Measured Against Reality

Friday, August 31, 2007

The War on Drugs, America's Apartheid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

T-shirts for Jesus

This is just funny:

Tracy Prochnow said Highland High School in Indiana suspended her daughter, Brittany Brown, on Monday because the junior wore a Christian-themed T-shirt.

Monday was the fourth time Brittany violated the code, which the city's school board implemented this year and requires students to wear khakis and polo shirts...

The front of Brittany's T-shirt features a cross and the words "This Shirt Is Illegal In 51 Countries." The back quotes the Bible's Romans 1:16: "I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God ... the salvation of everyone who believes."

"The school is basically saying I can't wear a shirt that talks about Jesus or Christ or God or any religious type of T-shirt because we have to wear a polo," Brittany said.

The school's principal, Mark Finger, said the dress code doesn't target religious beliefs.

"The policy states there are to be no logos or slogans on a shirt," Finger said.

I don't think anything I say can do justice to Brittany's quote. A school dress code that prohibits anything but plain polos means you can't wear a shirt that talks about "Jesus or Christ [redundant?] or God"? This is outrageous!

I think that school dress codes are dumb, but how stupid do you have to be to claim that it unfairly discriminates against religion? Last time I checked wearing T-shirts wasn't part of the Christian religion, and a dress code that applies to everyone isn't discriminatory.

But I have to know, why do Christians cry persecution so much when they're by far the majority of the country? I don't think I'll ever understand their persecution complex.

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Reply to a comment

I've been getting some good comments on this post, but one in particular I want to reply to, by boxlight:

Every religion is not equal. That's my belief. That's logic.

I'm thrilled that they're finally admitting their bigotry

It's not bigotry, it's like he said, it's "logic".

For example, if someone is an Atheist who believes evolution, it is illogical for him to be a Christian and creationism.

Atheism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. That's logic.

He's a Bible believing Christian, and as such (to him) Hinduism is a falsehood. He's decriminating faiths based on his beliefs. But it's not bigotry.

Such attempts as yours to paint him as an irrational hateful person based on those commetns is hyperbole and unfair.

But the thing is that he isn't just declaring all other religions "wrong", he's also saying that they're not entitled to the same benefits that Christians are entitled to, in this case leading a legislative session in prayer. It's quite a small privilege, which is why the outrage is so silly, but the attitude is quite revealing, and I think it reveals the mind of a bigot. Perhaps I'm being hyperbolic and unfair, but it's what I see when I read his words.

"French Cops Foil Catholofascist Terror Plot"

I just have to link to this post at Reason Hit & Run by Jesse Walker, where he mentions the recent Vatican flight passengers that were forced to leave behind their holy water. Jesse asks:

Which is more superstitious, the belief that Lourdes water can cure the sick or the belief that it can bring down a plane?

It's quite a good question. And this isn't even one of those dumb rules that makes people feel more secure, everyone but the most unthinking among us knows that flights are in no danger from liquids (binary liquid explosives as plausible methods for bringing down planes was debunked long ago).

But all the effort detracts from the search for legitimate threats. But then again, the TSA has never been particularly good at finding bombs, but they're really good at confiscating nail-clippers.

I, for one, feel much safer.


The Religious Right still hates Hindus

Via Ed Brayton comes the news that the same chaplain that offered a Hindu prayer in the House a few months ago offered the same prayer in the California Senate, with more or less the same telling reaction from the religious right:

Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it remains a mystery to whom Zed was praying.

"I don't know if he even knows who he's praying to," he said. "We're not opposed to the ability of people to worship their own gods or god, but when it comes to our civil government ... it's always been the recognition of the God of the Bible. Every religion is not equal. That's my belief. That's logic."

I don't know about you, but I'm thrilled that they're finally admitting their bigotry. Every religion, presumably including no religion, is worse than Christianity to these nutjobs. But coming out directly and saying it makes it harder for the appeasers to make the case that if we just pussyfoot around with these people then they'll play nice. Newsflash, they won't. They won't be happy until the United States is a full-fledged theocracy, not that it's ever going to happen (which doesn't mean we should let our guard down, the theocrats are well-connected and very motivated, but as long as we're vigilant they can't win).

It's really funny to me that this reaction comes from something so innocuous, that people can get so inflamed by someone talking to an imaginary man in the sky is laughably absurd. But then again, so is everything else involving religion.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Doctor imprisoned for being a doctor

Yet another victim of the drug war. This time our tax dollars are being wasted persecuting a doctor for no reason. I challenge anyone to read this and not be infuriated:

Even before the jury returned its [guilty] verdict, there were problems with the government’s case. Start with Dr. Clough, who despite government assertions to the contrary is no expert on pain treatment. When questioned on the witness stand, Clough was unaware of some basic legal guidelines any doctor who regularly prescribes pain medication should have known.

For example, he was ignorant of the fact that at the time, it was illegal for a doctor to post-date a prescription for opioid painkillers. Clough also didn’t review all of the five witnesses’ histories, only those portions of them provided by the government. He didn’t speak to or examine any of the women. For this, the government then paid him approximately $11,000.

Four of the five women who testified against Dr. Rottschaefer alleged a sex-for-drugs arrangement. But all four initially denied any sex took place. They changed their stories after conversations with federal prosecutors. It so happens that all four were also facing their own criminal charges at the time, and it’s now clear that all four received reductions in their own charges or sentences in exchange for their testimony.

This sounds like the Duke Lacrosse case, but so do most cases of insane prosecutorial excess. And believe it or not, it gets worse from there. Go read the full article if you want all of the head-exploding detail.

The sad thing is that cases like this aren't unique. All over the country people are being thrown in jail for prescribing drugs, for taking prescribed drugs, or even for having proscribed drugs. The poor people who need these drugs to manage their pain are prosecuted to advance some heartless bureaucrat's career or justify the shiny new equipment and trainees and prisons. It's fucking disgusting.

And keep in mind that these are prescription drugs, drugs that the government admits are safe for use. If the government isn't going to let doctors do their jobs without fear of pointless prosecution, how is anyone in chronic pain going to live their life?

I suppose the moral crusaders would rather have people with pain without drugs than have people without pain with drugs. What a wonderful world they're creating for us (and that's not including all of the other frightening aspects of the drug war, the loss of civil rights, increasing militarization of police, billions of wasted dollars, etc).

I still don't understand why there's no outrage about any of these cases. That's almost as infuriating as the original incident. We're becoming a nation of idiot sheep, and it's damn sad to watch.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Where's the outrage

Via Radley Balko I find this terrible piece of news:

Anastasio Prieto of El Paso gave a state police officer at the weigh station permission to search the truck to see if it contained "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal lawsuit Thursday.

Prieto told the officer he didn't have any needles but did have $23,700.

Officers took the money and turned it over to the DEA. DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto over his objections, then released him without charging him with anything.

Border Patrol agents searched his truck with drug-sniffing dogs, but found no evidence of illegal substances, the ACLU said.


DEA agents told Prieto he would receive a notice of federal proceedings to permanently forfeit the money within 30 days and that to get it back, he'd have to prove it was his and did not come from illegal drug sales.

They told him the process probably would take a year, the ACLU said.

Can you imagine that? Because of the drug war, the police are literally allowed to steal your money for no reason. Or at least they think they can, we'll see if it's legal when the ACLU finishes their suit against the DEA.

Every time a story like this comes out I just wonder, "Where's the outrage?" We've been raving nonstop about Mike Vick's dog-fighting ring, but no one cares about all of the botched SWAT raids that kill people (and sometimes household pets) and damage property, no one cares about the tens of thousands of nonviolent drug users rotting in prisons, and no one cares about the forfeiture of our rights in order to "end the scourge" of consenting adults taking drugs that affect no one but themselves (the classic negative results of drug use are largely the result of prohibition, and aren't intrinsic to drug use).

Maybe some day the outrage will come. I'm holding my breath.

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Good science reporting

Here's an article from the NYT that shows that good science reporting is indeed possible. I highly suggest you read it, as it's very well done. I just wish that more science reporters would write similarly.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hints of a breakdown of special relativity

When I saw the article titled "Hints of a breakdown of special relativity" in a SciAm blog, my curiosity was piqued. I thought it was just going to be the old, debunked story, but it's not.

The team from the MAGIC gamma-ray telescope has some tantalizing evidence that, in fact, special relativity is incorrect. They found indications that high-energy gamma rays travel slower through vacuum than low-energy rays. Here's the meat of the observation:

The team studied two gamma-ray flares in mid-2005 from the black hole at the heart of the galaxy Markarian 501. They compared gammas in two energy ranges, from 1.2 to 10 tera-electron-volts (TeV) and from 0.25 to 0.6 TeV. The first group arrived on Earth four minutes later than the second. One team member, physicist John Ellis of CERN, says: "The significance of the time lag is above 95%, and the magnitude of the effect is beyond the sensitivity of previous experiments."

Now, why exactly this would happen is way beyond my understanding. According to SciAm, it could be that there's some kind lensing that occurs due to fluctuations in the fabric of space-time that happens at higher energies. (It sounds almost like increasing air resistance with speed, perhaps that's a good metaphor the proposed effect?) This kind of effect can happen in theories of Quantum Gravity, and if this result is real, it could help constrain the possible "theory of everything".

However, it needs to be said that this is a big claim, and it could be totally wrong. There need to be thorough checks done on the work, and it would be nice if a separate lab confirmed the result. But if it stands, this could well be one of those turning points in modern physics. I can't wait to hear more, new physics is very exciting! (Or at least it is when it's possibly a real result.)

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UFO video a hoax

Do you remember that video? Everyone thought it was the most convincing evidence of the UFO phenomenon to date. I have to admit, when I see something like that I usually try to debunk it, but that one was well beyond my scope. It would have taken some kind of reporter to debunk. Luckily, one did.

Turns out it was just a guy who's very, very good at making CG movies and has an idea for, get this, a couple of guys who make a UFO hoax that spirals out of control, and wanted to test his idea.

The best part of the entire article, though, is the end:

The scary part, he said, was that in spite of the evidence, "many people refuse to believe it's a hoax."

Yes, it is funny how no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary, UFO believers never let the matter die (if you want some evidence of this, just look at crop circles. They're entirely man-made, but that doesn't stop "croppies"). Believe me, it would be spectacular if we were being visited by intelligent life forms. But we aren't, there's almost always a much simpler alternative explanation for every "sighting". I've never seen a case where the "official" or skeptic line was less plausible than alien visitation (and believe me, I've seen all of the History Channel specials on these things). We're almost certainly not being visited, end of story. At least until the next hoax (or video of a misunderstood phenomenon) comes along.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Genesis, missing ribs, and penis bones

I was looking through the keywords that people have searched and landed them on this blog when I came across this one, "why do men have one less rib?" I've always wondered why people actually think men have one less rib, they don't. In fact, it would be quite odd if we did, since we have bilateral symmetry. Men having one less rib would be a giant headache for evolutionary theorists (unless it were true of all vertebrates/mammals/primates/great apes), and it really doesn't make sense from a biological point of view (not that anyone well-versed in biology would be making this claim anyway).

But I really wanted to mention this because of a cute hypothesis that I first encountered through Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, and that is that the "rib" is actually a bone in the penis called a baculum used to help erections that most mammals have, but humans have lost. The site above gives a good explanation of this:

Most male mammals have a baculum, a bone for stiffening the penis. Humans are one of the rare exceptions, relying on hydraulics instead. Genesis 2:21-23 could refer to its removal from Adam. A baculum, unlike a rib, is associated with reproduction. The closing of flesh mentioned in Genesis 2:21 could refer to the raphe, a seam on the penis and scrotum. Biblical Hebrew has no word for penis, so another term would have to be used. The Hebrew word for "rib" has other meanings such as the supporting columns in trees, or planks in doors; it could have referred to a structural support generally (Gilbert and Zevit 2001).

If you like that interpretation of the rib, you might also like the rest of Quinn's interpretation of Genesis 2.4, the story of Cain and Abel. His thesis is basically that the story was actually written by the Semites, the nomadic herders who preceded the Hebrews, and is an account of the farmers coming out of the Caucus mountains and slaughtering the nomads in the Arabian peninsula (such as the Semites). The Semites (Abel) were the ones God chose (of course), and the angry farmers (Cain) killed them out of jealousy, and then God marked them. Because the Semites were dark and the people from the Caucuses were white, according to Quinn the "mark of Cain" is being white.

The story was part of Hebrew tradition and as such got incorporated into Genesis, but since the Hebrews were farmers it didn't make much sense. Quinn's interpretation sounds very plausible (and even likely), but it's hard to ascribe truth to anything like this. At the very least, it's quite interesting (as is the rest of his work), definitely worth checking out.

Loch Ness Monster Insurance

Apparently organizers of a duathlon in Scotland have taken out a one-million-pound insurance policy against attack by or sighting of the Loch Ness monster, seriously. They say that they want all their bases covered, but this is just silly. I wonder if it's not just a dumb PR move, and I honestly hope it is.

What will be interesting if someone actually does "see" Nessie (or a floating log or a large wave or a duck or...), what it would take for the policy to pay out. I bet it would be quite difficult to convince the insurance company, after all, they have more invested in the outcome than intellectual skepticism.

This story reminds me of another one I blogged last year, and that was second-coming insurance, also in Scotland (but not by the same insurance company). Two young girls took out the policy just in case they became pregnant with the Christ. It caused a bit of a furor, but I'm not sure why.

I wonder if it would be possible to tally how much money people spend on stupid things, like energy crystals, homeopathy, other woo, ridiculously implausible insurance, etc. I'd be interested in seeing that number, and I bet it's one hell of a lot of money.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Drunk driving deaths down in 28 states, but that's not the headline

Via Radley Balko I saw this great story: Drunken driving deaths up in 22 states. As Radley points out, the article states that deaths are down overall, and in 28 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico), but the headline (and the entire rest of the article) is all about the negative.

Because of what I'm about to say, I feel the need to say that driving while intoxicated is stupid and irresponsible. Drunk driving is, like so many topics in modern America, totally unassailable. And it, just like everything else, shouldn't be.

That being said, I feel the need to point out that this is kind of a crock. Driving at .08 is less dangerous than driving while talking on a cell phone. That's hard to believe, I know, but tons of studies and even the MythBusters have come to that conclusion. The total "alcohol related" fatalities statistic is almost surely meaningless. You can register a BAC after taking tons of medicines or other innocuous ways, and you don't even need a measurable BAC for an accident to be "alcohol related", there just needs to be "evidence of alcohol", whatever that means. After all of this, these statistics are all exaggerated, sometimes flagrantly so. From the link:

According to the painstaking research of Stephen Beck of Drinkers Against Mad Mothers, only 500 innocent Americans are killed each year by drunk drivers. As many Americans are killed in railway accidents each year.

Now I haven't looked at his research, so I'd take that number with a grain of salt, but the point still stands that drunk driving isn't as big of a problem as articles like this make it out to be. I'm far more worried about being hit by some idiot who's just not paying attention than an idiot who's had a few too many. And in reality, I think we all are.

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Lesbians get apology

Two lesbian girls who were kicked off a bus for kissing have received an apology for the incident from the bus company. Hopefully we're moving toward a day where this kind of crap doesn't happen, but for now this is good practice. And I really hope that the girls' families don't sue, provided the company institutes policies that prevent this from happening in the future. I think that would be the best outcome.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Newsflash, war on drugs still inane

This is an incredibly refreshing look at the war on drugs, especially coming from an actual newspaper. Take a read if you're not already convinced of the disaster that "War" has become, or if you're looking for even more confirmation.

Oscar, the "death kitty", "found murdered"

Via Orac I find the news that Oscar, the "death kitty" who could supposedly predict who would die (explained and debunked here, among others) has died. Or actually, maybe I should say was murdered:

Oscar, the nursing home cat who could seemingly sense the impending death of patients, was found dead early yesterday. The cat gained recent notoriety when reports of his ability to detect the impending death of the terminally ill became public. Seemingly aware that death was at hand, Oscar would reportedly climb into the bed of patients during their final hours.

Officials at the facility would not reveal the cause of death, but did acknowledge rumors that the cat was becoming increasingly unpopular among the patients. One knowledgeable source - who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity - confirmed increasing animosity toward the animal, and that a dented bedpan was found near the body.

This is incredible. Someone actually killed a cat because they were afraid it could magically kill them. Although if it was murder (which hasn't been shown yet, though it's quite probable) the blame rests at least as much on the staff who perpetuated the insane and inane belief that the cat would predict death as the nursing home patient (or some "do-gooder" wishing to rid the patients of the scourge) who actually did the deed.

Some people seem to wonder why I care so much about science, skepticism, and rationality. "Surely it's ok if people want to believe in magical things, it makes the world more lively, more interesting. Besides, it doesn't hurt anyone," They say. And they couldn't be more wrong, on all counts. It dulls the mind, it makes people into gullible fools, and it can induce fears that cause people to do insane, unthinkable things, such as killing a harmless cat for no reason.

The truly sad thing is that this is a minor scene in the drama that is the folly of humanity. The lack of adequate skepticism has harmed so many, emotionally and physically, and has killed so many that they're beyond count. This little cat is just another victim to our irrationality. Yet another casualty that needn't have happened.

Next time someone asks you why rationality and skepticism are important, tell them about Oscar. Tell them about the cat that was killed because of the ludicrous delusions and superstition of the people around him. Then tell them of all the others, now and throughout history, irreparably harmed by belief. If they are not converted, then they have not a heart.

Rest in peace Oscar.

EDIT: I want to point out that I'm not a total idiot, (although I am admittedly an idiot), and did notice that the source called itself "pseudo-journalism", but thought that not only one but two Science Bloggers wouldn't just fall uncritically for it (and thought the source was more daily show and less onion), but apparently it isn't. Whoops. I feel that my rhetoric still stands, even if only in truthiness, and not in truth. Let's just pretend I was reacting as though it were true. So unless a comment has something to say besides "it's a fake!" it won't be posted. Sorry, I dislike too much redundancy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Falling Physics

This Straight Dope article on surviving high falls is good, but I think it lacks one specific fact. One question involved blacking out during freefall, and I think it's important to mention that you black out because of acceleration, not speed. Your velocity could be anything and you'd be just fine, because any constant velocity is indistinguishable from another (and hence from rest). But accelerations will black you out, at something around 10 g's (that's acceleration due to gravity, 32 ft/s^2 or 9.8m/s^2). But during free fall you're experiencing less than one g (less than because of air resistance).

Well that's not quite true, when you hit the ground you're going to get quite a few g's, but up until then you're golden (it's not the fall that kills you...)


Friday, August 17, 2007

The Scale of Certainty

To me, certainty is relative. For example, I'm pretty damn certain that the theory of evolution explains how life has come to its present form (but not how it started, that's beyond its scope), and that information can't move faster than light (along with a host of others). Even though I think it's highly unlikely that either of those things will be shown to be false, it's still possible. The reason is that they're scientific theories, and scientific theories are always open to revision. No matter how well-established they are, no matter how much of our understanding of the world would have to be overhauled, they can still be wrong.

However, it's unlikely. The more predictions have been satisfied, the more precisely the theory works, the more confirming evidence, the less likely it is that they will be overthrown. For example, evolution has been spectacularly confirmed in thousands of cases, and there is no scientific reason to doubt its correctness. The same is true of the speed of light; it has been verified over and over to such precision and is so firmly ingrained in all of modern physics that it's not likely to be overthrown.

If I were to have a scale of certainty, things that I'm pretty sure are false on end and things that I'm pretty sure are true on the other, evolution and the unbreakability speed of light would be really close to the true end.

But what about other things? Let's take another contentious example: global warming. Right now the fact that the earth is getting warmer is close to the true end, and not far behind it is the hypothesis that it's largely anthropogenic. Other things, like that catastrophes that are predicted if we don't do anything, are a bit further back (my rationale for that is that I'm always skeptical of predictions for the future, especially ones with such poor confidence ratings (the ones I've seen are ~50-80%)).

For another fun example, the god hypothesis (by which I mean any god) is far to the false side. Other things over there are bigfoot, alien abduction, ghosts, homeopathy, and other woo.

What about the middle? What are things that I don't declare certainty about? Slightly to the truth side of the middle are my own memories. If all my readers take nothing else away from this post, take this: your memories aren't certain in any meaningful way. To take a simple (but telling) example, one of my good friends from high school is still convinced that I was in his Freshman Social Studies class. We had the same teacher but different periods, and this has been confirmed by everyone we knew in the class, including the teacher. Yet he still thinks that we were in the class together.

Memories are one of the things that people are most certain about. But they shouldn't be. It's been shown time and time again that they're malleable, and that the mere act of remember changes the memory. The more you access it, the more you change it. And memories can be falsely planted then totally internalized. It's practically a guarantee that some of your most cherished memories are either partially or totally false.

Don't believe me? Check out Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Besides being an all-around fantastic book, it contains an enlightening overview of the empirical support for the assertion that memory isn't trustworthy. So please, don't place more merit in your memories than they deserve.

I think that the idea of a scale of certainty is a useful one. All too often we hear people say that they're certain about things that belong in the middle of the scale, things that deserve at most a close review with verifiable evidence before a decision is made on their merit. I'm not advocating Solipsism or some kind of "we can't trust anything!" philosophy, just more careful scrutiny of how certain we are of the things in our lives. Misplaced certainty can be a disaster, and a healthy skepticism about the world (including your own memories) can never hurt.

Speed of light still not broken, but now we really know why

I'm glad I read Physics blogs, because they always know more than me. Check that out if you want a very detailed backstory to yesterday's "Speed of light NOT broken" story. It turns out that the only person who thinks that SR was violated is someone who has a history of making more of these experiments than they deserve, and that the paper that's available is totally inadequate for the claims that are being made. So basically I was right (it happens from time to time).

So check that out if you care at all about the speed of light and superluminal information transfer.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007


I somehow completely forgot that this blog turned 1 year old a couple weeks ago, August fifth to be precise. Today my Google Analytics account turned one, which is the only reason I remembered at all.

I've been doing this for a whole year, and I think I have a somewhat better idea of what it takes to run a blog. Granted, I don't do many of things, but I have a better idea of what they are. Hopefully this is a better blog than it was a year ago, but probably not by a lot.

If any of my regular readers want to leave a comment for improvement, why not do it here? And, as always, feel free to offer a comment, whether through the blog or via the e-mail address on the sidebar (I get tons of spam because of that little link, use it!).

The Right to Own a Bazooka

The Right to Own a Bazooka. Somehow, comics always seem to make better points than other media. I think this is the best I've ever seen the pro-gun argument phrased.

I don't know how often Peter Bagge's comics come out on Reason, but they're always really good. His comic on sports stadiums seriously deserves a read, especially for those in metropolitan areas that are paying for a new one every five years (before the old one is even paid off).

We have NOT broken the speed of light

We have broken the speed of light, the article's headline boldly proclaims.

No, we haven't. I absolutely guarantee it. First, let's look at what they did:

The pair say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons - energetic packets of light - travelled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3ft apart.

Well there's not really anything here. My first guess was that this was some issue about Quantum Entanglement, but it might not be (and that doesn't offer FTL communication anyway, that's just a sloppy interpretation of what's happening). If this is about entanglement then it's not news, this has been done dozens of times, and it doesn't break SR.

But if it's not about entanglement it doesn't matter, because there's no way light traveled faster than light. It reminds me of someone who asked me if humidity can be above 100%. My response was, "No, because can't hold more water than it can possibly hold."

Light always travels at the speed of light, and the speed of light varies based on the medium the light is in. This comes straight from Maxwell's Laws (see here if you're interested in why), and it's what inspired Einstein to think about what light would look like if you ran alongside it (of course, he figured out that no matter how fast you were running it would still go at the speed of light). Special relativity comes straight from Maxwell's laws, and if something is found to violate SR, then Maxwell's laws aren't correct.

Now, it's always possible that our current knowledge of the universe isn't correct, even something as old and well-established as the fundamental theory of electricity and magnetism. But the more established and well-tested the theory, the less likely this becomes. It's like evolution, sure it could be wrong, but it almost certainly isn't. The same is true of Maxwell's Laws, they've been so thoroughly tested to such insane limits that if they're wrong it would shake physics to its core (given that those four little equation form an entire section of physics, and form the foundation for relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics, the other being QM).

So while it's possible that these two researchers have broken the speed of light, I highly doubt it. Besides, if you look at their setup the have light traveling one meter, which happens in about 3 nanoseconds. I think it's more likely that they measured incorrectly (that there's some error in their experiment) than that half of modern physics is wrong. If I never hear about this monumental discovery again, I'll be pretty sure that I'm right.

Update: A different article has more information, this one attributes the FTL travel to quantum tunneling, which is a process by which a particle goes through an energy barrier that it classically shouldn't be able to go through. I'm not very experienced with this phenomenon, but my understanding is that this still doesn't violate SR since it's not actually moving that distance, the wavefunction has just spread over to the other detector. Since the wavefunction covered the whole distance anyway, the particle wasn't localized before measurement, so it can't be said to have traveled FTL in any real sense (keep in mind that could all be wrong). But it's so hard to say what's going on based on these news reports, they don't include reference information and I can't see it here anyway, so I can't check any actual paper for an idea of what's going on.

In any case, I still stand by my original assessment that this isn't revolutionary, but as always, I could be wrong.

UPDATE 2: Wow, I should have checked Eureka Alert a while ago. Here's a reasonable explanation of what happened. It was indeed tunneling, and it also does not violate SR. As is typical with science reporting, the reporter seized upon the most fantastic interpretation of the results, and not the sober analysis presented at the end. We did not break the speed of light, end of story.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Antimicrobial soaps

I've never liked antimicrobial household products, and now there's concrete evidence that they're no better than normal products.

In the first known comprehensive analysis of whether antibacterial soaps work better than plain soaps, Allison Aiello of the U-M School of Public Health and her team found that washing hands with an antibacterial soap was no more effective in preventing infectious illness than plain soap. Moreover, antibacterial soaps at formulations sold to the public do not remove any more bacteria from the hands during washing than plain soaps.

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of the most devastating (and predictable) of the challenges facing modern medicine, and while giving up antibacterial soaps won't solve the problem alone, it might help. And according to this study, it won't hurt a bit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Democrats for Spinelessness

I'm watching the Daily show right now, and I am simply aghast at the leading Democratic candidates' views on gay marriage. Obama and Clinton are both for civil unions, which is code for "I'm saying this because I don't want to alienate those for or against but am going to do both." Once again they're proving that Democrats don't have spines, and it's getting really tiring to watch them cave to everything.

The only person they showed who supported full gay marriage was Kucinich, who said (paraphrasing), "I think it comes down to whether or not you support equality." YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT IT DOES! That's all that's at issue, whether or not you believe in and fully support equality. I'm glad that at least one candidate (although the host said he was one of two) actually supports equality, and it's pretty ironic that the black man and the woman, the only minorities of any kind in the election, don't.

Oh well. The moral zeitgeist will continue to shift towards equality as it has been for the past few centuries, and eventually we will get to equality for all.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I Love Science Reporting: Fossils challenge old evolution theory

I saw an article on Fark titled, Fossils challenge old evoluton [sic] theory, and thought, hmm, this might be interesting. But in the first sentence, there's a gigantic annoying misconception on display.

Surprising research based on two African fossils suggests our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, challenging what had been common thinking on how early humans evolved.

No, we already know that our evolution, and all evolution, is like a bush and not linear. We've known that for decades, and anything that purports to "show" this is just more in a large pile of evidence (which is great, but not when it's portrayed as a discovery).

And it further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man.

Why even mention that? I guess it's good that they say "further discredits", but I'd rather they use even stronger language to convey how absurd that "iconic image" is.

The old theory is that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became human, Homo sapiens. But Leakey's find suggests those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years. [Meave Leakey] and her research colleagues report the discovery in a paper published in Thursday's journal Nature.

This is good science (or at least it could be, I can't read Nature here so I can't read the paper), but I fail to see how two species living side-by-side for a long period of time implies one didn't evolve from the other. That's the entire idea of sympatric speciation. I also thought this had been known for a while (and I'm more certain that several different Australopithecine species lived side-by-side). Maybe I'm wrong (I'm certainly no Leakey), but this just seems like a non-story to me, more of a minor refinement than anything.

But there is an excellent quote from the article:

"This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution; it is refining some of the specific points," [Susan Anton, a New York University anthropologist and co-author of the Leakey work] said. "This is a great example of what science does and religion doesn't do. It's a continous self-testing process."

Hear hear!

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Hooray Drug War

U.S. Anti-Drug Aid Would Target Mexican Cartels. We're giving Colombia $5 billion over seven years and Mexico "hundreds of millions of dollars". All of it is going to the totally useless and ineffectual drug war. Imagine how much you could help people (or just not tax people) if we didn't have a stupid drug war to fight.

I think my head is going to explode because of all of the idiocy.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Why I hate science reporting

I've only been reading Digg for about a minute, and already I've seen two stupid science stories on the front page. The first is about time travel:

Could all our blunders be reversed, our failings eliminated? Perhaps so, if an Israeli scientist's research is to be believed. With the help of Prof. Amos Ori, we might just be able to go back and stop the screw-ups from happening in the first place.

No, they can't, because it doesn't work that way. Here's why (from later in the same damn article):

But don't pack your bags and get ready to go dinosaur-hunting yet. "We, however," he cautions, "could not return to previous ages because our predecessors did not create this infrastructure for us."

If time travel is ever invented it will only be able to take you back to the point where it was initially invented, and I don't think it could be used to go appreciably into the future (the accounts I've heard all require time dilation in order to move into the future. How exactly it works is irrelevant since it's impossible anyway).

The other is about the Casimir effect (if you know what it is, you're probably already groaning).

The article's headline is "Levitation breakthrough proposed". The last paragraph of the article says:

The scientists say there is no likelihood in the foreseeable future of humans being able to levitate. "At the moment, in practice it is only going to be possible for micro-objects with the current technology, since this quantum force is small and acts only at short ranges," said Prof Leonhardt. "For now, human levitation remains the subject of cartoons, fairytales and tales of the paranormal."

I hate editors. Why do they put these ridiculous titles and lead-ins that are flatly contradicted later in the article? Why can't they report science breakthroughs (or theoretical developments) for what they are, and not a pile of sci-fi garbage that they're not? It boils my blood because this is science that anyone who's taken "Intro to Modern Physics" wouldn't get wrong, you don't need a PhD to see that it's crap.

And it's not like the actual science is boring. The Casimir effect article is talking about negative refractive index materials being used to eliminate the quantum attraction between two nanomachines. Why isn't that exciting enough? Why do they need to add levitation? (I find nothing redeeming about the time travel one, since he just proposed a new technical mechanism for something that's beyond our technology but we already knew was plausible. It's not news.)

All of this reminds me about an article where someone claimed to have "solved" the "Twin Paradox" (this was months, probably a full year ago, I have no chance of finding the offending article). My head nearly exploded, because there's nothing to solve. It's only a paradox if you're not thinking about it right, and again, any intro physics class should explain why it's not a paradox (or any book that contains any real treatment of relativity).

It's just so aggravating to see science distorted into something it's not, when what it actually is is so fantastic to begin with.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Cult of Pharmacology

I just finished The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World's Most Troubled Drug Culture by Richard DeGrandpre, and I have to say that it was one fantastic book. I already thought that our differential prohibition and cultural attitude toward drugs was insane, but this book convinced me of it even more, and I don't know how anyone who read it could come away thinking otherwise.

He makes some fantastic claims, but everything is backed up by research, cited in the copious notes. One of the most interesting, I thought, is the similarity between Ritalin and cocaine. Amazingly, the drugs behave in almost identical ways after being ingested (when ingested in the same way, eg snorted or swallowed). Another is how the pharmaceutical industry glossed over the dangers of SSRIs, which their own studies showed early on to encourage anxious, self-mutilating, and even suicidal behavior in large numbers of patients.

He goes on to show how very little in our world has changed, we just trade natural, "evil" drugs for "wholesome" man-made ones, then when we realize that those are dangerous we replace them with yet another new, "wholesome" one that will once and for all alleviate the aches and pains of our modern life (examples include Miltown, barbituates, amphetamines, and many others). The problem is that the ones we started with weren't all that bad (cocaine's not even addictive, at least not in a good environment).

My favorite part of the book is when he describes the "placebo text", which is the cultural attitude toward the drug. This "placebo text" can drastically alter the effects of a drug, even powerful ones, making it benign or malevolent. It might seem like a radical claim, but it's a ridiculously well documented phenomenon.

The book is also quite well-written, and although at times it seems to lack cohesion, it's more than made up for by the compelling material and masterful writing. If you have any interest in the insanity that is our policy toward drugs, or especially if you don't, buy this book. You will not regret it.

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