Measured Against Reality

Thursday, August 31, 2006

AJAX Web-Apps Will Not Replace Desktop Apps

Lately there has been a lot of news about AJAX-based web-applications, and how they’re the wave of the future. Many people seem to think that soon the desktop will be meaningless, and everything will be done online. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only are desktops not going to become obsolete, but this web-app fad will die. My rationale follows.

Continue reading...1. Money

How long can Google and the start-ups keep these things free? Who would use a word-processor that’s supported by ads? Who would pay for web-apps? The simple fact is that the Web 2.0 bubble is going to burst sooner or later, and without some way of generating revenue many of these web-apps will simply disappear. Google’s will still be around, locked in perpetual beta like everything else that doesn’t make them money.

Not to mention that there’s big money behind the desktop apps, and Google is really the only major company behind the web apps, which (with the exception of Gmail) make it no money. Money can slow down change considerably (witness the RIAA), and unless there’s a huge popular demand, the side with the most money will win. I don’t see the demand for web-apps, which means the desktop will remain king.

2. Functionality

Even the best online apps (except for webmail) are way behind the desktop apps in terms of functionality and features. They may be suitable for some uses, but hardly for scholastic/professional, where they get used most often. People often say that the “normal user” will be satisfied with Google Spreadsheets, but I find that nearly every spreadsheet I make has a graph in it, and I’m hardly a power-user.

As far as webmail is concerned, everyone I know uses either their school or business account for most of their mail, neither of which have AJAX-based webmail available. And because almost everyone has several different addresses (I have four), desktop apps such as Thunderbird become extraordinarily useful as a means to have all your accounts (outgoing as well as incoming) in one simple package, something no webmail I’ve seen can match. Again, desktop apps are simply better.

3. Access

WiFi will never, at least in the near future, proliferate to the point where you can always be on. There will be places where you need access to your documents and you can’t connect (ever work on an airplane?). Even when you can, it’s possible to store documents on the web or set up an FTP server so you can access them anywhere. Why be limited to web apps and what they can handle when you can access your entire hard drive remotely?

Even then, how often does word fail compared to your internet connection? Word has never failed for me, Firefox or my internet connection crap out far more frequently.

Besides all this, go-anywhere devices like the blackberry are becoming more common, nullifying the need to access documents everywhere, since they’re already with you.

4. Speed

AJAX may be fast, but desktop apps are, in my experience, much faster. Especially on slower connections, even something as “slow” as wireless, the lag is unbearable, even if it’s only a second. Web apps will never be able to match the speed of the desktop, at least on slower connections.

5. Computer illiteracy

My mother is extremely good with word and excel, but doesn’t even know what a browser is, and she’s hardly the only one. There will always be people who aren’t good with the internet but are good with the desktop apps, and who refuse to convert. These will be the people in management who are making the decisions about what to buy/use. While the people just coming into the workforce are tech-savvy enough to know about web-apps and be enthusiastic about them, there aren’t enough of them in the business world for switching to make sense. Oddly enough, the computer illiterate will help stop web-apps from becoming dominant.

6. MS Word

Word, Excel, and the rest are far too ubiquitous to dethrone, even if it’s only because everyone’s too used to their menus to change. Maybe quite a few years down the road, but will the 2.0 bubble still be around by then?

7. Collaboration

This much ballyhooed feature is all that web-apps have going for them. Too bad MS and other companies are building into the next generation of desktop apps, meaning you get everything that a web app has to offer with all the power of a desktop app.

Neglecting that, in my experience collaboration won’t mean much. I was in a class last year with at least 200 people, and the class had a wiki specifically for collaboration on assignments, discussions, etc. But hardly anyone used it for anything beyond the required assignments, and no one used it collaboratively. The same thing could have been done with a message board. All of my experience in both school and work tells me that collaboration will just not be all that useful. But that’s my preference, and probably due to my inherent mistrust of other people’s abilities. I’d rather have a document be my work instead of any idiot the company hired. I think we’ve all read enough horror-stories about illegible E-mail to know that letting anyone edit a document could quickly render it unreadable.

While web-apps may be nice, and are useful for some things, they’re hardly the wave of the future. They might stick around for a while, being used by some fans for some purposes, but they will never dethrone the desktop apps.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sex in an MRI Machine

Sooner or later, people will have sex in or on everything.

That’s just one conclusion we can draw from a study done to see how sexual organs are arranged during intercourse. The researchers recruited people to have sex in an MRI while they snapped some images of what was going on. Large magnets, small spaces, lab coats? Sounds romantic.

Continue reading...The study revealed a few things, one of which is that having sex in a 50-cm diameter MRI tube is not easy, especially for men, and considering that the participants had to keep still while the image was being taken. However, it’s apparently considerably easier if you’re an amateur street acrobat:

We did not foresee that the men would have more problems with sexual performance (maintaining their erection) than the women in the scanner. All the women had a complete sexual response, but they described their orgasm as superficial. Only the first couple was able to perform coitus adequately without sildenafil [Viagra] (experiments 1 and 2). The reason might be that they were the only participants in the real sense: involved in the research right from the beginning because of their scientific curiosity, knowledge of the body, and artistic commitment. And as amateur street acrobats they are trained and used to performing under stress.

Anyway, what they found out is not too surprising. You can see the results below. In case you’re a bit disoriented, you’re looking at the pelvic area of the participants, with the woman on the left and the man on the right.

Midsagittal image of the anatomy of sexual intercourse (experiment 12). P=penis, Ur=urethra, Pe=perineum, U=uterus, S=symphysis, B=bladder, I=intestine, L5=lumbar 5, Sc=scrotum

The only real thing that’s remarkable is how much the penis bends, as much as 120 degrees. This is independent of how far it penetrated, so it’s almost certainly a result of the “missionary position”. Previous studies concluded that the penis would be either straight or in an S-shape, which is clearly not the case. The only other notable thing is how little anything else changes.

Another aspect of sex studied was what happens inside a woman during and after orgasm. Things do shuffled around quite a bit, with the vaginal wall constricting, causing the uterus to rise, and the bladder getting quite a bit bigger:

Midsagittal images of sexual response in a multiparous woman (experiment 9): (left) at rest; (centre) pre-orgasmic phase; (right) 20 minutes after orgasm

All in all, this study isn’t going to revolutionize anything. But it was probably fun to do and we learned something as a result, and that’s what really counts.


  • Schultz, WW et al. “Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genitals during coitus and female sexual arousal.” BMJ 319 (1999): 1596-1600.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Yesterday a Digg user responding to my article accused me of not knowing anything about evolution. His real problem wasn’t with how I thought evolution would proceed on an alien world, rather with some little anthropomorphizing of it I did at the end. Regardless, just in case I need to combat the claim that I am incompetent in the future, here is a list of things that Evolution is, in my own words.

Continue reading...1. A Theory

Not “just a theory”, but a proper scientific Theory. The problem with saying “Evolution is just a theory” is that in everyday usage theory really means hypothesis or hunch, as in “I have a theory about his motives.” But in science a Theory is an explanatory framework that is tested over and over again and found to be accurate. Proponents of Evolution often compare saying “Evolution is just a theory” to “gravity is just a theory”, because their about the same.

2. Evolution: fact vs. Theory

Evolution is not only a Theory, it is also a fact. The fact of evolution is descent with modification, or changes in genetic variation of the gene pool over time. There is absolutely no doubt in any unbiased mind that this occurs. The evidence is so overwhelming that it’s simply undeniable to all but the most committed dogmatists. But the Theory of Evolution covers the mechanisms of how it occurs, whether via natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, or others; the Theory explains how the fact happens. When there is a scientific controversy over evolution, as there are and always will be, it’s about the “how”, not the fact.

3. Some evidence for the fact

Because the good people at Talk.Origins do a better job of explaining the evidence than I ever could, here’s 29+ evidences for Macroevolution. But a short list of the reasons are:

  1. Biogeography: islands are only inhabited by creatures that can reach them, regardless of how well others might do, etc.
  2. Vestiges: coccyx, appendix, leg bones in whales, etc.
  3. Atavisms: the reappearance of a lost traits, such as tails in humans
  4. The nested hierarchy of the phylogenic tree.
  5. The relative abundance of transitional forms (reptile to mammal, ape to human, reptile to bird, etc).
  6. Genetic data.

There are many more than that, and all of those are explained more thoroughly at the link provided.

4. Some discussion of the Theory

Again, Talk.Origins does far better than I could hope to, so here’s a good article introducing evolutionary biology. But the long and short of it is that there are three main ways of describing how evolution happens, that is why gene pools change. They are natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift.

Natural selection is the most famous, and is usually phrased as “survival of the fittest”. But this has been misconstrued all sorts of ways, the worst of which being Eugenics (no, the Holocaust did not happen because of Darwin’s theory, Hitler hated it as much as any other creationist). What “survival of the fittest” means is simply that the organisms that have the most successful children will pass on more of their genes, and over time those genes will dominate the gene pool. Any gene that gives an organism an advantage will be “selected for”, and any one that hinders and organism will be “selected against”, increasing or decreasing its representation in the gene pool. Of course, there is no actual force doing the selecting, all that’s happening is a change in an organism’s capability to leave behind descendents, it’s just far easier to phrase it as selective pressures.

Sexual selection is the famous theory of the peacock’s tail, and it attempts to explain all sorts of traits that are disadvantageous to the survival of an organism, but have come to dominate the gene pool nonetheless. It also looks at the consequences of sexual reproduction on a species, and how that species has been shaped by it. This theory is rather nuanced and changes on a species-to-species basis, but most of the time one sex has some kind of trait that makes it worse at surviving to prove how good its other genes are. For example, some female birds are attracted to males with long tails, and a male with an extremely long tail will get the most mates. But he also won’t be able to survive as well, so there’s a balancing act between reproductive and survival success. Again, this is very nuanced, and Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen is a very good discussion of it.

Genetic drift is essentially that gene pools can change all on their own, without any selective pressure, simply by chance. That a gene can “drift” to the point where it is common in the gene pool, even if it confers no survival advantage. This plays a far bigger role in smaller populations, where it wouldn’t be as improbable, but exactly how important it is in evolution as a whole is debated.

It’s important to note that these mechanisms can only act on existing variation, and in fact they destroy variation. But it’s constantly being replenished by mutations. That’s how Evolution works, mutations create new variation, selection picks the good ones. In principle any trait can evolve that comes from any functional, useful (or at least non-deleterious) trait or traits. Once there is something for selection to work upon, all sorts of amazing things can evolve; this world is the evidence for that.

That wraps it up for this short discussion of evolutionary theory. If you want to know more, check out Talk.Origins, or some of the link on my blogroll such as The Panda’s Thumb. Or there’s always books like The Origin of Species by Darwin, or something by Richard Dawkins or any other Evolutionary Biology popularizer.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

What Would Alien Life Be Like?

Imagine that alien life was discovered on a distant world. What would it be like? It would look very foreign to us, beyond even the most active imaginations. However, there will be some things that would most likely evolve there too, making alien life at least somewhat recognizable.

I'm assuming a few things. First, that the life is not buried deep underground or at geothermal vents. Not only would these critters be hard to find, they wouldn't be as diverse as terrestrial life. I'm also assuming carbon-based life forms. Life may not always be carbon based, but I highly doubt that anything else exists.

Continue reading...1. DNA

Whether it’s actually DNA or some other molecule, life needs a genetic code. Without an accurately reproducible, readily translatable genetic code, life cannot exist, at least in any stable form. It’s certainly possible that alien chemistry could come up with something other than DNA, but there’s a good chance that DNA is simply the only viable organic molecule for the job.

It’s also vital that a carrier of genetic information accumulates errors and causes the organism containing it to mutate, otherwise evolution could not occur. So a molecule for life needs to be extremely reproducible, but also not so much so that it no longer evolves. It’s very likely that DNA will fill this role.

2. Plants and Animals

Once life gets started, it will almost certainly be similar to our bacteria: unicellular organisms eating organic molecules and eventually each other. But a world with just bacteria would not end up being very biodiverse, and given the small amount of nutrients that would be available on a planet that had recently evolved life, and that there would have to be some kind of nearby star for life to form at all, some form of cyanobacteria and eventually plant life would evolve. The light from a star is just too abundant a source of energy for life to miss, and without plants to turn its energy into biomass no higher life forms would evolve. As long as our hypothetical planet is fairly far along evolutionarily, there will be a plant/animal divide, although the occupants of each category may be nothing like what we’re used to, and things like fungi that don't fit well into either category will probably exist as well.

3. Sex

Exactly why sex evolved in the first place is a bit of a mystery, but the vast numbers of sexually reproducing compared to asexually reproducing life forms at the multi-cellular level indicates that it does have an advantage. It’s likely that recombination of genes allows evolution to occur more rapidly, giving sexual species a better chance at surviving changes in environment or filling an ecological niche.

Because of this it’s highly likely that multi-cellular alien life would have some form of sexual reproduction. It might not be something that we recognize as such, but it’s very unlikely that all forms of life would reproduce asexually.

4. Eyes

Estimates put the number of times eyes have independently evolved in the animal kingdom at around 30, and the time it takes to evolve them at around 100,000 years. Since they appear so many times and so rapidly here on Earth, it’s almost impossible for our alien animals to not be able to see. They’ll probably see light, since any star that is suitable for life will put out a lot of its energy around the visible spectrum, but this is not a given. Some animals see infrared or ultraviolet on Earth, it’s entirely possible that alien animals would see in these or other spectra too.

5. Ecological Niches

It’s very likely that the same kind of ecological niches that exist here on Earth will exist on alien planets. That means that there will be plants, nitrogen fixers, parasites, prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers, along with a host of other things that will be specific to how life evolved there. For example, many insects survive on pollen, but if plants don’t pollinate on the alien world than that niche will not have to be filled, so there will be nothing like our pollinators. This means that we may find some truly extraordinary creatures doing some fairly bizarre things based on the niche they occupy, but there will be some basic ones (like the few I mentioned) regardless.

6. It will totally surprise us

As I learn more about evolution, it becomes ever clearer that life always does find a way to do something. When confronted with a problem, evolution will always find some kind of answer. Once abiogenesis occurs on some distant planet, evolution will take its patchwork, jury-rigged course, and its solutions to the problems it will encounter will be as fascinating as the ones here on Earth. (Of course, I know evolution is not any kind of active force, but it's easier to describe it as such.) I'd be excited for the day we find extraterrestrial life if I thought there was any chance at all of it happening within my lifetime. I hope those future scientists/space travelers enjoy it.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Blind Faith in the Aftermath of Tragedy

Why is it that when something like this happens, people never blame god for the terrible event but praise him for their survival? I don’t understand it. How can they possibly do it?

It’s even worse when it’s not a personal tragedy. How many people said that god had spared their lives after Katrina? Yup, god loves you so much that he destroyed your entire city, and killed thousands of your neighbors, but left you alive. Not only is it idiotic because if god loved you at all he wouldn’t make you suffer, but it’s so egocentric and arrogant. How can these people thank god for saving themselves but not the other people? They’re saying that they’re better, that god loves them more. Apparently he loves them just enough to not kill them. Yeah, that’s love.

I guess that the minds of the religious are in such a state of denial about the world that something so blatantly idiotic such as this passes as logical. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. I don’t know, and I probably never will.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Problems With Documentaries

I watch the History Channel frequently. There are a lot of good documentaries on it, and you can really learn a lot from just a few. However, I’m consistently disappointed by the documentaries that investigate more radical claims.

A recent one on the Bible Code comes to mind. There codes have been thoroughly debunked (this is a collection of such debunkings). The people who still think that Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Bible produce prophecies are deluding themselves and ignoring all of the evidence. But somehow, a program about the Bible Code gives them most of the time. Skeptics get a soundbyte, and proponents get the rest of the show. This makes it sound like these claims have a foot to stand on, when they really don’t.

Continue reading...The same is true of every sensational topic, including a recent show on “The Exodus”. The Biblical exodus didn’t happen, “from the period within which the Exodus should have happened -- the 16th-13th centuries BCE, in the broadest definition -- there is no evidence whatsoever of an exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt.” But the program brought up crazy ideas, like Israelites going to Minoan Greece and being buried there, along with stories of the parting of the Red Sea on graves and golden images of the Ark of the Covenant. It was essentially a crazy interpretation that relied on nothing but one guy’s opinion. How can you make such outrageous claims with essentially no evidence backing it up? It’s irresponsible.

Whether the topic is UFOs, the Lock Ness Monster, other “monsters”, the Holy Grail, the Exodus, the Bible Code, or any other controversial topic, skeptics get less time, and people could walk away from the show believing a position that is countered by all the evidence. We live in a country where the majority of people believe that evolution, a scientific fact, is wrong, where horoscopes based on nothing are published in newspapers and widely read, and where people believe the ludicrous over the evidence. I would hope that popularizers of Science and History should get their facts right rather than be sensationalist and contribute even more to this problem. They have a responsibility to the public, and they air documentaries such as these, they fail in that responsibility.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Driving and Talking on a Cell Phone is Dangerous

Is diving while talking on a cell phone more dangerous than driving drunk? Anyone familiar with MythBusters will know that their tests said that it is (at least while driving at the legal limit). But in “typical MythBusters fashion” their sample was too small. What do real studies have to say about this?

The professional studies back it up too. A recent University of Toronto study found that drivers talking on cell phones are four to five times as likely to get into accidents, and that hands-free sets do little to decrease these odds. A study from Perth, Australia found the same increase in risk. Another study from the University of Utah also found that hands-free sets do little to offset the chances of an accident. These are just some of the many studies done that all come to the same conclusion, driving while talking is hazardous.

Continue reading...There is a clear danger from driving while talking on a cell phone, arguably as great as or greater than from driving drunk. What is being done about it? A handful of states have totally outlawed it: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Washington DC, as well as a few towns. A few more have partial bans, and as many as 2/3 have proposed legislation at some point.

What I want to know is where is the outrage? Driving with a cell phone is clearly dangerous, but nothing like the crackdown against drunk driving is happening. Why? My best guess is that not enough people have died yet, and cell phones aren’t as good of a scapegoat as alcohol. There are no groups like MADD spreading anti-cell phone propaganda, and not enough people are putting pressure on lawmakers.

There’s also no cultural stigma against it, evidenced by how many people do it. If you think about, the quintuple increase in chance of an accident combined with the number of people doing it means that you’re probably far more likely to be in a phone-related accident than an alcohol-related one. Why is no one outraged?

Driving while talking is dangerous, without a doubt. So do something about it, even if it means refusing to talk while you’re in a car. You might just save a life.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Technology Could Revolutionize Displays

Swiss scientists have created a new technology that will revolutionize displays. The technology is called electrically tunable diffraction gratings, and unlike today’s displays, they’re capable of producing the entire visible spectrum, rather than simple combinations of three colors.

Because LCD, plasma, and CRT pixels can only display combinations of one wavelength each of blue, green, and red, they cannot accurately reproduce everything that the eye can see. The image to the left, taken from Wikipedia, demonstrates the capabilities of modern technologies (colored) and visible light (gray). An example that current technology can’t display, according to the researchers, is the sky, "When you take a picture and download it to your laptop the blues are never the same as the real sky."

Continue reading...But the new technology is different. Each pixel is a diffraction grating. You probably used one in high school or college physics, they’re rows of tiny slots that split white light into the visible spectrum. These ones are made of a flexible polymer that distorts when voltage is applied to it. By controlling the distortion, the light can be precisely scattered, guiding only the desired wavelengths to your eye.

This means that every color we can see (and some we can’t) could be represented by each pixel. For the first time, displays could accurately reproduce all of the colors in the real world. The team says that the resolution is similar to high-end LCDs, meaning that this technology may power the HDTVs and high-end monitors of the future.

It’ll be interesting to see if this wins out over OLED and other new display technologies. From what I’ve read about electropolymers they can wear out over time, meaning that this might suffer from the same short lifetime as OLEDs. It’s also requires a lot of voltage, which has to be worked out.

This may end up being favored after 1080p HDTV becomes standard, because instead of simply increasing resolution accurate color reproduction will be the new goal. It’ll be interesting to follow this emerging technology to see if it become competitive with current and other developing displays.

The team also says that the technology is scalable to the sizes modern consumers would demand without being prohibitively expensive. So this may only be a few years away from market. I’d love to have a monitor that could actually show a decent picture of the sky, and can’t wait for it to be a reality.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rants on a Plane: Problems With "Snakes on a Plane"

I saw Snakes on a Plane last night, and it was pretty much what it advertised. It was entertaining. It was pretty much what I expected. But what I didn’t expect, and perhaps should have, was how much about snakes and planes the movie would get wrong. I’m something of a pedant, and when making a choice that doesn’t really affect the plot of the movie, I prefer if the movie gets it right rather than perpetuating falsehoods. I also really like snakes, so I’m a bit biased.

Continue reading...1. Snake-vision

I’m not sure what they were going for with the green snake-vision. Birds and reptiles have four cones compared to our three, so if anything they see in more colors than we can comprehend. My guess is that it was based on the rudimentary infrared vision that pit vipers and some other snakes have, which would have about that resolution and show living things as brighter than their surroundings (which the snake-vision did). But this would be misleading, since not all snakes have this and the ones that do use it secondarily. I’m still not sure why they opted for green, like night-vision, rather than shades varying from blue to red as thermal vision is normally depicted.

2. The really big snake

This snake had teeth, big pointy teeth. No snakes have teeth like that. That is such a ridiculous oversight. Besides having ridiculous teeth, it also constricted and ate that annoying British guy after eating a dog, which it wouldn’t do (especially not with those teeth). Also no snake can get big enough to eat a full-grown man. Reticulated anacondas do get big enough to eat small children, but very rarely. This snake bothered me.

3. The venom

The venom killed people way too quickly. Most snake venoms take hours to kill a person, and there are very few that take less than hour, the black mamba for instance. I cannot find an example of one that takes minutes, let alone seconds. The quickest killers are the snakes with neurotoxic venom, which shuts down the nervous system and can cause paralysis fairly quickly. The rest have hemotoxic venom, which destroy blood and/or tissue, and are more survivable. People bitten with this kind of venom (as some were) would probably have survived the flight.

The other venom problem is that snakes take hours, days, or even weeks to regenerate the venom injected during a bite, whether it’s a living thing or not. So any snake that had bitten anything would be rendered harmless for the rest of the flight. But there were a lot of mother-fucking snakes on that plane, so it’s hard to say if this would have mattered.

4. Pheromones

I have to say, I’m glad that there was something causing the snakes to be super-aggressive, even if pheromones wouldn’t have this effect, and certainly for not dozens of different species. Regardless of that, why wouldn’t the snakes just all mate with the leis? They’d follow the pheromones to the most concentrated spot and just stay there.

5. Explosive decompression

This was busted on MythBusters quite a while ago, I guess no one in production watched that episode. Planes do not explode when you shoot their windows, and the most certainly do not continue to suck things out until you get lower. Air would fly out of the windows for a few seconds and ruffle some papers around, and once the pressure was equalized everything would be fine. Not a single snake would go flying out of the window. The speed that they were moving out would generate quite a bit of force which could cause problems, but it’s highly unlikely that they would be significant, and certainly wouldn’t cause things to be sucked out.

What I wanted them to do as soon as they found out it was pheromones was blow open a bunch of windows. That would get the pheromones out of the plane, and calm the snakes down. It’s a perfect solution that doesn’t violate any laws of physics.

Those were the ones I noticed. Most weren’t too bad, the only one that really got to me was the snake with teeth, and overall didn’t detract from the movie, that everyone knew would be absurd. Although I have to say, I don’t think I’ve had a better moment in a movie theater than when the entire theater loudly cheered Sammy Jackson saying, “I’ve had it with these mother-fucking on this mother-fucking plane!” It’s too bad it didn’t do better opening weekend, snake snafus included.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

7 Reasons to Legalize Drugs

The more I read about drug policy, the more ludicrous our current situation appears. So here is a list and brief explanation of every reason I can think of that we should legalize drugs, or at least drastically overhaul how we deal with them.

But first, a disclaimer. It seems to me that there’s a popular belief that if you support the legalization of drugs, you are a drug user. I have not, and will not, ever use any kind of drug that I don’t need. I do not support eradicating our insane drug policy because I would be able to use them without worrying about being punished. I support it because it would be the single most beneficial thing we could do for our society that is actually feasible. I alone have nothing to gain from this, but I truly believe our country, and the world, would benefit greatly.

Continue reading...1. Most illegal drugs are not harmful

Or at least less harmful than legal drugs. A British study recently found that the only illegal drugs more dangerous than Alcohol and tobacco are heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates. I’ve read statements by physicians saying that even heroin isn’t dangerous, although I have my doubts about that claim. The point is that there’s no scientific consensus that many of the Schedule I drugs actually deserve to be there, and in many cases the data goes the other way. Why they’re kept there is beyond me, but I have a feeling it’s about someone’s agenda.

2. Personal freedoms

This argument basically says that an informed person should be able to make the decisions about what they do with their body, whether what they want to do is dangerous or not. As long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, why shouldn’t someone be able to harm themselves? Should the government really protect their citizens from themselves? Should S&M be illegal? How about eating raw meat? Standing outside during a thunderstorm holding a large metal pole? Where do you draw the line on outlawing self-destructive behavior? If it doesn’t harm anyone else, it shouldn’t be illegal. And saying that drug users could hurt other people is invalid even if it’s true (which it probably isn’t), because the same is true of alcohol, but that will never be outlawed (again).

I realize that some people might not find this convincing. However, many of these people will say that drugs should be illegal because they’re evil, immoral, or somehow intrinsically bad. That is not a valid argument. All of those words (and most of the ones used to describe drugs) are subjective, and as such have no place in deciding law. Your morality is not everyone’s morality, and while you might not like drugs, someone else surely will. The solution is simple: you don’t do drugs, he does. No one loses.

3. Remove the allure

I can’t say for sure that less people would use drugs if they weren’t illegal, but there is some truth to the statement that many people do them as an act of rebellion. Every time something is made illegal and demonized, people crave it. Whether it’s books or booze, hacking or hashish, speeding or speed, some people will always be attracted to illegal things. Making these things legal could, over time, diminish their occurrence. Granted this is a fairly weak argument, but I thought I should include it.

4. History

I was really surprised to learn that most illegal drugs were not outlawed because they were dangerous. Why were they outlawed? As a way to persecute unpopular groups of people. Whether it’s Mexicans with marijuana, Asians with opium, hippies with LSD, the rave scene with MDMA, or African-Americans with just about everything, making the drug illegal was often a way of attacking the group using it. (As this is probably hard to believe and I can’t find it online, I will say that it comes from a History Channel documentary series called Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way).

The history of drug illegalization is also fraught with outright lies. Henry Aslinger, the man who criminalized marijuana, said that it was addictive, caused people to go insane, and had no medical use, all of which are outright lies, but are still believed today. The same is true of other common illegal drugs, such as ecstasy and LSD. Whenever these drugs are studied they are found to be mostly harmless, or at least less so than other legal drugs (see point 1).

5. Money (Eliminate funding of undesirables)

Whether it’s organized crime, gangs, dangerous dealers, arms runners, warlords, or murderous dictators, all sorts of inarguably bad people are funded by drug money. As a quick example, without opium sales, the Afghan insurgency would have died long ago. Another is the Columbian Mafia, whose brutal and destabilizing reign in South America would not be possible without drug money. The fact is, when something popular is made illegal, it just funds worse things. The Mafia and prohibition is the classic example, but the same is true of gangs in LA and New York. They can only operate with money, and that money comes from drugs.

I’m not saying that legalizing drugs would eliminate these problems outright and overnight, but it would certainly help to reduce the impact they have, far more than our current “War on Drugs” ever could. And even if legalization didn’t eliminate these undesirables, legitimizing their labors may very well turn them into legitimate businesses. I suspect it costs less to operate like a normal business than like a Mafia, but that’s just a hunch.

6. Money (Costs spent fighting/enforcing the law)

In 2003, the “War on Drugs” cost $19 billion dollars in federal money alone. An estimate puts state costs at about the same level. That’s nearly forty billion dollars. That’s enough to pay for one million college students’ educations, per year.

That doesn’t even include the costs for arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and housing of the convicted. Around 10,000 people per year are incarcerated because of drug violations. Drug offenders make up over 60% of the US prison population. Housing them costs about $2 billion per year. The lost wages are estimated at about $4.2 billion per year. This doesn’t include the costs needed to try someone, which are surely astronomical.

Granted this is an estimate, but 45 billion dollars is a lot. Especially when we’re clearly losing this “war” and needlessly incarcerating Americans whose only wrong was ingesting something the government doesn’t think they should (although some of these prisoners are probably guilty of more, many are simple recreational drug users, who harmed no one). Besides all this, every study I’ve ever read has said that the prison system makes addiction worse, and that actual treatment would cost less and succeed more.

Legalizing drugs would free these Americans and save us billions per year. Ending the war on drugs by legalizing them would hurt few and help many. So why aren’t we doing it?

7. Money (That could be funneled into legitimate economic activities)

According to the UN World Drug Report, the illicit drug trade is worth $13 billion at the production level, $94 billion at the wholesale level, and $322 billion at the retail level. Imagine if that money were taken away from warlords, organized crime, and dealers, and given to pharmaceutical or food companies, farmers, and retail stores or pharmacies. Imagine the tax revenue that could be generated! If legalized drugs were taxed at anything near the rate of cigarettes, this would generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. And that’s assuming that sales don’t increase, which they most likely would.

Of course, I’m not an economist. It’s not guaranteed that anything near that amount would be generated, or that all of that money would funnel into legitimate channels. But over time, it’s likely that much of this money would start going to governments and businesses, which is a good thing.

I believe that legalizing drugs, at least the ones less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, would be a great benefit to our society, more so than anything else we could do with so little effort. In my eyes, this is similar to the filesharing situation, where vast numbers of Americans are being turned into criminals for doing something that they don’t consider wrong and harms no one, except here it has already happened. It’s time to right this wrong and fix this idiotically broken system.

Some final notes. I left citations (mostly) out because this is not supposed to be a research article, just my thoughts on the topic. Numbers used were found through Google and are meant solely to give an indication of scale, not as absolutely precise figures (although they very well may be). I am confident that all facts stated are correct, but if some aren’t then feel free to correct me, no one gets everything right. At some point I want to make this article into some kind of true research paper, but that is labor intensive and would be even longer.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Digg Taboo: why can't I Digg my own blog?

This has puzzled me ever since I first started Digging: Digg users hate it when someone submits something from their own website or blog. I didn’t understand the sentiment when I read that first vitriolic comment, and I don’t understand it now.

The way I see it, the point of Digg is to share articles you think other people will like. What better fits that definition than something you’ve written? If you find it interesting enough to write about, then you certainly find it interesting enough to submit to Digg. Plus submitting your own writing is truly “user driven content”, which is Digg’s central philosophy. So why should it be taboo?

Besides, it’s nice to see something you wrote on the front page of Digg. If it gets there, then people have read it and enjoyed it, and that’s good for them and good for you. If you hadn’t posted it, all those people may never have read and enjoyed it, which is good for no one. This is especially true if you have a new or small blog or website that doesn’t have much exposure. How can someone else submit it if you don’t have many readers?

The only argument against it that I can see is that it can be shameless self-promotion. Everyone knows that Digg can easily generate tens of thousands of pageviews, and to someone looking to generate pageviews it’s an appetizing target. But that doesn’t change the fact that to get to the front page you need to have a well-written and interesting article that people want to read and enjoyed reading. The pure self-promotion and garbage articles will get filtered out. Again, what’s the problem?

I think that Digg users need to move past this taboo. Digg is supposed to be a place where articles are judged only by their content, and that’s all that should go into a decision to Digg or Bury a story. Well, that’s my humble opinion, someone who disagrees can feel free to explain theirs to me.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

George Washington: a True Leader

Everyone in the United States knows about George Washington. They know the myths, the legends, and even some of the facts. He was a founding father, he was our general during the Revolutionary War, he was our first President.

But many people feel, like I used to, that he was second-rate, mostly hype, the truth obscured by the romanticized mythology surrounding him. A general who lost most of his battles and whose best maneuver was retreat. But is this the truth?

The fact is that he was an amazing leader. The best example of his leadership happened in March of 1783. Cornwallis had been defeated at Yorktown a year and half earlier, but a treaty had not yet been negotiated. Even though the fighting was over, the army could not go home, hostilities could resume any day. And the Continental Congress had promised money and supplies that had not materialized (imagine that, Congress falling short of promises to the military).

His officers had gathered to contemplate mutiny. Some wanted to march on Philadelphia and take over. The United States had not yet been formed, and it was on the verge self-destruction. Washington walked into the room, and before giving a speech he had prepared, lifted a pair of glasses to his eyes. His men, who had been with him for years, had never seen him wear them before. He noted their surprise, and said, “I have nearly gone blind in service to my country.”

Upon hearing this his men began weep. Officers who had survived years of open warfare were weeping. They remembered all they had been through, and why they had gone through it. There was no mutiny. With one sentence Washington had quelled it.

This was Washington’s brilliance. He was a fantastic leader. Whenever something needed to be done, whether it was getting supplies during the harsh winter at Valley forge, bringing the army back from the brink of mutiny (which he did several times), or maintaining discipline in his incredibly undisciplined troops, he did it. He may have lost more battles than he won, but he knew that to win the war he just had to keep his army together long enough for the British to lose their resolve. He knew it, he did it, and no one else could have. That is why he is one of the greatest leaders in our history.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Politicians Behaving Like Children

For those of you who have always speculated that politicians behave like little children, the proof is here.

In true respectful, democratic fashion, a Republic’s team shined a laser-pointer into a Democrat’s eyes during a rally. What makes this incident truly spectacular is that the Democrat actually cried and told on mommy (said that his eyes hurt for hours and informed the police). It’s almost as though it happened during recess.

I have to say though, I’m glad that we’ve added shining laser-pointers into the opposition’s eyes to the pre-election tactics list. Calling people names, making stuff up about them, lying about what you’ve done and will do are just not enough. I look forward to the day when politicians are pulling each other’s hair and not letting each other play in the sandbox.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can take politics seriously when elected officials are less mature than most children. When did we stop holding them up to higher standards? Hopefully something will change, soon. I’m not holding my breath.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Mystery of the leaking tree solved

The mystery of the leaking tree has been solved! It turns out that the tree's roots got into the piping. A very simple and tidy explanation. But how'd they figure it out?

Instead of doing a bunch of fancy tests on the water, or saying that "God did it" and not investigating any more (as the ID supporters surely would have) the town just shut off the water to the house. When it did, the tree stopped leaking. Brilliant! What could be better than a simple experiment with an irrefutable conclusion? This could make the top ten most beautiful experiments of all time!

All right not really, but it's still a good way to figure it out. The leading theory for why it was leaking was that it had tapped into the pipes, but since the owner's claimed there was no change in the bill this explanation was written off for weirder ones (like God doing it). It only took one simple experiment to figure it out.

I had hoped that science would find out why this tree was leaking, and science did it. Yet another mysetery solved by the good old scientific method. Oh scientific method, what can't you do?


Dietary Supplements are Useless

The health supplements industry is huge, with at least $17 billion in yearly sales. They sell vitamins, minerals, herbs, anything that has any claim to health benefit and is naturally occurring, and people buy it. What does science have to say about these supplements?

Antioxidants are some of the biggest sellers. We’re told that they’re the superheroes who come into our bodies and fight off damage from the evil free radicals that will destroy our cell membranes, or even our DNA. Chemicals such as beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and polyphenols have been shown to produce benefits when eaten in the fruits and vegetables that naturally produce them. But how do they fare in supplement form?

According to New Scientist, beta carotene actually increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers; vitamin E gives no protection against heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, or cancers; vitamin C gives no results whatsoever, unless the person is deficient already; and the little research on polyphenols indicates that they do nothing. But we know that these things are healthy when we ingest them in fruits or vegetables, so why aren’t they in supplement form?

… because the polyphenols, caratenoids, and vitamins in fruit and vegetables are bound into tough, fibrous material, they hang around in the stomach and colon, where they can neutralize free radicals… Supplements may not replicate this effect because they are being digested too quickly.

Then again, some drinks, such as coffee and tea, have been shown to be beneficial to health, despite containing free radicals such as hydrogen peroxide. Again, it seems as though our knowledge about antioxidants is out of kilter, if free radicals are bad, why do coffee and tea have health benefits?

It’s possible that, in small quantities, they activate our own defenses. Cells make enzymes such as catalase and superoxide dismutase, which actually fight off the damage. Imagine that, our bodies have their own evolved mechanism for dealing with cell damage.

Another darling of the herbal remedy community is Echinacea, the miracle plant that alleviates cold suffering and boosts the immune system. Too bad nearly every study ever done has shown that it has no effects whatsoever. It can even cause liver damage if taken for too long. The story is the same for almost every herbal supplement.

The conclusion is clear, supplements do nothing. I’d say that this means the death of an industry, but seeing as the supplement industry and their customers have never been concerned with facts, I doubt anything will change. Americans are too gullible and want the easy way out too much to stop buying into this garbage now.

Which is too bad, because the key to health is simple, and we all know it: eat well, exercise, and live well. I guess pills and empty promises are just more attractive to our society. Which I think is a wonderful sign for our future, don’t you?

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Liberal Indoctrination in Universities? Laughable.

I have to write about this. I must warn you, however, reading that article may very well result in you losing a good portion of your mental capacity.

What I want to know is exactly why these people think colleges indoctrinate people. Universities (in my experience) never make you take a specific class, and the GERs have a ton of different choices, most of which will never touch on politics or religion. They don’t send you to “Liberal Indoctrination 101” or “Christ is a Lie 200”. The author complains that kids can take classes like “Lesbian Worlds: Subject, Object and Representation” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender and Queer Studies”. But she completely ignores the fact that they don’t have to. She seems to be offended that these classes are offered, and blames them for deconverting Christians (there’s brilliant logic).

The article also claims that campuses are spiritually dead. I can’t vouch for any but my own, but we have a large church in the quad. It has some kind of service every day. A good friend of mine found a church just off campus he went to every Sunday. I have a hard time believing that other colleges are different.

What I suspect is that the deconverted Christians are realizing that religion is illogical nonsense. The more you learn about biology, physics, cosmology, history, and logic the clearer that fact becomes. Either that or they knew it all along and only feel comfortable disavowing their parents’ beliefs once they’re in college.

I also want to know exactly how colleges can indoctrinate someone into liberalism when they actively choose which school to attend, actively choose which events to attend, and actively choose which classes to attend. How can a person be indoctrinated when they’re not forced to do anything? However, it’s not indoctrination when parents force their children to attend their church, tell them outright lies about the world, and give them absolutely no choice in the matter.

What’s even better is how the author paints the non-existent liberal indoctrination as evil, reprehensible, and immoral, but then encourages Christian evangelism on campuses! I cannot imagine how anyone could find that a consistent position. It’s mind blowing.

On that note, the article claims that parents need to “ground” their children in apologetics. Anyone who has read any Christian apologetics knows that the arguments are either weak or completely wrong, and usually rather disingenuous. Once again, the author shows that as long as the indoctrination is into what she believes, it’s ok. Three cheers for hypocrisy.

The article goes on to describe “college temptation and sin”, and it specifically mentions Stanford. Oh boy, one I can really rip to shreds! There is no pressure to drink or anything else at Stanford. Half of the student body doesn’t. When there are parties, they’re really easy to avoid, if you want to. It’s the same for any other “temptation”. If someone sinks into these holes, they wanted to. It was their weak values, not the college, that did them in.

This just shows how logical Christian fundamentalism is. But we already knew that.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Evolutionary Algorithms used to make better videogame AIs

There was an interesting blurb in New Scientist about evolutionary algorithms in videogames:

The team used evolutionary algorithms to generate characters for the game Quake3 and then multiplied them by producing random mutations in each character’s behavior. Each of these mutants then took on the standard computer opponent. Those that performed well were "mated" to create a new selection of mutants, while the rest were discarded. The team repeated the process a number of times, finally creating characters that were able to beat the conventional computer bad guys and were much tougher for humans to play against.

This is the first time I’d heard of evolutionary algorithms being used in videogames, but it makes sense. If they can compute the shortest way to connect a bunch of points, or other complex math problems, and if they can evolve complex behaviors, then why not make more difficult videogame AIs? Evolutionary algorithms can produce a stunning number of different results, which would mean more distinct AIs, which creates more realistic and more difficult gameplay. Not only could it produce a multitude of different styles, it could also produce the best ones.

Traditionally, as difficulty level increases, enemies simply have more health, deadlier and more accurate weapons, and find you faster; behavioral modification is slight (at least in the games I’ve played). However, now they could actually behave more effectively, more like a real player would, with strategies and tactics. Evolutionary algorithms routinely surprise their designers with how much they can produce from little input, and the same would be true of game AIs: very complex situation-dependent behaviors would emerge. Even in advanced games, even on the highest difficulties, AIs are still pretty dumb. By evolving characters, game designers could change that.

An even more dramatic improvement would be characters that evolve based on how you play. Over the course of the game, you kill thousands of characters. The game knows characters are easiest for you to kill, and can play less of them. But you also die dozens of times, so it would also know which ones kill you best, and could play more of them. In this way you’d find yourself up against the most vexing opponents for your style. Not only could the game change the frequency of the characters, it could change the strategies themselves. As you progress and get better at the game, the characters adapt to your style, and you have to counter-adapt. In evolutionary terms, this is an arms race, and it ends with you as a better player. Or losing and throwing the controller at the screen, whichever comes first.

I have yet to play a videogame where the AI is harder than another player, and with evolutionary algorithms it could soon happen. I look forward to the day when the computer is better than my roommate (that bastard can really kick ass at Halo).

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Fights we don't need to fight.

I’m an atheist. I believe in the separation of church and state, and I think it is a central tenant of our system of government. I agree that public buildings, governmental thinking, and laws should be secular. But this is just taking it too far.

This is more inane than the fight over “under God” in the pledge or “In God we Trust” on our currency. (I think that we shouldn’t have a pledge, and that “In God we Trust” should be replaced by something more patriotic and secular, but neither of those are important things).

In case you don’t want to click the link (you lazy bastard!) the story is about the Mt. Soledad Cross in San Diego. It’s a 35-ft cross in a veterans memorial. President Bush just signed a law handing the property over to the Department of Defense. I guess this somehow voids the previous 17 years of (successful) lawsuits to remove it.

All this does is reinforce the view that atheists want to persecute Christians and their symbols, wherever we can. It’s pointless. Who cares if there’s a cross on a hill? It’s not a government endorsement of religion, it’s just a historical artifact in a veterans memorial. It’s not somehow forcing any kind of religion on you, it’s just a historical artifact in a veterans memorial. It’s not violating the principle of separation of church and state, it’s just a historical artifact in a veterans memorial.

I believe in fighting the good fight against true separation of church and state matters. I was glad when the ten commandments were removed from that Arkansas courtroom. I cringe when obviously religion-inspired legislation passes and smile when it’s struck down. I cannot wait for the day, which I hope will happen within my lifetime, when “no religion” is not just the fastest growing, but the largest “religion” in America. But we won’t get there any faster by fighting unnecessary fights like this one, and we certainly won’t help our public image any.

So please, let’s save our resources for fights that actually need to be fought, and let these meaningless ones go.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why Jon Stewart should run for President

I think that Jon Stewart should run for President of the United States. I know I’m not the first to suggest it, and I doubt I’m the first to seriously consider it as a possibility, but I’ve given the idea some thought, and I’ve come up with 8 reasons he should run.

I want to point out that I’m not a political theorist, and I’m not entirely well-versed in political methods. This is just my view as part of the electorate about a candidate I would love to see on the ballot come November 10, 2008, and the reasons he should run.

8. He has The Daily Show.

This might seem like a minor point, but considering that political ad campaigns cost millions, and Jon Stewart probably doesn’t have that kind of money, having a nationally-viewable TV show with a fairly large audience is a decent starting point. It could allow him to raise enough money from loyal viewers to start an advertising campaign elsewhere.

Besides that, Comedy Central and Viacom could use his candidacy as an excellent plug for the show to draw additional attention to it. I’m no marketing executive, but even I can see that this would be a superb gimmick, especially if spun correctly.

7. There would be a media frenzy.

This ties in with the last point, in that they both have to do with media exposure. Besides the exposure Jon already has from his own show, his candidacy would be all over the news stations, especially if he announced it during a news-lull. Those 24-hour networks need something to talk about, and the “fake news anchor” turned Presidential candidate would probably get more attention than Hillary Clinton, John Kerry (attempt #2), John Edwards, or Barak Obama.

6. He commands attention from and is adored by youth.

Remember the 2004 election? Remember how John Kerry was supposed to get all the 18-24 year olds off their lazy asses and into the voting booths? Remember how he may have won had that happened? Personally, I can’t think of anything that would get them out more than Jon Stewart’s name on the ballot.

Besides getting the young voters to ballot boxes, Stewart would get the votes his thousands of fans. If he managed to get the Democratic nomination, he’d probably get pretty much all the registered Democratic and Independent vote, too. Combining that with an unprecedented young-voter turnout, he might actually win.

5. He has a fantastic bullshit detector.

In perhaps the most important consequence of him running, Jon Stewart would force candidates to have real platforms, not just empty rhetoric. One of the biggest problems with Kerry’s campaign was how he completely and utterly failed to have a real platform, while Bush just hammered home security. Stewart would cut through the bullshit, and make the other candidates actually have opinions and platforms. Who knows, America might finally have an election that’s actually about political and social issues…

4. He’s not afraid to say what needs to be said.

As he said about Al Sharpton in 2004, “The person who knows he’s not going to win is allowed to speak most freely.” This ties in with the above point. Jon would bring out the truth about candidates: their political histories; inconsistencies in their opinions and platforms; and how they fall short in areas that matter. This would force the other candidates to actually come up with consistent, logical, and reasonable platforms, which is the first step to getting someone competent into the White House.

3. He is a great debater.

Every time I see Jon Stewart interview someone he disagrees with or who holds inconsistent positions, he tears them to pieces. He even does this when he’s on their shows. (Crossfire, anyone?) He has the speaking and debate skills necessary to make use of the two other skills I mentioned above, and this trifecta makes him dangerous for the other candidates. When asked why politicians don’t answer straight, simple questions, he said, “Nobody holds their feet to the fire to do it.” If he were in the race, he would be able to hold their feet to the fire in spectacular fashion.

2. His middle-left positions.

At least as far as I can gather from the Daily Show, Jon is pretty center-left. While I doubt he could get the votes of more hardcore Republicans, especially the religious-right, the moderates and independents would likely be drawn to him. Especially if he applies his hatred of the absurd to his political philosophy. I can only imagine a candidate who chose their platform based on logical and sensible conclusions instead of partisan rhetoric, and I doubt I’m the only one.

1. If he wins, he would be a fantastic President

All right, that’s pure speculation. But I’m a big Jon Stewart fan, and I want to believe, nay, must believe that he could do it. He might have no political experience whatsoever, judging from the politicians I see that might not be a bad thing. It would be very refreshing to have a President who sees the problems we have, and could deal with the crap other politicians spew. Here’s hoping for Stewart ’08.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Zombie drugs identified

This is amazing. Tetrodotoxin, the poison from the puffer fish, can turn you into a zombie.

Well, sort of.

For those not inclined to click the link, here’s the short version. The drug causes paralysis in all of the muscles of the body, which usually leads to respiratory failure. But in some cases the victim will maintain a faint heart beat, which is only detectable by EKG. During the time, the victim is completely aware (although without a sense of touch, according to fugu (the dish made from the deadly puffer fish) fanatics).

So what happens is that someone is given this drug without their knowledge, declared dead, presumably by doctors without modern life support systems? This is happening in Haitian villages. The victim is dug up, beaten, dragged off to a plantation, and then fed a diet of Datura stramonium. This plant is also known as “zombie cucumber” or more commonly, at least in the Northeast, Jimson Weed.

This weed contains tropane alkaloids that can act as true hallucinogens, detaching the consumer from reality. Its seeds are brewed into a tea by people wanting to get high here in the US, but it keeps the zombie slaves in some kind of a trance. It keeps them docile enough not to run away, and aware enough to do work.

While this is clearly horrible for the people stolen as zombies, it’s pretty fascinating. I’d heard of Haitian zombie myths before, but never in the context of anything besides superstition, usually in the context of voodoo. It’s good to know that one more superstition has been explained by science, yet another victory for naturalism.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Apparently, trees can leak

It turns out that Trees can spring a leak. Somehow, water is literally leaking out of the bark of the tree, like a small fountain. Apparently it tastes better than tap water.

This is really intriguing to me. What could possibly do that? Is it part of the tree's mechanism for transporting water up to the top branches gone wrong? Is it some kind of water pressure from beneath the tree? Is it simply a miracle?

Continue reading...I'm no dendrologist, but it seems highly unlikely that the root pressure would get high enough to cause water to squirt out, even if it's not much. Although the flow does vary during the day, so maybe the root pressure and transpirational pull (the two methods for getting water and ions up the xylem of a tree) are working together to cause this strange phenomena. But even then, it seems unlikely. Although whatever is doing it is highly unlikely, so that's the kind of answer we're looking for.

Another possibility is that the water table is putting some kind of pressure on the roots. But then why this would force the water out through the tree instead of just up to the surface? Although the tree could have tapped into some kind of old well, and that's putting some kind of pressure on it. But then how would that put pressure up through it? I don't like that explanation.

It could also be some kind of burst pipe, but the owner's of the property say that their bill hasn't gone up, which it definitely would have. Although maybe the tree's roots just tapped into a water pipe, enough to turn a root into plumbing... Also improbable.

And as for a miracle, well we all know that's bullshit, and as it's unscientific to just assign things we don't understand to god, I will not do it.

Honestly, this is one of those things that will bug me. I must know what's causing this. I really hope someone figures it out. I know it's not life or death, or a matter of any kind of importance, but to me that's beside the point. This is a true puzzle. Something that obviously vanishingly improbable, and if we can figure it out we'll understand the world that much better.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Sachuest Point pictures

I took a trip to Sachuest point today, a nice park along the water in Middletown. It's a fantastic spot, and I finally got some pictures of it. Here's a taste, the rest are behind the jump.

I apologize for the formatting, right now blogger is really being a pain the ass, and not letting me easily widen my blog. Who still browses at 600 by 800? That's around 1000 wasted pixels for me, and I bet it's easily 200 for most.

I don't want to shrink the pictures any more, I'm afraid of losing detail, so I'm just going to have to deal with this until I can widen the page to about 1000 pixels instead of 740. It's harder than you might think.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Faith's Evolution, as demonstrated by psilocybin.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that psilocybin, the hallucinogen in peyote and other psychedelic mushrooms, can trigger “mystical experiences”.

Technically this isn’t new news. It’s been known for a while that psilocybin can have these effects. But what is novel is the rigorous and longitudinal design of the study. This gives the findings much more weight.

Continue reading...The study focused on people with heavily religious backgrounds, feeling that they would be best able to interpret the results as mystical. In my opinion, also adds some comparative value, as these people are more likely to have had previous mystical experiences, if only feeling “in the presence of God.”

When they took the drug, a full third of the participants felt it was the most meaningful experience of their lives, and another third ranked it in the top five.

This is mind boggling to me. Can you imagine tripping on shrooms being more meaningful than having a child, graduating from college, or falling in love? Maybe it’s one of those things you really have to do to understand.

Regardless, the researchers shy away from the religious implications of this, giving the old standby of “This work can't and won't go there.” Which is good science. The material cannot address the immaterial; the physical cannot address the metaphysical.

However, I think you can infer enough to make the argument. After all, a mushroom triggered the most meaningful experience of some of these people’s lives. The drug can only act on pathways in the brain, pathways that can be triggered in other ways, possibly independent of drugs.

All that happened was an alteration of the participants’ state of consciousness; and it occurred completely naturally. Natural mechanisms lead to mystical experiences that will be interpreted supernaturally without proper context. Hence they lead those ignorant of the phenomenon’s natural origin to some kind of supernatural conclusions. Is this how religion started? It’s been hypothesized before.

But what’s really telling is that 79% of the participants felt that their lives improved afterward, and this was corroborated by family and friends. Mystical experiences on their own aren’t necessarily a survival advantage, but if they can improve your mood and outlook toward life for an extended period of time then they very well could be. Human faith has been explained many times before as conferring a survival or reproductive advantage upon the faithful, (Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain is one example). Now it seems that mystical experiences, which can be a key part of faith, are also.

It would appear that the evidence for all parts of human faith having evolved is mounting. I find it ironic that soon scientists will understand the faithful better than the faithful understand themselves.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Data doesn't lie: violent and sexual media are not influencing children

I, for one, want to know when people are going to stop bashing violent and sexual media. Case in point, here are two articles, one is about teens, wrestling, and violence; the other is about teens, "raunchy music", and sex (those poor teens, it's always something). Violence and sex are the two darlings of reporters and sociologists wanting to get their names places; suggesting a link guarantees at least a mention in the newspaper.

Unfortunately, when someone says, "It's yet more evidence that, when it comes to kids and [violent] media, learning happens," their conclusions are going to be suspect. Or how about, "Whether it's hip-hop, rap, pop or rock, much of popular music aimed at teens contains sexual overtones. Its influence on their behavior appears to depend on how the sex is portrayed, researchers found." Do theses researchers ever consider the possibility that the innately violent seek out violent media? Or that the kids who have sex at ten like sexual lyrics? It's completely obvious, but it never gets mentioned.

Continue reading...You'd think that in a day and age where studies have found that genetic factors determine about 50% of our personality (taken from Matt Ridley's The Agile Gene) that these "researchers" (who are often nameless) would start to suggest that these forms of media (whether violent or sexual) cater to the people who are already violent or sexual, instead of causing the behavior.

It turns out that humans are sexually maturing younger than ever, to the point where some are suggesting that 6 or 7 be considered normal age for girls to hit puberty, whereas a couple centuries ago it might not happen until 17 (New Scientist, July 22, subscription required). Assuming kids are having sex earlier and more often, should it be a surprise? Physiologically they might be at the point where they should be starting. Maybe our age of adolescence is what's out of whack, or the fact that we're eating so well (as was suggested in the article). No one stops to consider that maybe children are maturing earlier than they used, so the idea of when things are “supposed” to happen is outdated.

But that's just one possibility. "However, Yvonne K. Fulbright, a New York-based sex researcher and author, said factors including peer pressure, self-esteem and home environment are probably more influential than the research suggests." I agree with her, but she gets two paragraphs, less than the 17-year-old sex-ed site manager, who has no supporting evidence at all for her claims. She just says, "Teens will try to deny it, they'll say 'No, it's not the music,' but it IS the music." Yeah, and while we’re jumping to baseless conclusions, Heavy Metal makes kids bite the heads off of bats and worship Satan.

However, the most damning evidence is the data on sex. Teen pregnancy rates are falling, and have been for quite some time. 2003 (the most recent year I found data for) had the lowest rates in 15 years. According to the CDC, more teens are abstaining, and fewer teens are having sex now than in 1995. So why, if sexual lyrics are corrupting our children, are the children having sex less? I guess facts don’t matter when we’re talking about sex.

It's almost as though the baby boomers forgot how Rock and Roll was supposed to corrupt the moral fabric of the youth beyond all repair. Funny how they're spewing the same garbage that was spewed fifty years ago. It's just as wrong then as it is now.

And the violence. Oh boy the violence. How is it, that when violence rates are the lowest they've been in over forty years, and have been declining for thirteen, we could be an epidemic of violence? If we’re in an epidemic of violence, why have almost all forms of violence in schools declined in the past ten years? How is it that violent videogames, which came about in the last decade or two, could be responsible for increased violence if violence has decreased? How is it that, according to the Surgeon General, there are 27 factors that increase violent behavior more so than violent media, such as socioeconomic status, academic failure, poor parent-child relations, weak social ties, and being male? How can anyone claim violent media is destroying our society? It's more likely that, giving the falling rates coinciding with the rise of videogames, they're making it better! Of course, I realize that correlation does not indicate causation, so I will leave that as a hypothesis and, unlike the "researchers" in these articles, not just state facts from nothing.

Violence has always existed, and it will always continue to exist. There's no way to get people to stop hurting each other. Some people are more prone to it than others, just by their genes or environment (by environment I mean family and socioeconomic status). Arguably, by giving those people a way to express their violent tendencies without hurting anyone, videogames (and perhaps other media too) do a great good. But this is pure speculation, and unlikely to ever be seriously studied.

Googling “violence” and “videogames” invariably brings up a study from Iowa State University that claims a connection between violent videogames and desensitization to violence. There was a decreased physiological response resulting from playing videogames, but this in no way makes those people more likely to commit crimes. Perhaps violent videogames really do desensitize people to violence, it seems to be the case for a short time after exposure, but there is no proof that this makes people more likely to be violent, which is what’s really important.

What I really think we should study is why people consistently claim that new things, things that they don’t understand, and things that scare them are destroying the world. There are dozens of examples, from videogames to filesharing to homosexuality to the Theory of Evolution. There are tons of historical ones, Rock and Roll and heliocentric theory spring immediately to mind. Fortunately, it seems as though many, if not most, people see through these inane fears, and I’m hopeful that in time these fears will be relegated to the fringe minorities. That would truly be a great day.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Video Game Unlocks Orgasm Secrets"

Apparently, there's a videogame for the Nintendo DS that teaches women has to masturbate and orgasm. It uses the DS touch-screen to stroke, tickle, poke, or whatever a little bunny. You can even blow into the microphone. The more you "stimulate" it, the more "excited" it gets, eventually it starts flying around the screen.

I can't help but wonder, how many women who pursue a game like this don't already know their own bodies well enough to know how to masturbate? I also wonder what the reaction to something like this will be. It probably won't be nearly mainstream or popular enough to attract the kind of attention that games like GTA get, but still. Some prude who thinks that masturbation really does kill kittens, or whatever garbage the dolts who think that the human body is disgusting believe, will probably see it and rally the morality police against it. They must have nothing better to do. Maybe they should try masturbating. I know a bunny who can help them out.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006


After much hesitation, I decided to get a blog. I wasn't hesitant because I dislike the concept, I just hate the word blog. I agree with Maddox when he says that "blog" is "a vulgar, overused word that strikes your ear with the dull thud of a cudgel to the soft spot of a child." It is truly an ugly, despicable, putrid word, and it's seemingly countless spawn-words are even worse. They send chills down my spine every time I hear them.

Nevertheless, I like the idea of, some day, writing things people want to read, so I might as well get started, and a prerequisite is getting a (shudder) blog. So here it is.

Believe me, I'm as underwhelmed as you are.