Alexander The Great

July 21, 2008

What Does This Look Like?

Filed under: Humor,Modern Life,Science — alexanderthegreatest @ 10:19 pm
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Clades of the Christian Church

A clade is a branch (from the Greek).  Modern usage has this depict branches in a tree, and cladistics is the taxonomy of the tree of life.  Here is the source of the paradigm the chart above fits into

Phylogenetic tree of life

The tree of life

The circle is merely to conserve space – no metaphysics necessary. Notice how at the 5th and 6th level branchings, we se the beginnings of the pattern in the first chart, the one of Christian history?

Am I the only one who appreciates this irony?

Here’s a similar view of Linux distros – notice the children of Ubuntu


The idea is quite useful, because most things in our world fit into some type of hiercharchy, which lends itself to being shown as a tree. I’m a Christian myself, but I find it very amusing that Christian church history itself can be described by a series of 2 way forks – a perfect cladogram.


July 1, 2008

Only Use 10 % of our Brains = Myth

Filed under: Science — alexanderthegreatest @ 10:45 pm
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“Nature encourages no looseness, pardons no errors”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is a popular (nay, undying) urban legend, that humans only use some minute fraction of our brains. Usually it’s around 10 %, but 8 and 4 % are also common. Where did these numbers come from? Literally, from nowhere. The central nervous systemIt’s always been clear as day to me that this whole idea is foolish, but now I’ve found the origin of the myth. We’ll get into that, after exploring the reasons this can’t possibly be true.

Humans use all of their brains

Evolution is about being just good enough. Looking at the end result it doesn’t always seem that way, but it’s true. Our eyes are wondrous pieces of technology, far beyond our capability to invent or build. But they’re also prone to myopia. But that’s almost a metaphoric example, introduced to show that marvel isn’t always perfection.

The reason evolution wants creatures to just get by is purely economic. Natural selection punishes anything that isn’t fit enough, but too fit means investing too much energy, time, and other precious resources into something – this, also, is punished by selection. A cheetah who needed twice as much food as normal to build muscular legs to run faster will have less (or no!) children than its brother who runs more slowly, but also escapes predators.

Our brains total about 1.5 % of our body weight (this varies widely), but consume 20 % of our energy, which means our brains consume 20 % of the calories we eat in a day. This was a radical experiment! Selection would never allow this, unless the brain gave a tremendous return on investment.

The brain is broken into a number of discreet parts with specialized functions. We know this from a long history stretching back to Phineas GagePhinneas Cage, a railroad worker who survived an iron rod more than an inch across and 7 inches long, being blown through his head. Amazingly, the man was able to speak within minutes, and to sit upright while being rushed to the hospital. His friends would later describe him as “not Gage” – his personality was instantly and forever changed. Phineas had trouble walking for much of his following life. In fact, we know a tremendous amount about brain function localization (see Ramachandran), and we know every “piece” has a role to play. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) confirms this, even in sleep.

Where did this come from, then?

Although the numbers change, this myth makes very specific descriptions – we use a particular amount of our brain. This leaves open the possibility that the remaining 90 % (or 92 or 96 %, etc) of our brains might allow us to fly, if only we could tap in! So, how do we come to this idea at all, and this number in particular?

In the 1930s, a general scientist named Karl Lashley experimented by cutting lesions into rat brains. Even missing a piece, the rats could survive, and relearn important functions. (This is explained by neuroplasticity.) Having removed many different parts of many different brains in many different rats, it seemed evident that none of them were truly required. On the other hand, if you were to remove all of these pieces from the same brain, the rat it lived in would surely die! Rather, the functions being studied were so vital, that they could be moved from one area to another inside a maleable brain.

We can learn from these experiments that a certain amount of redundancy is built into the system, for safety reasons.

What does it even mean?

What does it mean to use X % of one’s brain, if X doesn’t equal 0 or 100? There are many different ways a person could interpret this, but I don’t think any of them are agreed to? I doubt anyone who repeats this myth even gives it much though.

A typical neuron

June 12, 2008

Is Spam the Dominant Species?

Filed under: Evolution,Science,Software — alexanderthegreatest @ 12:09 am
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A friend told me we should round up all the spammers, and throw them off the Golden Gate Bridge, down to the sharks below. Trouble is, others will take their place. Spammers, sadly, aren’t a hereditary breed – it’s a learned behavior. (Almost Lamarckian!)

Even if you don’t agree about where spammers come from, we’ll have to agree there are too many of them. Spam is a very successful meme, a unit of cultural information that’s better than most at copying itself. In the realm of intellectual selection, spam is to be found far and wide in the meme pool. Spam is maybe a parasite working on (or against?) the get rich quick meme – if people stopped wanting a quick and easy buck, spam would vanish overnight.

What’s this rubbish about it being the “dominant species” though? We eradicated small pox, a more difficult and more important thing than going to the moon, and we’re losing the war against spam. It’s beating us. America gave fire water to the “Indians” to take their land – now, in some places, native casinos are using greed to take modern culture’s money. Spam is doing much the same thing.

Spam is a concept, an idea, that by producing a lot of useless drivel, a person can strike internet riches. It comes in a few varieties, from the email sitting in your box, selling you viagra and mortgages, to the affiliate and “search engine friendly” links in a forum and a blog. It’s PayPerPost, where a blogger can beat the 1849 gold rush by telling you how wonderful a sponge and a bank account are. It’s Digital Pointless, where you can buy other people’s Wikipedia and eBay accounts. Fine, that’s what spam is, but what are we? It’s hapless accomlices, we’re machines, some of us, that spam uses to copy itself.

All of this is Darwinian. If you have variation (spam, job, investment, invention), heredity (new spam is very much like old spam, but refined in its sales pitch or its delivery) and selection (spam filters, forum moderators, people seeing through it), you have evolution. This works in biology (genes), and it works in ideas (memes). If you have the struggle for existance among things that copy themselves, the one that’s better at making copies will come to dominate, to fill its world. Ladies and gentlemen, this is exactly what spam is doing – a digital thing filling its internet world. One of the dominant species in the meme pool.


This proves our point – bad spam, the least fit, failing in the struggle for existance.

March 17, 2008

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Filed under: Americana,Evolution,Humor — alexanderthegreatest @ 12:15 pm
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The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster located at is the world’s newest (joke) religion and growing faster than Mormonism. Pastafarianism (get it?) was set up in response to Intelligent Design, which is a lot of things to a lot of people – all of them negative.

ID is an attack on science, first and foremost. This is intellectual dishonesty, and short sighted policy being instigated at the grass roots by people who enjoy the benefits of living in a scientifically advanced society. From medical treatments to cars with internal combustion engines to the internet and TV, and even just indoor lights and plumbing, nobody wants scientific research to end.

So what is the American Christian Taliban doing? Evolution seems to be the mechanism God chose to bring about life on EarthFSM – as taught in the Book of Genisis thousands of years ago. The fact that we’ve only learned this through science 150 years ago proves the Divinity of the Bible to me. But snake handler Baptists in the southeast think God used a different means of making us. It’s ok to disagree on theological questions like what parts of the ancient texts should be taken literally and which are poetic, but it’s not ok to hijack education to teach your own idea of God’s will.

And the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a response to this extremism. It fights fire with fire, and with silliness. Here’s what people are saying about it

“As a scientist, I’d like to say that the currently accepted scientific theory is evolution. But, some competing ideas have been proposed, such as ID and FSMism, and discussion to include one should include the other, as these ideas are equally valid.“
– Mark Zurbuchen, Ph.D.

Notice the FSM is a symptom, not a cause in this. Ignorant pseudo Christians who project their own insecurity onto others are the cause of this backlash we’re seeing. Shocking as it may sound, our best move is to follow Jesus’s teachings and treat others with the respect we deserve from society. Christianity has lost too much public respect and opened itself to ridicule by the likes of FSM, because we stopped showing society any measure of respect. More important than being laughed at is that some (the loudest) of us have stopped behaving as Christians.

We're making a bad impression

January 2, 2008

From Noble Birth

Filed under: Americana — alexanderthegreatest @ 10:47 pm
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In 1839, John O’Sullivan wrote

The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes. On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.

His revelation ended thusly

Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?

(Emphasis original) This is a prescinct essay. No one can doubt that in one sense at least, O’Sullivan’s words have come to pass. In military terms, if none other, we truly are the great nation, police to the world, and so on. The UN Security Council has squeezed out any room for reasonable doubt of this.

And yet, the Manifest Destiny speech talks about having severed our connection with the crimes of antiquity. America was born into a new history, devoted to the natural rights of man. Of all the irony, our republic was the embodiment of European enlightenment and liberalism.

How, then, have we fallen so astray? When did we go from the “Beacon on the Hill” to a bully, ready if not eager to use nuclear weapons against weaker nations? When did we decide to cease being a shining example of democracy, and instead take up our place imitating Orwell’s 1984? Our leader has worked so hard at killing evil-doers that he has in the process become one.

What surer sign could there be of an empire, a Rome that’s lost its way, than a vice president who shoots an elderly man in the face, never visits him in hospital, and then receives an apology for it?

November 21, 2007

Nigersaurus, Cow of the Mesozoic

Filed under: Evolution,Science — alexanderthegreatest @ 5:37 pm
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A dinosaur with a “vaccuum mouth,” Nigersaurus was named for the country of Niger in which its remains were found.  It’s skelletal structure prevented the creature from lifting its head even to parallel the ground, making trees out of the question as a food source.  Rather than thegiraffe like behavior we assume of most long necked dinosaurs, it seems looking downward for food, much like a grazing cow, was evolution’s plan for success some 75 million years ago.

Is it just me, or does Nigersaurus seem like perhaps not a very good name for a newly discovered animal?

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