Santorum’s wife’s abortion was different, you see.

Senator Rick Santorum, not to be confused with the neologism coined by Dan Savage meaning “a frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”, is publicly very much against abortions, especially “partial birth abortions” where the baby is terminated any time after three or four weeks and has to be passed out of the woman’s body via the birth canal. Basically meaning any abortion. The description I’ve given is in no way an exaggeration or a falsehood, and the whole point of the term “partial birth” is to demonize the concept of abortion out of hand, making it seem like you’re giving birth to a viable human baby then stabbing it in the heart before it’s out the door. It’s a dirty tactic, but one in line with Santorum’s namesake neologism, certainly.

Santorum’s views are unapologetically black-and-white. He advocates that any doctor performing an abortion under any circumstances should be criminally charged.

Even for rape. Even for incest. Even for saving the mother’s life. None of them justify abortion in Rick Santorum’s world.

Unless it happens to be Rick Santorum’s wife, and she might have died if not for her 20-week-old fetus being “partial birth” aborted. That’s different. Because, you know, that’s JUSTIFIED. Unlike all those other mothers.

In October, 1996, his wife Karen had a second trimester abortion. They don’t like to describe it that way. In his 2004 interview with Terry Gross, Santorum characterizes the fetus, who must be treated as an autonomous person, as a practically a gunslinging threat, whom the mother must murder in self-defense. Karen has had to justify her decision to save her own life by explaining that if she died her other children would have lost a mother.
[...]
Karen Santorum is the wife of right-wing, anti-abortion Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). In 1996, Senator Santorum led the debate on a bill that attempted to ban late-term abortions, and refused to make an exception even in the case of “grievous bodily injury” to the woman. In Santorum’s article, she expresses her view that carrying a non-viable fetus to term is the only option, and apparently does not think the woman’s health or future fertility should be a consideration.

I hereby call on Rick Santorum to sue the doctor who performed the surgery that saved his wife’s life. While it may not be a criminal act yet, at least you can get damages from the doctor for daring to save your wife’s life at the expense of your wife’s constitutionally endowed infection source. That act was a second-trimester abortion. It was a “partial birth abortion”. It was done only to save your wife’s life. It is done generally only to save other mothers’ lives. It is not a criminal act in any respect. If you do not sue this doctor, you are a hypocrite of the highest order, and deserving of the worst epithets people can Google-bomb you with.

Choosing abortion is not an easy choice to make. Sometimes, it’s the only option. People do not have abortions out of hand, despite what right-wingers and religious nuts would have you believe. Oftentimes, choosing abortion is choosing life — for the mother, who is often also the mother of other children.

Do not legislate that their wombs become pressganged into being baby factories for rapists or a death sentence for the womb’s owner. Trust doctors, and trust women, to make the choice only when necessary. If you don’t like abortion, then simply don’t have one, even if it costs you your life and your children their mother. And if you aren’t a woman or a doctor, shut the fuck up and stay the fuck out of the argument altogether. Especially if the reasons you’re horning in on this conversation — the reasons you believe you have any moral say in the matter whatsoever — have anything to do with a really old book.

May 28th: Black hole lunchtime

Scientists have determined that the headline-making gamma ray burst that the Swift telescope observed back on March 28th in a distant galaxy was, in fact, a black hole shredding a passing star.

Star going down the cosmic drain (AP Photo / University of Warwick, Mark A. Garlick. Lifted without permission from CTV.ca)

Some scientists initially thought the bright flash was a gamma-ray burst from a star collapsing, but flaring from such an event typically lasts only a few hours.

Instead of fading, the cosmic outburst continued to burn bright and emit high-energy radiation that could be observed even today.

Two separate teams pored through data and concluded that an unsuspecting star the size of our sun likely got sucked in by the powerful tug of a giant black hole. Until then, the black hole had been relatively inactive. The findings were published online Thursday in the journal Science.

As the black hole gobbled up the star, it streamed a beam of energy straight at Earth that was recorded by telescopes. The stellar feast occurred in the heart of a galaxy 3.8 billion light years from Earth. A light year is about 6 trillion miles.

This universe is awe-inspiring in its raw power. The power consumption of the average human life is infinitessimally small by comparison. When I see people thinking that the scale of our tiny pocket of this universe — the pocket that contains and sustains life — operates on a scale that comparable to that which produced this universe, I can only boggle. Our lot is so much more subtle than the scope of the rest of the universe that I can’t help but feel it has arisen, as I have suggested a number of times, as like a fractal — a happy accident, with our intricacies being linked only to the intricacies of the rest of this universe by virtue of the consequences of some interesting mathematics.

This happy accident is sometimes hard to explain for me; I often find words fail me when trying to describe the splendour of the staircase we have taken toward our existence. I’m sure I feel it every bit as strongly as someone else might believe that their god created them personally and that humanity is some sort of special creation. Knowing what I know about how this universe operates, and its sheer enormity, and how much of it would kill us given the chance, and how each step in the chain has happened mechanistically, flowing from some very coincidental sets of physical properties of matter, I see humanity as not an end point, but as another step in that staircase. And in the face of events like black holes and gamma ray bursts, all one can do is hope against hope that it will continue and that we will one day colonize other planets so no single event could eliminate mankind. It’s daunting, pushing down cosmic fears like this, but we cannot do otherwise.

The cost of anti-vaccination

60 Minutes’ Australian show had this piece recently on the actual costs of the anti-vaccination movement.

I truly hope Andrew Wakefield feels terrible about what he’s done by inciting scared parents to do the exact opposite of what’s in the best interests of their children. And I am appalled that a person like Viera Scheibner apparently has so little self-awareness that she cannot realize she’s doing such a grave disservice to humanity by pretending to know more than those who adhere to science-based medicine. Meanwhile, Scheibner is a retired micropalentologist. A geologist, in other words. She studies fossils. What the living fuck does she know, if she thinks keeping children from getting whooping cough is actually doing them harm?

Children die from this retardery. Not fetuses, but CHILDREN. Human babies that are autonomous and potentially viable human beings. I don’t know if there’s any cross-section of people who believe abortion is evil and people who believe vaccines are evil, but this should hopefully win over people who believe every life is sacred — vaccines save countless lives. Being antivax is being anti-life.

Psychic fails to predict her utter failure

This isn’t surprising, but it is an excellent example of what not to do if you’re trying to win fame and fortune as a psychic. It should hopefully serve as an object lesson for why one needs to consider the simpler solution when someone claims special knowledge, but honestly, I don’t expect it will change anyone’s mind — some people appear to be hard-wired to simply accept special claims uncritically.

A woman visited a rural farmhouse in Houston, Texas, and evidently smelled something foul and decomposing, and spotted a bunch of blood on the porch. She made the conclusion that the residents were mass-murderers and reported a tip to police that via her psychic powers, she’d determined that there were dozens of chopped-up bodies buried nearby. Turns out the blood was from the family’s daughter’s boyfriend having attempted suicide, and the smell from a freezer that’d failed allowing the meat within to go rotten.

So not only was the tip unhelpful, it was all a waste of time and energy. “There’s no validity to the report,” one law enforcement official confirmed.
[...]
Police must follow up on all credible tips about crimes, including those from dubious sources. They routinely deal with liars, hoaxers, jailhouse informants with dubious motives, people with drug habits and mental illnesses, and so on.

Police cannot simply ignore a lead or tip even if it comes from a psychic — after all, just because a person claims to be psychic doesn’t mean that he or she is not involved in a crime. Suspects in criminal cases who have inside knowledge of crimes sometimes try to pretend that the information they have came from psychics.

I don’t suspect this particular “psychic” was involved in any of the events that transpired at the homestead, mostly because she was so spectacularly wrong on everything. I suspect this woman saw these few clues and via her superpower of overactive imagination, lept to a conclusion that did not follow from the evidence.

I can probably also ascribe a motive to her — psychics are big money. A really good pretender could earn a hundred thousand bucks for four hours “work”. All you need is a few lucky hits under your belt (and who doesn’t make wild predictions that occasionally come true?), and a shameless PR engine at your back, and you too could be on the path to insane riches by claiming to have special knowledge about how this universe works.

This particular story has the happy ending that not a single person was murdered at this ranch, and this so-called psychic failed miserably to springboard a lucky guess into a profitable career of lying to and/or cold-reading people. But even if she was absolutely correct on all the details, with the number of people in this world and the number of them that have made at least a few guesses about wildly improbable events, is it any sort of surprise that people will get one or even a few of these wildly improbable guesses totally and completely correct?

If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. If you hear a psychic prediction, think “prior knowledge” not “special knowledge”.

Update: Hilarious. Reuters reported “Up to 30 Bodies Found Near Houston, Some Children”. Then corrected themselves. Meaning they reported, uncritically, exactly what the psychic claimed.

Roasted marshmallows

I was due to take a three day business trip last Wednesday, so I had queued up a few posts to cover my absence in case I couldn’t find time in the hotel room to dig through the news and find interesting stuff to post. So, I probably seemed kind of callous, posting things on my blog instead of looking after my home situation, but I swear the blog’s autopilot status had completely slipped my mind.

Jodi called me at 10:30pm to inform me that her mother Theda had had a heart attack and was at the hospital, in an induced coma, after having been given drugs to remove the blockage that had worked her way into her heart. My boss had offered me a rental to go home immediately, but there was no way I could make the five hour car trip at that point, given how long my day already had been, so I asked instead to go back to the hotel to sleep in case I needed to do so in the morning. Jodi called again at 4 am to inform me that her mother hadn’t survived the night. Three sleepless hours later, I called around and got permission to take the company van, set out immediately, and was home at 1pm. Since then, I’ve been in a whirlwind of activity, with Jodi and her sister scrambling to get affairs in order and make sure everyone was in the know.

The interment is tomorrow, along with a life celebration. Theda always said that she wanted to be put in a pine box, thrown on a bonfire, and to have marshmallows roasted over her. Jodi and her sister secured a pine box urn, where Theda will be cremated and stored in the box until she can be interred with her father. The girls will dress the site with marshmallows, though they won’t be roasted. It’s about the closest to her wishes they can manage, legally. And sanitation-wise. The girls both agree her wishes were pretty gross.

And that’s about the best I can do, myself.

The Sun God is hopping mad

Holy crap, that’s awesome. Behold the power of a gigantic ball of plasma chewing away at its available fuel. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped the sun — you couldn’t hunt or perform industry without its presence, it provides (almost) all life on Earth with the necessary energy to fuel it either directly or indirectly, and it does crazy-ass shit like this.

No, we’re not in any danger. I know my core readership wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, but the Chicken Littles of the intertubes make a habit of freaking out at this sort of thing.

Hat tip to the awesome Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy for this video.

Scientists: “Yes, kitten was being hugged”

D’awww.

“This kitten is in the state of sleep some people call “the sleep of the body,” because the body is totally relaxed except for these tips of things twitching, while the brain is active and dreaming,” he says. “The opposite is “sleep of the mind,” when the brainwaves go very big and slow, almost flattening out, but the muscles are not completely relaxed—with a cat, that would be a catnap.”

In other words: Dreaming, yes. Nightmare, who knows.

As for that maternal cuddle, he says, it’s probably fair to call it a hug. Mother cats and human parents bond with their children via similar hormones, like oxytocin, so “human analogies are not entirely inaccurate,” he says. “To me it’s a perfectly natural example of maternal care and affection to a kitten who’s dreaming. They’re mutually bonded and I think they enjoy the presence of each other.”

Thank science for validating this. Otherwise, we’d just go on anthropomorphizing things unjustifiably. This time, our anthropomorphic instincts are correct, meaning we are correct to squee.

A few podcasts from this weekend on skepticism and atheism

Meant to get these up on Monday, but I was hoping for a chance to listen to them first. Unfortunately, I’m now on a road trip to PEI for work, in the car with some coworkers, and am probably expected to interact with them rather than holing myself up in my iPhone’s ear buds. So, I’ll just queue this up to post while I’m on the road.

Having met Desiree Schell at Science Online 2010, I can tell you she’s a witty, warm and clever human being whose podcast Skeptically Speaking is always worth a listen. She generally tends to stay out of atheist arguments, because it honestly seems sometimes that both sides are presenting less than their best faces — with the most popular and eloquent firebrands on each side trending toward significantly less than civility in the argument. However, on the weekend, she discussed with Greg Laden and Mike Haubrich the intersection between skepticism and atheism on Minnesota’s Atheists Talk Radio. I didn’t get to listen to this live in toto, but I’ve heard snippets of it while the live net stream would allow it.

It’s well possible to come to either belief via the other first. I was an atheist who “believed” (loosely) in karma as a teenager, but grew out of it and into true skepticism the more I researched various nonsense religions and realized the similarities between them and the “whack-a-mole” nature of various other strains of bullshit pseudoscience. No matter how many significant pillars you sledgehammer out from under a fundamentally unfalsifiable or unscientific belief system, the people who believe it are going to prop it up with some other makeshift prop or simply hang it from a sky-hook so that no evidence against it may even be considered. How many conversations have you had with someone who earnestly believes “The Secret”, or Scientology, or homeopathy, or astrology, Christianity, or anti-vaccination, where no matter what piece of evidence you present that runs counter to their claims, no matter how damning the evidence against, their faith in their flavor of nonsense is at best static, at worst strengthened? Ed Yong blogged about this phenomenon recently, in context of Harold Camping’s failed rapture predictions and his doubling-down. Camping’s now saying “the Rapture happened but nobody was worth saving; God in his mercy is sparing us the tribulation and the world will end on schedule in October.”

Science doesn’t work like that. When presented with evidence to the contrary, science is not static — scientists may dig in their heels if they have a vested interest in their theories, but science itself will self-correct over time. Some scientists, like the unbelievably awesome Scicurious, swallow their pride and admit when they’re wrong, when they’re fooled, when they were making judgments with insufficient evidence or having seen only those papers that support a position but none that refute. In scientifically minded circles, this gains you popularity — not to enforce lockstep, but to reward selfless humility for the betterment of the sum of human knowledge.

Scicurious and Desiree discussed this event and its repercussions Sci encountered for having unabashedly admitted when she was wrong about bees and cell phones, on Desiree’s podcast the same day that Des did Atheists Talk. They also discuss, given the studies that have been put out recently, the idea that cell phones reduce sperm count or fertility. The whole idea that cell phone radiation can hurt you is a good example of whack-a-mole pseudoscience. Remember Science vs Garlic, and the comments thread that ensued? Frankly, the discussion didn’t go anywhere but to the same few sources and the same specious claims about low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, none of whom were anywhere near scientific consensus on what a cell phone can and cannot do to your body. I should have gone back to it, but my wedding day was impending, and I honestly got distracted.

At least the science is still coming in, and it’s still saying this nonsense is nonsense. If I had gotten the chance to send in a question, it would have been this:

How long must we humor people repeatedly suggesting the same thing over and over again, and perform tests of all stripes to conclusively prove their beliefs wrong, when they’re just going to come back and find some new way to suggest it again despite it being thoroughly refuted? It’s like this XKCD comic. At absolute best, you’ll get organizations like the WHO looking at all the studies, shrugging and saying the data’s inconclusive, but that one can’t rule out the possibility of cell phones causing X disease. At worst, you’ll get exactly the same, only the media will also report it as though a link was found between cell phones and cancer. When do you get to say “enough is enough?”

I ask that question often on this blog, about a lot of things. I never get a satisfactory answer.

Oh, by the way. Desiree is a Canuck. As though there wasn’t enough to love!

ASCII Portal

This is pretty damn cool. Doesn’t work presently on Ubuntu 11.04 x64, the C++ libraries it’s compiled against a different version than is available in repositories. It’s open-sourced thoughso I imagine it’s well possible to get it compiled against the version available given enough time. Shame I don’t have enough time at the moment.

You can get it from right here. Thanks to Ben Zvan for tipping me off to its existence!

(Mind you, this isn’t technically ASCII with all the extended characters it’s using…)