Friday, November 13, 2009

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Once a philosophical problem, with the emergence (no pun intended) of evolutionary biology, the issue of whether there was first a chicken or an egg is more easily explained. 

Now a team made up of a geneticist, philosopher and chicken farmer claim to have found an answer. It was the egg.
Put simply, the reason is down to the fact that genetic material does not change during an animal's life.

So at some point in time, two creatures which we'd probably say were chickens, and yet were not quite exactly chickens, got together one evening for some cross-species chicken sex, and the result of that happy union was the egg of a chicken.

That's not quite the whole story though. What was required for chickens to become chickens, rather than just mutants of some species they evolved or diverged from, was a 'speciation' event. A bunch of our newly created chickens would wander off from the crowd one day, only be to separated from them, forever by some drastic event. Perhaps they just got lost, or there was a rock fall, volcanic eruption or flood. Whatever happened, a bunch of 'chickens' which were possibly half red junglefowl and half grey junglefowl, did split up and become chickens.

So science says it was the egg!

While scientists had to go the trouble of figuring this all out, biblical scholars merely have to read the bible for the answer. And fortunately their God does deliver on this occasion, almost...

The Bible: Genesis 1:20-22

Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” 21 So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”

So it sounds like, from the text, like he didn't just put a bunch of bird eggs on the Earth and wait for them to hatch. That would have been, well, boring. Far more God-like is it not, for them to just suddenly appear, mid-flight? Hopefully these newly created birds knew how to fly already. It would have been an unhappy day if they all plummeted to the ground and died.

But actually, if I did look to the bible to confirm anything, I'd be a bit disappointed by this, since it doesn't explicitly state that he didn't just leave the chicken eggs lying around and wait for them to hatch. It just makes it seem likely. Oh well.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Eden and the Fall of Man. Part 1, Milton and Paradise Lost

This last year (2009) in my fairly random reading, I came across a the story of the Garden of Eden a number of times, and for the first time became interested in the story. To be more exact I became more interest in the telling of the story; where did it come from, what does it mean to different people. As an atheist brought up in a Church of England family and school, I'd not had any real interest in it before. In these blog posts I'll review all the places the story showed up this year, and discuss some fascinating insights people have had about the origin and meaning of the story of Adam and Eve.

One caveat; I'm writing this for fun because I enjoyed it. I am not an expert on English literature or the Bible, and most of this is probably wrong. But it is a collection of personal thoughts that I didn't want to forget.

In the beginning I was looking for something interesting to listen to on my commute to work, and found that Yale University have online course material that any idiot can download. So I did. Pretty much at random I chose a course on the English poet John Milton and really enjoyed the lectures by John Rogers [here]. From there I began also reading Paradise Lost as well as some of Milton's less epic poetry.

John Milton

Milton was the son of a wealthy man (a respected professsional who would have been a combination of todays money lender, notary public, and contract lawyer). Sent to a private school, St. Pauls, and then to Cambridge, University, it would have been expected that he would go enter the clergy, where he would have lived a comfortable and privileged life. He had other ideas however, and from early on his life he decided he would be the greatest English poet, and devoted himself to that task. In much of his early work he seems to defending this decision, as perhaps he had to defend it to his father, who supported him financially.

Before Paradise lost was written, in the middle of the 17th century, King Charles was becoming somewhat of a tyrant. In addition by marrying a Catholic he was bring the Church of England close to the Catholic Church than the general population of England would like. This lead to the Civil War and the eventual execution of Charles. Milton played his part in this, both before and after the revolution and eventual rexicide, which he implicitly supported in his publications.

Though the civil war was a success and England became a republic, Oliver Cromwell died of illness in 1958. England became unstable again, and by 1960 the monarchy was reinstated. Milton was imprisoned and could well have been executed for his part in the civil war, but was released due to his influential friends.

As he wrote Paradise Lost, Milton had become blind and had married a woman from Wistaston in Cheshire (which incidentally was the town I first lived in).

Paradise Lost

Milton had planned to write the story of King Arthur in his bid to become England's greatest poet, but chose instead to tell the story of Adam and Eve. The story begins with Satan, who is a powerful, charismatic and vivid character in the poem. He is with the fallen angels who have had a civil war of their own against God, and lay broken and bruised in the depths of hell. A debate ensues, about how best to react... to lay in Hell, hoping for eventual forgiveness, or to try and fight back. Satan comes up with the idea of finding, and corrupting, Adam and Eve. This, they all agree, is the way to get revenge on God for their humiliating defeat. "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in heav'n" Satans journey out of Hell as he seeks Eden is arduous and horrific, some of things that happen on the way out would be perfectly at home in a Clive Barker book.

The Biblical Adam and Eve, as you probably know, lived a simple and immortal life of abundence. They were innocent of all evil and had nothing to fear, so long as they obeyed God's law not to eat from the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge, which would mean death.

Satan arrives in Eden and, disguised as a Serpent, is able to convince Eve to eat from the from the tree. Appealing to her pride and vanity, he also tells her that the tree of knowledge will boost her intellect. After all if it can give a simple snake the ability to speak, imagine how much wiser she could become.

She goes to Adam and tells him what she's done. He is initially angry but decides that if she is going to die then he will too, so he also eats from the tree. They both now know shame and fear, and walk hand in hand out of the garden of Eden to begin their new lives. There's an oddly hopeful feeling to the end of the book.

Milton and freedom

Milton was against the tyranny of Charles I because he believed in freedom, and in elected officials. I like to think that in Paradise Lost Milton was rooting for the bad guys, the oppressed. Satan is not portrayed as character devoted to causing harm and evil for no purpose. He's an intelligent and complex creature, driven by pride and vanity. Eve is not stupid or week minded, but instead is driven by the desire for knowledge. Is it better to be happy and ignorant, or to pursue all the knowledge you can, no matter what the cost?

God in this story is the bad guy. He places the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden for no good reason other than for man to fall. Whether he is all-knowing and knew they would take the apple, or whether man actually has free will and chose to take it, it still seems like a cruel game to play.

The story seems to mirror Milton's own experience with the civil war. His hope as the King was over thrown and replaced with a peoples government. Perhaps he expected a Utopia as his dreams of a monarchy free country were realized. Then the few years of freedom from monarchy that the English people enjoyed, followed by the restoration and the disappointment he must have felt.

Some of Milton's opponents, and perhaps he himself, thought this his blindness was a punishment from God for supporting the regicide and being on the eventual losing side fo the civil war. There are references to darkness and blindness in the hell of Paradise Lost.

That's all for this post, there will be a few more to follow all on the same theme.

Godel, Escher, Bach and Incompleteness

Earlier this year I came across a book called "Proust and the Squid" which I reviewed a few posts ago. That book started me on the thread of Gödel and his incompleteness theorem, and I read a book on that "Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel", which lead me to "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid".

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in mathematics and AI. Hofstadter covers a wide range of topics, and he's very good at explaining things, using diagrams, Socratic dialogue, and exercises for the reader. He describes in great detail, and from first principles, a number theory he calls Typographical Number Theory, and with that and other devices he explains Incompleteness theorem. In addition there are great swathes of information about how genetics works at the cell level, knowledge representation, in particular hierarchical. Also, of course, there's plenty of information about Bach (and Fugues) and Escher from the title. In regards to the rest of the post, this book is interesting because it's really about the mind. About how it emerges from simple low level processes, and how at the highest level (our own stream of consciousness), we don't need to know about neurons firing and so on because we're essentially the software running on the hardware.

As an aside I found it both fascinating and sad that Bach's last composition included his name as possibly the last four notes he wrote: BACH (I know there's no H in the musical scale, but in German there is).

This is a book you could spend a lot of your life obsessing over, as it is filled with mystery's and difficult exercises for the reader. But even if you just rush through it like I did, enjoying some parts and being utterly baffled by others, you will find much to enjoy I am sure.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overheard on the West Coast Express

Announcer: "Could you please make sure you stay behind the yellow line. Especially the woman in a red dress, about 1 carriage down from the front. You were in the danger zone lady"

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jamie's Food Revolution

Got this neat book for my birthday. I've made my first meal from it, as seen below. Pretty terrible photograph as I couldn't wait to eat it but it was good.

Classic Tomato Pasta

From 2009_09_21

The recipe is from the pasta section. Jamie's revolution is to teach more people to cook proper meals, so you're supposed to make a few recipes from the book and teach them to someone else. I wonder if a blog post counts? Well I guess not since I probably can't reproduce it here anyway or I'll get sued, but it's well worth buying the book.

I made a couple of changes; I increased the amount of garlic from 2 cloves to 8, since the garlic we get here in Vancouver is pretty mild. Also I put a lot less chile pepper in (the recipe says 1 fresh red chile) because the pepper I had was a very hot green fellow!

Jamie's massive amount of enthusiasm, for not just cooking and food, but also for inspiring people to cook and to eat better, comes through loud and clear in the recipes. I love this book and I'm looking forward to the next recipe I try!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

District 9

Pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed District 9. I knew it was going to be a somewhat unique sci-fi movie just from the trailers and viral ads, but I was so pleased about how different it was.

Charismatic, noble, intelligent, and paternal. These aren't typical qualities you're confronted with when watching a typical hollywood bug hunt. Not since ET have I really cared about the Aliens in the story.

The combination of the low fidelity camera work, the lack of music, the gritty portrayal of Joburg and the documentary style first person made the story real for me.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Last Chance to See, the TV version

Couple of nice pictures from my weekend trip to Victoria, BC's capital city.

I must get around to watching the TV programme based on the Douglas Adam's book "Last Chance to See". The book is one of my favourite, and sadly since it came out two decades ago the Yangtse river dolphin, one of the endangered creatures in the book, has indeed gone extinct.

Stephen Fry stars in the made for TV version, and as such is going to be fantastic.

Just made Indian Dahl Soup as my mother is visiting from England. So nice when a guest asks for seconds, especially when it's one of my favourite things to cook. I made a big pot of it and it's all gone. I should really post a picture of it sometime; in the meantime enjoy this version of the recipe that someone lifted from the book I found it in.

And the original book:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Curries

Two (very similar) curries I made this week.

Chicken Curry With Green Peas And Yellow Peppers

From Tale of two curries

This recipe makes a medium spiced curry, so use less Madras if you don't like it hot, or more if you do. The yellow peppers are sweet and add juiciness to the dish, whilst the green peas add some texture and, well, greenness. The coconut milk makes it slightly creamy and the coconut flavour really adds something (in fact may be nice to add some grated coconut to this!)

What you need

3-4 chicken breasts, skinned and washed
1 Yellow pepper
Fistful of frozen peas
1 Medium onion
3 Cloves of garlic
4 tsp Hot Madras curry powder
2 tsp ginger powder or sliced fresh ginger
1 cup Vegetable stock (or a sodium free stock cube and a cup of water)
1 cup of basmati rice
2 tbsp Olive oil
1/2 can of Coconut milk
salt and pepper

What you do

Make some rice at the same time (see the end of the post if you don't know how to do that).

Get a frying pan, add some of the oil and heat it until it's steaming and the chicken would sizzle if you put it in. Use a pair of scissors or sharp knife to cut the Chicken into generous sized chunks, then dump them in there. Make sure it doesn't burn, by turning it and turning the heat down if need be, but you want the chicken to be seered so it keeps it's juices. After a few minutes, the chicken should be white all over, and possibly a bit brown in places, now you can turn the pan down and let it cook for 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile you coarsely chop the onion, wash and chop the yellow pepper, peel and chop the garlic and slice as thinly as possible.

Now remove the chicken from the pan, and remove excess fat, and put the pan back on the heat. Add the onions and peppers and cook until soft. Just before they're ready add the garlic, but careful not to brown it.

Add the chicken again.

Now mix the Madras powder and ginger with the stock in a jug, stir it up really well and add it to the frying pan. Turn the heat up to nearly high, let it al l boil and then turn it down so it simmers. Add the frozen peas and do the same again, boil it, then turn it down so it's happily simmering.

Stir it now and then to make sure everything is mixed up and getting the same amount of heat. Leave it cooking for about 5 minutes then pour in the Coconut milk and stir that around, leave it cooking for another 4-5 minutes. Should be pretty much done! Serve with Basmati rice.

Super-fast Vegetable Curry (15 minutes, 10 if you have microwave rice and you're super fast)

From Tale of two curries

Vegetable curries are lower fat than meaty ones, the washing up is easier, and they're healthier for your heart. I liven this one up with a dollop of fresh yoghurt on the side.

What you need

Pretty much any vegetables, but in this case:
3 medium carrots
1/3 of a cauliflower
1 medium broccoli
Frozen sweet corn
1 medium onion
3 cloves of garlic
Small bunch of of fresh Coriander, chopped (Cilantro)
2 tsp Hot Madras curry powder
1 tsp ginger powder or sliced fresh ginger
1 cup Vegetable stock (or a sodium stock cube and a cup of water)
1 cup of basmati rice (if you're really in a hurry get some microwavable rice)
2 tbsp Olive oil
1 tin salt free chopped tomatoes
Optionally: splash lemon juice, red wine
salt and pepper

What you do

OK I said it was super fast; I made this when I came home from work one day and wanted to eat very soon. I usually boil vegetables, the carrots take a good 15-18 minutes, so to get the time down I sliced the carrots and steamed them in the microwave (3 minutes, 3 tbsp of water, wrap in cling film tight).

Stick a frying pan on between medium and high and coarsly chop the onion and stick it in there with 2 tbsp olive oil, and sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Stir it so it doesn't burn and fry until soft. Meanwhile peel the garlic and slice it thinly as possible. Turn the onions down when they're almost done and add the garlic, turn the hear down to medium, you don't want to over cook the garlic.

Add the carrots to the frying pan, then wash the broccoli and cauliflower and cut into mini florettes. Put these under cling film like the carrots and microwave those for 3 minutes too).

Mix the curry powder and vegetable stock in a jug then pour over the vegetables in the pan, then add the tin of tomatoes. Bring it to the boil, wait a bit. When it's nearly done a few minutes later chop and add the fresh coriander and stir in. Serve with plain yoghurt and basmati rice.

Cooking rice in super easy, works every time, kinda way... (we hope)

From Tale of two curries

Put some water in a large pan for the rice, you'll need one with a lid. You want exactly 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring it to the boil, add 1 cup of rice and bring it to the boil again, then turn down to about medium, stick the lid on it, and forget about it for about 16 minutes. Then it will be done.

Microwave rice - The packet has instructions. Duh!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Funny white men with big noses, Blankets and Belly Buttons

I've been reading a few graphic novels this year, and I'll cover a few briefly here.

Bottomless Belly Button

This is a lovely fat comic book, over 700 pages, but much of the story is portrayed eloquently with pictures, and there is little dialogue, so this is a quick read. The main story is of a married couple breaking up after decades of marriage, which to them seems natural if sad, but to their oldest son seems traumatic and affects him deeply. Inviting the family to join them for perhaps one last family reunion, they announce the divorce.

My favourite character is the youngest son, Peter. An awkward geeky kid, portrayed with a frogs head, literally, emphasising perhaps that he feels different and exposed in a world where everyone else seems to be confident and cool. He has his first sexual relationship with a young woman he meets on the beach near his parents house, and comes of age belatedly.

It's an engaging and charmingly told story and definitely worth reading.



Blankets is in a very similar vein to Bottomless Belly Button, covering coming of age and first love in much the same way, but capturing and conveying the emotions of that time extremely well. Craig Thompson wrote this autobiographical account of growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, making it a very person and vivid story.

He has certainly captured the joy and magic of first love, and of finding a special person to sneak away from the world with, which they do quite literally in the story. The Blanket from the title, a gift from his girl, is like a symbol of the warmth and comfort they give each other.

Sometimes the art itself tells the story, as the size of the panels grows to emphasise the emotions of the characters. For example, when he is driving away from her after a long visit, knowing his heart will be breaking in two, there's a beautiful full page image showing the world as if rent in two, with the family car plummeting off the edge into the void. Great stuff.


Bone (Parts 1 - 9)

I picked book one of Bone up on a recommendation by a friend, and read it to my son at bedtimes. We soon got hooked and bought the whole series. It's a fun adventure, originally drawn in black and white, but coloured and printed in great glossy pages.

Bone and his cousins, the only funny looking Smurf characters in the story, had to flee their home, Boneville, due to the illegal antics of his cousin. Arriving in a mysterious valley they wind up in an unravelling adventure.

This story is filled with slap stick humour, the bad guys rarely hurt anything but their own pride. There are a few scenes I had to read over and over to my son as he hooted with laughter, much as I often play the same Road Runner cartoons to him twenty or thirty times.

There's plenty of depth to the story however, and it gets dark in places. Never really straying far from the Asterix the Gaul comic violence, yet always thoughtful and and with an authentic vibe.

Although I bought this to read to my seven year old son, it's certainly something I'd have read to myself.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Zombies to Milton

So far this year, in what I've been reading, story of creation in Genesis, human freedom, Zombies, Milton, Revolution and Godels incompleteness theorem, have all woven themselves into a colourful tapestry of ideas and themes which I'd love to be able to express.

This blog entry will be the start of trying to do that, beginning with a quick review of a book on Godel's theory by Margerat Goldstein.

"Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel"

Kurt Godel is the kind of guy you think of when you think of a mad mathematician. He's reclusive, uncomfortable in public and not at all patient when dealing with people with less intelligence, which is almost everybody. One of his best friends in life was Einstein, who he often walked with while at Princeton. Indeed, Einstein was one of his few intellectual equals, and he once surprised the physicist on his birthday with a reformulation of his relativity theory that allowed for time travel. Einstein also drove Godel to his citizenship test in the US, where Godel worried him by pointing out he had found a flaw in the constitution of that country that could make the whole government illegal. Despite Einstein's warning not to, Godel illucidated this theory of his to the examiner in his test. Luckily it did not count against him and he became a US citizen.

This book explores the beginning of his intellectual life in an elitist intellectual club known as the Vienna Circle. The story then discuess his move to Princeton before the second world war. Although not Jewish, he was eligible for conscription to the German army, and through being stubborn and difficult he very nearly did not make it to the US to work there.

An amusing part of the story is when Godel presented his paper at a European conference and it was almost completely ignored. Only a single person there understood the great significance of the theory; John von Neumann.

Although a book like this can't hope to teach all the mathematics you need to understand a complex paper like the two proofs of incompleteness, from my layman view it certainly seemed to present a tangible feel for how Godel developed the proof, and what it consisted of.
People looking for a deeper understanding may want to check out "Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" which I will talk about in another post.

The Vienna Circle represented the philosophy that experience is the only valid source of knowledge, and that only formal logic can be used to manipulate this knowledge to study philisophy. Although a member of the group, Godel did not share their views. Although his proof is a magnificent piece of work in formal logic, what he achieved was to show that not everything we can know can be produced in such a system. His later life was spent studying Liebniz, looking for clues in the work of that great genius, for how human knowledge differed from knowledge that was entirely empirical or generated mechanically from a formal system.

Sadly he became very paranoid in later life and shut out everybody, eventually starving himself to avoid being poisoned by his imagined enemies. This paranoia was no doubt caused by some mental illness, but seemed to reflect the the intellectual loneliness he suffered both in Vienna and in Princeton.

To summarise Goldstein takes us on a tour that explores Godel's life in a way that is very accessible and highly interesting, yet still apparently with plenty of depth.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: Proust and the Squid. Processing: A guide for designers.

"Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists"

In the words of the website

"Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions."

This is a great book about Processing. Written for non-programmers, it explores the things you can do with Processing. Each section starts with a selection of cool things that artists or designers have made, including many colour pictures of them, then shows you how to use some part of Processing. This is a nice format for practical books on programming environments. It gives you something to be inspired or excited about, then gives you the tools to do it.

Processing is a brilliantly simple programming environment for creating interactive artwork, and this book is a fun and authorative.


"Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain", Maryanne Wolf

I can't remember if it was the intriguing title, or the promised topics of this book that made me pick it up. Unfortunately, I found the book dissapointing. I was hoping to learn, as an aside, about Proust, or the neurology of the squid, in a Steven Pinker style exploration of the science of reading.

The book felt somewhat aimless, and doesn't have a compelling pace. Those interested in the reading difficulties of dyslexics may find it all more interesting. There were of course some areas she explored that I enjoyed, for example, that Socrates was against the written word. Preferring instead the intelectual effort required to remember everything in your head, and be able to deliver it verbally to students. Perhaps for a genius of the ancient world that makes a lot of sense. There wasn't a lot of knowledge to remember back then, at least compared to the mass available today. But Maryanne extends this argument to modern day technology. Kids growing up today are surely exposed to an unimaginably huge quantity of information, and in many different forms. So it's certainly not imbecilic to stop and ask if we are losing something as we move from pen and paper to digital communication.

Personally I don't see the same ground shaking shift in human culture that must have happened as we went from oral to written communication. Shifting to a way to write down facts and information was huge. Changing from ink to digital media is not as huge. In fact, what modern technology really brings to communication of ideas is outside the books remit, since it is all about learning to read.

Still, some interesting ideas in the book, and one to look up if you're interested in this kind of thing.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Overheard on West Coast Express

Couple discussing their 4 year old child, who's already playing T-Ball and learning the guitar, and in day care.

"How soon can he start piano lessons?"
- "Next year I think."
"Ooh. So there's 10 grades, he'll be 15 by the time he's grade 10!"
- "Well maybe he could do 2 grades a year!"
"Yes, yes. Or 3 even. Do you think he could do 3?"
- "Yeah"