Measured Against Reality

Friday, November 30, 2007

Is better really better?

From Cognitive Daily comes the most scientific study of MP3 sample size and quality I've ever seen, titled Few listeners can distinguish between "average" and "best" MP3 samples.

Of course, most people would come to that conclusion anyway, I've found in my experience that people who claim to be able to do this are entirely full of crap. It's one of those effects where they think higher bitrate is better even if it's actually not, so they "hear" differences that aren't there. It's the same thing that happens with food and wine, perception and expectations alter subjective experience.

Sometimes hype is just hype, which is a great thing to understand.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Here we go again II: Texas plans on advocating ID

It's been a big week for the culture wars. First a Florida school district shows sympathies for ID, and then was the news about a Texas science curriculum director resigning, (more correctly being forced to resign), and for forwarding an E-mail from the National Center for Science Education, which should be fine. But now this comes out:

Chris Comer has always been an advocate for science, including the integrity, accuracy, and reliability of science. For her entire employment history at TEA, she was asked almost monthly to write letters to parents complaining about the teaching of evolution in their child's science class. She always referred the parents to the science TEKS which requires evolution (although about half of the biology classes in Texas don't teach it). She also was forced many times to speak to "concerned" Creationist parents about evolution instruction in their local school district to which they disapproved. She always patiently defended the accuracy and reliability of evolutionary biology. In addition, she frequently forwarded information about upcoming science conferences and presentations to individuals and email lists. It was part of her job.

However, TEA has a new policy, one of neutrality between biological evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. This new policy was put in place when Dr. Don McLeroy--an outspoken Creationist and activist for Intelligent Design Creationism and its marketing campaign--was appointed the new Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE). By publicizing a lecture by a Louisiana State University professor of the philosophy of science that supported evolution--as required by the state's science standards--and opposed Intelligent Design Creationism, Chris Comer ran afoul of the new policy and was asked to resign or be fired immediately. The memo to her from the TEA contained several other excuses, all of which were bogus, trumped-up, or common among employees. Amazingly, this memo is now available for the public to read thanks to the American-Statesman (see below), and it reveals the lengths to which the top administrators of our state's public education agency will go to silence dissent from their new policy of not criticizing Creationism.

The real reason she was forced to resign is because the top TEA administrators and some SBOE members wanted her out of the picture before the state science standards--the science TEKS--were reviewed, revised, and rewritten next year. Plans are underway by some SBOE members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach about evolutionary biology in the Biology TEKS and to require instead that biology instructors "Teach the Controversy" about the "weaknesses" of evolution, that is, teach the Creationist-inspired and -created bogus controversy about evolution that doesn't exist within legitimate science. There are no scientific weaknesses with biological evolution as the natural process is understood by scientists. At the level at which it is taught in high school, evolutionary biology has no weaknesses, gaps, or problems. Therefore, it is duplicitous to pretend such "weaknesses" and "controversy" exist.

This is huge. If they actually do rewrite the standards that way, it will be a huge case. And no matter how careful they are from here on out, their actions and statements will doubtless make it clear that it was religiously motivated, hence failing the "secular purpose" prong of the
As I said in my post about the Florida county, if they do this they will regret it. They'll get sued, they'll lose, and they'll have to pay millions of dollars, and will probably all lose their jobs (although there's no telling in Texas). And for what? So you can get your religion taught in a biology classroom? I guess demagogues will risk anything to get their truth pushed on others. It's sickening.

Watch these two cases, if they evolve into Dover II, they'll be interesting to follow.

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Here we go again

Five out of seven school board members Polk County, a school district in Florida, want Intelligent Design in the curriculum. That sounds quite familiar, I almost feel like we did this a couple years ago...

Despite the Pennsylvania case, some school board members want both intelligent design and evolution taught in Polk schools. They say they have received numerous e-mails and phone calls in support of intelligent design.

"My tendency would be to have both sides shared with students since neither side can be proven," Tim Harris said.

"I don't have a conflict with intelligent design versus evolution," Sellers said. "The two go together."

"It crosses the line with people who are Christians," Lofton said. "Evolution is offensive to a lot of people."

So many things wrong in such a short quote, it's not even funny. He is right about one thing though, ID can't ever be proven (an argument from ignorance never can), but Evolution has been proven, at least in the tentative, scientific sense (although most scientists will say that common descent has been proven, and is now a fully-certified fact).

I really want to know why evolution is offensive. "Descent with modification through natural selection" is offensive? Really? I think it's just offensive to know-nothing twits who lack the cranial capacity to understand the theory, and who have been so thoroughly brainwashed by religious nonsense that they lose all grounding in reality. These people must be that stupid, if they think they can do exactly the same thing as in Dover and get away with it. No judge on earth is going to let them include ID in the trial, not after Edwards v Aguillard and Dover. Especially since they're doing a terrible job of hiding their intentions, with Lofton (a board member) saying, "If it ever comes to the board for a vote, I will vote against the teaching of evolution as part of the science curriculum. If (evolution) is taught, I would want to balance it with the fact that we may live in a universe created by a supreme being as well." Saying that you want to inject religion into the science classroom (or any classroom, for that matter), is guaranteed to lose you a court case, and if she's too stupid to see that, well then it explains why she wants to put God in the classroom in the first place.

It'll be sad to watch yet another unfortunate county have to foot the bill for their elected official's stupidity, but

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I, for one, agree wholeheartedly with Sean's take on randomness. People, in my experience (and according to the data) just don't like randomness one bit. This irrational hatred caused on of the greatest physicists of all time to be on the losing side of a debate (God doesn't play dice, if you'll recall). It has cause untold numbers to lose fortunes to a roll of the dice (or the stock market, they're the same damn thing), and a fortunate few to profit immensely (usually those taking the bets, but that's a small matter). If you're human, odds are you've been fooled by the odds.

The sad thing is how little education and understanding of probability and statistics actually matters. For example, over Thanksgiving I was watching "Let's Make a Deal" with my family. At every turn I was calculating the expectation for money won, which was (until he finally quit) actually less than the deal offered (usually by around 75%, I'm fairly certain they do it mathematically). Now, if their offer is less than the expectation, you should keep playing, over many games it would be the wisest choice. Of course, since you only get one game, whether it's really the best course is debatable. My point here is that when they offered the guy nearly $600,000, I would have taken it, even though his expectation was actually $750,000. Strictly speaking, he played it right, only taking the $400,000 offer after his expectation plummeted to $333,000. But is that really right? If it were a poker hand the answer would be yes, but for a game like "Let's Make a Deal" I don't really know.

My point here is that even when I knew mathematically that they were undervaluing his hand, the money was just too good too pass up, and he was lead on through hubris alone. Most people would, at that level, not be able to take the risk, the potential loss is just too much.

Anyway, if you're interested in this kind of thing, I recommend Chances Are . . .: Adventures in Probability, it's a very entertaining and readable

Science, then and now

Here's a nice little comic demonstrating the difference between science now and 100 years ago:

It's sad how spot-on it is, except that scientists (and some parts of the interested general public) are still excited to learn and discover how nature works. I know I find it exhilarating when I learn some deep truth, even if it is at some weak level (an instance was when my Quantum Mechanics professor gave a lecture about how Angular Momentum is just two harmonic oscillators, once again showing that everything important is a harmonic oscillator in disguise). I can only wonder why more people don't share the same enthusiasm for discovery.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Sorry that it's been so quiet around here lately, I've been on vacation which means little time in front of the computer, which means no posting.

In any event, I hope all my readers have a nice Thanksgiving, a stress-free Black Friday (or Buy Nothing Day, if you prefer), and a restful weekend.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Picking our battles #2

I had previously mentioned the crosses in Utah, and it looks like I was right. This suit sounds pretty frivolous to me, although arguing that a cross is a secular symbol is pretty dumb, saying they should be taken down is also dumb.

I wish I could say to the plaintiffs, "Look, they're not proselytizing, they're not even erected with government money. And unless you guys have been turned down for trying to erect something, there's no evidence of preferential treatment. Who cares?"

The problem is that I'm having a lot of trouble seeing any differences between this and previous cases, like the Mount Soledad cross or the 10 Commandments in the courthouse case. But I think that the closest one is the 10 Commandment statue in Austin, Van Orden v. Perry, where the Supreme Court found a statue of the 10 Commandments on the grounds of the capitol to be legal. The rationale was that it had both a religious and secular purpose.

By that logic I think these crosses would stand, but the Mt Soledad case would give the opposite opinion (though I don't think that ever reached the Supreme Court).

In any event, I still think that, as a largely-despised minority, atheists should pick our battles. If we fight every stupid incursion of religion into society, we'll look bad and set precedents that might actually work against us. Don't get me wrong, we need to fight the big battles, but a dozen crosses on Utah's highways are not a big deal. Frankly, the plaintiff's money would be much better spent somewhere else, either in a battle that's already ongoing (like Mt Soledad), or somewhere that the intrusion of religion into the public square is, you know, dangerous.

But that's just me, apparently these guys disagree. Good luck to them, but I seriously doubt they'll win. If they do it'll just get appealed, it seems like Utah would have pretty conservative judges unlikely to be sympathetic, and I doubt this Supreme Court (if it got that far) would find them unconstitutional.

And I still stand by my previous statements about the idiocy of getting offended over trivial or minor things, especially something like these crosses. It's just an insane overreaction, and I'll never understand it.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Picking our battles

This is just stupid:

The fate of more than a dozen crosses honoring fallen UHP troopers was left in the hands of a federal court judge on Tuesday.

The issue was taken to court after a group of atheists sued the state claiming the crosses violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The group is now asking the Utah Highway Patrol Association to remove the 12 foot-crosses because they denote the death of Jesus Christ.

I'm against the intermingling of church and state, but come on people, crosses for dead policemen? Unless I'm missing something, like the policemen wouldn't have wanted the crosses or they're not put up near where the officers died, then this is just ridiculous. And even with those considerations, a cross as a memorial is not uncommon.

Suits like this do nothing to address the underlying problem of the crumbling wall of separation and damage the image of atheism. There are helpful suits and there are detrimental suits, and from what I can tell, this is one of the latter.

In fact, this reminds me of the insanity over Christmas every year. Why people get so wound up about it is beyond me, Christmas is manifestly not a religious holiday any more, and if you live in a country where the vast majority celebrate Christmas, why get bothered when someone says, "Merry Christmas"? This would be like getting mad if someone said "Have a happy fourth of July" and you weren't celebrating it. Who cares? Why does it matter?

The same goes for the crosses, they're not endorsing religion by putting a cross up for a fallen police officer. What are we going to go after next, the people who put crosses on the side of the road when a loved one dies? Those are on public ground, are they endorsing religion?

It's not that we shouldn't fight for the separation of church and state, we absolutely should, that hardly needs to be said. But we have to pick our battles, and this is one that, given what I gleaned from the article, we should have let slide.


Monday, November 12, 2007

The Dinosaur Conspiracy

The extinction of the dinosaurs has long been considered a crime committed by a lone gunman: an incoming asteroid that struck the earth 65 million years ago, filling the air with sun-blocking dust. Now, however, controversy is being stirred anew as evidence suggests that the asteroid might have had a partner in crime: volcanoes, massive ones, blasting clouds of toxic gas from the bowels of the earth and poisoning much of the planet's life.

When I saw that description I had to laugh. I instantly knew that it was talking about the Deccan traps, which were actually a hypothesis for the dinosaur extinction before the Alvarez meteor hypothesis. It also says, "Their evidence was compelling...", but it wasn't really, not for about 20 years. Their evidence was good, meriting more investigation, but not compelling for a while, specifically until the crater was found at Chicxulub, before that there was still a decent battle between the volcano and the meteor.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that the Deccan traps are making a comeback, but I've read tons of papers on this, and they're entirely unconvincing (unless they've discovered something new, and it doesn't sound like they have). I wish I could remember specifics better, but there are plenty of holes in the Deccan trap model, and most it can be a minor player in the mass-extincts at the KT-boundary.

But there were a few problems in the article, like volcanic sulfur causing warming, it usually causes cooling (which is why it has been suggested as a solution to global warming). And saying that algae blooms at 300,000 years (a date whose precision I find suspect) definitely show her time-line is just weird. If the volcanoes stopped erupting at 300,000 years, the heating would last millennia. It wouldn't coincide with the bloom. Although the objections raised in the article are good enough for me, I'd be quite surprised if the traps were very important.

If the Deccan traps had any effect on the extinction of the Dinosaurs, which is possible, it's just one of a half-dozen different factors. People have argued that they were already in decline anyway (for many different reasons), and the meteor was just the final straw.

It rather reminds me of the fall of the Roman Empire, what caused it? The real answer is never that there was one cause, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan, we look back and attribute causes to things, and argue endlessly over them. We might be able to find distinct causes, but we will never know the whole story, or even if there is a whole story.

Anyway, those are some thoughts on this topic.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Some good gay news

According to a new poll, 55% of people support civil unions for homosexuals. I just wanted to point that out and say that the zeitgeist is shifting, and I'm glad I'm on the right side.

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White men pay more.

I remember a while back, there was some furor of college republicans doing bake sales and charging white males more than anyone else (here's one article with a negative reaction), as a way of protesting Affirmative Action. Well, now there's some feminists charging white males more to protest pay differences.

"It's just to raise awareness," NOW @ SDSU Co-President Amanda Whitehead said. "A lot of people don't realize that white women make 75 percent of every dollar a white man makes or Hispanic women make 50 percent. It's pretty ridiculous. When they actually have to buy the cookies, it puts it into perspective."

Now, the article doesn't say anything about a negative reaction to this, so it's safe to assume there wasn't one. Which makes me wonder, how is this so different from the AA protest? If I recall correctly from a couple years ago, it caused quite the hubub. Why isn't the feminist one having the same reaction?

Personally, I don't think there should be a reaction to either one. If you disagree with the point they're making, engage them in dialog, or hold your own event that counters their point. If you disagree with someone, you don't try to shut them down. But all too often that's what happens (like this incident at Columbia).

It's really too bad that we can't have civil dialog about so many topics, and that people (even those who believe strongly in tolerance) can't tolerate


Friday, November 09, 2007

My government needs to lose some weight

Here's an interesting essay on government size, telcos, and privacy from Radley Balko. He talks about how the governments' sheer size makes it difficult for companies to say no for fear of losing its business.

It's a good argument, but not flawless. Still, I don't think anyone would say that the government should employ 3 million people (that's 1% of the entire country). It's time to face the fact that we need to drastically shrink our government. There has got to be tons of waste that we could cut out, leaving the machinery operating better than before. Besides, people are always the most expensive part of any project, and we could save tons of money with some massive layoffs.

But it'll never happen.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Unaccountable Police: What's really wrong with our country

I've noticed a disturbing trend lately. There are too many incidents of unaccountable and terrifying police action.

Those are four separate stories detailing several separate incidents in the past few days (though the first is a collection of older stories). The third is particularly elucidating, as it provides the perfect synopsis of what happens in these cases: Police officers did something stupid (repeatedly tasered a man in his own home), and get off without any punishment (cleared of all wrongdoing). This happens over and over again, Radley Balko collects these cases, and there are several per week.

I find this incredibly disturbing. While there are many things to worry about in this world, entirely too many, we really shouldn't have to worry that the people who are charged with protecting us are going to hurt us. That just strikes me as entirely off-kilter.

I'm not one of those people who thinks that all police officers are terrible criminals or anything, but there's not nearly enough accountability. If they kill a child with a toy gun, or taser an 82-year-old woman, or taser a man sleeping on his couch, or shoot a dog during a drug raid, or repeatedly raid the wrong house, then something should be done. Someone should be held accountable. Someone should be punished. If not, nothing will change, and innocent people will continue to get hurt.

The truly depressing thing about this is that I have absolutely no idea what we could do to fix it. Reading the first link above (a story about officers' postings on message boards and similar places), one gets the feeling that there's a culture of resentment for the civilians, almost as though those who they have been sworn to "serve and protect" are the enemy. How do you go about fixing something like that? How do you convince people who potentially put their lives on the line to put their heads on the chopping block if they make a mistake? I don't know, but it certainly appears to me that if we don't do just that, people will keep dying.

Again, I'm not saying that the police officers are to blame. Working a hard, dangerous, and often thankless job would not be easy. But the vast majority of officers aren't the ones tasering grandmothers or shooting children, and when a police officer does something that would get a civilian thrown in prison for 20 years, that officer should be thrown in prison for 20 years. End of story.

The bottom line is that we shouldn't have to be afraid of the people who are protecting us. And without accountability, that's just not possible.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Is -7 < -8?

From Britain comes this delightful story, about a lottery card that required the player to find a lower temperature than the one indicated. The problem was that many of the numbers were negative, and people just don't understand negative numbers.

I love this part the best:

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: "On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

"I phoned Camelot [the manufacturer] and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it.

"I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression - the card doesn't say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number. Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled."

Sometimes I really do love Schadenfreude.

Is pornography a catalyst of sexual violence?

In this short essay, Is pornography a catalyst of sexual violence?, Steven Chapman gives a concise summary of the reasons why the answer is, "no!" This is one of those topics that seems to come up frequently, my best guess is because pornography is just one of those things that many people don't want in their country, and as such they have to make up reasons why it's bad. It's quite similar to what's been done with drugs, where it's quite difficult to sort outrageous lies from the truth (you can safely bet that much of what you were told in DARE classes as a kid is just plain wrong).

Anyway, check out the essay if you're not familiar with why pornography doesn't encourage sexual assault. It's important to note that this is not the same as saying it decreases sexual assault).

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Radley Balko on "Exporting Democracy"

Posts like this one are why I love Radley Balko. Go there, read that post, and try to disagree with it. It's really quite great.

RI Lawmakers Override Domestic Partner Veto

Via Ed Brayton, here's some good news from my home state: RI Lawmakers Override Domestic Partner Veto.

This law gives domestic partners (defined as people who have lived together more than a year and are financially interdependent) of state employees the same pension and retirement benefits that spouses would get. This sounds to me like it would also apply to cohabiting but not married heterosexual couples, so I guess everyone wins (although if I recall correctly RI was having pension problems for a while, maybe that's been worked out).

It was originally vetoed by the governor, who said the public did not want "unwarranted and unnecessary expansions of state employee benefits." Well, apparently the state legislators think they do, and overwhelmingly so if they were able to override the veto. It's also worth noting that the mayor of Providence is gay, although it has nothing to do with anything

Granted, this is just a small step. While RI doesn't bar same-sex marriage, it doesn't really allow it either. Given that Massachusetts does, and Mass is about an hour away from any point in RI, it's not that big of a problem to just get married there. It would still be nice to be one of the states that has the good sense to allow homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, but at least we're moving in the right direction.

I truly can't wait for the day when I can look back at this time and remember how idiotic and backward the prevailing attitude was, hopefully I'll live to see that day.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

On Antony Flew and Authority

This NYTimes article on Antony Flew got me thinking about how little fame matters to atheists (and also in science). We (meaning both scientists and atheists) don't care about authority at all, it simply doesn't matter. When a high-profile atheist "converted" to some kind of vague deism late in his life, we shrug and say, "So what?" If Richard Dawkins converted, I'd be shocked and saddened, but no less convinced that there is no god. The man simply doesn't matter; it's his argument we care about.

The same happens in science. Everyone knows that Einstein didn't think quantum mechanics was right, but once it became clear to everyone that it was, his opinion didn't matter. We care about evidence, and when a proposition is supported by evidence we'll take it seriously, when it isn't, we won't. At least, that's the ideal. Authority likely matters in the real world, but that's an inescapable artifact of our human nature.

It's quite unfortunate that people in general don't understand this. We listen to the man and not the ideas, and we pay for it. I suppose paying attention to the arguments themselves is too time-consuming, too difficult, too tedious in most cases, which is unfortunate, because every arena of our lives (from our homes to our jobs to our politics) could benefit from an infusion of rational discussion.

Like that's ever going to happen.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

The WBC decision

By now I'm sure you've heard of the huge settlement the Westboro Baptist Church has been forced to pay (although it will be appealed, and we have no idea what will happen then). Most people seem to be very pleased with this, after all, this is a very disgusting group doing very disgusting things, frankly they had it coming.

But I don't know how I feel about it. My main worry is that they were actually within their first amendment rights. The article doesn't give any specifics on this, so I don't know if they did something that nullified their free speech protection. If they did, then they should be punished, and a huge fine seems appropriate.

Still, if this fine is for them being huge douchebags, I can't say I agree with it. It seems especially troubling as I am a member of a vocal and hated minority (atheists) who frequently upset people. A religious person could easily claim that many of the things I've written or said were emotionally damaging, and if that's the basis for this decision, it is wrong.

I feel quite strongly that we as a nation need to toughen up and learn how to react to offensive speech/actions with sanity. After all, offensiveness is completely subjective (I, for one, am offended by nothing, I think it's a stupid reaction under all circumstances). It seems like there's a new offender in the news every week, someone who said or did something that other people don't agree with and is suffering for it (James Watson comes to mind, but that's slightly different). If you think that someone said something hateful and should suffer for it, you should use your speech to condemn them, but keep the legal system out of it.

So if the WBC is only on trial for saying mean things, they should be acquitted, absolutely. I would hate to live in a country where people couldn't say mean things, because freedom of speech is an absolute necessity in a free and good society, while freedom from being offended is an impossible pipe dream, and a stupid one at that. Offensiveness is what happens at the boundaries of dialog, and we can't have dialog without it.

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