Monday, March 26, 2007

Ok, I don’t want to simply provide yet another update in our little family march madness pool (though I will), so I will present two intriguing moral dilemmas I’ve come across during the past weekend. The first one is presented here, and it deals with the philosophical concept of utilitarianism. It is a very simple moral philosophy: do the actions which bring about the most good for the most people. Seems like it should work pretty well most of the time (c’mon everyone take a piece of the pie!), but there are some counterexamples which show that the theory is not perfect. The classic example is when a morally confused person (i.e. anyone besides religious zealots…they always know what’s right) is confronted with a difficult choice: kill 1 person to save many people. Utilitarianism demands that the unfortunate, innocent person be killed to save the lives of others. People, naturally, have a hard time saying “yeah, no problem, give me the gun and let’s get this ugliness behind us”. It seems our emotions get in the way of cold, hard reason. Take those emotions away, postulated the psychologists and neuroscientists, and you have moral agents acting entirely through reason (I, Robot anyone?). Long story short, this seems to be the scenario in a group of patients with damage in areas of the brain critical for emotional responses. Wild. I find any kind of study that can provide scientific insight into moral questions absolutely astounding. These kinds of questions have been debated for centuries by philosophers, politicians, and religious leaders, but just now are we beginning to understand some of the biological foundations of these issues. Like I said, wild.

The second “dilemma” is for the vegetarians and animal rights activists out there. The American bison, or buffalo, was nearly exterminated by men in the 19th century. At its low point, there were only about 1,000 individuals left; before humans settled N. America the population size was probably in the millions for several thousand years. Nowadays, buffalo numbers are increasing, but not because the great American plains are being restored to prehistoric conditions. Nope, the population is growing because people have developed a taste for buffalo meat. So the moral question thus becomes is it better for a species to go extinct than to be sustained purely for consumption? I got no answer to this one, but I did find it rather intriguing. Maybe it is a good conversation starter for the next vegetarian you meet…

Finally, as promised, the madness update. I was leading our pool through the first 3 rounds of the tournament (from 64 to 8 teams), but then everything went to hell. My predicted champion, Kansas, lost and I ended up only picking 1 of 4 teams in the Final Four (Florida). My dad is now in the lead, and Ines is in second (she picked all 4 teams in the final, unbelievable). I can’t catch either of them. I just have to hope the right teams win, so that I don’t suffer the embarrassment of finishing dead last.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

An update on March Madness. After last Sunday, only 16 teams were left (the sweet 16). I picked 11 of 16, including the quasi-cinderella team (UNLV...the runnin rebels!). So, my brackets are probably the best I've had in years. I'm even leading in the family pool! Of course, by writing this, I'll probably jinx if Kansas loses in this round (I picked them to win it all, foolishly perhaps), I deserve some of the blame. In any case, I'm looking forward to the madness starting up again tomorrow!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

This post is about an American tradition: March Madness. I will refer to wikipedia to define this annual event. I quote “The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship is a single elimination tournament held each spring featuring 65 college basketball teams in the United States. Colloquially known as March Madness (as the tournament takes place mainly during the month of March) or the Big Dance (as opposed to the now smaller and less prestigious NIT), the tournament takes place over 3 weeks at sites across the U.S., and the national semifinals (the Final Four) have become one of the nation's most prominent sports events.” So there be the basics, but why is this tournament considered “Madness”? In my opinion, the number one reason for the “madness” is that the tournament is single elimination. You lose, you go home. There are no round robins, no opportunities to play a bad game. Every year, in true David vs Goliath style, some underdog teams will play above their level and knock out some of the best teams in the country. There are always surprises, and they are always exciting. The madness is exacerbated by the fact that an incredible number of people are betting on this tournament. Actually, this gambling is generally accepted, or at the very least ignored. Here is how this works. Before the tournament, one predicts which teams will win each tournament game. One can then put money into a communal pool (often through work or amongst friends), and at the end of the tournament the person or persons with the best brackets wins the money. The consequence of this is that you start cheering for teams you have never heard of nor cared about. Last night, for instance, I was rooting for Winthrop to beat Notre Dame. I don’t even know where Winthrop is. Total madness. Well, yesterday and the day before were the first two days of the tourney, and 64 teams were reduced to 32 teams. In my pool, which is just for pride and mostly composed of my family (my Dad almost always wins), I am currently in first place. I expect that I won’t stay there for long. There's too much madness yet to pass.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

From time to time, I check in on the evolution vs. creationism debate. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps, I keep expecting creationists to "see the light", and realize that evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the biological diversity and phenomena we observe today. Anyone that disregards evolution is ignoring over 100 years of scientific work...which is fine, just be willing to acknowledge that and say that your beliefs are entirely faith-based. I really hate it when people try to mash together a literal interpretation of the bible and scientific reality. Here is a awful example of this from youtube. It seems that some people are convinced that dinosaurs and people co-existed at sometime. Unbelievably, this video has been "favorited" over 100 times. I only managed to listen to this guy for 5 mins, much more and I may have jammed a pen in my ear to dull the pain.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The lazy blogger

We had a party last night, so I’m not in the best condition today. Thus, instead of trying to write something interesting myself, I’m going to direct you to some cool posts on other blogs. The first is here and is about the capture of an adult colossal squid. Basically it just shows some amazing pictures, so it is good for lazy blog patrons. I’ve added a picture showing the hooks that this beast has in its tentacle suckers, and one showing what these hooks probably do to spermwhales making a meal out of these squids. What an amazing animal; a testament to out vast ignorance of what lives down in the deep oceans. The second post can be found here. It is about some of my favorite critters: parasitic worms. A new molecular phylogeny of the platyhelminthes (flatworms) has been published. Phylogenies are hypotheses about the relationships between species, and they are often built using DNA data. Here the goal was to examine the deep evolution of parasitic worms, i.e. how they evoled a parasitic life style, how they added hosts to their life cycle, and how they radiated in a staggering variety of animal hosts. For lay persons, the post gives an interesting overview of the natural history of these fascinating animals. For parasitologists, there is a surprise at the end of the post…in the re-printed phylogeny, it seems the trematodes, a huge group of parasites, are not monophyletic. I’m guessing it is due to the limited sampling of species in the study, not biological reality, but I will have to actually look up that paper to see if this is how the results were interpreted. I also recommend following the link about the discovery of tapeworm life cycles. Apparently, tapeworms were discovered by a German doctor with the name Kuchenmeister (literal translation: cake master). Good that he didn’t take up the family profession…