Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lazy linking

Carl Zimmer, who blogs at the Loom, has written a great piece for Wired: The Decline and Fall of the Animal Kingdom

NY Times writes about what happens now regarding stem cell research: After Stem-Cell Breakthrough, the Work Begins

International Herald Tribute tells us that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International have committed themselves to give $200 million for eradicating polio: Anti-polio campaign gets $200 million infusion

Via Paul Krugman, I see that potential Republican presidental candidate Mike Huckabee links legalized abortion to the Holocaust. I wonder if that will wake the Hitler Zombie.

Over at Feminsite there is a new Trans 101 thread, where you can get your questions asked.

And remember that you should submit your entires to the next Skeptic's Circle no later than midnight between monday and tuesday. You can submit to me via (an email account created for the 75th circle).
I should note that I reply to all submissions, so if you have submitted something, and haven't gotten a reply from me within the new 24 hours or so, please resubmit it.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I've not plagiarized this post

Because I've actually got permission to use the material, and I am going to credit it to the rightful creator.

In the comments to this post over at ERV, Torbjörn Larsson (who really should get a blog), posted this brilliant riff over Monty Python's classic.

I thought it deserved a wider audience (though these days, the comments over at ERV probably get read by more people than my blog).

I wanted to be... a creationist!

Leaping from text to text, as they spew from the mighty presses of Northern America.
The USA Today. The Post. The Globe! The Wall Street Journal!
The lofty Houston Chronicle! The plucky little Tribune! The limping St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The towering Washington Post! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution!
The naughty Long Island Newsday! The flatulent Arizona Republic!
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer! The Star-Ledger! The Plain Dealer!

With my best buddy by my side, we'd sing! Sing! Sing!

I'm a creationist, and I'm okay.
I lie all night and I lie all day.

He's a creationist, and he's okay.
He lies all night and he lies all day.

I cut down facts. I fudge my hunch.
I create my evo strawman.
On Sundays I go preachin'
And serve false choices for creos.

He cuts down facts. He fudges his hunch.
He creates his evo strawman.
On Sundays he go preachin'
And serves false choices for creos.

He's a creationist, and he's okay.
He lies all night and he lies all day.

I cut down facts. I Gish and gallop.
I like to press wild fallacies.
I put on scientist's clothing
And hang around in labs.

He cuts down facts. He Gish and gallop.
He likes to press wild fallacies.
He puts on scientist's clothing
And hangs around in labs?!

He's a creationist, and he's okay.
He lies all night and he lies all day.

I find out facts. I have high hopes,
proposals, and a grant.
I wish I'd been an academic,
Just like my dear Professor.

He finds down facts. He has high hopes,
proposals, and a grant?!

What's this? Wants to be an academic?! Oh, My!
And I thought you were so gullible! Non-poofer!...

He's a creationist, and he's okay.
He lies all night and he lies all day.

He's a creationist, and he's okaaaaay.
He lies all night and he lies all day.

[Creo choir starts hurling worthless copies of Edge of Evolution on a defenseless Behe.]

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Slowing the speed of light

Living in a small country like Denmark, it's rare that you an read about scientists from the same country who have made real breakthroughs in science. There have been a few through the years, with Niels Bohr and Tycho Brahe are the two most well-known.

The current issue of Wired mentions a current Danish scientist, who has done something really spectacular.

Lene Vestergaard Hau can stop a pulse of light in midflight, start it up again at 0.13 miles per hour, and then make it appear in a completely different location. "It's like a little magic trick," says Hau, a Harvard physicist. "Of course, in all magic tricks there's a secret." And her secret is a 0.1-mm lump of atoms called a Bose-Einstein condensate, cooled nearly to absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) in a steel container with tiny windows. Normally — well, in a vacuum — light goes 186,282 miles per second. But things are different inside a BEC, a strange place where millions of atoms move — barely — in quantum lockstep.

I won't pretend that I even begin to understand the ideas and principles behind this amazing feat, but it's fascinating that it's possible.

Perhaps unsurprising, there have been a lot of coverage of her work in Denmark, but it's interesting that her research has become well known enough for a popular magazine like Wired to write about it.

Back in February, NPR interviewed Lene Vestergaard Hau about her work - you can listen to the interview here.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Having a science education doesn't make you a scientist

New York Times has a interesting, and somewhat frustrating, article about Young Earth Creationists.

Rock of Ages, Ages of Rock By Hanna Rosin

It's interesting because it present us with YECs who actually have an education in the field they are talking about - the article starts out talking about the First Conference on Creation Geology - and how they have to reject the scientific method to keep their deluded beliefs. It's also interesting because it tells us a little about how these YECs create problems for Christian scientists in general, since they have an undue influence.

It's frustrating because the article doesn't make clear that what they are saying go against all scientific evidence (though they half-way admit it themselves), and it's even more frustrating because Rosin keeps talking about the YECs as scientists, even though they are clearly not! It takes more than a science education to become a scientist - you have to follow the scientific method, and go where the evidence leads you. When you have someone saying

“If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.”

Then he is not a scientist. So stop calling them that!

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Just thought I'd share this

I just started on The Year's Best Fantasy Stories edited by Lin Carter, which was published in 1975 (but covers the year 1974). He writes a bit of what have happened on the fantasy front during 1974, and as part of this, he writes this paragraph.

A modest number of new fantasy novels came out during the year, mostly from familiar authors of reliable abilities, such as Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson and Andre Norton. But for most readers, and the great big wide and wonderful world of Real Books out there beyond the limited confines of our small genre, 1974 was the year of an explosive blockbuster of a book called Watership Down by a hitherto unknown writer with the uninspired name of Richard Adams. This odd item is being billed by the biggies of Criticdom as the Iliad and the Odyssey of the rabbits - you heard me, rabbits: it's about rabbits; yes I said rabbits. Anyway, it's the first time I can remember when a fantasy novel got to the top of the New York Times' bestseller list (something neither Tolkien nor C. S. Lewis ever did, although I'm not sure T. H. White didn't), and it shows every sign of turning into a Big Book on Campus and a cult classic just like Tolkien.

While he overestimated the future impact of the book somewhat (though it is still around, and read), I love his description of the book ("you heard me, rabbits", "yes I said rabbits").

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

A bit of pondering caused by google searches

A frightening large number of my daily hits comes from Google searches on Danish rapper Natasja Saad, whose death I covered initially here and a little more here. As I wrote at the time, she was a classmate of mine back in 7th to 9th grade, when we were early teenagers.

Since we parted ways, I followed her career both as a jockey and as a rapper/singer from a distance, and kept track of what she was doing. Her musical style wasn't necessarily what I normally listen to, but there was no doubt that she had talent, and this also became more and more recognized by others as well. Just before her death, she had had something of a breakthrough, getting a fair amount of air play on Danish radio, and everyone expected her next album to really make her name.

Instead she got killed in a meaningless car accident, most likely caused by a combination of a drunk and high driver and a lack of seatbelt.

Her album was almost finished when she died, and Natasja's mother asked the producers to go ahead and release it, since that was what Natasja would have wanted. The album was released in september.

I haven't been able to face her music except in those small doses played on radio. However, I came across the album the other day, and bought it, and am listening to it right now.

What can I say? I am sitting with tears in my eyes, but damn it's a good album. Natasja had opinions, political or otherwise, and wasn't afraid of including them in her music. While Natasja was closer to certain alternative places, like Ungdomshuset and Christiania, than I'll ever be, but I find many of her messages very relevant in the current political situation in Denmark. We could certainly use other musicians like her, who dare to tell the truth as they see it.

I've included some youtube videos of her music.

If people want more information about what's currently happening related to Natasja, then her Myspace profile is the place to go.

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Where is the outrage?

Remember how we always hear about how progressives/feminists ignore the plight of women in Iraq/Afghanistan/whatever country the neo-Cons wants to invade next?

Well, there is a really bad case in Saudi Arabia right now, where a woman who was raped, has been sentenced to first 90 lashes, and later, on appeal, to 200 lashes and six months in jail, for having been alone with a man she wasn't related to. The man was also raped. There is a short summary of the case here.

Remember the arguments for going into Iraq? Not the ones related to WMD, but the ones used when none were found - the arguments about torture, injustice and repression of women? (ok, and ties to terrorists). All of these arguments could better be used for a war against Saudi Arabia, as shown by this case, yet the US won't even condemn the verdict. When State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked about the case, he basically said that the US would do nothing

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack avoided directly criticizing the Saudi judiciary over the case, but said the verdict "causes a fair degree of surprise and astonishment."

"It is within the power of the Saudi government to take a look at the verdict and change it," McCormack said.

I am not arguing that the Western world should wage a war against Saudi Arabia because of this, but I think it is necessary to face the truth about our ally in the "War Against Terror". It's a religious totalitarian state, with a barbaric justice system, where the whims (and prejudices) of the judges rule supreme. It's a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists, which the rules won't crack down upon, for fear of the terrorists start targeting them (need I break down the numbers of the 9/11 hijackers?)

In Denmark, the government is trying to work out a consensus about an approach with the rest of the EU, while a number of parties in parliament (from the socialists to the far-right populists/racists) are calling for Denmark to withdraw the ambassador from Saudi Arabia in protest. Personally, I am all for withdrawing the ambassador, and wouldn't mind some kind of sanctions as well.

According to the first article, the victim has appealed her sentence, and I think it's important that pressure be put upon the Saudi Royalty to pressure the judges, and if that's not enough, to pardon the woman her "crimes". This is something both the US and the EU should get behind.

In the long run, Saudi Arabia should be pressured to join the modern world, and leave their barbaric medieval laws in the past, where they belong.

Edit: Hillary Clinton is speaking up about the case.
Clinton attacks Bush over jailed Saudi rape victim (The Independent)
Candidates slam Saudi rape verdict (CNN)
The CNN article also tells us that Edwards and Biden have spoken up about the case.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I've heard about omnipresent but omnidirectional?

PLoS Biology brings us the news about a discovery of an omnidirectional fish. The black ghost knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons) uses a weak electric field to actively monitor its surrounding. This sort of monitoring is different from the ones that we usually see in that it's active, rather than passive (which we humans engage in).

PLoS Biology has been nice enough to write an synopsis about this discovery. That makes it a lot easier for us non-biologists to understand the meaning of the original article (excellent as that might be). The articles own authors' summary isn't too bad though

Most animals, including humans, have sensory and motor capabilities that are biased in the forward direction. The black ghost knifefish, a nocturnal, weakly electric fish from the Amazon, is an interesting exception to this general rule. We demonstrate that these fish have sensing and motor capabilities that are omnidirectional. By combining video analysis of prey capture trajectories with computational modeling of the fish's electrosensory capabilities, we were able to quantify and compare the 3-D volumes for sensation and movement. We found that the volume in which prey are detected is similar in size to the volume needed by the fish to stop. We suggest that this coupling may arise from constraints that the animal faces when using self-generated energy to probe its environment. This is similar to the way in which the angular coverage and range of an automobile's headlights are designed to match certain motion characteristics of the vehicle, such as its typical cruising speed, turning angle, and stopping distance. We suggest that the degree of overlap between sensory and movement volumes can provide insight into the types of control strategies that are best suited for guiding behavior.

So, we're dealing with a fish that can sense in all directions, and then move in any direction where it might locate prey. That sounds like a pretty good advantage to have while hunting (or escaping for that matter). So, why doesn't all, or at least a large number, of animals have this ability? Well, first of all, they would have to been maritime, as they need water for the electric field. Second of all, such things comes at a cost. As the summary clearly states.

Although it's certainly useful to be able to sense in all directions, active sensing comes at a cost; energetically, it's very expensive to generate a good-sized electric field, since the signal falls off rapidly with distance.

Obviously, this leads to a shorter detection range - according to the findings, the black ghost knifefish had a averagee estimated prey detection distance of about 3.5 cm from the fish's body. Hardly a substitute for good eyes in areas with sparse food resources.

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Newest Skeptics' Circle is up

The 74th Skeptics' Circle is up at Med Journal Watch.

The next Skeptics' Circle will be hosted by this humble blog on December 6th. If you have any material that you find fitting for the 75th Skeptics' Circle, you can mail it to me at (an email account created for the occasion). I need to have them in hand no later than the end of December 3rd (there is a time difference to take into consideration, but if you mail your contribution that day, I should have it early enough to use).

Now, go read the 74th Skeptics' Circle


Giant bug fossil found

A fossilized claw of a 8 feet long sea scorpion, living 390 million years ago, has been discovered. This is the largest insect ever discovered according to the article, though it's speculated that Arthropleuridae could be as long as 10 feet.

The paper about the discovery can be found at the Royal Society's Biology Letters (link to abstract), which unfortunately is behind a pay-wall.

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Race and intelligence

I see that William Saletan has written a piece in Slate called Race, genes, and intelligence, or rather he has written 3 articles, starting with that one.

Saletan is a careful writer, so he adds a lot of remarks about average doesn't equal individuals, but he is basically writing about the long debunked idea that there is some kind of racial base for intelligence.

There is probably some basis in the belief that heritage has an influence on intelligence, but only if we speak about genetic and social heritage. The kind of heritage the Bell Curve crowd (Saletan included) speaks about, only take skin pigment into account, and ignores the simple fact that unless you can show some kind of relation between IQ and the genes that influences the skin color of an individual, there is no more common heritage between an African American, a Zulu, an Australian Aboriginal, and Moroccan, than there is between any of those and a Northern European. Speaking about heritage, when referring to skin color is just trying to hide the real meaning.

IQ is known to be heavily influenced by upbringing, health, and other social factors, where the poorest part of the population have a lower IQ than the richest part. Given the racial inequity, it shouldn't come as a surprise that black people in the US on average scores lower on IQ tests (as the Irish did in the past).
Anyway, IQ isn't really a particular good measure of intelligence - and again, intelligence is not even a well-defined attribute.

Greg Laden, a man who knows much more about this subject than I do, have written some good posts about race and iQ in the past, but two relevant posts are:
this and this.

Edit: I forgot to say that I became aware of Saletan's articles through Tapped

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The future of AIDS treatment

MSNBC has an article, Finding the way again after failed AIDS vaccine, about the future of HIV/AIDS treatment, after the recent failure of a new vaccine by Merck (not only didn't it help people, it seemed like the vaccination might make it easier for people to get infected by HIV).

The MSNBC article raises some good point, especially at the end, where Robert Bazell writes

But meanwhile we do know that treatment works well for those who are infected, and old-fashioned prevention efforts keep people from getting infected in the first place. Perhaps it is time to re-think the priorities.

I think Bazell is both right and wrong. Yes, we should up-prioritize research into treatments, and focus on proper sex-ed (which is most assuredly not abstinence-only sex-ed). On the other hand, it is also necessary to find a cure for HIV, and we shouldn't cut back on that. Instead, we could cut back on many other less urgent, or directly wasteful, things (think what kind of resources an end to the Iraq war would free).

Another thing we need to educate people on, is what causes HIV/AIDS, so AIDS-denialists are rejected as the idiots they are. Now, too much credence is made to their dangerous ideas by far too many people, including people in positions of power.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Light blogging ahead

As people might have noticed, I have been somewhat inactive lately. There is a simple reason for that - life is busy, and that means less time and energy for blogging.

Currently, I'm fairly busy at work, and on top of that I'm working on a paper for school. The paper is an evaluation on a new approach for restarting an algorithm for finding the modified Max-flow of a network, where one of the arches have been modified (if that didn't make sense to you, don't worry, I'm planning on blogging a bit on the max-flow problem in the future). On top of that, I'm under the weather, and have some personal stuff going on (all good, but time consuming).

All of this doesn't mean that I'm unaware that I'm soon to be the next host of the Skeptics' Circle. As a matter of a fact, after tomorrow's Skeptics' Circle over at Medjournal Watch, I'm up.

Since I have some serious issues with my public mail (, don't, I repeat don't, send any emails to that address. I'll make sure to post a new one for posts related to the 75th circle, after the 74th has been held.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Michael Medved named senior fellow of the Discovery Institute

I see that according to William Dembski, the Discovery Institute has named radio host Michael Medved a Senior Fellow.

Michael Medved, nationally syndicated talk radio host and bestselling author, has joined the Discovery Institute in the role of senior fellow. The position cements a longstanding friendship and recognizes a commonality of values and projects across a spectrum of issues.

I wonder if these shared values include defending slavery?

Of course, neo-Creationism (and neo-Conservatism) is not the only wacko belief that Medved has - this comes from his own website:

Dan Sytman, Michael's long-time producer and now highly successful co-host of his own morning show, once saw Bigfoot at the edge of a summer camp in the woods. Even before meeting Dan, Michael was a passionate believer in Sasquatch.

Sounds like he will fit right in into the Discovery Institute.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Invasive fish in Australia

As most people are probably well aware, Australia has a lot of trouble with invasive species. Of course, people tend to think of rabbits and maybe rats, foxes, and Cane Toads. There is, however, another widespread one - the European, or Common, Carp. This particular invasive species is also widespread in the US and Canada, causing problems for the native fish.

From Australia, there is now evidence that the current drought that New South Wales is experiencing, is reducing the spreading of the carp. While the drought obviously have some bad consequences on a number of things, it might make it possible to get rid of these unwanted fish, who makes up 80-90% of all fish in inland NSW.

Even if the fish are not removed, the drought has led to new knowledge about their breeding habits, allowing for more efficient combating of the fish.

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