Happy birthday Stephanie Zvan! Here’s your gift.

My dear lady. Congratulations on lapping the sun once more. Though I’m sure you didn’t put any direct effort into it, you’ve managed to make it all the way around again. Sure, Earth may not be where it was this time last year, what with the movement of the solar system in this galaxy and the movement of the galaxy in this universe, but hey. As fixed frames of reference go, this is the best we have, saying that we made it all the way around the sun again. And as is customary for marking such an arbitrary and otherwise fluid milestone, I did something for you that I hope you’ll appreciate.
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Using fMRI to reconstruct approximations of visual cortex data

Unbelievable.

From UC Berkeley:

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people’s dynamic visual experiences – in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers.

As yet, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories, according to researchers.

This is nascent technology, and it’s incredibly limited at the moment. They built a database of 18 million seconds of Youtube videos and what sorts of fMRI patterns they’d expect them to create on your visual cortex. Then they compared watching the clip on the left to that database, processing each second of fMRI data against the database, rebuilding an approximation of what they believe the patient would have seen by overlaying the top-100 seconds as selected by a computer algorithm. The output is uncannily accurate with shapes and positions. It also seems to get faces, though I’m sure in the Youtube selection, people’s faces make up a significant proportion of the random data.

No, we can’t read people’s minds, or record your dreams about Summer Glau. At least not yet.

The outrage over Troy Davis, vs the outrage over the Death Penalty

As I said over at X Blog, Canada has executed a “mere” 710 people in its history. We lost our taste for the death penalty in 1976, 14 years after our last killing in 1962.

Wednesday night, the US Supreme Court heard and denied an appeal for stay of execution of Troy Davis, a man convicted of killing a police officer, despite substantial evidence that he was innocent of the crime:
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Through Hardship, To The Stars

I love NASA’s The Sagan Series, done by Youtube user damewse.

We are capable of so much. A mere hundred thousand years ago, we were just climbing down from the trees. We probably reached behavioral modernity about fifty thousand years ago. As a species, we are still in our infancy and we’re already exploring the raggedy edge of space. It’s dangerous. It’s deadly. And it’s so worth it.

I hope we climb back out of this pit we’ve fallen into, where exploring space is a far lower priority than developing weaponry to attack one another.

Hubble discovers a new form of apologetics!

Okay, sorry, it wasn’t the Hubble, it was the Spitzer telescope. And it wasn’t “new”, it’s actually a form of apologetics as old as the practice.

Via Christian News Wire:

Since Biblical times, people have put their trust in the Genesis account of creation. In recent years however, some have challenged the account and say there is no scientific evidence to support Genesis. It appears now that discoveries made by NASA’s scientist are confirming that the Genesis account is scientifically accurate. The idea of no scientific evidence to support it is now being turned upside-down by the very findings made in 2004 by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Telescopes of proto-planetary disc that surround infant stars.

According to NASA scientist, data from these two telescopes is revealing that planets like the Earth are formed in the exact same fashion as described at Genesis 1:2, 3. According to NASA, planets form inside a proto-planetary disc of dust and debris, starting out in a formless and chaotic state in total darkness, as describe in Genesis verse 2. “Now the earth proved to be formless and waste, and there was darkness upon the surface of the watery deep.”

Now Blog Ubermensch Ed Brayton already got to this one but this story bears a bit closer analysis. Specifically, regarding just how many things you can get patently wrong and still be considered a credible story by Christian News Wire.

First, and most obviously, the animation that NASA made depicting the formation of a star and planet within a protoplanetary disc is actually based on new observations from the Spitzer telescope. All the observations that we’ve made to this point using Hubble are indeed important with regard to our knowledge of stellar formation, and even foundational, but nowhere in the animation is Hubble mentioned. That was added entirely by CNW presumably due to Hubble’s higher name recognition value.

Secondly, NASA has more than one scientist. Now, despite my English degree (one credit shy of completion), I’m not the best person in the world (much less this blog network) to criticize blatant grammatical errors, given there are probably four or five in what precious little I’ve written so far in this post. I make common errors like substituting “providence” for “provenance”, spelling errors that change the entire meaning of a sentence, and run-ons and comma splices that would make Bulwer-Lytton contestants flinch. All that aside, it’s fairly obvious that nobody passed this through any sort of grammar check or, hell, even editorial process. I strongly suspect, because of this fact alone, that Christian News Wire employs writers the way Yahoo famously has in the past — paid by the word, designed to pull eyes, and functioning solely to sell ad impressions to a niche audience — those who want their news as filtered through as many pages of the Bible as possible. Err, translucent Bible pages, I guess. Or something. Anyway.

And third, and most importantly, these goobers evidently have precious little understanding of the sequence of events in either account in Genesis. According to Christian Answers, and well… the Bible in Genesis 1, or the other account in Genesis 2, everything was created in a much different order than is claimed. Notwithstanding “let there be light” coming first, the sun was created on day four. After the Earth and “heavens” on day one. And the creation of vegetation (and “dry land”) on day three. This conflicts directly with the claim that first God created the sun (e.g. “light”), then the inner planets.

Is there anything at all correct about this post? Well, there’s a second sentence in the first paragraph that approaches true: “In recent years however, some have challenged the account and say there is no scientific evidence to support Genesis.”. I say “approaches” because in actuality, people have been disputing the account of Genesis for hundreds of years. It’s only recently that we’ve gained ground in convincing the public that reality doesn’t work the way Christians wish it did. We’ve gained so much ground on that front, in fact, that Christians are forced to misinterpreting their own texts to comport with reality.

I can’t help but smile about that sort of thing.

RCimT: a quick science news roundup

Welcome to the first Random Crap in my Tabs posted to Freethought Blogs! Every once in a while, my browser’s tabs get far too full of “stuff that must be blogged”, stuff that I figured was too interesting to just read and close, and in order to free up resources so I can do other things, once in a while I aggregate a bunch of similarly themed items into a post with links and short commentary. It’s something like a blog carnival, but usually to non-bloggy stuff.

This one’s about some sciencey bits and bobs, and it’s all over the map. Allons-y!
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You should be reading other Freethought Blogs too

I know my readers are exceptionally loyal, and hang off my and only my every word. But if you were subscribed to or click around on the front page for other Freethought Blogs, you’d know that Daniel at Camels With Hammers has an excellent post up about being a sensitive male. That guy loves girls!? How gay!

Apparently there is this unwritten rule (of which I was unaware until Dahlen actually wrote it down) that admiring and identifying with women, rather than reducing them either to objects of lust or worship (whores or madonnas), makes you a gay man. So here are your options, straight women: real red-blooded heterosexual men who will never admire or identify with you or sensitive, admiring, identifying gay men who will never sleep with you.

And straight guys like me who have adored and crushed on and respected and learned from and admired and romantically loved and identified with and lusted after and been intimate friends with women their whole lives are suddenly in danger of appearing gay to other guys because, you know, thinking anything about some woman besides her body or her sexuality is estimable is not actually healthy or even, like, super-heterosexual but actually accidentally gay. If you love women as actual people who inspire you in multiple ways, you must want to have sex with men. Because all sensitive people want to have sex with men. And, to be clear, being gay is the worst thing any guy can be. Apparently even for gay guys, since this is the third rail of male sexuality itself, not just of male heterosexuality.

Stephen “Darksyde” Andrew explores why it’s so difficult to get politicians to represent people other than the rich:

The boiler room strategy is done because federal contribution limits are currently $2,500 per person, per cycle (This may confuse some readers who remember past election limits of $2,400, but the limits are indexed to inflation in odd-numbered years and have since gone up). Typically, you ask big donors to max out for both primary and general election — that’s 5 grand right there folks! Do the same for a spouse and that’s 10,000 bucks. Add kids or grandkids and their spouses, and a single phone call to a wealthy family can result in $30,000 or more. Even in high profile races with national visibility, a call netting 10 to 30 grand is a huge score and is candidate only closes on one or two calls a week the campaign war chest grows.

Think about what that means: all day long the candidate is talking to people who can give serious loot, in many cases he or she has called before, maybe several times, and struck up a relationship with the prospect. The candidate is having dozens of in-depth conversations a day with very wealthy people, asking them what they want to see in politics, trying to convince them that s/he sincerely cares about their day-to-day problems, and affirming if the donation is made and candidate successfully elected the prospect’s political wish list will come true.

And Stephanie Zvan is reposting her Rape Myths series from her old site, and expanding on it with “Consent is Hard”. A clue for potential rapists: the title is in scarequotes.

Will it always be immediately clear whether someone wants to have sex with you? No. Will it always be clear whether they want to have the same kind of sex you want to have? No. Will it always be clear, even when they say, “Yes,” whether they feel free to say, “No,” or are sober enough to know what they’re doing? No.

So what?

Consent is not a true-false test on which you ever need to guess the answer. Sex, aside from masturbation in private, is something that happens between two or more people. If those people are present for sex, they are present for you to communicate with them. They are there for you to talk to and listen to. They are there for you to reassure that any answer they give is acceptable.

Now that I’m done helping Jen McCreight import her archives to FtB, I’ll have more free time to blog again. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to produce posts that are even remotely as insightful and worth reading.

Mock the Movie: Rocketship X-M

Dr. Rubidium, Dr. Skyskull, Stephanie Zvan and I (yes, I just linked myself, whaddaya gonna do about it?) are teaming up once again this Thursday for our next Mock The Movie event.

Rocketship X-M promises to provide plenty of bad space science as Lloyd Bridges and his — what’s the opposite of “intrepid?” — crew somehow manage miss the Moon and land on Mars. Like you do. And encounter an alien civilization on that otherwise barren ball of rust. Like you do.

The rules for Mock The Movie are simple.

  • Start following @MockTM on Twitter.
  • Start watching Rocketship X-M on archive.org (public domain, free for everyone) Thursday, September 22, at 9PM EST.
  • Once you’ve got the movie playing, tweet your snarky comments to @MockTM. We have magical Twitter gnomes scraping the @-mentions and will have a transcript available as soon as possible over at The JAYFK. Directing our tweets to @MockTM will keep our followers from being overwhelmed with our snark!

Only terrorists take photos at the Mall of America

From Alternet:

Mall of America officials say their security unit stops and questions on average up to 1,200 people each year. The interviews at the mall are part of a counterterrorism initiative that acts as the private eyes and ears of law enforcement authorities but has often ensnared innocent people, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR.

In many cases, the written reports were filed without the knowledge of those interviewed by security. Several people named in the reports learned from journalists that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images.
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On Nov. 9, 2008, the Bloomington resident videotaped a short road trip from his home to the Mall of America. Van Asten, now 66, planned to send it to his fiancée’s family in Vietnam so they could see life in the United States.

As he headed down an escalator, camera in hand, mall guards caught sight of him.

“Right away, I noticed he had a video camera and was recording the rotunda area,” a security guard wrote in a suspicious activity report. “When he got to second floor [sic] he turned to the overlook of the park while still videotaping.”
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Bobbie Allen, now 47, headed to the Mall of America on June 25, 2007, for lunch with a woman. As he waited for her, Allen sat alone writing in a notebook, which caught the attention of security. Counterterrorism experts sometimes instruct police and security personnel to look for suspicious note-taking, as it may indicate attack planning.

So, taking videos or writing things in notebooks means you’re a terrorist. What about taking photos?

ZOMG TERRISM

The last time we were in Minnesota, the Zvans took us to the Mall of America, that monument to American capitalism (owned by Canada-based Triple Five Group, by the by). I had someone snap a photo of opportunity in front of an oxygen bar so I could blog about it later. I hadn’t gotten around to it til now, but I was expecting this post would take a different vector.

How many of your freedoms have you given up in building your surveillance state, America? How much would you be willing to bet that after we did our touristy thing, some mall cop didn’t build a portfolio filled with every shred of info they could find on us? Given that we’re bloggers, atheists, and we lean populist and anti-woo, I’m a little surprised Stephanie and I made it out intact and without some sort of “enhanced interrogation”. Especially with my being a foreigner.