Measured Against Reality

Friday, September 28, 2007

Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing

I think it's quite important to be able to laugh at yourself, and this Onion article demonstrates that. It's called, "Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing", and if that's really what scientists sound like to outsiders, we have some work to do.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Axis of Evil in the universe?

Here's a cool article (subscription probably required) from Science about the so-called "axis of evil" in the universe. In case you've never heard of it, here's a picture:

Going my way? The CMB quadrupole (top left), octopole (top right), and the next two multipoles. The red dots mark their symmetry axes, which appear to line up.

The multipole moments mentioned in the caption are just the way that the full map was broken down, as a sum of progressively finer undulations. The courses is the dipole, which splits the map in two, then the quadrupole (four), octopole (eight) and so on. The coincidence is that the largest moments have their symmetry axis lined up. The question is whether this is just a coincidence or something more meaningful, and it's really hard to say which. The problem is that we only have on universe to look at, and we can't really make the assumption that this isn't just a fluke. And so far the efforts to explain it are seriously flawed, not matching up with other data.

This might end up being a big deal because if it's more than just a coincidence one of the sacred assumptions of the universe, that there's no preferred direction, is totally wrong. That would have deep implications, some conservation laws (energy, momentum, and angular momentum) are the result of assumptions about space, which could end up being wrong!

I have to be honest, I think this is probably just a mirage. Adding a preferred direction to the universe would be quite revolutionary, and it just doesn't sit well with me. I know that's not a good reason to ignore new data, but this hasn't been proved yet. If the universe ends up having an axis, then so be it, but I doubt it does.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

To those who believe atheists face no discrimination

One of the things that I really love hearing is how atheists aren't facing any kind of discrimination in the US. Whenever someone compares atheism to homosexuality or feminism (or even racism) it's called an inapt metaphor, a poor analogy, or an outright screaming shame.

I want those people to read this. I want them to read that and explain to me how we don't face discrimination, how we aren't hated, how we don't have to fight. I want them to explain the now well-known fact that an atheist is the least eligible candidate for president in the country's eyes. I want them to explain the fact that so many atheists felt that they can't make their beliefs known. I want them to explain the people who thank Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens for making them feel like they're not alone. I want them to explain all that.

They can't. Atheists are hated, atheists are discriminated against, and atheists are not wanted.

Is it universal? No, of course not. Is it as bad as racism, or sexism, or homophobia? In some cases it's not even close (I wouldn't make the comparison the racism, for example), and its virulence varies from place to place (as did all the others). But to say that we don't need to fight, that we don't need to put ourselves out there, that we shouldn't stand out and shout for ourselves, to say all that is just plain wrong, just plain stupid, and just plain harmful.

I am an atheist, and I am not going to shut my mouth until the people of this country accept me for it. And even though I'm a straight white male, I will stand by the others who need to fight for acceptance, because I believe in fighting for what's right. If the other great acceptance movements of the past (and they're still ongoing) have taught us anything, it's that standing up is the only way to force change, and it will be a long, difficult journey.

I hope you're going to make it with me.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Why we have to let Ahmadinejad visit the WTC

These stories about the furor over Ahmadinejad wanting to lay a wreath at ground zero are ridiculous. Absolutely, totally ridiculous. For the sake of argument, let's just say the Iran really is as evil as the rhetoric suggests (which I highly doubt), that they export terrorism and help build IEDs in Iraq and all that jazz (which again, I doubt is all true, and is kind of funny given that not a single 911 hijacker was Iranian). Even after all that, he should still be allowed to lay his wreath.


Seriously people, do you value free speech or not? Do you value freedom of expression or not? Do you value the right to go what you want and do what you want or do you not? You can't have it both ways. You can't have freedom of speech and deny holocaust deniers their right to speak. You can't have freedom of assembly and deny the KKK marching permits. You can't have freedom while restricting other people's freedoms.

Granted, he isn't a citizen. But so what? Are we fighting for freedom or not? Because denying a foreign dignitary the right to visit a site that any American is free to visit is just insane (I'm assuming that Americans are in fact free to visit Ground Zero, I haven't been there and can't find any contrary or confirmatory information). Let him lay his wreath! Let him pay his respects! Even if he actually intends to dishonor the memory of the dead (which I personally doubt), so what? We are so much stronger, so much better than that. As a country, are we really so weak that we can't even take one person mocking a terrible tragedy? Is our skin really that thin, our confidence that depleted? Even if he intends to dishonor us, we should let him, because in allowing him to dishonor us, we are honoring everything this country stands for, we are proving our strength!

And telling Columbia not to allow him to speak is ludicrous. His opinions are just as worthy of expression as anyone else's, even if they're wrong, even if they're hateful, even if they're bigoted. Again, we are better than this! Words do not hurt us! We can beat the spread of hate, bigotry, and untruth with the perfect truth. Let him speak his piece regardless of his opinions, and then utterly destroy his untruths (if he even utters any).

I just can't fathom the narrow-minded people who would rather dictate what a man can do that let him perform actions or say words that they don't like. For the last time, are we really that weak? Have we fallen that far from our ideals?


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Not a meteor!

Phil the Bad Astronomer says it wasn't a meteor that hit Peru, in fact, it may have been a SCUD missile. This explanation seems far more likely to me.

And we got a good follow-up! I am a little bit surprised.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Meteors cause sickness? Say it ain't so!

Every now and then a story hits the internet that is just so absurd (or premature) that I have to laugh. This is one such story. It claims that villagers in Peru started to become sick after a meteor hit outside town. Now the thing that bothers me is that causality is just assumed. Yes, it is possible that the events are connected, but I think it's far more likely that they're not, this sounds like a serious case of the "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, which means "after this, therefore because of this."

First off, in order for the meteor to have caused the illness, it would either have to have some kind of toxic substance on it (inorganic, the odds of an organic substance that's harmful to humans surviving reentry and being of sufficient quantity to disperse into the atmosphere are infinitesimal), or vaporize some kind of toxic substance in the ground. The first scenario isn't too likely, because meteors are mostly benign materials (rock or iron), and any toxic material wouldn't be very concentrated. Plus the meteor wouldn't be very big to begin with, I highly doubt it would be more than a few feet in size, which would make the total amount of dangerous chemicals in it tiny.

The second scenario is much more likely, but still not nearly certain. Based on the media reports the meteor displace 157,000 cubic feet of material, which is not a whole lot, just a box 53 feet on each side. Granted, it could be a lot more vaporized, but given that it had the entire atmosphere to diffuse into, even an order of magnitude increase wouldn't matter much. I don't think that amount of material would remain concentrated in the area very long, just think of how quickly smoke from fires or smokestacks disappears, but I could be wrong. Even then, the toxic material would have to be present in the soil of the region, and people would be inhaling or ingesting it anyway!

What really gets me is that none of the articles (which, despite seeing it in three different sources are all carbon copies) discuss this. They don't even mention that the events might not be related, and they definitely don't say that if they are, the toxic material is almost certain terrestrial in origin. The headline and article read as if we're being poisoned from space, and that's just stupid. And the real pity is that there will almost certainly be no follow-up article that tells what actually happened, because it'll be something mundane that won't be newsworthy! So it goes, I suppose.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

What's wrong with people?

When I saw this article on Fark that described the outrage over a college newspaper, my interest was piqued. I love free speech issues, and surely if people were calling for editor to be fired it must have been something quite terrible. Here's the badness, according to the article:

The comic strip, dubbed "Polydongs," depicts explicit images surrounding the humiliation and degradation of a 14-year-old Latina girl. The paper printed a disclaimer saying it "does not support the kidnapping of (and subsequent urinating on) children of any age or ethnicity."

Well, now my interest was definitely piqued. A newspaper showing explicit images of urinating on a 14 year old girl? That's something else. So I downloaded the PDF of the newspaper available on their website, and here's the offending comic, for your enjoyment (click to embiggen):

Personally, I don't see why that's so bad. For starters, there's nothing explicit at all in there, the girl isn't even pictured. Then there's the fact that the comic characters are shapes, further removing it from reality (and making it more absurd). Finally, there's the fact that it's a comic strip, and even explicitly states that it's a joke, and the staff don't condone that kind of thing in reality.

This reminds me of the Muslim furor over those Danish cartoons, which is apparently still going on. It's just more people overreacting and showing that they have no sense of humor or value of free speech.

Which isn't to say that those who don't like it should do nothing. I think it's perfectly reasonable to try to remove the newspaper's funding, either through alumni contributions or student support (at Stanford certain student groups get special funds that need to be approved every year, I imagine other schools are similar). But asking for the editor to be fired is just silly, and I even think trying to remove funding is an overreaction.

Maybe one of these days people will stop being so damn sensitive about every little thing, but I doubt it. Until then those who offend will have to deal with this kind of reaction, and people who find it funny (like myself) will continue to laugh.


Old notion of the distribution of charge inside the neutron overturned

Apparently the old notion of the distribution of charge inside the neutron has been overturned:

For two generations of physicists, it has been a standard belief that the neutron, an electrically neutral elementary particle and a primary component of an atom, actually carries a positive charge at its center and an offsetting negative charge at its outer edge.

The notion was first put forth in 1947 by Enrico Fermi, a Nobel laureate noted for his role in developing the first nuclear reactor. But new research by a University of Washington physicist shows the neutron's charge is not quite as simple as Fermi believed.

Using precise data recently gathered at three different laboratories and some new theoretical tools, Gerald A. Miller, a UW physics professor, has found that the neutron has a negative charge both in its inner core and its outer edge, with a positive charge sandwiched in between to make the particle electrically neutral.

This is pretty cool, but I wanted to know how the quarks arrange themselves inside the neutron in order for this to happen. It would seem that the down quarks are at the center and outside and the up quark is in the middle, but that doesn't make much sense (since then the up would be in the middle). But then again I don't know much of anything about quantum chromodynamics, perhaps this does make sense.

One of the reasons I mentioned it here is because it's a good example of something we've believed for a while (in this case 60 years) being suddenly overturned. This was published in PRL, so I doubt it's junk, and it will probably be well-received by the Physics community (again, provided it does have good evidence going for it). It's always good to have examples of when a long-held belief is just overturned; it demonstrates the power, flexibility, and nondogmatic nature of science.

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Religion, imaginary elves, and the Philippino judiciary

Via Denialism Blog I find this story about a judge in the Philippines who has three imaginary elf friends, and was fired for it. The entire thing is pretty funny (the people love him, and he's using his newfound influence with the media to try to get his job back), but this quote is simply the best:

Mr. Floro says he never consulted the invisible elves over judicial decisions and the fact that he puts faith in them should make no difference to his career. "It shouldn't matter what I believe in, whether it's Jesus, Muhammad, or Luis, Armand and Angel," he says in an interview.

That's exactly what I thought when I read the article. How is this any worse than a judge who consults Jesus about his decisions, and we know that they exist? I don't think it is at all, the only difference is that there's only one person who believes in the trinity of elves, and there are two billion who believe in the trinity of Christ. I'm not saying he should get his job back, I'm absolutely indifferent about what happens to him, but he doesn't seem any more crazy to me than any other religious believer. Of course he absolutely could be, but we don't know that he is for sure.

What's a little bit unsettling is how the public has rallied around him. Get a load of this:

The day after Mr. Floro's first appearance on television last year, hundreds of people turned up at his house in a dusty Manila suburb hoping he could use his supernatural powers to heal their illnesses. Now Mr. Floro, who travels by bus, is regularly recognized on the street.

I looked into it, and the Philippines has a similar education system to the US. Something must be going wrong if people think that a man who sees elves can cure them. I seriously wonder why people always think that they can be healed by magic, perhaps it's because all healing seems to be magic (think about how antibiotics quickly defeat infections, without any knowledge it seems like magic). Still, if this is the supernatural instinct that skeptics are fighting against, then we have one hell of a fight against us. Education is the key to defeating superstition, but it doesn't always work. People are believing machines, and I doubt we'll ever eradicate belief in stupid things.

But if you find belief in stupid things funny, please read the whole article. It includes one of the elves purging the corrupt judiciary. It's good stuff.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Republican hypocrisy and other thoughts

This story about Quotes from Republicans when Clinton was president is interesting, but not surprising. Basically they're saying the things that the Democrats are saying (and being heavily criticized for) now. This was happening before I paid attention to politics at all, so I'm wondering if Democrats were using the same rhetoric Republicans are using now. Frankly, I'd be more surprised if they didn't than if they did.

It's just another sad commentary on our ridiculous partisan politics. I've never really researched it, but I've always felt Washington was right when he urged no political parties in his farewell address, and thought we'd be much better without the dumb loyalties they demand. It seems to me that in a party system, ideas lose to allegiance to the party, whereas without them ideas dominate. Of course, that could be wrong, and a representative system without parties is hard to imagine (although I'd be interested in knowing if one exists). Oh well, we're stuck with what we've got, might as well make the best of it.

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Bring back the OTA

Are you sick of having a government that has no idea about technology or science? Do you want the people making policy decisions that affect the entire country to have some kind of clue about the issues they're legislating? Are you frustrated that there's no way to achieve these goals?

Well fret no longer, Mark Hoofnagle at Denialism Blog has an idea to help ameliorate this problem, bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment. Here's Mark's description of the OTA:

It used to be, for about 30 years (from 1974 to 1995), there was an office on the Hill, named the Office of Technology Assessment, which worked for the legislative branch and provided non-partisan scientific reports relevant to policy discussions. It was a critical office, one that through thorough and complete analysis of the scientific literature gave politicians common facts from which to decide policy debates. In 1994, with the new Republican congress, the office was eliminated for the sake of budget cuts, but the cost in terms of damage to the quality of scientific debate on policy has been incalculable.

This sounds like a critical organ of the legislative government, and if done right it would be. I agree that the OTA should be recreated, and I'll be contacting my representatives, if you care about this issue I recommend you do the same.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Why do cranks love Quantum Mechanics so much?

From a Bad Science post about homeopathy I found this interesting quote, from Peter Chappell.

"Modern quantum physics is confirming resonance works on all levels of existence."

First off, why do quacks love Quantum Mechanics so much, and why do people buy it? I guess it's developed this mythology as being completely unintelligible and mysterious, as well as complicated, bizarre, and counterintuitive. People are used to hearing about tunneling, the uncertainty principle, and other concepts that are perfectly comprehensible and mathematically precise, but they they don't understand. These things come down from high and seem to be magical, and so they get the feeling that QM is all about strange results that sound like magic. So when someone selling snake-oil that can only work by magic justifies it with QM, it just makes sense!

Besides all this, the people who actually understand quantum mechanics (physicists and determined intellectuals) are the kind of fuddy-duddies who just rain on parades, and no one listens to them anyway (incidentally, this is infuriating). So all these quacks can get away with peddling their bullshit and the people who can call them on it don't get listened to (besides Bad Science, is there any other weekly newspaper column dedicated to debunking bullshit? There's that Penn & Teller show, but that's all I know about).

Secondly, QM is all about the small. Its effects disappear on the large scale, otherwise it wouldn't be so weird. So how on earth could anyone make the statement that "resonance works on all levels"? You don't need to know anything about QM except that it works only on small scales, the most trivial thing to know about it, to debunk this ludicrous statement. But people fall for it. And this is without going into the rest of the statement, which is new-age word salad.

It's so depressing to see that crap like this actually works, that people are really that uneducated, uninformed, incurious, and gullible. All the more justification for better skeptical education

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Social News shmocial shmooze

Social news is big news these days, for some reason. As someone who has used Digg for nearly two years, and chief competitor Reddit for almost as long, I feel fairly safe in saying that the more people use social news, the worse it becomes.

For example, Reddit used to be home to tons of good articles, now it's just a repository of "cool pictures!" and "George Bush sucks" articles. There was a fun point before labor day where a good quarter of the front-page articles were about the imminent invasion of Iran, which I'd say almost certainly won't happen. (The current administration isn't that stupid, right?)

Digg suffered the same problem. I used to read nearly every front-page story, back when there were 20 a day, but now that there are about a hundred there are far fewer good ones, not just percentage-wise but in absolute numbers.

Granted, this is just based on my tastes, but social news aggregators just aren't that useful for finding good news, I've found blogs to be far better (Reason is great, for example).

I'm not one for making predictions, they're usually wrong, but I don't think that these things are here to stay. It's really difficult to predict the internet, and those who have were lucky rather than smart or insightful (keep in mind that for every person with a good prediction record there are hundreds who were totally wrong, we just don't hear about them, no one brags about being wrong). This is why I think people like Ray Kurzweil are idiots, they think they can generalize the future based on limited information from the past, and then have the illusion of being right because their predictions were sufficiently general (one might as well say "technology will advance!" and claim success). In fact, the book I'm currently read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes an even broader claim, that anyone making any prediction is a charlatan and a fraud, although they usually don't realize it, especially economists (NNT, as he calls himself, really dislikes economists).

I don't really have a good way to end what is essentially a long diatribe that started because I'm frustrated with

Evolution and creationism

Zach from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has another winner about evolution:

I think this is a good jumping-off point for a discussion of what strategies work in the evolution-creation struggle. I think the best way to do it is to just keep fighting creationism to keep it out of schools, and work on better science literacy, through schools and popular literature. The specifics of how we do that will vary, but the only way to get people to accept evolution is for them to understand it, and that can only happen if we properly educate them.

Now, often mixed up in this is the discussion of whether or not vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins hurt "the cause", whether of evolution acceptance or atheist acceptance. Personally, I think that they hurt neither. The people who get angry at Dawkins aren't going to accept evolution anyway, people that fundamentalist are lost causes (although they can come around, it's rare). But for people on the fence, people who weren't really interested, people who don't really know the facts, they're the ones who can be won over, they're the ones Dawkins et al are going for, and I think they're getting the message.

Of course, that's just my opinion, it's impossible to say for certain one way or the other since we can't any kind of method

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Coming to an LED near you: Salmon Sperm

Every now and then something lands in my RSS reader that's just too crazy to believe: salmon sperm being used to make brighter LEDs. You read that right, salmon sperm make LEDs better.

Professor Andrew Steckl of the University of Cincinnati has made this fascinating discovery. The way that it works is that the DNA holds the electrons up better than synthetic materials (such as silicon), and the slower the electrons move through the diode, the more light is released (this is because there are more collisions along the route, and those collisions are how the light is released).

According to Prof Steckl, the salmon DNA, "allows improvements in one to two orders of magnitude in terms of efficiency, light, brightness — because we can trap electrons longer." For those not familiar with "order of magnitude" terminology, he's claiming 10 to 100 time increases in brightness. LEDs are already really bright, even 10 times brighter would be incredible.

And it's all thanks to a renewable, biogedradable material: salmon sperm.


What kind of praise is best for kids?

Here's a cool post from Cognitive Daily about what type of praise helps kids learn. The result was that "specific praise", in this case "You did a good job drawing" is better than generic praise, "You're a good drawer."

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Volokh on the "Fuck Islam" Facebook group

Here's a good post at the Volokh Conspiracy about freedom of speech on Facebook. Volokh does a great job describing the situation, and I don't have much to add, go read it.

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Muslims want tougher speech laws

Via Ed Brayton comes this story of Muslims demanding special protection against the desecration of Muhammad in Sweden.

Ambassadors from Muslim countries have indicated that they intend to present the Swedish prime minister with a list of demands when they meet for talks on Friday...

"We want to see action, not just nice words. We have to push for a change in the law," he said.

"Muslims need legal protection against the desecration of the Prophet Muhammad, maybe something similar to the protection enjoyed by Jews and homosexuals."

I like Ed's response to this, "I agree, Muslims need exactly the same protections that Jews and homosexuals have against being made fun of: absolutely none." I don't really understand why so many Muslims get their panties in a bunch every time someone mocks their religion, it's simply beyond me. Wouldn't it be easier to just write it off as the uneducated opinion of an idiot than to demand that the speech be made criminal? Some people must just be so frightened of hearing anything that goes against whatever they believe that they just want it all banned. I just wonder why they don't demand protection against calling Jews pigs and all that other racist crap (remember Iran's cartoon contest?), or what would happen if someone deemed the speech in their religion as fitting being banned (I could see it happening).

What would be great is if all of the hypersensitive people in the world toughened up. I'm not just talking about the Muslims who say there should be no "hate speech" against them, but all of the other idiots who want to ban types of speech. Because in the end, when you ask to ban speech, all you do is show your true colors as an idiotic despot.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Malaysian State toughens laws against converting Muslims

Because I love religious insanity in any country, here's a story from the Malaysian state Kelantan, where they've recently increased penalties for converting Muslims.

People who try to convert Muslims to other religions could face a whipping, a fine and longer prison terms in a state ruled by a conservative Islamic party in northeast Malaysia, an official said Wednesday.

The Kelantan state legislature approved changes to the law Tuesday providing for a maximum punishment of six lashes with a rattan cane, five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 ringgit (US$2,800; €2,080) for non-Muslims who preach to Muslims, said Hassan Mohamood, who heads the state's Islamic affairs government committee.

Previously, the maximum penalty was two years in prison and a fine of 5,000 ringgit (US$1,400; €1,040), but state officials feel stiffer laws are useful "as a form of deterrence," Hassan told The Associated Press.

I don't think that there's really anything I can add to this, except to say that I'm damn glad we don't live in a theocracy, and we'd better be damn sure it stays that way.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Religion is crazy

I absolutely had to comment on this story. The best line:

"We've spent many years coming up with ways to... get around some of the more restrictive rules of our Faith."

In a close second is this one:

"On behalf of My People, I'm really sorry. We're not all like that."

And his Holocaust-Survivor Father, sitting in the chair reading a People magazine, looked up, shaking his head.

"Yeah. Those Jews are nuts."

It's not their fault, just their crazy-ass religion.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007


What the hell, I might as well link to the truth. Although I have to say, I don't agree with all of those.

In case you're curious, linking to that page gives you a chance to win an iPod, and it promotes the Science Creative Quarterly. So as I said, why the hell not?


The Chemtrail Conspiracy

There's a nifty show on the Discovery channel during the day called Best Evidence that takes conspiracy theories and debunks them. It does a pretty good job at it, from what I've seen, although I think it gives the theories too much credit at the start.

Right now the episode is about chemtrails, which is the absolutely loony theory that government agencies are putting additives in jet fuel to do all sorts of different things, from changing climate to making people sick. My favorite part so far was the beautiful confirmation bias William Thomas, a journalist who investigates this, showed when he was talking about increasing reports of sickness in areas with contrails. How stupid does someone have to be to realize that any outbreak of sickness can be linked with contrails? They're everywhere!

And there's a woman named Rosalind Peterson (and "environmental activist") who claims that the diversity of contrail patterns is evidence of manipulation. My favorite of her claims was when she thought that rainbow patterns in the contrail are abnormal, has she never seen a rainbow? It's the same damn phenomenon. In fact, everything that she showed was easily explained by differences in atmospheric conditions, making her look like nothing but a crazy crank.

I think my favorite part of the whole show was the claims about climate change. Because the Bush administration is actively trying to combat climate change. I could believe that they have enough of a reckless disregard for the environment to try large-scale climate manipulation, but of all the things they'd try to do combating climate change is the least probable.

Then they tested the jet fuel in a lab, and of course they've found nothing unexpected. Another good test was using a spectrum analyzer pointed at some contrails that showed nothing unusual at all (the nitric acid struck me as weird, but apparently that's a byproduct of jet fuel).

Something else that strikes me as odd with this thing is that everyone says contrails are would increase warming. I thought that, if anything, increased cloud cover decreased warming, since clouds reflect sunlight back (increase the earth's albedo). While cloud cover could trap heat, contrails don't seem substantial enough to do that, and every little bit helps albedo. But I'm no expert and could easily be wrong about that.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Man cuts off his penis ‘to stop him sinning’

I've seen a lot of crazy things done in the name of religion, but this takes the cake. From the article, "A man cut off his own penis and threw it in a toilet ‘so he would stop sinning’." That must be some religious devotion, right there. This happened in Spain, so that means there's a very good chance he's Catholic, which would make a lot of sense given that his fear of sin made him cut his penis off. That's just one of the side effects of a belief system that treats natural urges and acts as disgusting and unholy; that's what you get when you repress people's sexuality.

The article ends in the mother of all understatements, "There was also a suggestion he may be suffering from psychological problems." At the very least he's suffering from the psychological problem known as religion, which is one doozie of a mental illness.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Magnetars, and example of cool science

I'm currently watching The Universe on the History Channel, and they're talking about "The most dangerous places in the universe". It's mostly about black holes, but they briefly mention things called magnetars, that I had never heard of before. They are fascinating little creatures.

A magnetar forms when a massive star that's spinning fast and has a strong magnetic field collapses, exploding in a supernova and eventually settling into a spinning neutron star. Unlike neutron stars, magnetars have ridiculously strong magnetic fields (caused by the dynamo mechanism). To give an idea of how powerful the magnetic field is, it's 1,000,000,000,000 times stronger than the earth's magnetic field, and 10,000,000,000 times stronger than a neodymium magnet. These fields are so strong that they have an energy density over 10,000 times as great as lead, and at 1000 km would actually be lethal, tearing flesh apart because of water's dipole moment.

We know they exist because the super-strong fields have weird effects on photons, and some rare phenomenon are best explained through this mechanism (there are less than 20 found so far).

This is an example of really cool science, and it fills me with a sense of wonder and awe that such magnificent and bizarre phenomenon actually exist in our universe.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Why there's less outrage for Iraq than Mike Vick

As someone who's used to asking "where's the outrage?" I sympathize with M.J. Rosenberg, who wants to know why Iraq fails to generate the outrage that Michael Vick has.

How many dogs did Vick kill anyway. 25, 50, a hundred. I don't know. But 3739 Americans have been killed in Iraq and maybe 600,000 Iraqis -- not to mention the US destruction of a whole country and society.

And all without the outrage produced by Michael Vick.

This is easy though. Vick generated outrage because no one thinks that what he did is good and no one is emotionally invested in it. Think about it this way, if your son was risking his life managing dog fights (along with thousands of other American sons) would you hate it as much? Or if your President and all of his staff convinced you that dog fighting was a good idea, would you hate it as much? Or if your entire political party has indelibly linked itself to dog fighting, meaning a huge part of your self-definition is linked with dog fighting, would you hate it as much?

All of these things (especially the last) have been actually observed. People still support the Iraq war for many reasons, usually because they have to otherwise they lose some kind of personal interest, whether it's admitting that your president lied to you, that your son died for no reason, or that the party you've supported all your life is just dead wrong. Besides all that, there are people who still believe the lies.

It's even pretty easy to answer why the people who don't support the Iraq war aren't as outraged. It's easy to fix the Michael Vick problem, whereas Iraq is trickier. You can say that we just pull out, but that could be disastrous in its own right, possibly more so than staying. There's also no strong political leadership on Iraq, Congress has yet to start any inquiries or attempt to drain funding, making people believe that their rage is simply impotent, it falls on deaf (or at least unwilling) ears. But with Mike Vick it's easy, we all knew he'd get at least a year and have his career ruined, so we'd get what we wanted by seeing him humiliated.

In fact, I think that sums it up: Iraq is hard, Mike Vick is easy. That's why there was so much outrage for him, and so little for Iraq (and the drug war and the loss of civil liberties and every other complex issue). In fact, I'll state with fair confidence that a complex issue will never galvanize as much support as a simple one, just because the complex ones are so much harder, and as a country we just don't like difficult things.

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"Why are unicorns hollow?" On language and meaningless questions

Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer. [emphasis mine]

That quote above, by Richard Dawkins from this Salon interview, is one of my favorite, and it demonstrates quite well the theme of this post.

Language is tremendously useful thing, but it has lots of problems. The one that I'm interested in is that words can be strung together without meaning anything (sort of like Chomsky's famous "green ideas sleep furiously", except less obviously meaningless).

For instance, "what existed before the universe?" That question is meaningless, even though almost no one think so. Or how about "What's outside the universe?" Totally meaningless, because not only can we not exit our causal universe, but if we could anything "out there" would be part of our universe by definition. I've touched on both of those things before, in Nothing Doesn't Exist, and won't continue here.

Another good example of this happened earlier this week, with an IDiot asking what us crazy Darwinists would do if evidence of irreducible complexity (IC) was found. On its surface this seems like an excellent question, since we could either admit that something is IC and admit Intelligent Design (ID) is true, or we can deny that it's IC and then confirm that we irrationally hate ID. The problem is that IC scientifically can't exist as they define it (it would simply be a gap in our knowledge), and it's already been shown that evolution produces IC (as one would expect with even a cursory understanding of evolution). What appeared to be an excellent question was just another meaningless one.

The sad thing about these questions is that most of the "important" ones fall into this category. Questions about the nature of existence, the purpose of life, all of those large existential questions just aren't meaningful. "Why are we here?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?", to take the two that pop into my mind, are just unanswerable because they start with terrible premises (that there's a reason for us to be here and that nothing is a preferable state for the universe, when it's almost certain that there's never been nothing).

The distinction between meaningful (why is the sky blue?) and meaningless (why am I here?) questions is an important one to keep in mind, because the meaningless questions seem to carry lofty importance because they're so difficult to answer. Once you realize that they're difficult to answer because they're meaningless they seem less lofty and more banal, and that realization is key to defeating arguments (like ID) that, due to lack of their own merit, use the meaningless question as a defense against intelligent attack.

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