The Greatest Show on Earth

I just finished Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest  Show on Earth, in which he explains the evidence for evolution. In fact, that’s the subtitle: “The Evidence for Evolution.”

I’ll mention here that I’ve long been a “believer” in evolution, although it turns out that my understanding of the theory and knowledge of the evidence were sadly lacking. Not to worry. The first few chapters corrected both of my errors.

The first part of the book explains the large concepts on which the theory of evolution is based: non-random natural selection of random mutations over a very long time. Evolution, as Dawkins points out multiple times in the first few chapters, is a slow process. There are no “revolutionary” changes over short time periods. It takes thousands of generations to evolve significant change, and even longer to evolve a new species.

After explaining the basic concepts, Dawkins begins on the evidence: how we know this is what has happened. As it turns out, the evidence for evolution is much stronger than I thought it was. We have radioactive clocks, DNA, tree rings, many different experiments, the fossil record, and many other sources of evidence, all of which agree on the fact of evolution. There might be disagreements on some particulars, but all of the evidence points to the conclusion that life on this planet evolved from one common ancestor.

Something that’s long bothered me about others’ reactions to science is their assertion that “it’s only a theory.” As a result, I was pleased to see that the title of the first chapter is “Only a Theory?” In it, Dawkins’ explains exactly what a scientific theory really is.

The Oxford English Dictionary, as Dawkins points out, gives two definitions of the word “theory:”

  1. A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
  2. A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.

The “disconnect” when uneducated people say, “It’s only a theory,” is that they’re using the second definition of “theory”–the common usage that we hear every day. To them, a theory is an hypothesis or just idle speculation. A scientific theory, on the other hand, is much more rigorously defined. A scientific theory is the first sense of the word, above.

The theory of evolution is much more than idle speculation. It is an explanation of observed phenomena that has been confirmed by further observation and experiment. It is accepted by all serious scientists as accounting for the known facts.

The theory of evolution is no more and no less of a “theory” than the theory of gravity, the theory of continental drift, or Einstein’s special theory of relativity. All of these are based on observation and experiment, and serve as an explanation of the known facts.

One very important feature of a scientific theory is that it be disprovable. If you can find evidence that contradicts the theory, then at least part of the theory is incorrect. We’re seeing this right now with the recent experiments at CERN, where experimental results seem to show that some subatomic particles can travel faster than the speed of light, which contradicts Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

So far, all of the observations and experiments agree with evolutionary theory. There is no credible evidence to support any competing theories, and no evidence to contradict the idea that life on this planet evolved over billions of years, from very simple forms to the many and varied forms of life that you see today.

Dawkins spends some time (I think too much time) beating on what he calls “history deniers:” those people who, for one reason or another, deny the evidence for evolution. I’ll grant that I was amused by it early on in the book, but by the time I got to the end I was tired of hearing about it. There’s a fine line between showing how “competing ideas” don’t match the evidence, and ridicule. I think Dawkins crosses that line, and in my mind it detracts from the otherwise excellent explanations that he provides.

I sympathize with Dawkins’ desire to correct the collective ignorance that people cling to so dearly. If I didn’t run across it every day, I’d find it inconceivable that so many people deny the fact of evolution. It happened. It’s still happening!

I highly recommend The Greatest Show on Earth. If, like me, your understanding of the theory is based on the watered down explanation you got in your high school science class and the vehement denials that you get from others, then you’ll undoubtedly learn something from reading the book. It sure opened my eyes, giving a much better understanding of what the theory says happened, and the evidence that scientists use to back up that explanation.


MSDN “Cannot Service Request” error

As I noted in my previous post, I’ve been having some trouble accessing MSDN information from my browser. I thought I’d solved the problem, but it came back this morning. I had been viewing pages on MSDN for a couple of hours while working, and at some point I clicked on a link and got the “Cannot Service Request” page again.

This happened on Chrome, and when I went to Internet Explorer to see if I could get to the page, IE wouldn’t display it either. Firefox, again, had no trouble.

My solution for IE, then, was to go into Tools -> Options, and delete the browsing history. I just deleted everything. Restarted the browser, and I was able to visit MSDN again.

With Chrome, I thought I’d try to narrow down the problem. I first went into Options and selected “Empty the cache.” That didn’t solve the problem. So I checked “Empty the cache” and “Delete cookies and other site and plug-in data.” That worked!

Apparently, something in the MSDN site is setting a cookie or storing other site-specific data that at some point causes the JavaScript to throw up its hands.

This is almost certainly a bug with the MSDN JavaScript. But at least now I know how to treat the symptom. It ticks me off, though, that I have to delete all my cookies and site-specific data in order to keep using the site. Maybe next time the problem occurs, I’ll see if I can delete just the MSDN-specific stuff.


Can’t get help!

09/16/2011 – Problem solved. See below.

I don’t know why, but about a week ago I started getting a page that says “Unable to service request” whenever I try to get to Microsoft’s online documentation. At first it was just the MSDN documentation. Now it’s most any page that start with

This problem is very strange. If I try to visit the site with Google Chrome or Internet Explorer, I get the error. No problem with Firefox, though. It’s interesting to note that I haven’t fired up Firefox in many months. I wonder if my Chrome and IE installations are somehow corrupt?

I can access MSDN from other computers in the office, using IE or Chrome. And I can access it from my machine using curl, wget, and my own custom download program. It’s just IE or Chrome on my computer.

Any insight into the problem? I’m stumped. I suppose I could reinstall Chrome and see if that solves the problem.

Update 09/14: For Internet Explorer 8, I just had to turn on compatibility view. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade to IE 9? Firefox 3.6.18 (latest in the 3 series) works just fine.

Still no joy with Google Chrome. Others who want to view “old” sites with Chrome resort to silliness like running IE in a Chrome browser window. Whereas I’ll bow to the brilliance of the hack that makes such a thing possible, I can’t imagine why it should be necessary.

I wonder if this has been a problem for a long time, but has been hidden from me because the browser caches scripts. And, yes, I’m pretty convinced that the problem isn’t with the HTML so much as it is with scripts. If the MSDN site updated their scripts but didn’t change the version number, then pages could continue to work for a very long time.

I first experienced this problem on September 6. For several days prior to that I was doing a lot of JavaScript debugging, and had cleared the browser caches on IE and on Chrome in the process. I strongly suspect that doing so triggered this behavior. There’s no telling how long I was running with old scripts.

Update 09/16: After verifying that I could visit the site from my home computer, also running Chrome, and verifying that I was running the same version of Chrome at both sites, I had to conclude that it wasn’t the browser version. So here at the office this morning, I closed all of my Chrome windows and started up one. Then I went to Options and cleared all browsing data. Everything. Shut down Chrome, restarted it, and now I can see MSDN again.

So, if you run into this problem, Clear your browser cache! I thought I had done that. I might have cleared some of the data from the cache, but not all of it. So I just told it to delete all of the browsing data.

Demystifying Wood Grain

One issue that carvers of all skill levels continually fight with is wood grain. As beginning carvers we’re told to “carve with the grain.” Unfortunately, that advice often comes without an explanation of what “with the grain” really means. Many a beginner has understood that it means to carve parallel with the grain of the wood.

There’s more to it than that, as you’ll discover quite quickly when your knife gets drawn into the wood because you cut in the wrong direction. This can be very frustrating. I’ve ruined more than one carving by cutting in the wrong direction.

Brendant at The Old Stump blog has created a document, Demystifying Wood Grain, in which he uses some glued-up toothpicks to simulate the internal structure of wood so that he can explain and show what it means to carve with the grain. It’s a short but very informative read, which I think will benefit beginning and seasoned carvers alike.




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