Measured Against Reality

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The US Was Not Founded As a Christian Nation

For some reason the view has become prevalent (or at least, I have encountered it frequently) that the United States was founded upon the Christian religion. The people who espouse this hypothesis use it a rationalization for their desire to transform our secular government into a theocracy. When I had the patience and time (and lack of sense) to participate in online discussions about politics, I heard this argument quite a bit.

The thing is that it’s absolutely and demonstrably false. The First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, does a decent job, and hundreds of years of precedent have quite clearly said that it prohibits the establishment of any state religion. But that’s never enough for the people I’ve encountered.

But I wonder if these people have read a Treaty with Tripoli drafted under Washington and ratified by the Senate under Adams in 1797. It reads, in part, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” [emphasis added]

Any treaty ratified by the Senate is US law. It is in US law that the US is not a Christian nation. It’s really that simple. So if you ever hear anyone say that this country was founded as a Christian nation, make sure to tell them that it wasn’t.

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Friday, September 29, 2006


A few years ago I was in some kind of south Asian store (Indian, I believe), when I saw a small, glass globe. It had the South Pole on top and the North Pole on the bottom. The first thing that I thought when I saw this globe is, “That’s upside down.” I’m sure most Americans would have exactly the same unwarranted reaction. The direction facing upward is completely arbitrary, but because the North is “more important” globes and maps always have it above the South.

That globe reminded me about perspectives, and that sometimes you have to take a step back from yourself and remember that your perspective influences how you see the world (in this case literally). You have to understand your prejudices, beliefs, morals, and experiences all filter, alter, or color what you see. Often this happens at a physiological level, and it can very difficult for you to be aware of it. But in order to truly understand the world, you have to make yourself aware.

In order to understand some things you have to get outside yourself, and understand how others with different prejudices, beliefs, morals, and experiences see the world the way they do because of all of those things. People with simplistic views of complicated issues who can’t or won’t step outside themselves almost inevitably make situations worse.

That globe sits on my shelf, and still reminds me of the same thing that made me pick it up and buy it years ago: perspectives.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Discovery From Fermilab

There was some very cool news out of Fermilab a couple of days ago. They found a particle called the B_s Meson (Pronounced B-sub-s). This is particularly strange particle that oscillates back and forth between matter and antimatter state 3 trillion times a second.

It’s a technological triumph, because these particles exist for fractions of a second before disintegrating into a haze of less exotic particles. The analysis needed to find them and determine the oscillation speed was immense, and took many years.

It’s also an unfortunate triumph for the Standard Model, which actually predicted that this particle exists. This wildly successful description of particles and their interactions has become a little bit more successful.

But why do I say “unfortunate triumph”? Well, most particle physicists feel that the Standard Model is no the whole picture, that it’s incomplete somehow. But until we break it, we don’t really know where to go. So each confirmation of a prediction just means that we’re dealing with the same old physics, instead of moving on to new physics. As I’ve said before, scientists (particle physicists especially) like to break their theories to see what’s incomplete.

That’s why the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is so exciting. It will probe energies never before reached, and hopefully break the Standard Model and show us where we need to be looking for future theories. There’s also the hope of observing things like the Higgs particle, which is theorized to give all other particles mass (I might make that a separate post, because it’s a pretty interesting particle). There’s even a chance of making black holes. Don’t worry, they’d be so small that they’d evaporate almost instantly.

But it doesn’t open until 2007, and it will probably take a few years before results start to trickle out. Until then we have to keep using our “outdated” colliders, like SLAC and the Tevatron, to bring us discoveries such as this one.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Nothing Doesn't Exist

Today I want to talk about nothing. Not like Jerry Seinfeld nothing, but the actual concept, and how it relates to the real world.

First, the definition that I’m using is quite literal, with nothing meaning “the lack or absence of anything.” It’s hard to define nothing in any non-negative way, but I think we all have a good enough idea of what nothing means to agree the above definition works pretty well. I’ve heard this called “ontological nothing”, and that’s how I will be using the word.

The interesting thing about nothing is that it does not exist. Don’t believe me? There is no point in the universe that is not something. “But what about empty space?” you ask. Space (or space-time, to be more precise) is most definitely a thing. It’s modified by the presence of matter, which is definitely something that nothing wouldn’t do. It’s also filled with “quantum fluctuation”, constantly generating so-called “virtual particles”, a particle and its anti-particle, which spontaneously generate and then annihilate. This only happens on the smallest of scales, but there’s still something there.

So what about outside the universe? There are two outlooks you can take there. The first and more traditional is that the question “what is outside the universe” is meaningless. This position holds that the universe we occupy is all that exists, and we can’t possibly leave it (even if it’s finite). The second is that we occupy a “pocket universe” surrounded by false vacuum, which is infinite. Again, asking what’s outside that is meaningless.

Just in case you don’t buy it, my justification for the assertion that “beyond the universe” is meaningless is to say that the universe is the total extent of space-time. Because it lacks space-time, the external universe would be dimensionless, and as such would be completely devoid of meaning in any way we can conceive. Also, because the universe is defined as everything that exists, asking what exists outside of it is pretty clearly meaningless, rendering the question unintelligible.

The conclusion is inescapable, nothing doesn’t exist.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Anonymously Insightful

The other day I got an anonymous comment on my post Doubt Technology Too that was so insightful that I had to mention it in a real post. Honestly, I wish I had thought of/said this, because it really impressed me, and I think it’s something that a lot of people need to be reminded of.

Nick and Stu:

It strikes me that the two of you are talking about two different kinds of "truth", and two different kinds of "knowing." Therefore, Stu, you completely talk past Nick when you say "I believe what evidence supports," because Nick relies on "spiritual evidence" while you rely on "material evidence." And by the same token, Nick, you completely talk past Stu when you say "I cannot reveal anything to you that you are unwilling to see," and "evidence is all fine and dandy, but I seek truth on a higher level: reason."

In Stu's world view, I think, these are not well-formed English sentences; they conform to the syntax of English, but their semantics are either empty or self-contradictory.

Nick, you believe that there is such a thing as revelation, in the biblical sense, meaning that some higher truth is directly revealed to you by God in some internal process that must always remain ineffable. In this way of knowing, you don't become convinced of things by a an incremental process of rational thought that proceeds from known facts to reasonable conclusions by use of logic. Instead, you find yourself suddenly overwhelmed by an epiphany: in an instant, everything becomes clear and you feel no need to question, because you just know that you know what you know...

The rapture of resolved tension is so great that it does not occur to you to double check the truth which has been revealed to you; you are totally convinced. And, because of the intensity of this feeling, you believe that this process is more valid than that based on reasoning from evidence to conclusions.

Stu, your comparatively slow and unglamourous process of reasoning from established facts to necessary conclusions, using provably correct logical operations, cannot possibly offer Nick an emotional experience of comparable intensity, and therefore you cannot convince Nick of anything.

And Nick, Stu does not judge the truth of a statement by the intensity of his emotional response to it, and therefore you cannot convince Stu of anything.

Personally, I try to remain skeptical of any belief that I have a strong emotional response to. The stronger the emotional response, the more likely it is to color my reasoning, and therefore the more careful I must be to seek validation by alternative means. I am no stranger to that moment of inspiration and insight, when one shouts "AHA! Now I see it all!" But I try to keep myself honest by backtracking to what was previously known and tediously building the bridge of reason that will prove to me that I have not fooled myself, or given in to wishful thinking, or simply made a mistake...

That's what reason is for.

That quote perfectly illustrates why discussions between the religious and atheists can be so frustrating for both sides; we’re simply not speaking the same language. Personal revelation is something that science can’t deal with (at least not yet, although some of the articles I’ve read indicate that we’re getting close), and the evidence that atheists seek is just not there (at least in any form besides personal revelation).

The best way to think of the “culture wars” or whatever it’s being called is in terms of logic versus emotion. Instead of “faith”, think about trying to convince your best friend that their cheating lover is not good for them. Without any emotional attachment, it’s really easy to see. But when you’re in love, there’s almost no logic that can break it. The human brain can so easily be made completely illogical by love, and (I’d imagine) the same thing happens with faith.

So how can those without faith preach, if you will, to the faithful? It would seem to me that you’d have to do it the same way you’d convince a friend that their significant other is no good, hammer home the evidence, and maybe get a little mean and confrontational (if the situation warrants it). It probably won’t work, but if you’ve seeded doubt in their mind, it may grow. Eventually some people will deconvert. As far as I can tell, this is what most people espouse anyway.

The opposite could be said of converting people, and it’s exactly what evangelicals do. They’ve had thousands of years to figure out what works, and appealing to fears of death or needs for community or a sense of purpose work. They play to emotion, and unbelievers need to have counters to those emotions (some of which, such as personal revelation, we might not have anything to counter with, except perhaps Sam Harris’ meditation).

But the numbers of the religious are dwindling, as more and more kids leave the church when the leave the home, so something is going right for us. We need to take advantage of it, and work to show people that godlessness can be a very good, happy place. All the evidence in the world cannot make up for that.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Why Do Males Have External Testicles?

Why do men, and males of most mammalian species, have testicles? Or, to be more precise and vulgar, why do men have external balls? If you think about it, they’re quite inconvenient. They interfere with movement and will hurt badly if hit, which is quite easy to do. So why don’t we have them protected inside our bodies?

The answer is the reason men aren’t supposed to put laptops on their laps, at least for too long: sperm die when they’re heated. Body temperature is too high for them to be viable; the testes are external so that heat will dissipate into their surroundings, keeping them within the temperature range that keeps sperm alive. Fertility trumps inconvenience in this instance.

But what about animals that don’t have external testicles? Reptiles, amphibians, and fish are cool enough for sperm to be viable, it’s only warm-blooded animals that have the problem. Birds have developed a chemical mechanism to keep sperm viable at higher temperatures, so they can have internal testicles. External testicles are a mammalian problem.

So what about aquatic mammals, like whales and dolphins, that need to be streamlined? External testes certainly create drag, something they can’t and don’t tolerate. So what’s their secret?

They’ve developed a special circulatory structure where blood cooled on the surface of their skin flows in veins around the arteries leading to the testes, thereby cooling the arterial blood and reducing their temperature enough to keep sperm viable. It’s quite the elegant solution to the problem.

So now you know why males have balls, at least non-aquatic mammals.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

6 Commonly Believed Things That Are Wrong

1. Centrifugal force

There is a lot of confusion about this one. Some people think that the centrifugal force is what causes water to stay in a bucket when you spin it around or pushes you against the door when you take a sharp turn in your car. That’s completely wrong, but not helped by its name, which means “center fleeing”. Some people also call centrifugal force a fake force. This is also wrong. So what’s going on?

When something moves in an circle, it is accelerating. This acceleration is called centripetal, which roughly means “pointing toward the center”. Because acceleration is a vector, it needs a direction, and centripetal acceleration is always pointing toward the center of the circle, hence its name. Thanks to Newton, we know that F = ma, so when a mass accelerates there’s a force. But that force is not what pushes you out, because it’s actually pointed toward the center of the circle. So what’s going on?

Well, Newton also explained this one. What pushes you out is Inertia. Because your body resists changes in its direction, when it undergoes centripetal acceleration it wants to keep going in a direction tangent to the circle. That’s what pushes you against the door and keeps the water in the bucket.

So what about the “fake force” part? Well, in a normal reference frame, the centrifugal force doesn’t exist. But in a rotating frame, it most certainly does. So while we might not need it most of the time, examining forces from a rotating frame requires it. It’s not fake at all.

2. The sky is blue because of the ocean or space.

I cannot confidently say that this is a common belief everywhere, and I sincerely hope it isn’t, but when I was in high school a large number of people did believe it, and no one knew what really makes the sky blue. I won’t even go into why it’s idiotic to think this, because it’s so obvious, but the real cause is interesting and not very well known so I will elaborate on it.

The cause is known as Raleigh scattering. What happens is that the blue wavelengths of the light from the sun are absorbed and then radiated by the gasses in the atmosphere, while the rest of the spectrum remains unaffected. This radiation happens in all directions, meaning that the entire sky looks pretty much the same shade of blue. This is also why the sun looks yellow instead of white, enough of the blue end of the spectrum is removed for it to appear yellow.

It also affects sunset, causing more of the shorter wavelengths to be filtered out as the sun’s light has to pass through more of the atmosphere to reach you.

3. Extra Dimensions

Most people seem to think that extra dimensions are some kind of world parallel to ours, or at the very least have a very muddled understanding of what extra dimensions entail.

Extra dimensions simply entail more coordinates to specify a location in space. For example, in one dimension, only one coordinate is needed to specify an exact location, x. Two dimensions needs two, x and y, and three needs three, x, y, and z. For everyone but String Theorists, we live in a world of four dimension, x, y, z, and t. That’s all that it means when someone says time is the fourth dimension, you need to give a time of an event along with its location in space to locate it exactly.

Anything above four dimensions requires the extras to be “curled up”, which means that they’re very small, so small that the only things that can move inside them are the most fundamental particles of the universe. In string theory, they take the form of Calabi-Yau manifolds, which are extremely complicated mathematical shapes. They occur at every point in space, and to completely specify a location you’d need to also give the extra 6 or 7 (depending on the theory) dimensions.

4. Nuclear power plants can explode like a bomb

I know some extremely intelligent people who believe this, and it’s rubbish. Nuclear power plants don’t have anywhere close to the fissile material needed for the runaway reaction like a bomb. Modern power plants can’t even meltdown like Chernobyl did. It’s actually a great irony of history that the same day that Chernobyl’s reactors overheated the same test was done here in the US, and the reactor passed with flying colors. Safeguards in place today make overheating virtually impossible. The pollution from coal plants is far more dangerous than nuclear power ever will be, but people seem so irrationally afraid of nuclear power that it doesn’t matter that it’s the safest and cleanest means of generating energy (at least once we have a good waste disposal plan, and there are many in the works).

5. Microwave ovens (or other electronics) can cause cancer

No, they can’t, at least without some serious malfunction. They don’t release as much dangerous radiation as a slab of granite. The number one source of radiation encountered by most people (unless you get an X-ray) is the ground. Even if you were to microwave yourself, the radiation wouldn’t give you cancer because it’s on the low-frequency end of the spectrum, meaning it doesn’t have the energy to knock DNA apart, unlike UV, X, or gamma rays. Microwaves do heat up water nicely though.

6. Medieval people thought the world was flat

No, they didn’t. This was made up more or less out of thin air by Washington Irving in his horrid biography of Christopher Columbus. I haven’t the faintest idea why this has become so widespread, since there is ample evidence going against it, but unfortunately it’s still taught.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Doubt Technology Too

One thing I’ve never understood about science-haters is how selective they are. They don’t like evolution, but they love airplanes and computers and microwaves and medicine. I wonder what they would say if someone told them that new drugs are often developed with evolution in mind. They probably wouldn’t believe it.

And why can’t you trust a scientist not to lie when he says that radiological dating proves the earth is about four and a half billion years old, but you can when he says that the shape of a plane’s wing creates lift and enables it to fly? It’s the same people using the same method, so why do they trust some results and not others?

Now, I’m not saying we should believe everything every scientist says because science has been so remarkably good at giving us new toys (everything in the computer I’m writing this with and you’re reading it with was developed by some scientist). For example, String Theory is very quite probably wrong, but thousands of theoretical Physicists line up behind it, declaring it to be the Theory of Everything. It may be, but until there’s good evidence (theoretical or experimental), we should probably reserve judgment.

But doubting evolution is like doubting that planes can fly. We’ve seen it happen in nature, we’ve seen it happen in the lab, we’ve seen it happen in the fossil record, we’ve seen it happen in the genetic record, and we understand much how it happens. If you doubt evolution, you should doubt everything else science had given you, and go live in a cave somewhere. At least then you’d be wrong and consistent. Because as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

I’m not holding my breath.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

How to Build a Pneumatic Cannon

My favorite backyard project is the pneumatic cannon. It’s simple, cheap, and very effective. Here’s how to build one.

All that you need is PVC parts, PVC cement, and a car tire valve. Some plastic epoxy is also a good idea, to help seal the leaks.

Continue reading...

How you build it is up to you, but I like the basic T-shaped design shown here. It’s simple, I find it ergonomic, and it works pretty well. The back end is 3-inch, with two end-caps and a T-connection that narrows to 1.5-in. One of the end caps has to have a valve in it, which can be done by simply drilling a hole and shoving the valve through it. I find that this seal is never very good, and covered mine with the plastic epoxy on both sides. It’s also a good idea to epoxy every joint on the pressure chamber, because PVC cement almost inevitably gets leaks.

The pressure chamber is then connected to a 1.5-in valve, and at its simplest, a 1.5-in barrel that’s a couple feet long, which is perfect for shooting potatoes. I built another gun with that setup, and it can shoot a potato well over a hundred yards, at least by my estimation.

The one shown is more complicated. The valve is attached to a threaded PVC piece. This lets you change out barrels. The one shown is a triple 1-in where two can be open or shut, so it can fire 1 to 3 shots at once. It gets the most distance with only one, but it’s only marginally better than all three. This gun shoots bouncy balls (which have a diameter slightly less than 1-in).

Another good thing about these guns is that they’re pretty accurate. At one point I secured the bouncy-ball shooter to a table, and two consecutive shots went through the same hold in my target. It’s a bit more challenging to aim when you’re holding it, however. They can also be used as water cannons. When they shoot a barrel full of water, it goes about 20 yards and spreads into a nice cloud. Very good as heavy artillery for water fights, except that they’re pretty slow to reload.

And that’s all there is to it, happy building!

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Add Social Bookmarking to Your Blog

I have been searching for a way to add a “Digg This” link to my blogger blog for some time now. I had one that worked for a while, but suddenly stopped a few weeks ago. So I decided to take it into my own hands and cobble something together that just works. It’s not fancy, and it won’t magically fill out all the forms for you, but it does work. I also added most other social bookmarking sites, such as Reddit and

Just copy and paste the following into your template, wherever you see fit. I put mine in the post footer (hence the class=”post-footer” in the p tag), but it could go anywhere.

<p class="post-footer">Send this post to:
<a style="float:none;" href="javascript:location.href='* url='+encodeURIComponent('<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>')">Digg</a> |
<a style="float:none;" href="<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>* &title=<$BlogItemTitle$>">Reddit</a> |
<a style="float:none;" href="<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>* &title=<$BlogItemTitle$>"></a> |
<a style="float:none;" href="<$BlogItemTitle$>* &url=<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>">Spurl</a> |
<a style="float:none;" href="* <$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>">Ma.gnolia</a> |
<a style="float:none;" href="<$BlogItem* PermalinkURL$>&h=<$BlogItemTitle$>">Newsvine</a></p>

For formatting reasons, I had to put spaces into the code where they wouldn't typically appear in the URLs, marked by a *. You'll have to get rid of those for the code to work.

You can tweak it to fit your tastes, all the different sites work independently (obviously). And if there’s someone out there who could improve this, please do (or anyone who can write a "copy to clipboard" script that works in all browsers). This seems to be something people want, and I can’t find a working version anywhere (except here!).

I hope this gets all your posts a few more hits, and glad I could help.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

New Form of Biodiesel Created

Biodiesel is being touted as a wave of the future, one of the best ways to reduce dependence on oil and cut non-renewable fuel use. Unfortunately it’s made from the same plants we eat, and if it became widely used, it would have to compete with food for space on farms.

Fortunately, that may be about to change, thanks to a team of German scientists lead by Alexander Steinbüchel from the University of Munster. The team modified some E. coli bacteria to make alcohol from sugar, and then combine that alcohol with oil. This produces a fatty-acid fuel that can be burned in a diesel engine, and has been dubbed “microdiesel”.

One benefit is that this fuel produces no toxic byproducts, unlike traditional biodiesel. Additionally, the researchers say that further modifications could eliminate the need to use oil as a constituent, enabling the bacteria to produce fuel from only plant waste byproducts resulting from normal food processing.

That fact is this methods greatest asset, reducing the cost of producing the fuel and the need for dedicated farm land. These are the two main obstacles preventing biodiesel from becoming practical, and they’re close to being surpassed. Hopefully Steinbüchel and his team will surmount the remaining challenges and make biodiesel practical. If the alarmists are right, our very world could depend on it.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Faith Does Need Proof

I'm currently reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith. He has a lot of good points, but one I'd like to discuss here is that all beliefs require some form of proof, or at least people desire proof for their beliefs. Most people seem to think that, in the words of Douglas Adams, “Proof denies faith.” But I think it’s fairly obvious that “faith demands proof.”

Don’t believe me? Take apologetics. If faith doesn’t need proof, then why have thousands of people throughout history felt the need to defend their faith with evidence? Why is it that when you ask the faithful for proof, they give you an answer? If faith didn’t need proof, then the answer would be “our faith is proof enough”, but that’s very rarely heard.

Then there’s the science-deniers. If faith needs no evidence, and evidence is irrelevant to faith, why spend so much energy attempting to refute scientific claims? Why spend so much time insisting that science and archaeology “prove” the Bible? They shouldn’t need to, because their faith is worth more than all the evidence in the world.

But it isn’t, and people know it. The human mind craves rationality. When we believe something, it has to have some rational basis. And when we get information that goes against our beliefs, we have to rationalize it somehow, whether we utterly dismissing it, or change our beliefs (see this article).

Which means, of course, that beliefs don’t survive unless we ground them in reality, even if that reality is distorted. Which is why we have apologetics, and why Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” is totally wrong; science and religion cannot survive together as long as they both make claims about how the world is.

The simple fact is that a belief, any belief, needs some kind of rational basis; that faith needs proof. Which is why the religious fear science so much. Science is capable of finding the real truths in the universe, religion is a muddle of ignorance, fear, and bigotry that we’d be better off without. It’s only a matter of time before religion is relegated to the history books, and I hope I’ll live to see it.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

How to Sink a Ship With Bubbles

Bubbles are the last of all the things on the high seas that anyone would suspect could bring down a ship. But, as it turns out, they can.

One way for bubbles to turn sinister is if they lower the density of the water surrounding the ship. Ships float because of Archimedes’ Principle: they displace enough water to compensate for their weight. But if the density of the water lowers, they’ll need to displace more of it, and sink lower into the water. If there are enough bubbles, this can sink the ship.

This isn’t just theory either, it’s actually been done. Researchers sunk a series of PVC tubes with tiny holes in them and pumped air through them. A boat stationed above the tubes sunk in a few minutes. This isn’t too realistic as the boat was stationary, and the bubbles tend to force things outward. It’s very improbably that millions of tiny bubbles can sink a ship.

But what about larger bubbles? The other way that bubbles can sink ships if is one large bubble hits the ship. This can place a huge force on the hull, violently cracking it, or tipping it over in a matter of seconds. This has been accurately simulated in scale lab tests.

But does this ever actually happen in nature? Actually, it can. There are huge deposits of methane hydrates, frozen methane gas, all over the bottom of the world’s oceans. A landslide or earthquake could release massive amounts of methane from these deposits, creating huge bubbles that could take down any ship floating above.

As these bubbles continue to ascend in the atmosphere they can even wreak havoc on airplanes. Methane is far less dense than air, so any plane that hit a methane cloud would instantly drop. But the altimeter, which reads altitude based on air pressure, would shoot up. A confused pilot could easily push the nose down based on the altimeter reading, and head straight into the water.

Methane can also kill combustion engines at concentrations as low as 1%. Not to mention that methane is flammable, and if the bubble had a sufficient concentration, it could catch fire or explode.

But how often does any of this happen? All indications say that it’s pretty rare. But it’s the most likely cause behind many famous vanishings at sea, including many in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle”. We know these hydrates are out there, we’ve seen them bubble, we know a landslide could trigger a huge bubble, we know that the bubbles can be deadly. The only conclusion that we can make is that this is a real, if unlikely, threat. So next time you’re out to sea, watch out for killer bubbles.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Scientists Are Not Dogmatic

Anyone who read my previous post, Science is Not Dogmatic and disagreed with me will probably be interested in this article (subscription required). It’s about the fine structure constant, alpha, experiments determining it, and what they mean for science and physics. The physics is cool, but not what I want to talk about. The article contained these gems:

"It [Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), the quantum field theory of electromagnetism] was just patched together out of bits and pieces, in order to explain some experiments," says Freeman Dyson, one of the theory's architects, now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. "We didn't expect it to last," he adds. "Every time there was a new experiment, we all expected that the theory would be proved wrong in some interesting way. Instead, each experiment still agrees with the theory. That's sort of a disappointment."

"There is no wiggle room if theory and experiment disagree," Kinoshita says. Some fundamental aspect of QED - quantum mechanics, say, or special relativity - might have to be modified. "If quantum electrodynamics is wrong, that would be a fantastic discovery," says Gabrielse. "The stakes are really high here."

"It has worked so remarkably well for a number of years that it has made it into all of our textbooks as if it's the gospel truth," Gabrielse says. "Most of us would be surprised if it breaks down, just because we've failed to make it break down after trying so hard." He adds, "We're in a rut, for very good reason, in using these field theories. They have been wildly successful. But it seems to me sort of part of the human experience to always ask, 'Is that the whole story? Or is there something more to it?'"

Yup, that’s dogmatic all right. Because if anything’s dogmatic, it’s wanting your supposed “cherished theories”, which are now “gospel truth” to be wrong. One of the principle architects of QED wants the theory, which he helped create to be wrong! They want to have to change it! These are not nut-jobs, out of synch with the majority of scientists. The fact is that science only really progresses when we don’t understand things, so if we knew everything about the universe scientists would be out of jobs!

One of the most important ways science progresses is by actively trying to find flaws in our theories and models. The only way a hypothesis can develop into a theory is by withstanding the unrelenting scrutiny of scientists. No incorrect hypothesis survives long under this intense pressure. As an example, disproving current theories is one of the biggest things going in particle physics right now, and the first team to find what’s wrong with the Standard Model will get a Nobel Prize, probably the same year they do it. If any of our current theories (except wholly theoretical ones like String Theory) could be proven wrong with what we have on hand, then they would have been proven wrong by now.

When a scientist says that a theory is right all that they mean is that all evidence gathered has supported it or its predictions. Everything could be wrong, but many theories have so much evidence behind them that it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need anything other than tweaking. The simple fact is that these thousands of scientists aren’t part of some grand dogmatic conspiracy, they just want to understand the way the world works; they want the truth. And currently, the scientific method is the only thing that gets us reliably to the truth. It might be a rocky, uneven, and bumbling ride, but it works. Which is far more than can be said about anything else.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

No Better Than Chance

Every now and then I feel a sensation, quite like a cell phone’s vibration, on my right leg, right about where my pocket is. That’s exactly where, for the past four years, I have kept my cell phone, which is always set to vibrate.

But my cell phone isn’t always ringing when this happens. I can’t count how many times I’ve reached into my pocket, pulled out my cell phone, and no one had called.

Interesting thing is, a couple days ago I got a new phone, and started keeping in my left pocket. Today I got that feeling in my right leg, reached in for my old phone out of habit, then my new phone rang.

That got me thinking about all the other times the feeling had come before my phone ringing. Almost as if my leg someone “knew” I was getting the call.

But as I said before, there were far more times where it happened and there was no call. Sometimes the feeling “got lucky” and got a hit, most of the time it didn’t. If I had kept rigorous, detailed notes of the phenomena, it would have faired no better than chance.

It reminded me of all the anecdotes I’ve heard, where someone has a dream foretelling some terrible event, or a case the doctors had given up on gets better after some vigorous praying on his behalf. The thing that you never hear is all of the failed prophecies, all of the people who are prayed for and died. And how, if they had kept rigorous, detailed notes of these phenomena, that they would find it was no more than chance.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Chimpanzees Have Culture!

A cool little experiment determined, once and for all, that chimpanzees have culture.

This had always been suspected, because different populations of chimps have different behaviors, but it's never been totally certain whether it was due to environmental pressures or quirks of culture.

Victoria Horner, a primate researchers at the University of St Andrews and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and her colleagues designed a clever experiment to see if chimps do have culturally transmitted behaviors.

The researchers designed a box that would have some food placed in it. The food could be accessed in two ways, either lifting it up or sliding it. They then taught one chimpanzee to open it by lifting, and another in a different area by sliding.

They then let a different chimp, the student, watch while the first, the teacher, demonstrated how they were trained to open it. Once the new chimp had learned how to open the box, the first was removed and another new chimp brought in, who then became the student. This was repeated through six "generations".

The behavior was transmitted nearly perfectly. One chimp who had been trained to slide lifted the box once, but his student learned to slide anyway. That's a nearly 99% accuracy at passing learned behaviors down through generations, which is far better than could be achieved by each generation relearning how to use the box, showing conclusively that chimpanzees have culturally-inherited behaviors.

This isn't very surprising, at least not to me, because the anecdotal evidence has always been in favor of chimps being able to learn, and it would be more surprising if our closest relative didn't have some kind of culture, since we'd have to have developed it all on our own. But it's good to have evidence outside of stories.

(Abstract available here:

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Microwave Propulsion

Roger Shawyer has made a remarkable claim: that he can create thrust using only microwaves. Naturally, skepticism abounds; normally when someone proclaims something so outlandish, they have no proof, neither prototype nor theoretical evidence, to back it up. Roger, however, has both. It also helps that he’s been in the aerospace industry for years, working with commercial and military satellites, as an engineers at Matra Marconi Space, and consulting on the Galileo Project.

His engine works with no moving parts, using only microwaves and esoteric physics. He uses a principle discovered by Maxwell nearly 150 years ago, and the same one behind solar sails: that light exerts a force on any surface it hits. Shawyer uses resonant cavities, (those with lengths in integer multiples of the wavelength of light being used) to produce the force. Unfortunately, with cylindrical cavities the forces on both ends are the same, canceling any force.

Continue reading...However, by making a conically shaped resonant cavity, the waves will travel more slowly in the narrow end, producing an uneven force that results in thrust. According to Shawyer, it’s that simple.

But what actually makes the thrust? That’s where relativity comes in. Because the microwaves are moving close to (or at) the speed of light, relativistic effects must be taken into account. This means “that the microwaves move in their own frame of reference. In other words they move independently of the cavity - as if they are outside it. As a result, the microwaves themselves exert a push on the cavity.” Very strange indeed.

The chief engineering difficulty is that the cavity tends to release energy, which diminishes the effectiveness of the engine. Shawyer has two prototypes, the better of the two produces about 300 miliNewtons, or 0.067 pounds of thrust. More efficient containers, like those used in particle accelerators and made of superconductors, could vastly improve performance.

One big drawback is that the faster these engines go, the less effective they become. That’s why Shawyer wants to use them to make hover-cars, freeing them from the ground while using conventional propulsion to move them.

As is usually the case with a new, untested technology, some people think it’s meaningless crank science, and others think it’s the wave of the future. However, Shawyer has been meticulous in documenting his research, and independent analysts have been impressed.

It’s hard to say what might come of this, there are many technological hurdles still to be crossed, and .067 pounds of thrust, while a good start, is nowhere near enough to be used in anything practical. Maybe one day when we’re all driving hover-cars around Shawyer will be looked upon as the man who gave us the relativity-drive; but he may also fade into obscurity. It’ll be a few years before we can tell for sure. I’ll be waiting to hear more, that’s for sure.

(From New Scientist, Sept. 08 2006, Reltivity Drive: the End of Wings and Wheels? Subscription required)

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Amazing Dolphins

There have been a few stories circulating about dolphins lately. First they say that they’re about as smart as goldfish, then a couple that say that they’re actually quite intelligent, as we’d always thought. I fall in with those who think that they’re intelligent animals; that’s certainly the conclusion their behavior leads me to.

Today I saw an amazing example of this. In certain coastal, warm areas, dolphins and local fisherman cooperate. The dolphins drive schools of fish into the shore, and the men cast their nets into the schools. The men get nets full of fish, and in the chaos the dolphins pick off stragglers from the school.

Continue reading...This is pretty remarkable. My guess about how it started is that the dolphins were using their normal tactics to break up a school near the shore, noticed that humans threw nets when the fish were in close, noticed how the school dispersed without much work on their part, and put two and two together. But what’s pretty significant is that this is a culturally transferred behavior, meaning that dolphins are capable of passing learned knowledge through generations. That’s quite extraordinary.

Another great example of undeniable dolphin intelligence comes from this Guardian article:

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

This is truly spectacular behavior, corroborating the conclusions of transferability of knowledge down generational lines. It also shows a level of intelligence that I had never suspected dolphins to be capable of.

Dolphins have even been observed doing the gold standard of animal intelligence: using tools. They’ve been observed using a scorpion fish they recently killed to cajole an eel out of rocks. They will also place sponges on their noses to protect from stinging animals as they hunt for food along the bottom.

Dolphins even test similarly to us, at least when what’s being tested for is new behaviors.

A dolphin's ability to invent novel behaviours was put to the test in a famous experiment by the renowned dolphin expert Karen Pryor. Two rough-toothed dolphins were rewarded whenever they came up with a new behaviour. It took just a few trials for both dolphins to realise what was required. A similar trial was set up with humans. The humans took about as long to realise what they were being trained to do as did the dolphins. For both the dolphins and the humans, there was a period of frustration (even anger, in the humans) before they "caught on". Once they figured it out, the humans expressed great relief, whereas the dolphins raced around the tank excitedly, displaying more and more novel behaviours.

There are even indications that they’re capable of understanding language and are self-aware, putting them on par with humans and great apes.

I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the surface of what dolphins can do. Maybe one day, millennia from now, after our society has collapsed, they’ll rise up and inherit the earth, and marvel at the wondrous ruins left behind by humanity. Nah.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Is Fast Food Fat Food?

Many people have seen Morgan Spurlock’s Documentary Super Size Me, and many were convinced by his experience that fast food is inherently bad for you. What these people don’t realize is that Spurlock’s real problem is that he simply overate. Other people ate McDonald’s for a month straight and were skinnier and healthier after than before. Two good examples are Scott Caswell or James Painter. Even at McDonald’s it’s possibly to eat right.

But that’s not the whole story. Case studies are interesting, but rarely revealing or reliable enough to qualify as real science. That’s why I dug into the peer-reviewed literature in medical journals to find out all I could about fast food. I’ve condensed that down into some quick conclusions.

Continue reading...There are many problems with fast food, including “enormous portion size, high energy density, palatability, excessive amounts of refined starch and added sugars, high fat content, and low levels of dietary fiber.” The most important of those, at least in terms of weight gain, are the portion size, and energy density. I’ll focus on energy density first.

Energy density is simply how many calories are in a given volume of food. This is important because humans evolved eating things that have relatively low energy density, and as such our bodies are best equipped to deal with those foods. For example, if you ate enough apples to feel full and enough Big Macs to feel full, the Big Macs will give you much, much more energy, probably around 1,000 Calories more, which is half the daily Caloric needs.

This in and of itself actually isn’t a problem, it only becomes one when this energy isn’t used. The study by Ebbeling and colleagues found that while everyone eats far more fast food than required to satiate their energy needs, overweight people are much less likely to work it off. Why this is so is undetermined, but it points to the conclusion that burning the excess energy is the main concern with fast food, and that overweight people (for whatever reason) don’t do that as well as people of normal weight.

And this makes sense. People gain weight because they take in more energy than they use. So people need to be more careful with fast food because it has more energy per unit volume than we’ve evolved to deal with. People who don’t compensate gain weight, those who do compensate won’t gain anything.

Portion size is another problem, but one that’s spread across our entire culture. Portion sizes have increased on everything from bagels to fast food to candy bars, and we haven’t adjusted. For example, a standard bagel supplies the entire daily requirement for grain for someone on a 1,600 Calorie diet (2,000 is the recommended norm). This is significant for fast food, which we already know is energy dense. Eating a large portion of something with a high density and not burning off the Calories is a recipe for weight gain.

“Value Pricing”, where larger sizes are less per unit, is probably an important culprit for this trend, but there are doubtlessly others. Some studies suggest that eliminating value pricing is the easiest step we can make toward losing weight. But even then, it’s ultimately up to the consumer to decide what goes in their mouth.

The other thing to take into consideration is whether fast food is an aberration from a healthy diet, or typical of the diet. A study by Newby and colleagues found that diet correlates well with BMI, with diets high in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains being the best, and diets consisting of meats and starches were among the worst. But again, this just confirms what we already know, eating natural, unprocessed foods in a balanced diet is the best way to be healthy.

Where does fast food fit into that scheme? The surgeon general says that it can be eating as part of a healthy diet, but many might be skeptical of that. However, the evidence suggests that he’s right: as long as the energy is worked off, eating fast food is not bad. There might be long-term health problems because typical fast food lacks some vitamins and minerals, but every fast food chain now offers salads, which should supply the needed nutrients. The only fair conclusion is that fast food is not actually all that bad when proper balances used.

As always, the key to being healthy is eating right and exercising. We can indulge in high-calorie, “bad” fast food, as long as we balance it out. It might not be the conclusion Morgan Spurlock or the people suing McDonald’s for “making them fat” want to hear, but it really is simply up to the consumer to manage their own health.


  • Boon, Gloria, et al. “National Summit on Obesity.” American Medial Association. October 2004. 19 May 2006.

  • Bowman, Shanthy A, and Bryan T. Vinyard. “Fast Food Consumption of U.S. Adults: Impact on Energy and Nutrient Intakes and Overweight Status.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23.2 (2004): 163-168.

  • Ebbeling, Cara B, et al. “Compensation for Energy Intake From Fast Food Among Overweight and Lean Adolescents.” Journal of the American Medical Association 291.23 (2004): 2828-2833.

  • Freeland-Graves, Jeanne, and Susan Nitzke. “Total Diet Approach to Communicating Food and Nutrition Information.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102:100 (2002).

  • Harnack, Lisa, and Simone French PhD. “Fattening up on fast food.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103.10 (2003): 1296-1297.

  • Jacobs, David R. “Fast food and sedentary lifestyle: a combination that leads to obesity.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 83.2 (2006): 189-190.

  • Newby, PK, et al. “Dietary patterns and changes in body mass index and waist circumference in adults.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 77.6 (2003): 1417-1425.

  • Prentice, A. M, and S. A. Jebb. “Fast foods, energy density and obesity: a possible mechanistic link.” Obesity Reviews 4.4 (2003): 187.

  • Pruitt, Julie D, et al. “Nutrition as a contributor and treatment option for overweight and obesity.” American Heart Journal 151.3 (2006): 628-632.

  • Young, Lisa R, and Marion Nestle. “Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: Implications for nutrition counseling.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103.2 (2003): 231-234.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Science is not Dogmatic

Note: A follow-up to this post appears here.

Creationists and other science-haters often claim that scientists are dogmatic. Frequently they’ll say something about “dogmatic Darwinists” keeping “Intelligent Design” or “Creation Science” down, but just as often the accusation will be directed toward science and scientists in general.

Let me state this in no uncertain terms: anyone who claims that science is dogmatic is completely and totally ignorant.

First, what does dogma mean? Most definitions specifically state it’s a religious belief, but the ones that don’t say something to the effect of, “a belief that is held to be unquestionably true”, and they often throw in some language about lack of evidence for the belief.

Now, what is science? This definition is among the best I’ve ever seen: “Science refers to either: the scientific method – a process for evaluating empirical knowledge; or the organized body of knowledge gained by this process.” Throw in a reference to methodological naturalism and it’s perfect.

Any process specifically designed to test the natural world through observation, and evaluating the evidence gained from observation is, by definition, nondogmatic. Right off the bat the claims of dogmatism are false.

One of the central tenets of science is that nothing is ever truly proven. Every scientific theory can be overthrown if evidence is provided to invalidate it. Examples of this happening are too numerous to count, the classic one is Einstein’s General Relativity overthrowing Newton’s Law of Gravitation, but there are plenty more.

Science is based only on evidence and logical interpretation of that evidence. Hypotheses are posited, tested, make predictions, those are tested, and if the hypothesis passes the scrutiny of the scientific community, it will be accepted. At least until some new evidence challenges it, when the process begins again. It is not dogma.

Many scientists frequently point out that if someone came up with evidence that challenged an existing theory (such as Evolution or the Standard Model) and came up with a suitable theory to explain it, they’d be a hero. They’d be showered in awards and praise, and go down as one of The Greats. That’s exactly what Einstein and Darwin did, and they’re remembered as two of the greatest in their fields. How can science be called dogmatic when its greatest rewards are given to people who challenge the accepted theories?

The same claims of dogmatism are often applied to atheism as well. They are, at least for me, equally untrue. Atheism is (for most people) about the lack of evidence for any kind of deity. If someone showed me irrefutable proof that god (any god) actually exists, then I’d “believe” in it, the same way I “believe” in science. However, my confidence that this won’t happen is such that I feel perfectly secure claiming that god (any god) does not exist. Many people find this contradictory, saying that agnosticism is the only logical stance on the issue. To that I can only reply with a Richard Dawkins quote, “I’m agnostic about God the same way I’m agnostic about fairies.” God or gods should be held to the same standards as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and every other statement about the world: namely, show me the evidence, and I’ll believe it.

Neither science nor atheism is dogmatic, and claims to the contrary are simply wrong, and most likely don’t truly understand science or atheism. Which is too bad, because knowledge is infinitely more inspiring than dogmatic ignorance, no matter how comforting it may be.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006


Myths are funny things. They’re just stories. The culture they came from might think they’re true, but they’re still just stories. Everyone has their stories. One of the things that makes humans human is telling and retelling stories.

Take, for instance, flood stories. Pretty much every culture has one, as that link shows. Some people take this as evidence of some kind of global flood. The much more likely conclusion is that people nearly always live near a water source, water sources frequently flood (especially given a period of hundreds of years), then these floods get turned into stories and exaggerated. Some very dedicated apologetics try to find “evidence” for a “great flood”, and maybe there was one. Maybe the Red Sea was a canyon separated from the Mediterranean until a big earthquake, maybe not. It doesn’t matter, because the myths are still fictionalized stories.

Reading Mythology literally is like reading Stephen King or Douglas Adams or Homer literally. It never occurs to anyone that mythology is fiction; it’s fiction, whether you want it to be or not. Besides, no one believes that Athena was birthed from Zeus’s skull, so why an equally ridiculous virgin birth (or any other myth)?

I suppose people just need to believe in bigger things, whether it’s God or Jesus or Atlantis or Zenu. Personally, I find the universe to be plenty big and inspiring, and it doesn’t need any help from our stories. Maybe one day the rest of the world will see that. Unfortunately, I think they’ll keep their preposterous myths.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Lost Faith in the Aftermath of Tragedy

A little while ago I wrote about blind faith in the aftermath of tragedy, people who think God “saved” them despite the fact that they’ve been through an unnecessary disaster, and many other people died. I feel that it is the height of human stupidity and arrogance. Although I guess if you’re already religious you have to rationalize what you’ve been through somehow, because we can’t possibly live in a random, meaningless world. I suppose it’s understandable if it gives them some comfort, although I say that reluctantly.

But I was shocked a little by this story. An airplane accidentally took off from a runway that was too short, and only one person survived, albeit with horrific injuries. The man’s first words after coming off of a ventilator were, “Why would God do this to me?”

Well, it’s just as arrogant as “God saved me!” But faith is all about giving yourself a big place in the world when you don’t have one. But it shocked me a little because he’s so close, so close to the truth. I wonder if it will actually dawn on him that there is no God, that there’s nothing in control, no rhyme, no reason, no big place in the world for a small human.

I hope he recovers from this terrible accident, and I hope he sees the light, so to speak.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

The War on Drugs: America's Apartheid

I do not hide the fact that I hate our current drug policy. The more I learn about it, the more it disgusts me. So that’s why I’ve compiled some facts about race, drugs, and apartheid.

African Americans constitute about 12% of the American population, and around 13% of drug users, nearly the same number, which is what you’d expect. Additionally, 9.7% of blacks use drugs, compared to 8.1% for whites, again similar numbers, in line with what expectations. So you’d expect that the rates of incarceration for possession drug possession for blacks and whites to be similar. But they’re not. Blacks make up 35% of those arrested for possession, 55% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced. How, exactly, in a fair society, would 13% of drug users make up 74% of those sentenced for drug violations? And how can 35% of arrests make up 74% of inmates? This is nothing but institutionalized racism.

In South Africa during Apartheid 851 per 100,000 black males were incarcerated. Currently in the United States, under the banner of the “War on Drugs” 4,919 per 100,000 black males are incarcerated. Nearly 1/3 of black men in their 20s are in prison, on probation or parole. Our institutionalized racism is worse than the worst post-slavery institutionalized racism.

More African Americans are in jail now than were enslaved in the 19th century. We’re currently beating our own institutionalized racism.

There is simply no way to justify this. Societal factors such as poverty-prone minorities being more likely to commit crimes cannot go far enough to explain the huge disparity between blacks and whites in prisons. We should be absolutely outraged. Many prominent black figures are, but the general public should be too. Democrats, the champions of the underprivileged, have a chance to actually help them. But they won’t, because we’re too committed to this insane “war” that helps no one and hurts hundreds of thousands.

My take-home message is to get pissed off about this, and to get other people pissed off about it too, because nothing will change if we remain silent and complacent.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

How Our Oil Situation Could be Much Worse

Imagine if the DMV, or some other awful government agency, ran the world’s oil companies. Imagine the waste: too many unqualified employers draining payroll, with no incentive to do any real work, bureaucrats who just looks out for their own interests and don’t care at all about production, rampant corruption, and the government breathing down its neck, telling it exactly what to do. Imagine how little would get done, and how much the world would suffer.

But that’s how it really is. National Oil Companies (NOCs) control 90% of the world’s known oil and gas reserves. While not all of them are as bad as my hypothetical scenario, many are. Petróleos de Venezuela, (PDVSA) could be a poster-child of meddling government destroying a once-productive oil company. Long story short, after Hugo Chavez started meddling with the company, production fell dramatically (from about 2.6 million barrels/day to, at worst, 1.2 million b/d), and hasn’t recovered (now it’s at about 1.6 b/d, but falling).

PDVSA suffers from the corruption, incompetence, overstaffing, government interference I described, and a whole host of other woes because they’re state-controlled.

Albeit, not all NOCs are as bad as PVDSA, but many are. And even the good ones aren’t as open, as efficient, or as dedicated to finding new sources as the private oil companies. And because the thirteen largest oil and gas companies are all NOCs, these firms can do much more to help the consumer than the lowly likes of Exxon-Mobile. Besides all this, the places that private firms can drill are running dry much faster than NOC-controlled wells and reserves, so our dependence on NOCs is only going to increase.

The take-home message is that blaming “big oil” for skyrocketing oil prices is, at best, only partly correct. The US imports 58% of its oil, and much of it comes from these poorly-run NOCs, meaning they have more influence than our domestic firms. Even though both NOCs and “big oil” share the blame for high prices, “big oil” like Exxon-Mobile should take less of the blame. But one must remember, these firms spend billions on finding new reserves and increasing their output, and as such should the public should cut them some slack. Not enough for them to get truly lazy, but some. After all, as Venezuela shows, it could be much, much worse.

(Much of this information from Economist, Aug 10: Oil’s Dark Secret, which is subscriber-only.)

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Inherent Intolerance

A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about how many Americans seem to believe that Islam is an inherently violent and intolerant religion. And it is. However, those same people usually resist comparisons to Christian violence and intolerance. But is Islam any worse than Christianity? To find out, I went digging for some quotes from their holy books. The answer might surprise you.

Below are seven quotes, four from the KJV Bible, and three from the Koran. Try to guess which are which.

1. “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.”

2. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”

3. “And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.”

4. “Verily We have revealed unto thee clear tokens, and only miscreants will disbelieve in them.”

5. “O ye who believe! Take not for intimates others than your own folk, who would spare no pains to ruin you; they love to hamper you. Hatred is revealed by (the utterance of) their mouths, but that which their breasts hide is greater. We have made plain for you the revelations if ye will understand.”

6. “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.”

7. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

The answer are below the fold. No peaking!

1. Koran 2:191

2. 2 Corinthians 6:14

3. Acts 3:23

4. Koran 2:99

5. Koran 3:118

6. Luke 19:27

7. John 3:36

This is just a small sample from each religion, and they took me a few minutes to collect. A comprehensive list would be pages long. And it exists, at the Skeptics Annotated Bible, the links above.

It should be clear from these that both of them are inherently violent and intolerant, at least based on their books. They both have a history of violence, and both are currently violent. Perhaps Islam is more vocal about it, or maybe we just hear about radical Islam more often (remember, there’s still sectarian violence in Ireland). Either way there are still plenty of fanatic Christians who use their faith to legitimize their hatred, and that fact is undeniable. Just ask Matthew Shepard. So next time someone criticizes Islam in general, or says that the moderates should reject the radicals, remind them that Christianity, and every other religion, should do the same.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Truth About Teflon

In scientific circles, creationists are well know for shoddy scholarship, outrageous claims with no evidence, misconstruing existing evidence, writing specifically to confuse, and many other tricks to convince people that their idiotic point of view is correct. Well, this article about Teflon is about as bad.

First off, let me say that I work for a Teflon manufacturer, Applied Plastics Technology. We don’t make pans, we actually mold Teflon parts. We’ve been working with Teflon for over thirty years, and we’re currently pioneering new ways of working with it. On my first day I read through the OSHA booklet about Teflon, plus a whole bunch of other manuals about it. So I know more than a little about Teflon.

Continue reading...Teflon is an amazing chemical, and without it many different industries would shut down. It won’t react with any other chemical, it’s almost frictionless, it’s nearly a perfect insulator, and it’s one of the purest materials ever made. It’s used to insulate wire, in HDTV broadcasters, in submarine valves, to make Egg McMuffins, to hold dangerous and reactive chemicals, and too many other ways to count. Essentially, if you need something pure, something inert, something nonconductive, or something frictionless, Teflon is the only material that will do. Our world is pretty dependent upon it.

There is only one way to make Teflon dangerous, and that’s to heat it up to over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. When this happens Teflon enters a gel stage, something like Jello. When it gets this hot chemicals such as Hydrogen Fluoride are released as gasses. There are several people I work with who smoke, and they’re very careful about not getting the Teflon powder in their cigarettes for this reason. But as I said, this is the only way Teflon is dangerous.

The site I linked to claims that pans can heat up to 700 degrees in five minutes. I highly doubt this. The only time I’ve seen something get that hot on a stove was when I destroyed a tea kettle by letting all the water boil off, and that was probably not even over 700 F. But the important point is that if there’s anything in the pan it won’t get this hot on a conventional range.

Not to mention that an FDA study on the safety of Teflon cookware found that, at cooking temperatures, the gasses from oils and fats being cooked are more dangerous than those from the Teflon. A myriad of other studies have been done, and they universally show non-stick coatings to be safe. See the PTFE Wikipedia entry for more info on these.

The site makes a lot of statements about birds, and how Teflon can kill them, but neglects that being in a kitchen that doesn’t use Teflon pans can kill them. This is classic misinformation tactic, not giving all the available facts. As I mentioned before, the gasses from food are deadlier at lower temperatures than the Teflon itself.

The site also makes claims about a chemical called C-8, and implies that it comes from Teflon. But it doesn’t; it’s used to make it. Teflon itself is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE (or some other form such as PFA, but never C-8), and that’s all you get with it, unless it’s mixed with something else (such as a metal). This is the tactic that initially reminded me of creationism: make a lot of claims about something in the context of another thing, and hope the reader relates them. It’s intentional confusion, and it’s dishonest and reprehensible.

The only other claim on the site is that Teflon is present in everyone’s blood. The author doesn’t say that this is bad, just leaves it up to the reader to assume. After all, it’s in our blood! It must be bad! Unfortunately for them, lab rats fed a diet of 75% Teflon for months had no health effects, so even if it is in our blood, it’s not dangerous. It’s almost as though it never occurred to this author that agencies exist to make sure we know things are safe, and that they do experiments, instead of just making stuff up.

But I doubt it’s even true, mainly because Teflon is so inert it probably wouldn’t get absorbed in the stomach. A chemical that doesn’t react with anything, not even HCl, is not going to be digested. Even if it was, it would just kind of chill out, not doing anything because it doesn’t react. Most likely, whatever Teflon you do eat just gets pooped right out.

Teflon is a very cool chemical. It’s less reactive than stainless steel, as frictionless as ice, a nearly perfect insulator, and about as pure as any material can be. Not to mention that, as long as it’s kept relatively cool, it’s harmless. So pay no heed to these doomsayers, Teflon’s one of the safest chemical you’ll ever deal with.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Top Ten Engineers of All Time

Engineers are the people who have built our world. Everything we use today was at one point nothing but an idea in someone’s head, that was successfully designed and built. So who are the best engineers throughout history?

Continue reading...10. Nicolaus Otto

Nicolaus Otto developed the four-stroke or Otto-cycle engine and the first internal combustion engine, where fuel is burned directly in the piston chamber. The Otto-cycle is still used in the internal combustion engines that run all of our cars today. Despite developing the engine, it was Otto’s peers such as Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz who first apply it to locomotion, forever changing how people move around the world.

9. Alan Turing

Alan Turing developed the binary architecture now used in all computers, as well as much of the theory behind computers. He is regarded as the father of computer science. The computer you’re currently using would not exist without his contributions to the field. He also broke the German Enigma code during WWII, without which victory would have been far more difficult, if not impossible. After the war he made many other contributions to code making and breaking. While he never really built anything physical, his enormous influence in computer science earned him a place in the top ten.

8. Mikhail Kalashnikov

While much of Kalashnikov’s AK-47 was borrowed from other guns, his simplification of their designs to make a nearly flawlessly functioning rifle was his genius. The gun is cheap to manufacture, easy to use, and hard to break. It’s hard to argue with success, after 57 years the AK-47 is still in production, and there are dozens of different varieties from shotguns to sniper rifles and the familiar assault rifle. It is arguably one of the best guns in history, and definitely one of the most influential. After all, what other gun has African children named for it?

7. Archimedes of Syracuse

With Archimedes it’s difficult to separate the legend from the man. The engineering feats he is rumored to have accomplished include a mirror death-ray and a crane capable of lifting and smashing Roman ships, although they probably never existed. He did improve the catapult, develop levers and pulleys, and invent the Archimedean Screw, a device used to raise water for irrigation or mining. He also calculated pi and developed many mathematical insights without which modern engineering would be impossible.

6. Wilbur and Orville Wright

A clear indication of engineering brilliance is when you essentially invent your field. Other pioneers of flight came before them whose work was invaluable, but it was the Wrights who truly created aeronautical engineering. In a time when people thought of the mechanics of flight as ground locomotion in the air, the Wright brothers saw it as something wholly new. Their development of the three axis control system was necessary to fly controllably. They were also the first to really look at propeller design and aerodynamics. Their work profoundly changed the world.

5. Hero of Alexandria

This man could have started the Industrial Revolution in 50 AD with the invention of the Aeolipile, a form of steam or jet engine where jets of steam spin a ball. However, he failed to realize what the device could do, and thought of it as nothing but a toy. Some have speculated that the abundance of slave labor negated any need for a labor-saving device, so no one applied his device in the manner of the Industrial Revolution. Hero also wrote many works on subjects ranging from pneumatics to mathematics to physics.

4. James Watt

James Watt’s incarnation of the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution. His centrifugal governor kept the engine running at the desired rate, and is a modification so simple and elegant that it may be one of the best ideas of all time. The governor was only one of his countless modifications to one of the most influential devices of all time. Watt’s perfection of one of the most important devices in history easily puts him in the top ten engineers.

3. Thomas Edison

Edison is the most prolific inventor in history, holding a record 1,097 patents. He developed the phonograph, incandescent light bulb, stock ticker, motion picture camera and projector, and hundreds more. He also created the first electrical plant and distribution infrastructure. Without these inventions, modern life is almost inconceivable.

2. Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is perhaps the greatest electrical engineer of all time. His inventions include fluorescent lighting, the Tesla coil, the induction motor, and 3-phase electricity. He developed the AC-current generation system comprised of a motor and a transformer. Some have said that he “invented the 20th century.” Unfortunately, he became something of a mad scientist in his later years, and died in obscurity, but his invaluable contributions are remembered today.

1. Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps the most visionary man of all time, Leonardo foresaw everything from the helicopter to the tank to the submarine. Modern engineers have proven that many of his designs, including bridges, hang-gliders, transmissions, parachutes, and more would have worked had they been built. There have been few individuals in the history of engineering who have designed so many revolutionary devices that actually worked. Leonardo is, by far, the greatest engineer of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

Eli Whitney – Cotton Gin and Interchangeable Parts
Rudolf Diesel – Diesel Engine
Wernher Von Braun – Rocketry
Enrico Fermi and Leó Szilárd – First Nuclear Reactor

Think I got the order wrong? Think I forgot someone? Tell me: leave your top ten in the comments.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

"Dirty Jobs" Monkey Thoughts

There’s a show on the Discovery Channel called “Dirty Jobs”, where the host, Mike Rowe, goes around doing job that are, well, dirty. A recent episode had him at a sanctuary for rehabilitating monkeys in South Africa. The manager gave him a list of things that he shouldn’t do, including showing his teeth, hitting his head with both hands, mimicking, and flapping his arms. The reason is that the monkeys use these as a signals of aggression, and they will interpret them as such and respond aggressively.

That got me thinking about how every animal I can think of has their own special signals with their own special meanings, and they act like every other animal understands it. I started wondering whether some of these things are cultural like they are in humans. We have both universal and local signals, for instance laughing and smiling are both universally understood, but certain gestures are not. For instance, shaking your head means no in some cultures and yes in others. So are there groups of monkeys for whom flapping your arms means something besides aggression, perhaps a warning of danger? I don’t know, and I don’t even know where to start looking to find out. I would speculate that there are, because I know that some primates have some form of culture, such as tool use. But I don’t know.

I also thought about how effective these signals are for interspecies communication. Some of them, like barring the teeth, are probably pretty effective, and seem to be used by most animals as a way of saying, “Don’t mess with me.” But hitting your head with your hands? That seems far less likely to trigger any kind of understanding. Maybe this is almost like sexual selection, where all that matters is what the majority of the species uses, and it’s fairly arbitrary.

I think that there are some things that are fairly universal, base instincts inherited from the ancient mammals, or even further back, while the rest are arbitrary, and only have meaning inside the species. But because of the universal instincts, the animals don’t recognize that these signals will be meaningless past the species boundary. That’s just my guess though, I’m sure some biologist out there actually knows.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and Dogma Reflexes

Besides making me laugh, that comic got me thinking about the absurdity of Intelligent Design and creationism. When all the evidence points to one conclusion, how can you ignore it? When you think about it, claiming that life is intelligently designed is as rational as claiming that monkeys evolved from the bible, or any other absurd nonsense.

I suppose once an idea has been engrained into someone’s mind, the brain will do everything that it can to rationalize the belief, as a recent study has shown. Because of this nobody should be too surprised that the “culture war” we’re currently “fighting” is difficult for either side to win. All the evidence in the world isn’t going to convert someone who’s brain will shield their belief from it. That’s why religion is the ultimate meme.

I just wonder why this “dogma reflex” evolved. There are plenty of hypotheses, but we’ll probably never know for certain. I just hope that one day we move past it.

Anyway, check out that comic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It’s quite funny.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

New Nanomaterial Could Improve Body Armor

A new nanomaterial with an old structure is poised to vastly improve body armor. The material has a truss-like structure, the same crisscross design used on bridges for so many years.

Its developers exposed a form of epoxy to four overlapping lasers, which caused the resin to line up in a microscopic truss pattern. The new material is less dense than regular epoxy, but has far better tensile properties, stretching to 36 times its original length before breaking, compared to 1.1 times for untreated epoxy.

This gives it the ability to absorb a lot of energy before failing. It does so by deforming, similar to the crumple-zone on a car. Edwin Thomas, the lead researcher, says, "Lots more deformation before failure means lots more energy required to break the material, means more protection for soldiers."

The technique could even be used on other materials, such as glass, making it more difficult to break, or for making improved magnetic or photonic materials.

Unfortunately, the team can only make sample about a millimeter in size. They hope to soon have meter-size samples, and to replace the lasers with something less expensive and easier to implement. They hope to have this material saving lives as soon as possible, as does everyone else.

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