Measured Against Reality

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Idiotic quote of the week

In a week filled with idiotic quotes I'm going to have to say this takes the cake, from the Economist, an article called, Is there a God?:

What is missing from the book is much sense of what a world without religion, or one that had not had religion in it, might look like. Lots of the principles that Mr Hitchens holds dear, like tolerance and justice, are secularised versions of religious ideas. Religious folk often do the right thing for what Mr Hitchens would call the wrong reasons. Taking faith away would in many cases take away the will to do them. That cost is worth considering.

There is so much flagrant stupidity in that paragraph that I can't even begin to dissect it. But it should be totally and completely obvious that tolerance and justice don't come from religion (the Economist itself reported about the man from Malaysia forced to convert to Islam, and what about all the women who are raped and then stoned to death for infidelity? And that's only two examples from one religion, not even starting on the others). And there is absolutely no indication that taking religious faith away would make people stop doing good things, they'd probably just start doing them for good reasons.

I really wish I knew what author wrote that, so I could give him the verbal lashing he deserves for that pile of dreck.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Astrology is crap

Here's a great Nature article about how astrology is crap. Not that we really needed a journal to tell us that, but it's a good reference for those pesky people who believe that garbage.

Some good excerpts:

I am pleased to report that, as Shawn Carlson has noted, "astrology failed to perform at a level better than chance" (Nature 318, 419–425; 1985). The results from my classes are: 8.0% (n = 163 students), 8.4% (n = 155), 7.0% (n = 143), 8.0% (n = 138) and 8.0% (n = 100). In other words, as John Maddox has commented "astrology is a pack of lies ... There is no evidence that the positions of the planets can affect human behaviour" (Nature 368, 185; 1994).

Finally, it is worth reporting that my students are so engaged by this exercise that they actually want to use Newton's law of universal gravitation to calculate force values. In case you are curious, Mars, at its present distance of 264 million kilometres from Earth, is exerting a force of approximately 50 nanonewtons on your being.

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The "Me" generation? I don't buy it.

The self-esteem generation (18- to 25-year-olds) is now moving into the workforce, and they're driving Boomer managers nuts. Kids who were used to being told how "special" they are at every turn by parents and teachers and getting gold stars for their finger paintings are apparently having trouble adapting to the real world in which managers merely expect them to do their jobs. According to National Public Radio:

Companies are hiring consultants to help manage the "over praised" Me Generation. The result? Kudos for showing up to work on time! Awards for getting a report in! Forget Employee of the Month — how about Employee of the Day! Some managers are resistant, saying the only praise they ever got was a paycheck.

Who is responsible for producing this generation of emotionally needy young adults? The Baby Boomers have only themselves to blame.

Stories like that one have been popping up all over the place lately. As someone who is smack-dab in the middle of that generation, I just have to say, "I don't buy it."

For starters, none of that crap ever happened to me, at least that I can remember. I know for damn sure that in high school no one got undeserved praise, there were no "gold stars" for anything but excellence, and no one was shouting from the rafters, "You're so special!" It didn't happen. And I was in the apparently decrepit and useless public school system.

And no one I know is like that either. Perhaps I don't associate with the right people to see it, but no one I know is like this. I know a decent number of people in this age group fairly well (a given person's range of acquaintances is roughly 100-200 people), and I don't know of a single person who has had to be coddled in order to survive. You know what? Those people don't survive. Someone who needs praise in order to get motivated will fail out of Stanford (or any real college) in a few terms, and usually a couple of F's is all it takes to get someone's ass in gear (I've seen it happen). If not, maybe they'll wake up when they're kicked out on their ass.

I want to know how these same damn analysts can say that this generation is overcompetative, and at the same time weak. One day you'll hear how the boomers' ridiculously high expectations are crushing their children, the next how their coddling has ruined them. Well which is it? You can't have it both ways!

Personally, as someone who actually is in this generation group, they're both crap. There's pressure on us, but there's always been pressure on kids. And the people I know are all hard-working, motivated, talented people, just like everyone else. Sometimes they break down, just like everyone else. Maybe my generation really is different from the previous ones, but I'm not seeing it, and if it really is as bad as everyone says, I think that I would.

Personally, I think that if these kids need special management that's not worth the time or effort, then their employers should fire them. Is it really that hard to say, "You're too much of a freakin' baby, so we're letting you go. Grow up and maybe you'll be able to get a job." I can't think of any way for them to grow up faster.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why Special Relativity is Obvious

I’ve been meaning to write this post about why special relativity is obvious for a while, and since the new Microsoft Word comes with equation writers, I’ve got an excuse to finally do it.

Special Relativity is a favorite whipping boy among cranks. You’ll see attempts to disprove it all the time (I got one in my inbox a few weeks ago). It also has a reputation as being difficult to understand. I hope to address both of those with this post.

I was in my electrodynamics lecture, and the professor was going through the derivation of wave solutions to Maxwell’s equations in a vacuum (if you’re interested, the derivation is here, with H in place of B, for some weird reason). The final product is below (which is where Word’s new equations came in handy).

Which is immediately recognizable as a wave traveling with speed c. This is pretty easily derived for waves in matter too (with D and H replacing E and B respectively. D and H are simply the electric and magnetic fields in matter, and for most materials end up being just a factor different, which leads to a different propagation velocity).

So what? Everyone knows that electromagnetic waves exist. And what does this have to do with relativity?

Well, for those not familiar with it, special relativity has two postulates, the rest of the theory rest on their back. The first is that there exist inertial reference frames, and the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames (a frame is more or less just a coordinate system with a clock (so you can measure position and time), and an inertial frame is defined as one where the laws of physics hold, so the second part is something of a tautology). This postulate is hard to argue with, you’d essentially be saying that physics is invalid.

So if a frame is inertial (like say, the one you’re in while you’re sitting at your computer reading this), then any frame moving with a constant velocity relative to it is also an inertial frame. How do we know that? Because if you’re moving with constant velocity in a closed train (meaning you can’t see the outside), there’s no way to tell that you’re moving. You might not believe this at first, but most of your cues that you’re moving come from tiny accelerations, you really can’t tell when you’re moving with constant velocity; it’s impossible, which means that it’s an inertial frame.

The second postulate is more interesting, and that is that the speed of light is the same in all inertial frames. But this is obvious: I just showed above that Maxwell’s equations have waves that propagate with speed c, and since Maxwell’s equations are a law of physics they’re true in all frames. That means that an observer in any inertial frame must see light moving at speed c, no matter how they’re moving relative to anything else.

I think we should really speak of the postulate of relativity, because the second comes naturally from the first, and it might clear up why this wacky theory has to be correct (and is totally obvious).

Of course, the consequences of this aren’t obvious at all: Time Dilation, Lorentz Contraction, the relativity of simultaneity, the weird addition of velocities, and everyone’s favorite: the equivalence of mass and energy. Those are all truly bizarre consequences, but they have to be true, and they’re Einstein’s brilliant insight. I’m not going in to them now, the Wikipedia articles should satisfy the curious , but they have to be true given the two postulates.

Or, at least, they have to be true if Maxwell’s equations and the rest of physics is correct. If Maxwell were wrong pretty much no modern technology would work, rendering that highly implausible. So unless you think that inertial frames don’t exist, you must think that special relativity is correct. I hope I’ve made it clear exactly why this is true.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The war on obesity

This is LaDainian Tomlinson (LT). He's a running back for the San Diego Chargers. He broke several records this year, including touchdowns in a season and rushing touchdowns in a season. He is one of the best players in a very, very difficult athletic game. And he is obese.

No, I am not joking. According to the CDC, LT is obese. That particular calculator doesn't say the exact number, but another one has him pegged at 31.6 BMI. The CDC has the following to say to LT:

People who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

At a minimum, anyone who is obese should try to avoid gaining additional weight. In addition, anyone who is obese should try to lose weight. Even a small weight loss (just 10% of your current weight) may help lower the risk of disease. Talk with your healthcare provider to determine appropriate ways to lose weight.

Why am I talking about this? I mean, calling LT obese is clearly insane, even if he does technically have a BMI over 30, the cutoff for obesity. He's an exception, an extremely muscular and athletic man.

But that's precisely my point, BMI is a ridiculously crude tool. It doesn't account for any number of things, all of which can affect how healthy you are. LT is definitely healthy, but is technically obese, and the same is likely true of many athletes (and people).

But this is how our "obesity crisis" is defined. How on earth can we be certain that we really are getting fatter given that BMI is such a blunt tool? It has so many variables in it, it's nearly meaningless.

So are we getting fatter? It seems so, but based solely on BMI measurements I don't buy it. Not to mention getting fatter doesn't necessarily mean getting less healthy. For example, take this tidbit from Wikipedia:

In an analysis led by Lopez-Jimenez of 40 studies involving 250,000 people, heart patients with normal BMIs were at higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease than people whose BMIs put them in the "overweight" range (BMI 25-29.9) Lancet. 2006 August 19;368(9536):666-78. Patients who were underweight or severely overweight had an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. The implications of this finding can be confounded by the fact that many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cause weight loss before the eventual death. In light of this, higher death rates among thinner people would be the expected result.

Health is a very tricky thing, and I'm not convinced that we should be in as big of a weight scare as we are, especially given that it can be extremely difficult to lose weight and keep it off, and that humans have natural weight variability that depends on dozens of factors (for instance, how much your mother eats during pregnancy can affect your tendency to put on fat: if she eats little your body prepares for starvation conditions).

All I'm really trying to say is that if you're happy with your body and you're reasonably healthy, then your weight is probably fine. It's when people start to have trouble doing mundane things that they should start really looking at their weight.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Carnival of Space

For anyone interested, there's a new science carnival starting, The Carnival of Space. If you want to submit a post, go here. The most recent addition is here, so check it out for space-related goodness!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Intelligent Sorting

Finally, I have seen an application of Intelligent Design. David Morgan-Mar (of the unbelievably fantastic Irregular Webcomic!), has come up with the Intelligent Design Sort:

Algorithm Description:

The probability of the original input list being in the exact order it's in is 1/(n!). There is such a small likelihood of this that it's clearly absurd to say that this happened by chance, so it must have been consciously put in that order by an intelligent Sorter. Therefore it's safe to assume that it's already optimally Sorted in some way that transcends our naïve mortal understanding of "ascending order". Any attempt to change that order to conform to our own preconceptions would actually make it less sorted.


This algorithm is constant in time, and sorts the list in-place, requiring no additional memory at all. In fact, it doesn't even require any of that suspicious technological computer stuff. Praise the Sorter!

I think it's saying a lot that this is the only application anyone has been able to come up with thanks to ID. I could describe how awful ID is and the sorry state of our education system (and our country), but we all already know all of that, so just chuckle at DMM's brilliant parody.

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On cranks and bad ideas

Apparently I've reached the point in my blogging career when people start contacting me with crazy ideas. My favorite so far is this one:

You are invited to view the writings of Croatian author Radenko Fanuka

Green Earth

Zero is Not a Number

And that is the reason why this world is physically and mathematically suffering. Compared to the nine numbers, we created, and are creating, too many words. This earth’s soil and the sky is very rich, so why do we need so many words? Are we missing a number, a number from nine to ten? No, we are not. Number ONE, physically and mathematically, created numbers without a zero, but ends them with a zero, and without words. World, we are too soon, too early, adding too many zeroes behind one number, number ONE, and our health, and too many words behind too many lost lives. From nine to ten, we just need to stand behind the one number, number ONE. Why a zero? A zero was already added on. If we don’t stand behind number ONE, this world will physically, and mathematically collapse.

There are words, and they're strung together more or less coherently, but I just don't think they mean anything. I can't make heads or tails of that, can anyone else?

I sometimes wonder about the people who have these crazy ideas. I realize that once in a while an idea is right but is so radical that it gets fought against, but those ideas are usually self-evidently and clearly right (I'm thinking of evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics, there are surely more). But how do you get to the point where you think that insane ramblings like the one quoted above are actually meaningful?

I suppose this brings up the question of how can one tell the difference between a good but radical idea and a simply crazy idea. Sometimes it's easy, but I wonder how I would have reacted in 1905 (or in the 1860's). I can't say for sure, but I like to think that even if I had been heavily invested in the previous way of thinking (like say, the ether, even though Michelson and Morley had disproved it) I'd be like Dawkins' apocryphal professor, who welcomes the downfall of his life's work because it has been conclusively demonstrated wrong.

On a tangential note, I avoided using the word "paradigm" in the above paragraph because I totally and completely loathe it. For one, I think it's one of those words that has been totally overused. For another, cranks like to say that they're just challenging current "paradigms" and everyone's to attached to "the paradigm" to see that they're right. The only contexts in which I have ever seen the word used are by cranks and middle managers, so it carries this gross connotation of incompetence with it, as though anyone who uses it is just doing so to mask the weakness of their ideas.

Back to my main point, ideas should stand or fall based solely on how well they work in their field. In the case of science, that means how well they fit the evidence. If your idea doesn't have any evidence backing it, then it's a shitty idea.

Now we get into the topic of evidence, but that can be saved for another day.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Philosophia Naturalis #10

Welcome to the tenth edition of Philosophia Naturalis, the physical sciences blog carnival. We’ve got the month’s best physics and astronomy blogging here, for your reading pleasure!

First up is Scott Aaronson, who goes into great detail on how quantum computers can solve the factoring problem in Shor, I’ll do it. If you’re put off by math, worry not, for Scott has graciously substituted metaphors involving clocks for all advanced mathematics. If I understood it, you almost certainly will.

In our next entry, Matt Leifer asks, “why is many-worlds winning the foundations debate?” He dives in to a philosophical discussion about the nature of science and uses “Quine’s pudding bowl” to cast good doubt upon the many-worlds interpretation. If you’re up for some philosophy of science (and who isn’t?) give it a read.

Continuing the streak of Quantum-themed entries, Alejandro Satz attempts to explain Quantum Mechanics in words of one syllable. He manages to a pretty good job with a difficult task. I’m not sure I could write anything using only monosyllabic words.

For a change of pace, Joseph Polchinski, guest-blogging at Cosmic Variance, rebuts some of Lee Smolin’s anti-string rhetoric in Science or Sociology? Check it out whether you love or hate string theory (or even if you’re one of those rare people who is entirely neutral to the idea).

In a follow-up to Polchinski’s post titled String Theory: Not Dead Yet, Sean Carroll describes how it’s business as usual for String theorists despite the common misconception that it’s “dead and buried”. He also talks about some of the challenges they’re facing and why it’s still the leading candidate for a theory of quantum gravity.

Speaking of gravity (but without the quantum), Clifford Johnson implores you to Read a Gravity Essay Today. Apparently you can win $5,000 for writing an essay on gravity, who knew!

Now we slide into astronomy and cosmology with Rob Knop, who discusses how the universe is going to end in The Big Rip: an end to the universe without recollapse. According to Rob, there’s an alternative to heat death or recollapse, involving “Phantom Dark Energy”.

Charles Daney muses on NASA’s priorities, new planets, and future space missions (mostly European) in The $13,000 bottle of water. It certainly sounds like the Europeans are on top of their game when it comes to interesting experiments in space, us Americans can only hope that NASA gets its act together and starts doing more real science again sometime soon.

There seems to have been a flurry of news about extrasolar planets this month, and physics bloggers got in on the action. Steinn Sigurosson reports on the discovery of a planet around a metal-poor star in Mo’ Better Planets. Next, Greg Laughlin has the scoop on a Neptune-sized snowball 33 light-years away, and its implications for the study of extrasolar planets. Finally, Phil Plait tells us about the fist map of an extrasolar planet. It’s quite a crude map, but a very impressive feat.

Continuing our foray into the science of the stars, mollishka from a geocentric view discusses her work on the Lyman-alpha forest. There’s a little bit of atomic science and a whole lot of astronomy in this post, it’s a very worthwhile read (especially if you’re like me and quite deficient in astronomy knowledge).

In our final bit of astronomy, ZapperZ from asks Is Too Much Physics Bad For Astronomy?, and then asks it again in Follow Up To “Is Too Much Physics Bad For Astronomy?” His short answer is “no”, but for the full (and much more interesting one) click on the link!

I happen to enjoy a good bit of irreverence every now and then, and so we’ll end this month’s PN with some irreverent looks at physics.

Chad Orzel starts us off with Many Worlds, Many Treats, wherein he explains the many-worlds hypothesis to his dog, and why she shouldn’t be expecting any steaks to fall from his lap any time soon.

Next up, Steinn Sigurosson takes an irreverent look at Boltzmann brains and their implications in on the spontaneous appearance of minor deities.

And finally, we have a webcomic from PartiallyClips:

That does it for this month’s Philosophia Naturalis, tune in next month for more excellent physical sciences blogging!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Obscene toys

Here's a pretty insane story about a Lingerie shop being raided for selling sex toys. Apparently it can be illegal, (which is absurd), and the law is so convoluted that it sounds like simply calling something a "sex toy" makes it illegal (which is even more absurd). But the winner was this quote by the Lubbock Assistant DA:

"What’s considered obscene in LA is different than Lubbock and different than Des Moines. The community ultimately decides what is obscene" says Grace.

He says obscenity laws have been on the books as long as they`ve had books as a way of protecting the community from what he calls the secondary effects of obscenity which are child pornography, money laundering and prostitution.

How on earth could someone say that obscenity will lead to child pornography? That's just crazy! But it's the kind of crazy you come to expect from the South.

I hope that the woman who works at the lingerie shop isn't labeled a sex offender for selling some stupid "obscene" toys, but given that she's in a state more concerned with what people do in the bedroom than, oh I don't know, the welfare of their constituents, she probably will be.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hooray police state!

Every time I read a story like this I get more depressed about the state of this nation, and more convinced that we're headed down a very, very bad path.

Not that it is particularly bad, but even a cursory review finds that we are drifting inexorably into a police state, a nanny-state, and that's somewhere we don't want to go. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope we're not going to end up being a nation afraid of those who protect us, where the people have no power over their "protectors", but that appears to be where we're going.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

I love hypocrisy!

Check out some neocon drug-war hypocrisy here.

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Religious Discrimination

Via Reason, Newt Gingrich, speaking at Falwell's aptly misnamed Liberty University, drops this incredible bomb:

"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard.... It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."

First, religious beliefs don't deserve to be heard. All religious people instantly dismiss all other religions; they only want fairness when it comes to other people respecting theirs. Second, who is discriminating against religious believers? Ronald Bailey gets it right when he says:

Discrimination against religious believers in the United States? Give me a break! "Discrimination" in country in which a Newsweek poll on March 31st found that 91 percent of Americans say they believe in the Big Guy in the Sky and 82 percent say that they are Christians? The good news is that only 26 percent think that an atheist can't be a moral person.

Remember folks, there's currently one open atheist in the entire House, and as soon as he announced his atheism there were calls for him to be removed. The rank hypocrisy of these people is simply astounding. But it's nothing new, and it's not even surprising. How sad of a testament to the state of our nation is that?

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

Here's a cool paper from Science about why adults can be so hostile to scientific ideas. Unfortunately subscription is required (at least I think it is, it's hard to tell), but here's the abstract:

Resistance to certain scientific ideas derives in large part from assumptions and biases that can be demonstrated experimentally in young children and that may persist into adulthood. In particular, both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains. Additionally, when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.

The article discusses some interesting research into how receptive people are to ideas as children and adults (using some experiments I hadn't heard of before), how we learn, and how we evaluate information. It's pretty good, I recommend reading it if you can.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seeing angels in reflections

This is a great example of how people see more than they should when they look at things. Humans naturally assume intent behind events, and we naturally see agents in innocuous places.

Here's the backstory:

When retired policeman Andy Key went on a trip to Rome, he was struck by the beauty of sunlight streaming through a window in the Vatican.

As the Pope made an address nearby, he decided to capture the stunning image on his camera.

But it was only when Mr Key, 48, and his wife Susan, 44, returned home and and downloaded their photographs that they noticed a strange apparition in the picture.

They were amazed to see what looked like the image of a guardian angel above the heads of other visitors to St Peter's Basilica.

Mr Key, from March, Cambridgeshire, said: "It looks like an angel hovering on the people's heads.

"No-one can explain it - there's nothing on their heads for the light to bounce off."

Here's the angel:

Being the skeptic I am, I had to figure out what was really causing this. I'll admit, in that picture it's a bit hard to see what's going on. Look at the zoomed in one, it's the dead giveaway:

From here it's clear. This is just a reflection coming off of something in front of the crowd. You can see how the "head" is just the same pattern after it has gone over a corner, making it look offset. The "wing" and mid-body have a similar effect, but it's harder to notice. My bet is that it's some kind of baptismal or holy water container reflecting the light back up, something circular, elliptical, or rectangular and filled with water (or made of metal). It's no angel, it's just a reflection following the contours of the wall that looks like it could be vaguely person-shaped.

Mr Key, from March, Cambridgeshire, said: "It looks like an angel hovering on the people's heads.

"No-one can explain it - there's nothing on their heads for the light to bounce off."

I just explained it, and I think fairly convincingly. It's really easy to see how it's just following the contours of the wall. You can't see what it's reflecting off of, but it's obviously something.

So I did a bit of googling, and I think I found it (larger version pops):

I can't be sure, but that big pool of water in the middle of the aisle leading up to the area under the dome may just be the source of the reflections onto the wall behind it. I can't be sure, but I'm pretty damn close. (And for the record, I found this after I guessed it was a holy water-fountain (or whatever they're called). Go me.)

So Mr Key, do I get a reward for explaining the so-called "angel"? I know I won't, but I think I should!

Let this be a lesson to you about seeing agents or intent where there is none to be had, lest you make a reflection into an angel.

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Respecting Religion

Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has this gem today:

An excellent point about pandering to religion. If a belief is stupid, then it's stupid whether it's part of religion or not, there's no need to respect someone's beliefs if they're idiotic (like, say, believing that flipping electrical switches creates fire and so it's forbidden on certain days).


Official Call for Entries

I'll be hosting the next issue of Philosophia Naturalis here in a little over a week, on May 24th. Guidelines for articles are here, but my interpretation is more or less "if it's about the natural sciences and it's good, it'll get in."

So you can leave a comment here (or anywhere on the blog) to suggest an entry, you can e-mail me, or you can contact the carnival's creator, Charles Daney, at the Philosophia Naturalis webpage. Just suggest good articles!

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Falwell in critical state

Jerry Falwell was found unresponsive and rushed to the hospital today.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell was hospitalized in "gravely serious" condition today after being found unconscious in his office, a Liberty University executive said.

Falwell arrived at Lynchburg General Hospital today around noon. Ron Godwin, the executive vice president of Liberty University, confirmed that Falwell was found unconscious in his office after missing an appointment this morning.

"I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast," Godwin told the Associated Press. "He went to his office, I went to mine and they found him unresponsive."

This man is truly one of those people to despise. I never want to wish death on anyone, but I can say that he will not be missed by me if he does pass.

If you want a more humorous take on this news, try the Fark Forum thread, there's some funny stuff in there.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Another infringement of free speech

Via Ed Brayton I'm made aware of an insane case of violation of free speech at Tufts University. The school newspaper printed an ad critical of Islam, saying,

I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them." -- The Koran, Sura 8:12

Author Salam Rushdie needed to go into hiding after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa calling for his death for writing The Satanic Verses, which was declared "blasphemous against Islam."

But you see, those things are true. It's really easy to find ways to paint Islam as violent, barbaric, and backwards, and that's mostly because in many parts of the world it is. Of course, this doesn't mean that all Muslims are anything; it's impossible to go from saying "the Koran condones violence and mandates submission" and "Islamic countries are intolerant of criticism and outside ideas" to "ALL MUSLIMS ARE EVIL!!!" The first two claims are true, the second is clearly false.

What's the school's reaction to a newspaper ad filled with true statements?

In the case of the Muslim Student Association ("MSA") v. The Primary Source, by a vote of 7 to 0, we find that the MSA proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that The Primary Source harassed Muslim students at Tufts, and created a hostile environment for them by publishing "Islam-Arabic Translation: Submission." The Committee found that the MSA established that the commentary at issue targeted members of the Tufts Muslim community for harassment and embarrassment, and that Muslim students felt psychologically intimidated by the piece.

These decisions are grounded in our conclusion that although Tufts students should feel free to engage in speech that others might find offensive and even hurtful, Tufts University's non-discrimination policy embodies important community standards of behavior that Tufts, as a private institution, has an obligation to uphold. Our campus should be a place where students feel safe, respected, and valued. Freedom of speech should not be an unfettered license to violate the rights of other members of the community, without recourse.

Read that last sentence again. What it says is that Freedom of Speech, the very first right guaranteed to all Americans, is less important than the right to, "feel safe, respected, and valued." Last time I checked feeling "safe, respected, and valued" is NOT in the bill of rights, or any enumeration of rights. So Tufts has just said that they don't think freedom of speech (or of the press) is a right, but feeling warm and fuzzy inside is.

For the life of me I cannot fathom how someone could possibly believe that. It's just ludicrous. It is absolutely absurd, completely ridiculous. People do not have a right to feel respected and valued, and they only have the right to feel safe in the sense that no one can directly threaten them.

And their statements beg the question, how was that ad making them feel unsafe, disrespected, or unvalued? All it did was quote truths. If quoting from the Koran makes Muslims feel any of those things, then they have some kind of problem. Maybe they realize that Islam as it exists today doesn't mix with the modern world, but just don't want anyone pointing it out. Whatever the case is, their religion is not free from criticism, nor should it be.

All I can say is shame on Tufts, and I hate the fact that this happens so damn often. Why doesn't free speech matter to academics anymore?

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Violent Legos?

This is just great. It's an article about how bad LEGO is for "introducing" guns to their previously non-violent lineup, including a picture of a storm trooper with a rifle.

The problem is that LEGO sets have always had guns! I had tons of Legos when I was a kid, and one of the oldest sets (pirates) came with toy muskets and flintlock pistols. The "Space" themes have always had guns of some sort, although usually more far-out that rifle-like. The "underwater" set had spear-guns. The "castle" set (the oldest one I can remember) had swords, spears, pikes, and poleaxes. The "wild west" sets had revolvers, rifles, and even dynamite.

In short, I have absolutely no idea what these people are talking about. Legos haven't become "violent" because they've added some new, more modern, guns. When I played with them the entire idea was to have fights! If you weren't building giant bases and war-ships and armies, well then you weren't playing with them. And I entirely fail to see how a toy that can become whatever a person wants can be bad in any context (I say person because Legos are not simply a children's toy).

Lego fans and members of The Brickish Association, which bills itself as forum for adult fans of Lego, say there has been a clear shift in policy.

One senior figure in the association said the company had used semi-realistic guns in the past, for pirate sets and those for cowboys, but nothing like those seen in its Star Wars and Batman products.

"Lego's take on creating weaponry has changed over the years," he said.

"My understanding is that the philosophy of the founding fathers of the company was to be non-violent and not to include realistic guns.

"But as they have got more realistic sets and sets that are licensed with big films, there has been an acceptance of guns.

"I very much hope Lego is not being dragged along by a trend for more violent toys and games.

"The philosophy of the company is very family friendly, non-violent, play."

Huw Millington, who runs the Brickset website, said: "There has been a change in emphasis with more realistic-looking guns. It may be that the tie-up with Hollywood is to blame.

"Some people say the brand has gone downhill since it signed licensing deals with big films, but personally I don't agree."

I would love for these guys to explain to me how exactly making guns slightly more realistic makes the toys more violent. Does it really make a difference if it's the gun pictured in the article or a long black stick? As someone who rather recently used the long black sticks as missile launchers, I can tell you that it does not. The entire point of Legos is to engage your imagination, and the pieces will turn into weapons, whether they're realistic-looking or not.

And how exactly is a toy gun not "family friendly"? Last time I checked, little boys love guns. Who didn't have some kind of cowboy or police toy set growing up? Who didn't play "cops 'n' robbers" or some similar game? Who didn't have a fort in the backyard stockpiled with stick weaponry? Who didn't have squirt-gun wars? Why is it that all of a sudden anything that involves any kind of violence is bad?

And, of course, there's the obvious solution: DON'T BUY YOUR KIDS THE SETS WITH GUNS IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH GUNS. I could turn this into a tirade against idiotic parents who want other people to take responsibility for their children, but that's a subject for another day.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Milestones and Statistics

I passed a milestone recently and didn't even realize it. At some point over the traffic-heavy past few days I eclipsed 200,000 absolute unique visitors, 250,000 unique visitors and 300,000 pageviews. (If you know why "unique" and "absolute unique" are both reported, could you enlighten me?) I think that's pretty good for an eight-month-old blog. There are plenty of other nifty statistics too, like 475 people have visited more than 100 times, or that 5 people have visited after not visiting for 366+ days (which is really interesting, seeing as I haven't been tracking that long).

My top post is still 6 Commonly Believed Things That Are Wrong, followed by Why John Stewart Should Run for President. If those sound like they were written for Digg or Reddit, well, it's because they were, (although "6 Things" is also somewhat educational). You have to get traffic to get noticed, and if you come up with an idea that sounds like it could get traffic, then go for it, just don't expect the internet to like everything you think they'll like (they're very fickle).

Most of my traffic is still from Google (at least on the days I don't get on Reddit). My feed fluctuates around 30-40 people, and as far as I can tell that's about how many regular readers I have. For not expecting too many, it's not too bad. I hope it will grow, but that can take substantial time. All I can do is keep writing my silly writings, and hoping that people like them and read more.

And speaking of milestones, I'm about to hit another one. My birthday is Sunday, and I will be reaching the ripe old age of 20. I don't like to discuss my age because people often think less of you when you're young, (and for good reason, young people are idiots). But the fact that I'm a Sophomore in college is on my sidebar, so while I'm talking about milestones I figured I should mention it.

Because this post was so pointless, let's have some kind of discussion in the comments. I'm not too particular, so how about telling me something about what you're interested in? That sounds good.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

The dumbest creationist quote ever

From Cosmic Variance here's one of the best creationist quotes ever. It's so good I had to share it:

One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

You should be laughing quite hard right now. I know I was. The funny thing is that this person is exactly right about his science. Life on Earth couldn't function without some giant influx of energy. We'd die a cold, lonely death without it (just like the universe will eventually). But we fortunately do have energy coming in, and us scientists do indeed know about it (as does everyone else on the planet).

In case you don't get it, it's the sun.

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The case for staying in Iraq

I plan to make a coherent, logical, factual case for why pulling out of Iraq is a bad idea. This is not the argument of some fringe Bush-loving lunatic, it’s the academic argument for keeping troops in Iraq. It comes to me second-hand from Larry Diamond, who served on the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

The main point can be summed up in one word, “Somalia”. The problem with withdrawing the troops is the same problem we had back then, that the country would destabilize and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people would die. (As an aside, the same characters who are refusing to “cut and run” now wanted to back then, and vice-versa. It appears that politicians only want to get out of wars the other side started.) Somalia is the only place in the world (besides Antarctica) that has no government. It is in a perpetual state of civil war. 25% of children don’t see the ripe old age of five. It is hell. If we leave Iraq now, it will end up like Somalia.

Look at it this way, if we leave Iraq, we’ll create another Darfur (we didn’t actually make Darfur into what it is now, but the situation there would be very similar to the one in Iraq). The same thing will happen, with one ethnic group massacring the other. If we pull out, without any kind of stabilizing force in our place, the Mahdi Army (the Shiite militias run by Sadr) will sweep into Baghdad and kill all the Sunnis. That’s five million people, nearly another Holocaust. Every day I see T-shirts and fliers saying “Help Darfur!” The very same people would almost certainly want to pull out of Iraq and condemn all those people to death; they want us to be responsible for another Holocaust.

Beyond the fact that five million people would die, the country would have no stabilizing force. It could quite easily start a regional war. It wouldn’t take much for Iran to go in. If the Muslim countries starting fighting each other, there’s a decent chance that Israel could fly off the handle and get into the fight (it’s happened for less). This situation is more speculative, but it’s definitely possible that pulling out right now would lead to a Middle-East brawl. No one wants that.

I understand that no one wants to be there. It seems pointless. It seems stupid. And it was. We overthrew a stable government for no good reason, which is completely and totally stupid. Our leaders were incompetent, we took many missteps, most of which trace back to Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, or Bremer. We shouldn’t be there because we never should have invaded. But we can’t leave now, not yet. There’s still too much at stake, and we have to wait until there’s some form of stable government. I know people will disagree with me, but remember, five million people, innocent people who have done nothing wrong, will likely die if we leave too soon, will die because of our actions. Just remember that when talking about withdrawing from Iraq.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Update on Religious Accommodation

I read through the comments on my previous post, and went to look at the actual article, and realize that I only saw the first portion. I scanned the rest and it had some important details in it that I didn't know, like that the area had recently had problems with power-struggles in condos, and this may just be a ploy. But the article mentioned that lots of places have them, especially with the number of Orthodox increasing, and I find it hard to believe that people couldn't just move someone else that does have them if the board of this condo didn't want them (even if they're the same price, having one could be annoying to other residents).

However, I think my first post went a bit too far. I still think that the belief is stupid. Below the fold I'll put all the negative comments I recieved and some replies, it's explained in there. But if this elevator only runs in "sabbath mode" for 24-hours and there would be more than one (so that other people could use the alternative one), and having it would raise the value of the property (all of those claims may be false, but they're made in the article), then it does seem odd to deny it. But that doesn't mean it was racism or antisemitism, it's probably just a power play (which is also childish).

But I was a bit more rude than I like to be, I try not to be quite as mean (unless the people are actually contemptible, like Ken Ham or Bill Donahue or someone like that). So next time I get angry about something that seems unreasonable I'll use softer language.

Continue reading...
The Talmud prohibits activities that exercise control over one's environment on the Sabbath. Scholars believe that operating an electrical switch is prohibited under the 39 categories of activity, or melachot, that observant Jews are forbidden from performing. It is not an arbitrary prohibition of "flicking switches", but rather an observance that we are not dominions of our surroundings.

Uhh, Genesis 1:26? “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

So how, exactly, are you not dominions of your surroundings if your God explicitly gave you dominion over your surroundings? And people are shocked I’m calling this stupid?

I agree with the basic argument that the Jewish members cannot expect the rest of the society to be inconvenienced for their benefit. However, calling their religion stupid and idiotic says little of your own maturity. These beliefs are rooted in their history and culture. You may choose to follow or not, but as long as you are not inconvenienced be tolerant.

They cannot operate electrical switches because that act is (has been) related to working (read earning a living). Times have changed, but not the rule. Also, they may be too old to take the stairs.

How is calling something stupid being intolerant? Can someone explain that one to me? I’m not saying that the people are stupid, or that their beliefs are wrong, or that they shouldn’t be tolerated (I did say they shouldn’t be accommodated, but they deserve to believe their stupid beliefs if they really want to). I think this is the attitude that Dawkins et al fight. If this was a political belief (say, pro-choice) that I had called stupid, no one would be calling me intolerant. But when it’s a religious belief? I don’t buy it, and never will.

Yes, I may have damaged my own credibility by sinking down a level in return for some intense rhetoric (whoops, my bad), but I was not intolerant. For the record, I firmly believe in a person’s right to believe whatever they want, and would rather have Orthodox Jews fill the world than force a belief on anyone (provided that the Orthodox Jews don’t force their beliefs on other people).

You should consider investigating religions before you attack them.

Simply because some jews do not follow the specified laws on Saturday does not mean that other jews are dumb for following them.

Your post smells of bigotry and ignorance.

Congratulations for gaining internet fame through these two means.

P.S. I expect you won't display my comment, or any comment attacking your point of view, so this blog is really not meant to discuss anything, but rather for you to rent, way to go.

I know a good bit about Judaism, not too much, but more than the average person. I do know enough to know that Yahweh never said, “Thou shalt not push the buttons on elevators.” I got a few commenters who said something like, “Not being able to flick switches has nothing to do with work. It's because religion does not allow Jews to start fires on Sabbath and switches work with sparks, just like fire (rather far fetched, I know, but that's how it works).” Which, you have to admit, is pretty stupid. I’m not trying to be mean, but come on, that’s a really twisted interpretation, and totally not how electricity works (fire is rapid oxidation, electricity is electrons moving due to potential differences).

And I’m not sure how much fame I’ve gathered, since I’ve had more popular posts (at least so far, maybe this one will get more hits), and traffic from Reddit (or wherever) is usually pretty fleeting. I’m also not sure what he meant by “for you to rent”, is he implying I pay my rent with the traffic? Maybe if I lived somewhere that cost $6 a month, but I most certainly don’t.

Disclaimer: I'm not Jewish.

If you're really "interested in learning as much as [you] can about pretty much everything," you'd learn about Orthodox Jews, and their rationale for not using electrical switches, and why they don't take the stairs more than one or two flights. The crazy old person's idiotic charge of antisemitism gives you an opportunity to be even more reasonable, rather than being just as idiotic on the opposite side.

Firstly, I believe you're taking this way too far, and they also are taking it way too far.

The reality is many people have many different belief's, some people might consider some to be a hindrance, others not since you're more 'familiar' with them. Allow me to explain.

You have your own beliefs and weird traditions just like anyone else does. You probably get a big freaking dead tree in your house come December, and put ridiculous ornaments all over it and put boxes for other people underneath wrapped in paper. You probably also hang brutal looking lights from your house only during December as well.

You probably eat Turkey on Thanksgiving.

You might wear green and go to a pub on March 17th.

You might believe that at one point your descendants were practically slugs or even a bacteria. Or you might believe you sprang fourth out of nothing.

You might go out of your way to send your wife chocolates and dead flowers on February 14th.

You might have at one point (or still do) dress up in a ridiculous outfit meant to scare people, then go door to door in your neighborhood asking for...candy.

When dressing nicely, you might hang a piece of folded fabric that wraps around your neck and descends down to your waistline.

The fact is every culture and religion has its own "things" it does. Your own, which to you don't seem weird, are technically, when you look at them, really weird. However, its in quite bad taste to call what someone does "stupid", which is where I have a problem with your article.

Yes, they have a tradition, but so do you. Would you like people calling you a moron for putting a dead tree in your house? For dressing up like an idiot at the end of October?

Just because a religion might be a minority doesn't give people the right to ignore it or call it "stupid". Every person has the right to believe whatever the hell they want to believe, even if that's nothing. If you live in a culture that allows people to do that, then you have to respect people's decisions when they differ from your own. Otherwise you're basically against the established culture you live within, and you really need to leave the country and find somewhere that doesn't allow freedom of religion.

Now I think their take that this is somehow anti-semitic is way too far. It's simply not. Rather it's simply people not wanting to be understanding towards another religion. They're taking it a bit too far, and yes, they could take the stairs, and as well you could skip Christmas or not wear a tie, it wouldn't be the end of the world, but it would feel a little disabling.

I think that this is the best point. I know that being Jewish is about as cultural as religious, and I understand why Jews hang on to their culture the way they do. But I’m still going to call circumcision barbaric, and I’m going to call not pushing buttons on an elevator stupid. I think it is, and if that ruins my credibility with you that’s fine with me.

Though I agree with what you say about the "religious accommodation" issue, you crossed the line when you started berating Orthodox Jews. I'm Jewish. I have family members that are Orthodox. Though many of the their traditions make absolutely no sense to me, and their choices should not force me to adjust my life to accommodate, it's their choice, and their life. To insult them and question their choices removes all credibility from your statements.

Ok, the people who say things like this have a point. I didn’t even remember wording it that strongly. In retrospect, I should have been mellower, I usually try to be. But you have to admit that it takes a pretty weird interpretation of the Torah to say that electric switches are a no no, but things that would make living on that day aren’t. I’ll stand by that.

Also in my defense it was early in the morning and I was feeling fervently Dawkins-esque: “No pandering to the religious!”

It’s a Condominium, dude.

Do you even know what a condo is?

People who own the condos get to vote and decide what the need from the condo association.

Maybe if you move out of your parents basement you would learn something.

I liked this one. Because every blogger in the world lives in their parents’ basement! Never mind the fact that it says right on my sidebar that I’m currently at college, 3,000 miles away from my parents’ basement. In fact, I specifically try to spend as little time there as possible. I like my independence. So this one hit hard.

Also, there’s the pesky little fact that the condo association voted down the measure, and that’s when the Jewish residents started whining. Never mind that one too!

While I agree with the basic premise of your post - these people aren't entitled to a special elevator and shouldn't scream discrimination just because they don't get what they want - your post ends up just degenerating into ignorance and drivel, which is unfortunate, because you probably could have made a much clearer point if you hadn't resorted to basic ad hominem attacks.

Ad hominem means “to the man”, and is usually considered to mean attacking someone’s credentials or character. Since I just called beliefs stupid, not the people (I’m sure they occupy the full range of human intelligence, from unintelligent to intelligent), I did not make an ad hominem. Just wanted to be clear on that.

I think you're somewhat overreacting. A Sabbath elevator is not in fact a big inconvenience.
I live in Israel, and all hotels and many apartment buildings have at least one Sabbath elevator. It is clearly marked so that people who don't want to use it are free to use the other ones.

It's also somewhat presumptous of you to label the beliefs of these people stupid. The fact that you don't understand the logic behind what they're saying doesn't mean there isn't any. You may disagree with their premises, but labeling it stupid just labels you as the same. The only stupid thing in what they say is that the decision is anti-semitic.

What if the place had no handicapped access, and they were all fully able to walk when they moved in. Would it be stupid of them to demand handicapped access?

That’s a false analogy though, because these people were Orthodox Jews when they moved in (in all likelihood). They’re demanding something that they knew full well wasn’t there when they moved in, were ok with it then, and are mad as hell that the other people in the building don’t want it now. It’s not quite the same as becoming handicapped in a building with inadequate handicap accessability.

It’s kind of funny, the commenter before this one said that even in Israel they’re considered weird. Maybe it’s a different part of Israel.

How do you mean? Childish and stupid like calling someone's religion stupid? Or do you mean like a bunny handing out eggs? Or maybe a fat guy in a flying sled lobbing presents down chimneys at 1/3 of the world's households in one night? Like that kind of childish and stupid?

Or do you mean childish and stupid like calling wine blood and wafers a body? Or maybe you mean childish and stupid like putting ashes on your head? Or maybe you mean like making 6 year old children of atheists pray to Jesus or study the bible in public school? Like that -- is that what you mean?

I’m assuming this is supposed to insult me (but could definitely see it going either way because of the second paragraph, kind of confusing), but yeah, it’s stupid like all of those things. I don’t particularly like Christmas (or any other holiday), and if it weren’t for my family wouldn’t do anything special for it. So all the people referencing classic American holidays, yes, this is stupid just like those.

Dude, what high ground you had, you completely threw away in the last few paragraphs.

"Or maybe, and here's a thought, they could TAKE THE STAIRS."
Are you remembering that they're seniors? over 70?

So is my grandfather (or at least nearing it), and he can still take the stairs. It’s fair to assume that they’re not doing any shopping on the Sabbath, so they wouldn’t be carrying anything up. I think that even elderly people should be able to climb some stairs, if they care that much about their religion. And if they’re not fit enough to climb stairs how exactly are they walking to the Synagogue? I suppose if they’re in a wheel-chair… But how hard would it be to ask a neighbor to push the damn button for you? There’s got to be someone else on your floor who’d be willing to do that. Or, as some people mentioned, Orthodox Jews used to hire people to do those things, why not pay someone five bucks to push the button?


Religious Accommodation

Via Ed Brayton, here's a story about religious accommodation:

The vote from the Strathmore Tower condominium board was simple: Down with the Sabbath elevator.

But what some thought was a straightforward vote has erupted into a religious and racially tinged controversy to others in this majority senior citizen-occupied condominium complex in Upper Park Heights.

The supporters - most of whom are Jewish - say the option for a Sabbath elevator wouldn't have cost extra money and would have aided Orthodox Jewish and disabled residents while helping resale prices. Foes say such an elevator is inconvenient and could cost more.

Sabbath elevators are normal elevators that can be set to automatically stop at every floor. That helps observant Orthodox Jews who aren't permitted to operate electrical switches during the Sabbath period, or Shabbat, which runs from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday.

Some Jewish residents say the vote in February by the nine-member board - 5-3, with one absent - to strike a Sabbath elevator out of a contract to renovate the building's two elevators smacks of religious discrimination.

"I hate to say it, but reverse discrimination is what it is," said Haron Goodman, 74, a Jewish board member and 10-year Strathmore resident, heads nodding around him as he sits with other residents in his apartment on a recent morning. "It's absolutely anti-Semitism."

Here's a thought, instead of demanding that the place you chose to live in changes to meet your religious needs, why don't you choose to live somewhere that already meets those needs? I know it's a crazy thought, but if this is that big of a deal, why not ask, "Do you have Sabbath elevators?" BEFORE you move in?

I mean, what were all of these people thinking? Oh, I'm not allowed to push a lever on Saturdays, and they don't have leverless elevators, but I'm sure if I'm loud and angry enough they'll put some in! After all, it's my religion, everyone else deserves to be inconvenienced for me!

Or maybe, and here's a thought, they could TAKE THE STAIRS.

Then we have the fact that these people think that they can't flick a switch on Saturdays. Where the hell does that come from? Is flicking a switch considered work? If that's work, then how do they manage to eat? Flicking a switch is far less work than lifting a fork, or moving, so how do these people manage to eat and walk on Saturdays? It's just stupid, and I'll say it, these people's beliefs are stupid.

And then we have the charge of antisemitism. A funny charge, given that the vast majority of Jewish people feel fine flicking switches on Saturdays. Maybe they don't hate Jewish people, they just don't feel like dealing with stupid people. My money is on that one.

How do they think this works? Do they think, "I'll ask for something that I don't even need, benefits a few people, inconveniences the majority, and they'll have to accept it! But if they don't, we'll cry antisemitism (because disagreeing with a Jew is always antisemitism), and THEN they'll surely install them! But if that doesn't work, then we'll just kick and scream and cry to mommy."

That last part probably isn't in there, but doesn't the whole thing just reek of childishness? It's like these people are 7, not 74. "I'm special and deserve to be treated special! TREAT ME SPECIAL!!" Then they start crying.

Grow up. And if your stupid religion says that you can't push a damn elevator button on Saturdays then take the stairs. Or stay in. Or move to the first floor a special Orthodox Jew condo (there's probably a few hundred of 'em in Florida). Just don't expect everyone else to pay for your beliefs, because it's childish and idiotic.

[EDIT: Holy crap, I just realized that I wasn't getting any of the moderation notices and have 71 back-logged comments. Sorry about that, they're all published now. I'll do my best to read them quickly and make sure there aren't any really offensive ones.]

[EDIT 2: Here's a quick update, including responses to negative comments. In short, I think I went a bit too far in this article. But I'm not going to delete it, I don't delete anything I say. I made a (small) mistake with my choice of language in this article, but I'm fallible, so it will remain in.]


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

More bad apples

Yet another reason we need more police oversight. Ok, I promise I'll stop posting about corrupt and incompetent police officers soon.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Religious silliness

Here's a great example of religious silliness.

Apparently this quote quote is just too much for Michelle Incanno, Catholic mother of three:

Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.

I'm not sure why suggesting that people don't need god in times of tragedy is so offensive. Maybe people saying that your crutch is unnecessary really is that appalling.

What I really wonder is if she thinks that not shopping at Starbucks is going to change anything. Does she think that they really care about some people getting offended over a quote on a cup? Because I'm pretty sure their bottom line won't feel any pain, and that's all they care about.

And here's some more religious silliness (I know you can never have enough of that stuff), but this is exponentially more silly:

A soccer game between Muslim imams and Christian priests at the end of a conference to promote interfaith dialogue was canceled Saturday because the teams could not agree on whether women priests should take part.

Church of Norway spokesman Olav Fykse Tveit said the imams refused to play against a mixed-gender team of priests because it would have gone against their beliefs in avoiding close physical contact with strange women.

I don't think I need to comment on that, so I won't.

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Who polices the police?

Via Radley Balko comes the shocking news that a Connecticut police officer who put a gun to a woman's head and pulled the trigger has been reinstated.

According to court documents, the woman contacted Windsor Locks police April 1, 2004, and told them that on March 27 Adams held an unloaded Desert Eagle semiautomatic pistol to her head and pulled the trigger.

The woman told police she met Adams in mid-2003 and they had a nine-month affair. According to the arrest warrant, the woman said that on March 26, 2004, a friend accidentally called Adams' wife, whose number was stored in the woman's cellphone. The woman then received a return call from Adams' wife and hung up, according to the warrant. Adams then called the woman himself a few moments later in a rage, the warrant said.

Adams made that call while he was on patrol duty, police said.

According to the warrant, Adams and the woman made arrangements to meet at his home in Windsor Locks on March 27, 2004, where the incident allegedly occurred. Adams was subsequently arrested and charged.

And now this guy is being rehired. While he's on trial for disorderly conduct, second-degree harassment and coercion. He put a gun to a woman's head, and he's being rehired.

Does anyone else think that's insane? This guy obviously has some stability problems if he pulls a stunt like that, and he's being given the powers of a police officer?

We need police reform. Badly. Just click on the first link in this post, and there are a half-dozen other incidents like this. They happen so often that they don't get even get reported. SWAT teams regularly break into the wrong houses, police regularly abuse their power. It seems that many have forgotten "Protect and Serve".

I know that not all officers are bad people, and that most of them aren't. But the current state of affairs breeds corruption, just like it did during Prohibition Mark I.

And look what just showed up in my feed reader, Code Inspectors" Target Wrong House, Cop Shoots Dog, Hits Mom, Daughter. Apparently police officers are pretending to be "code inspectors", and this guy shot a dog he thought was a fleeing perp and fragments hit a mother and daughter. He was at the wrong address.

How many people have to die like Katheryn Johnston before we demand reform?

(And yes, I have used this title before, but I still want to know who polices the police.)

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Friday, May 04, 2007

The Agitator

Don't read Radley Balko's The Agitator if you want to be calm. Every time he posts it makes me so mad that steam comes out my ears.

Not by what he says, but the events he describes. This world of ours is impossibly infuriating, and he does a magnificent job documenting some of the flaws in the system that really should make every single person livid. You should check it out, because the more people know about the stuff he writes, the better.

Three GOP Candidates Deny Evolution

Three GOP candidates deny evolution. The actual words used were "don't believe", but since evolution is scientifically proven (as proven as anything can be science), you deny it. You don't believe your daughter when she tells you that she didn't draw on the wall with crayons (to borrow from Douglas Adams), but you deny something that's scientifically proven.

Frankly, I'm surprised it's only three. I'm not surprised that only three actually do deny it, but that the rest aren't pandering to the idiots in the primaries who also deny evolution. Every single one of the front-runners has changed their positions on issues because of that, I'm shocked that evolution isn't one.

But then again, maybe it's getting to the point where saying that you deny evolution makes you look too stupid for even the GOP. I can only hope.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Politicians for Saving Bigfoot!

This is probably the stupidest thing you will hear all week:

Canadian MP Mike Lake... has called for Bigfoot to be protected under Canada's species at risk act, alongside Whooping Cranes, Blue Whales, and Red Mulberry trees.

"The debate over their (Bigfoot's) existence is moot in the circumstance of their tenuous hold on merely existing," reads a petition presented by Lake to parliament in March and due to be discussed next week. "Therefore, the petitioners request the House of Commons to establish immediate, comprehensive legislation to affect immediate protection of Bigfoot," says the petition signed by almost 500 of Lake's constituents in Edmonton, Alberta.

There is no debate over whether he exists. There's no evidence for it (at least that couldn't have been easily faked and/or misinterpreted). I suppose in all fairness it's possible, but really freaking unlikely. Calls to preserve a population that we don't even know exists is, well, insane.

Although I'd rather have politicians who want to preserve nonexistent species than most of the ones we have.

[Via Reason]

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What makes us who we are?

A great essay by Judith Rich Harris in Prospect Magazine talks about the nature-vs-nurture debate. Here's two long excerpts:

It wasn't until the 1970s that behavioural geneticists worked out productive techniques for answering questions about nature vs nurture. One method involved looking at adopted children, whose genes were provided by one set of parents and whose environment was provided by a different set. Another method involved finding identical twins separated at birth: same genes, different environments. A third involved comparisons between identical twins and fraternal twins reared in the same family (identical twins have the same genes; fraternal twins are genetically as different as ordinary siblings). Other research designs made use of the genetic differences between ordinary siblings, half-siblings, and step or adoptive siblings raised in the same family.

None of these methods is perfect, but they each have different flaws. It is therefore noteworthy that they all produced essentially the same results. Two results, actually—one surprising, the other not.

The unsurprising result was that genes matter. Since the 1970s, behavioural geneticists have measured many different human characteristics in many ways. They've looked at personality traits such as extroversion, conscientiousness and aggressiveness. They've looked at mental disorders, intelligence and aspects of people's life histories (such as careers). In virtually every case, the results were the same. About half the variation in the measured characteristic—the differences from one person to another—could be attributed to differences in their genes.

The surprising result had to do with the environment. Since genetic effects account for only about half of the differences among us, the other half has to be the result of environmental effects, right? Well, that was the assumption. But researchers still haven't been able to pin down which aspects of the environment are important. All they've been able to determine is which aspects of the environment are not important. The aspects of the environment that don't seem to matter are all those that are shared by all the children who grow up in a given family—which includes most of the things the word "home" makes you think of. Whether the home is headed by one parent or two, whether the parents are happily married or constantly rowing, whether they believe in pushing their children to succeed or leaving them to find their own way in life, whether the home is filled with books or sports equipment, whether it is orderly or messy, a city flat or a farmhouse—the research shows, counterintuitively, that none of these things makes much difference. The child who grows up in the orderly, well-run home is, on average, no more conscientious as an adult than the one who grows up in the messy one. Or rather, he or she will be more conscientious only to the extent that this characteristic is inherited.

And the conclusion:

It is the relationship system, with its bulging storehouse of memories of Mum and Dad, that makes us believe that our parents played a central role in making us who we are. This system contributes more than its fair share to our conscious memories. The strong emotions associated with these memories make us feel that they must be important. But the truth is that people don't know why they turned out the way they did. Many of the important things that happen during development go on outside the purview of the conscious mind. Asking people why they are the way they are may produce interesting answers, but we should not place much weight on them.

Asking their parents is even less likely to be profitable, because parents see only one part of their children's lives. Though relationships with parents greatly affect the day-to-day happiness of children, just as marital relationships greatly affect the day-to-day happiness of adults, neither leaves deep marks on the personality. In the long run, it is what happens to them outside the parental home that makes children turn out the way they do. After all, outside the parental home is where they are destined to spend their adult lives.

One of my favorite books is The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture by Matt Ridley. His main thesis is that nature works via nurture (Nature via Nurture was the British title), and that the two are hard to distinguish. He puts a lot of evidence into it (much of it briefly discussed in the article, he's a big fan of the twin studies), and the entire book is quite convincing. The only thing that's a little problematic is that he likes to assign percentages to things, and some of them come off as being weird (like parental influence accounting for ~10% of intelligence, how can you estimate that?). This doesn't take away from his ultimately fantastic book.

I'm currently taking a class with Paul Ehrlich, (author of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect), who likes to say that trying to differentiate between genetic and environmental contributions to personality are like trying to differentiate between the contributions of length and width to the area of a triangle; they're so intimately connected that it's impossible to separate them. He doesn't buy genetic causes for behaviors at any but the most basic level, and loves the "gene shortage" argument, that there simply aren't enough genes to program those behaviors (a position I vehemently disagree with in certain realms).

I fall a bit between those two. There are almost certainly (I'm certain about nothing) genetic causes for behaviors, but they almost certainly interact strongly with the environment. I think that Harris gets it damn close to right in her article (although I don't know how convincing the brain modules she talks about are).

Anyway, this is a fantastically complicated and fundamentally interesting topic. What makes us who we are? We're closing to knowing than we ever were before, and we're almost certainly nowhere near understanding it all.

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Capitalism, energy consumption, and waste

Here's a great article from Reason on a company reducing its energy consumption voluntarily to save money.

The short summary is: reducing waste (whether its energy or emissions) reduces costs, and capitalism is all about reducing costs. The market is (at this point) an environmentalist's friend (except in the cases where waste is cheaper, but energy use is not one).

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It was just a matter of time, really

A weight loss cult has appeared. And yes, you read that correctly, a weight loss cult.

It's a nice mix of using religion to shame and scare people into losing weight and normal weight loss advice, but the former is apparently taken to extremes ("You'll go to hell if you don't lose weight.")

It never ceases to amaze me what people will do.