Epic SkepTech

On 5-6 April, there will be a free conference in Minneapolis — SkepTech. I’ll be there (ho-hum, you say, so what?), but you should take a look at the speaker list. It’s going to be awesome! I just discovered that Zach Weinersmith will be there, which is awesome all by itself. Although if he does his talk naked…wait, less awesome, or more?

By the way, I think this is one of those free or very cheap conferences (although they do ask for donations). You should plan on coming. The snow will probably be all gone by April, and you won’t freeze to death as soon as you cross the border into Minnesota.

Yeah, I know, the Canadians will cross the border and strip down to bikinis and short shorts. Don’t let that discourage you, though.

Don’t Tell Women What to Wear, Tell Men not to Rape

There have been some horrific stories coming out of India — a place where rape and molestation are considered perfectly normal acts by many men. The latest terrible event was a young woman, raped with a metal rod that shredded her internal organs and resulted in her death, all for the ‘crime’ of being out after 10pm — an outcome excused by ‘experts’ because she resisted.

The promising sign, at least, is that people are marching in the streets to protest Indian rape culture. Avicenna was there, taking pictures; you should be following that guy, don’t you think?

My beard isn’t turning gray, that’s just the ice

Well, actually, it is getting rather gray. But I was just out on my daily walk on this very cold Minnesota day, and in addition the the usual coating of rime that accumulates on my face, I took off one of my gloves for just a minute to snap this picture.


Really, it was just a quick exposure of bare skin to the cold…and my hand is still burning. Ouch. I think the swiftness of the transition contributed, but you know what? Cold weather can be really dangerous.

You can die.

I’m warming up in the coffeeshop for a bit, and then I’m bundling up again and heading out. Don’t worry, it’s broad daylight, along well-trafficked roads, and it’s a short hike, but still — y’all be careful out there.

Piero Corsi continues that fine Catholic tradition…

…the tradition of recognizing the Satanic nature of women’s existence. He apparently authored a little tract that he posted as a Christmas message.

"How often do we see girls and mature women going around scantily dressed and in provocative clothes?" Piero Corsi said in a Christmas message posted on the door of his church in the small town of San Terenzio in northwest Italy.

"They provoke the worst instincts, which end in violence or sexual abuse. They should search their consciences and ask: did we bring this on ourselves?" it read.

The leaflet, a copy of which was posted online sparking a wave of outrage across the country, said the 118 women killed in acts of domestic violence in Italy in 2012 had pushed men to their limits.

"Is it possible that all of a sudden men have gone mad? We don’t believe it," Corsi wrote.

"The fact is that women are increasingly provocative, they become arrogant, they believe themselves to be self-sufficient and end up exacerbating the situation," he said.

"Children are abandoned to their own devices, homes are dirty, meals are cold or fast food, clothes are filthy," he added.

"I don’t know whether you’re a queer or not, but what do you feel when you see a naked woman?" he asked a reporter for Rai Radio.

"Are women themselves not causing harm by unveiling themselves like this?"

I’m one of those not-queer people, and yeah, I do feel rather tingly when I see a naked woman…but it doesn’t inspire me to kill them, or abuse them, or commit violence and blame it on women’s bodies.

Must be because I’m not a Catholic.

The power of math!

You know when I started really getting into science? It’s when a high school chemistry teacher chucked a big chunk of the curriculum and taught us practical math instead: how to use the power of estimation to get ballpark estimates of various phenomena. It really woke me up to the power of simple arithmetic and reason.

So here’s a really good example. A couple of people have been raising money to build a gravity powered lamp Just raise a bag full of dirt and let it slowly drop, and the power generated will drive a small reading light, or can be used to recharge batteries, they claim. It’s the same principle that drove my grandparents’ cuckoo clock; every morning they’d pull a chain to raise the weights, and over the course of the day they’d slowly descend, making the whole mechanism tick.

Which immediately made me suspicious — that’s all that pound or two of counterweights did, was make a precisely designed and balanced delicate clock mechanism work. You can really get that much energy, to generate a useable amount of light, with such a trivial amount of input? And then I saw the video, where they raise the weight and the light instantly comes on brightly, with no detectable descent of the weight. This can’t be true, I thought.

But then I read this site, where they whip out the metaphorical envelope and scribble some quick calculations, that same estimation technique my high school teacher showed us how to use. Nope, can’t work. None of the numbers make any sense.

They also highlight one of the creator’s comments:

With hand-cranked devices, it might require three minutes of turning a handle for half-an-hour’s return. With this amount of effort required from the consumer, it’s often not seen as a particularly attractive trade-off. The GravityLight just needs three seconds of lifting for 30 minutes’ return.

Think about that. Somehow, a quick lift of a 10kg weight is now energetically equivalent to three minutes of hard exertion. It does not compute.

I suspect their demo unit has a nice little slot for a 9V battery. And for that they’ve received $280,000. Now that’s the kind of return from input that really violates the laws of nature.

OK, I’m going to back off on the implication of fraud. The commenters say that it would produce some minuscule amount of light; the question is whether it would be sufficient to be at all useful. It’s possible their only crime is exaggeration.

Spleen venting, or the inadequacy of twitter

For the last few days, my twitter account has been getting spammed by some twit named @lettlander; he seems to be one of those Christians who is infatuated with the First Cause argument. Here’s a small sampling:

@f0xhole @pzmyers @Pipenta something appearing out of nothing isn’t just scientifically impossible – it’s logically self-refuting.

@f0xhole @pzmyers @Pipenta The ONLY way the problem of an infinite regress can be solved is the postulation of an extra-natural element

@f0xhole @pzmyers @Pipenta Besides, you’re perfectly fine with scientifically asserting the universe was uncaused, right? Why not “God”?

@f0xhole @pzmyers @Pipenta Since science and philosophy lead us to a concept of a contingent universe, a non-contingent element must exist

Don’t you just love how these guys pompously dress themselves up as philosophers and scientists to defend the silly notion of a god? But let’s go through those one by one.

1. Something appearing out of nothing is impossible? Tell that to Lawrence Krauss and other physicists. Not only can it theoretically happen, it happens all the time. We must be done already — he’s simply wrong.

2. Since I don’t accept the premise that simple causation is present at all levels, microscopic and macroscopic, no, I don’t have to postulate an “extra-natural element”. The initial cause could have been a quantum fluctuation in nothingness, nothing more. I certainly don’t have to postulate a grand, intelligent cosmic being.

3. Caused, uncaused, it doesn’t matter — show me the evidence for an intelligent agent at the beginning of the universe. I’m not a physicist, though, so I’m neither an authority nor a committed proponent of any particular model of origins, and I’ll heed instead what people like Krauss and Hawking and Stenger say…and they all argue that god is an unnecessary hypothesis.

Why not “god”? Why not a purple space gerbil? Why not snot from the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure? Even if @lettlander were correct and there was a reasonable logical argument for a necessary first cause, it wouldn’t mean Jesus was the one.

4. On the large visible scale, the scale that we perceive and operate under, it is true that we see a pattern of contingency, where one event leads to another. But on the quantum scale, that is no longer true: science and philosophy lead us to a completely different, unintuitive understanding of how the universe works, and the naive and silly guesses of theologians do not apply.

And isn’t it cute how these kooks blithely reduce their omnipotent, omniscient god to “non-contingent element”? It’s as if they expect that if we acknowledge the possibility of a spontaneous accident, a fleck, a speck and spatter of a singular dot of existence that is not the product of a causal chain, then they’ve proven the existence of the Christian God, the truth of the Bible, and the veracity of their own personal dogma.

Sorry about all that. I couldn’t fit that all in a tweet — although I suppose I could have reduced it to a simple accusation of “bullshit!” It’s just that these presumptuous pseudoscientists who claim science supports their cult leave me cold and contemptuous.

File this under “People Are Jerks”

You know, many species of turtles are in trouble; they’re just slowly dying off. So one Clemson student, Nathan Weaver, did a very simple experiment: he watched what happens when a turtle crosses the road.

Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near campus. Then he got out of the way and watched over the next hour as seven drivers swerved and deliberately ran over the animal. Several more apparently tried to hit it but missed.

What? People intentionally run over small animals on the road? I’ve been doing it wrong: I hit the brakes or swerve to avoid them, and there have been a couple of times I’ve stopped and carried a turtle across the road.

I’m rather appalled that anyone would think it entertaining to squash turtles just for the hell of it.

In defense of the commentariat

There’s a bit of an argument going on at Ed’s blog, and as usual, one of the things coming up is the familiar complaint about the viciousness of the Pharyngula comments section. I’ve heard this many times before.

I tend to bristle at the idea of judging a blog by its comment section. As Jamie Kilstein said a few months ago, the comment section at PZ’s blog is the 7th circle of hell.

Yes, exactly. And I approve. I am quite fond of most of the commentariat here, even when they’re turning their teeth on me — it is exactly what I want, a fierce legion of harsh, sarcastic, opinionated, ferocious critics who can unreservedly shred fools and assholes and who are unrestrained in their expression. I’m not going to back away from my comments section at all; you are the people I want here, and I affectionately regard you all as my local meatgrinder.

Please don’t change. And when necessary, unleash hell.