Sunday, March 27, 2011

Steam of Life

On August 2, 2011, POV will be showing Steam of Life.  Yes, I want to see it. 

Myers and Coyne on belief in God

I am late to the game, as most of this was discussed late last year by Zara and Myers, and rehashed by Grayling, Dawkins, and Coyne this month.  But I'll weigh in, or rather simply review the arguments put forth so far, on the question: “What would it take to convince us of the existence of the supernatural?”  Steve Zara wrote:
But how can we non-believers accept something as evidence when that “evidence” is supposed to point to something which is beyond logic, beyond rules? What does “evidence” even mean in such a situation? ...This astonishing complexity of God adds yet another barrier to evidence, as literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world.
When thinking about this question yesterday, I also arrived at this conclusion.  If evidence is something you can understand, but God transcends understanding, then he also transcends evidence.  Hence, no evidence for God is possible.  But this is just a silly game of logic.  Zara continues:
The idea of evidence for miracles being taken seriously was shown to be unreasonable by David Hume centuries ago...
While Coyne sets his position as opposing that of Myers and Zara on the question of evidence for God, I think when it comes to Hume's quote they do agree.  This is the common ground they share.  Hume wrote:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Zara and Coyne both refer to Hume as correct on this issue, Coyne wrote:
To take Hume’s view, when the probability of that evidence adducing a god exceeds the probability that it’s either a trick or due to some unexplained natural process, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept a god. 
Coyne, defending his scientific integrity, states this is a possibility, but Zara and Myers do not.  I think it is because they take one extra step that Coyne doesn't when Zara writes, following Hume's argument to its natural conclusion "literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world".  The possiblity of it is so remote, it has passed the vanishing point.  But can't we all be happy that we agree with Hume? 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spectacular bats

Darren Naish has written a very interesting series of blog posts on the subject of bats, and if you haven't been following them there is one picture from the series that is surely a contender for the most beautiful bat.  It is a picture of a "painted bat", Kerivoula picta

This pattern appears influenced by body temperature, like the pattern seen in Siamese cats, region of the body that are cooler have darker pigmentation.  It is notable that this is a rather detailed pattern for such a small animal as K. picta is really quite small.  Myotis hermani is also similarly patterned, apparently. And so is Lasiurus borealis, the red bat, whose small face looks like a bat version of Pikachu. 

A few months ago I speculated about the possiblity of "seabats" here.  I just learned that such creatures do exist.  From a post in the series on bats Naish writes:
The foot claws of some species - most notably the Fishing bat Myotis vivesi - are extremely impressive or totally ridiculous, depending on your opinion. In case you didn't know, this bat (unique to the coasts of the Gulf of California) fishes at sea - a pretty incredible bit of behaviour that has led some biologists to describe it as an honorary marine mammal.
Recently I also came across an old photo of a bat about to eat a frog.  Were I to title it, I'd call it "death by winged teeth":

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

3/11 before and after photos

Update:  As of 3/27/11 detailed images of the affected areas of Japan after 3/11 are now available on Google Earth. I have not included any of these here however.

The impact of the 3/11 Japan earthquake and tsunami was extensive.  Searching online and using Google Earth I was able to find a few before and after photos of the region surrounding the ceramic workshop.  While the before images contain photos of the workshop, the after images unfortunately are of regions within a mile of the workshop, but do not show the workshop and only structures and areas nearby.  Please click on the images as they link to much larger pictures with greater detail.  This workshop lies about 47 miles from Fukushima I nuclear power plant. By far, the most widely circulated image of Iwanuma after 3/11 is a picture of the coast looking toward the south with Abukuma river in the upper quarter of the picture and the tsunami rushing ashore. 

The red arrow indicates the workshop with outbuildings (white and blue roofs), this is before 3/11. 
Zooming out of the above photo, the workshop is in upper left.
This is after 3/11.  The workshop is just barely outside the left of the frame; making it clear that it was affected by the tsunami. 
Another aerial view of Abukuma river before 3/11, workshop is at far left center.

Image of Abukuma river after 3/11. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The why of goals

A fatalistic/pessimistic person might ask: "Why do any of this?"  To such a person I would reply: Not because it is needed, wanted, or deserving.  But because having goals is a part of life, I chose these over others as they seemed most appropriate.  In short I do this because, after some consideration, it seems appropriate.  In the human condition, without full knowledge or control, this may be the best conclusion, and ultimate justification, one can arrive at.  There are days when I feel like a leaf caught in the current of a mighty river.  I know how I got here, and I have an idea of where I am going, but altering my course seems more of an illusion I create for myself than a real possibility.  And though I may know where I am headed, I do not know how long it will take or if I will ever get there! 

One may still ask:  Why are these goals appropriate, and not some others?  I'd like to think I am qualified and capable of making that determination; I have the average fund of knowledge for a person of my age and social position, which is unsurprising according to the mediocrity principle.  PZ Myer wrote a good essay about this principle, which reminds me of the Doctrine of the Mean in Chinese philosophy.  I should also add that, consciously or not, I often apply several tests to justify appropriateness, perhaps the most important is "does it benefit my children?" 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The cathartic use of sauna

Of the recreational interests I have pursued that have stuck with me for a long time, I think many have a cathartic function in the sense that they relieve stress by allowing me to experience suffering in a form that is healthier because it is easier to address.  Exercise, like riding a bike, is not just about looking at the scenery, it is also about pushing my physical endurance to its limits.  A runner thrills at testing her stamina to see how long she can persevere before giving up.  (Unfortunately, more often the runner's body fails before her stubborn resolve.)  Tests of physical ability and stamina are varied, and can even involve forms of deprivation; this is because self-control is synonymous with stamina.  My interest in saunas is no different.  For some people, or at least myself, the mild suffering of enduring the high temperature and humidity inside a sauna before re-emerging into the cool outdoor air is very cathartic.  And honestly, it is a stretch to describe the experience of a good sauna as coming anywhere near "suffering."  Coincidentally, from Wikipedia I learned:  catharsis is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."  A sauna can help purge physical and mental stress from your body, while purging your skin of toxins.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japan earthquake

At three in the morning on March 11, 2011, Alaska time, the world changed for my wife and I.  When she woke up that morning a short message from her sister said that they were okay, but her father's workshop was gone (for an independent ceramic artist it is an irreplaceable loss).  This was among other messages from concerned friends.  At six in the morning she came to my bed crying and shared the news: an earthquake off the coast of Sendai.  The little news we had didn't all quite sink in for me then, it was surreal.  Later that day as I was heading to work, I heard the news over the radio, it gave me goose bumps, then as the announcer described details of the loss of life and property the reality of it all hit me and I began to cry.  March 11 was a day of crying for anyone who is close to anyone affected by that earthquake.  For those directly affected, I am sure many other strong emotions were felt as well, fear being foremost. 

I have been to Sendai three times visiting family members there.  The first time was before I was married, the second time was after I was married, and the third time I returned was after my wife and I had two small children.  The family we have there are very kind and generous, and it was a beautiful city.  But now it is the center of a national disaster, a disaster that the world is responding to.  A disaster that is still going on - the most pressing concern is evacuation as the meltdown of a nuclear power plant looms.  Now it is time for us to be generous. 

Two days before the earthquake I spoke briefly to my mother-in-law on the phone.  Her English is better than my Japanese.  My wife later returned her call and learned that there had been some bad news from the family, but things were on the mend.  Why the earthquake occurred later that week, I don't know.  But it mirrors the pattern in nature: several smaller earthquakes foreshadowed the coming of the large 8.9 earthquake.  If there was ever a time I wished I had the ability to predict the future, I wish I could have predicted this.  The night before the earthquake was the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis in Fairbanks that I had seen all winter. 

I have been trying to tally up the personal loss that affects us alone.  My wife's parents face starting over in life when most people their age would be starting or already enjoying their retirement.  My wife's sister, her husband, and their three children face unknown dangers in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  Friends that we know in the area have certainly lost all their possessions, some perhaps their lives.  Some have seen their houses literally float away.  Places where we have been are gone, buildings, parks, roads, shops, the school my wife attended as a child, maybe the graveyard where her family members are buried.  These are only memories now that we have in our photos and videos.  But for my wife's parents, if their records of the past are gone, their memories may only exist in their minds.  In only a few minutes nature dramatically demonstrated the ultimate transience of human life and accomplishments.  Now that the past is gone, the future has never been less certain.

Update 3/14/11:
My wife's sister has electricity and her cell phone is working. She posted 22 photos to her facebook page. While the workshop is still standing, and in better condition than we had first feared, it is leaning dangerously to the side and her parents are working daily to remove items as aftershocks periodically continue to be felt. The family is still okay as food and water are available. The biggest concern remains the nuclear power plants. Warnings not to go outside when it rains have been put in effect.

leaning workshop
same workshop; view from chimney corner in above photo
interior of workshop

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Finnish Sauna

I've read through John Virtanen's 1974 book The Finnish Sauna: Peace of Mind, Body, and Soul.  This is the oldest sauna book I have seen.  The chapter organization seems a little disjointed and the book itself seems a collection of information that could benefit from the attention of a good editor.  It begins with a semi-autobiographical story of his youth and saunas in Finland, moves to a description of the historical role of saunas, and ends with descriptions of the current place of saunas in society and provides some practical construction details.  His recommendations for a "typical wall section" appear much the same as one would see today. 

The author appears to be promoting quality designed electric saunas as the safest and most affordable type.  Virtanen cautions about poisonous charcoal fumes or propane fumes from poorly operated or designed saunas of either type, and criticizes ineffectively designed electric stoves as well.  Otherwise, he has many good things to say about the traditional wood heated sauna.  Describing saunas in Siberia he writes "Log saunas throughout Russia are built of timber... a flat roof is made of turf over the round timbers."  This reminds me of Alvar Aalto's sauna I encountered earlier while reading Nordskog's book.  On page 125 is pictured an old shed roofed log sauna on the Karelian Isthmus that could easily be mistaken as a prototype for Aalto's design. The many black and white photos and pictures throughout the book are one of its best attributes. 

Virtanen states a humidity of 1.20 ounces of water vapor by weight per pound of air is the technical suggestion, but offers a simple rule of thumb that anyone can gauge, somewhere between "dry" and "steamy" is best [183].  He later writes [205]:
The main requirement of the Finnish sauna is that it create bathing conditions which cause the bather to perspire freely.  These conditions include the regulation of temperature, humidity and ventilation... The sauna should have an invigorating, rejuvenating, and tempering effect, while cleansing the body, refreshing the spirit and giving the feeling of complete well-being which is always the result of a good sauna.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Opposite of Cold

I recently received Michael Nordskog's book The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition via ILL from my local library. This is a beautiful book published in 2010 that should appeal to architecture buffs as much as sauna afficionados. At the outset Nordskog states that his book does not address building techniques, health benefits, or even the proper way to enjoy the Finnish bath. This disclaimer is a bit of false modesty, as he does have something to say at least about the last point a few lines later. The best way to introduce someone new to the sauna experience is to "extend the common courtesy that the person with the least experience controls the vital production of loyly by throwing water on the rocks" [3] and, by extension, we could say the same of the temperature of the sauna itself. Impressing the inexperienced with one's ability to suffer exposure to searing heat would simply forever discourage the uninitiated from a healing practice [4, 101].

Nordskog highlights a number of very beautiful saunas. Pictures of saunas from Muurame Saunakyla (sauna village) are beautiful, and the architect Alvar Aalto's sauna at Muuratsalo on Lake Paijanne is probably the most beautiful sauna I have ever seen. Before looking through the pages of this book, I had no idea the extent to which architects have elevated the art of sauna construction. Another amazing sauna is David Salmela's Emerson sauna, which has recieved national recognition by architectural organizations. And I particularly enjoyed the interview with Daryl Lamppa, owner of Kuuma Stoves. I have heard great things about his stoves and am considering buying one of them.

If I had one criticism for the book it would be to include a glossary of Finnish words used throughout the text. I learned that tikku is the word for the eye stinging gases that come off a fire [177].  Overall, this is a great book that really made me appreciate the Northwoods country. Now I would like to visit areas such as Thompson Island in Lake Superior. Perhaps the most whimsical and lovely part of the book is the picture of Tove Janssen's Moomin character sitting beside a sauna [78]. When I build my sauna, I will incorporate these ideas into my design in at least some small way.

(See this recent interview with the author; and a video interview.)