My Formspring brings all the hits to the blog

Seriously, a disproportionate number of blog hits are going to an old post wherein I syndicated from my Formspring account a bunch of random Formspring questions. It’s not particularly interesting, or informative, or even remotely deep. But it’s got almost four times as many hits as the next most read post, due to its high placement on Google for the search terms used in its title.

And since I’m a total blog-hits-whore, I might as well try to duplicate my past success!

If you want to ask me an anonymous question via Formspring, there’s a box on the left column for just that purpose.

Would you rather be really hot or really cold?
As in, hypothermia or hyperthermia? Or just having the temperature gauge a few degrees on either side of “room temperature”? Because when really cold, I can put on layers. And when really hot I can take them off. I suppose it’s a matter of scale. But I’d probably rather be hypothermic than hyperthermic if forced to choose how to nearly die.

If you could change your name, what would you change it to?
My short list is Dirk Manly, Brock Samson, or Penis Largehuge.

What’s the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
“*grumble grumble* coffee. Wait, first, need to pee.”

What the the thing you regret saying the most, what has come out of your mouth that you wish you could take back?
Saying “I’d do anything for you” to someone that, in retrospect, didn’t deserve it.

when was yr first love? :)
I was 16. The girl I fell for was a compulsive liar. Not a very happy end. First loves never work out quite right.

people, people facing laptops (or screen if it matters), who is the prettiest woman in the world?
Every woman I’ve met is pretty in some way or another. Physical attractiveness isn’t everything. (Well, okay, there have been some women with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but I’m trying to be optimistic here.)

If you could eat one kind of vegetable, what would it be? Pretend that the color of the vegetable tastes like a corresponding body fluid (red = blood, yellow = urine, green = fungus or something)
First, you’d be dangerously nutritionally deficient if you only ate one kind of vegetable, and second, you’re trying to turn me off of that vegetable after saying it’s the only thing I can eat. I call shenanigans.

What is your favourite season?
Fall, when it’s still warm out but the leaves start to turn.

Favorite movies in horror, scifi, comedy, drama, indie, and overall?
Horror: Army of Darkness. I don’t go in for anything gorier than that.
Post-answer amendment: also, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t really count as horror, but it is fantastic.
Sci-Fi: Firefly/Serenity. If you limit me only to movies, it’s difficult to just say Serenity, but I’ll stand by that.
Comedy: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Pure AWESOMESAUCE.
Drama: Casablanca.
Indie: Don’t watch them often enough. Last good one I saw was Diary of a Nymphomaniac. Though, Run Lola Run was really good.
Overall: The Princess Bride. It’s got it all! :D

The last thing I do before I go to bed at night is __________________.
Brush my teeth. Well, technically, immediately after that I get undressed, and immediately after that I pull the covers back so I can get in bed.

“Reality is worth defending, it’s worth getting angry about.” My FB ‘religion’ is now something I grabbed from a comment on ‘friendlyatheist’. “Atheism isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with reality”
I love this quote. The next time someone calls their religion a relationship, I’m so using it. Great find!

If you’re opinions are always so great, why doesn’t everyone agree with you?
Because then I’d be the founder of some sort of dogmatic religion, and then my opinions would be inherently worth less. Seriously, what kind of passive-aggressive bullshit is this? I don’t want everyone agreeing with me! I’m sure I’m wrong about stuff, I just want people to bring proof when they say so.

are your parents atheists too?
No, my parents were both religious. I believe my mother was raised Baptist in her hometown, and my father Catholic in his, which if you weren’t aware are both splinters of Christianity. My mother moved to live with my father in another province, and I was brought up Catholic in my hometown, which was 95% Catholic. My father is still pretty religious, and I only told him that I’m an atheist last year. My mother broke contact with us when she divorced my father and left to live in the States with some guy she knew from the internet, and I’ve been ignoring her attempts to restore contact since, so I don’t know what she is any more, as far as religion is concerned.

then what triggers you to be an atheist?
I believe the evidence is insufficient for any specific god(s) that people have postulated. Atheism is pretty much just the fallback position — if you can’t prove your god exists, and if the evidence contradicts your specific god, then why believe in any god at all?

I do still have mental traps wherein the concept of god that I’m talking about, is often the monotheistic Abrahamic god of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Because that’s the framework I was brought up in, that’s, to me, the most easily disprovable god. I am agnostic about gods like pantheism or panentheism, mostly because no evidence is presented either for or against, but I default to “why worship such a being” when presented with no evidence for. I’m atheist about specific gods, like Yahweh the Abrahamic god, because certain things have to be true for such a god to exist that just plain aren’t true.

Supermoon: what it is, and what it definitely isn’t

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a SUPERMOOOOOOON!!

I have written at some length about the moon, with its wobble called libration, and how its elliptical orbit means that it varies in its distance to us between roughly 360,000km and 406,000km. That’s a difference of ~46,000km, or about ten percent of its distance at apogee. Apogee is what you call the moon’s furthest point in its orbit, and perigee the closest. As the moon orbits us about once a month (thus the lunar cycle), that means that during a predicted perigee, the moon is about two weeks away from apogee.

The moon orbits us at an inclination of about 5 degrees to the solar plane — it is for that reason that we do not see a total lunar eclipse somewhere on the planet once a month, but rather only on those months where the moon is roughly aligned with the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. That means we get to see the sun illuminating the moon most of the time; its phase indicates where in the rotation it is, and what face is pointed toward the sun. A supermoon is when the full moon phase happens to coincide with the perigee — meaning the moon is not only at its visibly largest point, it’s also got the full face illuminated.

Astrologers have consistently through the ages attempted to link supermoons with natural disasters. Because the Sun, Earth and Moon are all in a sorta-kinda-straight line, and the moon is SOOOO MUCH CLOSER TO US THAN NORMAL, naturally this must mean there’s a lot of possibility that the moon is going to cause calamity on our planet. This makes sense, if you believe the heavenly bodies exert any more influence on the planet than the evidence shows them to exert. The problem with this line of thinking is, if you claim an effect and give a window, and the window’s large enough that statistically, it’s very likely something within the range you’re claiming will happen, then selection bias will do the rest of your work for you. Because you’ve primed people to watch for natural disasters, when they happen, SURPRISE, suddenly that means you were right!

To wit:

On March 19, Earth’s satellite will be at its closest point to our planet in 18 years — a mere 356,577 kilometers away. The event — also called a lunar perigee — was dubbed a “supermoon” by astrologer Richard Nolle back in the 1970s. The term is used to describe a new or full moon at 90% or more of its closest orbit to Earth. Next week, it will be at 100%.

Nolle is responsible for coining the upcoming event, and he’s also responsible for the latest buzz sweeping the Internet about how the supermoon will affect the planet. On his website Astropro, Nolle warns Earth’s inhabitants to prepare themselves during the “supermoon risk window,” which ranges from March 16 – 22. During this time, Nolle claims there will be an increase in supreme tidal surges, magnitude 5 or higher earthquakes, and even volcanic activity.

I’m amazed that Fox News got most of the science right in this, excepting contradicting his quote — there’s a closest perigee every year, where perigee and apogee actually fluctuate year after year, and this “closest point in eighteen years” only means “one or two percent closer than normal”, and anyway, it’s still further away than its closest recorded perigee of 356,375km on Jan. 4, 1912. The only earthquake noted on that day (given humankind’s lower population density) was a 5.5. I’ll tell you later why that’s unimpressive. Still, they deserve credit for siding with the astronomer that says there’s no risk, and that the only major effect of this alignment is the increased risk of moonquakes — which only affects you if you live on the moon. My problem with this article is that the astrologer is given any kind of credence at all. There’s no reason for that. The fact is, there’s absolutely no reason to consult an astrologer about any nonsense that they themselves proffer without evidence and continue to cling to, despite evidence to the contrary. They should not be consulted pretty much ever, when you have a credulous people willing to attribute natural disasters to anything but nature.

The reason I say this, is because people are blaming the impending supermoon for the Japanese earthquake last week.

Seriously.

The supermoon event occurs on March 19th. The astrologer in question painted a “danger window” around that date of March 16th through March 22nd, predicting “supreme tidal surges” (like predicting the sun will rise — the moon affects tides, and having the moon and sun at opposite sides of us actually does create really high and low tides!), “volcanic activity” (what counts? Tiny amounts of ejecta happen from most volcanoes every few months!), and “earthquakes above 5.0 magnitude.”

It’s this last one that people are blaming the Japanese quake on. Never mind that a) the quake happened on March 11th, when the moon was roughly at a 75 degree angle to us compared to the sun — e.g., at not quite half phase — and b) it was about 400,000km away, since apogee happened on March 6th.

Also, according to these statistics, there are 1319 earthquakes every year that fall between 5.0 and 5.9. That means there will be, on average, (1319 / 365) * 8 = 28.9 earthquakes that fall within that range, somewhere on Earth during the eight days given for the supermoon “danger window”.

That’s not even counting the earthquakes that surpass that level. Again, according to the site, there’s on average 134 6.0-6.9 magnitude earthquakes per year, and 15 7.0-7.9′s, and one 8.0+ per year. That means statistically, (134/365) * 8 = 2.9 earthquakes that measure between 6.0 and 6.9 during that window. It also means 0.32 7.0-7.9′s, or a 32% chance of a whopper. And though the 8.9 earthquake that just happened in Japan probably relieved a lot of the tectonic stress of the rest of the plates, there’s still a 2% chance that an 8.0+ would happen during that eight day window.

And since nobody will remember this astrologer’s predictions if they’re wrong, selection bias means he’s making an excellent bet by predicting 5.0+ quakes.

The Earth is not in any kind of danger, having a perigee fall on the same night as a full moon. Think about it for half a second, and you’ll realize that the rotational differences that mean such “supermoons” are possible on the “every several years” order of magnitude, means the month prior and following a supermoon must needs have a very close proximity between perigee and full moon. And it means that on off years, the perigee and full moon might be off by a day or two. Why wouldn’t those types of syncronicities cause increased earthquake activity, if this astrologer is giving us a “danger window” of eight days?

Nonsense, top to bottom. Or apogee to perigee.

So do all sinners live around the ring of fire, or what?

So what the hell am I doing in Nova Scotia, knowing that I’m a sinner? I ought to get me to someplace on the Ring of Fire so God’s smiting hand can actually reach me.

Seriously, WTF.

The user, TamTamPamela, closed her account. So you don’t get the full effect of the ten minutes of rambling effusiveness of how awesome it was that God smashed Japan. The Thunderf00t video will have to suffice, tempered as it is with rationality.

Are “false report” rape statistics being manipulated?

Our Lady of Perpetual Win, Stephanie Zvan, begins a painful but much-needed examination of rape myths, beginning with Rape Myth 1: “She’s Probably Lying.”

The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.

Their results were interesting in two respects.

Find out how they’re interesting. You know you want to.

Scientists investigate ammonia meteorites; science media claims we’re all aliens.

This is a story about meteorites. Well, meteorites, and life. WELL, meteorites, life, and totally misleading headlines.

Pictured: a perfectly normal human wormbaby.
(via some photoshop goon at Worth1000)

I know what you’re thinking. No, this isn’t about the Orgueil meteorite, which in the 19th century caused a ruckus when a conman embedded some grass seeds in it and claimed it proved exobiology. Nor is it about Richard Hoover’s claims, referencing the exact same meteorite, for the third time in his career (first in 2004 then in 2007!). This time around, he’s gaining news traction despite not actually having a discovery. I have precious little to say about it that isn’t already said elsewhere. The Orgueil meteorite is not news, nor is it alien life, no matter how desperately I wish it was.

No, this is, instead, about this science-ish pablum written by the good folks over at The Independent, a UK-based newsish organization. I use the “ish” to denote my skepticism that either adjective fits the subject. In putting together what I can only assume was intended to be a thought-provoking science piece, they’ve succeeded not only in making a mockery of the hunt for life elsewhere in the universe, but also for the hunt for the reasons life exists back at home base. They’ve succeeded also at one more thing, incidentally — in provoking my ire for the unthinking hyperbole that passes for science media these days.

The piece in question begins with the blaring headline: “We’re all aliens… how humans began life in outer space”. Sound like we’re setting up an argument for panspermia, where life itself began elsewhere in the universe and was carried via meteor to Earth by some cosmic happenstance in the projectile ballet we call our cosmos’ set of physics? That’s because other hypotheses have argued for exactly what I’ve described, though they multiply entities unnecessarily and thus Occam’s Razor slices them neatly down to the low probabilities they enjoy presently. And as the rest of the article will soon make clear, they’re not talking about us being aliens at all — only that our constituent components may have extraterrestrial origins. Knowing what we already know about this universe, I have to rebut with: “DUH.” And also: “You’re not an extraterrestrial if you’re born on this planet, asshole.”

The article proceeds from its already rocky start, to making a number of claims that are hardly news and that put the lie to the assertion in the title: the chemicals that make up our planet’s biosphere probably come from outer space.

In fact, a growing body of evidence is now pointing to deep space as the possible source of the raw materials that formed the building blocks of life. The latest study, which focused on a class of meteorites that fell on to the Antarctic ice sheet, also suggests that life’s origins may have been extraterrestrial.

An analysis of the meteorites has revealed that these rocks can be induced, under high pressures and temperatures, to emit nitrogen-containing ammonia, a vital ingredient for the first self-replicating molecules that eventually led to DNA, the molecule at the heart of all life.

Know what else is needed for life? Carbon. Since the only atoms created during the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium, every carbon atom on the planet was built in a star’s supernova billions of years ago. So does that make us “aliens”? Like hell it does. Water probably came from orbital bombardment too — at least, that’s the frontrunner for hypotheses about its origin, but it’d be farly difficult to find the remains of an ice comet billions of years after the fact. The origin of nitrogen, or any other constituent element of the amino acids that are capable of self-arranging and eventually evolving into life as we know it, is certainly an important factor in determining with any level of confidence Earth’s early history.

I will give the scientists a pass. They’re working some pretty detailed experiments that border on the very furthest edge of what we can hope to ascertain about Earth’s early history. They’re not the ones making the odious claims I dislike about the science “reporting” in the Independent. They claimed this:

“What is important is the finding of abundant ammonia. Nitrogen is an indispensable ingredient for the formation of the biopolymers, such as DNA, RNA and proteins, on which life depends, and any theory that tries to explain life’s origin has to account for a supply of ‘usable’ nitrogen,” Professor Pizzarello said. “Therefore, its direct delivery as ammonia and in relatively large amounts from the nearby asteroids could have found a ‘prebiotic venue’ on the early Earth.”

It’s this pullquote that was so obviously mangled not only by the paper’s editor in the ridiculously overinflated headline to pull views, but also by the author of the piece, Steve Connor, in his initial paragraph: “As scientific mysteries go, this is the big one. How did life on Earth begin? Not how did life evolve, but how did it start in the first place? What was the initial spark that lit the fire of evolution?”

He’s describing abiogenesis. While that’s certainly the best theory we have right now, the one that fits all available evidence with the least amount of shoehorning or multiplying entities unnecessarily, that doesn’t mean the people investigating how all this nitrogen got here are even looking sidelong at that aspect of the planet’s history outside the pullquote. Even if abiogenesis wasn’t the accepted theory, there’s every reason to ask “why’s all this nitrogen here to begin with?” It doesn’t have nearly the implications that Connor feels it does, nor that Prof. Pizzarello is quoted as explaining. The galling part about this is, I realize that Pizzarello very likely intended to play science populist in explaining things as he did to Connor. Not every scientist can be their own publicist. Media types evidently have this uncanny knack for pulling the most interesting soundbite from any sentence and blowing the whole story out of all manner of proportion, and I strongly feel the professor was wronged here. I sympathize completely with his excitement, and with his explanation of the implications of his research and why it should continue.

Understanding the nitrogen’s origin, or the origin of any other constituent atom in our biosphere, is a necessary component of any fully formed theory of life’s origins, whether abiogenesis or some other better explanation should one ever come along. It is not, however, a sufficient condition, by any stretch of the imagination. This constant stretching of the truth in science reporting is deplorable in its lack of nuance, and directly leads to much of the mistrust and ill will toward science in general harbored by those people that are burned time and again by the “maybe it’ll cure cancer!” headlines they’re bombarded with daily.

Not every investigation of every phenomenon or historical event is going to unearth the deepest mysteries known to mankind. Sometimes an ammonia-filled meteorite is just an ammonia-filled meteorite.

Michio Kaku on the Japanese nuclear plant situation

In the wake of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit yesterday off the coast of Japan, causing a giant tsunami, three nuclear plants are now compromised. They may not cause radiation leaks, depending on the engineering of the plants, but there’s a possibility. Dr. Michio Kaku discusses the worst-case scenarios. They’re not Chernobyl, because Chernobyl was an ill-maintained reactor that was practically sabotaged by mismanagement. But there are real potential dangers with this properly-maintained, better-technology plant.

I’m worried for Japan’s populace. If these plants do go critical, they could make wide swathes of the very tiny nation uninhabitable. Frankly, putting nuclear plants anywhere prone to tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanoes, is simply begging for an unexpected disaster to come along and do damage, but Japan is a very modernized nation, and they deemed the risks outweighed the potential costs. 5 million homes are without power presently, so I hope they’re reassessing their risks. Maybe this will encourage a new green era in Japan. One can hope.