Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Discovery Institute Misses the Mark

Yesterday, Phil Plait pointed to a post at the Discovery Institute's dishonestly titled "Evolution News and Views" blog. It certainly has a lot of views, but no real news. Not unless you count Fox News whipped to a incoherent froth news at least.

Regardless, the article in question was titled :Why Censorship Works: The Case of Zack Kopplin". While it briefly mentions the recent and well researched article by Kopplin which demonstrated that private schools have been getting tens of millions of dollars in public funds to teach outright lies, it doesn't really say what this has to do with censorship. Nor does it dispute any of the facts.

Rather, the main thrust of the article is about trying to create a personality profile of.... people that respect the law?

No. Really. That's what it's all about. To try to insist that Kopplin is wrong, not because of the fact that the money spent doesn't violate the law, but that Creationists are somehow being noble in violating the law because it's "an act of civil disobedience". Their analogy they draw comes from Rush Limbaugh.

Sorry. I should have warned you that was coming so you could grab a bowl or something to vomit in. If you managed to keep it down, take a moment to reconsider grabbing one as I explain their analogy.

In a radio broadcast, Rush, "railed against a law in South Florida that prohibits turning on the lights after dark in your beach-side backyard for eight months of the year. The rationale, which he finds questionable, is that the illumination endangers sea turtles, luring them to shore instead of out to sea where they're supposed to be."

So, to the Creationist, this is the definition of "civil disobedience". Breaking the law because you find it a personal inconvenience. The reality is that we don't react with disdain because "You have insulted the law!". Instead, we react because you have done a shitty thing with unreasonable provocation.

Let's take an example of real civil disobedience. In fact, let's take the quintessential one: Rosa Parks. Contrary to the Discovery Institute's claims, those that fight Creationism would not oppose this act of honest civil disobedience because in this case, it highlighted a problem with the law; that a tired person be forced to give up their seat to another person due only to the color of their skin.

Returning to the case of turtles and beaches, we can ask the question: How is the law being unfair? Because you have to turn your lights off for a few hours? The Discovery Institute is really going to have to spin hard to make the case that this is such an imposition in a broad sense as to honestly compare to racial discrimination or other acts of legitimately harmful laws as to prompt warranted civil disobedience.

Coming back full circle to the point of the main article, that using public money to teach Creationism is really a good thing because it's "civil disobedience", we should be asking the same question: How is the law being unfair?

This fundamentally important and central question is answered nowhere in the article. And it's no surprise that they wouldn't want to get deep into this. Because this isn't some law about turtles on the coast. It's not even a regional law about busses. This law is the Constitution of the United States of America. Let that sink in.

If they're going to claim civil disobedience and claim it virtuous, it's to state that the law is unjust. Creationists are claiming that the US constitution is WRONG.

That's one hell of a claim and they'd better have one hell of an argument to back it. I presume the Creationists will then jump straight to the same silly talking point they have been lately; academic freedom or some other such buzzword.

I'm not going to waste my time thoroughly deconstructing this but a quick response would be that while academic freedom is a legitimate topic, there are times where one freedom bumps up against another. In this case, it's the academic "freedom" to lie to students vs the freedom of, which as the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, requires that we be free from as imposed by the government, religion. When these two collide, it's no honest contest. One of these freedoms is enshrined in our constitution. Every single court case has ruled that teaching Creationism using government money violates that 1st amendment protection.

Additionally, I think the best summary came from the recent Ball State case in which the school's president stated, "The question is not one of academic freedom, but one of academic integrity". Indeed, when it comes to academic "freedom", Creationism doesn't even count.

Yet in the Discovery Institute's eyes, this is beside the point. The law is still unjust because it doesn't give them the answer they want.

In some senses I hope they keep thinking that way. It will keep delivering them lost lawsuit after lost lawsuit. Their gleefully breaking the law will continue to bring cases against them that will draw attention to just how poor their case is.

I only wish that they wouldn't use hundreds of millions of our tax money to do it.

But in the meantime, disobeying a law without legitimate reason doesn't make you a candidate for civil disobedience. It just makes you an asshole.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Some Pokemon Math

With all the travelling I do with my job, portable games are great for me. Last month, the new Pokemon games came out and I decided I needed to do some catching up. I'd played the original Red and gotten White 2 last year, but there were still several games I'd missed. So I've been working through Soul Silver.

One of my biggest frustrations thus far has been that the progression isn't smooth. There's been several notable instances where I need to challenge a gym leader to advance, but there's no areas with wild Pokemon of comparable levels to help me get ready. At present, I'm getting ready to face the Elite Four. Their pokemon are all level 40-50, but the highest level wild ones are only in the low 30's. So I'm now grinding XP off enemies 15 levels lower than me. And it's taking a long damned time.

But I'm the kind of person that wants to know just how long.

This is an annoyingly tricky question to answer. In part because I'm trying to level 6 pokemon, the amount of XP isn't consistent per level, and not even consistent across all pokemon. Fortunately, online resources list how much it takes based on their leveling speed.

So I could look up the total amount of XP needed per pokemon to go from a current level to a desire one and total it all up to get the total XP I needed to.

The question then becomes how much XP I'm gaining per battle, on average.

And now there's another trick: Different enemies give different amounts of XP, and have different probabilities of showing up. Again, these probabilities can be found online. A few test battles tells me how much XP each enemy offers, and I could then use a weighted average to determine the overall average.

I'm not going to go through all the numbers here, but I will say I've already been grinding for about 3-4 hours and I've got a long way to go to where I want...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Paid in Full?

Posting an idea for a mini math project so I don't forget it and to let other people play with:

In the recent lawsuit of Apple v. Samsung an urban myth has sprung up that Samsung decided to pay a 1 billion dollar fine with a bunch of 5 cent coins. Why the article is calling them 5 cent coins instead of, you know, nickels, I dunno.

First off, let's ask if this is a realistic number. I started by looking at how many nickels are minted annually given I don't know what other 5 cent coins they could be talking about. It fluctuates, so I added up the past few years and took an average to try to get a rough idea. Between 2007 and the data they had for 2011, it averaged out to about 750 million a year. Glancing back a few more years that looks like a pretty decent average so I stopped there. But if that's the case, you'd be looking at 100% of the nickels minted for 13 years being entirely dedicated to this payment. Sounds pretty sketchy.

But let's go with it. Let's say someone dumped off what was supposedly a billion dollars worth of nickels and you're in charge of making sure you've been paid in full. A lot of commentors on the article are saying to weigh it and divide by the weight of a single nickel. Doesn't sound so hard but there's a few catches. The first is in the sensitivity of instruments. Getting devices that can weigh several tons with a precision of tenths to hundredths of grams is not likely.

But for the sake of argument we'll pretend everyone has such a device and it's no problem. Another issue is that due to wear some weight of coins could be lost. Due to gum or other residue, the weight of the coins could be increased. Thus, unless the coins walked right out of the mint and into the supposed hands of Apple, weight will have some small variance to it. Small, but multiplied by 20 billion, small numbers tend to get rather large.

So here's the project. Get a bunch of nickels and weigh them up, build a histogram, fit a bell curve to it and determine the standard deviation. For a few standard deviations in either directions, determine how much you may have been over or underpaid.

Other ideas: The article states it took 30 trucks to deliver the supposed coins. The amount this would actually weigh would far exceed the capacity of any trucks out there, even split 30 ways. So estimate how many trucks it really would take.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Archon Schedule

Archon released its schedule today. Unfortunately, they didn't end up taking one of the talks I'd suggested so instead of doing 3 solo talks I'll only be doing 2: Anime Mythbusters and Modern Astronomy - Reading Our Cosmic Library, a new talk that should have a distinct "Cosmos" feel to it.

I've also been placed on two discussion panels. The first is quite exciting to me. "Space Weather: The Latest Forecast". This is a topic I've written about some in this blog but haven't gotten to talk too much about elsewhere. So being asked to talk about it will be fun.

The second is on "Galactic Cannibalism: Who's on the Menu" and will be exploring interacting galaxies, primarily the Milky Way. This isn't a topic I've had a lot of direct exposure to, but two of my advisors at KU did a great deal of research on identifying stellar streams around the Milky Way that were the telltale signs of a satellite galaxy being tidally disrupted.

I also anticipate bringing my telescope and doing some public viewing when I'm not otherwise occupied.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brother Jed to Get His Own Reality Show

I'm weird. Everyone says that you're supposed to miss school. I don't. At least for the most part. But one of the things I do miss is getting to hear Brother Jed. It's been awhile since I've even given him much thought, but he used to pop up on this blog enough that he has his own post tag.

If you haven't been around long enough to have seen my posts on him, he's a campus preacher that pushes Creationism and has an autobiography that illustrates his lack of higher level thought.

So I suppose that it's indicative of the state of American media that Brother Jed is going to be the focus of a new reality show.

It will depend on how the show is done, but this could be absolutely horrible or absolutely hilarious. Given how painfully Jed shoves his foot down his throat and how exploitative reality shows tend to be, I suspect it's going to be the latter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Universe Verse Cont...

If you've been following my blog for a few years, you might be familiar with Jamie Dunbar's amazing book series The Universe Verse. It's a rhyming comic that details the development of... well, everything. Book 1 was the universe itself, starting with the Big Bang. Book 2 covered abiogenesis and the evolution of life. Book 3 was higher life to humans.

Now, Jamie is looking to combine all 3 books into a single hardback book. He created a kickstarter to fund the project and has already gotten his full goal, he has some stretch goals that include things like redoing the illustrations for the first book.

If you haven't checked out his work before, he's made a PDF of book 1 available for free until the end of this month. So make sure you check it out. And donate. That's important too. And there's very reasonable prizes for pledging. For example, It's only $30 to get the hardback copy of the book once it's complete. This is barely more than any other hardback book on the market but has the added benefit of containing science!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Can This Die Now?

If you're not familiar with Anita Sarkeesian, she's done a recent series of youtube videos deconstructing tropes in videogames that have sexist components. She first rose to notoriety when a rampantly sexist and not at all small portion gaming community tried to get her kickstarter to create this series, shut down. It ended up backfiring and she grossly exceeded the requested amount.

In response, those against her have continued to vilify her saying that she's defrauded donors for falling behind with her production schedule, sending her death and rape threats, etc....

But the newest tactic I think is the most pathetic yet. It's to declare that Anita isn't a real gamer because during one of her lectures, she said she's not into that games and had to do a lot of research.

Do I really need to explain context to people? That, perhaps when giving a lecture to an academic community, playing up habits that are generally thought to detract from academic focus would be frowned upon? Or that when trying to raise money to perform a through enough analysis or a large genre, she might be inclined to stress the background she does have?

And these aren't mutually exclusive. It can be fair to ask to what degree she may be a gamer, but any degree of gamer is still a gamer. I generally don't consider myself much of a gamer; I do play World of Warcraft casually, and I've played many of the major console titles (albeit usually several years behind the curve). But ask in the right crowd and that absolutely qualifies. The difference is that I'm not being targeted by a smear campaign for daring to point out the sexism in video games (even that benevolent sexism where video game women get treated as objects because guys are so totally in love with them).

It's absolutely the same trope that has been thrown around at conventions with increasingly regularity as "nerd culture" becomes pop-culture; that all these people (usually women) aren't "real geeks" and are just wearing costumes because they want attention. It's incomprehensible that a female would wear a costume because they actually appreciate the character. Yeah right. It's not.

The whole meme of "not a real ______" is a pathetic attempt to change the context of the discussion and isn't even a legitimate objection in and of itself. I seriously doubt that any "hardcore" gamer is going to walk into a job interview and when asked about their hobbies, declare that they spend every waking hour playing first person shooters. Just like Anita, the context determines how vocal they may be. But without a sexist axe to grind no one would bat an eye. Anita is a real gamer and people that think that people that aren't "hardcore" can't do their research, are just jerks.

Dragon*Con Post Con Report

And so ended my first Dragon*Con.

For several years now, everyone has told me what a wonderful and amazing experience D*C is. I've said for several years now that I'd attend and after finally doing so, I can confirm everything everyone has said about it.

I headed down Thursday for the Atlanta Star Party. My intent was to stop by the hotel, drop off the supplies for my friends, get changed into more formal clothes, and head to the star party, but a 2 hour jam on I-75 less than an hour from my destination killed those plans. Instead, I headed straight to the star party, dropped off my scope, had a quick bite, and listened to the talks.

Pamela Gay's was the first talk and very well done, talking about her work with CosmoQuest and the funding crisis she's had.

I forget the name of the second speaker, but recall he was an amateur, from I believe Florida. His talk looked at people that contributed to astronomy but have largely been forgotten. It was a mildly entertaining talk, but not well executed. The style was very much "There was a guy. He did a thing."

The third talk was Nichole Gugliucci. She's big on demos, so she tried doing some little examples of how supernovae work. Unfortunately, they didn't work well. Sadness.

Phil Plait was the last talk and he recapped his Zen Pencils.

There was supposed to be observing on the roof, but with the high temperatures, humidity, and poor seeing, I skipped out since my friends were upset I was holding their alcohol I'd brought (they'd flown) captive. So I met up with them and we ran around to check out the costumes.

Friday my only panel was my Anime Mythbusters. D*C is nice enough to leave 30 minutes between each panel, so I arrived 20 minutes early to get my computer set up. By the time I arrived, the room was already packed and they were turning people away. I was somewhat worried giving the talk this time, because it had been 6 months since I'd really even looked at the material and I'd pulled in a few segments that I hadn't used in a few years. Fortunately, it went exceptionally smoothly.

Saturday I participated in a panel on "Fact, Figures, and Google: Is Teaching Dead?" It was meant to look at teaching in a society drowning in information (much of it very poor). I originally volunteered for this panel early on when no one else had been joining, but by the time of the convention, we had a total of 6 panelists most of them who had been teaching for 30+ years. I think this thinned out discussion too much and things never stayed focused. It was by no means a bad discussion, but not very on topic and without anything ever really coming to a conclusion.

My Sunday had me on two panels. The first was on Creationism/Intelligent Design. It was moderated by the Skeptical Teacher (Matt) and also had Massimo Pigliucci. Matt did a wonderful job moderating and while we didn't disagree on much of anything we had some really great conversation covering a surprisingly large range of topics for such a short time period. They ranged from the factors contributing to the entrenchment of such bad ideas, to current tactics from the ID crowd, to recent skirmishes such as Eric Hedin at Ball State University. The audio of this talk can be found here.

Shortly thereafter, I gave my talk on quantum mechanics which explored what the field is really about to how it's used in Sci-Fi. This was again a room that was packed well prior to starting and I was told that they had to turn away nearly as many people as they let in. This is easily the most challenging talk I've ever created for myself due to how loaded it is with technical information, names, dates, etc... To make it easier, I keep my notes on my kindle, but somehow slides got rearranged and I lost my place several times so I felt it was pretty poorly delivered. I was also worried that I might screw up the science since, besides writing this talk a year ago, I haven't though about QM since I took my course in it... 5 years ago. It didn't help my nerves that prior to starting the track director did a quick survey and there were around a half dozen physics PhD students or higher in the room. Fortunately, at the end, I had a few of them vet the content and say it was one of the better presentations of the material for a lay audience they've seen which makes me feel much better about continuing to perform this talk in the future.

Aside from giving panels, I did attend a few. I first attended Phil Plait's "10 (or so) Amazing Facts about the Solar System". It was a well given talk, certainly, but the material just fell really flat on me. Probably because it was all things that were so self obvious that the wonder has worn off somewhat. I considered that a better format might be to go through the solar system (sun, planets, odd bits), and each give what they thought was the coolest thing about each object. This would allow for some more contrast and I think really highlight just how amazing something is when both people agree on it.

The costumes were really amazing. I'd brought a few of mine with me, but due to the heat, decided not to wear any of them. I've put a few pictures below.

Elsewhere I've seen quite a few people complaining about the length of lines, rude attendees, bad placement of some things, and other things that made this the "worst D*C evar", but my experience was overwhelmingly positive. My biggest frustration was certainly that it took 30 minutes to get across the convention space, but I felt that there were at least things worth getting across it for. Many other conventions I've found lacking things that interest me which is why I've severely cut down on how many conventions I'm attending this year.

Next up for me will be Archon October 4th - 6th in Collinsville, IL where I'm hoping to debut two new talks. There's a lot of polishing left on those, but I'm quite excited to share them.

Mrs. Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus"

The Stepsisters from Disney's "Cinderella"

Marry Poppins and the Chimney Sweep from "Marry Poppins"

Louis Tully from "Ghostbusters"

Chef from Pixar's "Rattitoue"

Garrus from "Mass Effect"