Tuesday, June 26, 2012

RIP Eduard Khil

For those who aren't familiar with his work, Eduard Khil was a Russian singer. Khil became known to a western audience in 2010 when a 1976 recording of him singing a non-lexical vocable version of the song "I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home" became an Internet meme, known as "Trololo".  The video is embedded below. I hope it brings a smile to your face, as it did mine. Mr. Khil passed away June 4, 2012.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Alan Turing

Last Saturday was the 100th birthday of Alan Turing. Who, you ask? Thomas McDonald has a good overview of his life and contributions. Wikipedia has a more in depth biography. Any student of Computer Science will learn about Turing at some point. He defined what came to be known as the Turing Machine, which is not a physical machine at all, but a thought experiment to determine what is the simplest thing a machine can do that, if given enough time, can allow it to do anything that any machine that could ever be built can do. His contributions are the basis of computability theory that are still taught and used today.

But I'd like to talk about his brilliant paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence. In it he proposes what has come to be known as the Turing test. The basic idea is this. Three people are conversing via some mechanism that does not give away any information about who the person really is (such as chat). Call them "Alex", "Brooke" and "Chris." One of the other two (Alex or Brooke) is really a machine. Chris asks questions, and by the answers given, tries to tell which is the machine, and which is the human.

The claim is that if there is no discernible difference between the human and the machine, the machine exhibits intelligence. Whether or not the machine is intelligent is a deeper question, and one which Turing sort of glosses over. But his point is valid. If there is no way to determine that the machine is different from something we know is intelligent, then it becomes hard to claim that the machine does not possess intelligence.

Note that Turing makes no assumptions about the size, shape or construction of the machine. It could be a smart phone or a room full of gears. It can look up answers in a book or roll dice. The only thing we can examine is the output on the screen. This sort of reminds me of "The Turk", which was a fake chess playing "machine" built in the late 18th century. In that case though, it was a human masquerading as a machine (which is an easier problem).

In each case, the claim is that the "implementation" is equivalent as long as the "observations" are equivalent. In general that may be so, but it is not the case when we talk about specifics. If I am chatting with my son, for instance, it makes a huge difference whether it is really my son on the other end, regardless of how clever the imitator may be.

I bring this up because I see the Turing test as an analogy to the Eucharist. In distinguishing intelligence from all of the external signs, Turing inadvertently distinguishes the accidents (observations) from the substance (implementation), a la St. Thomas Aquinas. Through all the "observations" we can make, we can only detect bread and wine. Some might claim that's all the reality there is, or that it doesn't matter what is really going on because all we can observe is bread and wine. However, to those who have a love of the person of Jesus, it matters deeply whether the "implementation" is bread and wine or the body blood soul and divinity of Christ.

Monday Joke

A lawyer dies and arrives at the pearly gates. Saint Peter asks him "What have you done to merit entrance into heaven?"

The lawyer thinks a moment and replies, "A week ago, I gave homeless person a quarter." Saint Peter asks Gabriel to check this out in the record, and after a moment Gabriel confirms it.

Saint Peter says, "Well , that's fine, but it's not really quite enough to get you into heaven."

The lawyer says, "Wait Wait! There's more! Three years ago I also gave a homeless person a quarter." Saint Peter looks at  Gabriel, who after a moment confirms this as well.

Saint Peter then whispers to Gabriel, "Well, what do you suggest we do with this fellow?"

Gabriel replies, "Let's give him back his 50 cents and tell him to go to hell."

Saturday, June 23, 2012


I've never been a big fan of dystopian movies like THX 1138 or 1984. I found Fahrenheit 451 to be fairly decent, and Gattaca was actually good, but aside from that, I can't think of any dystopian movies I've enjoyed. Books fair better, but not much. I recently finished Lord of the World, and despite other people telling me that "the end makes it all better" I found it deeply troubling.

I think the thing that turns me off the most is not being able to connect with the characters. Guy Montag, in Fahrenheit 451 appeals to me as he wakes up through the subversive books he reads. Vincent Freeman in Gattaca starts out life as an outcast, because of what he is (or is not). In most other stories the hero is "awoken" by falling in love, which is forbidden. I can't imagine a world where love is forbidden, or people who would live their lives accepting that.

As I said, books fair better and over the past few years I've read a couple of dystopian stories that I must admit I found engaging. The Giver is about a boy named Jonas who, like Montag awakens to find the utopia he lives in isn't. In his world, there is no law against love, just that happiness is more important. You can love all you want as long as you stay happy with it. People who aren't happy are controlled by drug or euthanized when the drugs don't work.

Last Summer I read The Hunger Games, and enjoyed it. There is no doubt that Katniss is living in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. I didn't read the sequels, but I found the writing style and thoughtful background material more interesting than the actual plot, which was simplistic. As Fr. Barron explains in his review of the movie, the world she lives in hearkens back to Rome and many other civilizations. Katniss isn't in a loveless world either. Her motivation is love, and she only struggles against society out of personal interest for her loved ones.

What I find more readable about these stories is that the characters are more believable and more identifiable than most dystopian characters. And the worlds they inhabit are therefore more believable. And that's kind of scary. Because all of the things that make a dystopia (eugenics, euthanasia, lack of privacy, elimination of freedom) are things that we are moving towards at an ever increasing rate, and society is embracing them heartily.

Take the story in the Chicago Sun Times about a controversy over an IVF clinic. The author and readership don't seem to realize that this is a eugenics clinic as much as anything else. Dozens of human beings will be created, allowed to develop until they can be tested, and those who have some defect (possibly caused by the IVF process) or who are the wrong sex or have other "undesirable" criteria will be killed or used for medical experiments. Of the ones implanted, unless some of them die naturally, they will be "reduced" (aka killed) leaving only the "desired" child.

This is the seventh anniversary of Terri Schiavo's murder, but one doesn't even have to look that far. Euthanasia laws abound, and there are papers like "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" by Giubilini1 and Minerva in which they argue that human rights should be based on mental capacity, and those who do not measure up have no right to live.

For lack of privacy check out "Girls Around Me", an iPhone app (which was pulled by the developer). They say they didn't do anything wrong, and I suppose legally they didn't. They use publicly available information from Facebook and Foursquare to show you details about girls who are currently nearby. Who's responsible for this privacy breach? I suppose it is all voluntary, but that doesn't make it right.

Lastly we can talk about freedom. I don't want to beat the HHS mandate story to death, but there it is. There's also a ton of stories about free speech being denied by courts when it doesn't match up with the party line.

Of course, the world isn't as bleak as all that. There are many hopeful signs in the world. But for the first time I'm seeing dystopian stories and reality converge and I don't like it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Because Truth is Beautiful

Came across a site, Best Catholic Posters. If you want some nice posters of prayers, scripture, science, or some brochures, holy cards, art, calendars, etc. You can find it there.

They also have some free downloads of posters and material. Check it out.

Young Women I Admire

There are certainly enough horror stories in the news. But occasionally there is something that gives one some hope that the next generation is not as bad as the one before it. I recently read two stories of young women who went against the prevailing culture to do what's right, and thought I would share their stories.

Meghan Vogel is a runner; the 1600 Meter Ohio state champion, and the pride of her high school. But what makes them proudest is not the 1600m race she won, but the 3200m she didn't win.
She was just trying to finish the race when it happened.

"I was coming around the turn and I had probably 100 meters left and she was 50 meters in front of me and I saw her fall," Meghan said.

What Meghan did next not only lifted up another runner, but an entire stadium.

"I just didn't think twice about it. I knew I was going to pick her up and help her out," she said. "If you work to get to the state meet, you deserve to finish no matter who you are. I was going to make that happen for her no matter what."

The official results show that Arden McMath from Arlington High School finished 14th in the 3200 meters, Meghan Vogel 15th, but in reality they finished together.
Although it is technically illegal to "assist another runner", officials did not disqualify her , and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Such was  not the case for Margeaux Graham (pictured above), a high school junior from Florida. Margeauxwas invited to take part in the American Legion Auxiliary's prestigious 9-day leadership event, the "Girls State" program. Unfortunately, she was forced to decline the honor because it would mean violating her conscience.
Margeaux is a faithful Catholic. That is, she takes her obligation to attend Mass as just that - her obligation. When she inquired about nearby Catholic churches to plan where she would attend, she was told by the staff that the only opportunity any of the girls would have to participate in a Sunday service is to attend the "non-offensive", non-denominational service offered for all at the conference. The event takes place at Florida State University and the cathedral is nearby the campus. [see update] A member of the national American Legion even contacted the Auxiliary to arrange for a priest to celebrate Mass on campus, and this accommodation was denied.

So Margeaux took action herself. She wrote to the organizers declining the invitation, with firm resolve, unless she was allowed to attend Mass.
 Read the whole article, but an excerpt from Margeaux's letter:

As a Catholic Christian I find it offensive that I am not allowed to attend Mass and am perplexed as to how this service could accommodate the beliefs of other religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and all Christian religions. I am disappointed to see the lack of respect for religious creed from the Florida Girls State program by limiting participants to only one religious paradigm.
Amen, and hats off to these inspiring young women.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Monday Joke

One of the people I like to listen to and read is Julie Davis. She and Scott Danielson do an awesome podcast called A Good Story is Hard to Find. She also podcasts at Forgotten Classics, and blogs at Meanwhile Back in the Kitchen and Happy Catholic. Over at Happy Catholic, Julie often (not always) offers a "weekend joke" on her blog. every Monday I check to see if there is a joke, and even though most are groaners I find myself going back for more.

So I thought, if I enjoy them, why not share some jokes myself? And why wait until the weekend, when Mondays are much more depressing. And so, without further ado, is my first (of hopefully many) Monday Joke. Feel free to suggest some if you think you can do better.
A man went straight from work Friday to a weekend of fishing with his buddies, without a word to his wife. Needless to say, she was worried, and when he ambled in on Sunday evening she greeted him at the door with a cold stare, which didn't warm when he told her of his weekend activities.

"How would you like it if you suddenly didn't see me for three days?" she asked.

"That would be fine" came the answer.

Sure enough, Monday he didn't see her at all. The same again on Tuesday. Finally, on Wednesday evening, he could see her a little, out of one eye.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fracture Mechanics

While surfing around the Interwebs this morning I came across this reflection, that I wanted to share with you all. Click here for the complete post.
Fracture mechanics is the science of studying sudden-failure phenomenon. Materials have a yield strength (the stress under which they will yield) but in many cases materials fail at applied stresses below their yield strength. We Christians have also a spiritual yield strength—a spiritual potential--but in many cases fail to reach that potential because we fail at spiritual levels way below what we are capable of. The Bible is full of such examples, such as: the sin of King David with Bathsheba; King Saul; and of course Samson. 

Why do structures fail at applied stresses lower than the known yield strength of their material? That’s because...

Saturday, June 16, 2012


I confess, one of the shows I follow on TV is the SyFy channel original series Eureka. Yes, it is often hokey, and the science is bogus, and the alternate universe stuff gets annoying, but for whatever reason, I find it enjoyable. So there. Besides, it's in its final season. Warning, here come spoilers.

If you've been watching recent episodes, you know there was an experimental FTL (faster than light) spaceship that disappeared with the crew on board. It turned out that the ship never left the Earth, but the crew was kidnapped and put into a virtual reality machine (ala The Matrix). They discover they are in a virtual reality when there are glitches. In one case a bird flies through a rock. In another, the NPC (non-player character) becomes pixelated or flickers. When the characters see this they realize that this is not "reality" but a virtual reality inside the real world.

In the movie "The Matrix" the "proof" that there was a deeper reality than what was seen is even more subtle. Things like seeing the same cat cross a room twice. Experiencing deja vu is also "proof" of a reality deeper than what can be seen.

It strikes me that despite the banishment of all thing religious from both story lines, there is something very Christian about these stories. We see things that defy the laws of nature (aka miracles) and point to them as evidence of a deeper spiritual reality than just the physical one we experience with our senses normally.

As Catholics, we believe, as the Disciples and Church Fathers did, that Christ meant what he said in John 6, and in the synoptic Gospels, where He said [emphasis mine] "this is my body" "this is my blood". And so we believe that each mass is itself a miracle, in that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, but the appearances do not change.

But sometimes they do. The image at the top of this post is of the Miracle of Lanciano, which took place around the year 700 in what is now Italy. What you are looking at is a consecrated host, which contains a perfect cross section of a human heart, complete with all the expected structures. My atheist friends say that miracles are just low probability random events that we impose our superstitious meanings on, but how does one explain this?

This is not just a "low probability event", it defies anything plausible. Even assuming an evil priest who wanted to trick everybody into his wrong-headed ideas, who had the technology to merge bread and human heart 1,300 years ago? Or even to produce a perfect, undisturbed slice? And how does one explain that, of all the miracles involving Christ's blood over thousands of years, every one has turned out to be blood type AB. Blood type AB occurs in only 5% to 10% of the population, so the probability of choosing someone with that blood type so many times in a row itself is highly unlikely. And since blood types were only discovered in the last century, there is no way our ancient priest could have tested for it.

Certainly miracles are neither necessary for nor sole proof of our faith, but they do present a dilemma for those who will not believe. As G.K. Chesterton, wrote in Orthodoxy, "The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to View the Tranist of Venus

If you've been following science news at all, you know there is a transit of Venus on Tuesday. The image to the right is one I took of the last transit of Venus. This is what a transit looks like. Kinda cool.

Having been asked by a couple of folks I thought I'd make a post on how to safely view the transit of Venus which is scheduled for around 22:20 UTC (a little after 6 PM EDT). First off, what not to do. Do not look at the sun with the naked eye, with sunglasses, through binoculars or a telescope that does not have an approved solar filter. Even if you think you can look safely, you can damage your eyes. Likewise, if you have a telescope with a solar filter that fits on the eyepiece end of the scope, throw it out (the filter). They are dangerous. I know someone blind in one eye using one of them.

If you don't have an approved solar filter that attaches to the front of your telescope or binoculars, the best way to view is by projection. This can be used with most small telescopes or binoculars, and is safe. I'm adding a disclaimer that the sun is hot, and when you project it through your binoculars or telescope the inside can get hot. Be careful or you can damage your binoculars, telescope or eyepiece. For that reason I suggest you use cheap stuff, not your million dollar binoculars, for this.

If you have a scope larger than 6 inches or so in diameter consider putting a cardboard mask with a 4" or smaller hole in it over the front. Many scopes come with end caps that have a smaller cap over a 2-3" hole, which you can also use. The problem is that with 8" or more of aperture it is too easy to accidentally burn something (like the inside of the scope). Put a cover over the finer scope, since that can destroy itself by focusing sunlight inside it. If you don't have a lens cap for your finder scope, put a sock or something over it. Put your lowest power eyepiece in the scope, and crank the focuser all the way out. If your scope where the tube can be rotated, turn it so the eyepiece faces down toward the ground.

If you have binoculars, put the front lens cap on one side - we're only going to be using one half of the binoculars, and if you don't over the other lens the sunlight it focuses can seriously damage the binoculars (or you). Focus the binoculars on the closest thing they will focus on.

Next, get a piece of white paper. hold it about a foot from the eyepiece, and aim the binoculars or telescope at the sun. You can't use a finder scope to do this, so the best way to do it is to look at the shadow of the scope or binoculars and make it as small and round as possible. you may have to move around a little to find the sun.
Turn it until shadow is in a line...
Now tilt up/down...
Once you do, try to keep it centered in the field. When it is half out of view, the other half of the sun is heating up the inside of your scope, and can do damage. If you're going to walk away for a minute, cover the front of the scope or move it 90 degrees away from the sun so it doesn't accidentally burn the inside of the scope.

Play with the distance to the paper and the focuser until you get a well focused, decently sized image. If you want, you can make a viewing box to increase the contrast of the image.

To do that, take a cardboard box (mine is something like 8"x16"x30") and cut a piece out of one end. Leave the corners, as it will help the box keep its shape.
Make a projection screen out of white paper or foam board and place it on the end opposite the cut out. You can use the cut out to measure the size of the projection screen.
Line the other 3 sides of the box with something black (I used a tri-fold presentation board made from black foam board). Put it together as shown.
The black sides of the box will keep out stray light, so the projected image of the sun is easier to see.

Enjoy, and if you do see the transit, please post a comment and tell me about it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Good Design

Some things are just so well designed you nkow that a lot of thought and effort has gone into the planning. For instance, each time I start my car, the radio resets the volume so that it doesn't blare at me, even though the volume might have been left up high when it was turned off. And even then, the sound doesn't just come on, but it fades in at just the right rate so it doesn't sound jumpy, nor does it creep up on me.

All around me are things which are well designed. My TiVo, for instance, has three fast forward speeds. When going through a commercial break at 64x normal speed, I can still be assured that when I see my show come back I can hit the PLAY button and the TiVo jumps backward most times to just the right place where I intended to stop, instead of at the point where I actually hit the button. It's pretty obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the design.

When we see an object we can often tell instantly about its design by how well it fits the function for which it was intended. For instance, look at a car.

Regardless of the particulars, you can tell it's a sophisticated piece of design. The intricate sleek shape, the way the doors fit nicely, the materials used all indicate the efforts of a team of skilled designers. But a machine doesn't have to be so complicated to show the level of thought that went into its design. Even something as simple as a hammer speaks volumes about the design. Different kinds of hammers are optimized for different tasks, and believe me, an extra inch in length or a few degrees of curvature in the claw of a hammer can make the difference between efficiency and frustration.

When we designed our deck I was surprised to learn about the level of thought that went into steps. The height, width, depth, and overhang all require thought. Or look at something like Stonehenge. Even though it is just a pile of rocks, nobody would mistake it for just a pile of rocks, because it clearly shows the intent of the designers.

But perhaps I'm being a little prejudiced in talking about human accomplishments. Even a bird's next is clearly distinguishable form a random pile of sticks.

Which is why it always boggles my mind that people can look at the following and claim that there's no evidence of any design or designer.

Friday, June 1, 2012


I came across an atheist site that had a "challenge" of sorts. It listed the attributes of a "Hoax Religion" and asks the question "How is your religion different from a hoax religion?" Now, I'm not saying for one minute I think these are accurate attributes, but I thought it would be interesting to see how my religion (Catholicism) stacks up against what an atheist would think made a religion false. So here goes.
  • The deity never appears in person to an credible person of group of people, and his very existence is unverifiable.
Jesus appeared in person to thousands upon thousands of people, both before and after His resurrection. His existence is verified by secular as well as religious sources, and is soundly documented in history. No credible historian doubts that Jesus existed.
  • No miracles or supernatural events are ever documented by any credible source.
All miracles approved by the Catholic Church are documented and verified by not only the Church herself, but by secular authorities competent in those areas. The amount of documentation for the miracles of Lourdes is immense and includes solid medical data, such as before and after X-rays. The miraculous image on the tilma of Juan Diego is on display today in Guadalupe and is still unexplained by science. The miracles of St. Pio are varied and well documented, including bilocation and levitation. His stigmata, like those of St. Gemma Galgani, were photographed and examined extensively by doctors.
  • Praying to the deity has no measurable real-world effect.
Aside from the above mentioned miracles, and things like the fall of the Soviet Union, those who have a regular prayer life have a measurably longer life, and are happier than those who don't.
  • Belief promises a reward and non-belief promises a penalty but these consequences are unverifiable.
Well, they got me there. Catholicism doesn't promise a reward for belief. Even a strong believer can fall into sin and lose salvation, as the Bible says in numerous places. Nor do we declare non-believers damned. We trust in the mercy of God to decide what each person deserves. On the other hand, we do have evidence of rewards. Each Catholic saint has miracles attributed to his intercession. As noted above, these miracles are scientifically verified. In addition, there are incorruptible saints who indicate the love God has for us.
  • Holy text makes unsubstantiated claims and describes events of questionable historicity. There is no clear evidence that the text has divine origins.
In every case where Biblical places or events have been able to be tested, they have turned out to be accurate. As for divine origins, since God has created the universe in a sense all things have divine origins. But I think the intent is that there is some aspect that is more divine than any other text. Although we believe that scripture is inspired by God, we don't believe it is dictated by God. That scripture is holy or good can be demonstrated by the fruits it produces, or by the authority of Jesus and the Church He founded. Admittedly this point rests on another, but the other is either sound (as demonstrated above), or there's no point in worrying about this one.
  • Regular groupthink meetings are held to reinforce belief. A person of authority is present to interpret the holy text, and money is collected.
Holy mass is held every day all over the world to worship God, not to reinforce beliefs, although it does both. A person of authority is present and one of the things he does is read the Bible, but that is not his main function. We go to mass because we recognize that God is deserving of our worship. It is voluntary. Likewise, money is sometimes collected, but it is always voluntary. Nobody is turned away because they refuse to pay, unlike most organizations. So I guess I can grant at least a half point here. Still I don't see how this is indicative of a hoax. If holding meetings with people who are authorities speak, and money is collect means something is a hoax, then I guess the inaptly named "Reason Rally" is a hoax as well.
  • Followers have justifications for all these failings, and believe wholeheartedly.
What kind of idiot would follow all this unless he believed wholeheartedly? And how would this be an attribute of a "hoax" rather than an attribute of any system of thought? If it is a criterion for a hoax, then atheism is as much a hoax as anything, since atheists have justifications for all the things they believe wholeheartedly. As for justifying the "failings", what failings have been demonstrated? The only point applicable is that mass is held, and that is hardly a failing.

Conclusion? What can we say about the truth of Catholicism?