Wednesday, April 25, 2012

You May Have Heard I Have An Opinion

About Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success by Bill Whitmore...

My review of Bill Whitmore's Potential has just been published in the March/April 2012 edition of the The Workplace Violence Prevention eReport.  The eReport requires a free subscription, which is painless enough to request.  What's more, subscribers to the eReport receive a promotional code for a free PDF version of Whitmore's book (and to think I paid cash for a copy printed on dead trees).  For some reason the review starts in the middle, so until that's fixed just follow the link to the complete text.  If for some reason you don't care to sign up for the eReport, I'll be posting the review here at The Breakfast next month.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Why we believe in the unbelievable...

In Supersense Canadian research psychologist Bruce Hood does a very thorough job explaining the way the human mind is inclined to attribute essence to inanimate objects or intentionality to mindless physical processes. To that end Supersense is about why we believe in one particular sort of unbelievable - our very natural intuition that unseen forces energize the natural world around us. This tendency explains both the earliest of religious notions - animism - and the slightly more modern concept of the mind-body duality held by both the conventionally religious and the proponent of new age spiritualism. It is not so broad a book as I had expected, but is, on balance, the better for having remained focused.  His newest book, The Self Illusion is on my Goodreads "to-read" list as well.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Some Ideas Are Just Better Than Others

Even if the title is none too clever...

While the FDA is fending off a DHS plan to deliver anti-anthrax medication to every household in America, the USPS is going to test a simpler, smarter idea very plainly titled "Operation Medicine Delivery" by delivering 37,000 empty pill bottles to selected ZIP codes.  Here's the blurb from the ECHO (Emergency & Community Health Outreach) Team

"On May 6 a government exercise called "Operation Medicine Delivery" could be happening in your neighborhood and the neighborhoods of the people your organization serves - help people be informed!

On Sunday, May 6, U.S. Postal Service volunteers will make an unusual delivery of an empty pill bottle in selected Twin Cities' neighborhoods. People living in ZIP codes 55101, 55102, 55411, and 55422 (parts of Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, and Crystal) may receive an empty pill bottle in their mailbox - that's approximately 37,000 residences.

The pill bottle delivery is part of "Operation Medicine Delivery," an exercise designed to see how fast postal teams can deliver medicine to homes in a simulated public health emergency. ECHO's role in this event is to make sure that non-English speaking residents of these ZIP codes get the information they need to understand what the test is and why it is happening.

To help with this, ECHO has created materials in four languages (English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali) including:

An Educational Video: These 3-4 minute videos will help community members learn more about the exercise. They are streamable online for free and are available on DVD upon request by emailing These videos are ideal for playing in waiting rooms and other public spaces. View them here.

An Outreach Flier: These fliers can be used to hand out at events, hang on community bulletin boards, distribute at community markets, and more. They can also be emailed to the mailing lists, clients, and staff in PDF form. View/download here.

A 5x7 Inch Advertisement: These advertisements can be used in print publications, posted online, in church bulletins, and more. Due to space limitations, they contain less information than the fliers. View/download here.

Translated Webpages: These webpages contain the video explaining the exercise, the information that is on the flier, as well as links to additional resources. View here.

A Pre-Event Audio Message: This is an audio version of the postcard residents will receive the week of May 1 explaining the exercise. Postcard recipients will see translated sentences directing them to ECHO's pre-recorded phone line (888.883.8831). Upon calling, listeners have the option to have the postcard read to them in either English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese, or Karen. Read scripts and listen to audio here.

Please help get this important information to households in these four ZIP codes! Spread the information in English and also pass along the translated materials to those that may better understand this information in their native language.

Contact to learn more about using these resources to communicate to the communities that your organization serves.

Thank you!

The ECHO Team"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Does This Strike Anyone Else As An Over-reaction?

At tale of two bomb scares...

Take One

This week Two World Financial Center, a 44 story, 2.4 million square foot office building in New York City, was completely evacuated because someone was concerned a gag hand grenade plaque might be a real grenade? Even if it were a real Mk2 hand grenade - which has a bursting radius of 10 meters - is dumping the entire building required?  How about simply clearing the floor where it was found? A "belt and suspenders type" could add the floor above it and below, but all 44 floors? Seems like a serious overabundance of caution by people who have seen one too many Hollywood special effects explosions on MacGyver.  At some point it seems we'd want to assess the risk that an evacuee will take a tumble, aggravate an existing medical condition, or die in a crush while evacuating an entire building due to the presence of a device - if it were real - intended to destroy a room.

Take Another

In Bomb Threats As a Denial-of-Service Attack Bruce Schneier and his minions have been examining the impact of the non-stop daily bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh over the past week.  My first comment went like so:

Back in the day some telephonic malefactor was shutting down one of our fabs with daily bomb threats. When a threat was received in the mid-afternoon the predictable effect of the company's standard response was to provide employees an extra long break and then dismiss them for the day with pay. Needless to say no device was ever found, not that you'd need much more than a blasting cap in the right place to conflagrate the usual semi-conductor manufactory. When the fab manager announced the next evacuation would compromise the week's production another response was implemented. [When the next call was received] the threat was described on the public address system inside the fab, staff members were asked to inspect their work area for any unusual or unexpected items, no suspicious packages were found, and work resumed. The threats stopped.

This week the reign of fearfulness at University of Pittsburgh continues and seems to be drawing out the copycats and other nutjobs. Perhaps it's time to quit evacuating before some loose screw attacks students at the rally points?  Will it take a student "sit-in," or a tuition-payers' class action suit, to break the cycle being perpetuated by the administration's reflexive response to the pranksters?

Somebody please let me know if I'm way out of calibration on these cases.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Latehomecomer

A Hmong Family Memoir...

We had the pleasure to meet Kao Kalia Yang at the 2010 Building Bridges Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College while our daughter Cassandra was an undergrad there.  As we listened to her read from her memoir The Latehomecomer I knew I would enjoy it.  Her story is at once foreign and familiar; who among us spent their childhood in a refugee camp, who has not loved their grandmother?  With a gentle, insistent voice that is as much poetry as prose she tells a story similar to those I've heard from my Hmong friends and colleagues.  If you'd like to become better acquainted with our Hmong neighbors here in the Upper Midwest, or want to see the New American experience through the eyes of a six year old, or simply wish to read an elegantly written, heartfelt memoir, The Latehomecomer is for you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hawley Channels His Inner Schneier

Bin Laden was bad, but Bruce was relentless...

In his recent Wall Street Journal essay Kip Hawley - former Transportation Security Agency administrator - sounds very much like is his former arch nemesis and voice of reason Bruce Schneier.  Bruce's followers noticed.  Bruce responded.

By the way, now that he's no longer head of the TSA, Kip has written a tell all book about what someone ought to do to fix his former agency.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bad Day on the Quad Revisited

The Reynoso Report is out...

The use of OC spray on passively resisting Occupy demonstrators at UC Davis in November 2011 certainly looked like the application of excessive force.  Seems a task force helmed by retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso agreed.

"Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly. The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented."

The report (the bulk of which the Kroll investigation contained in the appendix) is sharply critical of the administration and the police, but makes it clear that responsibility for the incident is shared by the trustees of the university, administrators, the chief of the police department, members of its command structure, and Lt. John Pike who actually pulled the trigger on the OC dispenser.

It was a bad day on the quad for everyone except the Occupy Movement, who scored a gratuitous public relations coup.  But it could have been worse.  Choreographing an appropriate response to passive resistance and civil disobedience is not an escalation of force issue.  It calls for cool heads and resolute hearts.  The situation could have gone very badly wrong - a Kent State sort of wrong, no thanks to the actions, inactions, abdications, and bad calls of those in authority at UC Davis that day.

In the words of Sgt. Esterhaus, "Let's be careful out there."

Image by Louise Macabitas

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Life on Mars After All?

What are the odds I'd regret skipping statistics sooner or later...

This has been covered pretty well in the various science blogs, but I find it fascinating.

Back in the middle 1970s Americans (okay, some Americans) followed the Viking 1 and Viking 2 robot spacecraft which landed on Mars in 1976.  We nerds were enthralled to hear that a test for biological processes tested "positive" in each of the landers' chemistry labs.  Reality intervened in short order as mission scientists and researcher in the field coalesced around a consensus that the positive result probably resulted from a chemical reaction that had nothing to do with the presence of life on the red planet.  Oh well, we'd have to wait for a manned mission, which us space junkies assumed would occur sometime in the early 1980s.  Hmmn.

Fast forward nearly four decades.  Plenty of neat rovers and an awesome Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but still no manned mission to Mars, or even a sample return mission.  Then some scientists took another look at the Viking Program data using advanced statistical techniques.  You know, the usual, "deep analysis of data structure along continua including signal vs. noise, entropy vs. negentropy, periodicity vs. aperiodicity, order vs. disorder using LZ complexity, Hurst exponents, Lyapunov exponents, Brock-Dechert-Scheinkman statistics, fractional correlation dimensions, etc."

In their paper Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments researchers Giorgio Bianciardi, Joseph D. Miller, Patricia Ann Straat, and Gilbert V. Levin argue, "if the LR gas evolution in the active experiments were entirely non-biological, it would sort with the other purely physical, rather than biological processes. In actuality, LR gas evolution in the active experiments sorted with the biological measures, while gas evolution controls (e.g. heat-sterilized) sorted with non-biological measures.  We believe that these results provide considerable support for the conclusion that the Viking LR experiments did, indeed, detect extant microbial life on Mars."

Well, it's not a manned mission, or even a sample return mission, but it's pretty cool.  Too bad there's no clue as to when we'll be visiting in person...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Trying to get "Ought" from "Is."

Sam Harris, the youngest of the four horsemen of the new atheist apocalypse, is playing with some interesting ideas "on the moral landscape."  Along the way he skewers several religions, some traditional religious concepts, and even a couple religionists.  He attracted the ire of theologians, philosophers of religion, philosophers, philosophers of science, and scientists alike for his proposal to apply consequentialism to morality by scientifically measuring the impact decisions have on the thriving of humans and other sentients. This book is not the most focused, but following Harris all over the place can be more enjoyable than reading lesser authors stick to their knitting.  Harris writes with sharp wit and wicked turns of phrase.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Definition of Eclectic

Sounds about right...

eclec·tic \e-ˈklek-tik


1: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles

2: composed of elements drawn from various sources; also : heterogeneous


: one who uses a method or approach that is composed of elements drawn from various sources : one who uses an eclectic method or approach

Image from

Saturday, April 7, 2012

From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution is strong piece of work...

Robert N. Bellah has assembled an imposing cathedral of a book, drawing, brick by brick, from cosmology, paleontology, archeology, biology, neurology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy, theology, politics, and literature to address the role of religion in human history.  I found it very challenging to read and remain engaged with - it took me five months to complete its 606 pages - but I think it will sink in and become part of my thinking on the issues examined.  Others were less stunned when they finished reading this masterwork have written elegantly about it.  


Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter, the In-group, and the Out-group

Sometimes Easter does not evoke foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies, pastel candy eggs, and marshmallow peeps...

It being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox it's the weekend of Christian Easter, and (by a related calculation) it's precursor, the Jewish Passover.  For many folks attending services Saturday or Sunday this will be one of those half dozen visits to their house of worship this year.  A blog post and subsequent comments at Homeland Security Watch, of all places, provoked me today.  It's worth a read, especially because it drew out a variety of responses and possible directions.  Here's the orbit it knocked me into.

There is certainly human wisdom to be found in many religions, but they are also repositories of human weakness. At their worst, religions represent the institutionalization of In-group Out-group distinctions. Fear of the Other is an instinct older than humankind, but we have outlived any selective advantage it once conferred. We must remember that for much of their histories the major monotheistic religions enforced their calls to universality and transcendence with the sword and with fire.

These past ten years our country's Global War on Terror has drawn its strength, funding, and authority from Fear of the Other. We have killed the innocent and betrayed our commitment to justice to defend the interests of those in authority. While doing so, these authorities cloaked killing, torture, and lies in the rhetoric of Fear of the Other. In our pride and conceit, with moral certitude that our cause is just and preeminent, we have made sharing a ride, or a meal, or a roof with a high value target a death sentence for many women and children, whose numbers go uncounted because they are Other.

Our taxicabs are driven, our meals are prepared, and our roofs are repaired by brown-skinned poor people who don't speak English very well.  Some Americans know their own and would rather these Other people not be here.  Alone among Western countries, in the USA the quality of our health care is determined by whether we have a job and by our ability to purchase benefits and pay deductibles.  There are Americans who think that is the way it should be, because they have theirs and the Others could have their own if only they worked hard enough.

When you celebrate the story of the angel of death passing over your home to instead kill other children is your faith community celebrating its In-Group status?  When you rejoice in your savior's victory over death (which should have been a forgone conclusion if the rest of the story is true) as proof that the only path to eternal salvation is to worship your particular god in your particular way have you drawn a line between Us and Them?

Image from

Thursday, April 5, 2012


It's like Facebook for people who read books...

Actually, GoodReads combines some of the friendlier features of the movie rating system used at NetFlix with Reading List by Amazon as found at LinkedIn.  Of course there's an app for that.  Anyway, you'll find my read, reading, and to read lists there.  Come join me.

Adjustments, Tweaks, Revisions, and Recissions

Change is the only constant...

After 425 posts I have again resorted the labels I use to describe my posts.  The list now comprises: civics, critical thinking, education, ethics, firearms, friends, history, humor, hunting, law, leadership, movies, outdoors, politics, religion, risk, science, security, service, and skepticism.  I could probably reduce the list further by merging more synonyms. 

Is civics as well described under ethics or leadership?

Is critical thinking the same as skepticism?

Is ethics a subset of leadership?

Must law have its own category?

Your ideas - for more words or fewer - are welcome.

Image found at

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wonderwerk Indeed

Our hominin ancestors used fire as much as 1 million years ago...

Microscopic examination of the floor of the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa has disclosed evidence that our hominin ancestors - Homo Erectus - deliberately used fire as much as 1 million years ago.  By some measures this is as much as 300,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The intentional use of fire marks a very important steps in our evolution.  In addition to deterring predators and aggressors, cooking over a fire created more nutritious food.  Better nutrition may have made possible bigger and better brains which enabled - or responded to pressures for - new skills, new dexterity, new tools, and new social structures.  Cooperation and planning required speech and social skills.  The protection of accumulated food may have been rewarded by sexual exclusivity.  Time spent tending the fire may have provided opportunities to demonstrate the making of tools, story telling, the creation of music and art, and the invention of ritual dance, features found in every human society since.

Monday, April 2, 2012

From Excellence to Excresence

From the Midwest Science of Origins Conference to Rebuilding the Foundation: Demolishing the Pillars of Evolution...

PZ Myers was disheartened to hear that while we were enjoying the MSOC, the unsuspecting people of Bemidgi, Minnesota, were mistreated to seven hours of intelligent design/young earth creationist (?!!) lectures.  I wrote as follows to the apparently credulous writer of an article on the meeting which appeared in the Bemidgi Pioneer.

"Dear Ms. Wesley,

Patrick Moynihan once said “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Creationists hold strong opinions based on fanciful (and by no means universal) interpretations of origin stories found in Hebrew, Christian and Muslim holy books; proponents of biological evolution present facts – in the form of provisional knowledge – derived from over four centuries of accumulated scientific progress.

"Penni Cairns...said students raised on Creationism concepts can be confused and frustrated with evolution theory teachings because their beliefs are shot down by teachers following educational guidelines."

Science teachers are not responsible for their students' confusion, their parents and pastors are. Creationism is a religious concept not a scientific one. It does nothing to prepare our children for the demanding disciplines of science, biology, physics, and math they need to make their way in the world.

"The inclusion of Intelligent Design in schools’ studies of life origins is overdue, said the superintendent of Bagley schools."

Superintendent Cairns should know that intelligent design was repudiated as a poorly concealed religious dogma in the Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. (400 F. Supp. 2d 707, Docket no. 4cv2688). It is illegal to teach intelligent design in the public school classroom.

Most surprisingly Drs. Morris and Jeanson seem to be arguing in favor of both intelligent design and young earth creationism. These are conflicting concepts among the myriad sects of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. I wouldn’t expect you to know this without advance study, but the presenters at “Rebuilding the Foundation: Demolishing the Pillars of Evolution” certainly should.

This weekend my kids and I attended the excellent Midwest Science of Origins Conference at the U of M – Morris.  Among the many fine talks we heard was a lecture by Dr. Neil Shubin, the paleontologist whose team discovered the important transitional fossil, Tiktaalik Roseae, in the Canadian Arctic, precisely where the science suggested it would be found. The story is also told in his book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.  I commend it to you if you are interested in learning more about the marvels of human evolution as illuminated by modern science.

Be well."

We shall see if Ms. Wesley has anything to say in response.

UPDATE: Never heard from her...quelle surprise

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Midwest Science of Origins Conference 2012

What a fine gathering of thoughtful, interesting, and engaged people...

Daughter Cassandra and I drove three hours Friday afternoon to join son Erik in Morris, Minnesota, for the MSOC.

Friday evening featured a nice lecture by PZ Myers titled The Evolution of Creationism.  Given his strong feelings on the topic PZ really was very, very nice as he reviewed the development of Young Earth Creationism over the course of the 20th century.

After PZ's talk Cassie, Erik, and I took the Dob to a dark spot just out of town for a look at Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and the moon.  The sky was just a touch hazy, but the kids were impressed with the five-inch Bushnell.  They look forward to enjoying it at their grandparents' lake cabin this summer.

On Saturday came the bulk of the program.

Professor Marco Peloso gave a very engaging lecture on what we know (and how we know it) about the evolution of the universe since the first second after the Big Bang.  Dr. Peloso has a very engaging style and made all attendees comfortable by the grace with which he entertained questions from the audience.

The organizers then led break-out sessions, which they called the World Café, in which attendees were invited to express their reasons for coming to MSOC and their thoughts regarding the role of science in modern society.

In the down time between sessions Cassie enjoyed Craig Ferguson's memoir American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.  Having left my current read in the motel, I read the first book of the Koran on my iPhone. Yes, there's an app for that.

After lunch we retired to the Morris Area High School auditorium where Neil Shubin PhD gave a fascinating review of his team's discovery of Tiktaalik Roseae in the Canadia Arctic, right where the science told them it should be.  He was signing his book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey in to the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, but alas, while its on my Goodreads to-read list, I do not yet own a copy for him to inscribe and the campus bookstore was closed Saturday.  Dr. Shubin's presence resulted in positive local media coverage in the  Morris Sun Tribune.

Having been told about our inner fish, Dr. Michael Wilson reminded us of our inner ape.  He reminded us that our nearest cousins share many of our finer qualities as well as our baser instincts.

The presentations ended with a talk by Professor Dan Demetriou and student Miles Taylor in which they discussed an idea they're developing for publication.  They propose adding Honor Ethos to the Jonathan Haidt's six moral foundations.  I look forward to following the evolution of their idea.

The day's talks concluded, many of us rolled over to Old No. 1 for beer, burgers, and spirited follow-on conversations, especially about the Wilson and Demetriou talks, at least at our end of the table, which is where the good doctors were sitting.  Also at our end of the table was Brianne Bilyeu, blogger of Biodork and Minnesota Skeptics fame.

On Sunday Cassie and Erik planned to play a round of disc golf at Pomme de Terre park while I attended the final lecture of the conference by Chris Stedman and participated in a service project.  Unfortunately, my Sunday morning sleep-in was interrupted by a call from the office and we had to drive home earlier than anticipated.

The first annual Midwest Science of Origins Conference was a wonderful achievement for its student organizers, especially considering their minuscule budget.  They should be very proud of what they accomplished.  We're already looking forward to next year.  Well done, Morris Freethinkers, well done!

Photo credit: