Friday, January 30, 2009

Purple Monkeys & Big Macs

Wow, lotsa repsonses to this atheism topic. Two for starters, first from Kelly Kapoor:
I read PZ Meyer's blog from time to time (he's a bio professor at UM-Crookston; the blog is vehemently anti-religion) and he has an interesting analogy about religion I'm fond of:

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does -- only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination -- as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today -- to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

PZ Meyer's blog is Pharyngula, for those interested. I agree that he is vehemently anti-religion, although he can be quite humorous.

And from Quint:
If someone asked you "Is there a purple monkey living on the moon?" and gave you the choice of answering "yes," "no," or "I don't know," you would technically have to answer "I don't know" because it is impossible to prove with 100% certainty that there is no purple monkey living on the moon. However, I think "no" is also a pretty reasonable shorthand substitute for "I don't know with 100% certainty, but I am 99.99999999% certain that there is not a purple monkey living on the moon." Along the same lines, any reasonable atheist would readily admit that they technically do not know whether god exists. The accusation that atheists believe with 100% certainty that god does not exist is a tired strawman commonly trotted out by theists and agnostics who either don't understand atheism or are trying to make a cheap point in a debate.

I think for all intents and purposes there is no difference between atheists and agnostics; both would probably estimate the probability of god's existence at a very small number. I just hope that agnostics have always answered "I don't know" instead of "no" to any factual question they have ever been asked.

I particularly agree with the final statement here. More emails in a bit...

More on Atheism

William Seward writes in regarding my stance on atheism:
I'm not so sure I buy your defense of atheism. It strikes me as a much better defense of agnosticism. This all seems like basic hypothesis testing. We can't reject the null hypothesis that there is no god, but we really can't reject the null hypothesis that there is a god. We don't have positive evidence either way.

We have plenty of evidence that the Old Testament is wrong: that the world wasn't created in six days, that it didn't take place 6000 years ago, and that we aren't all descendants of Noah. But we don't have any evidence to reject the proposition that there is a god. Because we can't answer definitely to anyone's satisfaction the two key questions: "how the hell did we get here" and "what happens after we die."

Christianity believes it has the answers. So does atheism. To me, on this question, they are no different. And that makes them intellectually inferior to agnosticism.

I mean, if you accept that it's possible that we're in some kid's science project or just a computer simulation in a larger world --- both of which are virtually impossible to refute (and actually rather likely) --- then it seems to me the choice of atheism or agnosticism is plain silly.

I think this critique, which essentially says that both Christianity (or any relgion) and atheism are equally unproven -- that they are "no different" -- doesn't stand up to scrutiny, specifically in terms of what many fields of human knowledge have taught us. I'll point out that I hadn't really meant to defend atheism in my previous post, only note that Douthat was making a somewhat silly argument about atheists and doubt. I do believe that atheism is much more defensible than any religious tradition, which I'll get to in a second.

But first I want to briefly discuss the atheism vs. agnosticism issue. In simple definitional terms, an atheist is someone who does not believe in god, but an agnostic is someone who questions, someone who is undecided on the issue. In my last post, I argued that few atheists are dogmatic non-believers in the same way that many theists are dogmatic believers. In other words, the vast majority of atheists are more than willing to start believing in a deity if that deity decided to give any proof of its existence (indeed, if god was really concerned about us all becoming Christian, you'd think he'd have had the sense enough to hold off on sending Jesus until we had cell phone cameras and YouTube, so his various acts could be documented). Conversely, though, the vast majority of believers are not willing to stop believing, no matter the life-long lack of evidence towards their convictions. I think this relates to the agnosticism issue because the words, as often used, seem to imply that agnostics are open-minded to either possibility, while atheists are close-minded to the possibility of a god -- a notion I reject. To be honest, I don't really know what it means to be agnostic -- does an agnostic believe one day and not believe the next? In that since, I agree with Secretary Seward that the choice between agonsticism and atheism is "a bit silly," although I'm not clear on how the latter is "intellectually inferior" if the difference between them is silly. Personally, I don't think there's functionally much difference between the majority of those who call themselves one vs. the other.

Now, as for why I think atheism is in fact quite different, from an evidence-based perspective than [insert religious tradition here]. First, we actually do have a decent sense for "how the hell did we get here" and it doesn't involve god. I think people underestimate a) the power of evolution and b) the HUGE amount of time that the universe has been around. In just 50 years, a very small handful of underfunded scientists interested in the prebiotic origins of life have come up with some darn good evidence that life can arise spontaneously. Mind you, 50 years is 0.00000005% of the ~10 billion years that a space as large as the entire universe had to tinker with chemical evolution. Give scientists unlimited lab space and 10 billion years and I'm pretty sure they'd make life, too.

But this only answers the question "how the hell did we get here" from a biological perspective, not from a "how did the universe get here." But here the atheist standpoint is much stronger than the religious one. Atheists posit that the universe spontaneously sprang into being, while religions posit that god spontaneously sprang into being and that god then created the universe. Either standpoint has a step we don't understand -- the spontaneous origin of the universe or god -- and it seems to me the height of irrationality to suggest that the latter "makes more sense" than the former. At best, they are equally incomprehensible to minds that evolved to deal with Newtonian cause-and-effect (but not quantum mechanics, which is weird no matter how smart you are, possibly because our brains just haven't evolved in a world in which quantum effects are part of life experience). So why have the extra step of god?

Leaving that aside, however, it is probably the job of the atheist to explain, well, if atheism is right, then why do so many people believe in god? Humans are mammals, and one trade off evolution made for having giant heads with giant brains inside them is that we require a lot of post-birth care in order to surive. This would then select for individuals that really bond with their offspring, as opposed to, say, flatworms that lay thousands of eggs and are not involved at all in the raising of their offspring. Put quite bluntly, love evolved, and you see this as you look at species that are more and more closely related to humans. Birds manifest more of what we'd call love to their offspring than flies do to theirs. Ditto dogs compared to birds. And finally humans compared to dogs (although this comparison I'm not sure on, and I'm sure a lot of dog owners would argue that dogs love just as much as humans do -- and dogs are mammals, remember). My point is, humans, dogs, dolphins, whatever -- the big brained creatures -- feel a lot of love towards other beings.

But love, combined with the fact that bad things happen, and that life is finite regardless, also creates the feelings of dread and loss. Humans (and dogs, etc.) feel very sad when they lose someone they loved. I'd also say that the intensity of this feeling of loss is greater as one moves up the evolutionary ladder -- dogs generally (seem to) recover when you take away their babies and sell them off, but an analgous experience would scar a human for life. So humans, with the biggest, most creative brains and the most intense emotions, invent ways to deal with loss, and god, the afterlive, etc. are the result. While this field is still in its infancy, the evolution of belief is something under examination, and my strong suspicion is that the case for this viewpoint is only going to get stronger with time. Put another way, "what happens after we die?" Exactly what it looks like: nothing.

Indeed, to me that is some of the best evidence for the lack of a god, the which-way-are-things-headed argument. 6000 years ago, humans 'needed' the concept of god to explain all sorts of things -- weather, comets, infertility, you name it. But as time has moved on and as humanity has acquired more and more knowledge, the role for god to play gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Only very recently in human history have (most of us, anyway) gotten to the point where god plays absolutely zero role in day-to-day life (whether one is a believer or not) -- we recognize that god didn't create the traffic jam that made us late to the meeting, or that god didn't make the T pull into the station just as you arrived. But considering how far humanity has come in the last few thousand years -- and, really, the majority of the progress in that regard has been made in the last few hundred years -- isn't it more reasonble to assume that the role for god will continue to get smaller and smaller until it becomes zero?

Post Super Bowl I'd like to write about Atheists in Love, as that is a subject certainly raised by this post, and requires a full discussion.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

His noodly appendage

Ross Douthat, a blogger for The Atlantic, suggests that atheists need to stop being so sure of their atheism because, well, most everyone else isn't an atheist. Try as he might, he's really just making a strength-in-numbers argument:

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one's own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn't thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

This is an often-hurled criticism of atheists that really isn't true. From both my own 'journey' and from actually reading Dawkins, Harris, et al. (i.e. reading the book cover to cover, not just selecting certain passages, a habit I suspect of most atheist-critics), I can say with confidence that atheists aren't lacking in the doubt department. Indeed, since most atheists are born into at least nominally-religious families, and grow up in a pretty religious society, it is hard to accuse atheists of having too little doubt, since it is precisely the high levels of doubt that brought them to where they are.

At some point (usually the span of several years' worth of reflecting, not some Aha! moment) some folks determine that atheism is the correct prism through which to view the world -- not the most convenient, not the most popular, but the most factually accurate. These atheists get to this point from some combination of:
1) Studying science -- it is hard to find an atheist who isn't pretty familiar with either astronomy (the vastness of the universe in which we live) or evolution (the simplicity of a process that produces complexity with no intelligent designer).
2) Historical awareness -- the realization that most religious traditions are from a time when demonic possession was a recognized medical ailment, more than half the earth hadn't been discovered yet, and people tended to live to the ripe old age of 42. Additionally, newer religious traditions such as Mormonism, Scientology, etc. are just insane, and seem more insane simply because they are newer, not because they are any more or less tied to reality than the older ones.
3) Corruptness of religous institutions -- this may apply to Catholics only, but after being told over and over that the pope is infallable, and then learning the history of the Catholic church (e.g. Holocaust, blind eye towards) and its current teachings (e.g. women, inequality of; homosexuals, evilness of) and practices (e.g. little boys, touching of), well, some cracks start to emerge in the dam.

I'm sure there are other common factors, but this covers a good chunk. So instead of arguing that atheists lack doubt, which, again, is hard to square with how they became atheists, I would instead suggest that atheists have very open minds to the concept of a god, but have failed to encounter any evidence that would overturn their worldview. One possibility is that atheists are open-minded and doubt-filled people who discover atheism and then close off their mind and never "lose faith" in their atheism. The other possibility is that some people -- who, via genetics, upbringing, whatever, are open-minded and doubt-filled -- tend to find atheism and remain open-minded and doubt-filled. To me, the latter seems much more in keeping with my own experience and the general idea that people don't change very much.

Tangentially, I was happy to hear Obama mention non-believers in his Inaugural Address, and I'm further encouraged that he continues to use that phrase, as he did when being interviewed on Arab television the other day, in describing the mish-mash of religious beliefs in America.

Adventures in babysitting

Happened across a great article by Krugman, written in 1998 about Japan's financial troubles. Very clear and explains a lot of what is happening now, and why we need a government stimulus.

I didn't know that Krugman used to teach at MIT (I knew he got his PhD there). I haven't been able to find when he was there as a faculty member, but he's been at Princeton since 2000.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wicked Witch of the South

Conservative Texas Senator John Cornyn is holding up the appointment of Eric Holder to Attorney General because Holder is on record as saying waterboarding is torture. From this article:
But Cornyn certainly does. "I liked what President Obama said -- we need to be looking forward and not backward," he said this afternoon. "We've got huge problems facing this country ... I want some assurances that we're not going to be engaging in witch hunts."
Leaving aside the silliness of the looking forward argument -- if our criminal justice system was based on this, then no one would ever be prosecuted -- the metaphor of a witch hunt is fallacious. Saying that prosecuting people for torture would be like a witch hunt implies that torture didn't occur -- just as there are no actual witches. If Cornyn belives that waterboarding isn't torture, and thus no one should be prosecuted for it, then fine. Or if he believes that we did torture people and they shouldn't be prosecuted for it because it was wartime or whatever, then fine, say that. But don't use language that changes the argument, suggesting that this notion of torture is simply a metaphysical unreality caused by eating too much bread mold.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Four years ago

I unearthed an email I wrote four years ago, the day after Bush won his second term. From a navel-gazing perspective, this is fascinating. I'm not sure if I'm more proud of what I got right or embarrassed by what I missed.
Wed Nov 03 11:58:12 2004
Subject: Don't move to Canada (yet)

Okay, so clearly last night sucked. The bad guys won, and won fairly easily. But here are a few thoughts as to why perhaps all hope is not lost (on a side note, I find myself writing this type of email way too often lately).

First off, let's remember who the Democrats put up as a nominee. Kerry was a Senator with a 20 year record of votes for the Repubs to harp on, and thus this year conformed to the rule that Senators almost never win the Presidency. Second, it's not like Kerry was the second coming of Bill Clinton. The guy windsurfs off Nantucket for fun. Who can identify with that? Right or wrong, many people still vote based on who they'd want to have a beer with, and Bush wins that hands down. Kerry is not charismatic at all, and people who lose the charisma battle lose elections (Bob Dole, George Bush I, Al Gore, etc. etc.). To sum up, the fact that Kerry did as well as he did bodes well. He was competitive in states like Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico, and Ohio, while still holding on to traditional Democratic states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Think of it this way: if a Bill-Clinton-like candidate was running, he would have won easily. There were plenty of reasons to vote against Bush, but not nearly enough reasons for a swing voter to vote for Kerry.

On the broader scale, yes, the Democrats have been on the losing end for some time now. But haven't the Democrats been dropping the ball a lot during that time? It's like a baseball game when you make 5 errors but still almost win; you gotta feel good about the fact that if you clean up your play a bit, you'll come out on top. Go back to Gore in 2000. He made a ton of errors, both in states that he should have won but lost, and in terms of the campaign itself. Some of that blame can fall on Clinton, as he did go on TV and lie directly to the face of the American public. Should he have had to go on TV to discuss blow job charges, probably not, but that's not the issue. People generally don't like being lied to, and thus Clinton made it difficult on Gore.

Furthermore, the party itself made errors. It should have been much more introspective after 2000, really clarifying what it stood for. But it didn't. The Democrats operated under the assumption that 2000 was stolen from them, and thus nothing was broken that needed fixing. This is why the party ran to a fringe candidate like Howard Dean early in the primaries; the we're-angry-about-2000 crowd was in charge, not the people who would bother to think about a coherent message to send to the American people. Remember, for quite some time now, the Republicans have been very clear about where they stand; Guns, God, and Gays have been consistent positions. What does the Democratic party stand for? Hard to say. The Repubs got a huge turnout from their base on the gay marriage issue. What issue(s) do the Democrats have to motivate their people? The Democrats will finally do the long-overdue introspection. The good news is that they've got solid leaders (Bill Clinton) and new faces to guide them in both the national (Barack Obama) and more local (Eliot Spitzer) arenas.

As things stand now, the Democrats really need to hunker down and limit the damage that occurs on the domestic front in the next 4 years, and they can really only do that in the Senate. It is kinda good that Daschle is gone, because he was always on shaky ground with his constituents in South Dakota, which meant he was at times handcuffed in standing up to Bush. The Dems should have someone with a strong base serve as Minority Leader. Just throwing a name out there, but maybe Chuck Schumer. Anyway, the Repubs still are well short of a super-majority of 60 in the Senate, and almost all of the Democrats still in the Senate are strong Democrats, and they may get help from people like Olympia Snowe in Maine and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

Additionally, at least now a Democrat doesn't have to clean up the mess in Iraq. Bush broke it, and now he's bought it for another 4 years. Can you imagine how quickly Kerry would be trashed by Repubs and by the press for even tiny setbacks in Iraq were he the president? Am I happy about the fact that we have someone as simple-minded as Bush dealing with things like North Korea and Iran? No, it scares the hell out of me. But if you allow me to step out of the terrified numbness that a second Bush term provokes in me emotionally, my intellect tells me that the Bush doctrine won't work, and will be repudiated at the polls come 2008. Ah, 2008…

Anyway, that's my thinking/rationalizing. See, now who says that being a Red Sox fan doesn't train you for the real world?


So, some pluses... knew what the Bush doctrine was years before Sarah Palin... identified several electoral swing states that all went Dem in '08... named Obama as a potential national leader for the Dems...

The minuses, well, you can figure them out...

The President's Job

Andrew Sullivan makes a point well-worth remembering even as we move forward:
A reminder of what so many forgot these past eight years: the executive branch's first duty is to protect and defend the Constitution, not the territory, of the U.S. On that score, Bush and Cheney did not keep us safe. They did to the Constitution what Osama bin Laden could never have done.

Ronan Tynan can go home now

I was quite pleased to see, and I hope this is the beginning of a trend, This Land is Your Land performed at the "We are One" concert over the weekend. As anyone who owns the Springsteen Live 75 - 85 Box Set knows, Woodie Guthrie wrote that song in response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America, a song he considered unrealistic and complacent. I could do without the explicit religiosity of the song. So let's hope This Land is Your Land becomes the unofficial anthem of the Obama administration, displacing God Bless America. The former is certainly more humble.

A friend adds:
I agree about This Land is Your Land vs. God Bless America. The former "feels" more American. However, it would be tough for me to say that the religiosity bothers me, since I've long been a proponent of substituting America the Beautiful for The Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem: I'll take a song about the natural beauty of our geography that happens to mention god over a god-less war anthem any day.
Must say, I've not thought of Francis Scott Key's work as a "war anthem" but in both origins and lyrics, it certainly is.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The sludge of the intertubes

Saw some clips of the United flight landing in the Hudson on YouTube, and this is the top comment at the time I viewed them:

Wow you're a dumb ass. You sound like you're 10 and you make yourself look like a retard. I'm glad the people on the plane is okay. Even the baby on board survived. The pilot needs a metal.

Now, I didn't bother reading what this guy/girl is replying to, but this sort of idiocy is remarkably common in the comments section of pretty much every website. Who are these people? These people have drivers licences and vote. Scary. Of course, in real life, it is sometimes difficult to readily distinguish a crazy person from simply looking at them. But on the internet, grammar and spelling are allies in such endeavors.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Championship Picks

But first, a fun item from today's Globe: Julio Lugo is "serious about competing for the shortstop job. He opted out of winter ball to devote his time to conditioning and has gained 20 pounds of muscle. Jed Lowrie will be challenged." What, did Lugo finally get treated for the 4 foot tapeworm living inside him?

The first rule of gambling is that you should bet more when you're behind, because only by digging harder and faster can one get out of the hole.
Philly -3.5 @ Arizona
Baltimore + 6 @ Pittsburgh

I'll start with 50 on Arizona. As I said last week, I like that Arizona is the sort of team that can comeback (indeed, after Carolina scored an early TD last week, many thought the game was going to be a blow out). Boldin should play, and the weather report calls for 70 and sunny. Let's remember, Philly's D looked so good last week because Eli couldn't throw a pass -- it is unlikely that Warner will suck it up to that degree. The Arizona D, while not anything to write home about, has been stout enough to let the offense win the game.

In the AFC, I'll take 50 on the Ravens mainly because I can't stomach the idea of Pittsburgh winning. Actually, I could see this game being a blow-out in Pittsburgh's favor -- well, not a blow-out per se, but if Pittsburgh gets up by, say, 10 points, does Baltimore strike you as the sort of team that could come back and win? Probably not. But, Baltimore has played Pittsburgh well this year, so I think it more likely that the game is close, making the 6 points attractive.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Hope

While I love to see Bush eventually convicted of war crimes for authorizing torture (or at least Cheney), I really doubt that will happen, so my hope for the upcoming years and decades is a simple one regarding W:

I hope he lives long enough to see that history will not judge him kindly, that he really was one of the worst presidents this country has ever had.

Bush is a pretty young guy, and has stayed in shape. He's going to be around awhile. Every time they get all the living presidents together he will have to stand there and look like an idiot, knowing full well that the country views him as a failure. One thing I've enjoyed about the past year or so, when Bush has essentially disappeared, is that the perma-smirk is gone. He knows he did a horrible job, that self-confidence is shot. 68 more hours...

Not so evil?

I thought this observation by Nate Silver was particularly wise:
There is a certain "progressive" paradigm in which corporations are inherently evil, and anything that benefits corporations in any way is evil. I've never particularly understood this, because I assume that moral agency rests within individuals, and corporations are not individuals, even if we tend to anthropomorphise them. Perhaps an individual that runs a corporation can be evil, but the corporation itself is not evil. Perhaps an individual that runs a corporation can be greedy, but the corporation itself is not greedy. By the same token, whether a particular policy benefits a corporation or not is immaterial, and matters only insofar as that benefit is passed on (or not) to particular individuals.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Terror suspects

Here's a passage from the most recent Newsweek that deserves comment:

[Al-Marri's] case has become a cause celebre among civil libertarians, who argue that the government can't just lock you up indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism. Now Obama must decide: Will he enrage many of his supporters by adopting Bush's claim of sweeping power to grab legal residents -- and perhaps even citizens -- and jail them forever? Or will he let a possibly very dangerous man go, and thereby concede that any Qaeda terrorist who can get into the United States legally is free to roam the country unless (and until) he commits a crime or maybe an immigration violation?

This passage sets up a false choice that ignores the middle ground where the vast majority of us reside. No, I don't think that the government should be able to just lock people up, and neither does the Constitution -- it has all these crazy passages about "trials" and "due process" and "habeus corpus" in there. And this is one of the (many) failings of the Bush presidency. But to suggest that Obama has to either do what Bush did or allow preventable suicide bombings is foolish. If you have evidence that someone is planning to commit a crime, then arrest the person, present the evidence, and convict him. This idea that we are powerless to do anything until after the fact is bogus.

What enrages so many people about Bush is not only what he has done regarding terror suspects -- the torture and such -- but also the way he went about doing it, namely, in secret. Remember, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

A bit further on in the article, Evan Thomas & Stuart Taylor tell us that:

It is a liberal shibboleth that torture doesn't work - that suspects will say anything, including lies, to stop the pain. But the reality is perhaps less clear.

Yes, I have no idea where liberals got the idea that torture doesn't work. Maybe it was from that bleeding-heart tree-hugger John McCain, who, in a debate during Repulican Primary season came out clearly and forcefully against torture, noting that it didn't work because people will, in fact, say anything.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The meaning of words

Someone should explain to Rob Neyer what 'quantitative' and 'qualitative' mean:
Is Martinez the most impressive hitter in this group? Clearly, he is not. He's third in hits and times on base, and fourth in home runs, runs scored and RBIs. Quantitatively, he's nothing special. Qualitatively, though? That's where Edgar shines. His .418 career on-base percentage is second-best, just a hair behind Thomas. And his .515 slugging percentage trails only Thomas and Ortiz (and, of course, Ortiz's decline phase is still ahead of him). I don't have any qualms about describing Martinez as the second-greatest DH in American League history.

For the record, I would like to know who Neyer thinks is the greatest DH in AL history -- I've re-read the column and I still have no idea, nor does his list of possibilities have an obvious #1. For the record, I don't think Edgar is a Hall of Famer.

I have a ball. Perhaps you'd like to bounce it?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hall of Fame, Class of '09

Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson were voted into the Hall of Fame today, the former in his last time on the ballot, the latter in his first. Since Rice's hey-dey was before my time I'm not really in a position to have a vociferous opinion on his candidacy, but Rickey was a 'contemporary' of mine.

A few thoughts on the guy. First, I generally remember not liking him, thinking he was kinda an a-hole -- a little too much me-me-me that started to become a thing amongst baseball leadoff hitters (Rock Raines anyone? Early years Kenny Lofton?) but that role has been co-opted by NFL wide receivers so it won't be his legacy. I was quite pleased that, on the afternoon when Hendersen stole his record-setting base, Nolan Ryan grabbed the headlines that night by throwing his 7th no-hitter at the age of 42 or something (now checking to see if this memory is accurate... yes I am, according to MLB's list of classic games -- both occured on May 1, 1991).

Hendersen played for an amazing number of teams in his 25-year career: Oakland, NYY, Oakland II, Toronto, Oakland III, San Diego, Anaheim, Oakland IV, NYM, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, Los Angeles (that's 13 teams). His best year was probably 1990 at age 31, when he hit 0.325 with 28 HRs (somehow driving in only 61 runs), 119 runs, and 65 stolen bases, en route to winning the AL MVP. The real key to Henderson, at least in terms of the Hall of Fame, is how long he was able to be good, if not great, post-30 years of age. For example, from age 34 - 37 (1994 - 1997) he had four straight years of >0.400 OBP while averaging 31 SBs -- these are the years that Hall of Fame candidates pile up the stats that eventually get them in, while those that either get hurt or just lose it faster don't end up with Hall-worthy stats. Rickey provides a good example of this, actually -- according to, using an algorithm developed by Bill James, Henderson and Tim Raines had remarkably similar stats through age 29... but then Raines tailed off faster than Henderson, which is why Henderson is a first-ballot HoF while Raines got 22% of the vote this year.

While I'm on it, I feel like some of the best baseball players of my Golden Age -- defined as 1984 - 1986, when I collected Topps baseball cards pack-by-pack -- are getting very little respect in the Hall of Fame. Part of it is that any offensive numbers put up during this period were soon dwarfed by the steroid era, so when the stars of the 80s were retiring in the 90s, their stats didn't look as impressive. Certainly, this has affected players unequally -- leadoff type guys, who got in based on hits and runs (Henderson, Boggs, Gwynn, Brett) aren't going to be affected by the later power surge. I do think this has hurt Andre Dawson's candidacy, although he did get up to 67% this year and Jayson Stark points out that everyone who reaches 67% has, eventually, gotten in to the Hall.

But where I see this odd anti-80s "bias" (for lack of a better word) is with pitchers. Clemens is obviously his own case-study, but why are the best pitchers of the 80s not getting any votes? Particularly egregioius is Jack Morris, by far the best money pitcher of the decade -- he only received 44% of the vote this year. The guy started 3 All-Star games and averaged 241 innings pitched a year! To put that in perspective, 9 of the last 18 IP leaders in the two leagues (2000 - 2008) didn't reach 241 innings.

Another pitcher who probably should have deserved at least some debate was Dennis Martinez (El Presidente) -- especially if one is a believer in WHIP as a gauge of pitchers, he's was pretty good. And I'm bummed David Cone didn't get enough (5%) to stay on the ballot. He's no Hall of Famer, but he was a great Hired Gun.

Then again, perhaps these things happen in waves, and it isn't so much that 80s-era pitchers aren't receiving their due, but rather that the decade just didn't produce many notables, especially compared to those that would come in the 90s: Maddux, Pedro, Randy Johnson, Rivera & Tom Glavine at a minimum, with certainly more in the argument.

Community Service (better than jail time)

As I often want to make a small amount of a given lentivirus, I find it a pain in the butt to do MaxiPreps to get good, transfection-quality DNA -- i.e., why spend over an hour prepping a miligram of plasmid when I only need about a microgram?

So, I've been using Macherey-Nagel's Nucleobond PC20 preps when I need to do a dozen or so transfection-quality minipreps (quite analagous to Qiagen's transfection-quality mini prep kit). But, this protocol isn't very fast (about an hour, with some standing-around time), and at ~$4 a prep, not particularly cheap.

Promega has a new product out, and since they sent me a free sample, I gave it a try. Their PureYield mini-prep really impressed me. First, it is quite fast, faster than even a standard Buffer 1, 2, 3 miniprep. Second, it costs just over $1 per prep. And most importantly, the DNA performs really well in making virus.

I divided an overnight culture into 3 parts, all in duplicate, of a luciferase-expressing lentivirus.
1) Macherey-Nagel NucleoSpin (i.e. a standard silica mini-prep)
2) Macherey-Nagel Nucleobond PC20 (anion exchange)
3) Promega PureYield

In terms of yield, all three were quite comparable, giving 3.8, 4.1, and 3.5 ug of plasmid from 3 mL of culture, respectively.

I then made virus and infected cells, assaying for luciferase the next day. Both the Nucleobond PC20 & the PureYield gave ~20% more luciferase activity compared to the standard mini-prep. Given that PureYield is 4x cheaper and 4x faster, it is my new mini-prep.

More Fail

It is looking more and more like I won't need to regret not having become a professional gambler. Yet again, I only picked the Ravens correctly, putting me at -55 for the week and -130 for the playoffs. The only victor that really surprised me was the Cardinals, as I don't think anyone foresaw them blowing out the Panthers. And now they get a home game...

At this point, Omar Epps & the Steelers are certainly the favorite, and dare I say it, the prohibitive favorite (now that I see it on the screen, I don't really know what that phrase means, but I feel like I'm using it correctly). That third quarter was truly epic, in that if I were a fan of the Chargers, I might have lost my mind -- remember, this is a Chargers team that has been close each of the past few years. Hell, they lost to New England a few years ago after intercepting a 4th down pass only to then fumble it when Troy Brown stripped the guy, allowing the Patriots to keep the drive going and win the game. And now they have a game where for an entire quarter they run exactly one play for 0 yards?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Divisional Round Picks

Ravens +3 @ Titans, 34.5
Cardinals +10 @ Panthers, 48.5
Eagles +4 @ Giants, 40
Chargers +6 @ Steelers, 38

The Divisional Round games can be tough, because the favorites often haven't played a truly meaningful game for several weeks. The Titans, for example, were shut out by the Colts in Week 17, having given their starters some rest. On the plus side, teams get healthier, on the mius side, they get rusty. The former outweighs the latter, in my mind.

I'll put 40 on the Giants, as I think they were the best team in football this year and Philly will have to play a perfect game to beat them. The Steelers, however, have not impressed me and that seems like a lot of points to be giving up to a pretty good Chargers team, so I'll take the points and put 30 clams on the Chargers. I have very little doubt that Carolina will win the game, but 10 points is a lot to give up to a team that, when on, can score a lot of points. Put another way, Arizona is a team that could fall behind but then stage a comeback and at least stay in the game, they have the offense for that. I don't feel too confident on this one, so I'll lay low and put 10 on Carolina. Finally, in the first game of the weekend, it comes down to two Division 1-AA stars, Joe Flacco (Delware) and Chris Johnson (East Carolina). I think Flacco is a better QB than Collins, arguing in favor of Baltimore. However, Johnson is key to the Titans running game, and he certainly tailed off as the season progressed -- but, he's now had essentially 3 weeks of rest. Since I think there's a very good chance the Ravens win outright, the prudent thing to do is take the points, so I'll put 25 on the Ravens.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Polls v. Vegas

Last night's "National" "Championship" game between Oklahoma & Florida provided an example of a game in which those in charge of the rankings -- a blend of coaches, journalists, and computers -- thought that Oklahoma was going to win, as they were the #1 ranked team in the country, while those in charge of the books in Vegas thought #2 Florida would win, as they were favored by 5 points. In this case, Vegas was right.

It would interesting to know how often this difference of opinion occurs, and who tends to be right more often (I'd bet on Vegas). And if that is the case, shouldn't the ranking system as a means of determining who plays for the championship just be scrapped?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Announcer Fail

Who the f' is the douchebag announcing the Oklahoma-Florida game along with Thom Brennaman? Every single play he predicts that Florida is 'gonna bring people' and they rush 3 or 4. One would think that after being wrong the entire first half he'd stop, but no. He also noted that Oklahoma was 'winning the rushing battle'... based on an 11 yard difference (80 v. 69).

Okay, found his name, Charles Davis. Yeah, exactly, who? If he's calling the Sox-Rays ALCS rematch come October I'll be a bit miffed.

PS Go Sooners... I want my boss to be in a good mood tomorrow (he went to OU) as he's popping for a champagne send-off for a colleague.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


This is a bit of a bummer. Thornton's Fenway Grill, along with several other restaurants nearby, burned down the other night. This is (was?) by far my favorite place to go for dinner before heading to a game at Fenway. The location was ideal -- since it was 'behind' Fenway (from the perspective of Kenmore Square, see the red star on the map) I never had a problem getting a seat, plus they had outdoor seating, which is kinda a rarity in Boston. I always ordered a chicken sandwich, not so much as a culinary paean to Wade Boggs but rather because all their chicken sandwiches were named after Jack Nicholson movies:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Gambling Fail

Good thing I don't do this professionally. I was right on one game out of four, and it was my lowest wager. So +10 and -40, -25, and -20 puts me at -75 so far.

Baltimore's D was impressive, or perhaps this is another way of saying Chad Pennington was really bad. If I were Baltimore, I'd be a bit worried that their offense punted an awful lot. It seemed like Miami was able to hold them to 3-and-outs after most of the turnovers.

I'm still not sure how the Chargers managed to get by the Colts. It seemed like the Colts could move the ball at will when they threw it, but Dungy insisted on continuing to call ineffective running plays -- they haven't been able to run all year, why would the playoffs be any different? I'm looking forward to some team paying Darren Sproles a ton of dough this offseason in the hopes that he'll be their everydown back, and then watching a 5'6" speed guy break down by week 6. He reminds me of an Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett, a tremendously useful guy to have on your team, as long as not too much is asked of him. This loss gives Manning a playoff record of 2-3 in his MVP years (2003, 04, 08).

I didn't catch too much of the Arizona-Atlanta game, but from what I saw, Arizona was pretty effective at bottling up Michael Turner, which is no small feat. The final game of the weekend, Eagles - Vikings, was not as gruesome as I expected, but man, Tavaras Jackson is a bad QB. Of course, maybe Brad Childress is a bad coach, and these two statements aren't mutually exclusive. TJ was 15-35 passing (43%) with a pick 6, and perhaps even more egregious was the Vikings' special teams: the Eagles averaged 22 yards on 5 punt returns. That is horrible.

Looking ahead, the Giants-Eagles should be very fun to watch. TV schedule:
Sat, 4:30 - Baltimore @ Tennessee
Sat, 8:15 - Arizona @ Carolina
Sun, 1:00 - Philadelphia @ New York
Sun, 4:45 - San Diego @ Pittsburgh


In case you were wondering, 2009 is not a prime number. We lived in a prime year in 2003, and will again in 2011. Recent primes also include 1949, 1951, 1973, 1979, 1987, 1993, 1997, & 1999. I'm sure there is more than one crazy person out there who has theory correlating home runs in baseball or stock prices or whatnot with the occurrence of a prime numbered year, but thankfully this is not a year in which such powerful forces control our destiny.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Quick thought

In an email to a friend I predicted (no, really, I swear) a Colts - Giants Super Bowl. The reason I bring this up is that the Eagles-Vikings game dictates who the Giants play in the Divisional Round. Call me nuts, but of the 6 teams in the NFC, I think the only one that could beat the Giants is the Eagles. I'm not saying will I'm just saying could. The Meadowlands is one of the hardest places to play in all of the NFL (well, unless you're The Boss), and I can't see Carolina or Arizona going in there and winning. The Eagles, however, well, they've played there countless times before, they are used to cold weather, and sometimes they can play inspired football.

My other thought is that the Chargers really need to bring more than three guys and get some pressure on Manning. Even if you don't get to him, make him skittish and good things happen. Zone coverage can't cover for 6 or 7 seconds, no matter how many guys are back there.

Wild Card Weekend

For my own amusement, I'll bankroll myself 100 Electros to wager on the NFL playoffs. The rules that I'm making up include a min $10/max $50 bet, and I have to pick every game. I'll use the lines from Yahoo, as they are listed first. The current lines:
Atlanta +1.5 @ Arizona; O/U 51
Indianapolis -1 @ San Diego; 49.5
Baltimore -3.5 @ Miami; 38
Philadelphia -3 @ Minnesota; 41
First off, amazing that all 4 road teams are favored. Can't imagine that happens with any frequency, indeed, if ever.
[edit -- miscopied the Atlanta-Arizona line. Course, since I picked Atlanta, going from giving 1.5 to getting 1.5 doesn't change my bet... although it does make my previous statement incorrect]
I'll take Atlanta over Arizona, for 25. 6 of Arizona's 9 victories were in their division, against opponents with a combined record of 13-35. Their only win over a playoff team was week 2 against Miami, and that Miami team is a far cry from what the Dolphins have turned into. Atlanta, on the other hand, is balanced on offense -- both RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White were top 5 performers at their positions, and Matt Ryan is a solid QB. Atlanta has won 5 of their last 6, including a home victory over Carolina and road victories over the Chargers and Vikings. I don't think this game will be close.

Nor, for that matter, do I think the Indianapolis game will be all that close, so I'll take 40 bits on the Colts. They've won 9 in a row, and have looked good doing it. They have the best QB (Manning) and coach (Dungy) in the AFC playoffs and are my pick to reach the Super Bowl. Also note that the Colts have largely gotten healthier as the season has gone on, while both Tomlinson and Gates are game-time decisions for the Chargers. The San Diego defense that knocked the Colts out last year is a shadow of its former self.

Baltimore at Miami is a tough one. All five of Baltimore's losses this year were against other playoff teams, while Miami has won 9 of its last 10. These teams met up in week 7 and the Ravens trounced the Fins, 27-13. I've always thought that Pennington is a damn good QB, and I think his ability to avoid INTs is a huge plus against an opportunistic Ravens D. But, Miami's schedule was very soft this year, and they haven't faced many teams that run as well as the Ravens. I won't be surprised at all if Miami wins, so I'll kinda hedge my bet and only put 10 dineros on the Ravens.

I'm similarly confused by the Eagles-Vikings match-up, as both teams are quite capable of just absolutely sucking. Would you be surprised if Tavaras Jackson threw four INTs? Nope. Would you be surprised if Peterson ran for 200 yards and three scores? Nope. Likewise, McNabb can be brilliant or he can drill the ball into the ground 5 yards in front of his receiver on every play. Further, both coaches suck. My gut says there's a good chance this is an ugly game with a lot of three-and-outs, so I'll put 20 Scovells on the under.