RCimT: Weekend science-related coolness

Just a few things in my tabs that you should probably know about, if you care about the progress humanity has made in understanding this universe. Plus my snide comments.

The moon is falling! Wait, no, not falling. Shrinking. Very very slowly, mind — only 100 metres in recent geological history, as its core cools and contracts. But the escarpments on its surface are age… err, I mean character… lines.

More fearmongering is going on in Barrie, Ontario about wifi signals that are supposedly responsible for the vague and ill-defined sickness that children are complaining about. The kids aren’t in school yet, mind you, but they’re evidently getting sick from the very idea of returning to school! Naturally, it must be the wifi network.

Scientists have an idea what caused the sun’s prolonged solar minimum this cycle: it was cool on purpose, out of spite for the global warming denialists that tried to use it as an excuse for the earth’s rising temperature. Or plasma cycles, you know. Whichever works.

Some rocks preserved in the Arctic may give us a better snapshot of what exactly the initial conditions of our planet were shortly after forming, as they date back to 4.45 billion years ago. The planet’s 4.54 billion years old (doesn’t look a day over 6000, though!).

And as predicted, genetically modified crops have escaped into the wild, with both Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science’s proprietary-pesticide-resistant strains of transgenic canola escaping the confines of their approved labs. Monsanto will reportedly sue the planet for stealing its intellectual property and not paying its licensing fees.

Any science news strike your fancy, that’s worth telling me about, folks?

‘Leaving’

DuWayne Brayton of Traumatized by Truth wrote a poignant piece of short ficton that you need to read. I’ll pullquote the same chunk he did:

The only thing I am afraid of now is that you will assume I didn’t love you with the depth and passion that I have always felt for you. I am terrified that my leaving now means just that. It hurts me. It literally hurts me, my stomach clenched, my mouth dry. It hurts more than the loss of my parents and brother when they cut me out of their lives. You have cared for me and loved me in ways I never imagined possible, and I have always loved you with every little bit of myself. I am afraid that every bit of me is simply not enough.

Go read!

(Okay, it’s not a “book”, but it’s literature. That counts, right?)

Twilight: Breaking Dawn in under 1m30s

I should probably warn you that this is full of spoilers for Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Everything that happens in the video, I shit you not, is canonical. As the movie’s title says, This Actually Happens In Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

WHARGARBL

Hat tip to Rebecca Watson at Skepchick.org. No, wait, not hat tip. “I hate you.” The less I know about Stephanie Meyer’s masturbatory Mormon vampire fantasies, the better.

How to change comment threading and ‘in-reply-to’ in WordPress to match mine

In response to some database performance problems I was noticing with the high-traffic, never-dying astrology debunking post, threaded comments are now disabled so as to force the blog to honor the 50-comment-per-page limit. I figured I had best nip this in the bud before HostPapa decided to kick my ass.

WordPress’ default behaviour involves only rolling over to the next page of comments, after 50 top-level comments. This is by design, I guess. While I could have just dropped that limit to 25, or hacked out the part where it looked only for top-level posts (thus breaking nesting when it crossed a page threshold), I decided to do things the hard way, since I had decided to eliminate threading altogether anyway. Gear-headed stuff below the fold.

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Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech

Phil Plait’s posted the infamous Don’t Be a Dick speech from TAM 8 over at his blog (though hopefully the cross-posting won’t bother everyone’s favorite Bad Astronomer). I’m amused that people watched this and thought he’s talking about PZ specifically. He talks a lot of sense. I do take issue with a few quibbling points, but as I’ve gotten a chance to preview an upcoming blog post by Our Lady, I wouldn’t want to step on her toes.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

So what do you think? And more importantly, are my tactics in the never-ending astrology thread dickish at all?

Update: Stephanie’s posted the above-teased piece right here.

What’s the difference between someone who engages in an argument in bad faith in an attempt to spread their views and someone who has internalized the views of such a person but is willing to find out what might be wrong with them? What’s the difference between the willfully ignorant and the miseducated? What’s the difference between someone who is out to demolish our credibility and someone who doesn’t know yet whether they can trust us? What’s the difference between someone who’s setting out to obfuscate and someone who hasn’t been trained to argue through a proposition to find the truth?

There are a few clear answers to that, but none of them are going to be clear to me in the course of an online discussion with someone I haven’t encountered before. They all involve motives and history that I’m not privy to. If I’m playing to an audience, that audience isn’t privy either.

Atheist blogospherics, and beating creationists at their own game

I haven’t done any atheist posts recently. I’ve been so wrapped up in the astrology nonsense that I just haven’t had the concentration to split off onto other topics, like my rampant heathenism. This is a sin, in my books, so I aim to rectify that — by pointing to a few other people’s interesting posts.

Greg Laden discusses the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Minnesota Museum of Science, which Jodi and I had the opportunity to see but opted not, given the high price and the low level of interest we had in the actual archaeology behind it. A few jokes were made about the religious folks who would flock to it only to discover that most of the stories in the Bible took a much different form in their original incarnations. None of the jokes were anything to do with the authors being ignorant shepherds.

A while ago I asked on my Facebook page whether anyone had seen the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As one might expect, a couple of people, who possibly thought I was joking, noted that the Dead Sea scrolls were part of the bible, and all that stuff was implausible stories handed down by ignorant shepherds over the generations, etc., etc., etc.

My first reaction to that, as an anthropologist, was this: “Hey, Imma let you say that now, but if you diss my Pygmies like that I’ll kick your ass.” In other words, I do find it rather condescending when western occidento-hetero-caucasoido-normative types take it on themselves to make blanket statements that some other group of people of which they know nothing are stupid. I understand the whole being annoyed at the bible thing, but this is where modern-day new atheists can be thoughtless when unpracticed in their philosophy and its application.

Interested to see where he’s going with this? Of course you are!

Elsewhere, on the intertubes, a blogger writing under the name of Overscope has a post up titled Poisoning the Well, wherein he discusses the recent-slash-neverending “schism” discussion between atheists and skeptics. And he makes a number of truly excellent points.

I want to point something out that I don’t think many skeptics familiar with this discussion have paid enough attention to: nobody (save some career civil servants in the Bush Administration and Dr. David Nutt in the UK) ever lost their job due to skepticism. Nobody’s been threatened in the US military because they didn’t believe in Bigfoot. There is no wording in US state constitions prohibiting people from holding office if they don’t believe in reflexology. People don’t pound on your door at 8am on a Saturday trying to convert you into believing NASA didn’t really land on the moon. No US president has ever said that people who don’t believe in UFOs aren’t really citizens. Dowsers are not trying to prevent women from consulting with geologists. Chiropractors are not taking over state boards of education to ensure subluxation theory replaces the germ theory of disease in high school biology class. Spoon-benders did not spend tens of millions of dollars trying to deny non-psychokinetic Californians their right to marry.

And occasional commenter and an ex-roommate of mine, Mitchell, sent along a link to a brilliant application by paleontologist Paul Senter of the techniques that creationists use to show that the various “kinds” of life, or “baramins”, are correctly classified, in order to prove that dinosaurs and birds share a common ancestor.

I used a statistical technique called classic multidimensional scaling, which creation scientists use to quantify morphological gaps between species. I wanted to determine whether morphological gaps separated Archaeopteryx – the earliest known bird – from the various non-avian coelurosaurs, the group of predatory dinosaurs ranging from tiny Microraptor to giant T. rex. I showed that within this group there is too much similarity to indicate separate baramins. Contrary to the previous creationist view that these animals were separately created, their own pet technique shows that these animals shared a common ancestor (Journal of Evolutionary Biology, vol 23, p 1732)

The technique could theoretically be used to systematically show a common origin for most, if not all, life, thus forcing creationists to either accept a common origin or abandon their technique of classic multidimensional scaling. It would be a small victory, but an amusing one nonetheless.

So, what interesting news in atheism do you have to share?

Structured guessology and rewriting history to suit astrology

The “debate” on astrology that I’d hoped to foment has finally kicked into… medium gear, I guess, when two new astrologers joined the fray to provide some anecdotes and a few selected “hits” as evidence. Several of the players have claimed that astrology can’t properly be used to predict stuff, and the man who was so keen on debating has pretty much given up on actually talking about the topic and is merely sniping and making specious claims about the Large Hadron Collider.

I really can’t do the comments section of that post justice in a new post off-thread, though I felt the need to direct you to a post from last month by George W, which you may have missed the first time around, regarding the Polaris software mentioned by James Alexander. This software is some sort of rapid means of determining astrological events — a quicker way of calculating the information for a person’s natal chart, basically — which he uses to “reconcile” people’s birth information. Meaning, he takes events from their lives, plops them into the program, with the age of the person involved, and it tells them when they were really born, to the minute. Even if it differs from the birth certificate, or the doctors’ recollections, or the parents’ recollections. Never mind all that obviously errant information — if it conflicts with the program, then obviously the program has given you the TRUE time of birth. Or when you were SUPPOSED to be born. George explains:

With the foreknowledge that astrology is more accurate at calculating birth times then, say, a clock or watch which was invented solely for the purpose of time keeping; Subject A gives a list of significant events from their lives and a list of probable birth times and Polaris extracts the most likely one based on a points system.

How eminently scientific! I can still see how this program could be used to disprove itself though.

Let’s say someone bought the program, gathered birth time information on several individuals using clocks that are accurate to the millisecond, witnessing and documenting firsthand the indisputable birth times. Wait say, 20 years and input events from those individuals lives and a wide range of birth times and voila, the indisputable birth time must surely emerge!

Think any of these astrologers would try this? I doubt it. Not only is rectification a rather small branch of astrology, but it’s evidently rather hotly debated within astrology as well. I say this not because I’ve seen any actual debates, but because astrologers differ grossly in how much influence they ascribe to the very astrology on which they depend for their livelihoods. Take Marina Funk, for example, who says:

Jamie was just trying to answer your question playing in the same ball park. But the point is 75% of astrology does not play in that ball park. 80% of our work is NOT mundane astrology, we do it because people like to see Astrologers try and predict stuff, but really its just us using our intuition guided by the planets. The planets are not dictating what humans are actually going to do, they are just showing the astrological weather.

Get it? You can’t actually predict things using astrology with any degree of efficacy, but we do it anyway because our clients like us doing it. But when we do it, we’re using our own intuitions about the situation, colored by what we assume might happen due to influences of the planets.

This is structured guessology. It’s cold-reading without the malicious intent — or at least I’m assuming it’s without that malice, giving her the benefit of the doubt. She probably even believes she’s doing a kindness for the person by attempting a cold-reading despite her doubts that the planets actually have very much influence.

But, I mean, honestly, why do I keep fighting with them? I mean, what’s the harm of allowing people to go on believing these astrologers are gleaning some deep insights about humanity, then?

Oh, and this is evidently post number 1000. However I suspect the post count also includes drafts that I’ve since scrapped, as it was 998 yesterday and I didn’t post anything. Anyway, hooray for me!

Update: George W points out in the comments that he’s repeatedly offered James Alexander an opportunity to test his Polaris software. He’s written a post following up on that fact, and summarizing the current round’s tactics quite well, as such:

I can summarize the new flavor of the debate like so:

1. Astrology doesn’t need a mechanism. It also apparently doesn’t need to have a quantifiable effect. In fact, it doesn’t seem to need anything other than a 3000 year pedigree and some nifty anecdotes.

2. Astrologers are not responsible to give any evidence to prove that astrology works. Science needs to prove a negative so that astrologers can critique these studies as faulty. Scientific method be damned.

3. Skeptics continually disregard “hits” out of hand. Even if those hits are based on ambiguous guesswork that could be viewed as a “hit” no matter which way the winds blow.

4. Astrologers like to insist that we divulge our personal information rather than subject their “field of study” to any semblance of a scientific assessment.

This is entirely accurate. Robert Currey’s tactic has been to handwave away any study or meta-analysis on astrology as being “flawed”, even though meta-analysis is a well-established way of gleaning real data from data whose studies were flawed. Meanwhile, he ignore any requests for studies providing any positive evidence of astrology’s validity, exactly as George’s point number two suggests.

Make no mistake. The burden of proof is not on skeptics to DISprove astrology, though there is a number of studies and meta-analyses we have pointed out that show astrology to be no better than chance.

Women like porn, but Facebook doesn’t like women liking porn

Women like porn too, it turns out. No, seriously. Some really do.

Facebook, however, apparently doesn’t like that fact.

On July 27, 2010, Facebook removed the Our Porn, Ourselves Facebook campaign page. After the page was removed, anti-porn organization Porn Harms claimed victory and thanked Facebook for the deletion, on the organization’s Facebook page and their Twitter feed. Our deleted group had roughly 3,500 members, most of whom were women (I combed through the member logs frequently). Our page had over three times the members of Porn Harms’ anti-porn page.

According to Facebook the deletion was in response to reported violations of Facebook’s Terms of Service, among which include obscenity. As I am an active and high-profile figure in the online social media space, I am not a newcomer to social media, or implementing Terms of Service. I also knew that someone was persistently trying to get every piece of art removed from our gallery — regardless of the content, nearly every user-uploaded photo was mysteriously being flagged and removed.

Wanna place bets that Facebook’s censorship (and yes, deleting something as obscene that has absolutely no obscenity is very likely a specious excuse, and therefore outright censorship outside the boundaries of the terms and conditions of use of the site) was done entirely at the behest of the anti-porn folks whose proverbial lunch was being eaten, judging by the member counts of the two groups?

Hat tip to @antiheroine (Skepchick Jen) for tweeting about this — yet another example of someone cheating at the rules of the intertubes to get their way when reality contraindicates their favored positions.

Heh. Positions.

She was a good dog

I was planning on writing about getting up early to try to catch the Perseids before dawn. Plans change.

We just had to put our dog Ginger down this evening. Despite seeming perfectly healthy when we left this morning (barring having stolen some food from Jodi’s work bag), her health extremely rapidly hit a crisis point after which there was pretty much no hope whatsoever. Earlier this afternoon, she suddenly collapsed and lost all bowel control, was extremely cold in her extremities with a blue tongue and purple gums, and was unable to stand or walk without assistance. My sister called me when this happened, and I rushed home. After some brief deliberation, I carried her into the car as she continued to breathe laboriously and void her bowels. Jodi met us at the vet’s.

When she was examined, we discovered that she had experienced a total circulatory collapse, probably due to a heart attack or something along those lines. Being part Nova Scotia Duck Toller, she had developed a very large growth in her chest as is their tendency, that attached to her heart and was flattening her lungs. Her heart was also very enlarged, probably from years of having to function with this large mass on it. For two hours the vets tried to improve her circulation to no avail.

Our only option to try to save her was to attempt to keep her alive through the night, in pain probably close to having a constant mild heart attack, while waiting for a vet from Halifax to examine the x-rays and verify a diagnosis of cancer, then thereafter determine whether operation was feasible (which the prognosis was extraordinarily dim). We had to make the decision that euthanasia would be the most humane course of action. There was very little likelihood the vets would have been able to keep her alive through the night, and she probably wouldn’t have survived the attempt to get her to Halifax ourselves to get to the specialist even if she had made it. Even assuming she survived all that, there was very very little that could have been done except in an absolute best case scenario.

Jodi had taken her in when she was 14, and Ginger was only a year old. The poor dog had been abused by her previous owners, and Jodi, her sister and her mother had rescued her. Ginger died tonight, at eleven years and two months old. I only knew her for her last four years, but I can tell you that despite her socialization problems resulting from her having been abused, she was really a good dog.

At the risk of being your average schmoopy blog tribute, I sort of felt the need to write this. When Mark and Sara visited to console us, I got my first moment of obvious absence when they knocked and Ginger didn’t jump up to roar at the door as she usually does. I suspect I’ll have a few of those moments over the coming weeks.