Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tesla Motors

Have you ever heard of Tesla Motors? I hadn’t either, until today, when I heard one of their engineers speak. They’re making an electric car. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is.

Their car, named Dark Star is a 250 horsepower, 0-60 in 4 seconds, 130 miles per hour top-speed sports car. It also gets an equivalent of 135 miles per gallon. If you’re at all like me, by now you’re thinking that it’s too good to be true.

The killer of most electric cars has been range. Dark Star’s range is a respectable 250 miles, which is more than enough to do your daily driving but not enough for a road trip. The other big flaw has been battery life, but Dark Star’s batteries last for 100,000 miles, double any previous electric car. And charging only takes three hours, easily accomplished over the course of a night.

The reason for the drastic improvements over previous electric cars is mainly due to the use of lithium-ion batteries. Tesla Motors uses the same batteries that are in your laptop, just 6,831 of them. This has tons of advantages, including easier heat dispersal, less weight, more charge density, and prolonged lifespan. Plus they don’t have to worry about battery technology: DELL, Apple, and all the other large companies that use them are already pushing performance up and costs down. Tesla Motors just has to ride in their wake.

The performance comes from the nature of electric motors. They have 100% torque efficiency at 0 rpm, and gradually decline. This car can go 70 mph in first gear, and only has two. And an 80-lb electric motor can get the same horsepower as a V-8 block that weighs ten times as much.

The best thing about this car might be its price tag: $95,000. For the styling, performance, and ridiculously low fuel costs, it’s a steal.

The presentation I saw had a comparison between their technology and other forms of propulsion. Electric cars really do make fuel cells and biofuels look silly. For example, hydrogen fuel cells are about 25% efficient, while Li-Ion batteries are about 85% efficient. Fuel cells really are stupid, because you’re using electricity to make hydrogen, essentially using hydrogen as a battery. Why not just use a battery as a battery?

Another graphic showed the area required to fuel the US’s driving for a year if you used corn-based ethanol, cellulose-based ethanol, and photovoltaics. Ethanol covered most of the Midwest, while photovoltaics covered a barely-discernable rectangle.

It’s easy to get excited about new technology, like fuel cells or biofuels, but sometimes it’s far better to get excited about new applications of old technology. I’ll be watching Tesla Motors, perhaps a decade from now they’ll be king of the roads.

(If you want to learn more about the car/company, here’s a Wired article from earlier this year.)

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Monday, November 27, 2006


I visited my dad in Texas for Thanksgiving, and there was something really remarkable about his yard: it was littered with fossils. His driveway is, quite literally, made with fossils. You can hardly pick up a rock without it having one somewhere on its surface. They’re nothing remarkable; all shells, most of which are very small, and most are mould fossils, and the rest appear to be replacement fossils (but I’m not an expert) . Nonetheless, this surprised me.

I did some googling and found this site that dates them to the middle Eocene, which is 40-47 Million Years Ago (MYA). I currently have a very nice Venericardia (Venericor) densata sitting on my desk. It’s pictured in the bottom right of that chart. It looks pretty much like a clamshell, but made of rock.

These little bits of rock excited my little sister, and I’m absolutely sure that they’d make a fantastic science lesson. Kids really do love fossils, so what better way to education them about biology than a field trip to a local deposit (no matter where you live, there’s something within a reasonable drive, even if it’s just a museum). If kids can actually find fossils themselves, date them using the same techniques as paleontologists, and look for related organisms that are still alive, then they’ve just learned a wonderful lesson in paleontology, evolution, biology, and science in general. Plus they’d almost certainly love it.

A simple field trip could spark a lifetime love of science. People often ask what we need to do to improve science education, and from now on I’m going to answer “fossils”.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

How Far We Have Left to Go

Today is November 23, 2006. It is Thanksgiving. Last night I was reminded of something that was written one hundred and forty-three years and four days ago. The text is below.

FOURSCORE and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

We have come a long way in those 143 years, and much of “the unfinished work” and “great task remaining before us” are still left unfinished, still remains before us. We have made fantastically great strides toward true equality, but there are still many left to take before we forever banish the fear and hatred that underlies inequalities from our nation’s hearts. It was a daunting task in 1863, and it is a daunting task in 2006.

Today, on Thanksgiving, give thanks for how far we’ve come, while solemnly remembering how far we have yet to go.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nativity and Thanksgiving

I found a little booklet of Christian Christmas gift idea laying on a table. I think it’s kind of funny, that people make so much money off of religious paraphernalia. If I recall, Jesus had something of a problem with that.

But what I found absolutely hysterical is a book called Why a Manger? It’s description reads, “Drawing from their meticulous research, authors Bodie and Brock Thoene tell the story of the nativity using historical truth to help readers see Christmas in a whole new light.”

Their research must not have been too meticulous, since the contradictions in the Gospels themselves are pretty damning evidence against the story, the total lack of historical corroboration for any of the claims of Matthew’s narrative is just icing on the cake (Matthew’s is the one traditionally told, Luke’s is almost entirely different).

If you’re curious, the good folks over at Debunking Christianity have a good write-up of the evidence against the traditional narrative.

The ridiculous things that people can convince themselves of will never cease to amaze me.

Speaking of traditional narratives, I went to my six-year-old sister’s Thanksgiving “play” today, and part of it was a telling of the Thanksgiving story. What surprised me was how accurate the thing actually is (at least based on my understanding of it, which is from mostly-reliable sources). It really does make a good story.

It’s just too bad that the first relationship between natives and colonists didn’t set the tone for the next three hundred years.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Updates and Fantasy Congress

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last post, that meant quite a bit to me. I was without internet for a day, so I didn't get them until just now (stupid traveling).

I just wanted to make it clear that I will still be updating, but it won't be daily, at least for the near future.

So if you've come to love my Irreverence, it will still be around, just not quite so Daily.

Incidentally, around a month ago I found out about Fantasy Congress. It works just like other fantasy leagues: you get points based how the congressmen you "draft" perform.

Not only is this absolutely hysterical, but it's a good way to keep tabs of how our elected officials are doing. We need to hold them responsible for what they do, and this silly and fun game lets us do that.

So if you like the idea of drafting congressmen and getting points when the legislation they sponsor passes, check this out.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006


There are going to be some changes around here. The novelty wore off. I started to feel like updating this was a pain, like writing for an assignment, not writing because I wanted to. Plus I don't have good material most of the time. Posts will be sporadic from now on.

I realized that blogs are a really crappy form of communication. Unless you're a fantastic writer, a reporter, or an expert, you just have nothing to add to discourse. I suppose that's one of the biggest shortcomings of the internet, every idiot with opinions can show them to any idiot who'll read them. I've stopped reading most blogs (and Digg and Fark) for this reason, it's just so much crap.

Another big part of the this was my recent acquisition of Medieval II: Total War. It's an absolutely fantastic game. I do love trebuchets so... Now my spare time will be mostly spent on that, rather than this.

So that's the situation. If you care, sorry. But I doubt you do.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Free Will Contest Update

I’ve slightly changed my mind about how the Free Will Contest will work.

Originally I said the winner would have to prove free will. That’s pretty much impossible. There are many reasons, here’s one: we can’t rule out dualism. Any mind/body duality means that free will could still exist, but be supernatural in origin. Yes, that’s not particularly convincing, and I’d typically ignore it, but it’s a still a problem. Besides, “proving” something is almost impossible, even when you ignore things that are ridiculous.

Another problem is that, as an entry pointed out, I didn’t define free will. What I mean is that I (whatever that means) have the ability to control my actions. They are not determined by anything else, whether that anything be God, fairies, chemicals and electricity in my brain, quantum interactions, or whatever. Basically, I mean the common-sense definition, as most reasonable people would give it.

The final problem is that I would be a bad judge. It would take a fairly significant discovery to sway me either way, and the evidence just isn’t there. However, good cases can be made.

Also, the people who demanded prizes usually just mentioned cookies, which made me think that they’re really what people want.

So taking all of this into consideration, here’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be soliciting entries for the contest until at least the end of Thanksgiving Break (the 26th). Anyone can enter, although only once. You can enter by E-mailing me (stupac2 at gmail dot com) or leaving a comment at either post. At the end of the time period, I will make a voting website, where readers will score essays. Every entry can receive a score of 0 to 10, 0 being totally unconvincing and 10 being pretty darn good. After a certain amount of time voting will close and the highest ranked entries will receive the prize. The number of winners will depend on the number of entries, if I get 5 there will only be one winner, but if I get 30 or more there will be 3.

The prize will be a package of cookies shipped directly to your door. The winner can choose, but if they don’t I’ll send Nabisco Chips Ahoy - Chewy:

I think these are absolutely delicious cookies, the best that come prepackaged.

I’ll need the addresses of the winners, so either provide it to me when you enter or pay attention as the contest develops (subscribe to my RSS feed! Muahaha!). If you win and I don’t have an address, you won’t get cookies. Which would be a cryin’ shame. Also, you should probably title your post. I’m not entirely sure how the website will work (I’m going to try to follow the Blogger SAT Challenge that a couple of Sciencebloggers did a while back), but a distinct possibility is that it will have a list of linked titles, and the voting past that link. I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it will be, but a good title could never hurt.

So you really have nothing to lose. In the next couple of weeks come up with your best “proof” or “disproof” of free will, and maybe win cookies!

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The Crazy Dutch

Oh the crazy Dutch.

First, they promise to ban Muslim veils. The rationale is that it makes assimilation almost impossible, which is a bad thing. Naturally, people are objecting, saying that they should be able to wear whatever they want, and that there are very few burqa-wearing women anyway.

I don’t really like this idea. I realize that the lack of assimilation by Muslims in Europe is causing a lot of problems right now, but this doesn’t seem to be the best solution to the problem. People really should be able to wear whatever they want, and in the Netherlands “nothing” is included in “whatever you want”. Kind of strange for them to be doing this.

Although I suspect it’s more a problem of xenophobia and “otherness”. Intermingling cultures usually doesn’t go over too well when they’re both very different and the minority refuses to conform.

The lack of assimilation almost certainly has something to do with the mandatory film for immigrants with risqué scenes, such as two men kissing and public nudity. The goal is to make sure people can handle such things before they come into a country where it’s the norm.

This seems like the best way to help maintain cohesion, at least for such a small country, although it’s hard to say how effective it will be. But it does beg the question, how many people would move to a country where behaviors they hate are permitted? If you really want to live in a Saudi Arabia, why not move there instead?

As an aside, people often mention that religion builds cohesion, that it keeps people together and unites them. Funny, then, that the strongly religious Muslims are causing the problems in the 40% atheist Netherlands. People, being social animals, will find something to maintain bonds, and religion is one of many things that can fulfill that goal.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Year There Were Two Thanksgivings

Ever since Abraham Lincoln had declared it a holiday, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November. In 1939, that meant the holiday would fall on November 30th.

Or so everyone thought. In August, President Roosevelt announced that Thanksgiving would actually be on the 23rd, one week earlier. His rationale for the move was that the economy, still recovering from the Depression, needed a boost from the holiday shopping season (apparently they had black Friday during the Depression), and 24 days just wasn’t enough time.

As would be expected with such a move, many people were angered. Football fans complained that rivalry games were now on the wrong day. Calendars were now wrong (except for one fortunate company who accidentally scheduled Thanksgiving for the 23rd).

Some of the reactions included saying that the President should “have Sunday changed to Wednesday” or “require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off”. As would be expected with such a bizarre move, the satirists had a field day. Some cartoonists suggested FDR would next make a new month called “Franklinary”, or even run for an unprecedented third term (they got the latter right).

When Thanksgiving rolled around, 23 states celebrated it on the 23rd, 23 others on the 30th, and the remaining two celebrated both. In a move reminiscent of brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War, FDR’s own children celebrated on different days.

The next year Congress passed a law saying that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November, and it was signed on December 20th, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbor. By then there were vastly more important events in the world, and the year of two Thanksgivings quickly faded from memory.

(Via The History Channel Magazine, A Turkey of a Decision by Rick Beyer.)

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Free Will Prize

(Update on the contest here.)

Free will seems like something of a contentious topic. I firmly believe that we can’t tell either way if we have it or not, but I think that most people disagree with me, some to both extremes.

So I’ve decided to hold a contest. If you can prove conclusively, through any means, that free will either exists or is an illusion, then I will send you:

  • A box of cookies, your choice.
  • A Trophy, engraved with your name and a description of your feat.
  • A Medal, also engraved with your name and feat. It will be on a big sash so you can wear it around and impress people.

No, I’m not joking. I specifically made the prizes fun and desirable while still being within my means so that, if it is won, I can award it (unlike Creationist prizes for “proving” evolution). The criteria for proving it is that if I think the submission is convincing, I will repost it here and solicit feedback from my readers. If they also find it convincing, then you will win the prize. I will be as unbiased as I possibly can be, and I don’t care what kind of evidence you use (philosophical reasoning, experimental proof, quantum theory, etc), but I need to be able to understand it, so no super-complex math or jargon.

However, as I’ve stated before (and is distilled here in comic form) I’m fairly confident that free will cannot be conclusively proved or disproved at this time, so I doubt anyone will be able to claim this prize.

So give it the best you’ve got. And if you know a philosopher or neuroscientist or quantum physicist who has strong feelings about this subject, show them this page. I want to give this prize away, and all you have to do is solve a millennia-old philosophical conundrum. Not only could you win cookies, a trophy, and a medal, but the respect of your peers and you’ll go down in history as the best philosopher of all time.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pelosi's New Rules

I have been saying for quite a long time that we need to reform lobbying, gifts, and campaign contributions. We need our legislators to be concerned about us, the American public, instead of the needs of a few powerful lobbies. Making tough new rules regulating lobbying would be a good first step in the long process of repairing our country.

It now appears that it will happen. This article has been floating ‘round the tubes for a couple weeks, and claims that the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006”, written largely by the soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi, should pass now that the Democrats have control of the legislature. Here’s a sampling of the new rules:

No House member may accept any gift of any value from lobbyists, or any firm or association that hires lobbyists.

No free travel, which means an end to the corporate jet line every Friday at Reagan National Airport.

No free tickets to Redskins games; or no meals of any value, even at a McDonalds; no front-row seats at entertainment venues. No, no and no.

To reduce temptations to cheat, Pelosi's bill attacks the usefulness of members to richly endowed lobbyists.

House members will no longer be able to slip in special-interest projects on unrelated legislation. Such measures will no longer be allowed on a bill once negotiations between the Senate and House are complete.

Further, all bills will be made available to the public a full 24 hours before a final vote; presumably this gives watchdog groups a chance to flag any skullduggery.

Under the Pelosi rules, lobbyists will no longer be able to use the House gym (you'd be surprised how much gets negotiated in a sauna). Lobbyists will no longer be allowed onto the House floor or to use the cloakrooms just off the floor, preventing last-minute arm-twisting.

What's more, no member or staffer will be able to negotiate for employment in the public sector without disclosing such contacts to the House Ethics Committee, and within three days of such contact being made.

Finally, all of this will be audited and investigated by a new Office of Public Integrity, and that office reports, directly and only, to the U.S. Attorneys Office.

I know this won’t end corruption, and it won’t be a panacea for all the problems of electoral politics, but it would certainly help. If/when this act passes I’ll be sending a nice thank-you letter to Pelosi, I encourage others too as well.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Bringing Religion Together

I’m so glad that the religions of the Middle East could unite. Isn’t amazing how religion can bring people together?

But I’m just happy that their fighting a worthwhile cause. I mean, is there anything worse than loving someone of the same sex? Surely killing hundreds of innocent civilians because you just feel like bombing something isn’t worse. Neither is encouraging impressionable youths to blow themselves up on busses. No, what’s really wrong is when two people with the same genitals love each other and are open about it.

Seriously, what is wrong with these people? Who don’t they hate? The Muslims hate the Jews, the Jews hate them back, the Christians don’t like either of them, they all think that everyone who doesn’t agree with their particular interpretation is going to hell, but at least they can all agree to hate the gay people.

I suppose it really is too much to just let everyone live their lives as they see fit, without interference. But no, because they have their little book that says what’s right and wrong, everyone has to live by that. Makes perfect sense, really. As much sense as god.

I don’t know how those poor people do it. Those poor people who are trapped in the god-forsaken Holy Lands filled with bigotry and hatred. I don’t know how they do it.

I’ve quoted it before and I doubtless will again, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Denis Diderot.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

A Good Hard Look at Downloading

About a week ago someone told me that they don’t download because they believe that content makers should be paid for their work. This sounds like a reasonable argument, but it really isn’t. I’ll explain why for each type of media.

Let’s start with music, because that’s the most popular thing to download. Personally, I don’t buy CDs, ever. And don’t get me started on iTunes downloads, but that won’t happen either. It doesn’t really matter why, but let’s just assume I’m either poor or cheap (or both). Because of this, no record company, artist, or distributor will ever make a cent from me. So if I were to (hypothetically) download a CD, then they haven’t lost any money. They didn’t lose any money from distribution or production. They only money that they lost was the money spent making the music, which doesn’t change at all based on my actions. So they didn’t make any money, but they didn’t lose any either. Since we’ve already accepted that I wasn’t going to buy the CD, there should be no problem with me (hypothetically) downloading anything, because I was never going to net them any money.

So far the download is neutral, no money lost or gained. But let’s take it a step further. Now let’s assume that after I have (hypothetically) downloaded the CD I share it with my friend/family member/coworker, who does buy CDs. Despite how the record companies make it sound, people who buy CDs still exist, in massive numbers. He likes the music, and he goes out and purchases the CD. Had I not (hypothetically) downloaded it, he would not have heard it, and would not have netted them the money.

If we look at it like a pyramid-scheme, I share a CD with a few friends, who share it with a few friends, who share it with a few friends, and so on. Through the power of exponents, you get to a few hundred people very quickly, some of whom will buy the CD (or future CDs) and would not have without the (illegal (and hypothetical)) act of downloading. The more obscure the band, the more pronounced this effect will be, since they won’t have national exposure. This is exactly why sites like Jamendo do so well, people love free music, bands love free exposure, and the Creative Commons just works.

The situation is different for the “big four”. They already pay for exposure, and their music is the stuff on the radio. However, they produce fewer CDs of lower quality than they ever have, which is probably the main reason they’re making less money now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose more money from lawyer’s fees than from downloading. (As a note, I’m not sure if the distribution scheme I mention below would work for music as well as TV. It very well may, in a similar way that radio works. Because I discussed it there I won’t again here.)

To sum up: the case that downloading music hurts profits is unlikely, especially when the downloader is a person who wouldn’t normally purchase CDs. Downloading increases exposure, which can only result in more profits (whether through CDs or concert tickets). As such, it’s likely that non-traditional distribution is beneficial for artists, and quite possibly for distributors.

The case for TV is different. TV (at least for broadcast) is free, but supported by advertising. Gee wiz, that sounds like something familiar on the internet. There’s no way that you could use that model to support internet distribution! It would be really difficult for gigantic companies like FOX or CBS to dedicate a few servers to shows, make them free for download without commercials, and use a model like Salon’s to support it. That’s only the exact same thing as television at over the air, it would never work! They could probably even get away with keeping the commercials in there, most people are ridiculously lazy and wouldn’t bother with cutting them out. Even if people don’t watch the commercial(s), it’s no different than going to the bathroom during a break, and just as easy. As such that’s not a real problem.

Because TV is advertising dependent, distributing it over the internet would probably increase profits, whether through P2P channels or through something like I described above. There are many people who don’t have time to watch their favorite shows anymore, and services like TiVo are expensive. Right now I don’t even own a TV. No one is making any money off of me. The very worst case scenario for the stations is that I (hypothetically) download their shows off of P2P networks and retain my interest in them, so that when I do have access to a TV I watch their channel instead of another one. Who wants to watch a plotline-dependent show that they haven’t seen in nine months?

More likely (and beneficial) scenarios include me watching the show with friends, getting them hooked on it, thus increasing the potential number of advertising targets audience. If networks adopted the scheme above, they would still be able to show me ads, while I would be able to watch my favorite shows, all of them, at my leisure, with my friends. It’s the best of both worlds, and I really wish a major network would start doing it (and I don’t mean some crappy YouTube-esque Flash Plugin that you need to be online to watch and is 200 pixels wide. I want an .avi that I can store on a hard drive and watch whenever I want to, at least at TV quality).

To sum up: Illegal downloading probably negligibly affects television. Even if it does, the effect is likely to be positive. Not to mention that the ability to mitigate the effects and give the customer what they want while still making money is well within the content provider’s capabilities, if they wanted to do it.

Movies are a different beast still. However, they’re pretty much like music, except where exposure matters less. They’re also much more expensive to produce, and an ad-supported distribution network probably wouldn’t work as well. I’d have sympathy with Hollywood if it weren’t for the fact that they make about one good movie a year, they haven’t had an original idea in twenty, and their slow demise will almost certainly be a benefit to all of society. I won’t discuss the issue further.

I am well beyond skeptical that downloading hurts anyone. Given people’s actual behavior (as opposed to the fantasy-land where everyone who downloads a CD would have bought it) the effects will be much smaller than the $20 bajillion estimates that the RIAA throws around, and this doesn’t take into account any of the positive effects, which are hard to quantify, but extant nonetheless. (For a fortuitously timed article on this subject that just came to my attention, see here.)

Anyone interested in learning more about copyright issues should read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Professor of Law. He distributes it for free online, and (unlike me) isn’t writing based solely on his own logic. I highly recommend it.

(Final note to those feeling litigious: when I write in the first person it does not actually indicate that I have performed the act that the narrator was said to have performed. This page in no way constitutes proof that I have ever violated any law.)

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why I'm Skeptical About Anthropogenic Global Warming

I’ve always been skeptical about anthropogenic global warming. Something about the concept just doesn’t seem right to me. All right, the earth has gotten hotter since the industrial revolution. Do we know it wouldn’t have happened anyway? All right, Carbon Dioxide does trap more heat than normal air. But do small changes in its concentration make a big difference? It very well might, but something just doesn’t seem right, at least to me.

A recent article gave some merit to my doubts. If Christopher Monckton, the author, is correct, then human-made CO2 has very little impact on climate, and far less than most people think. He’s not the only person who espouses this position, over the last year I’ve collected a good number of articles all giving good reasons to doubt the anthropogenic global warming (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Climate is an emergent phenomenon. As such, it’s incredibly hard to predict. There are so many variables, and in order to build a comprehensive model they all have to be taken into account and weighted accurately. This is a nearly impossible task, given that we don’t even have a complete list of variables yet, let alone a good weighting system.

This is highlighted very well in the fact that the sun’s role in controlling the Earth’s temperature now seems to be very large, much greater than previously thought, and we appear to be in a particularly active period right now. It’s entirely possible that most of the warming we’re seeing is due to increased solar activity, as many of those articles point out.

Another problem that I’ve always had with CO2 warming is that every ounce that we release from burning fossil fuel was once in the atmosphere. Maybe this is me being naive, but the earth managed just fine back when plants were freshly converting that CO2, why shouldn’t it now? I’ve also read that ninety percent of the non-living organic material on earth is in unusable sediments, which would mean that we’d hardly be resetting Earth’s CO2 meter at all. Again, I might be misunderstanding the situation, but just from an arm-chair thought-experiment perspective, it doesn’t add up.

The final problem that I have with anthropogenic global warming is the little ice age. This was a period of colder-than-normal temperatures, lasting from about the 14th to the mid-19th centuries. This covers the entire history of recorded temperature, and its end coincides with the start of the industrial revolution. Perhaps our baseline is off, because we had five and a half centuries of unusual cold, and we’re just now re-entering normal temperatures. As Monckton points out, before then it was actually hotter than it is now (I’ve heard that 2,000 years ago it was a full 2 degrees Celsius hotter).

I’m not saying that the climatologists have generated this controversy for their own gain. Maybe they did, but I doubt it. They almost certainly firmly believe that human emissions will cause massive global warming. But are they right? Or is there merit to Monckton’s objections? It certainly looks like there’s some.

I’m also not saying that we should do nothing about curbing emissions and pursuing alternate energy sources. Oil will run out, and when it does we’ll need some form of energy. Investigating our options now will make the technology that much better when it does run out. We might even discover something better than oil and coal.

What I am saying is that I think it’s best to be skeptical about complicated issues that are difficult to fully resolve (which is why I’m also skeptical about free will and the nature of consciousness). Once the evidence is truly unambiguous, then I’ll be sold. But until then, I’ll be on the sideline of this debate, Al Gore be damned.

(In case there are any more would-be commenters who don't know what skeptic means, I'm not saying that anthropogenic global warming isn't happening. I'm also not saying that it is. I'm saying that based on what I've seen, I'm not convinced either way. I've teetered back and forth on this issue for quite a while, and am currently leaning back toward "it is happening" based on all these links. My position after reading a whole bunch of the stuff that has been posted will most likely be "it is probably happening". But I still prefer to wait it out. Also, to the people who say "the thousands of scientists say it's so, so it must be so!": that's not evidence. That's not a reason to believe something. Several of the articles I linked to were by an MIT climatologist. I realize that most climatologists believe firmly that warming is happening, but that doesn't make them right. The evidence they has does. Which is why I'm currently looking at that.

Also, no need to be nasty because you think I'm an idiot. If you disagree with me, just point me toward or somewhere that has good explanations and data quickly available. Don't be an asshole. Besides being totally unnecessary, it won't help you any.)

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Yesterday there were eight states with proposals to amend their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Only one state, Arizona, defeated the legislation.

James Huger, who runs the delightful, has this to say on the issue of same-sex marriage:

In the late 1700s some people wanted democratic rule. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that the king ruled by God's will.

In the mid 1800s some people wanted to end slavery. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that God approved of slavery.

In the early 1900s some people wanted to give women the vote. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that God made women inferior to men.

In the mid 1900s some people wanted to end segregation. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved God wanted to keep the races separate.

When you look back at how your parents and grandparents dealt with these things, are you ashamed or proud?

Now some people want to allow gay marriage. Conservative elements of the church are pointing to the Bible and saying it proves God hates homosexuality.

When your children and grandchildren look back at how you deal with this, will they be ashamed or proud?

What it comes down to is that our country is systematically denying a large minority of its rights. Marriage isn’t just a ceremony and a commitment, it means being protected from dozens of different hardships, from adopting children to visiting a dying loved one to expenses. A gay woman might have to fight to keep her child, just because the child was adopted in her dying lover’s name. Yes, that has happened, and it will happen again. Can you imagine losing your lover and then having to fight to stop the state from taking your child for no reason at all?

That’s just one incident. There are many, many more. If you don’t believe me, just read Ed Brayton’s fantastic blog, Dispatches From the Culture Wars. It seems like he reports a story of anti-gay violence or hatred every day.

And if you think that gay people deserve it, that they’re not really people, then you sicken me. We’re all people, no matter what sex you’re attracted to. The only people who truly deserve to be treated as though they’re not human are the ones who would treat others that way. Because when you really think about, one of the worst evils you can do is to deny someone their humanity, and that’s what the anti-homosexual bigots do.

I hope that we’ll move past this, and that we’ll continue to move away from the bigotry that has plagued humanity for so long. I believe that, as Richard Dawkins puts it, the moral Zeitgeist will continue to shift. If it doesn’t, well, then we’re all screwed.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Design Project

I’m currently taking a class called ME 101: Visual Thinking. It’s all about generating ideas to solve problems and then implementing them, all with constraints (time, size, budget, etc).

We were recently assigned the second Design Project, which is supposed to be fairly challenging. The task is simple, design a machine that does a pull-up. It can be no more than two feet by two feet by two feet, and it has to reach a bar that is three feet high, and pull itself off the ground just a little. I’ve already designed and built my machine, and it works.

These exercises is useful for a few reasons. First is that it gets you thinking about how to accomplish tasks. You have to deconstruct the overall task and decide how you want to do each individual task. Then you have to start drawing designs, coming up with concrete ways to solve each problem. You have to learn to adequately get your thoughts onto paper, you have to learn how to draw so that you can understand it later, and you have to be able to communicate your ideas to your partners.

Then you start building, which is the fun and frustrating part of the class. You need to be able to figure out how to turn a sketch into a machine. You need to be able to troubleshoot, to foresee problems, and to solve problems mechanically. You learn how to actually build, how to control forces, how to handle friction, how materials behave, what you can actually accomplish with the materials you have, and so much more.

You also need to learn how to budget your time between coming up with concepts, refining designs, building, and troubleshooting.

All of these things are important skills to have, which is what makes this class so valuable. The number one most difficult aspect of the design process, according to most members of the class, is communicating ideas to others effectively. I wouldn’t be too surprised if most people have this problem. Effective communication is absolutely necessary in any but the most solitary of environments, and having to explain every single constituent part of a complex machine and how they all go together can give you a good lesson in it fairly quickly.

My advice if you want to get better at communicating ideas, as well as all of these things is a weekend project. I recommend a pneumatic cannon. They’re fairly easy, and they can shoot things very far. A lot of fun, and little kids really enjoy seeing them in action (they’ll also be impressed that you built it). But anything will do, even just a little birdhouse. Besides, having turned a pile of materials into some useful machine is a fantastic feeling, building is a lot of fun. So go build something, it’s fun and educational! What more can you ask for?

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Trust Versus Faith

I have been repeatedly accused of having faith in science. The accusation is meant to say that my “faith” in science is no different from faith in religion. It’s a (fairly pathetic) attempt to equate science and religion.

The problem with that line of argument is that the word faith is being used with two different meanings. I don’t have faith in science, I trust it. I trust it like I trust that the roof over my head won’t cave in, or that the bridge I went over every day all summer wouldn’t collapse. I trust these things because they have a record of working, similar things have a record of working, and those records indicate to me that they will continue to work.

Faith, in the conventional, religious meaning, is completely different. Faith implies that there’s not necessarily a proven record, and in with religious faith there’s none at all. This means that you’re taking it “on faith”. You have no reason to believe that anything a religion says is true, it’s all faith.

Science is a method of gathering knowledge, and the knowledge that has been gathered through that method. Science works. It works every time you start your car, every time you flip a switch, every time you use GPS to find your location, every time you fly. The list is enormous, and a full description of the triumphs of science would fill pages and detail nearly everything we know about the way the world works. That is why I trust science, and whether or not you want to admit it, you do too: the conveniences of modern living are the results of science, you can’t trust them without trusting it.

But when I think of faith, I’m stymied. I can think of nothing it has given the world that couldn’t have resulted from something else. I realize that many good works have been done in the name of religion, but the goodness behind the act would be there regardless. In some cases, for example missionaries, the good is offset by bad works. How much time do they spend proselytizing that would be better spent helping? How many deaths in sub-Saharan Africa have been due to their advice on condoms? Secular organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, do much of the same work, without any of the negatives. We don’t need faith to do good.

If any religion had a record of being right and useful, then I’d trust it too. But they simply don’t. Science does, so I’m going to be sticking with it.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Evolution, Morality, and War

The other day when I wrote briefly about Evolved Morality, I neglected to mention one very important thing: all of that only applied inside the group. Because groups cooperate internally, they have to compete externally, with other groups. Social animals still have the same negative, “immoral” behaviors that we tend to associate with rampant Darwinism, (rape, murder, theft, etc), but they’re mostly aimed at other groups.

I’ve heard people say that no animals besides humans have wars. This is absolutely false. Other social primates do have wars between groups, and they’re actually quite similar to our wars, but on a smaller scale. The goals are the same: destroy or steal the opponent’s resources, which include food, females, and lives. (If you’re skeptical, see here and here for just two examples.) I’ve also heard people claim that humans living in small tribes don’t have wars, which again is absolutely false. War is just group rivalry realized through violence.

A naïve person might conclude that war is natural, and if they mean that war is natural like cancer is natural then they’re totally correct. But like cancer, war is something to be avoided. If you read the second link above, you might be thinking that we have no hope. If humans have evolved to be such monsters to other humans, how can we get along in the world?

We also evolved big brains. Big brains that are capable of seeing something as wrong, even when it’s perpetrated against an out-group. We’re capable of dehumanizing our enemies to the point of seeing them as nothing at all, but we’re also capable of empathy, perhaps the single most powerful human ability. We can think “What would it feel like if that were me? How would I like it if this was done to me?” We’re capable of discerning if we wouldn’t like, and we’re capable of changing our actions based on this. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry of all forms can only exist if people listen to their group-based biases rather than their empathy.

Because when it comes down to it, those are the main tools we have to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. One causes war and hatred, the other causes cooperation. I know which one I use, and I sincerely hope you use it too.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Second Coming Insurance

Here’s some more strange religion news. Three Scottish sisters were apparently quite worried about being the next virgin Mary, so they asked for, and received, second coming insurance. provided the coverage, which was a one-million pound premium for a hundred pounds a year.

Unfortunately for the sisters (or for the company, depending on your view) the Catholic church got mad about this, caused a big raucous, and made the company cancel the insurance. Apparently they’re the only ones that can rip off gullible Catholics.

I don’t see why the church got angry. If these girls are worried about having to pay for “caring and bringing up the Christ”, then why not let them squander a few hundred pounds a year? They approached the company, it’s not like someone took advantage of them.

Which brings up an interesting question: at what point is someone taking advantage of religious people by appealing to their beliefs? Actively seeking people for this kind of insurance seems like it would be. But then again, you’re not really doing anything wrong by saying “I’ll give you a million dollars if you end up giving birth to Christ 2.0 if you give me a hundred dollars a year.” Any sane person would know that it’s not going to happen.

And let’s not forget that there’s an entire industry dedicated to this, it’s called “Alternative Medicine”, which is code for “Placebo”. Many different companies sell many different products that promise many different effects, almost none of which have been proven, and many have been conclusively disproved. Not too many people object to this practice, at least until it starts to hurt people (which it does).

I don’t see religion as a whole lot different. It promises a bunch of great-sounding stuff, offers no evidence for most of it, and demands a whole bunch of money in return, and can really hurt people (think refusing medical care for religious reasons). I know, that’s a cynical oversimplification, but it’s not always far off. If conventional religion can get away with taking money from believers, why not con-artists? Is it really that different if the con-artist and the mark believe the same things? I’m not so sure.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Psychotic Religion

I love Fark, you find the best and strangest news there. Like this gem.

A man in Tennessee will have to undergo mental health treatment for trying to sacrifice his two-year-old son to God by strangling him. Fortunately he failed, although Abraham or a literalist might disagree about the fortuitousness of his failure.

But what I really want to share is the last paragraph of the article:

Jennifer Thorbon testified that her husband had battled mental illness for years. She said he would become psychotic and start "talking about God and Jesus and religion."

I like the implicit message that talking about Jesus, God, and religion are psychotic. Of course, I wouldn’t say that, but the (probably accidental) implication in the article was amusing.

This is a good segue into another interesting thing I recently read. The classic example of an absurd religion that would be ridiculed today is the Greek Pantheon. A few thousand years ago, it was the dominant Western religion. But today it has no adherents, we openly call it a myth, and its claims about nature are so easily refuted that no one in their right mind would believe it.

Well, apparently not. Sam Harris’s new mini-book, Letter to a Christian Nation, has the following footnote (p. 68):

Truth be told, I now receive e-mails of protest from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods of Greek mythology are real.

Apparently, people do still worship the Greek pantheon. There aren’t very many of them, but the ancient religion has survived. So does this mean that we should stop using the Greek gods as the go-to example for an absurd religion that no one in their right mind would believe? There are people who are perfectly sane, but believe in Zeus. Should we ridicule their beliefs by doing this?

I think this changes nothing. The Olympic gods are clearly not real, and as such make a good example for why gods in general are (almost certainly) not real. The belief that Zeus exists deserves to be ridiculed. However, believing in Zeus is no different than believing in any other god, and if you think otherwise then the burden of proof is on you to show that your pet god is the correct one. Until that’s done, it’s no better than Zeus.

Lastly, read Letter to a Christian Nation. It’s very short, it’ll take about an hour, and it’s a very good. At the very least, you’ll know where atheists like myself are coming from. Plus, Leonard Susskind, a Stanford Physics professor and inventor of String Theory recommends it, so you know it’s good!


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Evolved Morality

The other day I mentioned evolutionary morality, and how evolution predicts morality for social animals, rather than morality being a problem for evolution. I have wanted to write about this for a while, but am continuously stymied by its complexity.

Fortunately, the internet has done it for me. An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong is about just this, but it looks more at proof for innate and inexplicable morals that cross all socio-cultural barriers. Because it’s a newspaper article, it’s not very heavy on explanation, and there’s one point I want to elaborate on.

Many evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting that genes cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who carries them, and a person who contributes altruistically to people not related to him will reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring.

While this is true, it’s not applicable. In human tribes or chimpanzee troops, almost everyone is related somehow. There are decent odds that if you give your life to save another, that other will share many of your genes. If that other has more reproductive potential than you, then your genes actually benefit from your death (save the children!).

However, very little altruism involves total self-sacrifice. Even from a selfish gene point of view, diminishing your ability to survive by, for instance, giving food to another group member, would be extremely advantageous if he shares some of your genes and if he needs the food much more than you. Combine this with the fact that almost everyone in groups is related, and charity is beneficial.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw” this is not.

Even without looking at selfish genes, morality is an expected outcome of Darwinism. Every act that’s commonly labeled as immoral is also one that is extremely harmful when common in a group. Would a group of murderers, liars, thieves and rapists survive well? Would a group put up with a member who stole mates, cheated, didn’t repay debts, and attacked others for no reason? Given this, why is it surprising that an animal that lives in groups finds these things unacceptable? It shouldn’t be, because no group can function when anything but a small minority of members behave like criminals.

The plain truth is that most people don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, or hurt because we’ve evolved in a situation where all of those things would be detriments to our survival in ordinary circumstances. One of the biggest tools evolution has given us to determine what is moral is empathy. But that’s a topic for another day.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Solipsism is Everything That's Wrong With Philosophy

There was an article called Top scientist asks: is life all just a dream? on Digg yesterday. I read that article, and I yelled, “This is what’s wrong with Digg! Solipsism is the stupidest thing ever!”

In case you’re unfamiliar with Solipsism, it’s basically the position that nothing exists outside of your own mind. It’s essentially the philosophical argument that any five-year-old can discover and espouse as elegantly as the best philosopher, and in my experience most children do figure it out for themselves at some point.

It makes me angry for one very specific reason: even if it’s true, nothing changes. Yes, for all we know nothing outside of our consciousness actually exists and it’s all just a construct of our minds. But in that case what changes? Not a thing. Besides, it’s a ridiculously wasteful hypothesis, very unparsimonious, and you’d think it would have been sliced to pieces by Occam’s Razor long ago.

Why is it wasteful? Because in order for it to work, there has to be something that creates our consciousness (in the case of the aforementioned article, a computer simulation). But then we have to explain how that got created. All that it does is add another, pointless layer of complexity to the universe, one that we can never see or test and which is unparsimonious, and as such should be thrown out.

Appealing to the apparent fine-tuning of constants for life is also pointless. Imagine that, beings that can think find themselves in an environment that’s conducive to beings that can think. Quite the surprise! There may very well be no other way the universe can turn out, but maybe not, and either way the fact that we find ourselves in such a universe is not a surprise, and NOT evidence for an intelligent designer of any form, computer or god. To get to that conclusion requires healthy doses of sloppy thinking.

Solipsism embodies everything that I loathe about philosophy: untestable, predictionless, unparsimonious, and absurd. No one who seriously considers it as a possibility should call themselves a scientist.

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