Monday, November 30, 2009

Another Page from the "No Shit" Files

In yet another stunning scientific discovery, research has confirmed common sense. Well, at least in so far as what's common sense for most atheists:

A series of studies has demonstrated that what people think God wants and believes align with their own beliefs. This is a flatly contradicts the claim from religious people that they believe what God/The Bible wants them to. They're simply projecting their beliefs onto an anthropomorphic personification and wondering why the guy in the mirror looks so familiar.

I'm sure my girlfriend would help me with this

Tastes like SCIENCE!

Carnival of Space #131

Carnival of Space #131 is up at Starry Critters!

Stop by and check it out!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Anyone Catch That

I just got home from an evening with my family and was flipping through the channels when I noticed a Fox "News" report on textbooks with the subtitle being something like "Do You Know What Your Children Are Reading?"

I caught the last 10 minutes of it and the premise seemed to be "OMG! Evil textbook corporations are pushing political agendas on students which they're forced to overpay for!"

Since it was only the end bit (and I'm assuming the kinda summary) I'm curious as to what examples were used before I turned the show on.

I did find it ironic that the commentator pretended like textbooks are the only source of information that kids are learning from (even though he made a special note to point out he married a teacher).

So does anyone have any more information or know if the show is online?

EDIT: Looks like it's up on Hulu. This should be fun:

2:00 - They start off showing some kids from Illinois toting around some pretty hefty bags. The heavier of the two girls weighed 37 pounds. Excessive to be sure, but what kid really needs to bring home every textbook? Most figure out very quickly which are the important ones and which can be left in their desks/lockers.

3:30 - A textbook originally comissioned for El Passo, TX that features information about both the US and Mexican Thanksgivings is found in a New Jersey town. Oh the terror!

What's the real reason for Fox being so upset about it? The Mexican holiday is mentioned first. I'm willing to bet it's either because (a) it happened first chronologically or (b) the area for which it is written predominantly celebrates the Mexican one. Still, the indignity of not putting the US first obviously gets to Fox.

5:00 - Now they actually get on to a topic with which I agree: Over sensorship. Textbook manufacturers are so careful not to offend anyone, they sanitize their language to the point that it loses all meaning. Fox is obviously implying we should stop this. The ones that will get the brunt of this are groups that have been historically underprivileged (since that's the intent of this overly careful attempt not to offend). I wonder if they're going to figure out that this cuts both ways: If we stop worrying about offending the poor sensitive Christians, evolution is going to be written even more provocatively.

9:30 - A few of their "experts" whine about how American History books are overly critical of the US by pointing to things like slavery, racism, the internment of Japanese during WWII.... They claim this criticism isn't applied to any other civilization.

Perhaps textbooks have changed greatly since I was a kid, but I can't remember textbooks (or teachers) saying much nice about Nazi Germany. Roman history in my Latin classes was often filled with their debauchery and brutality. So I think it's off the mark to suggest that the US is unfairly singled out. And I don't think some introspection is such a bad thing.

10:00 - They give an example of a group of students being asked to decide whether or not Columbus deserved a holiday and then being given assigned reading of a book about how barbarous he was towards the native Americans. This is blamed on textbooks, but this is more a pedagogical issue with the teacher.

10:45 - 20% of American high school seniors can't identify what two countries fought in the war in Vietnam. This is pretty sad, but let's keep it in context. How poor at basic science are Americans again?

11:00 - Really? They're going to get the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me on their show!? Has Fox read this book? The main thrust of it is that textbooks aren't near hard enough on America and that America is always made out to be the good guy. I bet they're not going to let him mention that though.

11:30 - Textbooks are often copied off one another and likely ghost written? Hm. I wasn't terribly aware of this, but ultimately, I don't see it mattering too much.

14:00 - Yep. They just went off the deep end. They imply that if you're "a left-wing Marxist" group, that you need to portray the US as evil and oppressive. Why are "left-wing" and "Marxist" being tossed together? Is there really that large of population of true Marxists in the US or is this really just another stupid smear from Fox. Gee... I wonder.

And of course, it's "Conservatives" that love America....

15:30 - "Remember the good ole days when it was Homer Simpson that taught families how to talk to kids about bullying? Somewhere along the line, it looks parents dumped that responsibility on the schools."

Does Fox really mean to suggest that The Simpsons is educational material?

What they're really complaining about here is that schools are being responsible for teaching material regarding social issues like awareness of homosexuals. Fox suggests that it's not really an issue because the FBI only lists around 135 "bias incidents" regarding sexual orientation, none of which were in schools. Right. Because the first people a school is going to contact when a kid shoves someone on the playground and bullies them because their parents are of the same gender, is the FBI.... There's a reason that the superintendent of the Alameda school district pushing the curriculum called it "anecdotal". But Fox News ignored this.

17:45 - Instead, Fox gets a pastor from a Conservative church who calls the LGBT movement "the new bullies on the block". He points out that he feels parents should be responsible to teach social issues. That's all well and good, but often parents are just as ill-equipped to teach this as they are to teach high school physics.

18:30 - For Fox being "unable" to find any evidence of bullying regarding sexual orientation, they sure didn't try too hard. In fact, they didn't even look at their own footage since they have a parent on camera describing what happened to her child. They have another student getting up discussing his experience. Pathetic Fox.

19:00 - Of course there's "more" angry parents protesting that the LGBT community is getting their way. Because the majority is always right. They show the pastor getting up again, ranting about how his children are harassed but he doesn't care because he's a good parent and he teaches his kids how to deal with it. This is remarkedly narrow minded. Not all parents are so well equipped. And I'm not just referring to the parents of the students being harassed, but also the parents of the students doing the harassment.

19:45 - Some parents are upset the school chose a book (And Tango Makes Three) about some gay penguins which makes "traditional" people out to be the bullies. How dare someone not stand up and shower the "traditional" people with praise....

20:30 - Parent complaining that they don't give parents the option to opt their children out. A fair point.

21:00 - A long time volunteer in the school district witnesses more bullying due to sexual orientation. Guess Fox couldn't find this either.

22:00 - The next segment deals with Islam in the classrooms. The claim is that books fail to identify terrorism as Islamic. This is absolutely asinine. Terrorism is not uniquely Islamic. I'd agree it's rewriting history to claim that many branches of Islam incite terrorism, but to pretend that Islam = terrorist is about as truthful as to pretend America = oppressor OR a universal source of all that is good and righteous.

26:15 - A good point that in many textbooks Christianity is qualified with phrases like "Christians believe...". Meanwhile, for Islam, it simply says "The Qur'an is the collection of Gods revelations to Muhammad." I agree it's nonsense to treat one religion as fact and another as tentative. Treat them all equally: As belief systems without evidence.

27:15 - They point to an Islamic academy in which the valedictorian from one year tried to assassinate president Bush. The conclusion: The school must be training terrorists because Islam is evil and the only place the student could have picked up such radical ideas was in the classroom.

28:00 - Apparently the school is teaching that non-Muslims aren't equals and that killing them isn't a sin.

30:00 - Specific passages are cited from the textbooks the school uses that encourages torture of non-Muslims. To be fair, some of the passages sound like they could have been take out of context and were historical, but it's hard to tell.

31:00 - Experts that reviewed the books previously disagreed with Fox's translation. His point is that it's not a causal agent. Right....

32:00 - The school in question wants to expand and a community member gets up saying that because most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, then all Saudi nationals are evil.

33:00 - Oh good. Evolution time. They start by setting up how Texas has had many battles. Because the "battle" over evolution is the same as the battles of Davy Crockett.

36:30 - They've got the "Someone's got to stand up to these experts" guy (Don McLeroy) on pushing the "teach the controversy" slogan. He claims that there's legitimate criticisms of evolution. He's an idiot.

38:00 - The last segment is about the price of textbooks and how overpriced they can be. I can't disagree with that.

40:00 - They interview the heads of a company that's developing a sort of "wiki" textbook. They interview college students who say they don't like the instructor deciding the material of the book. I wonder how they think the course material is really developed....

That was the extent of the episode. It was just another typical Fox distortion of evil liberalists trying to wage a culture war through academia. There were a few good points about how over sensitive we are and I agree, we need to pull our heads out of our asses and address things as they are instead of worrying about the PC police. But this isn't something that applies specifically to textbooks.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A New Template

I'm going to be playing around with the template today, so please forgive me if things look funny for awhile. Blogger doesn't provide a way to tinker with the settings without them being live.

UPDATE: Looks like I've got everything about how I wanted it. My main motivation was to get the post text on a background that was more friendly to read for more people. I've had complaints about white text (well, it wasn't actually quite white, but a very light grey) on a black background since I started this blog. I liked the star field I've been using and didn't want to give it up for fear of the format looking too generic but until recently, none of the templates had a way to have a separate background for the posts and sidebars and I'm not good enough with CSS to make it happen. But now such templates are more easily available so I figured it was time to do some updating.

I also liked how this template more readily sets blockquotes aside from the main body text.

If there's any problems anyone's having, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Friends and Enemies

For the past several years, I've had a growing interest in communicating science. I hold that in a world that makes growing use of technology, scientific literacy is of high importance. Thus, when the IAU created a sub group dedicated to Communicating Astronomy with the Public, I was sure to check it out.

Part of the project features a journal with articles related to the topic of science communication. The newest one just came out.

After reading some of the articles, I must say, the content seems to be thinner than the paper it's printed on. There's a cute article on The Ten Commandments for Presentations. There's nothing in that that's not covered (at length) in a basic public speaking course. Nor is it anything I've not heard from professors assigning presentations.

There's a Guide to Free Desktop Planetarium Software that has a nice list, but doesn't give much information on ease of use or potential functionality for communication. It assumes that the person interested in them will already know what they want to do with it. This is like a journal that's supposed to be about how to build a house for people that may have only used a screwdriver to open their computer case, featuring reviews of miter saws. That's all well and good, but they still won't know how to build a house.

But the article that really bugged me was How Can We Make a Friend Out of an Enemy? How astronomers and journalists can get along better. I think it's the most disingenuous piece of tripe I've ever come across.

The reason? It makes me damn well never want to speak to a journalist again. The entire article is a poor justification on why journalists screw up the science so badly and tries to make the point that if we want to interact with journalists, it should be entirely on their self-serving terms:
The science journalist is supposed to write critically about science; about the process that creates theories and, of course, about the theories themselves. The science journalist, in other words, is not someone who creates acceptance. Just as the political reporter is not the mouthpiece of the government, the business writer is not the mouthpiece of business, the restaurant critic the mouthpiece of food industry, the science writer is not the mouthpiece of the scientific community.


“Although scientists often speak of a ‘necessary’ cooperation with journalists, a ‘distance’ between them is essential to my mind. A distance that guarantees the independence of and critical analysis by the media that is necessary if the general public are to be able to form their own opinion.
OK. Fine. You can't simply repeat what scientists tell you. A bit of critical analysis is perfectly fine with us. After all, peer review is our bread and butter. A bit more isn't really a lot of skin off our backs. But if journalists are going to do the reporting, can you at least (1) get the facts right and (2) know what you're talking about enough to make intelligent "criticism"?

The article answers that, "no". Journalists can't do that and they shouldn't be expected to do it.
The mass media do not portray science in an exact manner; they do not even consider this as their task.


The frequent complaints of science about ‘incorrect’ or ‘distorted’ reports or about a seemingly ‘wrong’ selection of news therefore miss the mark. It is not possible to achieve an ‘adequate’ media representation of research that will also satisfy the research scientists themselves.
Excuse me?! You want to come use our data, and don't even want to represent it accurately? Why the hell should we talk to you at all?
Can the journalist be an ally for the scientist? No, or at best only to a certain extent, as journalism has to be independent of astronomy, its object of study. But does this mean that the journalist is inevitably an opponent who works in a world that is incompatible with the scientist’s realm? No, not at all, as many excellent reports, films or radio documentaries have been shown that have reached huge audiences and have had a positive impact on the discipline. Labelling journalists as either friend or foe does not fit reality. But just because an unquestioning alliance is impossible, this does not mean we need to renounce a good and trusting relationship between the two professions.
Haven't I heard this defense before?

"We've done some good things, so let's overlook all the absolutely asinine and horrible things we've done wrong."

Sorry. It doesn't work for me. Sure the mass media has done some great documentaries. But look at what else it does: It perpetuates anti-science under the banner of "telling both sides of the story." And this article goes so far as to try to justify that too!
A good journalist can be recognised by the fact that he does not take sides in an issue, even when the cause is good.
And here I thought journalists were supposed to report the facts and interpret them; Not to take fantasy and report on that while misinterpreting reality. That serves no ones interests except the journalists' own pocketbooks.

So what's the justification for that?
The journalist’s duty is to the consumer, the reader or viewer — not to politics, not to the powerful and not to science.
That's all well and good to say, but misrepresenting an entire field that you're relied on for accurate commentary doesn't serve the consumer. Hollowing out a story so to the point its a strawman by simply stating a conclusion without any supporting evidence and tossing in a few sound bites doesn't serve the consumers interest of learning something about science. Inflating absolute nonsense to create controversy, although it may entertain the consumer doesn't serve their interests. At least not if you're a journalist. If you're a comedian, sure. But then you're in the wrong profession.

The article goes on to try to explain the bizarre logic of journalists:
In journalism, only a story that reaches the recipient is a good story.
How do journalists decide what to write for consumers? Good stories. How do you know if it's good? Consumers receive it.

This is circular logic plain and simple.

The article makes it clear that journalists are blind to their own distortions:
It is not about hyping and distorting a topic. It is about developing a feeling for processing it in such a way that people from outside the profession will be interested.
Sadly, journalists, in their "processing" of information must frequently rely on "hyping and distorting a topic." The first half of the sentence says it's not their goal, but the second half justifies doing it anyway.

Additionally, they try to justify another pet peeve of scientists:
Sometimes journalists might prefer to interview the best communicator rather than talk to the best researcher.


A scientist, who is not able to convey in a few sentences what his or her research is about, is not suitable for the mass media.
A scientists that's deemed "not suitable for mass media" does some great research. But the journalist can't write a story without their soundbites which the scientist in question can't give. So they go to their pet scientist who may or may not know anything about the research in question and ask him for quotes to mine.

Again, this doesn't serve the interest of the readers. Sure it's "digestible", but they've lost the actual story and in doing so, science journalists have missed the point.

So what's their conclusion from all of this?
Articles, radio documentaries or films could all be improved if astronomers and space scientists were to extend their knowledge about the media so that they can cooperate with them on a basis that is reliable and constructive for both sides.
I think the first part of this is good. Scientists should learn more about media. This article has certainly taught me a lot after all. It's taught me they're a bunch of untrustworthy bastards and we should kick their sorry asses out of the ivory towers.

This article makes it perfectly clear that they're not wanting to "cooperate ... on a basis that is reliable and constructive for both sides." They're wanting us to kowtow to their standards. Yet nowhere in the article does it suggest that journalists should learn the science well enough to know which facts its ok to omit and still have an accurate story. Oh wait.... they don't care if it's accurate. Only if its well received by consumers.

If the author of this paper wants something that's constructive for both sides, then they need to realize they need to realize that the door swings both ways. Scientists need to better understand what makes a story "newsworthy":
any information that journalists publish has to meet certain criteria, which are fundamentally different from those in science: news has to come from a serious source and also be new, which means that it is not previously known. Journalists speak of news factors if a topic affects many people, if it takes place in their spatial vicinity or social proximity, if it is of consequence, if it is dealing with a conflict, if people hold strong opinions on the topic, rouses emotions, is entertaining or has anything to do with celebrities.
Journalists need to understand that many of those things that they just listed as "fundamentally different from ... science" are in science. Many major cities have prestigious universities that are doing great research. That's "in their spatial vicinity". These discoveries are the things that allow us to understand how the universe works which lets us better protect ourselves from disasters (both natural and man made). This is "of consequence". There are legitimate disagreements in science (I'm not talking about, Intelligent Design/Creationism, Plasma Cosmology, Astrology, Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Change denialists, etc....). Journalists don't need to inflate these delusions to make a story that "deals with a conflict." Astronomy lets us explore the vastness of the universe which any astronomer will tell you "rouses emotions."

So this article is really nothing but a long winded, arrogant justification for the failures of science journalists. Not that they see it as failures. They're doing their job. But their job isn't to communicate science. It's to report on science and whether or not they represent it faithfully is less important than keeping consumers happy. In short, scientists need to stop thinking that journalists have any role or intention in communicating science. I suggest not wasting your time with them unless the journalist in question has a good track record of actually forming that constructive basis for both sides.

But what really needs to be done, is to explore new outlets for science communication; To develop a network of reporter-scientists instead of science reporters, who realize that, when the consumer is interested in getting news about science, giving them good science is in their best interest.

(Note: many of the quotes I cited are not from the author of the paper, but are quotes used in the paper. I did not distinguish between them and did not feel a reason to do so given that at times, the author uses so many quotes that she has little material of her own and she allows the quotes to speak for her.

If anyone wants to see the actual author of individual passages, feel free to read the original article.)

Same Stuff - Different Home

For those of you that are familiar with the Universe Today website, you may have noticed my writing has joined the site. This isn't meant to preclude my writing here, but I've been trying to find a way to reach a larger audience than I have thus far at my blog.

In the past few days, I've posted three articles there: One about the stability of "Super Earths" forming in solar systems with Jovian type planets, one on whether or not Jupiter shields us from impacts, and one regarding an odd set of asteroid/comet hybrids.

All of these are content I would usually have posted here, but again, I'm looking to expand my horizons so I've joined up with Fraser to do so. But as it goes with writing in a more journalistic style, I'm less free to really delve into things as I've done on this blog. Thus, I believe I may supplement articles there with further exploration here if the subject calls for it. I'm not sure how often it will, but I can see the circumstance that I want to get more into the methods or statistics than just a summary of findings.

Either way, I'll try to post a list of articles I've posted at UT here from time to time to make sure you don't miss any.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Occasionally I'm social

Tonight I'm going to head out to a meeting of the St. Louis Skeptics. Guests include Dr. Pamela Gay and one of the skepchicks. Fun times should abound.

If anyone else happens to be in the greater St. Louis area, stop by and join us!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fox: Math Fail


Can we stop pretending Fox is a news source yet?

Galileo's Finger

Apparently, Galileo was so cool, people just couldn't let him go when he died. So they chopped off some fingers, knocked out some teeth, and sold him off. And then they lost bits.

But apparently two of the missing fingers have been found.


Speaking of science types getting chopped up, did you know that Einstein's brain was removed for study after his death?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sesame Street Logic

Back when I taught labs at KU, one of the labs I taught was one in which students would use a computer program to determine the mass of Jupiter by observing the orbital period of the four biggest moons (known together as the Galilean moons). It's not terribly hard to do. Just find the orbital period, apply Newton's revision to Kepler's 3rd Law and do some conversion factors and the answer's right there.

The only trick is to get the periods right. For the outer 3 (Ganeyemede, Callisto, and Europa), this is fairly easy since they have nice long periods and if you sample the period every few hours, you'll easily see the sin curve it lays out. But the innermost moon, Io, only has a period of about 3 days. So if you're only sampling once every 6 hours or so, the data points will look like a mess and it will be nearly impossible to see the curve well enough to fit the function to it.

So without fail, every semester, I'd have a handful of students who would report their values of the mass of Jupiter from each of its four moons as 2 x 1027 kg, 2 x 1027 kg, 2 x 1027 kg, and something like 3 x 1030.

So without fail, every semester, I'd hand their labs back with a big red X through that question. In going over the lab, I'd tell my students they should use what I call "Sesame Street Logic": One of these things is not like the other.

If you do three independent tests, and they all tell you the mass of Jupiter is one thing, and then one tells you something way off, chances are, that one has something seriously wrong with it. Unless the mass of Jupiter just decided to change for that set of measurements of course....

But introductory Astronomy labs aren't the only place this logic applies. All the time in science, if we have a bunch of measurements saying one thing, and then one really weird outlier, then we generally rework it, or, if we can't (or there's enough data otherwise) we toss it.

Of course, there's some cases where we're looking for outliers like that, such as scanning for novae and the like. But in general, there's a good statistical argument to be made against keeping such bad data.

Many people don't realize that just because you have "data", it doesn't mean it's good data. Indeed, in my major, there was an entire class devoted to data acquisition and analysis to determine the quality of it. Good stuff.

Outsiders to the scientific process don't get this. And it seems that a big part of this "scandal" regarding the hacked Emails from climatologists is just this.

For example, check out this article in the Examiner.

The author's chief complaint comes from a quote that's not even out of context. He just doesn't get the comment. Here it is with the author's emphasis:
The data are attached to this e-mail. They go from 1402 to 1995, although we usually stop the series in 1960 because of the recent non-temperature signal that is superimposed on the tree-ring data that we use.
I'd accuse him of quote mining, but the proper context is there. He just ignored the second half of the sentence!

The really important part of it is that "the recent non-temperature signal that is superimposed on the tree-ring data" bit.

In other words, the researcher is admitting there's false signal there and giving reason to reject the data following 1960. At least, from that particular line.

This is why I can't get behind the climate change denialists. I'm not as panicky about the whole thing as some are, but it's things like this that show me than they don't really get the fundamental methods of science and they cherry-pick their data. Sounds just like all the other pseudo-scientists....

Carnival of Space #130

Carnival of Space #130 is live at the Chandra Blog.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Evolving Chemicals

ResearchBlogging.orgNo matter the context, to Creationists, "Evolution" is a dirty word that they have to deny exists or minimize.

I already have an entire series of posts about stellar evolution. But another "evolution" Creationists try to deny is the so-called "chemical evolution". What this might mean differs depending on which Creationist you're talking to (or more commonly, by how far you've forced them to move their goalposts), but one context they frequently mean is the process by which the universe became enriched with heavy elements via the processes associated with stars.

Now, take a look at this picture from a recent survey paper:

It doesn't take a χ2 fit to see what's going on here. The X axis has two different sets of units that display essentially the same thing. Along the bottom it has the redshift which essentially gives a measure of distance. Applying our understanding of cosmology, we can alternatively display that as a time since the Big Bang. So things all the way to the left are things that happened in our local universe and are going on (in a cosmological time scale) now. Things way off to the right are things that are far, far away, and as such, their light has taken a long, long time to reach us.

These far away things tell us what the universe used to be like. The Y axis is a measure of the "metallicity" (the percent of elements heavier than helium) of the objects being studied, which, in this review paper by Sandra Savaglio at the Max Plank Institute, is Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) and Quasars (QSO). This is normalized so that the metallicity of the Sun is 1 and the whole thing is on a logarithmic scale.

Putting all of this together it becomes painfully obvious: The amount of heavy elements in the universe has been increasing. It has a lot of scatter to it (which is to be expected since some galaxies in which these objects exist would be more active than others), but the overall trend definitively shows that the metal content increases as you move to the present (to the left)!

Of course, I'm already expecting a Creationist to stop by and try to point out just how far off some of those GRB data points are from the dashed-trend line (the solid one is the fit of a model). However, there's a reason to expect this too: The author suggests it's "due to the different regions probed by the two populations. GRBs tend to occur in regions with high star-formation, therefore in regions closer to the galaxy center, where metallicity is on average larger than in a random galaxy sightline."

For this reason, GRBs may not be the best detector of metallicity (since they're prone to being in regions polluted by high rates of star formation and death and getting extra enriched compared to the rest of the universe), but the quasars definitively reveal the trend and Creationists, yet again, will have to move their goalposts.
Sandra Savaglio (2009). The Cosmic Chemical Evolution as seen by the Brightest Events in the
Universe arXiv arXiv: 0911.2328v1

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Moon

So I somehow got talked into going to see the new Twilight movie, "New Moon" last night. As I've mentioned before, I like midnight showings. Like many other big events, there's an energy to them that just makes them more exciting. Usually, it's hard to really find a good term to describe that energy. But last night it was easy: Estrogen.

Jeebus there was a lot of it. I expected that there would be a lot of teenage girls there, but the ratio was way steeper than I expected. I'm pretty sure it was close to a 40:1 ratio. Whenever Edward or Jacob came on screen it was a screaming and swooning reminiscent of the legends I hear about the Beatles.

And the director (or writers in some cases I suppose) milked it. "Oh, Bella. You hit your head on a rock? Let me take my shirt off to dab at it for a few seconds and not bother to compress it at all."


"I'm Edward and I'm so emo that I'm going to go all Romeo by exposing myself to the public as a sparkly freak by slowly stripping as I walk down a hall into the sunlight while wearing my 'sensitive' face.... in slow motion."

I watch anime. I'm used to fan service. But damn was this over the top.

I still can't fathom why people like this series. I haven't read the book, but everything in the plot is cliche++.

"I love you and I'm afraid I'm going to hurt you so I'm going to push you away." x2

"I'm going to do it by telling you I don't love you anymore and you're stupid enough to fall for it."

"I'm going to watch the end of Romeo & Juliet right at the beginning and then try to pull a Romeo."

And let's not forget the plot holes where Bella is brought before the Vampire high council and none of their powers work on her (like Edwards don't). So the conclusion is supposedly drawn that Bella is immune to all vampires.... except that Jasper's (I only remember his name because there's a character in 101 Dalmatians with the same name) powers work on her....

Really, this movie has nothing to offer that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

But at least this movie wasn't as bad as the first one.

God the Hitman?

As I've understood it, the point of prayer is generally to make a request of God to perform an action on your behalf.


Whatever. We ask for help with things all the time. But generally, it's from people that can actually do something (again, prayer doesn't work).

But when we ask someone real to commit murder, it's a crime. It doesn't matter if they're actually going to do it or not. If someone attempts to persuade someone else to kill someone, regardless of the effectiveness of that person or the final outcome, it's a crime. And not one that should be laughed off.

So what should we make of this story in which some Christians are touting merchandise that reads: Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8. Psmalm 109.8 reads, "Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

In other words, they want Obama dead and they're asking someone (that they claim is real) to make it happen. The "how" isn't mentioned, but if someone was talking to a real person, it wouldn't have to. It's still a felony.

I'm still not entirely sure how I feel on this. I already knew people like this were delusional, but this is right up on the border of dangerous.

Evolution to be Mandatory in the UK for Primary Schools

According to a BBC article, a new curriculum for 2011 will require the teaching of evolution in primary schools in the UK. This is a fantastic move. Students need to learn the basics of evolution early since childhood is generally the same time that Creationists like to fill children's heads with lies about what evolution is and the "evidence" against it.

Furthermore, by having an early introduction, this means that teachers will be free, at higher levels to actually delve into the functioning of the theory, as well as the evidence for it.

Now if only the US would mandate something like this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How not to do a study

The other day on Digg, I came across an article on Forbes that suggested that Fox News' claim of being "Fair and Balanced" may actually be correct. It doesn't take John Stewart to figure out they're not, so I knew something had to be fishy about the story.

The idea behind the article is that Fox features a similar percentage of negative coverage of Obama as other media outlets have in the past for other presidents (about 65% negative). Meanwhile, the other "liberal" news stations have a disproportionately high amount of positive coverage for Obama when compared to coverage of earlier presidents.

The fault lies in that it's a overly simplistic system. The coverage is lumped into either "positive" or "negative". Stations can't lose extra points of coverage that gos beyond negative into racist rants, hate-filled diatribes, or tirades full of complete bullshit like their continued coverage of the Birther movement or their fanaticism with the supposed Death Panels.

It's not thoughtful reflection of news that leads to negative coverage that make Fox the target of such criticism. It's the fact that their "negative" isn't even reality based. Furthermore, Fox uses material from its "Opinion Commentators" to pass off as "News". This study doesn't even begin to address that because of its shoe-horning into ill defined categories. When these other important criteria for judging the news worthiness of the station is added, it becomes clear Fox doesn't even belong on the scale.

The Top 8 Dinosaur Discoveries of 2009

Popular Mechanics has a great article up listing their favorite dinosaur discoveries of 2009.

What's amazing to me is that more than half of these are feathered! Creationists always ask for transitional forms, and regardless of whether or not these new discoveries are part of the direct lineage of birds, they still show that a large family of feathered dinos existed for evolution to draw upon. So I guess I'm not just going to be listing archaeopteryx as the only feathered dinosaur I know of anymore.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Right Idea

I'm not a fan of fantasy romance novels. But my girlfriend loves Laurell K. Hamilton.

Last night she was reading Laura's blog and I happened to read this over her shoulder:
First sign we were in trouble other than the on-going mismatch on sex was when he came home from work with this little announcement. That one of his coworkers had told him the man is the head of the household and that women are not equal in the eyes of God. He quoted scripture at me. We were both good little Epsicopalians at this point, may I add. He made these awful announcements and somehow thought that would make him win all the "discussions" we’d been having about the Bible and church, and I know realize looking back he was also trying to assert some kind of authority over me, in the marriage. My reply to him, "If that’s really what the Bible says, and really what God means, that being a woman isn’t as good as being a man then I can’t be Christian anymore." Not what he expected me to say. I’d never seen him back-pedal so hard in our first year of marriage. He basically said, his friend could be wrong and the Bible verses were open to interrprutation. Damn right they were, and damn right his friend was wrong.

I am now a happy little Wiccan and have been for about ten years.
What perfect sentiment: When you realize your religion is abhorrent and misogynistic, don't cherry pick it; Drop it.

You know it's bad when Fred Phelps has more of a spine

Apparently Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are switching their edited Origin of Species hand out to today because they're scared of protesters.

Guess they couldn't handle anyone actually directly challenging their BS in front of the ignorant crowds they're hoping to spread their intellectual void to.

At the very least Fred Phelps (the "God Hates Fags" pastor) doesn't have to cower and hide his protests. You know it's bad when Fred Phelps has more of a spine....

Ray and Kirk should be ashamed, but I don't think they're smart enough to.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A New Kind of Supernova?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn general, supernova come in two flavors: The core collapse Type II supernovae, and the white dwarf over the Chandrasekhar limit, Type I supernova. The two are distinguished by the elemental composition of their spectra: Type II stars still have a hydrogen envelope and thus, hydrogen lines are prominent. Type I supernova, being the burned out cores of stars, don't have that envelope, so heavier elements, like silicon are present.

However, the Supernova 2002bj defies classification. Initially, it was classified as a Type II, but observation of its spectra has shown it to be more similar to a Type I (ie, it had the Silicon lines present), but it also had helium lines present which is uncharacteristic of that class. SN 2002bj also faded far more rapidly than should be expected for stars of the Type I classification.

So what are they?

The authors suggest this may be a new class of supernovae, called .1a supernovae, which was predicted theoretically, but had not yet been observed (or if it had, it wasn't realized).

The idea is that the system, instead of being composed of a white dwarf accreting mass from a red giant companion, the companion star was instead a fellow white dwarf. Models of this show that two white dwarfs in a sufficiently close binary orbit can transfer mass. Such systems are known as AM CVn stars.

If this sort of system were to have one star pass its Chandrasekhar limit, several predictions about the resulting supernova could be made:
- The supernova should be (relatively) faint and evolve quickly.
- The short timescale would allow for easier detection of short lived isotopes like 52Fe or 48Cr in addition to the normal isotopes we see in the afterglows of supernovae (I mentioned this decay process briefly in this post.
- These events should make up a few percent of all Type I supernovae observed.

Of these three criteria, 2002bj fits the first to a tee. The authors don't say whether or not these additional isotopes were observed. However they did hint that the higher than expected luminosity than that of this theoretical kind may be due to such short lived elements, but at the very least, this paper reinforces the idea that these should be something we keep an eye out for in the future. In regards to the last criteria, in the local region (to a distance of 60 Mpc) only 31 are Type I known, so this is still on track to meet the "few percent" criteria, but we shouldn't place bets with such a small sampling.

It will be interesting to see how this new class pans out in the future and just what new things we find to put in it.
Poznanski, D., Chornock, R., Nugent, P., Bloom, J., Filippenko, A., Ganeshalingam, M., Leonard, D., Li, W., & Thomas, R. (2009). An Unusually Fast-Evolving Supernova Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1181709

Star Wars Pareidolia

This one just puts the Jesus muffins to shame.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wine Rating Statistics

I'm not a huge drinker. I can't stand beer. I prefer liqueurs and on rare occasions, when the food paring is appropriate, I may have a glass of wine (although I generally don't keep any stocked in my personal liquor cabinet).

I definitely have a few brands I prefer (the St. James peach wine can be very good, although it's not always consistent), but generally, if experimenting, I try to go by the ratings listed in the store. In general, these ratings have done very well for me. My absolute favorite brand of amaretto (Gozio) was one I discovered through its high rating.

However, a recently published study has shown that the wine ratings (which is presumably done in the same manner as for the other liquors) may be substantially flawed.

In general, the ratings had a large spread, even by the same taster. Most tasters rated the same wines within +/- 4 points, but some had deviations as large as +/- 10 points! And before you can claim that that is just due to the skill of the former tasters, the study also showed that the same ones were inconsistent from year to year.

In short, the ratings aren't what they should be and there's so many wines clustered in the high 80's and 90's that such a substantial spread makes the system virtually worthless for a statistical standpoint. And the wine makers aren't surprised.

However, wine makers aren't ready to shuck the ratings all together. They still admit that the higher rating does give people a sort of placebo effect in which, having a high rating will make people perceive it as better.

But with this new information, I think I may try experimenting a bit more when I pick up wines and stick with ones that I've come to like, regardless of the rating.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Eclipses and a bit of History

Recently, I've been doing some research for an upcoming talk (a sequel to my Science of Anime talk).

One of the topics I'll be hitting is that of the duration of solar eclipses and how, in popular media, they occur, from the moment the first bit of the moon's limb covers the sun's disk, to the moment it leaves it, in the span of about 1 minute.

In reality, totality can last several minutes (the maximum theoretical length of totality is about 7 3/4 minutes). The entire eclipse lasts closer to two hours. What I wanted to know is just how much we'd have to change physical parameters to make the eclipse happen as it does in TV world.

I won't give away the answer, but wow is it a pain to figure out! The reason is there's a ton of different variables that go into it. First off, consider the shadow of the moon holding still as it would appear to in this static picture. In that, the earth would turn through the shadow, making the eclipse occur.

But in reality, the moon is moving too. So you have to add that motion in. Que moving coordinate frames with spherical trig.

Trying to quantify all this has not been particularly easy. When I first thought this question up, I figured it would take 15 minutes of derivation. I've been tinkering with it for 3 months here and there, and still haven't solved the full system, although I think I've accounted for all the variables to an order of magnitude approximation which is all I really needed in the first place.

I was hoping to find a nice little equation (and by little, I don't literally mean little) that was behind one of these eclipse calculators, but surprisingly, I haven't been able to find it with all the powers of the internet behind me! I've been using Google books, and going through quite a few texts available and still haven't found the full equation (only approximations).

Most of the more recent ones (starting around 1970) all have their solutions written as computer languages (and I don't care enough to sit there and reverse engineer their Fortran or C++). So interestingly, the most useful books are ones that date back to the turn of last century!

I've always thought of astronomical history as very interesting so I find myself reading more than strictly necessary. One of the most interesting things I've come across in this venture was a note on "Flame-like proturberances" during solar eclipses:

Immediately after the commencement of the total obscuration, red protuberances, resembling flames, appear to issue from the edge of the moon's disk. These appearances, which were first noticed by Vassenius, on the occasion of the total solar eclipse which was visible at Gottenberg on the 3rd of May, 1733, have been re-observed on the occurrence of every total solar eclipse which has taken place since that time, and constitute one of the most curious and interseting effects attending this class of phenomena.

- From Handbook of Astronomy, 1875.
Obviously today we call them solar prominences and know they're a result of matter captured by the Sun's magnetic fields or blown out through other stellar activity. But it's interesting seeing just how far Astronomy has come in the last 134 years.

For those that are curious, there's a review article on the history of solar prominences that's quite interesting as well. In the 1840's some thought these prominences were "mountains on the sun". It wasn't until the 1850's that it was realized these were more likely clouds of some sort, and it wasn't the 1900's that a full interpretation was realized.

Think of what we'll learn in the next 100 years....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Caught a Wave

I just got invited to test out the new Google Wave today. I have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

For those that don't know what it is, it seems to be a mix between an instant messenger, Email, and a Wiki.

It's an IM service in that you can talk real time. It's Email similar to how Gmail works in that it keeps things as a thread and all posts in a topic are connected. And it's a Wiki in such that anyone can edit anything in the thread, including something someone else has written.

It's supposed to be used as a tool for collaboration and I can see how it could be pretty nifty. If I were still a student doing research, I think this would be a great way to bring together a research project. But alas, I'm not and I can't really see a good way for this to be put into use for me. This sums up how I feel about the Wave right now.

Does anyone else hereabouts have it or have any thoughts?

Friday, November 06, 2009

New Boom-De-Yada commercial!


Massive Meteorites

Check out this cool list of the most massive meteorites discovered on Earth.

Poor Pluto

(Image taken by my girlfriend at our local grocery store)

Things that don't happen

I hear quite frequently from Creationists that one of the reasons they know evolution can't happen is because no one has ever seen a new "species" in the making from evolution. Of course, this completely belies their ignorance on what a "species" is. They seem to think that to constitute a different species it has to be difference on the order of "cats and dogs" which, as anyone that actually passed high school biology and remembers their taxonomic classifications, is more on the order of differences between orders (and we shouldn't see those changes on such short time spans, which is where the fossil record comes in).

Yet Creationists sill claim that speciation just never happens. If pushed on it, they'll redefine species to be "kinds" which has no useful definition and allows them to endlessly push the goalposts to whatever they want.

Meanwhile, in categorically useful land where definitions actually work and make sense, yet another species has been caught in the act of diverging thanks to sexual selection. We'll just toss that on the list of speciation events Creationists claim don't exist.

Meanwhile, yet another event that Creationists promised would never happen has occurred. Nearly 3 years ago, at Behe's lecture, he claimed that evolution could not account for systems coming together to form a new system because, if each system had evolved independently, the bits that allowed each to work would be so different, they would be incompatible to the point that they could never come together.

Of course, this happens all the time where diseases jump between species. Just this past week, Behe's impossible scenario happened: H1N1 was contracted by a cat. According to Behe, such improbability means that this event must have been "intelligently designed". God must hate cats.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

My Haloween

My candy's already all gone.


I smell the smelly smell of something smelly....

In local news, a high school sophomore teacher not to far from St. Louis is returning to his classroom after being put on paid leave for giving an optional homework assignment for students to read an article on homosexuality in animals which, he claimed (at least according to the article), "challenged Darwin's theory of sexual selection". The reason he was put on leave was because someone complained it wasn't "age appropriate".


What age is sex ed taught in Illinois? I know here in St. Louis, I first encountered it in fifth grade, but only so far as the whole, "Your body will start undergoing changes." Freshman year in high school, we covered more complete sex ed involving contraceptives, which is generally when sexual orientation is taught (although I can't recall it being in the curriculum I went through).

So.... Freshman comes before sophomore....

Explain to me again how this isn't "age appropriate"?

Something's not adding up here. I suspect there's another reason.

And who is it that wouldn't want students to know that homosexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species including exclusive homosexual parings?

Oh yes. People that want to bury their kids heads in the sand and pretend that homosexuality doesn't occur outside of sinful humans. I have a sneaky suspicion that this is the real reason for complaints and that the "age appropriateness" is just a shield for the typical bigotry.

But what the hell is the teacher trying to do with the claim that it "challenged Darwin's theory of sexual selection." It may very well do so, but so what?

It's bizarre how so many people seem to think that Darwin was the first, last, and only theorist on evolution and selection.

Well, I guess it's not bizarre. It's the same phenomenon as trying to deny homosexuality in animals: They can cite what "Darwin didn't know" and feign ignorance to the last 150 years just as they can claim "Homosexuality is an abhorrent human phenomenon" and then feign ignorance to all the obvious claims to the contrary.


This willful ignorance is depressing.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Note to self:

New V miniseries starts tonight @ 8/7c. Must watch.