Measured Against Reality

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hooray Justice system

Another wonderful piece of news:

A Northwestern University study of 290 non-capital cases in four cities found that juries arrive at the wrong verdict in about one of six cases, and judges aren't much better. It also found that the errors are more likely to send an innocent person to jail than to let a guilty person go free.

My perception of the judicial system (police included) gets worse and worse every day.

I love a prison state

If you're not already depressed about the state of our fine country, read this short article.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Selling humanity short

I had the pleasure of recently being reminded of some wacky beliefs that aren't all that uncommon. In this particular instance I'm talking about the belief that ancient peoples had contact with some kind of super-civilization, usually aliens, but also possibly time-travelers or some undiscovered ancient civilization (like Atlantis). The most persuasive argument for these beliefs is that ancient peoples simply couldn't have built the stuff they built, they must have had help.

The two most commonly invoked examples are Stonehenge and the pyramids. This is despite the fact that we have some good ideas about how the pyramids were built, and that human ingenuity has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds many times throughout history, and only the undocumented wonders need outside help to build. Humans are very clever animals, we come up with solutions to all kinds of problems, why can't ancient people have been just as clever?

For example, watch this movie:

I showed that to some of my engineer friends, and they were floored by the creativity he showed. Two seemingly impossible challenges overcome with technology that was available 20,000 years ago. I still have to gawk at the simplicity and elegance of how he raised the pillars. If Wally Wallington can build Stonehenge with ancient technology, then why can't the ancient Celts? Why do they need help?

Another question that the alternative "theories" (read: uninformed conjectures) tend to pose is "why on earth would these people build these things?" I'll just ask a counter-question, "Why on earth did the Greeks build their temples? Why did the Sumerian build their Ziggurats? Why did the Romans build their magnificent monuments? Why did the catholics build their cathedrals? Why did the Moors build their mosques? Why do we build all the stuff that we build?" It would seem that building useless monuments (especially to religion) is a basic human drive, and that first question totally ignores it, just like they totally ignore human ingenuity.

The problem with these hypotheses is that they rely on the same "god of the gaps" arguments as creationism: we don't know how this work/how they did this, so it must have been ______ (insert implausible argument here). People are so afraid of gaps in knowledge that they can't say, "Well, we don't know right now, but we might know eventually. I'll hold off answering until we do, if we ever do." Instead the answer becomes something that defies logic, ignores Occam's razor, is completely untestable, and sells humanity short.

I understand the desire to believe, I myself used to be fascinated with these thoughts. But then I grew up and I learned about skepticism, the burden of proof, and the scientific method. These outlandish hypotheses, and others like them, are not only (almost certainly) wrong, but they deny ancient humanity one of our central traits: the ability to creatively solve difficult problems, in other words, our intelligence and ingenuity. Never doubt those two traits, because they are what makes us human.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hits the nail square on the head

Via Reason Hit & Run, this fantastically well-done pharmaceutical commercial spoof mocking the drug war:

Well done.


North Carolina wants you hung over

This is pretty funny, and a good example of the mindset of fundamentalists. North Carolina has (along with 22 other states) banned alcohol vaporizers, which apparently allow you to get drunk and skip the hangover (which results, as I understand it, partially from impurities. But I thought dehydration played a part as well, so I don't know how this works).

Anyway, the rationale is priceless:

Imagine what would happen if users could fast track the mind-altering effects of alcohol and, at the same time, sidestep the hangover. That's exactly the appeal of AWOL. It is not complimentary of the great State of North Carolina that this new scourge for alcohol abuse is being marketed from within our own borders.

Yes, making a legal substance more enjoyable is a bad thing.

I wonder about the people who care so much about what other people do. I just don't understand what is wrong with them, why they think that they know what's best for everyone else. It's really damn condescending, as well as manifestly wrong. Hopefully we'll realize that one day, and move past our inane paternalistic impulses. I can hope, but I think it's a vain hope.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Should Science Speak to Religion?

There's a cool dialog between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins about the role science plays in respect to religion in Sciam this month. Here's the full thing, and here's a shorter version. (Note, it's possible that these are a behind a paywall, but I don't think so). I haven't read the longer version, but the short one was quite good. Either they're both very polite or they disagree about very little, it's hard to tell. But the quality of the commentary is what you'd expect from men of their caliber. The short one is definitely worth your time, if you have a bit more on your hands try the long version.

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The indispensable Ed Brayton has a great post about ethanol, and how insane it is. And he doesn't even mention the recent (Stanford!) study that found that ethanol is more polluting. He's right, using ethanol as fuel is truly madness.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Biology, Cheaters, and Southwest Airlines

I was flying this past week, and as such got to witness some interesting behavior that emerges at airports. I'm not in the least surprised that people do interesting things in airports, travel is naturally stressful, and the ridiculous and unnecessary (not to mention useless) policies just make it worse. As such it gives you a good chance to watch how people respond to various situations.

The two events I will detail are about cheating, in the sense of subverting an established order for personal gain at the expense of the other organisms that obey the order. Cheating is one of those incredibly interesting evolutionary problems (for a taste see this excellent post from the always-good R Ford Denison at This Week in Evolution, a must-read). Unfortunately I can't find any good reference pages with introductory material, so we'll soldier on without it (the Wikipedia article was woefully short, a knowledgeable biologist should improve it).

I was flying Southwest, and the lines had been formed for a while (for those who don't know Southwest divides the passengers into three groups, A B and C, which board in that order, first-come first-serve seating). A fairly attractive woman walked up and sat down in a chair that was near the line, but way ahead of the back. I knew right away that she was just going to cut the queue, well aware that no one would say anything about her cheating. When boarding started she sure enough did just that, and got onto the plane before about a dozen people who were in line before her.

That incident got me thinking about the politics of lines. If people don't actively create an incentive to follow the rules, then cheaters will prosper at the expense of the cheated, and soon the order will dissolve completely (at least evolutionarily, it needn't work that way in a social phenomenon, but I suspect it would). So there must be some kind of punishment for cheating, but I don't know what it is. I think that most people appreciate the order, and wouldn't want to disrupt it (for whatever reason, they are probably quite numerous). For the rest who don't cheat, perhaps the fear of being perceived as an asshole is great enough to overcome the slight gain of cheating, or perhaps those people fear some kind of retaliation. Those who do cheat must not care too much about anything but themselves, and must be confident that they will get away with their transgression (which is why I mentioned that the woman was attractive, had I--a college-aged male--attempted the same feat, the odds of success would be much worse, although they could still be in favor of success).

This is where I wish I had some handy links to computational biology sources, because computer simulation is often used to test the success of certain behaviors under certain conditions, and (from what I remember) cheaters usually exist, but in small numbers. There will be some kind of dynamic equilibrium where more cheaters make them less likely to succeed and vice-versa, which leads to a sinusoidal variation of behaviors within a population of "animals". Of course, reality is more complicated, but simulations are a useful (and interesting) approximation. I wonder if anyone has ever done a field-study on cheating in line at airports...

The second incident was quite different from the first. I had very little time to spare to make it to my flight after a connection, and when I arrived in line asked the last person in it (a fairly elderly woman) if this was the "A" line for the flight, and she replied that it was. We talked for a while (her daughter and son-in-law are Nuclear Physicists at Los Alamos), and after a while I noticed that her boarding pass distinctly said "B". She was in the wrong line! Never before had I seen such a thing. I wondered whether or not I should say something, and I decided not to. I really wanted to see how the attended taking the passes would react. When she handed him the ticket he didn't even notice. She got right onto the plane, probably 30 places ahead of where she would have if she had been in the correct line. I'm sure she got a much better seat because of her cheating.

I began to wonder if she made a mistake. I doubted it. I had specifically asked if it was the A line, and she picked up her bags when they announced that the A's were boarding. While she was old she didn't appear dopey, but (once again) I guessed that she figured that if she was called on her cheating she could appeal to her appearance and pretend to be dopey. Perhaps she knew that they wouldn't even check.

But that got me wondering about how Southwest prevents cheaters. The agent seemed oblivious enough that anyone could do it, and it would completely subvert the Southwest model of boarding. I don't know if they have any policies in place to prevent that kind of cheating, but they didn't seem to. It is possible that the old lady got permission to be in that line ahead of time, but I doubt it; she would have just preboarded, getting on before everyone, instead of just before the rest of the B's (and a handful of A's). This is the kind of cheating that the rest of the people have an active interest in preventing since it entirely breaks the system on which they depend. However, I suppose most people aren't so unscrupulous as to board before they're supposed to; our natural reverence for rules and order probably makes most people reject the thought out of hand. But it only takes a few to throw the system into chaos...

This has been long enough, and those are my thoughts on cheaters and cheating. This is one of those areas that's very interesting and almost certainly fertile for research, although perhaps not in airports. I have some more thoughts from my trip, many inspired by Sagan, to come in the following days. Stay tuned!

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Measured Against Reality

I changed my name, but it's not necessarily permanent. If you have an opinion, now's the time to give it (but I am totally OK with indifference). I'll probably tweak the general appearance of the blog some more when I have time. That is all.

Just Magnificient

Loving for All

By Mildred Loving*

Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007,
The 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Announcement

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn't to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn't get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn't allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn't that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the "crime" of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn't have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," a "basic civil right."

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and
right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.

I have nothing to add.

(Via Ed Brayton)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Measured Against Reality and Ron Paul

I've wanted to change my blog's name for a while. I don't post daily and it's not usually very irreverent, so I don't think it fits any more (or ever did, really). I was reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan and came across this quote by Einstein:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

I thought that "Measured Against Reality" would be a great name for the kind of thing I do, but wanted some feedback.

Also, I'm out of town for a wedding and have sporadic, slow internet access, so I probably won't be doing much blogging for a little while. For today watch Steven Colbert interview Ron Paul. I thought he was pretty good, although he might want to abolish too many government agencies.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Radley Balko is a god

Read this, it's Radley Balko (of Reason and The Agitator) testifying before Congress about the Unlawful Internet Gaming Act. It's so good.

If you agree with me on civil liberties issues, you'll love Balko. He specializes in drug raids gone bad (which is why his site is so infuriating, reading about police incompetence is just not fun), but you should anyway. Things only change when a large number of people get pissed off about the current state, and Balko will certainly do that.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Economist on Health Care

Here's an interesting take on health care from The Economist. I don't know much about health care, so I'm not going to comment other than to say that I'm always wary of government intervention.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Creationists are good for something: making me laugh.

This blog is new enough that I'm still amused by incredibly stupid comments. The following one was so good that I had to give it its own post:

Arguemant,arguemant, arguement, when is it going to stop. It could be stopped very soon...

If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a 'simple' living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the 'simple' cell.

After all, shouldn't all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a 'simple' cell.

If it weren't so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence 'FOR' evolution for THEMSELVES.

Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the 'raw' stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth's recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

Oh, you don't believe the 'original' Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

First off, anyone who uses the word "evolutionists" is clearly a crank, similarly to "Darwinist" or "Darwinism", it's a word that only creationists use.

Second, how on earth would designing a living cell be "proof" of evolution? It isn't in any way. And this guy (assuming the commenter was male) apparently thinks that science moves at an infinite rate. We'll probably be able to do that some day, but right now we just don't have the knowledge or technology.

Then the citation of AiG. It's almost as though he wants me to laugh and make fun of him. Frankly, you have to be pretty dumb or brainwashed to believe anything from AiG.

As for the evidence for evolution, I have seen it, and it's really, really good. I don't know how anyone can read 29+ Evidences for Evolution and not accept its validity. But I guess I take intellectual honesty for granted.

Lastly, this person actually wrote "Walla" instead of "Voila". How can I help but laugh?

I can only hope that science education improves enough in my lifetime where everyone laughs at people like this, but right now he's in the majority. If that's not scary, I don't know what is.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Huckabee on Evolution

I was reading The Economist's summary of last night's debate, and came across this gem:

Huckabee: If he were in contention for the nomination he would've been declared the debate's winner. He certainly had the best answers of the night, including a thoughtful response to a question on evolution.

I believe there is a God. I believe there's a God who was active in the creation process. Now, how did he do it and when did he do it and how long did he take, I don't honestly know. And I don't think knowing that would make me a better or a worse president.

That's not a thoughtful response, it's a cop-out and it's admitting his ignorance. He's saying that he's entirely ignorant of the fundamental principle of modern biology. How could we trust him to make thoughtful, informed decisions on biological matters? His opinions on everything from medical to ecological to scientific questions would all be invalid because of his ignorance.

Not understanding evolution undoubtedly makes someone a worse president, and the fact that his answer passes for "thoughtful" shows how unbelievably shallow the public understanding of science truly is.

For the record, I don't have anything in particular against theistic evolutionists (like Ken Miller). It would be nice if they would just man up and take a rational look at their religious beliefs, scrutinizing them as they would any other belief, but at least they accept evolution (and presumably the rest of science). Huckabee wasn't admitting that he's a theistic evolutionist, he was admitting that he knows nothing of evolution and doesn't care to learn about it. He was also admitting his aforementioned ignorance on a subject crucial to many modern issues, and said that he didn't think it would affect his performance. This goes beyond theistic evolution into something more dangerous and sinister: scientific decisions being made based on bad science (or no science). That lack of informed decision-making is exactly why we're in such bad positions in so many ways, from climate to Iraq, and that a presidential candidate can actually be applauded for a statement that he will perpetuate this situation testifies to the extent of the problem.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Seat belt laws, paternalism, and federalism

New Hampshire has declined to pass a seatbelt law, making it the only state in the Union lacking one. A senator who voted against the bill said:

The citizens of New Hampshire don't like to be told by anyone else what to do. It preserves New Hampshire's way of not succumbing to the bribes of the federal government and New Hampshire's belief that every adult can make his or her own choices in life.

I love the sentiment, but I'm not sure I agree in this case. It's entirely possible that not wearing your seatbelt puts unfair pressure on other people, such as your medical bills when your dumb ass gets catapulted out of your car (not a common scenario, I know). If there was some kind of reasonable conclusion about that (and there very well may be, I'm just not aware of it) I'd be unequivocally for what they did.

But the better example of this is something like the drinking age or drug laws. I don't know anyone who thinks that the drinking age is sensible, but somehow it remains unchanged. And our drug laws are just insane, but now isn't the time for that story. I think we'd be much better served if these things were actually up to the states, instead of this crazy federalism run amok that we currently have.

And then we get into the even crazier paternalistic tendencies we're developing. We've outlawed internet gambling, for crying out loud. Our government thinks that you shouldn't be able to spend your own money playing a game online. It makes as much sense for them to outlaw World of Warcraft.

That's just one example though, for some reason we're being increasingly regulated, and decisions that the government has no damn part in are being made for us by them. I don't want to sound like one of those crazy anarchists who blame "THE GOVERNMENT" for everything, but I think we're moving in a bad direction when it comes to personal choice and personal responsibility. A person should be free to make their own choices regarding themselves, their life, and their body, but many legitimate choices are off limits for incomprehensible or impossibly flimsy reasons. I think the best example of this is drugs (both recreational and prescription), but there are tons more (namely any vice, we love regulating so much that I think regulating vice has become its own vice, I wouldn't be surprised if some people get off by restricting other people's ability to get off).

I've mentioned this before, that I'm not entirely sure if this is truly a crucial time in our history or if it just appears that way to me. After all, pretty much everything I believe in is being systematically ignored or trampled on. Time will tell, I suppose.

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