June 30, 2007

Vernacularisms 1

As I explained in this post, I compiled a gigantic list of wonderful but obscure words in high school. Here are a few:

Succedaneum- n. A substitute, resorted to when the real thing is not available
Pigsney- n. (A.S.) A term of endearment used when addressing a girl
Varlet- n. A low, menial scundrel
Zori- n.pl. Flip-flops
Ephetic- a. Habitually suspending judgement, or given to skepticism (n. Ephecticism)

June 26, 2007

Union of Concerned Science Cartoonists

The Union of Concerned Scientists took a break from being concerned long enough to set up a politization of science cartoon contest. You can vote on them. Most are actually kind of dumb, but a few are worth taking a gander at. I still prefer S. Harris for my cartoon needs.

Like Fish in a Barrel

More fun science from Conservapedia.

Big Bang Theory
You don't usually see something cite Max Tegmark and Answers in Genesis at the same time.

The Big Bang Theory has had many dissenters including the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, the Nobel Prize winner Hannes Alfven, and astronomers Geoffrey Burbidge and Halton Arp. It was Hoyle who coined the term, although he used it disparagingly.
Well, Hoyle was a 'reasonable' dissenter when the Big Bang was still controversial, but since the evidence soundly defeated the steady-state model he's just been a crank. Burbidge and Arp are at least honest cranks, but they are not what you would consider 'relevant.' It also says something that all of these people are a bit past their prime. Hannes Alfven is actually so far past his prime as to be dead. He won a Nobel Prize for his work in Plasma Physics, not astrophysics, and his model is a joke which is conclusively ruled out by the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background's blackbody spectrum. He thought that establishing a starting point for the universe was sneaky creationism. Which is interesting in light of the next passage:
Most Atheists believe in the Big Bang theory. There is active research and speculation into what caused the Big Bang, but atheists agree it was not a deity.

Many scientists who believe in the Big Bang Theory are Evolutionists, though not all are. One can believe that God both created the Universe AND laid out the plan for all life in the Big Bang, as opposed to the idea that life evolved randomly after the Big Bang.

Young earth creationist scientists contest the Big Bang Theory stating that it is scientifically unsound, though few creationist criticisms are found in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Do I need to comment on this stuff? Scientists 'believe' in evolution because they are scientists, and the phrase 'Young earth creationist scientists' is an oxymoron.
I also enjoy this sneaky little phrase, which is backed up by nothing at all.
Professional cosmologists are actively creating models (some of which contradict the Bing Bang scenario) and collecting data that probe the specific nature of the earliest observable aspects of the Universe.
Actually, no professional cosmologists are creating models that contradict the big bang. Anywhere.

Isn't is sad that in this day in age blah blah blah...

750 Shaqs to a mile

How often have you been forced to laboriously crank out the Can of Soda:African Elephant weight ratio by hand. Too often according to Weird Converter. Finally, a web interface that can tell us how many Human Eyeballs make up one Tom Cruise. Useful for his housemaid I'm sure, since he consumes hundreds each year and she has to know how many to buy. Now I'll know how many quarters to get for my life-sized Polar Bear replica. My only complaints, why no Smoots? And converting things into "football field" lengths is fairly redundant since everyone feels the incessant need to do that anyway.

Revenge of the Accordion

And now, for no reason at all, a man playing "Flight of the Bumble Bee" on an accordion. He looks as though were his accordian strap to rupture, the instrument would go flying across the room and burst into flames. I presume this is what keeps many people from learning the accordion, since They Might Be Giants have already taught us all how cool the squeezebox really is.


Today is the first day of PETA's "Fish are Friends, not Food" week. Silly PETA, why can't it be both?

It actually always bothered me how many people claiming to be vegetarians still ate fish. For about 8 years I didn't eat fish, while still eating meat, as a way of making up for these people. Of course, I didn't particularly care for how whitefish was prepared in my home, but that was the ostensible reason.
If you are going to eat what food eats, at least be consistent about it. And then, I actually had a fish for a while, and who can eat an animal that is the same as your pet? It would be awkward.


June 25, 2007


Cat and pixilated likeness of that cat.

Proletarian Cartoon Characters of the World, Unite!

I had a really horrid math teacher in high school, who sucked all the fun out of calculus and looked like a well-groomed dwarf. He was even capable of being horribly racist, despite the fact that many of the best students in our class were from other countries. (One day to a late student: "What's wrong Jang-Won, still on Tokyo time?" to which a large, menacing friend of mine flatly replied "Jang is Korean. You're a racist." Teacher made frustrated dwarf noise, returned to lecture.) Even the other teachers made no secret of the fact that they hated him. In the last week of school I signed him up for the Communist party newsletter. I wonder whether he enjoyed it.

Of course, if it was anywhere near as entertaining as this bizarre reading of the Communist Manifesto set to old cartoons, there would have been no doubt. I can't figure out where they got the idea to do this, or whether they are pro or and anti communism, but whatever the case may be, it works. (It probably helps that they skipped over the stuff about starving to death or getting shipped to Siberia by secret police.) Note that Micky is always depicted as the
bourgeoisie mouse that we know him to be. I think that you could use cartoon relics like these to argue pretty much anything you want.

[via ToM]

June 24, 2007

Galileo's luxurious house arrest

Conservapedia, as you may know, is the religious-right's answer to wikipedia. Most of us didn't know that wikipedia was a question, but these people seem to think it was. Evidently, just like everything else on the planet they live on, even wikipedia possesses a liberal bias. The humor inherent in making a Republican version of a well-liked and ubiquitous web encyclopedia is fairly evident, and others have picked most of the low-hanging fruit already. Their technique seems to consist mostly of unsourced little jabs about stuff running counter to what has been well established, thrust in nonchalantly. For example, "FDR is also famous for his New Deal, a set of economic planning reforms that were meant to bring about the end of the Great Depression, but instead may have prolonged it and caused American citizens to be burdened with unnecessary government programs for decades to come."

(Well the New Deal gave the South electricity, and I am feeling sort of burdened by looking through conservapedia...) So they still harbor long-lingering resentment towards political opponents of the 1930's, no matter how they were judged by history. Can the same be said of centuries-old scientists, whose discoveries and subsequent oppression made conservative religious forces of the time look bad? You know that it can. You would think that by now, we can all get together on a few things, like that figuring out the sun to be the center of the solar system was an decent accomplishment, and that being burned at the stake or imprisoned for trying to learn about nature is unfair, to say the very least. But no one is above the harsh, grossly misinformed scrutiny of conservapedia.


In fact the Copernican theory was no more accurate than the Ptolemaic model. It had no compelling physical arguments for its superiority, and it proposed no experiments for testing its novel features. In some respects, it was actually less accurate, as more epicycles had to be added (in place of Ptolemy's equant). Copernicus' main argument in favor of his theory was that it was aesthetically more pleasing as it allowed the planets to move in uniform circular motion, an idea later proven false by Kepler. Many of the ancient Greek arguments for and against heliocentrism remained unresolved for some time.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a Protestant in Germany, built on Copernicus's work and discovered that planets orbited the sun in elliptical rather than perfectly circular orbits. Kepler was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and devout Christian who cited God many times in all of his writings. He felt it was his Christian duty to understand the creation of God, the universe. He also felt that man, being in the image of God, was fully capable of understanding the universe. Like Plato and Pythagoras, Kepler felt that God must have created the universe according to a mathematical plan.

Galileo got approval from Rome to write his book Dialogue on the Tides, which discussed both the Ptolemaic and Copernican hypotheses, as long as it discussed both systems and did not draw a conclusion that would make the heliocentric world view be viewed as fact instead of theory [note bogus creationist-style fact vs. theory terminology]...Unfortunately for Galileo, the work was not made to be evenhanded. Indeed, the Ptolemaic character, called 'Simplicius' often stumbled over his own errors and seemed quite foolish. Galileo had moved out of bounds. The Church felt they had made themselves clear. At a different time, the reaction might have been different, but it was in the middle of the 30 Years War, the most deadly war in Europe ever fought between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic Church had to show it had authority and strength.

The Church officials, who felt Galileo had embarrassed them, found that Galileo had erred by advocating heliocentrism as scientifically proven, which was not compatible with the Inquisition’s 1616 ruling or what Galileo had recently been told. In 1633 Galileo voluntarily submitted to Church authority and renounced his thesis of his book. At first he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but this was immediately commuted to luxurious house arrest. His book was burned, and the sentence against him was read aloud in public in every university. Galileo went back to studying motion and mechanics in his private villa.

His theory of tides turned out to be mistaken.

Government Support for Relativistic research:
The Theory of Relativity enjoys a disproportionate share of federal funding of physics research today, much of it unsuccessful. The $365 million dollar LIGO project, for example, has failed to detect the gravity waves predicted by relativity....

There is a correlation between enthusiasm for the theory of relativity and political views, and there is an unmistakable effort to censor or ostracize criticism of relativity. Physicist Robert Dicke of Princeton University was a prominent critic of the theory of relativity and that may have hurt him professionally, even though his theory "has enjoyed a renaissance in connection with theories of higher dimensional space-time."

Other articles are rewarding in their own ways. Maxwell's focuses entirely on his possible opposition to the theory of evolution. Oppenheimer's repeatedly claims that he associated with communists and spied for the USSR. And this is just scratching the surface. What a goldmine.

June 22, 2007

This is really too good

What's My Blog Rated? From Mingle2 - Online Dating

I have no idea where they got this from...it seems to be gauged from word use only, despite the fact that there is almost no swearing here...

Continued apologies indignity for the sporadic posting. Getting back to a blog after scaling back for a while is like pushing over a coke machine. You have to rock it back and forth a few times before you can get your dollar back.

June 20, 2007

Democrats and bad science, part 2

What actually got me going this morning was seeing this loony garbage by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the supposed connection between vaccination and autism. There are a number of parents groups who believe that their children's autism resulted from the mercury content in the standard vaccinations administered to children before the age of two. Apparently, there is some pending lawsuit on this matter, so has turned up in the news a bit recently.

The whole situation is pretty unfortunate. Basically, the way autism works is that the child starts out normal and healthy, making progress in a completely ordinary fashion, learning to speak, getting along with siblings and animals and all that. And then somewhere between age 1-2, abruptly slides backwards into wordlessness and anti-social behavior. Prior to the age of 2 also happens to be the time where children recieve a good deal of their vaccinations. As a further potentiality, it is not uncommon for children to respond adversely to vaccines sometimes.

Therefore, looking at it from a statistical perspective, there will be a certain number of cases where everything starts out normally, then the child is vaccinated, gets sick for a while, and then, by the time they've gotten over the vaccine effects, has begun progressing into autism. And given a large enough sample of people, it would almost be unusual if a bunch of parents who are distraught, upset, and irrational in the first place didn't make some kind of connection between these two things. It is only natural. At this point, the nutty, poor-understanding-of-medicine people step in and ride the parental anguish as far as they can by coming up with bizarre connections justifying what they already want to believe. Unfortunately though, there is no connection between vaccination "mercury containing" or otherwise and autism -- and it isn't for lack of looking. No causal link has been demonstrated in any of the epidemiological studies testing for a relation. Denialism blog has a thorough takedown of RFK Jr. of his wretched article.

By coincidence, I had heard a program about this on NPR last week, and I was very impressed by the moderator's decisive portrayal of these bogus claims as bogus. Not the usual "both sides deserve equal representation" approach that is so disasterously wrongheaded when it comes to reporting on global warming and creationism. Instead, they basically went into what causes these folks to hold these unsupported views and reassured jittery parents that it is far more dangerous to not vaccinate a child than to ignore a bunch of know-nothing cranks who feed on the ill-deserved respect of frustrated people.

But these kind of poorly thought out health scares aren't restricted merely to random outliers like RFK Jr. Walk into any Whole Foods, the modern-day fortress of American liberalism, and tell me how many different kinds of echinacea they have in stock. I'm betting it's more than 5. And who knows how many types of bottled water. Do you think those crystal healing types voted for Bush? I don't think so. Again, it isn't like there is some party plank about delivering herbal remedies to all taxpayers, yet to pretend that politicians who support good science are supported only by clear-headed people who actually know what good science is, is pretty naïve. As a group, they are definitely better than the alternative, but I am growing less convinced that it is a systemic phenomenon when it comes to general non-religious quackery.

June 19, 2007

Democrats and bad science

Democrats take a lot of pride in their generally 'reality-based' approach to the important questions. For the most part, they should be proud of this. For the mainstream party line stuff on the war, global warming, stem cells, etc where the conservative view is fairly illogical or outright denialistic, this is definitely true. It seems a good number of Republican positions are based on what they would like to be true (see, again, Iraq, Global Warming, anything related to religious superstition), and are not particularly concerned with the balance of evidence. Looking at the most contentious issues of the day, it seems that disdain for scientific and rational thought is a problem exclusively of the right. But this is not so.

When it comes to actual politicians this is actually true. You won't see many Democratic presidential candidates proudly declaring their ignorance to the world by stating that they don't 'believe' in evolution. Nor will you hear them regurgitate talking points on how 'the Earth is getting warmer, but we don't know whether it is man-made. You know, there are temperature cycles...'

And yet, the liberal demographic is still home to more than their fair share of fringey elements. Take for example the fact that in response to the question "Do you think that George W. Bush knew about the attacks of 9/11 in advance?" 35% of Democrats answered yes, and 26% said they were not sure. Even given that this question could be misinterpreted to include that August 'Bin laden determined to strike within the US' memo, that is still at least around one fifth or one sixth of the these people subscribe to the abhorrent '9/11 Truth' conspiracy theory business. This is in no way a mainstream view among influential Dems (unlike how the view that Iraq is or was related to terrorism in some way before we invaded is among the GOP), but still too large a fraction of their supporters to be comfortable with. Few groups manage to blend quite the same amount of paranoia, irrational thinking, and general offensiveness than these people. Other than the obvious affront to decency that they represent, they also happen to be an affront to reasonableness.

Conspiratorial thinking itself is stupid enough, but the garbage these folks turn out to justify it is even worse. "The way Building 7 collapsed was just like a controlled demolition!" WTC Building 7 was a nearby office building that collapsed later that afternoon from fires started on its lower floors. Nobody was killed, but apparently, the completely pointless and unnoticed destruction of this building is evidence of a sinister plot. Better yet, one of the dumbest arguments ever for anything has to be the claim that fire could not have caused the buildings to collapse. In a news clip on the radio a while ago, I recall hearing undisputed, noted materials science expert Rosie O'Donnell stating vociferously "Miraculously, the first time in history, steel was melted by fire. It is physically impossible...To say that we don’t know that it imploded, that it was an implosion and a demolition, is beyond ignorant. Look at the films, get a physics expert here from Yale, from Harvard, pick the school—[the collapse] defies reason."

[Clearing throat] Let's pick Dartmouth, I'm no expert, but this isn't difficult. It is really more engineering, but actually is so simple that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of how materials work can understand this. How do you think they shape steel, genius? Ordinary fires that we encounter in our daily lives aren't hot enough to liquify steel, and neither are the ones that were ignited in the twin towers or this other building, but they don't have to melt it to make the building collapse. Just weaken it enough that the weight of the stories above it are more than the steel beams can support, which happens at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember Fahrenheit 451? That is the temperature of burning paper -- the towers were exposed to burning jet fuel, and who knows what the hell was burning in 7WTC. Either way, getting the beams up to that point, and probably much higher, is not an unlikely thing. In fact, it is what happened. Popular Mechanics has a more thorough and excellent debunking of this particular nonsense, and Penn & Teller have an excellently angry debunking of it in video form. (Quoth Penn "Wow! Did you do that hard-hitting data research...in your ass?!")

In any case, to get back to my original point, though these people are by no means spokesmen for the 'reality-based' party, they are definitely a non-negligible slice of their supporters. How are these people better than the assholes in the middle east (and some here) who still believe, by overwhelming margins, that a group of Arabs were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks? In fact, they are probably worse, since there is widespread misinformation in that part of the world on that issue, here we've been inundated with evidence for years. (This American Life had an interesting account from one such, shall we say, 'willfully misinformed individual' a few years ago, it's Act 1.) Whether or not it is good that these nuts are supporting the right people, it is not a good thing to be associated with them.

I had planned on diatribing on a few other things but this ended up being quite long enough, so I may make it a series instead to fulfill the destiny of blogs everywhere: eventual decent into semi-political rants.

Inexplicable Presidential Matchbooks

At my mom's house a week ago I noticed that a book of matches sitting on the microwave had a line drawing of William McKinley on it. On the other side it had a few lines about him, like the dates for his term and birth and so forth, without any type of explanation of what he was doing on some matchbook. Like our 25th president is the kind of guy whose visage commonly turns up on household objects. When I asked my mother about it she disinterestedly stated that they were a "presidential series" and waved in the direction of the cabinet where the box they had come in was. I figured that in order to get around to McKinley they must have been running through everybody, so it was a bit surprising to find that they had selected only about seven guys who averaged out to being fairly mediocre -- or at least not well known. As best as I can remember it was Adams, Polk, Filmore, Garfield, Cleveland, McKinley, and Harding. I am assuming that these were randomly chosen, but I find the whole thing very odd. If it was some type of funny tradition to put middling Presidents on matchbooks, I would understand, but without some better justification, one can't help but be puzzled.

June 14, 2007

Watch watching

Not science, but still fascinating. This video shows an extreme close up of the inside of a watch. Nothing more, nothing less.

Symmetry cartoons

This month's Symmetry is illustrated by New Yorker style cartoons. This science cartoon genre has to be the narrowest subset of cartooning possible (though the Cartoon Guide to Physics gets some credit despite belonging to a range of 'cartoon guides' on other topics like history and math...The Way Things Work remains untainted by non-science associations, though it is really more about engineering). Aside from which, there is also an article about dark energy that is certainly worth checking out.

June 13, 2007

Wireless Electricity: Threat or Menace?

Nothing to do with Arbroath, an otherwise perfectly enjoyable site, incredulously points to an extremely lame article in the Telegraph about some new-sounding form of induction. What is it with English newspapers and scientifically illiterate reports on electromagnetism? There was all that nonsense about wireless killing bees started by the Independent back in April, the article I roughed up about about electro-sensitivity in the Daily Mail, and now this. Do they just figure that since they gave us Maxwell and Faraday, they don't have to know anything about E&M any more?

Electric plugs could become things of the past after scientists devised a way of recharging laptops and mobile telephones without the need for cables.

For the first time electrical engineers have powered a light bulb from a source seven feet away without a cable using mainly magnetic waves.

They seem to be using some new meaning of the phrase 'first time ever' that I am not accustomed to. One that does not include well-known phenomenon of mutual induction. You know, the concept employed in every transformer everywhere to step down voltage and create a penetrating high-pitched whine that can be heard from great distances (anyone else annoyed by this?). Tesla tried something similar that has been embraced by fringey types (it involves 'Earth-resonance teleforce!').

In any case, though a better example of power transfer than usual induction taking place over non-tiny distances, there really isn't anything unusual about this.

It would also help the environment, dispensing with the long-term problems caused by battery disposal.

Huh? Even if you could charge something up, you would still need a battery to hold the charge of any ordinary device. Unless you happen to want to use your device several feet away and with a foot diameter coil attached. Or unless your device just happens to run exclusively on capacitors. Somehow, I don't imagine a ton of demand for wirelessly charging photographic flashes.

Concerns have also been raised about a possible link between electromagnetic waves and cancer. However, Prof Marin Soljacic, who led the research, said yesterday he believed the technology can be developed without posing any additional health risks.

Strike three. The fact that 'concerns have been raised' isn't the same as saying that they are valid in any way...which they are not. Ties between the kind of EM radiation that would be used here, which are the size of kidneys and screwdrivers, and cancer are neither possible nor supported by any studies.

Verdict: technology itself OK (even though I'm skeptical of what may come of it), but the reporting showed a total lack of context or background knowledge.

Link to further 'science.'
Note: comment section of article may cause brain damage.

June 6, 2007

xkcd spectrum

Today's xkcd continues to show us how its done.

June 5, 2007


Today in the supermarket I saw a woman with a young son in a sort of understated harness. Someone had written 'autism' across the strap over his chest in permanent marker. I was initially surprised by the absurdity of this, then impressed with the forthrightness. It was quite unique to see such a thing. It was obviously a means of avoiding any misunderstanding, and it was really cool to see something so honest. This mother had made a rather astute judgment that anyone worth interacting with would immediately grasp the entire rationale that went into writing 'autism' in block letters on her son, and could therefore take it as an unspoken pretext without going through an explanation. Moreover, it was a statement that having autism isn't something that it makes sense to hide or be awkward about. The whole message was very compact. It was nice to see that kind of boldness and disdain for typical social morés.