Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Creationists causes scientist to retract parts of paper

Israel Barrantes linked to this news in a comment over at ERV, and I thought it interesting enough that it should get mentioned.

NY Times reports that professor Homer Jacobson is retracting his 1955 paper, “Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life”, published in American Scientist.

The reason he is retracting it, is that he came across references to it, while ego-googeling his name. Those references where all from Creationist sites that used it to support their unscientific claims., for example, says Dr. Jacobson’s paper “undermines the scenario that life could have come about by accident.” Another creationist site,, says his findings mean that “within a few minutes, all the various parts of the living organism had to make themselves out of sloshing water,” an impossible feat without a supernatural hand.

“Ouch,” Dr. Jacobson said. “It was hideous.”

Of course, those sites completely misunderstands the paper, but they made Dr. Jacobson take a look at the paper again, and he found some bad mistakes in it.

Things grew worse when he reread his paper, he said, because he discovered errors. One related to what he called a “conjecture” about whether amino acids, the basic building blocks of protein and a crucial component of living things, could form naturally.

“Under the circumstances I mention, just a bunch of chemicals sitting together, no,” he said. “Because it takes energy to go from the things that make glycine to glycine, glycine being the simplest amino acid.”

There were potential sources of energy, he said. So to say that nothing much would happen in its absence “is totally beside the point.” “And that is a point I did not make,” he added.

Another assertion in the paper, about what would have had to occur simultaneously for living matter to arise, is just plain wrong, he said, adding, “It was a dumb mistake, but nobody ever caught me on it.”

So, Dr. Jacobson decided to retract the paper, since it was flawed, and misused by Creationists.

Of course, the Creationists claim that Dr. Jacobson is retracting it because looking pro-creationist can cause a scientist trouble. Never mind that in the intermediate 50-odd year, Jacobson wasn't even aware that his paper was misused, and it obviously didn't cause him any trouble.

Of course, the truth is much more simple, and shows the strength of science. Jacobson realized that he had written something that was wrong, and took the necessary steps to correct it.

As a note, I should perhaps say that while the NY Times article makes it sound like he is retracting the whole paper, he is in reality on retracting parts of the paper - those parts that contained the errors (which interestingly enough are the parts referenced by Creationists).

In his letter to American Scientist, Dr. Jacobson states:

In January 1955, American Scientist published my article, "Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life" (Vol. 43, No. 1). I ask you to honor my request to retract two brief passages,

The letter also makes quite clear that the misuse of the paper by Creationists is the direct cause for him to ask for such a late retraction.

Retraction this untimely is not normally undertaken, but in this case I request it because of continued irresponsible contemporary use by creationists who have quoted my not merely out-of-context, but incorrect, statements, to support their dubious viewpoint. I am deeply embarrassed to have been the originator of such misstatements, allowing bad science to have come into the purview of those who use it for anti-science ends.

Personally I applaud his decision.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Krugman speaks sense (again)

Paul Krugman is a reliable source for sensible commentary on both US politics and economics. His newest op-ed in NY Times is another example of that.

Fearing Fear Itself

Consider, for a moment, the implications of the fact that Rudy Giuliani is taking foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, who wants us to start bombing Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.”

Mr. Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a founding neoconservative, tells us that Iran is the “main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11.” The Islamofascists, he tells us, are well on their way toward creating a world “shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes.” Indeed, “Already, some observers are warning that by the end of the 21st century the whole of Europe will be transformed into a place to which they give the name Eurabia.”

Do I have to point out that none of this makes a bit of sense?

For one thing, there isn’t actually any such thing as Islamofascism — it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination. The term came into vogue only because it was a way for Iraq hawks to gloss over the awkward transition from pursuing Osama bin Laden, who attacked America, to Saddam Hussein, who didn’t. And Iran had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 — in fact, the Iranian regime was quite helpful to the United States when it went after Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

Beyond that, the claim that Iran is on the path to global domination is beyond ludicrous. Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in many ways, and it would be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear weapons. But let’s have some perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s.

Europe doesn't consider Iran a threat - maybe that should make the US stop up and think for a moment? Iran is after all much closer to Europe than to the US, and while Israel would be the closest target, Europe is certainly a much more likely target for Iranian nuclear weapons than the US, if nothing else, then because of geographic reasons (distance). Of course, other Middle Eastern countries are more likely targets for a Iranian attack, given the very real political and religious differences between Iran and a number of its neighbors.

Yes, Iran should be pressured to not get nuclear weapons, but that should be done through political paths, and based on a realistic evaluation of the threat they create, not through threats and ridiculous claims about the dangers Iran process.

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People obviously prioritize differently

The ScienceBloggers are holding their annual fund-raising for DonorsChoose, trying to help underfunded schools give their students a better education.

Like last year, people have been generous in donating money (though I'm sue DonorsChoose could get more if they opened up for international donations). It's sad that it's necessary for such fund raising, but it's good that people are willing to give money to further these students' education.

Today I came across a good article on Answers in Genesis' Creation Museum. While reading that, I was once again struck by the cost of that museum.

It was funded through private donations, and cost $27 million. That's $27 million used to combat science and sound education.

Think of what those money could have been used to, if donated to organizations like DonorsChoose.

Currently the ScienceBloggers have raised $45,168 - an impressive amount - and funded projects that impact 10,654 students. In rough numbers, that $4.5 for every student impacted. Now, it obvious that such numbers don't scale, but let's say that it take ten times as much to impact a student when looking at a greater scale, i.e. for every $45 used, a student gets a slightly better education.

Now, using those numbers, if those $27 million had been used to help kids get a better education, they would have impacted 600,000 students. Heck, if we think it would take a hundred time as much to impact a student ($450), it would still have helped 60,000 students. That's sixty thousand students!

That's pretty sickening numbers. And it gets worse. AiG claims that the museum has had 200,000 visitors. According to the article, the entrance fee is $19.95. It's doubtful that everyone have paid the full price to get in, but if just half the claimed visitors have done so, it would still mean that the museum would have gotten approximately $2 million in revenues. That money could have funded another 45,000 or 4,500 students' education.

Instead those $29 million have gone towards teaching 200,000 people lies and anti-science. Some of those people are not going to buy into them, but too large a number will.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

New Skeptics' Circle is up

72th Skeptics' Circle is up at Quackometer. Go enjoy the best of the latest skeptical blogging.

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Giuliani is objectively pro-torture

Salon reports that leading Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani says that waterboarding might not be torture, and that liberal newspapers have exaggerated the technique's brutality.

Waterboarding has been used for a long time, e.g. by the Japanese during WWII, but has gained notoriety since it became well known that the CIA uses the technique against prisoners in Iraq.

Wikipedia has a good entry on waterboarding, where it is clear that while well-done waterboarding doesn't leave physical marks, they leave deep psychological marks (badly done waterboarding leaves physical marks as well, such as lung or brain damage).

Giuliani might think that it's debatable if waterboarding is torture or not, but a number of US law professors have signed a letter calling for an end to its use, in which they make clear in clear terms that it's torture (directly stating "Waterboarding is torture."). Fellow Republican candidate John McCain, who has been on the receiving end of torture, wrote the following in Newsweek

For instance, there has been considerable press attention to a tactic called "waterboarding," where a prisoner is restrained and blindfolded while an interrogator pours water on his face and into his mouth--causing the prisoner to believe he is being drowned. He isn't, of course; there is no intention to injure him physically. But if you gave people who have suffered abuse as prisoners a choice between a beating and a mock execution, many, including me, would choose a beating. The effects of most beatings heal. The memory of an execution will haunt someone for a very long time and damage his or her psyche in ways that may never heal. In my view, to make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture.

Today McCain would probably be more indirect in his choice of words, but he clearly feels strongly about this (I recommend reading the entire piece by him, in which he among other things dismisses the 'ticking bomb scenario').

Even the US government considers waterboarding torture, at least when committed by others, e.g. Tunisia ("The forms of torture and other abuse included: electric shock; submersion of the head in water;").

For a presidential candidate to state that not only is he unclear of whether waterboarding is torture, but that the liberal media has exaggerated the brutality of the technique, should be grounds for immediate dismissal by the voters. Unfortunately that's not likely to happen, as Giuliani runs on a "tough on terrorists" platform, and the type of voters this appeals to, don't mind torture of "terrorists", if they get the impression that it keeps them safe, and especially not if they can justify it by claiming that it's probably not as bad as the media makes it sound.

Any attempt to justify torture, or to downplay the severity of torture, can only have one reason - to defend the use of torture, and to make it possible to continue to use torture in the future. This is why I state that Giuliani is objectively pro-torture.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Serious mail issues

I've become aware that I have some serious issues with my public mail account at the moment - apparently it automatically deletes all mails unread.

There is no setting for this, so I frankly don't have a clue what is going on. I will try to fix it ASAP (probably early next week), and it might very well end up with me closing and re-opening that particular account.

If I haven't reacted to something you've sent me within the last week or so, that's the reason. I simply haven't seen the mail.

Leave a comment if you think there is something I should be aware of.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Election time

There have been a couple of elections in Europe lately.

In Poland Jaroslaw Kaczyński lost, and a more sane government is expected to form. You know that you're unpopular when both Russia and the EU is happy that you lost. Unfortunately, his twin Lech Kaczyński is still the president of Poland.

Switzerland also held elections, with the rightwing Swiss People's Party as the big winner, getting 30% of the votes. The largest block ever received by a Swiss political party. They have stated that they are going to form a broad coalition government, but there is no doubt that the result will pull Switzerland to the right, and towards harsher anti-immigrant measures.

And today the Danish prime minster announced that Denmark will have an election on November 13th. This was not unsurprising, as the government has risen in recent polls, and stands to win the election, with the help of their support party, Dansk Folkeparti.

Danish politics are quite confusing to outsiders, with parties spanning from the Anarcho-communist Enhedslisten (the Unity List, a coalition of a number of far-left parties), over the more traditional socialists, social democrats and conservatives parties to the right-wing, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti (Danish Peoples' Party). However, the current political situation can be briefly be summed up thus:

Normally Danish politics is formed by consensus across a broad political spectrum, but during the current government, Danish politics is best characterized as block politics, with the right-winged government parties Venstre (literately translated as Left), a typical liberal party in the European sense, and Det Konservative Folkeparti (the Conservative Peoples' Party), being supported by the anti-immigrant populist party Dansk Folkeparti.

Against them stands a coalition of 4 center-left parties, will try to get the leader of Socialdemokraterne (the Social Democrats) elected as prime minister. There are some very big differences between the parties in this coalition, and if they win the election, it would probably mean that the new government would have to form consensus across the middle to the two current government parties on a number of issues.

Personally, I just about don't care what the results will be, as long as Dansk Folkeparti looses their influence. I consistently vote against them, and try to optimize my vote to have the greatest negative impact on their power. I'd rather have the far-left people in power, even though I'm pretty sure it would lead the country to bankruptcy if kept up for too long.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Graffiti seems to be everywhere

What do you know, archaeologists find an old wall, and someone has painted something on it, yet for some strange reason, they seem excited about it.

Archaeologists unearth ancient painting

French archaeologists have discovered an 11,000-year-old wall painting underground in northern Syria which they believe is the oldest in the world.

The two-square-metre painting, in red, black and white, was found at the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara on the Euphrates, north east of the city of Aleppo, team leader Eric Coqueugniot told Reuters.

"It looks like a modernist painting. Some of those who saw it have likened it to work by (Paul) Klee. Through carbon dating we established it is from around 9,000 BC," Coqueugniot said.

11,000 years! That's pretty amazing. And remember, it's fully 5,000 years older than some people believe the age of the Earth to be. I can't help pity them all the wonder they miss through their adherence to dogma.

The best news is that there seems to be more..

"We found another painting next to it, but that won't be excavated until next year. It is slow work," said Coqueugniot, who works at France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

Rectangles dominate the ancient painting, which formed part of an adobe circular wall of a large house with a wooden roof. The site has been excavated since the early 1990s.

Not only is it the oldest painting on a constructed wall that we know off, it's also a fair bit older than the previously oldest one.

The world's oldest painting on a constructed wall was one found in Turkey but that was dated 1,500 years after the one at Djade al-Mughara, according to Science magazine.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Atheism and Creationism in the news

A couple of atheism-related stories caught my attention, so I thought I'd share them.

In the Chrisitan Post we have this rather interesting headline: Atheist China Vows to Encourage Religion

That sounds interesting, doesn't it? Sounds like that China is making a complete turn-around on the issue of religion.
When reading the article, it becomes clear that this is far from the case.

China has promised to offer religious services to foreigners at the 2008 Olympic Games and to have religion play a positive role in the future of the officially atheist country, the top religious affairs official said Wednesday.

Yes, they say that they won't crack down hard on religion and religious groups in the future, but instead encourage them to "play a positive role 'in promoting economic and social development'". Well, that's not exactly encouraging religion is it? Instead it is encouraging religious people to work with the regime in a way that the regime approves off.

A different matter, but one which we have seen so many times before, an atheist family is standing up for their religious freedom, and their freedom from religion.

Atheist Family Sues School Over Popular Program

Quite a loaded headline isn't it? 'Popular' is such a positive word, but words like 'unconstitutional' would perhaps have fitted better? That seems to be what one family believes after all.

A popular program in the Cherry Creek School District has come under fire from atheists. The group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit claiming the school district is promoting religion.

A lawsuit, filed in federal court, claims the school district is violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and an atheist family claim the program, called 40 Developmental Assets, encourages religion over non-religion.

"A public school system shouldn't be recommending students go to church or not go to church," said Bob Tiernan, attorney for the atheist family. "That's an individual decision made by parents and children."

I came across a great summary of recent events related to Creationism and neo-Creationism in Europe and the US.

Holding Back The Flood

Currently it looks like there is going to be a new government in Poland after the up-coming elections, and among the reasons for that is the kind of behavior described in the article.

In Poland, Deputy Minister of Education, Miroslaw Orzechowski, a member of the ultra-conservative league of Polish Families dispensed with the notion of evolution by calling it a “lie”.

Hopefully, the rest of the politicians sprouting such nonsense will also get kicked out of their positions, though I must admit that I don't hold high hopes for the US in this regard.

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Dumbledore was gay

I guess all Harry Potter fans have already seen this, but J.K. Rowling has outed Dumbledore.

While I think it is great that Rowling states that Dumbledore was gay, it would have been much better if the books had actually shown this. Think of how much this would have done for LGBT acceptance?

Sara has more.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lazy linking - I've got a cold edition

It's starting to get close to freezing here in Denmark, and somehow I've managed to get a nasty cold, which leaves me less than energetic. So, instead of writing something substantial, I'll link to other people doing so.

Frank Rich has an op-ed in the NY Times on the acceptance of torture in the US: The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us. In that op-ed, Rich links to a column by Andrew Sullivan in the Times: Bush’s torturers follow where the Nazis led. I disagree with Sullivan strongly on a number of issues, but he has always been on the right side when it comes to torture.

David Neiwert comments on a report by the SPLC: Gay bashers are coming out - I read the article in the SPLC's magazine, Intelligence Report1, that Neiwert refers to, and it's scary reading. Pam Spaulding , over at Pandagon, adds her thoughts: Ken Hutcherson, Latvian fundies to work on anti-gay strategy at WA conference.
Beth, one of the commenters to Neiwert's post, linked to an article that should make it clear what kind of danger these people are: Russian Neo-Nazis follow tactics of Al-Qaeda

1 The SPLC is actually kind enough to send me the magazine, even though I live in Denmark.

I was contacted by a guy who runs a cafepress shop, Trilobite clothes, which has science-inspired clothes. Some of it seems pretty cool, so I thought I'd link to his shop.

Skeptico has shared the Woo Handbook with the rest of us.

Wired brings the story of another blasphemous American: Scotch Maverick Reinvents a Once-Conservative Drink

Halfway through our interview, John Glaser walks away from the table, leaving me alone with the tools of his trade: graduated cylinders, conical measures, tasting glasses, water and several flasks of Scotch whisky. At his urging, I'm going to create my own personal Scotch. I measure out 10-milliliter working tastes of each whisky, dilute them precisely from cask proof to 40 percent strength, and take a stab. Glaser makes it sound easy, but I'm not so sure. Maybe a few exploratory tastes will loosen me up.

It's a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Chiswick, London. The energetic Glaser, a forty-something Minnesotan whose ready grin mitigates his piercing gaze, is the sole whiskymaker of Compass Box, the boutique company he founded in 2000 after quitting his job as a marketing director for Johnnie Walker. At Compass Box, he's introduced some of the first innovations in decades to the craft of making and blending Scotch -- and in so doing, has won both accolades and brickbats from the conservative guardians of the whisky industry.

I like whisky a lot, and would be happy to try Glaser's product, however, I am a bit skeptical of the whole tone of the article. Perhaps that's because I've noticed that every time Wired writes about an American who does something that's traditionally been done by Europeans, they always say that the American revolutionize the industry.

Tim Lambert, of Deltoid, takes on those widely reported 'nine errors' from An Inconvenient Truth: An 'error' is not the same thing as an error.
Read it to see what he means.

Edit: forgot to mention that Shelley Batts is competing for a $10,000 college blogging scholarship. Go vote for her here


Better understanding of mammalian hearing

I had the impression that the hows and whys of hearing was pretty much known, at least when it came to mammals, but a new discovery shows that I was wrong about that.

ScienceDaily reports on it.

New Hearing Mechanism Discovered

MIT researchers have discovered a hearing mechanism that fundamentally changes the current understanding of inner ear function. This new mechanism could help explain the ear's remarkable ability to sense and discriminate sounds. Its discovery could eventually lead to improved systems for restoring hearing.

MIT Professor Dennis M. Freeman, working with graduate student Roozbeh Ghaffari and research scientist Alexander J. Aranyosi, found that the tectorial membrane, a gelatinous structure inside the cochlea of the ear, is much more important to hearing than previously thought. It can selectively pick up and transmit energy to different parts of the cochlea via a kind of wave that is different from that commonly associated with hearing.

The article explains in some detail how this discovery differentiates from our former knowledge.

It has been known for over half a century that inside the cochlea sound waves are translated into up-and-down waves that travel along a structure called the basilar membrane. But the team has now found that a different kind of wave, a traveling wave that moves from side to side, can also carry sound energy. This wave moves along the tectorial membrane, which is situated directly above the sensory hair cells that transmit sounds to the brain. This second wave mechanism is poised to play a crucial role in delivering sound signals to these hair cells.

In short, the ear can mechanically translate sounds into two different kinds of wave motion at once. These waves can interact to excite the hair cells and enhance their sensitivity, "which may help explain how we hear sounds as quiet as whispers," says Aranyosi. The interactions between these two wave mechanisms may be a key part of how we are able to hear with such fidelity - for example, knowing when a single instrument in an orchestra is out of tune.

It's always fascinating when scientists expand on our knowledge, especially so when it's on our knowledge of how the body functions.

The research has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (with the graduate student as the first-name author), and it's a featured article, so it's available for free.

Longitudinally propagating traveling waves of the mammalian tectorial membrane

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Are online social networks a waste of time?

As people might have noticed, I link to a couple of online network profiles from this blog (MySpace and Facebook), and I am a member of a couple more (LinkedIn plus a few others). Perhaps it's not surprising that people some times asks me why I am a member of such things, and if it's worth doing.

Like everything else, the answer to that question is a bit complicated, and really depends on who you are.

There is no doubt that online networks are very popular, and that in certain parts of society, they are widespread. When looking at the list of websites that Americans spend the most time on, MySpace is number one with about 12% of all internet time (the list can be found a few posts back). MySpace more or less started out as a tool for bands to promote themselves, and has morphed into something much bigger - personally I dislike MySpace, but I still have a profile because I find it practical (and because I got asked often enough if I had a profile there).
For bands who want to promote themselves, MySpace is probably a good tool, but for the rest of us, the site is not particularly practical, and is probably mostly used because it's the most widespread one.

Facebook has a different feel than MySpace, and that's probably because it started out as a proper online social network for college students, where they could communicate and keep in touch. The goal of Facebook is not to promote something, and that shows - where it could be argued that MySpace focuses on form over functionality, I would say that the opposite is the case with Facebook (with the ironic result that many of us think much better of Facebook's form).
If you want to play music or movieclips when people visit your profile, Facebook is not the network for you.

LinkedIn is the online network that I am most familiar with, having used it for some years. Unlike MySpace and Facebook, LinkedIn sells itself as a professional network, where you keep track of your business contacts. It's quite popular among IT people, and it certainly comes handy when doing a bit of research of people/companies.
The focus of your LinkedIn profile is to present your professional side - basically visitors to your profile can see your CV (or however much of it you make public), so they can get an idea of your qualifications.

I've got asked to apply for jobs a couple of times because people came across my LinkedIn profile, and found it relevant. I've also used it as a tool of contact when I wanted to get hold of someone that I knew someone else knew. And as a consultant, it's a good tool of keeping track of co-workers from former projects.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only network of these three that I regularly recommend is LinkedIn. However, that depends very much on what your needs are. Most high school kids get a lot more out of MySpace than they would ever do from a LinkedIn profile.

So, to conclude a little, online networks are a great tool for keeping track of your contacts, and promote yourself - you just have to choose the right network for your purpose. In other words, know your needs, and use the right tool to fulfill them.

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The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

A blogging and scientific experiment.

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

*You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g. Pro-science to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My great-grandparent is Pharyngula.
My grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My parent is The Flying Trilobite

The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is:
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

The best feminist movie in scientific dystopias is:
The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

The best sexy song in rock is:
A Kiss Between the Legs by D.A.D. (formerly Disneyland After Dark) on their Everything Glows album.

The best cult novel in Canadian fiction is:
Micorserfs by Douglas Coupland

I call upon the following to continue this scientific experiment:
"ae" and sometimes "ä"

Beep Beep It's Me

Faux Real


Tyler and Foxy's Scientific and Mathematical Adventure Land

Hot Cup of Joe

Sara Speaking

White Coat Underground

Anyone else who wants to play out this science experiment, please do, and let me know!

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Congratulations to the new Nobel Prize winners

A number of great people have won the Nobel Prizes this year, but I am especially thrilled by the winners of the Peace prize.

Ant the winners are....
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr

Cue the right-winged/anti-science blogs yelling about political prizes.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How completely gullible can you be?

And still run for US president I might add.

Mitt Romney made a somewhat startling claim during the weekend, and Washington Post reported it uncritically.

"It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking," Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. "In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past."

One would think that the Washington Post would point out that it is complete nonsense, wouldn't you?

Romney is completely delusional - he has so little grasp of reality that Alan Keyes starts to seem like a rational choice (okay, a bit of hyperbole there).

Keep that man out of the White House.

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Anyone remember geocities?

No? What about Angelfire?

Wired draws our attention to Compete's analysis of how 2001's internet star sites are doing today. By internet stars, they mean those sites with most US traffic.

It's a quite interesting list.

What I noticed first of all, is that it looks like no site on the list has the same kind of two digits traffic as they had back then, not even the rising stars like Google. This made me curious, and I took a look at the current top-200 list.

When looking at the current list, it becomes clear that there is MySpace, and then there is everything else. MySpace gets 12.75% of the traffic - more than no. 2 and 3 put together. Interestingly enough, no 2 and 3 on the current list, is and, no. 2 and 1 on the 2001 list.

What do these list tells us? Well, for one thing, they tell us that more sites are sharing the traffic now, which makes sense when you consider how much the internet has grown in the last six years. They also tells us that entertainment (including social networks) is the king - and searching is the queen. Other than that, we can only conclude that past success does not guarantee future success - so we can hope that MySpace eventually will become a thing of the past....

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

The problematic question of race

Wired has a pretty good article on racial DNA profiling, which has been used in a few crime cases, and the problems with it.

The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling

According to the article, it's possible to determine a person's ancestry quite accurately from a DNA sample. This has been used in the past to give a better profile of a criminal, enabling the police to catch him.

I know little about this technique, but from what I've heard, the article gives a fairly correct evaluation of the efficiency of the profiling.

Now, the question that the article also raises, is, should we use this technique, just because we can?

New York University professor Troy Duster is a member of the advisory committee on the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues program at the National Human Genome Research Institute and president of the American Sociological Association. Duster, who has written extensively on race and genetics, including the book Back Door to Eugenics, worries about the proverbial slippery slope.

"Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it's not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA -- why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test," says Duster. "In this society where race is such a powerful idea, once you head down this path toward predicting race, will the next step be predicting racial behavior?"

Duster is of course quite correct, and I think it is important to note that the concept of race is a social construct. What the DNA profiling does, is to find the ancestry of the person the sample comes from. Given the ancestry, it is possible to make some qualified guesses about the person's appearance (skin colour etc.). Just because two people share common ancestry n generations back, doesn't mean that they are alike at all.

So, why is the question of race even mentioned, when talking about ancestry?

Because it is still the big taboo subject in the US, and for good reason. The US is, after all, one of the few countries where descendants of slave owners live together with descendants of slaves, and where social inequality is rampant among those two groups. It's a country where a book like The Bell Curve can be published, and still get mentioned in all seriousness by people, some times even politicians. Until people understand that it is impossible to judge anyone by whatever ethnic group they belong to (or gender etc.), it will be necessary to be careful when using new techniques like the one described in the article.

The spectre of racism can seem very physical at times.

I think this technique should be used, but it is important to use it in a responsible way. And it must never become the situation that you become a suspect, just because you match the ethnic profile given by the test. The test can be used as a tool for investigation, never as evidence, except for innocence (much the same should be said of finger prints and DNA matches).

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lazy linking

Via a comment to this post over at RealClimate, I became aware of this great review of a climate skeptic paper: The worst climate science paper ever of all time anywhere. It was posted back in February, but it's still a great read.

Some of the bloggers over at ScienceBlogs are participating in the DonorsChoose challenge, trying to raise money for teaching in poor districts. You can see the projects they support here. I am surprised PZ is not participating, since he raised a heck of a lot of money last year, and he is by far the science blogger with the most traffic.

The always great Skeptico asks the question Autism – personal experience more credible than scientists?, and then goes ahead and answers it with a resounding no.

Salon has had a good series of articles on Blackwater:
Red, white and mercenary in Iraq by Sidney Blumenthal
Under the cloak of freedom, the U.S. exempted Blackwater and other contractors from Iraqi law -- and destroyed its own democratic credibility.

The Bush administration's ties to Blackwater by Ben Van Heuvelen
Blamed in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, the private security firm has long ties to the White House and prominent Republicans, including Ken Starr.

The dark truth about Blackwater by P.W. Singer
Outsourcing the war to private military contractors such as Blackwater has shattered the United States' moral authority and its ability to win wars like that in Iraq.

Over at Pandagon, Pam Spaulding writes about The difficult discussions people don’t want to have

Over at Skepticum (which I need to add to my blogroll), Mana writes about the US government's war rhetorics, and expanded the theme in a follow-up post, which among other things covers G.I. Joe.

Wired and PBS have created a new science oriented group blog Correlations, where some great people are going to blog in the future.

Over at Aardvarchaeology Martin tells about his newest find while doing archeology

Both Mark over at Denialism and Orac takes a look at five "alternative treatments" that CNN claims works.
5 Alternative Medicine Treatments that Work? (at Denialism) and 5 alternative medical treatments that "work"? (at Respectful Insolence). They should be read in the posted order, since Orac builds upon Mark's post.

Sara Robinson tells the story of how a former employee under her husband began stalking them, and shares the advice she got back then. Don't Feed the Stalker

Bayblab has a post about teaching science with Web 2.0. Like many other people in the IT business, I think the whole Web 2.0 concept is overrated, but I have been thinking of writing about my thoughts on the same subject.

Bitch, Phd writes about Bush's veto of health insurance to children, and explains what ordinary Americans can do to get it through.


An important step

I am somewhat lukewarm on the current batch of presidential candidates in the US. The Republican candidates are repulsive, each in their own ways, but the Democratic candidates are not really impressive either. One of the big problems with the Democratic candidates is their tendency to wear their religion on their selves - Edwards and Obama makes frequent references to their religion, and while Clinton does it less, she has strong religious ties, as Mother Jones documented in this article. That doesn't mean that each of the Democratic candidates could not be perfectly good presidents, but given the tendency under the Bush administration to give precedence to religion over science, it's a worrisome connection.

Now, Clinton has stepped forward, and declared that she would protect science from politics (including, I presume, religious inspired politics). The NY Times reports on it.

Clinton Says She Would Shield Science From Politics

In a stinging critique of Bush administration science policy, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said yesterday that if she were elected president she would require agency directors to show they were protecting science research from “political pressure” and that she would lift federal limits on stem cell research.

Given the fact that stem cell research is one of the hot political issues among the religious right, this is an open declaration that she won't bow to their political wishes. And the next paragraph of the article gives me further hope.

Mrs. Clinton, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, also committed herself to a space-based climate research project to combat global warming and pledged to spend $50 billion on fighting climate change and finding energy alternatives to foreign oil.

Global warming is the most important scientific issue at the moment, and the complete lack of political will to combat it in the US, is a major problem. The fact that Clinton is openly stating that there should be done more about it, is a very good sign. Unfortunately, I am cynical enough to believe that most of those dollars will go to pork projects.

Nevertheless, good things all, and she continued in the same vein.

Mrs. Clinton said she would restore the office of White House science adviser to the higher status it held in the administrations of her husband and President Bush’s father. And she said she would encourage Congress to revive its Office of Technology Assessment, an advisory group that was shut down in 1995 after Republicans in Congress withdrew its financing.

Something that will please the many US science bloggers, who are openly campaigning for the restoration of the Office of Technology Assessment.

She also backed up evolution, and explained that the process is still going on today.

I sincerely hope that the other Democratic candidates will back up these ideas, and that the Democratic dominated Congress will follow her advice on the Office of Technology Assessment.

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