers, and other spiritual devotions. What a great gift! You can join in creating a spiritual bouquet for Pope Benedict XVI to be given to him on the feast of St. Joseph (March 19th) by going over to Fr. Z's blog and "voting" for the thing you are doing. There's also a link for this over on the right hand side bar.

As Fr. Z points out, this is not only a wonderful way to support our Holy Father, but it can get you an indulgence. I suppose I should write a post on what an indulgence is, but I think the link I just gave explains it better than I could.

I don't like Glenn Beck general. Some of his views I agree with, but some are just nutty. I don't watch Glenn Beck. But this is something we all need to watch. If you want to minimize your Beck exposure, skip to 8:00 in and just watch 15 minutes. I'm including the show in its entirety because I think all of it is valuable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I love my children

One of the entries in the Manhattan Declaration video contest.

Check out the web site for more.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson, come quickly I need you!

I watched the Jeopardy IBM Challenge this week and was quite impressed. For those who missed it, IBM's AI (artificial Intelligence) computer "Watson" played Jeopardy against two of the show's all time winners. Watson is a natural language processing system, which means it "understands" and "uses" English sentences for input and output.

I put the terms in quotes because we don't have a clear idea what it means to understand things or to use language. Certainly Watson did a good job of parsing the sentences fed to it (electronically - it does not do speech to text) and a good job speaking (although some of its pronunciation left a lot to be desired). From the sentence fed to it, it would determine what it was supposed to figure out much of the time and come up with a correct answer form its database of knowledge (no, it was not allowed to use the Internet).

It cleaned the clocks of the other contestants, but it won like the machine beat John Henry - by mechanical means. What I mean by that is that it could push the button faster than they could. Throughout the tournament you could see the contestants furiously trying to beat it to the button push and losing, and being frustrated by not being able to answer a question they knew the answer to.

Watson, on the other hand, routinely pushed the button first, unless it didn't know the answer. And the answers it didn't know were telling. Things dealing with "book learning" it knew very well, but it had "no common sense" as my kids put it. One interesting thing that had Alex Trebek and others puzzled were the unusual amounts it bet in the daily doubles and final Jeopardy. Generally a human will pick a number that will give him or her a "round" number or will pass another opponent. It seemed as though Watson took the maximum amount times some predicted probability of winning ignoring the scores of its opponents. Which makes sense, because I'm not sure if Watson knew the scores of its opponents. It did not know what their answers were, which became clear in the first game when it repeated a wrong answer its opponent had already given.

That's not to demean the incredible achievement of a machine that can play Jeopardy at all, and the hard work and talent that went into such an effort. On the contrary, as a computer scientist I find the project fascinating. I just thought the victory was cheapened by the buzzer speed. Had it been more "human" the contest would have been more about intellect and less about mechanisms.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Defend Live Action! or I'll shoot this dog

There have been a number of great posts by a number of great bloggers about whether or not it's OK for Live Action! to lie. The first place I saw this was on the blog site Big Blue Wave, in the post Something that bothers me about LiveAction's sting operations, which says
The pro-life blogosphere is a buzz with's latest sting operation where a man and a woman pose as a pimp and a prostitute to catch a Planned Parenthood official aiding and abetting sex trafficking.

People seem to look at these videos uncritically because...folks, the people who are telling stories about these made-up girls are lying.

Remember lying? That sin prohibited by the Ten Commandments?

I know catching Planned Parenthood doing shady things is very exciting and it provides ammunition in the fight to get them defunded.

But to do it by sinful means is wrong.

And the pro-life blogosophere should not uncritically accept this means of deriving information just because it puts us an advantage.

In fact, the Devil loves giving us a reason to sin. He'll use whatever motive we have, including a desire to please God and save the unborn.

I can see many objections to my comment come up.

For instance, that it's okay to lie sometimes.

No it's not.
In other words, Live Action! is as evil as Planned Parenthood because both are sinning. I consider this viewpoint a bit extreme, and somewhat wrong. First off, equating lying with abortion is incorrect. Lying is a venial sin unless it has grave consequences. Let me focus your attention on five paragraphs of the catechism on lying that are relevant to the discussion.
2482 "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving."280 The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: "You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies."281

2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. the good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. the duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.282
Now, lest we fall into the sin of rash judgment we should examine the situation.

Mark Shea takes a less rigid position in Can you lie for a good cause?
All of which is to say, “I’m mostly opposed, but not enough of a moral theologian to say definitively what I think.” Had I been hiding Dutch Jews in my attic, I would have cheerfully lied to the Gestapo and figured out the fine moral issues later. So if somebody could make a really good case for such deception that is not, in the end, just another consequentialist argument, I would be willing to listen. But I am frankly skeptical that such arguments are thick on the ground. Having watched for years now as Catholics eagerly throw themselves into ridiculous justifications of radical evil like abortion, torture and war crimes “for the Greater Good” I am extremely sensitive to “camel’s nose under the tent” justifications for arguments that boil down, in the end, to “Let us do evil that good may come of it.” If you think you’ve got an argument for deceiving PP managers that is not, in the end, an argument that would not also authorize lying for any other good end, gimme your best shot. But I’m not inclined to believe you. After all, you are setting yourself the task of trying to get me to trust that somebody who approves of lying is not lying to me.
Of course, Mark's blog is popular and there have been may many responses. I tried adding my own voice to the fray, but my comment disappeared (literally, it never showed up on the blog). Rather than be one voice among the many, I thought I'd respond here, where nobody will comment and contradict me (sometimes it's nice to be obscure).

First of all, let me say that I agree with Mark and the others - lying is wrong - but I think there are arguments to be made in favor of the actions of Lila Rose and Live Action!. Let's take a look. I want to justify Live Actions!'s actions, and not just because I admire beautiful women who try to save lives, but because it saves Jews.

Some people have invoked "double effect" to say they are justified in lying. That does not apply here. As explained in my award winning post Between a rock and a hard place (Part III: double trouble), in order for the act to be OK, "the act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent." Lying is not morally good or indifferent. It is wrong.

Some have invoked the "hiding Jews in the attic" argument. I think this is an apt analogy, because just as people told the Nazis that there were no Jews in the attic in order to save innocent human lives, Live Action! is telling Planned Parenthood there are babies in the womb in order to save innocent human lives. I think if you condemn Live Action! you have to also condemn those who hid Jews in World War II, or those who hid Immaculée Ilibagiza during the Rwandan genocide, and that's something I cannot do.

I will note that although I would gladly tell the Nazis there were no Jews in the attic, or tell the Hutus there were no Tutsis in the bathroom, I would go to confession afterward. I don't know if my actions would qualify as a lie and if they would qualify as a sin or not, but I'm not going to risk it all on that

So, how can it not be a lie? A lie implies that Planned Parenthood has a right to the truth. Does someone have the right to information that enables them to kill others? Does the Gestapo have the right to know that the Jews are in the attic? I haven't found any definitive writing on what constitutes or abrogates one's right to the truth, but I'd maintain if anything did abrogate it, that would.

Secondly, can a lie not be a sin? Certainly. For an action to be a sin the person performing it must know it is sinful and freely choose it. In the case of Live Action! I think both of these are in play. Without a definitive definition of the right to the truth I think it is reasonable to doubt whether or not there is a right to the truth in this case. And before you think I'm on the slippery slope Mark points out of those who say "but the Church has never defined torture" let me assure you I'm not. I'm not trying to say that this is not lying or that lying is not bad, but a case of where the "line in the sand" is on an issue that is explicitly not absolute according to the catechism.

Secondly there is an issue of freedom of choice. Now, this is sort of tenuous, so please bear with me. I'm sure Live Action! would much rather defund Planned Parenthood and uncover corruption and illegal activity without having to lie, but Planned Parenthood has set up a situation where the means to that cannot be achieved by walking in and saying "I'm from Live Action! and this is my camera and tell me if you are doing something illegal." With a strong desire to defend life there is a temptation to do so by performing actions that are legal and acceptable, even if they are shaky morally. This is not attempting to justify actions, but merely an extenuating circumstance in deciding whether or not a sin has been committed.

So in other words, I don't know if what they did is a lie, and I don't know if what they did is sinful. I must admit I am glad that the result may save the lives of women and children, and I leave the question of whether or not they should go to confession between them and their confessor.

Pelted by Gravel

St. Stephen, regarded as the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death for his faith. But he was far from the last. Today more than even people are being persecuted for living their faith.

And now the "abortion wars" are heating up. One unfortunate victim seems to be LifeSiteNews. If you've never heard of them, you have been missing out on important news stories that the mainstream media has missed. They are one of the better news agencies that covers life affecting issues, whether or not you are pro-life.

And now they are being persecuted. They are not the worst victims of persecution in this battle, but I did hear about their predicament yesterday and wanted to write a few words about the absurdity of it. It seems they are being sued by a Catholic priest! From their release:
Even though LifeSiteNews reports have overwhelmingly reported on what Fr. Gravel himself has publicly said, he is suing us for libel. Among other things, he argues that he isn’t pro-abortion, but he has said in the past that he is “pro-choice.”

He’s demanding $500,000 in damages – which, coincidentally, is a full year’s budget for us. That would put LifeSiteNews out of business! says, of libel
libel –noun
1. Law . a. defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures.

defamation –noun
the act of defaming; false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another, as by slander or libel; calumny: She sued the magazine for defamation of character.
So Fr. Gravel thinks being called pro-abortion is false, and injures his reputation. Why does he think that? Would someone who advocated legal equality for women consider it libel to be called pro-women? Would someone who advocated for the legal rights of blacks consider it libel to be called pro-black? Why then, would someone who advocates for the legal right to abortion consider it libel to be called "pro-abortion?"

The fact is, he recognizes that abortion is evil, but wants to have his cake and eat it too. Let's hope and pray that justice prevails in this case. And if you can spare it, toss a coin in their legal defense fund.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No one knows

It's been a while since my last post - been too busy with the rest of life. I'm still busy, but I've been musing and wanted to take a minute to write a short post.

There is an old joke about a man who is caught poaching on the king's land, that goes something like this. The king sentences him to death, saying "You will be hung at dawn one day this week. The day of your hanging will be a complete surprise to you."

The man strolls happily to his cell. The guards are amazed. "Don't you care that you're gong to be killed?"

The man replied "The king can't hang me! There is no way the sentence can be carried out without making the king a liar. You see, there is no way I can be hung on Saturday, because it's the last day of the week, and I'll know Friday night that the  hanging will be the following day. So the last day I can be hung is Friday. But on Thursday night I will know and it won't be a surprise. Likewise for each preceding day, until today. I am as good as free!"

And so, the man was surprised when they woke him up at dawn on Wednesday and hung him.

Recently Harold Camping has been in the news for predicting that the world will end on May 21, 2011. Naysayers are, of course, saying nay. The primary verse Christians are using to refute this is Matthew 24:36, which says "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone."

Now, I don't for one second believe that Camping is right. However, lest we be like the man in the joke,  I think we should realize that just because Camping thinks the world will end that day doesn't mean he knows it will end (even if he thinks he knows). So, if the world did end on that day I don't think it makes Camping right or Christ wrong.

So, I'm not doing anything special that day, but it does make me think - if the world (or at least my life) did end today, would I be ready? Perhaps I should stop worrying about Camping and start working on that.