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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boy Scouts to Allow Gay Youth

Boy Scout Logo with Rainbow FlagThe headline of this article says it all, Boy Scouts to allow gay members but ban on gay and atheist leaders continues. It's a step in the right direction, at least. As an Eagle Scout myself, I can attest to how important scouting was in my life. And I've mentioned before that I think it should be open to all boys who want to participate. It's absolutely wonderful that the organization has finally decided to allow openly gay boys to join. But the BSA still has a few spots left to address - gay leaders and atheists. I hope they can address those shortcomings soon.

Image Source: IndianasNewsCenter.com

Tuesday Boy Problem Solved by Simulation

Math PuzzleThe other day, I came across a logic/math problem I hadn't heard before, The Tuesday Birthday Problem. It goes like this:

I have two children, one of whom is a son born on a Tuesday. What is the probability that I have two boys?

This puzzle was apparently first presented at a convention for mathematicians, magicians and puzzle enthusiasts (yeah, that's a pretty specialized convention) by Gary Foshee. Immediately after giving the puzzle, he followed up with this.

The first thing you think is 'What has Tuesday got to do with it?' Well, it has everything to do with it.

I know my first inclination was to dismiss that extra fact. How could it have any effect on the probability of the sex of the other child. I first read this puzzle late at night when I was tired, so I didn't feel like putting too much thought into it. Instead, I just read the explanations of how that extra bit of information alters the odds. But I still wasn't ready to buy those explanations just yet. But rather than try to think through the explanation that night, I decided to tackle it from a different angle. Instead of trying to figure out the odds, I'd just program a simulation and see how it played out.

In fact, this is a very simple simulation. I didn't program it in the most efficient manner, but it got the job done. Here's what I did. I created a 4 x 10,000 element array. That is, 10,000 sets of kids, with four pieces of information to designate sex and birth day of the week for each kid (sex 1, day 1, sex 2, day 2). Then, I randomly assigned sex and birth day to each of the kids. Next, I created a couple variables that would be filled in in the next stage. First was a variable keeping track of the number of sets where at least one was a boy born on a Tuesday - that is, the number of sets where the father would have given his first statement. The other variable was the number of sets with a boy born on a Tuesday and another son - the sets fulfilling the second statement. With the array and variables in place, I went back and did some if statements to simulate the father's conditions, increasing the totals of those variables as appropriate. When that was done, I simple divided the number of sets with kids with a boy born on a Tuesday and another son by the number of sets with at least one boy born on a Tuesday.

After running this program a few times, I found a small problem. 10,000 sets wasn't enough. The fraction was varying by several percentage points each time I ran it. So, I added one more feature to allow the program to keep a running average every time it ran.

Oh, and just to be sure I was doing things properly, I added a similar set of calculations to calculate the probability for a simpler puzzle:

I have two children, one of whom is a son. What is the probability that I have two boys?

This is much easier to understand, so it was my control to make sure the algorithm was working properly.

Warning: Don't read on if you want to solve the problem on your own, first.

Well, guess what I found out. After running the simulation on 100,000,000 sets of kids, I got a probability of 0.4813391 for the Tuesday boy problem, and 0.3333046 for the simpler boy problem. Those are very close to the actual odds of 13/27 (0.481481481...) and 1/3 (0.33333333...). It's pretty counterintuitive, but I guess those eggheads know what they're talking about, after all.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Anyone interested in checking this out for themselves can download my program below:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Donate to Tornado Victims

Humanist Crisis ResponseI'm sure everybody has heard of the tornado that hit Moore Oklahoma by now. But maybe you haven't done anything to help the victims, yet. If you haven't, here's a worthwhile way to donate to charities that will help out:

Monies donated at that link will go to Operation USA and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Image made by combining sources from: Business Insider Australia and Foundation Beyond Belief.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address

Ben CarsonThe local university here in Wichita Falls is Midwestern State University. It's a pretty good university, actually. In 2007 (I think), it was named the #1 top value in public colleges and universities by Consumers Digest (source). It's a small university at only around 6500 students, but even at that size any organization is going to have some controversies. The most recent one for MSU was when they invited Dr. Ben Carson to give the commencement speech at this year's graduation, as detailed in this Times Record News article, MSU brings polemic to graduation. This little event even got noticed nationwide, such as Jerry Coyne's website, Why Evolution Is True, in the entry, Creationist neurosurgeon speaks at yet another commencement.

Just in case you don't recognize Carson's name, there are a few reasons his presence was controversial. The one aspect that didn't get as much attention, but which strikes a personal chord with me, is his rejection of evolution and embrace of creationism. Just read this quote from an interview with the Adventist Review.

And why did evolution divert in so many directions--birds, fish, elephants, apes, humans--if there is some force evolving to the maximum? Why isn't everything a human--a superior human?

That sounds an awful lot like an old canard that I covered in the entry, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?. There is no pinnacle of evolution. Organisms are constantly evolving to fit their particular environments. Why would even expect that all animals should evolve to resemble humans?

Moving on, here's another quote from that article.

Also, there's the whole subject of irreducibly complex organisms--the idea that everything has to be there all at once for it to work. How could all the complex items evolve simultaneously--as in the eye, for example?

This is another one that I've covered before, only very briefly for this one, in the entry, Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution. If you scroll about a third of the way down that page, you'll find some pictures of eyes. One is a full on camera type eye like we humans have. The other is a cup type eye from a patella snail. Snail eyes evolved independently of vertebrate eyes, but they show a clear analog to what an ancestral vertebrate eye was probably like. There's no reason to expect that all components of an eye had to evolve simultaneously - eyes work just fine with only some of the components that we have in ours.

And finally, here's one last excerpt from that interview.

So how could our incredibly organized universe come about as the result of a big bang? This flies in the face of the second law, which says it would be less organized as a result, not more! Scientists have to be consistent.

I have a previous entry that's somewhat related to this, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. That entry was more about creationists misapplying the 2nd Law to biological evolution, but it's just as applicable to the evolution of the universe. The 2nd Law does not mean what creationists so often naively interpret it to mean. And what type of arrogance does it take to think that you could have found such a glaringly obvious problem with cosmology when there are countless well educated and intelligent scientists who have devoted their careers to it? I know, that's hinting at being an argument of authority, but I see people so often who think they know more about fields than people who are actual experts, which I discussed in another entry, The Economy & Expertise.

Carson's knowledge of evolution is abysmal. And it's not as if biology is unrelated to medicine, even if you don't need a perfect understanding of biology to be a doctor. If I were the university administration, I'd be very hesitant to invite someone as ignorant as Carson to represent my university.

But enough about evolution, since that's not really what stirred the pot in this case. No, the big problem is Carson's bigotry against homosexuals and his opposition to marriage equality. Back in March, he made some pretty odious remarks on this front.

It's a well-established, fundamental pillar of society, and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality -- it doesn't matter what they are -- they don't get to change the definition.

Now, some people (like commenters in that TRN article above) claim that Carson never directly compared gays to NAMBLA or practitioners of bestiality. But that's a pretty weasely argument. Carson is an educated man. He could have chosen any manner of saying that he didn't think marriage should adapt to changing times. And the manner he chose was to associate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality. I don't think this qualifies exactly as the type of propaganda known as 'poisoning the well', but it's awfully close.

For a bit of entertainment, and to hear Carson actually speak those words himself, you can watch this segment from the Daily Show below, and get John Stewart's take on it (along with his reaction to other opponents of marriage equality). Carson's bit comes near the end.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Swing of the Hill
Daily Show Full EpisodesIndecision Political HumorThe Daily Show on Facebook

Of course, after the outrage this caused, he issued the standard apologies. Well actually, his first apology was some mangled ramble about apples, oranges, and bananas (or watch it on The Daily Show). But he later issued a more reasonable apology, as detailed in the article, Ben Carson Apologizes to Johns Hopkins Community. Still, his original comments were offensive enough that after enough public pressure, he eventually stepped down from being the commencement speaker at his own university, Johns Hopkins. And he never did back down from his bigoted position against marriage equality - he just apologized for his word choice.

So, when some faculty found out that Carson was the speaker, they approached the MSU administration. When it was clear that Carson was going to remain as the commencement speaker, they decided to stage a mini, peaceful protest. Just before Carson was to speak, eleven faculty and two students stood up and walked out, waiting outside the auditorium until Carson's speech was over.

If you read the article in that TRN article above, you'll find several commenters upset with that reaction. But to me, it seems perfectly reasonable. Carson is ignorant of the most fundamental theory of biology, and he has expressed his bigotry against homosexuals with some pretty odious remarks. Those faculty and students who disapproved of his role in the graduation ceremony didn't shout anything. They didn't hold up protest signs. They didn't cause a major ruckus. They simply walked out silently.

So, that's the latest local controversy here in Wichita Falls. It's a bit disappointing that university officials saw fit to invite someone like Carson to begin with, but it's nice to see people who disapproved enough to stage this mini protest. And the TRN article also mentioned that many faculty and students were wearing rainbow ribbons pinned to their gowns. So there's hope even deeply conservative Wichita Falls.

Image Source: YMaryland.org

Updated 2014-09-04: Adventist Review link changed to WayBack Machine.

This didn't fit anywhere else into this blog entry, so let me just add it here. MSU has a Freethought Alliance that meets regularly. I even went to a discussion they put on this past Darwin Day.

I'll also note that I found another good webpage that deals with one of the quotes I gave of Carson up above:
Afarensis - Stupid Creationist Quote of the Week: Ben Carson on Evolution

Monday, May 13, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - 1 Samuel 1 to 1 Samuel 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleWell, I fell a little behind on this series, and posting to the blog in general. I've just been incredibly busy at work. I wasn't just working through my lunch breaks. Sometimes I even skipped eating entirely because there was so much to get done. Anyway, that project is now behind me, and I can get back to lunchbreak blogging (for a little while, at least - there's another deadline coming up in a few weeks, but after that, it should be back to normal).

The first ten chapters of 1 Samuel are mostly about their namesake, Samuel. Portions of the story are familiar, as I remember hearing them as readings growing up. These chapters also begin to tell the story of Saul, the first king of Israel in the Bible.

Samuel, Chapter 1

1 Samuel started with Elkanah, a man with two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Elkanah loved Hannah more, but she was barren, and Peninnah had given him children. Elkanah would treat Hannah more favorably, but Peninah gave her a hard time. So Hannah, in her despair, went to pray in the temple in one of the family's yearly visits to Shiloh, promising to give her first son to the Lord as a Nazirite if He would remember her. There was a slightly strange portion where at first, the priest, Eli, mistook her for being drunk, since she was praying by silently mouthing the words, but when confronted, she explained that she was indeed sober. Eli sent her on her way, and in due time, she did become pregnant and gave birth to a son, Samuel. When he was old enough to have been weaned, she took him to Shiloh, along with a bull to sacrifice and some flour and wine. She left him there as she said she would, under Eli's care, "given to the Lord".

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) tells me that much of the Hebrew in this chapter and the coming chapters contains puns that are lost on an English reader. Mostly, these are references to Saul. For example, the wording used for petitioning the Lord sounds like Saul, and where it said 'he is given' in reference to Samuel, it could have been translated 'he is Saul to the Lord'. These puns have led some scholars to think that these stories were originally about Saul, not Samuel, but others think they're just allusions to Saul.

Samuel, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 started with the Song of Hannah. This was likely a later insertion into the book, and not originally about Hannah. It was general praise for God, the blessings he bestowed on Israel and his glory and power, along with defeating Israel's enemies.

Samuel grew up in Shiloh, "ministering before the Lord". His mother would take him a new robe every year, and she went on to have more children after him.

Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who the Bible described as "scoundrels". When people brought sacrifices to the Lord, they didn't follow the proper rules for what was to go to God and what they could keep for themselves, "they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt." Not just that, they would "lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting." So, God became angry, and sent a messenger to Eli to foretell the doom that awaited his family, "no one in your family shall ever live to old age," " all the members of your household shall die by the sword," "The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you--both of them shall die on the same day." And in a particularly sadistic turn, God was going to leave one of Eli's family alive just to torment them, "The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart".

There was also a mention that God was breaking a promise, though according to the NOAB, this promise didn't appear earlier in the Bible, "I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor should go in and out before me for ever."

Samuel, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 contained a story that I remember from my church-going days. Samuel slept in the Tent of Meeting, and one night, God called out to him, but Samuel mistook the voice for Eli. Twice he went to Eli asking him what he wanted, and Eli sent him back to bed saying that he hadn't called him. The third time, Eli realized what was going on, and told Samuel that it was the Lord who was trying to talk to him. When he heard the voice again, he said, "Speak, for your servant is listening," and God proceeded to tell Samuel of his plans for Eli and his family. The next morning, Eli convinced Samuel to relay his vision, and resigned himself to his fate.

The chapter closed with a few verses about how the Lord was with Samuel and how he became a "trustworthy prophet".

Samuel, Chapter 4

The Philistines launched a war against Israel. The Israelites lost the first battle, and so sent for the Ark of the Covenant to get the Lord on their side. Hophni and Phinehas went with the Ark. Unfortunately for them, just having the Ark wasn't enough. God didn't help the Israelites, and the Philistines beat them again, killing Eli's sons in the battle. Even worse for Israel, the Ark of the Covenant was captured. When news got back to Eli of what had happened, he fell backwards off his seat and broke his neck. When Phinehas's wife got news of the battle and Eli's subsequent death, she went into labor, but things went badly and she died of complications. But just before she died, the midwife told her, "Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son." It's not clear if she was supposed to be relieved that the baby was okay, or relieved because it was a boy. She named the boy Ichabod, which means "The glory has departed from Israel".

Samuel, Chapter 5

Next came a series of short stories describing what happened in the Philistine cities that tried to house the Ark of the Covenenat. First it went to Ashdod, and was put in a temple dedicated to the god, Dagon. The morning after the first night it was there, the statue of Dagon was found fallen over face first in front of the Ark - as if Dagon was submitting to Yahweh. The people righted the statue, but the next day it was found in the same position, only now the hands and head had come off the statue and were on the threshold. This was apparently the reason that worshipers of Dagon don't step on thresholds when they enter the temple. It's also a bit odd to think of Gods acting out through statues, in ways that people could only see the next morning.

After the people of Ashdod began suffering from tumors, they sent the Ark away to a different city, Gath. But they were struck with tumors, as well, both young and old, in a typical indiscriminate punishment of the Old Testament. So they sent the Ark on to Ekron, where people were also plagued with tumors.

From the description of these tumors, especially in the next chapter, the NOAB says it's likely this was an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Samuel, Chapter 6

The Philistines made a plan to return the Ark of the Covenant. They were going to put it in a cart along with a guilt offering of "Five gold tumours and five gold mice". The cart was to be pulled by "two milch-cows that have never borne a yoke", with their calves taken away from them. The idea was that the cows would go searching after their calves, and if they went straight towards Israel, it was a sign that the plagues had been caused by Yahweh. And of course, that's exactly what the cows did, going to Beth-shemesh. And the people of Beth-shemesh promptly slaugtered the cows to off therm a a burnt-offering to the Lord.

The last few verses explained a few details without much backstory, "The descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord; and he killed seventy men of them." So the people of Beth-shemesh wanted to be rid of the Ark since it was so dangerous, and called on the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim to come take it away from them.

Samuel, Chapter 7

The first few verses of chapter 7 closed out the Ark story, with the Ark staying in Kiriath-jearim for 20 years.

Next, Samuel told the Israelites that if they were finally ready to return to the Lord, they had to get rid of their foreign gods, "the Baals and the Astartes", which they did. Next, he had everyone gather at Mizpah, and the book very briefly described a purification ceremony. When the Philistines saw the Israelites gathering, they sent an army to attack them. But now that the Israelites were right with God again, they were able to defeat the Philistines in battle and win back their cities. And of course, there were animal sacrifices.

The chapter closed by describing that "Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life", and went on a circuit between three cities, judging from each of them for a year before moving on to the next.

Samuel, Chapter 8

When Samuel was old and his sons grew up enough to begin judging over Israel, they turned out to be immoral just like the sons of Eli, "they took bribes and perverted justice." The people of Israel were upset with the way Samuel's sons acted, and so asked for a king to rule over them.

These next several chapters and verses dealing with kings are a bit contradictory. At some points, it seems that God is very upset with the Israelites for wanting a king, because it goes against the plan he had for Israel. Other times, it seems like wanting a king is perfectly ordinary. Throughout, though, it certainly seems to be legendary. I can't imagine that a group of people would just come out and demand a king, rather than this happening through some tribal leader consolidating his power over other tribes. It very likely could have taken multiple generations, starting off with alliances, and later on centralizing power in one family.

So, in this chapter, God started off by agreeing to give Israel a king, but warning them of the repercussions, such as taxes and drafting sons into the army. But the people were unmoved by the warning and still wanted their king.

Samuel, Chapter 9

In chapter 9, we're finally introduced to Saul. He was a Benjaminite, son of Kish. "There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else." One day, some of Kish's donkeys went missing, so he sent Saul and a servant to go look for them. In their search, they came to the land of Zuph, and the servant knew there was "a man of God in this town", so they decided to go meet with him to see if he could tell them where the donkeys were. As it turned out, the seer ("for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer") was Samuel. God had already told him that the future king of Israel would be meeting with him that day. So when Saul showed up, Samuel was expecting him, and after assuring him that the donkeys were safe, invited Saul to eat with him at the shrine, putting Saul and his servant at the head of the table and giving them the choicest meat. Samuel gave them a place to sleep that night. The next morning, as Saul and the servant were leaving, Samuel had the servant go on ahead so that he could have a private word with Saul.

Samuel, Chapter 10

Samuel pulled out a phial of oil to anoint Saul, and finally told him that he had been chosen by God to be the king of Israel. He gave him further instructions on where to go from there, and what he would see on his trip home. Everything turned out just as Samuel had predicted, and Saul ended up in Gibeah going into a "prophetic frenzy" with the other prophets there and issuing some prophecies of his own. This was the first explanation given in 1 Samuel about the origin of the phrase, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" A more demeaning explanation will be given in a later chapter, and apparently the difference is because the writer of this section supported Saul, while the writer of the later section supported David.

After the prophetic frenzy in Gibeah, Saul returned home. Saul's uncle (not his father) asked him what had happened, and Saul relayed most of the story except for the part about becoming king.

Samuel called together the people at Mizpah again, and cast lots to determine the king. The lots eventually fell to Saul, but he was hiding among the baggage. The people went and found him and appointed him as king. According to the NOAB, this may be a blending of two different traditions for how Saul became king. Afterwards, Samuel instructed the in "the rights and duties of the kingship", putting it all down in a book. Then everyone returned home. A few warriors "whose hearts God had touched" went with Saul, but "some worthless fellows" didn't accept his kingship and didn't take him a present.

The last few verses are really the start of the story that comes in the next chapter. Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been oppressing the Gadites and Reubenites, and had even gone so far as to gouge out the right eye of all of them. Seven thousand of the Gadites and Reubenites had escaped, but the rest of the telling of the story will have to wait until next week.


So, it is kind of nice to be back in a book telling a narrative, and one that actually goes a little more in depth into character development than previous books. It's a much more coherent approach, even if there still are signs that it's a blending of multiple traditions.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for April 2013

Top 10 ListWith the end of another month, it's that time again when I look at the server logs to see what 10 pages were most popular on this site in the last month. This month, there was a bit of a shake up. While the top few spots were no surprise, several of the pages had never made the list before - VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car", Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win, and Friday Bible Blogging - Joshua 1 to Joshua 10, and one of the pages had only made the list once before - Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. Five of the top ten were from 2012 or 2013 - the four listed above plus Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber. Not just that, but the next two most popular pages that just barely missed the top 10 were also from 2013, Response to E-mail: One Nation Under Wal-Mart? and The Bible on The History Channel - A Disappointing Adaptation. In fact, many of the next most popular ages are from 2013 - they just weren't quite so close to making the top 10 list.

As far as overall traffic, like I mentioned last month, it depends on what stats I look at. With AWStat's Unique Visitors value, I'm on par with what I've been for a while, now, which is just a bit lower than a short term peak I had a couple years ago. But the number of pages viewed is the second highest count I've ever had, and the bandwidth is the highest I've ever had.

Here were the top 10 most popular pages on this site last month.

Top 10 for April 2013

  1. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Autogyro History & Theory
  3. Blog - Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards
  4. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  5. Blog - Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  6. Blog - VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car"
  7. Blog - Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  8. Blog - Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  9. Blog - Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas
  10. Blog - Friday Bible Blogging - Joshua 1 to Joshua 10

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