Tuesday, August 30, 2005




Have you seen this man before?


I just found out that a high school buddy of mine, Dave Karandish, is a candidate on the new Apprentice show with Martha Stewart. This show just became must-see, in part because he's a good man and brilliant and tenacious and deserves such an opportunity, but also (and I cannot stress this enough) he is just going to be That Entertaining.

Karandish was always a magnet for the craziest things in high school. There was the dentist's X-ray malfunction that almost killed him. The currency loophole scheme. The act of arson he witnessed in a Grandpa's Retail Store, replete with a senile greeter yelping repeatedly, "There's a fire!" (This story, incidentally, our English teacher accused him of fabricating. Then the next day, he brought in the news clipping.) And I still don't know what the heck happened with the convent and the guard dogs.

And boy, if any person was made for reality TV (in a wholesome and unselfconscious sense), it was David. He's wackier than Ian, folks. Trust me.

I'm going to watch every episode he's on, and for once, I heartily encourage all of you to do the same.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Back to Idea Blogging: Intelligent Design and Science

I am not a creationist, nor a proponent of Intelligent Design. And yet I marvel at how rare it is to find a reasonably intelligent piece on the subject in the media. For one thing, too often the two beliefs are often confuted- young earth creationism and ID- with the aim of dismissing ID out of hand as a purely sectarian critique*. While the vast majority (not all) of ID proponents are in fact creationists, and while ID is often used as a sort of scientific justification for belief in creationism, the arguments must still be confronted; for though I do think it is reasonable to doubt a statement based on the motivations of those who believe it, we cannot in all honesty reject the validity of an argument for simply that reason. (That, for example, would be like rejecting an argument that poverty is too rampant in the United States, for the sole reason that the postulator is a Communist.) And many outraged commentators have done precisely that to ID. Rather than arguing that the evidence for it has been tried and found wanting, many editorial pages have charged that we should treat the arguments of Dembski et al as without merit from the outset because they are a smokescreen for creationism.

The argument for Intelligent Design is, in my limited understanding, that there are many features of Earthly life so complex that the chance of them arising from a long process of mutation and natural selection is practically nil (the weak anthropomorphic principle aside). Thus, the argument goes, the evolutionary mechanisms and blind chance cannot by themselves lead to the world we know; there is either some kind of directed impulse governing evolution in such a way that it causes these features to arise, or there is some process entirely different from natural selection accounting for the natural world we see today.

Of course, there are at least five questions of significance:
(1) Is this argument correct?
(2) Is this argument compelling for a reasonable person (given current knowledge)?
(3) Is it reasonable to believe this argument (given current knowledge)?
(4) Is this a scientific theory?
(5) Is ID fit to be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes?

I'll concentrate on the last four, as (1) is a question of another kind. By "compelling" I mean that it would be intellectually dishonest to disbelieve such an argument, for one who can understand it and has the amount of evidence presumed. By "reasonable" I mean that such a person may believe the argument and be intellectually honest, under the aforementioned conditions. I think it is clear that Yeses to (2) and (4) together imply a Yes to (5), and also that a No to (3) or (4) implies No to (5).

An article in today's New York Times by Daniel Dennett argues a No to (4), that ID fails to properly make testable scientific predictions, is not a scientific theory, and ought not be taught in science classes. And Dennett, whose work I have respect for, does in fact confront ID as it really is, and I agree with his conclusion. ID thus far has made no claims of what we ought to find in further research, nothing that would empirically distinguish its interpretation from that of natural selection. Evolutionary theory has made several predictions that were later verified in certain cases: that mutations happen in reproduction, natural selection works to bring out traits (look up the "peppered moth" in this context), and that the fossil record would provide examples of "missing links" between species (e.g. the many gradations between the coelurosaurs and the birds). If in the future, the Discovery Institute published serious papers demonstrating the unlikelihood of certain features evolving randomly, taking into account all possible chains of intermediate stages (though I have no idea how this could be done in an empirical manner), then perhaps ID could be a scientific theory. At present, it is simply not a scientific theory as we understand the term; it is rather a philosophical assertion about a scientific theory, an interpretation of observed reality.

However, a No to (4) does not imply a No to (3). The last sentence of my previous paragraph can quite honestly be applied to many theoretical frameworks within the humanities and the social sciences. (NOTE: I am not putting ID on par with these others. Cool your jets.) We simply don't require everything we believe to be the consequence of a scientific theory, and for good reason. Not only are some subjects of inquiry (like history) not amenable to completely reproducible experimental conditions, but the very assumptions of the scientific method are not themselves scientific theories. I'll explain later, I hope. I just wanted to point out that although, again, I do not subscribe to ID, I believe that a reasonable person could accept the Intelligent Design argument, even given our current state of evidentiary support for evolution. (I don't see what hermeneutic of Scripture the semi-creationist account reflects, in which God goes right up to the point of letting the Universe unfold according to the physical laws He ordains, then changes His mind and mucks about directly with the DNA. If He was going to let nature run its course in most things, why not in natural selection? If He was going to suspend physical law anyway, why not just make Genesis 1 literal? But that's another matter.)

My answers, in short, are that:
(1) I don't think so.
(2) No.
(3) Yes.
(4) Not yet, at least; perhaps never.
(5) No.

However, there is a place in public education where we ought to confront such matters: a discussion of the philosophical principles underlying the scientific method. By all rights, this should be taught, but it rarely is; most moderns aren't even aware that there are such principles (foremost among them the inductive principle), which cannot be themselves demonstrated by scientific experiment but are philosophical postulates. They were widely discussed in the era of Bacon and Galileo, but I fear that with the many useful goods science has provided us, we've forgotten to keep considering the most fundamental questions: What is the scope of science? What do we mean by the 'scientific method'? What assumptions are necessary to apply the scientific method?

Later, I want to get to these questions. But I've already written a lot, and classes start tomorrow. Eesh.

*This is the idea underpinning the Flying Spaghetti Monster satire, which would be spot on if the Kansas School Board had mandated teaching creationism.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Woo Hoo!

I passed the prelim!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I. Well, the prelim exam is finished. I didn't do so well the first day, but I felt really good on today's problems. I'm not sure I'll pass this time, but I'm confident I can pass it next semester if I fail now.

Alice and I celebrated the end of this first hurdle with a picnic on the quads, and later this evening I'll be going to a restaurant called Raleigh's with the other new graduate students for the same purpose. We won't know how we did till Friday.

II. This Sunday, I went to Saint Margaret Mary's Latin Mass (Novus Ordo), as recommended to me by Mary in the comments. I thought the chanted responses and prayers were particularly beautiful- the organ accompaniment gives the Gloria a quiet joy and the Memorial Acclamation a genuinely sorrowful tinge. Of course my Latin will have to improve as I try to follow those prayers that vary, but in the main I can do quite well by matching partial translation with my knowledge of the liturgy in English. That, and they have the English and Latin on facing pages in the missals.

I mean, of course a Latin Mass isn't for everyone, but I find it beautiful, and I find that it helps rather than hurts my participation in the prayer. My mind is forced to be active in following the Mass; I am compelled to keep my thoughts on what is taking place in the Consecration rather than on my private meditations.

III. Now I've finished moving into the room in Barbara's house, I thought I'd give you a peek. Only seven and a half by eleven feet, but as you can see, there's enough space for all my stuff...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Nota Bene:

I know perfectly well what is meant by "the Christ of faith" and "the Jesus of history". I have staked the purpose of my life, my very existence, on the proposition that the two are identical.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Link Post

If you’ve ever read or admired Augustine, check out this hilarity. Confessions to the tune of "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)". Thanks to the Holy Whapping crew.

Now to the seriously good stuff.

Pontifications cites a really fascinating take on Vatican II and the papacy of John Paul II. Excerpt:
The new Christian humanism proposed by the council and John Paul II is the only possible solution to the crisis within the Church. The modern world wants “freedom.” The rebels within the Church want “freedom.” Complaints about the Church are mainly about its moral teachings, which are perceived as putting a lid on everyone’s freedom. This problem isn’t going to be solved by a further insistence on the rules, but rather by a call to holiness and a positive vision of the human person and the uses of his freedom.
This is what the pontificate of John Paul II has been all about. Those who view him as an authoritarian who keeps tightening the screws are not paying attention. This papacy is all about freedom. But the pope insists that authentic freedom is based on the truth about the human person; otherwise, it will be a counterfeit and make us unhappy. Building on the council, he has proposed a sweeping vision of the human person that invites us into depths barely touched by the old scholastic casuistry. Right now, those in the Church who are shaping its future are busy unpacking these teachings...

The same blog also has the best quote I've seen in a while: And Jesus said unto them, “And whom do you say that I am?” His disciples replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.” And Jesus replied, “What?”

And Zippy has a pair of excellent posts targeting consequentialism, that most tempting of moral philosophies for our age. Although it's not quite the central tenet of Catholic ethics, it's probably the best place to begin explaining it to an outsider: the principle that one can never do something intrinsically wrong to achieve a good end. No matter what the consequences are.

P.S. On a personal note, I finally cut up my contract with the Devil Citibank card. It feels so good.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I. I've joined the study workshop for grad students preparing to take the prelim exam, which will consist of half analysis and half algebra. Yonathan, who's been leading the analysis sessions, had this to say about the test:

"The way the test is set up, if you're decent in both analysis and algebra, you pass. If you're really good in one and sort of crappy in the other, they think you still ought to pass.


"So I'm hoping you're all just awesome in algebra."

II. I signed the lease on the room I mentioned last time; I'm quite happy. I'll be moving my stuff next week.

III. I intended to have an actual idea blog today, but it's not gonna happen.

IV. I had no idea that the requirements for residency in the People's Republic of California were so draconian. I've been told it 'looks bad' to leave the state for more than four days at a time. Screw that. I'm gonna be home for Christmas, and if Schwarzenegger has a problem with that, [comment deleted for containing predictable movie quotation].

Friday, August 05, 2005

A Busy Week

I've got my student ID at Berkeley (I'm not ready yet to call it Cal), set up my computer account (though not my Berkeley e-mail account), changed my cell phone to the 510 area code (e-mail me, I'll tell you what it is now), asked after student health insurance, figured out public transit from Newark to Berkeley (see below), signed up for the school rentals listings, visited the libraries and circuited the hilly campus, called after about nine listed rooms and set up appointments for four (see below), checked out my options for daily Mass near campus (the Newman Center is better than its fifties-ish architecture indicates), and joined the study group for the preliminary exam (a six-hour written exam covering undergraduate preparation in analysis and algebra). Oh, and I took Wednesday off to visit Alice in San Francisco, where we strolled around North Beach and the Embarcadero. It's been a good week, but...

A Costly Lesson

Tuesday, I didn't make it up to Berkeley. See, I tried to catch the BART train (thinking that this would be more convenient), but I got lost on the way there, trying to remember the directions from the time that Alice and I visited Saint Edward Parish in April. After finding my way back to the parish and printing out directions, I proceeded there to find half the parking lot closed for resurfacing. Every remaining spot was taken, and twenty or so other cars circled like vultures for the three or four people who would come back in the middle of the day. I tried to find another available parking lot, but they all warned against using their spaces for BART overflow. So I turned back in dejection (OK, in conniptions), and promptly got incredibly lost (eventually circling the one-way streets of Niles, California). The morning was a total wash.

Not a costly lesson, you say? Well, that wasn't it. I'm tricky like that. The real costly lesson about BART was learned on Thursday, when I finally arranged everything to take the BART to Berkeley. I stayed there that evening to see a room for rent, then met the other new math grad students later for some beers at Three Rocks Brewery. We argued about the culture of math (whether we make too much of the story of Galois), the funding of math (whether the NSF grant program is really worth it), and tried in vain to stop talking shop.

It was 12:45 when I finally left for the BART station, where I discovered I had missed the last southbound train. I did not want to be transferring between buses until 3 AM, so I took a cab.

My costly lesson was twofold: (1) know when the last train leaves if you plan on taking it late, and (2) don't take a cab 30 miles without first checking its rate. That lesson, I'm humiliated to say, cost me $90 in the end. Thus it supplants my previous Most Costly Lesson.

A New Hope

At the same time as all this, I have been looking for a place to rent. Actually, I've secretly been hoping that something great will just fall into my lap, as it has before. The greatest blessings in my life, it seems, are the good things I wasn't even looking for. When I was applying to colleges, the University of Chicago wasn't even on my radar until the head of the math department at MIT named it as one of the country's four best mathematics schools. I was offered the great summer job at Midtown without asking; the next year, I was offered a spot housesitting for the Bevingtons without asking; the next year, the Cal Poly REU offered me a fantastic deal for room, board, travel and stipend which was much better than I expected. And then, of course, I wasn't lonely or looking for a girlfriend when Alice came along; I had in fact decided to forgo dating for studying that quarter. My plans went agley, and for the better.

Anyway, back to the housing search. I saw my first room on Thursday, then two more today.

Place #1 required walking 40 minutes from campus, past abandoned/bulldozed lots and a scene with police questioning a city block full of people. The house and room were pretty good, but the couple who owned it were sort of averse to contact with others. Well, the husband was; the wife might have been friendlier if she and I had a language in common. And the rent was above my ideal range. Eh.

Place #2 was in a good neighborhood, at least. But when I looked through the dwelling, I noticed that someone had already moved in. The landlady was showing me a room she had agreed to rent, "in case the check didn't clear". Great.

After spending a total of 15 minutes inside the first two places, my expectations were lowered a bit for the third. But boy, third time was the charm! Great neighborhood (Elmwood, south of campus), a bit of a walk to Berkeley but not as much as Place #1. It is a big old house with several rooms being let out to grad students and postdocs (so far, all in the sciences this year), and the room is going for a great rate with biweekly cleaning thrown in. But the best part is really the owner, Barbara.

We'd talked a bit about the housing arrangements, then wandered off into real conversation- about movies, my family, her sequence of careers and hobby of ballroom dancing. When I let on that I was a devout Catholic, she exclaimed, "Oh, good! I'd hoped that you were" (I'd mentioned in our phone conversation that I was staying at a church), and mentioned how she loved Gregorian Chant. Though she's a Quaker herself, she's thought highly of her previous Catholic renters (though part of that was the joy of watching her tenants Paul and Mary meet, fall in love and marry). She's picky about what people she wants to stay in her home, and I seemed to pass the test. Of course, to satisfy Dad's standards of shopping around, I'll see the fourth place on Monday and try to catch a fifth. But I'm excited, because I think this is the one.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

My father and I arrived Saturday evening in Newark, California, after a trip of 2100 miles in three days of driving (plus a day spent in Salt Lake City with Uncle John and Aunt Shan).


* The Rocky Mountains in general, with some absolutely staggering landscapes opening out before our car. I-80 from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City is a landscape painter's smorgasbord. Special awe, though, goes out to the Denver sunset which we were lucky enough to catch. It glistened out from the mountains to the west and illuminated the high clouds for minutes after setting.

* Dad's sensible policy of picking restaurants in small towns: noticing how the locals vote with their wheels. Choosing the more highly frequented offerings led us to Cappy's, which is in all likelihood the best restaurant in Rawlins, Wyoming.

* Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City, a bountiful botanical, um, bonanza connected with the University of Utah. Hey, there's even a great natural duck pond!


* Approximately 120 fl. oz. of caffeinated soda (deceased), drank by me for the purpose of staying alert while driving. I don't do coffee, see. No casualty report on my teeth as of yet.

* My new iPod (wounded), which started going sporadically haywire a day into the trip, and finally refused to acknowledge the existence of any music files. We're now trying to nurse poor Podraig back to health.

* The left front tire on the car (deceased), which had a tire track separation in the middle of Nevada, causing the car to shudder and pull to the right. We limped along to the next exit a mile away (Fernley, Nevada), where we saw a giant Goodyear sign on a repair shop. We were back on the road within an hour. So, we can only thank God that it happened right there (rather than five miles from any exit in the Nevada desert, or atop Donner Pass).

Now I'm staying here at Saint Edward Parish and looking for an apartment in Berkeley, for less than $500 a month (more possible than it sounds; think rent control), in a good neighborhood, with roommates who will get along with me. It's been exciting and frustrating so far, but I'm glad to say I have a few leads already.

And many thanks to Father Keyes and the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, whose charism includes hospitality and who invited me to stay here in the guest room while I am looking. And Saint Edward is a great parish to behold; they have good Masses in several languages, and the people keep coming!

P.S. Okay, I admit it. I haven't really been calling my iPod "Podraig". I only came up with the idea just now. But don't you think it's clever?

That's me on the Salt Flats of Utah. Yes, I look like a dork. It's still a cool picture.