Thursday, May 02, 2002

Creating a theory, part II

Another post below led to a number of comments, and I really can't do them justice in the space YACCS provides. So I'll address them here.

First a note: my scientific background is in the "hard sciences". I'm used to being able to whip something up in a lab. I understand that that commonly causes conflict of sorts, as John Maynard Smith noted in one of his books - he came from a hard science background to the study of evolutionary biology. If biologists must settle for lower standards of proof than I am used to, so be it.

Notice that my claims have been very modest, as noted here. I certainly didn't claim that no evolution of any form had ever occurred. What I wrote was "But until those discoveries are made and successfully peer-reviewed, claims that evolution progressed from the first life forms and culminated in the development of modern man remain speculation, which places them on par with creationism." That last clause might be controversial, but I don't see any problem with the rest of the statement. I will refer to this below as The Theory. And it's no straw man.

One problem I have with The Theory is in another post, about "what is a species?". Some of the definitions of species in the links (which no one has questioned) sound a lot like the Supreme Court definition of pornography - "I know it when I see it". Biologists may be trying to get a handle on something very slippery, but then that should tend to moderate claims, causing you to shy away from The Theory. Because if you can't even come up with a solid, universally applicable definition of a species, how can you ever say when speciation has occurred? If you're allowed to change the rules as you go, you can create circumstances in which evolutionary theory becomes unfalsifiable.

Mike Gannis asks several questions, one regarding the age of the earth. I'm agnostic. I really don't care much about the age of the earth, and I fail to see that it has much impact on my life or that of schoolkids. I'll just note that proof that the earth were fairly young would be bad news for The Theory, because it needs lots of time to work.

As for species in the fossil record, this goes back to the species definition problem again. We have found various fossil evidence that is found nowhere else in particular strata of the earth's crust, and various dating techniques give us an idea of how long ago these strata were deposited. If these species did not occur in earlier strata either, that would suggest that they had to have developed in a time period between that of the earlier strata. Or it might just mean that you haven't looked in the right places. That they haven't been found doesn't mean that they don't exist. I'll bet you a coelacanth that you'll find that some of those species were around if you look long enough.

We don't need The Theory to explain extinctions.

Apparently emergent species might be explained by migrations. I suppose if you looked in the Great Lakes and didn't know that sea lampreys already existed somewhere else, you might think that they had evolved there over the past century. Likewise for Corbicula, the obnoxious little clams that foul up heat exchangers and sprinkler systems.

The bottom line is that the claims for The Theory appear to have outrun the evidence. If you can't establish by exhaustion that certain species didn't exist before a certain point in time, tough luck - you don't have all the evidence you need. If it happens on long time scales, again, that's a problem for the proponents of The Theory to deal with before they make exorbitant claims - don't blame the rest of us.

Paul Orwin states that evolution is obvious on the scale of insects and microbial life. Other exceptional things happen to those critters too that cannot be applied to higher species, and again, what about that definition of species? Changes in color distributions, markings, etc, don't necessarily mean anything - they might just be expressions of other previously unsuspected capabilities of existing genotypes, and nobody is going to claim we have that figured out yet.

Incidentally, I'm not working from some sort of cheat book. I own books on all sides of this issue, and I've even read some of them, but I'm doing my own thinking and surfing here.

I would like to thank the participants for generally keeping the noise level down - I was prepared to cut messages ruthlessly if necessary, but that never became necessary despite the controversial subject.

Just asking...

What would happen if we quit teaching evolution in public schools? Besides the media circus?

Is hate natural?

Will Rogers once said "I never met a man I didn't like". I don't know if he ever went to the Middle East or not.

I can understand having strong feelings about somebody for good or ill. About groups? - well, I think the Democrats should be taught how to blush, but I suppose we can spare them. Eco-radicals? I think they should be forced to live as they would have the rest of us live, but other than that and maybe hosing them off now and then I suppose I can leave them alone. That probably does it.

Except for those #$%^# Jews. Sheesh, they cut the foreskins off their own kids - imagine what they'd do to yours.

Alright, I'm kidding. But really, what's with anti-Semitism? Why is it that out of all the groups out there, Jews have been picked on so universally?

I could theorize about the Jews in particular, but the point is about hatred in general. Is it natural? That is, do we have a propensity built in? Or must it be cultivated?

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

You can do what?

When I was little I came across the paperwork that came with a box of tampons. I was an early reader but in other respects was another clueless little kid. So I thought they must be pretty cool - with them, you could swim, ride horses, climb trees.... I was disappointed when I found out more details, and I quit playing with those cool little cardboard telescopes too.

You're expecting a terrific segue here, I can tell. Well, lately I've been reading a bunch of resumes and interviewing the people. And they're not performing per my expectations.

By now I'm a reasonably experienced interviewer. I've been on the other side of the table many times as a contractor, so I can sympathize with the candidates. I've often interviewed people as part of a team, occasionally in the lead, without adverse comment. I do tend to talk fast, so I temper that, especially with people whose native language might not be English. I do what I can to loosen people up. I don't believe I am unfair or unrealistic.

I do expect command of technical material, however. Details, not generalities - the position in question is for an experienced contractor who's ready to go NOW. Nobody will ever be an exact fit, but if we want trainees we'll specify them.

You don't have to be able to recite manuals - I can't do it either. But if I ask you to, say, give me a SQL query to show me all the fields and records from an Oracle table named X (select * from x), I expect a snappy answer without prompting. After all, the position calls for knowledge of basic SQL, and we wouldn't even be talking if that hadn't been claimed on the resume, so what's the problem?

Another candidate did much better on those core skills, but tried to tap-dance past us on some more advanced skills. Hint - if you claim to know something about advanced statistics, have a clue about fundamentals like Χ2. If you claim Unix, I shouldn't be able to trip you up asking you how to list the files in a directory. Ad nauseam.

Candidates from contract firms should ordinarily be pre-screened or "teched" before a prospective client sees them. I had a really winner of one the other day - it's possible I was dealing with someone having a bad day, but I've never seen one that bad. This individual claimed significant experience with a special purpose Web information delivery tool that commands a substantial premium, but couldn't even tell me what it was for. Other topics were more of the same.

So do I have any interview tips? Relax. Don't try to snow me - if you don't know the answer, say so. Don't get rattled if you can't answer a question - we don't expect an exact fit, and we might well be asking you questions that go well above and beyond minimum requirements. Don't put anything on your resume/in a portfolio that you're not prepared to discuss in detail with a practitioner who might know it far better than you do. If I ask you for details, give me details, not generalities. If you can't remember the details, brush up on them before you show up - you want the job, don't you?

I suppose it would be cool to end this post with a tie back to the beginning, but I'm fresh out of tampon stories. But if you feel like sharing...

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Bye bye Bernie

Bernard "Bernie" Ebbers has resigned as CEO of WorldCom. It's been an interesting ride.

Mr. Ebbers was a Canadian who went to Mississippi to go to college as I recall. Later he wound up getting involved with a small company called LDDS, which he built into today's WorldCom.

He fought mightily to maintain high stock prices, then used the stock to acquire firm after firm, including MCI ("money coming in"). Then the regulators nixed his purchase of Sprint, and it's been downhill ever since.

I suppose the stock price will recover a little in the short term, but the next CEO has a lot of work to do.

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Born to be gay?

Gays are made, not born. Or are they?

Near as I can tell gays are divided on this one. If gays are born, then that seems to be nature's imprimatur - they're 100% natural. This accounts for a gay anti-abortion group that fears that if the relevant genetic conditions are ever identified, that these will be used to identify gay fetuses - and abort them.

Anybody who has been watching blogs for a while has seen some fluidity in self-classification. Of those, my favorite is "bisexual celibacy". As if being straight couldn't be frustrating enough...

I believe that gays are made, not born. I suppose we could find some genetic component, but it's difficult to see just how something like this would be transmitted genetically. And but for "turkey basters" or other approaches (don't miss this one), it's kinda hard to gays to breed to carry on the relevant genetic configuration.

Alright, let the rumble begin.