Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Language of God

I have been going through all my blogs the last few days to delete a 100% perfect spam job that attached some impenetrable gob of Chinese authored by someone or some computer named "sexy." In the process, I encountered one of my blogs on religion and decided to Google "The Language of God" to see what sort of nonsense there might be out there on the internet and found that some nitwit has a book titled just that. I am a couple of years late in noticing that but gratuitous slaps at religion are never too late or too early.

In an ABC news story prompting this diatribe, I discovered that former President Clinton and the "leader of the international Human Genome Project," one Francis S. Collins, are described as conspiring to claim, in the words of Clinton,
"Today," he said, "we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."
I'm sure I have blogged on the idea that there could be a language of art or music, pointing out how silly such notions are, but worse than these is the notion that the code that determines our genetic make up is written in some sort of language
3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code
which is amazingly complex. Yo, dude, if this code is so complex and wondrous how in hell have humans been able to crack it? We linguists haven't been able to understand the structure of any human language. We must be dumber than geneticists or, more likely, the human genome just ain't that difficult to crack and certainly an unworthy candidate as an example of the language of anything but a very minor god.

Actually, if the human genome is a code then it isn't a linguistic system on a par with Chinese or Spanish or Xhosa, which are anything but code like. Human languages consist of expressions that refer to elements of the natural world as well as a multiplicity of quite abstract notions (justice, democracy, infinity). The strands of DNA don't refer to things outside the organizm from which the DNA is drawn.

This geneticist must be an admirer of the equally silly intelligent design (non)theory for like it, it is restricted to one phenomenon -- the origin of the species. There is no intelligent design theory of physics or linguistics or anything other than the origin of the species. Similarly, the "language" of DNA, while it might bear the slightest resemblance to the graphical representations of organic chemistry being taught way back when (and maybe even now), it bears no relationship to the "language" of physics. Are we to say that the mathematical representations in physics are not instances of the language of God or is it that He is bilingual or multilingual, with one language for the human genome, another for physics, another for statistics, and still another for syntactical structure, etc.?

How a scientist of this guy's reputation could come up with so silly a theory is beyond my simple imagination. But then, whenever my wife says I am imagining something, my reply is allways, "I have no imagination." Neither does this dude.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Extended Warranties -- Betting Against the House

Now that the gift giving season is upon us, anyone buying an appliance, electronic devices that cost more than $40 or $50 (not sure where the cut off is exactly), or automobiles will face the dread question, "Would you like to purchase an extended warranty?"  A certain fear kicks in.  What if the thing ceases to function properly the day after the regular warranty expires?  The pricer the product the greater the fear.

Yes, I did get the extended warranty on an automobile once.  It was very expensive (relative to my income) and was a new, limited edition car, a turbo-charged all-wheel drive Celica.  "Sexy and sinister looking" one car magazine termed it.  That warranty paid off.  In the rare cases since then that I have bought extended warranties, they have not been useful.  In the rest, cases when I did not purchase one, I have not regretted not purchasing such a warranty.

Extended warranties provide one with "protection," which is just what one needs when one is fearful.  What if the $3,000 TV breaks down the day after the normal warranty expires?  Do I go out and buy another #3,000 TV?  Who can afford to do that on a regular basis?

I am here to allay your fears.  Words like "protection" are very comforting.  However, it is important that one think through the "logic" of extended warranties.  The manufacturer or merchant who offers an extended warranty is betting you that his product will not fail until after the extended warranty has expired.  If you purchase one, you are betting that the product you are buying will fail -- not during the period in which you are "protected" by the normal warranty, but during the period of the extended warranty, namely for the year or two years, etc., of the extended warranty.  

This is crazy stuff.  The manufacturer/merchant is betting that is product is soundly enough made to function properly until at least the end of the extended warranty.  He is actually standing behind his product.  He could raise his price to cover the cost of his occasional duds and offer a 3 or 4 year warranty to everyone.  However, he knows he will make more money by lowering his price and offering the extended warranty.  When you buy an extended warranty, you are, for all intents and purposes, betting against the house and we know that when you are gambling, and buying an extended warrant is tantamount to gambling, you should never bet against the house.

The reality is that we are better off self-insuring against any product going bad during the very unlikely period of the extended warranty than to buy these extended warranties.  I say "unlikely period of the extended warranty" because most things which last a year are likely to last for more than 2 or 3 more years.  This is especially true of electronic devices.  They tend to go bad quickly (manufacturing glitch)  or after some years (wears out in one way or another).  That has, at least, been my experience.  If you are tempted to buy an extended warranty tell yourself this:  I am now about to purchase of piece of crap that I am betting will die or need extensive repairs during the time betweenwhen the extended warranty kicks in and it expires.  If you think about that, you will be protected from buying protection.


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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Too Happy To Post

It seems that I am more engaged as a blogger when I am angry rather than happy.  The combination of venting in regard to the abortion controversy, Creationism and Intelligent Design (which is anything but intelligent), the Bush Administration, Bush himself, retarded views of language, deceptive advertising, deceptive and illegal practices in the prosecution of death penalty cases, racist, misogynist, and other offensive uses of language, etc. and the results of the last general election have perhaps made me too happy to post. Election night itself brought me to tears because of the election of Obama, which meant we would not have Bush III, the large Democratic majorities in Congress, and the comments of an African-American of my generation who remarked that he could remember demonstrating to open up lunch counters in the South to African Americans by way of contrasting how things were to how they are. I was brought to tears because I participated in a demonstration to desegregate lunch counters in downtown Houston in the late Spring of 1960, a demonstration that appears directly to have caused them to open up.

Houston at the time had the most segregated large school system in the South, which should indicate the nature of the situation there at the time. I went to the all-White Rice University and hobnobbed with wealthy racists at debutante balls (an amazing social institution, but one that did provide free booze, food, and an opportunity to dance) though I was more or less penniless. I developed a distaste for rich people and racists which has stuck with me for 40 years. In any event, in late Spring of 1960, some 7 or 8 of us White Rice students went over to Texas Southern University, an all-Black  school, and volunteered to join them in the upcoming afore-mentioned demonstration, a march around the City Hall building. It occupied a relatively small square of land and we managed to stretch all around it.

Shortly after we began our demonstration, some 15-20 motorcycle cops showed, which alarmed me somewhat. We were, after all, being quite peaceful.  A very large number of cops showed up in the first hour, a hundred or so.  I suspect they were there not to protect our right to freedom of assembly, but to protect the building.  In any event, it was intimidating to say the least. There were TV crews there, of course.

The right wing uncle I lived with (free room and board to go along with Rice's free tuition for all is why I could go to Rice, so I was grateful) saw the demonstration and TV and I was marked in his eyes as a radical in training if not a radical already. My voting for Kennedy later on cemented his theory that i was at least pink. But his loyalty to family kept him from tossing me out.  I am still grateful for his help.

The funny thing about this story is that the following summer, either Newsweek or Time ran a story praising one of the two big Houston papers for its journalistic excellence in some respect or another. A week later, as I recall it, Time magazine ran a story Blackout in Houston, which described a late summer agreement of African-American and White leaders to cause the integration of downtown lunch counters and an agreement by the press to embargo the news about this for a week. It was the news embargo, a phenomenon not in keeping with high journalistic standards, that upset Time. It was probably a good idea however, since, though the story does indicate word got out to some degree, it did make the integration of these lunch counters a fait accompli and so no counter-demonstrations resulted.

Why lunch counters? It seems like such a trivial thing. But as I noted above, this was a racist city and I suspect it is still is with the shift of focus being from African-Americans to Latinos (or Hispanics, whichever is now correct). There are parts of Houston now that have Thai or Vietnamese street signs (don't recall what language), so those Whites who busy themselves hating people different from themselves have a lot of work cut out for them. The lunch counters were important because a lot of African-Americans worked downtown and there was nowhere they could go for an inexpensive hot lunch. Buses and lunch counters were the first targets of the civil rights movements because they were of greatest importance to the poor.

It is my guess, with Texas Southern and Rice being about to open their doors for students for the new school year, White leaders in Houston decided that the best thing for White Houston was to get rid of the source of radical agitation so they did. Rice, by the way, is no longer all White. It is my understanding that to break the charter created by William Marsh Rice that caused Rice to be all White, the school argued, falsely I believe, that it would go broke as a no tuition school and thus needed the charter to be broken. The courts agreed. Apparently busting one provision of a charter busts the whole thing.  So, Rice integrated.

Rice was very important to my social, intellectual, and political development because of the very bright students I got to know and talk with and some very smart, good professors, not just good mentors but good people. I learned about DWB (Driving While Black) from the psych professor Trent Wann, the most influential man in my life, from his stories of the travails of a good friend who taught at Texas Southern. So Rice was all White but it wasn't all bad. The students were almost all conservative, of course, since most came from Texas, a state that didn't know yet that it was a Republican state.

I apologize for this pretty self-flattering story but I assure you I was not and am not now all good. What I hope young people will take from it is the fact that though we have much that we need to do to combat racism (and the other -isms), we have come a very long way.  I hope you will also take away from this the fact that protesting injustice can be effective.

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