November 19, 2008

Still Giving Them Hell

Freeman Dyson continues to refuse to be part of the "consensus":

Wearing an effusively-colored tie that set off his gray suit, Mr. Dyson began his talk at the Nassau Club by encouraging the audience to interrupt him as he spoke, since, he declared, "it's much more fun to have an argument than do a monologue."

In the absence of audience interruptions, Mr. Dyson had an argument anyway with the scores of people (like Al Gore) who weren't present to defend their belief in the dire consequences of global warming. ("There's no accounting for human folly," Mr. Dyson said when asked about Mr. Gore's Nobel Prize.) Saying that on a recent trip he and his wife found Greenlanders to be delighted with their warmer climate and increased tourism, Mr. Dyson suggested that representing "local warming by a global average is misleading." In his comments at both the Nassau Club and Labyrinth, he decried the use of computer modeling to make "tremendously dogmatic" predictions about worldwide trends, without acknowledging the "messy, muddy real world" and the non-climatic effects of increased carbon dioxide. "There is no substitute for widely-conducted field operations over a long time," he told the Nassau Club audience, citing the "enormous gaps in knowledge and sparseness of observation" that characterize the work of global warming experts.

Why can't some people get with the program? Thankfully, though, mz will be along any minute to call Professor Dyson "stupid."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:29 AM
What Really Happened?

Alan Boyle has a piece on what looks to be an interesting PBS series on biblical archaeology. I agree that it is not the archaeologist's job to either prove, or disprove creation myths. His job is to, as best as can be done, utilize the scientific method to figure out what the past really was.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:39 AM

November 18, 2008

A Corrective the charlatans like Jim Hansen. Here are two useful books. First, Cool It, by Bjorn Lomborg who, while he doesn't deny the science behind global warming, he doesn't need to, because he has actually prioritized useful government policy actions based on cost and benefit (something that the warm-mongers refuse to do, e.g., Kyoto). Second, from Chris Horner, Red Hot Lies, which is well described by its subtitle: "How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud, and Deception to Keep You Misinformed.

Yup. As many reviewers note, "climate change" isn't really about science--it's just the latest ideology to come along for the collectivists to use in their latest attempt to bend us to their will.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:42 AM
In The Deep End Of The Gene Pool

Kay Hymowitz writes about the chaos of Darwinist dating.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:19 AM

November 17, 2008

The Latest Scientific Fraud

...from the global warm-mongers.

I have nothing to say, other than that James Hansen gets entirely too much respect. And by "too much," I mean more than none.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:05 AM

November 14, 2008

Libertarianism and SF

Katherine Mangu-Ward, in an essay on Tor Books, says that the link remains strong.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:45 PM
The Big Chill?

So, are we heading for rising sea levels, or a return of the glaciers? A roundup of the debate.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:54 AM

November 11, 2008

Better (And Longer) Living

...through RNA interference:

In monkeys, a single injection of a drug to induce RNA interference against PCSK9 lowered levels of bad cholesterol by about 60 percent, an effect that lasted up to three weeks. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, the biotechnology company that developed the drug, hopes to begin testing it in people next year.

The drug is a practical application of scientific discoveries that are showing that RNA, once considered a mere messenger boy for DNA, actually helps to run the show. The classic, protein-making genes are still there on the double helix, but RNA seems to play a powerful role in how genes function.

"This is potentially the biggest change in our understanding of biology since the discovery of the double helix," said John S. Mattick, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Of course, as the article points out, there's still a lot we don't know, and there are likely to be unforeseen side effects until we understand how this all works much better. But this is a breakthrough in itself.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here's an interesting article on how far genetics has come in the ninety-nine years since the word "gene" was coined.

[via Derbyshire, who has other thoughts]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:56 AM

November 07, 2008

Science And Technology Policy an Obama administration. Alan Boyle has a sneak preview. (I actually linked to this yesterday, but only in the context of the suborbital regulation issue.)

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:54 AM

November 05, 2008

When Are The Human Tests?

A new drug that is a thousand times more powerful than resveratrol:

In the study, scientists fed the mice a high-fat, high-calorie diet mixed with doses of SRT1720 for approximately 10 weeks. The mice were given 100 or 500 milligrams of fat per kilogram of body weight each day (a high dose even for humans). The mice did not exercise regularly, although the scientists tested the animals' exercise capacity, or endurance, by making them run on a treadmill. "The mice treated with the compound ran significantly longer," says Auwerx. The drug also protected the animals from the negative effects of high-calorie diets: metabolic disorders, obesity-related diseases, and insulin resistance. It even improved the mice's cholesterol.

It is significant that the drug mimics the effects of a calorie-restricted diet, since this has previously been tied to increased life expectancy, says William Evans, a professor of geriatric medicine, nutrition, and physiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

It's as if the couch-potato mice underwent a strict diet and exercise regime, says David Sinclair, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, who is one of the cofounders of Sirtris but was not involved in the current study. The new study "is a major step forward, showing that we can design and synthesize potent, druglike molecules that could slow down the aging process," says Sinclair.

I think that people are going to be amazed at the life-extension and health advances coming along in the next few years. It makes it all the more the shame that we continue to lose people who we might save if they could just hang on long enough.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:00 PM
Food Versus Fuel

Ethiopians are starving because they decided to cash in on biofuels. How much of this was due to government policies?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:55 AM
Well, That Sucks

Michael Crichton has died. I guess his cancer was a well-kept secret--I was certainly unaware that he was ill. One less voice for reason in political debate on scientific issues.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:40 AM

November 03, 2008

Blood Suckers

No, this isn't a political post, despite the potential upcoming ascendancy of the leech class in DC. Alan Boyle has an interesting article about them in nature, and why human vampires don't work.

Well, that's a relief. But then, the author in question probably never spent much time in DC.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:09 AM

October 31, 2008

Brain Parasites

...and mind control. A suitable scientific topic for All Hallows Eve. I wonder if this could explain the Obama cult?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:47 AM

October 29, 2008

A Beautiful Math

John Tierney writes about an interesting television special on fractals.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:39 AM

October 26, 2008

A Devoted Mother

...has passed on.

Firefighters spotted Scarlett, despite burns to her eyes, ears and face, toting each kitten out of the building to safety. Once outside, Scarlett nudged each baby with her nose to make sure she found all five.

The hero cat was taken to the North Shore Animal League with her offspring - and their story soon attracted attention from around the globe.

It's instinct, but it's not just instinct, because there are some mothers who don't make the mark. All species can transcend, to limited degrees. But there are variations within.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:46 PM

October 24, 2008

Better All The Time

A cure for nut allergies?

Well, actually, it's only for peanuts, though for peanut-allergy sufferers (who seem to be sufficiently legion that it's affecting the lifestyle of the rest of us on airplanes and other places), that's a good thing.

I'm allergic to tree nuts, not peanuts (which are not true nuts, but legumes, like beans). And it caused me no little amount of grief when I was a kid, because the allergy was just unpleasant, not life threatening, so my parents wouldn't believe me. Part of the problem was that because I was truly allergic to cashews, walnuts, etc., I assumed that I was also allergic to peanuts. But I ate peanut butter with no problem, so my parents assumed that I was faking, and made me eat not just the peanuts but all the nuts, which would result in a swelling and itching of the mucous membranes in my mouth and throat, and a slight but vague stomach upset. But because it never resulted in a trip to the hospital, they never believed that I was allergic, and tormented me throughout my childhood until I left the house and took control over my own diet, at which point, being rational, I realized that if I could eat peanut butter I could eat peanuts as well. And I do.

Anyway, I hope that progress on this front continues, not because I think that I've been missing anything great from the other nuts, but because I will be able to eat foods (particularly Indian food, which seems to be kind of sneaky in this regard) without worrying about unpleasant consequences. And even more for those for whom the consequences go far beyond "unpleasant."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:45 PM
No One Tell Leon Kass

Ice cream tastes better licked than spooned. Dr. Kass will be appalled to hear about scientific discrediting of his "yuckometer."

(And yes, before you bother to comment, I know that his point wasn't that licked ice cream doesn't taste good.)

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:31 PM

October 22, 2008

Due For Disaster

This article is about the potential for a great quake in San Francisco, but the problem is actually much more widespread. LA is vulnerable as well, though not, as popular imagination has it, from the San Andreas fault, which is quite a distance away. Of much more concern (particularly to me, as a property owner in the South Bay) is the Newport-Inglewood fault, which comes within a few miles of my house. That's the fault that ruptured in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and a seven on it would be much worse than an eight on the San Andreas, because it runs right through the LA metro area.

The Northwest is also in danger--there could be a magnitude nine in the Seattle area at almost any time. Of course, the greatest danger is in those areas that get quakes so rarely that they're in no way prepared for them, such as the east coast. There's still a lot of unreinforced masonry there that will come tumbling down in the event of a significant temblor, and they're not unheard of.

Of course, in Florida, I live in one of the most seismically inactive places in the country. I can put all kinds of things on top of other things here that I'd never consider doing in California. Instead, we have to watch the weather for hurricanes half the year.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:49 AM

October 21, 2008

Good News On Global Warming

...but bad news for those determined to use it as an excuse to impoverish ourselves.

Oh. Sorry. I meant "climate change."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:36 PM

October 17, 2008


A new transhumanist magazine. Looks interesting.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:42 AM

October 11, 2008


How it evolved?

Note that just because something is natural doesn't make it moral.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:01 PM
A Hundred And Ten

As Glenn says, we're going to see more people living to be this old. And as a commenter notes, there aren't very many people left who were born in the nineteenth century. My maternal grandmother would have been two years older, had she lived, but she died at the ripe young age of ninety eight, fourteen years ago (whereupon I became a full orphan, and next in line, having no longer any living ancestors).

Of course, I take these folks' recommendations for a long life with a healthy bag of salt. Particularly when they recommend a life of celibacy. I think that it's good genes, and good luck, more than anything else.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:14 AM

October 07, 2008


Alan Boyle has a story on the latest thinking about Lucy, with a cool artist's rendering. And of course, no post like this is complete without the usual clueless comments by the creationists.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 AM

October 06, 2008

Seven Apollos

Alan Boyle has come up with a new set of science-project-based monetary units to get our heads around the costs of the bailout.

This sort of thing provides support for the politically naive argument for more money for one's pet project, e.g., "we could do seven Apollos for the cost of one Iraq war--surely we can afford at least one." But federal budget dollars aren't fungible, and the political importance of various choices isn't necessarily consistent, either, due to the vagaries of how these decisions are made. Note also that, at the time, getting to the moon in a hurry was important for reasons having little or nothing do to with space. It's unreasonable to expect those particular political stars to align again.

Not to mention the fact that because we were in a hurry, we chose an architecture and path that was economically and politically unsustainable. Just as NASA's current path is, which is no surprise, considering that they chose to recapitulate Apollo, rather than building an incremental affordable infrastructure that would provide the basis for true spacefaring.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:28 AM

October 04, 2008


It's that time of year again, for the (Ig)nobel prizes.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:20 AM

September 21, 2008

The Last Of The Neanderthals

Here's an interesting piece on the latest research, at National Geographic:

"Most Neanderthals and modern humans probably lived most of their lives without seeing each other," he said, carefully choosing his words. "The way I imagine it is that occasionally in these border areas, some of these guys would see each other at a distance...but I think the most likely thing is that they excluded each other from the landscape. Not just avoided, but excluded. We know from recent research on hunter-gatherers that they are much less peaceful than generally believed."

"Sometimes I just turn out the lights in here and think what it must have been like for them."

Nasty, brutish, short.

And many people have no idea how close we are to returning to those days, should things take a wrong turn.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:07 PM

September 19, 2008

Getting Better

The latest installment of "Better All The Time" is up at The Speculist. It's all pretty good (I found sensation in a bionic arm without sensors fascinating), but I liked this:

Hey, did you notice? The world didn't end! We get so used to the world not ending that sometimes we take it for granted. But in honor of our not being sucked into a giant black hole or blasted back in time to when our entire universe was nothing but diffuse particles, the Times Online has compiled a list of 30 other time the world didn't end.

If you like that sort of list, keep this in mind: those thirty days are just a tiny, tiny subset of the total number of days in which the world has not ended. In fact, we are (and I hope I don't jinx it or anything by pointing this out) batting a perfect 1000 on that score.

Yeah, every day, they tell us the world won't end, and it doesn't until one day it does. Which sucks. And there's no one around to say "I told you so."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:42 AM

September 17, 2008

The Latest In Medical Transplants


... Patients who come into the hospital with suspected pneumonia now get an antibiotic within six hours, instead of four hours previously, to allow more time to assess the need for drugs.

One controversial strategy: fecal transplants. For one patient with recurrent C. diff, Kettering suggested a stool transplant from a relative, to help restore good bacteria in the gut. But Jeffrey Weinstein, an infectious-disease specialist at the hospital, says the patient "refused to consider it because it was so aesthetically displeasing."

To say the least. Though some kinky folks might get off on it. It's certainly a simple procedure compared to a heart or a kidney.

Some might argue that a lot of folks in Congress have already had the procedure done, except it was transplanted to the wrong location, considerably north of where it was supposed to go.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:42 AM

Here are some before and after pictures of the Bolivar Peninsula.

I wonder what was different about the houses that remained standing?

Our house in Boca is just a few houses from the Intracoastal, on the mainland side, but the barrier island that separates us from the sea is a lot narrower than the Bolivar. I don't know what kind of surge it would take to cross it and fill the Intracoastal and neighborhood canals, but I'll bet a lot of the multi-million-dollar mansions on the ocean would get wiped out, or at least badly damaged in a similar situation. But they might help blunt the blow of the water and keep it from getting to us. A worst-case for us would probably be a similar west-bound storm hitting north Broward, around Deerfield Beach or Hillsboro, which would maximize surge up here.

[Update a while later]

Jeff Masters has more, on the almost total destruction of Gilchrist.

I don't see any description of the type of construction. Our house is cement block on concrete slab. I can see a wood frame getting stripped off its foundation, but it's pretty scary to think what kind of force it would take to empty our lot.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:34 AM

September 16, 2008

Why I Have A Blog

To get past the gatekeepers.

I put up a(n admittedly semi-snarky) comment at Keith Cowing's place yesterday, and he chose not to publish it (his comments section is moderated) for whatever reason. His blog, his call.

It was in response to "NASAAstronomer's" comment that:

...if McCain and Palin win, we'll be teaching creationism in our science classes, so how likely is it that space science will get funded?

My (unpublished until now) response:


Right. I'm sure that will be one of their first acts, to mandate the teaching of creationism in science classes.

Can you explain to me how that works exactly? Will it be an executive order, or what?

This kind of Palin derangement is amazing. Lileks noticed it, too:

Here's your Sarah Palin overreaction of the day. Presumably she took out the entrails, dried them, and used them to lynch librarians. It's really obvious, isn't it? She wants to kill Lady Liberty and all she represents. The plane is included in the picture because she personally shoots polar bears from above, like she's GOD OR SOMETHING. The comments have the usual reasoned evaluations - she's a PSYCHO, a LUNATIC. That picture is so sad and so true.

I don't know if anyone's stated the obvious yet, but this might be the first time people have become unhinged in advance over a vice-presidential candidate. Not to say some aren't painting McCain as something the devil blurted out in a distracted moment during his daily conference call with Cheney, but a Veep? It took a while for people to believe that Cheney commissioned private snuff films with runaways dressed up to resemble a portion of the Bill of Rights, but Palin is She-Wolf of the Tundra right off the bat. And god help us she can use email, which means she will control the government. The most Spy ever did with Quayle was stick him in a dunce hat. By the time we reach the election Oliphant will probably draw Palin sodomizing by an oil derrick with guns for arms. I have to confess: I think Palin is an interesting politician, but the people she's driving batty are much more fascinating.

Imagine twelve years of this.


Well, we've survived eight years of BDS. I suspect that we'll pull through a swamp of PDS.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:07 AM

September 13, 2008

What A Mess

I'm looking at reporting from what looks like the Sheraton in Clear Lake, and there are reports of furniture with NASA logos floating in the bay. Gotta think that some of the JSC facilities were flooded.

If space were important, we wouldn't have mission control in an area susceptible to floods and hurricanes. The Cape has some geographical reasons for its location, but the only reason that JSC is in Houston is because Johnson wanted it there, and the land was free.

[Update in the afternoon]

Here's more on NASA's fragile infrastructure. The agency's ground facilities are just as non-robust as its space transportation system.

Here is how it seems to work: a hurricane threatens JSC - so NASA shuts off email and other services to a large chunk of the agency. Why? Because NASA deliberately set the system up such that other NASA centers - some of which are thousands of miles away and poised to offer assistance and keep the rest of the agency operating - have their email and other services routed out of JSC - and only JSC (or so it would seem). A few critical users have some service, but everyone else is out of luck for at least 48 hours. Would any self-respecting, profitable, commercial communications company do something as silly as this? No. They'd never stay in business. Only NASA would come up with such a flawed and stupid plan.

That's too harsh. I can imagine the FAA, or DHS doing exactly the same thing.

It's just more of that wise, foresightful government thing.

[Update about 1:30 PM EDT]

Jeff Masters says that Galveston lucked out:

Although Ike caused heavy damage by flooding Galveston with a 12-foot storm surge, the city escaped destruction thanks to its 15.6-foot sea wall (the wall was built 17 feet high, but has since subsided about 2 feet). The surge was able to flow into Galveston Bay and flood the city from behind, but the wall prevented a head-on battering by the surge from the ocean side. Galveston was fortunate that Ike hit the city head-on, rather than just to the south. Ike's highest storm surge occurred about 50 miles to the northeast of Galveston, over a lightly-populated stretch of coast. Galveston was also lucky that Ike did not have another 12-24 hours over water. In the 12 hours prior to landfall, Ike's central pressure dropped 6 mb, and the storm began to rapidly organize and form a new eyewall. If Ike had had another 12-24 hours to complete this process, it would have been a Category 4 hurricane with 135-145 mph winds that likely would have destroyed Galveston. The GFDL model was consistently advertising this possibility, and it wasn't far off the mark. It was not clear to me until late last night that Ike would not destroy Galveston and kill thousands of people. Other hurricane scientists I conversed with yesterday were of the same opinion.

And of course, the lesson that the people who stayed behind will take is not that they were lucky and foolhardy, but that the weather forecasters overhyped the storm, and they'll be even less likely to evacuate the next time. And one of these times their luck will run out, as it did for their ancestors a few generations ago, when thousands were killed by a hurricane in Galveston.

[Update mid afternoon]

Sounds like things could have been a lot worse at NASA, too.

NASA had feared that a storm surge from Galveston Bay would flood some buildings on the 1,600-acre Space Center. Its southeast boundary is near Clear Lake, which is connected to Galveston Bay. However, the water did not rise that high.

Apparently the Guppy hangar at Ellington was destroyed, but it was never much of a hangar--more like a big tent.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

September 12, 2008

It's No Ike

At least not yet. I hope that low east of the Bahamas doesn't develop much, because all the models have it aimed right at me in southeast Florida. In fact, BAMD has it coming ashore in Boca, crossing the peninsula and exiting over Tampa into the Gulf. Fortunately, it's struggling under shear right now.

My concern is that it may intensify suddenly right off shore early next week, with little time to prepare. At least we still have most of our shutters up from Hannah.

[Update a few minutes later]

Weather Underground is calling it an "Invest" (I wonder why they call them that), but it actually seems to be the remnants of Josephine. If it becomes a storm again, will they call it that, or Kyle?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:06 AM
Good Luck To The Gulf Coast

My best wishes to Lou Minatti and Mark Whittington and other Houston-area residents (this thing could really be a disaster for JSC and its contractor community). Stay safe there, and if you're in a flood plain, please get the hell out.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:40 AM

September 10, 2008

The Top Six Heroes

...of Neal Stephenson.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:43 PM

September 05, 2008

News You Can Use

You (or at least they) can tell a woman's v@ginal org@smic potential by watching the way she walks.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:25 AM

September 04, 2008

Can't Wait

I just love Florida.

I'm in LA right now, but going home to Boca on Saturday. And right now, the models have a Cat 4 hurricane directly hitting my current home town on Tuesday night.

Patricia put up the shutters on the windows earlier this week in anticipation of Hannah, which is now a tropical storm and missing Florida. But at least we'll be mostly ready for Ike. But I'll still have to put up plywood on the patio doors, and a hurricane that strong could have a flooding surge. We may decide to head up to Orlando, but this weekend will give us a much better sense of where it's really heading early next week.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:52 PM

September 01, 2008

For Our Own Good

The government doesn't want you to have access to your own genome data.

Sorry, I outgrew my nanny many decades ago.

[Via Geekpress]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:15 PM

August 26, 2008

Batten Down The Hatches In Creole Country

Gustav is looking like it's going to be bad news for the upper Gulf Coast:

As long as Gustav is over water, it will intensify. Gustav is currently under moderate wind shear (15 knots) . This shear is expected to remain in the low to moderate range (0-15 knots) for the remainder of the week. Gustav is over the highest heat content waters in the Atlantic. Given these two factors, intensification is likely whenever the storm is over water, at least 50 miles from land. Expect the high mountains of Hispaniola to take a toll on Gustav. Recall in 2006 that Hurricane Ernesto hit the southwest tip of Haiti as a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds. Haiti's mountains knocked Ernesto down to a tropical storm with 50 mph winds, which decreased further to 40 mph when the storm crossed over into Cuba. Expect at least a 25 mph decrease in Gustav's winds by Wednesday, after it encounters Haiti. Further weakening is likely if the storm passes close to or over Cuba. By Wednesday, Gustav will be underneath an upper-level anticyclone. These upper atmosphere high pressure systems can greatly intensify a tropical storm, since the clockwise flow of air at the top of the storm acts to efficiently vent away air pulled aloft by the storm's heavy thunderstorms. With high oceanic heat content also present in the waters off western Cuba, the potential for rapid intensification exists should the center stay more than 50 miles from the Cuban coast. Once in the Gulf of Mexico, Gustav is likely to intensify into a major Category 3 or higher storm. I give a 60% chance that Gustav will cause significant disruption to the oil and gas industry in the Gulf.

This will roil the energy markets (it may be doing so already). It may also be a test, and an opportunity, for Governor Jindal to show that the people of Louisiana were wise to replace his predecessor with him after her Katrina fiasco, which was largely overlooked by the media in their lust to bash George Bush.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:17 AM

August 25, 2008

Gustav Update

The good news (at least for Floridians, who are still recovering from Fay): it now looks like it's going to stay south of Cuba, and unlikely to hit the peninsula (at least soon).

The bad news (particularly for Jamaica and points west): it's going to stay south of Cuba, and given the upper level winds (i.e., not much shear) it's likely to become the season's first major hurricane in a very few days. Look out, Yucatan and/or the Gulf...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:59 PM

August 22, 2008

Nurture, Not Nature

Wild dolphins learning to tail walk. It would be fascinating to finally break the code to their language, and find out just how much culture they have. We can't replicate their sounds, but synthesizers should be able to.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:42 AM

August 21, 2008

Fay Hasn't Budged

It is still raining this morning in Brevard County. Man, that has got to be getting old.

At least it's not coming down inches per hour in Melbourne any more, but I'll bet they haven't seen the sun in days.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:17 AM

August 20, 2008

Thirty Inches Of Rain?

Wow. They're getting a real dumping in Brevard County. We got off lucky down here. This has to be hitting KSC workers and contractors pretty hard.

I'm surprised that Lake Okeechobee is still two feet below normal today. I would have thought that an almost-hurricane sitting over the watershed for a couple days would have gotten it up a lot higher.

[Update a few minutes later]

If this thing follows the current models, and heads off across the panhandle, it will probably set a record for the percentage of a large state affected by a single storm. Literally everyone in Florida will have been hit by it to one degree or another.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:46 AM

August 17, 2008

To Shutter, Or Not To Shutter?

I don't have to decide today--it looks like it will still be far enough away tomorrow morning, with a better track, to make the decision then. Right now, I'm inclined not to, even though we're still in the uncertainty cone (but over at the eastern edge of it). Most of the models, other than GFDL, have the thing out in the Gulf or along the west coast of the state. We are on a tropical storm watch on the east coast from Jupiter south, but that's all.

The best outcome overall (other than completely falling apart) would be for it to come up through the swamp and run up the middle of the state, where it would weaken pretty quickly. If it stays out in the Gulf and hits farther north, it could intensify and really pound wherever it comes ashore. Either way, though, barring some dramatic shift in conditions, it looks like we're in for rain and tropical-force winds, at worst, over here on the east coast. That's a lot better than it looked a few days ago, when it looked like it might have come right at us through the Bahamas.

[Early afternoon update]

Well that's good news. Jeff Masters says that this won't be another Charley, despite the similarity in track. One thing that I notice a lot of the weather people talking about are the sea surface temperatures, but they are ignoring the fact that the upper-level winds aren't that favorable for intensification.

[Update at 4:30 PM EDT]

The latest model run (2 PM) has moved it farther to the west, which is bad news for the panhandle, but good news for south Florida. Unless they're all wrong, this thing isn't heading to southeast Florida, and we may not even get much in the way of wind, though we could use the rain. There's actually an outer band moving through Miami-Dade on the radar right now. Hope it makes it up through Broward and into south Palm Beach County.

[5 PM update]

Heh. The headline of one of the stories over at Accuweather is "Florida Approaching Land."

A lot of people who bought swampland down here probably wish that it would do it faster. Now, if they could just give the place a few mountains. Or even hills.

In "The Swamp" (an excellent history of south Florida) the author quotes an early settler who reportedly said, "I've bought land by the acre, and land by the foot, but by God, this is the first time I've ever bought land by the gallon."

Obviously, it was supposed to be "Fay," not "Florida."

[Update a few minutes later]

That was quick. Good thing I caught the screenshot. It now says "Fay Approaching Land."

[Update about 6 PM EDT]

OK, it looks like shuttering tomorrow is definitely off the table. The track, per the models I described above, no longer has us even within the cone. I expect some wind and rain (which we need) but nothing more at this point. The only preparation I did this weekend was to fill up the tank of the car, and it looks like that's all I'm going to do for Fay.

But the hurricane season is still young, and we're heading into the heart of it. It's particularly problematic because I'm going to be in LA for the last week of August and the first week of September, which is one of the highest-probability times for major storms here. I may have to shutter up before I leave, just as a precaution.

[Update a half hour later]

The first squall line from the storm is approaching. Unfortunately, I don't have a camera handy, but it's looking ugly to the south, and the winds are picking up (and the local radar confirms it). We just put in a new tree, which needs watering every day. I've put off doing it all day, in anticipation of this.

[Tuesday morning update]

We didn't actually get much rain from that squall line last night, but about 8:30 this morning, the heavens opened up. The rain's been hard and steady for an hour now. Guess I didn't need to water that satin leaf.

I should note that Brendan Loy's Weather Nerd blog is the go-to place for blogging the storm.

As he notes, it's kind of good news, bad news. The good news is that it's shifted eastward, and will hit Florida sooner, which means it won't have much time to develop. The bad news (for me) is that it will affect the east coast much more than anticipated. Hope I won't regret not shuttering, because it's too late to do so now, unless I want to attempt it in wind and rain. The rains have come sooner than I expected, and a wind gust has already blown off a down spout that I hadn't properly tied to the wall. If I get a break, I might try to fix it later today, though it's not a big problem--just blasting water against the front wall.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:08 AM

...and hope!

Well, not really. The Obama campaign has released its new space policy, and there's not much breaking with the status quo in it. It's basically sticking with the current plan, at least in civil space, but promising (as in all areas) to spend more money. While one suspects that Lori Garver must have played a major role in it, it also reads as though it was written by a committee, or different people wrote different sections, and then it was stitched together, like Frankenstein's monster.

For instance, in one section, it says:

Obama will stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate spaceflight capabilities. NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services is a good model of government/industry collaboration.

But later on, in a different section, it says:

Obama will evaluate whether the private sector can safely and effectively fulfill some of NASA's need for lower earth orbit cargo transport.

If COTS is a "good model," why is such an "evaluation" necessary? Isn't it already a given? I also like the notion that Obama himself would do the "evaluation." As if.

It's got the usual kumbaya about international cooperation, of course, which I think has been disastrous on the ISS. There are also implied digs at the Bush administration, about not "politicizing" science (as though Jim Hansen hasn't done that himself) and opposing "weapons" in space. It also discusses more cooperation between NASA and NRO, ignoring the recent rumblings about getting rid of the latter, and the problems with security that would arise in such "cooperation."

Also, interestingly, after Senator Obama called McCain's proposed automotive prize a "gimmick," the new policy now explicitly supports them. So are they no longer "gimmicks"? Or is it just that McCain's idea was (for some unexplained reasons) but Obama's are not?

Overall, my biggest concerns with it are more on the defense side than on the civil space side. This is utopian:

Barack Obama opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons. He believes the United States must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.

Sorry, but that horse is out of the barn, and there's no way to get it back in. No anti-satellite weapons treaty would be verifiable. It is good to note, though, that the policy recognizes ORS as a means to mitigate the problem. That's the real solution, not agreements and paper.

In any event, it's a big improvement over his previous space policy, which was not a policy at all, but rather an adjunct to his education policy. Now it's time for the McCain campaign to come up with one. I hope that he gets Newt to help him with it, and not Walt Cunningham.

[Mid-morning update]

One of the commenters over at NASA Watch picks up on something that I had missed:

Sen. Obama names COTS and several other programs by name, but not Ares or Constellation. He mentions "the Shuttle's successor systems" without specifying what they might be.

That does give him some options for real change. I also agree that a revival of the space council would be a good idea. I hope that the McCain campaign doesn't oppose this purely because the Obama campaign has picked it up.

[Afternoon update]

One other problem. While it talks about COTS, it has no mention of CATS (or CRATS, or CARATS, or whatever acronym they're using this week for cheap and reliable access to space). It hints at it with COTS and ORS, but it's not set out as an explicit goal. I hope that McCain's policy does.

[Update a few minutes later]

Bobby Block has a report at the Orlando Sentinel space blog.

This part struck me (and didn't surprise me):

Lori Garver, an Obama policy adviser, said last week during a space debate in Colorado that Obama and his staff first thought that the push to go to the moon was "a Bush program and didn't make a lot of sense." But after hearing from people in both the space and education communities, "they recognized the importance of space." Now, she said, Obama truly supports space exploration as an issue and not just as a tool to win votes in Florida.

I'm not sure that Lori helped the campaign here. What does that tell us about the quality and cynicism of policy making in the Obama camp? They opposed it before they were for it because it was George Bush's idea? And does that mean that space policy was just about votes in Florida before this new policy? I know that there are a lot of BDS sufferers who oppose VSE for this reason, and this reason alone, but it's a little disturbing that such (non)thinking was actually driving policy in a major presidential campaign.

George Bush greatly expanded federal involvement in education and expanded Medicare. Are they going to shrink them accordingly? I'd like to think so, but I suspect not.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:36 AM

August 16, 2008

Good For Me

But bad for the Gulf coast. All of the models for Fay have shifted the track west, and it now looks unlikely that it will hit southeast Florida, so I probably won't have to put up the shutters on Monday. Still need to keep an eye on it, though.

[Late morning update]

That was the 2 AM runs. The 8 AM model update has it coming back slightly to the east, over the Florida peninsula, with GFDL just to the west of us, which is a little too close for comfort. But still, no decision before Monday.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:23 AM

August 15, 2008

Here Comes Fay

The circulation finally closed this afternoon, but the storm is going to have to fight its way through the mountains of Hispaniola. It seems to have gone directly from a low to a storm, without the usual intermediate tropical depression (does that mean that TD 6 remains available for the next one?). Unfortunately, even though the chances that it will actually hit Boca Raton aren't high, I'll probably have to shutter up on Monday, just in case.

The good news is that most of the models are taking it over Cuba as well, which will keep it from intensifying much. If it comes up here, the only chance for strengthening will be in the open water over the Straight of Florida (where it would beat up the Keys). If it stays at tropical storm force, as SHIPS is currently predicting, I may be able to get away without shutters, as we did with Ernesto two years ago. Only one of the 2 PM model runs (HWRF) has it coming through town. The tracking models are probably going to get better now that there's a definite center of circulation to use as a starting point. Unfortunately, I'm kind of in the middle of the spectrum. By Monday, it should be more clear where this thing is going.


I prefer earthquakes. You don't have any false alarms with them.

[Update about 6:30 PM EDT]

Jeff Masters confirms my own thoughts:

If Fay does hit South Florida, the storm is likely to be a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane, since it will not have enough time over water to reorganize much. I think the models are overdoing the intensification of Fay once it does pop off the coast of Cuba. We saw in 2006 that Ernesto popped off the coast of Cuba as a weak tropical storm, and took a full 36 hours to get its act together. If Fay misses South Florida and veers either to the east or west of the Peninsula, the storm could easily reach Category 2 status before a potential landfall either on the Gulf Coast or in North Carolina/South Carolina.

So if it's a major storm, it won't be one here. But we won't really know until late Sunday or Monday.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:39 PM

August 14, 2008

Time To Dig Out The Shutters?

I've been keeping an eye on that disturbance in the Atlantic for a few days, but it's starting to look like there's a chance of a hurricane here early next week. The models are all showing it curving to the north off the coast, and missing Florida, but the models aren't to be trusted this far out. I may have to shutter up on Sunday.

[Update early afternoon]

This morning's model runs have it heading across the top of the greater Antilles, and then tearing up through the Bahamas. Except for GFDL, which has it heading right up the Florida east coast, starting in northern Palm Beach County, and then right up to the Cape, four and a half days from now (i.e., late Monday). Despite my earlier musings on the palliative effects on space policy from a Kennedy Center hurricane, I hope it's wrong.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:22 AM

August 11, 2008

One Less Thing To Worry About?

Is the Yellowstone caldera fizzling out?

This adds to suggestions that the plume has disconnected from its heat source in the Earth's core. If this is true, it means the plume could be dying - and that the sequence of mega-eruptions could come to an end. "If it doesn't have clear source, as it rises eventually the plume will die out," says Schutt.

Let's hope so. A Yellowstone explosion could be a civilization-ending event, and there's not much we can do to prevent it, at least with current technology.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:05 AM

August 07, 2008

Adrenaline Junkie

Eric Raymond is.

I am not. I've never been in a serious , or even mock fight, and never had a desire to be. I probably wouldn't have made it far in an earlier time. One of the many reasons I'm glad to live here and now.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:16 AM

August 02, 2008

Big Deal

I have a new piece up on this week's non-discovery of water on Mars.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:15 AM

August 01, 2008

We Knew This Was Coming (Part Two)

Is climate change racist?

Sometimes these people become parodies of themselves (as in the old gag New York Times headline: "World Ends--Women, Minorities Hit Hardest").

I'm sure glad that this issue hasn't been politicized.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:55 PM

July 31, 2008

Science As A Religion

And a fundamentalist one, at that:

When Salon interviewed me about my new book, "Saving Darwin," I suggested that science doesn't know everything, that there might be a reality beyond science, and that religion might be about God and not merely about the human quest for a nonexistent God. These remarks got me condemned to whatever hell Myers believes in.

Myers accused me of having "fantastic personal delusions" that could actually lead people astray. "I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter," Myers wrote, "and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth. That's harsh, I know ... but he is undermining the core of rationalism we ought to be building, and I find his beliefs pernicious."

Myers' confident condemnations put me in mind of that great American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who waxed eloquent in his famous 1741 speech, "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God," about the miserable delusions that lead humans to reject the truth and spend eternity in hell. We still have preachers like Edwards today, of course; they can be found on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But now we also have a new type of preacher, the Rev. PZ Myers.

And they don't even recognize it in themselves. Dawkins and Myers and Hitchens are doing more harm than good for science in their evangelizing, I think.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:35 PM

July 29, 2008

The Era Of Carbon Craziness

Is it almost over? Let's hope so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:30 AM

July 25, 2008

Was Barbie Wrong?

Girls have caught up with boys at math.

Does this vindicate all of the mature, liberated women who had to hie to their fainting couches at Larry Summers' comments a few years ago?

Not really. He never said that boys were better, on average, than girls. His comment was that there was a much higher standard deviation for boys, which was why there were more brilliant mathematicians among them (it also means that there are more innumerates among them). This was posited as a possible explanation for the disparity in math PhDs and faculty between men and women, a conservative proposition for which he was hounded from the presidency of Harvard (though it was really just the last straw, and excuse).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:17 PM
The Fat Fight Continues

John Tierney has the latest:

What we have to keep in mind here is that nutrition is a science (or at least should be) and science is about generating hypotheses, making predictions from our hypotheses, and then seeing if they hold true. The relevant hypothesis here -- i.e., what we've believed for the past 30-odd years -- is that saturated fat causes heart disease by elevating either total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol, specifically. So our prediction is that the diet with the higher saturated fat content will have a relatively deleterious effect on cholesterol. We do the test; we repeat it a half dozen times in different populations. Each time it fails to confirm our prediction. So maybe the hypothesis is wrong. That seems like a reasonable conclusion. No one is proving anything here -- as some of your respondents like to decry -- we're just looking at the evidence and trying to decide which hypotheses it supports and which it tends to refute.

...These latest trials just happen to be the best data we have on the long-term effects of saturated fat in the diet, and the best data we have says that more saturated fat is better than less. It may be true that if we lowered saturated fat further -- say to 7 % of all calories as the American Heart Association is now recommending -- or total fat down to 10 percent, as Dean Ornish argues, or raised saturated fat to 20 percent of calories, as Keys did, that we'd see a different result, but that's just another hypothesis. The trials haven't been done to test it. It's also hard to imagine why a small decrease in saturated fat would be deleterious, but a larger decrease would be beneficial.

I think that what the nutrition industry and the FDA have done over the past decades with their pseudoscience war on dietary fat borders on the criminal. I'm pretty much convinced at this point that the biggest culprit in both our health and weight is starch and refined sugars, and that the FDA "food pyramid" has been, and remains (despite recent improvements) quackery, not science.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:58 AM
Thank Gore


...thank Gore that the ice is melting just as we need the oil. It's like divine Providence at work.

This from someone who worked on his 1988 presidential campaign.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:44 AM

July 24, 2008

Fact Checking Al Gore

It's a busy job, but someone has to do it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:08 PM

July 23, 2008

Can Women Be Explorers?

Of course they can, despite this misreading of my exploration piece on Monday. History is replete with them, though there are far fewer of them than men (more now, with more opportunities for them). For instance, the "mountain men" who explored much of the west were, pretty much to, men.

I recently received an email from someone who made an analogy between what I wrote and saying that a "white" boy could be an explorer as long as the school system didn't "blacken" him. I find the analogy completely spurious. Briefly, race is not gender.

This was my point, and one that will no doubt set off a crowd of angry blank slaters who think that gender is purely a social construct charging up the hill to my mansion with pitchforks and torches.

There are such things as masculine and feminine traits. All people have some of both--they are androgynous to one degree or another. We define the two by noting that most men are (by definition) more masculine, and most women are more feminine, and viva la difference. So things that most men do, and few women do, are called masculine, and vice versa for feminine (and of course there is a wide range of things that are neither). When men cook, garden, sew, etc., (as I do, though I don't sew much) they are indulging in their feminine side, and when women explore, go shooting, chainsaw trees, drive Indy cars (among other things) they are being sort of manly. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with either doing either. There's plenty of femininity to Danica Patrick, from what I can see.

There are a number of evolutionary psychological reasons to think that an urge for exploration is more of a male trait, and the Economist piece gives one more. If such an urge is an attention-deficit issue, it's indisputable that (at least as it's currently diagnosed) the preponderance of occurrence of it is in boys. At least, it is they who are being medicated the most for it in the schools. There may be some girls who are being similarly abused who would also be good explorers, but girls can be good explorers even when they act like girls in the classroom, because it's a lot easier for them to act like girls in the classroom (even if they have some male characteristics) because they are, well...girls. They still learn, but aren't having their exploratory urges browbeaten out of them. So to the degree that we are inhibiting budding explorers with a misguided educational system which defines good behavior as feminized behavior, the boys are taking the brunt of it. I could have, when referring to the future Neil Armstrong, said "her," instead of "him," but it would have seemed a little strained in political correctness, not because Neil was a man, but because not that many girls are being diagnosed ADHD and getting Ritalin.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:49 AM

July 22, 2008

Rolling My Eyes Keith's brief "review" of my exploration piece:

The author of this article makes some odd, borderline misogynist, and mostly unsupportable claims (mixed with some valid points) as he rambles along trying to explain why people do or not explore. "Empirically obvious"? - Where's the data to support this?

Where the support for the claim that it is "misogynist," "borderline" or otherwise? Is he claiming that Cristina Hoff Sommers is misogynist?

What is "odd" about my claims?

And as for the data to support my claim, I provided it in the piece. Things for which there is an "innate human urge" are done by most, if not all humans. Most people don't explore.

[Update a few minutes later]

One of the commenters over there gets it:

I didn't see anything misogynist in Simberg's piece - he's just pointing out a potential cost of browbeating and drugging boys into behaving more like girls in school.

Exactly. If my piece was (mis)interpreted to imply that women cannot or should not be explorers, that's absurd, and I would hope obviously so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:54 PM

July 21, 2008

Polar Bears

...are delicious.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:01 PM
Nuclear Phobia

Time to end it. It's a technology we need in space, too.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:48 AM
Lust Is Blind

Is anyone surprised by this?

Research involving a group of male students found that their levels of the hormone testosterone increased to the same extent whether they were talking to a young woman they found attractive - or to one they didn't fancy much at all.

After 300 seconds alone in the same room as a woman they had never met before, and in some cases did not find particularly attractive, the men's testosterone levels of the hormone had shot up by an average of around eight per cent.

It reminds me of the wisdom of Billy Crystal's character, Harry:

Sally: You're saying I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail them, too.

Science imitates art.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:39 AM
Fraud Detection

The (modern) difference between science and the humanities.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:25 AM
Do We Have An Urge To Explore?

I explore the proposition, over at The Space Review today. Also, editor Jeff Foust has a good writeup on a recent panel discussion on the prospects for government and private spaceflight.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:58 AM

July 20, 2008

An Effective Alzheimers Treatment?

Let's hope so. Alzheimers is, to me, one of the worst diseases, because it steals not just your body, but your mind, to the point that you're essentially dead while the empty husk metabolizes on. If it's actually possible to reverse the progress of the disease, that's huge news. But I wonder if in doing so, you've still lost some irretrievable memories? And if so, who are you?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:15 AM
It Came From Outer Space

Ron Bailey has more from the end-of-the-world conference, on the risks of asteroids, comets, and gamma-ray bursters. As he notes, comets are the biggest problem, because we might not see them until it's too late. That's why we have to have an infrastructure in space that can rapidly respond.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:14 AM

July 19, 2008

The APS Plot Thickens

The heretic Lord Monckton has a request today of the president of the American Physical Society:

The paper was duly published, immediately after a paper by other authors setting out the IPCC's viewpoint. Some days later, however, without my knowledge or consent, the following appeared, in red, above the text of my paper as published on the website of Physics and Society:

"The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review. Its conclusions are in disagreement with the overwhelming opinion of the world scientific community. The Council of the American Physical Society disagrees with this article's conclusions."

This seems discourteous. I had been invited to submit the paper; I had submitted it; an eminent Professor of Physics had then scientifically reviewed it in meticulous detail; I had revised it at all points requested, and in the manner requested; the editors had accepted and published the reviewed and revised draft (some 3000 words longer than the original) and I had expended considerable labor, without having been offered or having requested any honorarium.

Please either remove the offending red-flag text at once or let me have the name and qualifications of the member of the Council or advisor to it who considered my paper before the Council ordered the offending text to be posted above my paper; a copy of this rapporteur's findings and ratio decidendi; the date of the Council meeting at which the findings were presented; a copy of the minutes of the discussion; and a copy of the text of the Council's decision, together with the names of those present at the meeting. If the Council has not scientifically evaluated or formally considered my paper, may I ask with what credible scientific justification, and on whose authority, the offending text asserts primo, that the paper had not been scientifically reviewed when it had; secundo, that its conclusions disagree with what is said (on no evidence) to be the "overwhelming opinion of the world scientific community"; and, tertio, that "The Council of the American Physical Society disagrees with this article's conclusions"? Which of my conclusions does the Council disagree with, and on what scientific grounds (if any)?

It will be interesting to see the response.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:40 AM

July 18, 2008

The End Of The World

Ron Bailey reports.

Well, OK, it's just a conference on the subject. Which isn't as interesting, but a lot less scary.

[Saturday morning update]

We have met the enemy, and he is us:

"All of the biggest risks, the existential risks are seen to be anthropogenic, that is, they originate from human beings."

All the more reason to get some eggs into baskets other than this one. Also, the rise (again) of the neo-Malthusians. It's hard to keep them down for long, even though so far, they've predicted about five out of the last zero world overpopulation crises.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:49 PM
Down With Darwinism

I agree with Olivia Judson--we should get rid of it:

Darwin was an amazing man, and the principal founder of evolutionary biology. But his was the first major statement on the subject, not the last. Calling evolutionary biology "Darwinism," and evolution by natural selection "Darwinian" evolution, is like calling aeronautical engineering "Wrightism," and fixed-wing aircraft "Wrightian" planes, after those pioneers of fixed-wing flight, the Wright brothers. The best tribute we could give Darwin is to call him the founder -- and leave it at that. Plenty of people in history have had an -ism named after them. Only a handful can claim truly to have given birth to an entire field of modern science.

[Via LGF]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:11 AM

July 17, 2008

Another Nail In The Coffin

...of the low-fat diet myth:

Although participants actually decreased their total daily calories consumed by a similar amount, net weight loss from the low-fat diet after two years was only 6.5 lbs. (2.9 kg) compared to 10 lbs. (4.4 kg) on the Mediterranean diet, and 10.3 lbs. (4.7 kg) on the low-carbohydrate diet. "These weight reduction rates are comparable to results from physician-prescribed weight loss medications," explains Dr. Iris Shai, the lead researcher.

The low-fat diet reduced the total cholesterol to HDL ratio by only 12 percent, while the low-carbohydrate diet improved the same ratio by 20 percent. Lipids improved the most in the low-carbohydrate, with a 20% increase in the HDL ("good") cholesterol and, 14% decrease in triglycerides. In all three diets, inflammatory and liver function biomarkers was equally improved. However, among diabetic participants, the standard low-fat diet actually increased the fasting glucose levels by 12mg/dL, while the Mediterranean diet induced a decrease in fasting glucose levels by 33mg/dL.

I've blogged about this before, but I continue to be amazed and frustrated at the ongoing ignorance in the medical and dietetic community about this. They persist in thinking that it is a simple thermodynamics problem--all calories are equal--and will not accept the notion that what we eat can affect our metabolism (how fast we burn energy, and how much it influences how we burn body fat).

It's why I pay no attention to either physicians, or nutritionists (or the FDA), when it comes to dietary advice. As Glenn says, it's fortunate that I also like a Mediterranean diet.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:34 PM
What Happened To The Consensus?

The American Physical Society admits that a significant number of its membership are heretics:

In a posting to the APS forum, editor Jeffrey Marque explains,"There is a considerable presence within the scientific community of people who do not agree with the IPCC conclusion that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very probably likely to be primarily responsible for global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution."

The APS is opening its debate with the publication of a paper by Lord Monckton of Brenchley, which concludes that climate sensitivity -- the rate of temperature change a given amount of greenhouse gas will cause -- has been grossly overstated by IPCC modeling. A low sensitivity implies additional atmospheric CO2 will have little effect on global climate.

Larry Gould, Professor of Physics at the University of Hartford and Chairman of the New England Section of the APS, called Monckton's paper an "expose of the IPCC that details numerous exaggerations and "extensive errors."

Have the deniers arrested, tried and punished. They must confess their sins.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:38 AM
The Science Of Batman

How plausible is he? Alan Boyle has done some research.

I agree that the getting-knocked-out-all-the-time thing is a problem. But no more so for Bruce Wayne than almost every teevee detective I watched when I was young. It seems like Mannix or Jim Rockford should have been sitting around drooling with all of the concussions they took almost every episode.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:24 AM

July 13, 2008

You Want Transitional Fossils?

Carl Zimmer has the story.

A graduate student at the University of Chicago named Matt Friedman was starting to research his dissertation on the diversity of teleosts. While paging through a book on fish fossils, he noticed a 50-million year old specimen called Amphistium. Like many fish fossils, this one only showed the bones from one side of the animal. It was generally agreed that Amphistium belonged to some ordinary group of teleosts, although biologists argued over which one. But Friedman saw something different. To him it looked like a flounder.

[Via LGF]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:59 PM

July 12, 2008

Don't Shout

David Brin has a warning for irresponsible astronomers.

When in danger, most people in a group recognize the responsibility to be quiet, and not give themselves away to an enemy by making noise, sometimes to the point that a crying baby will be stifled, and even suffocated. I think that this is a similar case where people should be enjoined, by force if necessary, because we cannot know the consequences. I see very little potential benefit to this, and a great deal of risk. The apparent insularity of the SETI folks cannot continue--we are all on this planet, not just them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:07 AM

July 10, 2008

Now This Has Potential

We can capture a powerful greenhouse gas and store energy at the same time. Just imagine pastures full of this.

It has squirrel undies beat hands down. to speak.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:10 PM
Good Point

I've often made this argument, but never as concisely:

The Right believes in biology, but not in evolution; the Left believes in evolution, but not in biology.

It's a little oversimplified (as is any statement about the "Right" or the "Left"), but a good generalization. Of course, when it comes to sexual orientation, the Right doesn't believe in biology, either. But I think that the Left is much more prone to a belief in the Blank Slate myth.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:09 AM

July 09, 2008

Hey, Mount Shasta!

Get with the program!

"When people look at glaciers around the world, the majority of them are shrinking," said Slawek Tulaczyk, an assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led a team studying Shasta's glaciers. "These glaciers seem to be benefiting from the warming ocean."

Except the ocean seems to be cooling, at least lately.

One of the signs of a conspiracy theorist is that every bit of evidence, even counterevidence, is spun to support the theory.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:01 AM

July 07, 2008

Thomas Disch

B-Chan has some thoughts on the ending of his life.

I never read much by him, but by all accounts, he did seem to be an unhappy man. I'm sure that being a homosexual in the fifties and sixties didn't help. In any event, if there's a better place, here's hoping he's there now.

More links over at Instapundit.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:52 AM

July 03, 2008

We're Saved

Frank J. has a plan to deal with the asteroids. Sort of.

Here's what we'll do: We'll paint Mars blue. The asteroids will see Mars, think it's us, and hit it instead. It's simple and it will work. So you're asking, "Why not paint Venus? It's the same size and should make a more convincing Earth." That's idiotic. For one thing, it's super-hot there, so how the hell do you plan on painting it? Also, it's further away from the asteroid belt than us, so the asteroids will see the real Earth before seeing the decoy Earth. Painting Venus is a truly idiotic plan. You're disgustingly stupid for even suggesting it. This is why I sometimes think of just giving up blogging because I just can't deal with people as stupid as you are.

I know how he feels. Sort of.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:31 AM
Killing The Planet

...with wind mills:

...the only feasible backup for the planned 25-gig wind base will be good old gas turbines. These would have to be built even if pumped storage existed, to deal with long-duration calms; and the expense of a triplefold wind, gas and pumped storage solution would be ridiculous. At present, gas turbine installations provide much of the grid's ability to deal with demand changes through the day.

The trouble is, according to Oswald, that human demand variance is predictable and smooth compared to wind output variance. Coping with the sudden ups and downs of wind is going to mean a lot more gas turbines - ones which will be thrashed especially hard as wind output surges up and down, and which will be fired up for less of the time.

The fiends.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:57 AM
LHC Safety And Promise

Alan Boyle has a great interview on the upcoming research to be performed on the Large Hadron Collider.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:39 AM

July 02, 2008


It's been a hundred and fifty years since Darwin first presented his thesis. Charles Johnson has some thoughts. I may have some as well, later. Or not.

[A minute or so later]

Well, actually, I do now, in light of Lileks' comments this morning, in which he pointed out the simplistic, stilted views of many across the political spectrum. I'll repeat:

Really, if one wants to cling, bitterly, to the notion that a believe [sic] in lower taxes and strong foreign policy and greater individual freedom re: speech and property automatically translates to a crimpled, reductive, censorious view of pop culture, go right ahead.

Similarly, if one wants to cling, bitterly, to the notion that a concern about Islamism, and an inability to realize what an evil stupid fascist criminal George Bush is translates to a belief that the world was created by Jehovah six thousand some years ago, complete with dinosaur bones, go right ahead.

Before 911, Charles Johnson was a Democrat, and a jazz musician. Almost seven years ago, he got mugged by reality. That, combined with some scary things that were happening at a mosque near his home in Culver City resulted in a change in emphasis at his web site. Now many of the left wingnuts who read LGF stupidly assume that he's a "right" wingnut. Yet here he is, defending science from places like the Discovery Institute, on a semi-daily basis.

I get the same idiotic treatment, much of the time. I've often had discussions on Usenet whereupon, when I argue that maybe it wasn't necessarily a bad idea to remove Saddam Hussein's boot from the neck of the Iraqi people, and that I don't believe that George Bush personally planted the charges in the Twin Towers, I am told to go back to whatever holler I came from and play with my snakes, and am informed that my belief in a Christian God, and my lack of belief in evolution is just more evidence of my irredeemable stupidity, despite the fact neither religion or science had been on the discussion table.

I then take pleasure in informing them that I am an agnostic and for practical purposes an atheist, and that I am a firm believer in evolutionary theory, it being the best one available to explain the existing body of evidence. Whereupon, I am sometimes called a liar. Really. It's projection, I think.

Same thing often happens here, in fact. I tell people that I'm not a Republican, and have never been, nor am I a conservative, and I'm accused of lying about my true beliefs and political affiliation.

C'est la vie. There's no reasoning with some folks.

In any event, happy birthday to a controversial but powerful (as Dennett says, absolutely corrosive, cutting through centuries of ignorance) scientific theory. Expect me to continue to defend it here, and Charles to defend it there.

[Late evening update]

Well, Iowahawk has the comment du jour:

I'm a dope-smoking atheist writer for a San Francisco lowbrow culture mag; I also enjoy seeing 7th century genocidal terrorist shitbags getting waterboarded. I really don't see the contradiction.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:09 AM

July 01, 2008

Better Living

...through hookworms:

"Many of the people who were given a placebo have requested worms, and many of the people with worms have elected to keep them," Dr. Pritchard said.

I hope they can figure out how it works, and (literally) eliminate the middle man...errrrr...worm.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:39 AM

June 30, 2008

We're Not Ready

It's been a hundred years since Tonguska, but we're still not taking the threat seriously.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:00 PM

June 29, 2008

Hooking Them Early

Behold, Space Camp Barbie. Maybe math isn't as hard as she thought.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:17 AM

June 25, 2008

Rewiring Our Brains?

Is the Internet changing the way we think?

Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

It's anecdotal, but I've noticed the same thing. I used to read many more books (and magazines, such as The Economist) than I do now. Almost all of my reading occurs on line, and I am much less able to focus than I used to be. But it's not clear whether this is an effect of aging, or new habits. More the latter, I suspect.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:38 AM

June 24, 2008

Criminal Against Humanity, Part Two

More thoughts on James Hansen's demand of an auto de fe by those in the pay of Big Oil (further cementing the notion that this isn't science--it's a religion). No one expects the WARM MONGER'S INQUISITION...

Read the comments.

I do wonder if this is a violation of the Hatch Act.

[Wednesday morning update]

Four heresies.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:56 PM

June 23, 2008

"Criminal Against Humanity"

That's what Barack Obama, and anyone who supports US ethanol price supports and tariffs against Brazilian imports is.

I agree.

By the way, so are Algore and James Hansen...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:13 PM

June 21, 2008

Deep Misanthropy

Ed Driscoll has some thoughts on haters of humanity, who are now making Hollywood films to convey their views.

Hey, how about if we save the earth by migrating into space?

Somehow, I don't think they'll like that, either.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:25 PM

June 19, 2008

Let's Hope It's No Fluke

A cure for cancer from immunotherapy?

Ed Yong, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "It's very exciting to see a cancer patient being successfully treated using immune cells cloned from his own body. While it's always good news when anyone with cancer gets the all clear, this treatment will need to be tested in large clinical trials to work out how widely it could be used."

However, the treatment could prove extremely expensive and scientists say that more research is needed to prove its effectiveness.

On the other hand, it may prove to be not that expensive at all. It seems to me something quite amenable to economies of scale, and reduction of cost through technology advances.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:17 AM
"Slo Mo" Disaster

Alan Boyle has an interesting story on flood prediction. Well it is to me, anyway.

Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that the forecasts have been "remarkably accurate" - within the limits of the system, that is. He noted that the flood wave is working its way down the Mississippi River at about walking speed, giving the forecasters time to analyze the water's course, and giviing emergency officials time to react.

"It's like a traffic jam. The cars move slowly through the jam, and this big stuff is coming our way slowly and inexorably," Criss said.

The damage will be in the billions. And of course, some will say that this is a sign of climate change. But the real reason that the cost of these disasters is increasing is not because the weather is any different than it has been in the past but rather because people foolishly build in flood plains, because they don't understand the nature of statistics. There is no such thing as a "hundred year flood," at least in the sense that you can expect that there will be one per century, and after you've had one, you're safe for another hundred years. All it means is that statistically, one would expect one to occur that often, on average. Having one does not inoculate you from having another the next year (or even the next month), any more than chances that the next coin flip will be heads is increased by a previous tail. It's fifty-fifty every flip, and it's one in a hundred every year (assuming that the estimate is correct). This is the same kind of thinking as the guy who always carried a bomb on the plane with him, on the logic that the chances that there would be an airplane with two bombs on it were minuscule.

A perfect example is the 2004 hurricane season, which I drove over from California in early September to enjoy. I arrived in Florida just in time to put up shutters and batten down the hatches in our new house, when Frances hit us.

It was the first time a major storm had hit the area in many years, and most of the people who had lived here, even long-time residents, had gotten complacent. In fact, I recall sitting next to someone on a plane to LA earlier that summer, shortly after we'd bought the house, but before the storms. He was a real estate agent in Palm Beach County, and I mentioned that one of the things I didn't like about moving to south Florida was the hurricanes. He waved it aside, saying, "we don't get hurricanes here." I just shook my head.

Anyway, three weeks later, just as we were getting power back on and cleaned up from Frances, we got hit by Jeanne, which made landfall in almost exactly the same place (up around Fort Pierce). So this was not only a "hundred year" (or perhaps a "thirty year") hurricane, but we had two of them within a month. And of course, the cost of hurricanes will continue to grow, not because hurricanes are getting worse, but because, as in the midwest, and partly out of statistical ignorance, we continue to provide them with ever more, and ever more expensive targets.

[Update a couple hours later]

Jeff Masters thinks that climate change is causing 500-year floods to become more frequent. I don't think we have enough data to know that for sure (particularly since things have actually been cooling down in the last few years), but as he points out, another anthropogenic effect is the draining of wetlands for farming and building of levees to protect them. Levees work fine (until they suddenly don't) but they intensify effects down stream.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:00 AM
Evolution In Action

And not just in the Pournelle/Niven sense--literally:

...sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations - the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

Indeed, the inability to use citrate is one of the traits by which bacteriologists distinguish E. coli from other species. The citrate-using mutants increased in population size and diversity.

"It's the most profound change we have seen during the experiment. This was clearly something quite different for them, and it's outside what was normally considered the bounds of E. coli as a species, which makes it especially interesting," says Lenski.

But a dog didn't turn into a cat, so no big deal.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:47 AM

June 17, 2008

Hard Wired

There seems to be a clear link between brain structure and sexual orientation. This should put to rest any notion that it's a "choice" for anyone but bi-sexuals (and this might imply that there are quite a few, since there could be a continuous variation between symmetric and how asymmetric one's brain is). As I've long said, there are those who are clearly irretrievably heterosexual (like me) and homosexual, but the debate rages on among the bis, who assume that everyone is like them.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:45 AM

June 16, 2008

Seek, And Ye Shall Find

Another huge oil discovery in Brazil.

What's amazing is not so much that Congress won't allow us to pump oil, which we badly need to do. They won't even allow us to look for it, especially if it's in a "pristine" (aka barren coastal plain, frozen in the winter and a mosquito-infested bog in the summer) region, at least according to Senator McCain.

What are they afraid we might find?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:13 PM

June 12, 2008

Fighting Global Warming

With geoengineering. But the hair shirters don't like it:

Stabilization can only be achieved by cutting current carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent. This means implementing highly unpopular policies of carbon rationing and higher energy prices. So some climate change researchers and environmental activists worry that the public and policymakers will see geoengineering as way to avoid making hard decisions. "If humans perceive an easy technological fix to global warming that allows for 'business as usual,' gathering the national (particularly in the United States and China) and international will to change consumption patterns and energy infrastructure will be even more difficult," writes Rutgers University environmental scientist Alan Robock.

Well, boo frickin' hoo.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Commenter Chris Potter has a pithy translation: "If there's no good reason for people to do what I want them to do, they won't do it."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:42 AM

June 06, 2008


A brief survey of potential global warming solutions. What is more interesting to me than the engineering is the politics and ethics of all this. Asteroid diversion falls in the same category. But at least some of these things could drive a need for low-cost space access in an unprecedented manner.

But this is one that doesn't really seem to be in this category, unless it were mandated. It's more of a "think globally, act locally" approach:

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the ultra-low-tech approach of painting rooftops white to reflect sunlight.

We've been thinking about doing that anyway, just to reduce our air conditioning bill. With a gray cement tile roof, that soaks up a lot of sun, it's hotter than Hades's kitchen in the attic this time of year, and that could really cool things down.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:30 AM

June 05, 2008

I'll Drink To That

Alcohol seems to reduce arthritis risk.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:41 AM

June 04, 2008

Energy Wedgists Versus Breakthroughists

Put me in the latter camp.

Although the Climate Security Act does direct some spending towards low-carbon energy research, it is basically a wedgist scheme. If something like it is adopted by the next presidential administration, we will find out which side is right. If the wedgists are correct, cutting carbon dioxide emissions will produce a modest increase in energy prices resulting in the deployment of a wide variety of readily available low-carbon energy sources over the coming decades. If the breakthroughists are right, energy prices will soar provoking a political backlash. In which case, perhaps one need only peer across the Atlantic to the spreading protests against higher fuel prices in Europe to see the future.


One of the most disturbing things about McCain is that he has bought completely into the hysterical climate-change claptrap, and is unamenable (so far at least) to reason.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:56 AM

June 02, 2008

Hurricane Season Begins

Jeff Masters has a rundown on the prospects for early-season hurricanes. Summary: not so much. The water's too cool and the wind shear too high. Probably not much serious before August. I found this particularly interesting (I hadn't previously been aware of it):

It's not just the SSTs [Sea Surface Temperatures--rs] that are important for hurricanes, it's also the total amount of heat in the ocean to a depth of about 150 meters. Hurricanes stir up water from down deep due to their high winds, so a shallow layer of warm water isn't as beneficial to a hurricane as a deep one. The Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP, Figure 3) is a measure of this total heat content. A high TCHP over 80 is very beneficial to rapid intensification. As we can see, the heat energy available in the tropical Atlantic has declined steadily since 2005, when the highest SSTs ever measured in the tropical Atlantic occurred. I expect that the TCHP will continue to remain well below 2005 levels this year, so we should not see any intense hurricanes in July, like we saw that year.

A lot of the Warm Mongers were saying (ignorantly) that 2005 was the beginning of a trend of more and more intense hurricanes, brought on by You Know What. Well, with the current cooling going on, so much for that.

[Update a few minutes later]

I should add that my understanding of the current thinking on the subject of warming and hurricanes is that there will actually be fewer hurricanes forming in a warmer world, because there will be more wind shear that prevents them from doing so. On the other hand, if they do manage to get it together, they will be more intense, due to warmer ocean waters.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:35 AM

June 01, 2008

Cold Fusion Breakthrough?

Probably not, but it's such a high-payoff concept that it's worthwhile to keep on eye on those few who continue to chase that particular grail. Here's the latest one from Japan, with a report that the experiment seems to be repeatable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:30 PM

May 25, 2008

Thoughts On Global Warming

From Freeman Dyson. It's a long read but worthwhile (as always).

[Update late evening]

Dayo Olopade has an uncomplimentary review of Dyson's review.

FWIW, I don't think that GW skepticism is equivalent to Pascal's wager. But I don't have time right now to say why.

Hope I live to tell the tale.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:43 AM

May 24, 2008


I find it amusing that these folks were clueless as to the purpose of the Google Lunar Prize when they signed up:

In my first blog, I wrote why Harold Rosen formed the Southern California Selene Group. In short, he and I registered our team to compete for the Google Lunar X PRIZE to demonstrate that a low-cost space mission to the moon could be accomplished and could lead to lowering the cost of some future robotic missions to planetary moons. Plus, we intended to have fun! Harold and I both are strong supporters of space science and robotic space exploration. (For one, I'm an astronomy and cosmology enthusiast.) We love the kind of work that JPL is doing, for example. But we most definitely are not in favor of human space missions. That is not our goal, nor do we support such a goal.

The Team Summit turned out to be a real wakeup call. In the Guidelines workshop that I attended just last Tuesday, the cumulative effect of hearing all day from Peter Diamandis, Bob Weiss and Gregg Maryniak that the "real purpose" of the Google Lunar X PRIZE was to promote the so-called commercialization of space (which I took to mean highly impractical stuff like mining the moon and beaming power to the earth, as shown in one of GLXP kickoff videos), humanity's future in space, etc. etc., took its toll. I couldn't help but think "what am I doing here?" When I spoke to Harold about it on the phone later, he agreed - no way did he want to be involved in promoting a goal he does not believe in.

So, what does this mean? It sounds to me like it's not just a goal they "don't believe in" (which is fine--they could not believe in it and still want to win the prize for their own purposes), but rather, a goal to which they are actively opposed, and don't think that anyone should be pursuing. I'm very curious to hear them elaborate their views, but it sounds like they're extreme Saganites. For those unfamiliar with the schools of thought, you have the von Braun model, in which vast government resources are expended to send a few government employees into space (this is Mike Griffin's approach), the Sagan model ("such a beautiful universe...don't touch it!), and the O'Neillian vision of humanity filling up the cosmos.

So when they say they don't support such a goal, does that mean they oppose it, and would take action to prevent it from happening if they could? Sure sounds like it. And they take it as a given that lunar mining is "impractical," but is that their only reason for opposing it, or do they think that it somehow violates the sanctity of the place, and disturbs what should be accessible only for pure and noble science? I'll bet that they'd prefer a lot fewer humans on earth, too.

[Via Clark Lindsey]

[Update late morning]

Commenter "Robert" says that I'm being unfair to Carl Sagan. Perhaps he's right--I was just using the formulation originally (I think) developed by Rick Tumlinson, though Sagan was definitely much more into the science and wonder of space than were von Braun or O'Neill... If anyone has a suggestion for a better representative of the "how pretty, don't touch" attitude, I'm open to suggestions.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:27 AM

May 21, 2008

Soylent Something

Here's an article about the current status of the lab-grown meat industry (such as it is):

...don't hold your breath while waiting for your first lab-grown roast. Despite considerable hubbub over the technology in recent months, we're still years--or, more likely, decades--away from affordable lab-grown meat. The current experiments are taking place in bioreactors that measure only a few hundred milliliters in volume, and the longest complete muscle tissues are just 2 centimeters long. Researchers are nowhere close to scaling up their production to market-ready levels, to say nothing of market-ready prices. A Dutch team's lab-grown pork, for example, would cost around $45,000 per pound--assuming they could make an entire pound of the stuff. Bioreactors may be energy-efficient when compared with cattle, but they're also expensive to design, build, and maintain. They also require highly skilled personnel to manage, in order to preserve aseptic conditions.

Furthermore, manufactured meat promises to replicate only the taste and texture of processed meat; as far as we are from enjoying lab-grown hamburger, we're even further from perfecting man-made rib-eyes. So even if meat labs did become viable commercial enterprises, the naturally raised meat industry would hardly vanish.

I think that this is a little too pessimistic. Considering where we've gone with realistic computer graphics based on fractals, I wouldn't count out the possibility of a nicely marbled filet being produced in the lab. But this is what I found interesting, in a linked article at the New York Times, bewailing how much meat we eat:

Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government's recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It's likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources.

What's the point of the first sentence? Were the 1950s the epitome of American health? Yes, people were eating less meat, and a lot more processed high-glycemic carbs (noodle casseroles, mashed potatoes, lots of sugary dishes--Lileks can tell you all about it). It's my parents diet (and it was mine as a child). They were both overweight, and both died of heart attacks fairly young (my father was eight years younger than me when he had his first, and if I live two more years I'll outlive him). I'm in relatively good coronary health, with no known problems. It's the diet of our grandparents that we should be emulating, not our parents (speaking to the boomers here).

And since when did the federal government become a nutrition expert? They food pyramid is a bad joke, in terms of health, with far too little protein, and too many carbs. The author of the article blithely states protein requirements as though they are established, objective fact.

It could be that some people are eating too much meat, but I'll bet that a lot more are eating too much sugar, white rice and refined flour. The interesting thing is that it's not meat and fat per se that seems to increase cholesterol levels (assuming that high cholesterol is really a problem, and not just a symptom), but the combination of it with an overabundance of carbs. That's what Atkins is all about (though I think he took it too far).

Anyway, I find it annoying to see this stuff promulgated as though it's indisputable, when in fact it is in constant dispute, and I think that those disputing it have the better of the argument. But if we do need more meat, I hope that we can in fact get the factories going, for both cost and ethical reasons.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:23 AM

May 19, 2008

Math Is Hard Barbie used to say. Well, actually, it's not that it's hard, but that women just aren't as into it as men are.

The tone of the article is amusing, because the author clearly knows that she is reporting politically incorrect (though obvious to most thinking, observant people) results, and seems uncomfortable with it. So kudos to her for doing it anyway. And of course the feminist establishment is extremely threatened by the notion that there is any cause of disparity between men and women that cannot be attributed to evil patriarchal social conditioning and rampant sexist discrimination. To the point at which they of course have to completely misstate the argument in order to knock down the illogical straw man:

Rosalind Chait Barnett, at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis, says that boys and girls are not, at root, different enough for such clear sorting to be seen as a matter of "choice."

"The data is quite clear," she says. "On anything you point to, there is so much variation within each gender that you have to get rid of this idea that 'men are like this, women are like that.' "

Well, the data may be clear, but the logic is severely flawed (I'll refrain from noting that it may be because it's coming from a woman...).

Even if there is tremendous variation among individuals within genders (which there clearly is) it doesn't follow that there won't be average differences in traits between genders. For instance, when it comes to math, what Larry Summers noted (and lost his job over after some of the mature, rational, scientific women present got the vapors and had to hie to their fainting couches) was that in fact men have a much greater standard deviation than women. They have both more geniuses, and more morons, when it comes to higher mathematics, whereas women have more of a tendency to stay near the mean. And there are brilliant (individual) woman mathematicians and hard scientists. But that doesn't mean that we can therefore conclude that there are no statistical differences in these traits between men and women. And the fact that there are allows us to draw no conclusions about any particular man or woman (if I call Ms. Barnett illogical, it is because she conveys illogic, and has nothing to do with her genital configuration.) It remains perfectly reasonable, on a statistical basis, to make some broad statements about the genders ("men are like this and women are like that") without having to infer that every man is like this and every woman is like that.

This is the general problem with discussions of gender and race differences, and why books like The Bell Curve are such anathema, and draw down such fury from the left. If one views people as individuals, then it doesn't really matter whether or not blacks, on average, have a lower (or for that matter, higher) IQ than whites do. You still have to test each individual's IQ and treat them as an individual.

But leftists, hating individualism, and being addicted to group and collective rights, can't conceive that such research wouldn't or shouldn't be translated into some attempt at social policy making. Similarly, if women's choices in career really are choices, and not a result of false consciousness, then they won't be able to get as much support for implementing their social engineering nostrums.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:18 AM

May 16, 2008

Science News You Can Use

The neurology of org@sms. Mostly safe for work.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:59 AM

May 14, 2008

"Don't Freak Out"

Some advice for John McCain, from Bjorn Lomborg.

I expect the ad hominem attacks on Mr. Lomborg to commence shortly.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:11 PM
The Month Of The Natural Disaster

May '08 has been a pretty rough month for the planet and its inhabitants, what with the volcanoes and tornadoes and cyclones and earthquakes, <VOICE="Professor Frink>and the drowning and the crushing and the evacuating and the staaaaarving, glavin</VOICE>.

Jeff Masters has a roundup and some history, and some inside info on why the death toll in the country formerly known as Burma was so high.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:01 AM

May 12, 2008

Some Questions For John McCain

From George Will:

You say that even if global warming turns out to be no crisis (the World Meteorological Organization says global temperatures have not risen in a decade), even unnecessary measures taken to combat it will be beneficial because "then all we've done is give our kids a cleaner world." But what of the trillions of dollars those measures will cost in direct expenditures and diminished economic growth--hence diminished medical research, cultural investment, etc.? Given that Earth is always warming or cooling, what is its proper temperature, and how do you know?

You propose a "cap and trade" system to limit the carbon dioxide that many companies can emit. Is not your idea an energy- rationing proposal akin to Bill Clinton's BTU tax?

He has more, not related to climate change.

Also, a long paper on the futility of trading hot air.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:41 PM
Not Again

Quite a bit of jousting in comments (including some by yours truly) about Expelled, science, epistemology, etc., over at WOC.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:49 PM

May 09, 2008

Making The Sahara Green

Through global warming. See, climate change ain't all bad.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 AM
Expelled Exposed

SciAm has an article on the six things that Ben Stein doesn't want you to know about the movie. Just the first one is sufficient to me to think the whole thing a contemptible fraud.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:49 AM

May 08, 2008

The Logic Of Superstition

For what it's worth, I set my watch to the destination time zone when they close the plane doors.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:06 AM

May 02, 2008

Show Me The Science

Jim Manzi reviews Expelled. He's not impressed.

And John Derbyshire is appropriately dismayed by Jews like David Klinghoffer and Ben Stein latching on to this anti-science schtick:

One of the best reasons to be a philosemite in our time is sheer gratitude at the disproportionate contribution Jews have made to the advance of Western civilization, and to our understanding of the world, this past two hundred years. The U.S.A. dominated the 20th century in culture and technology, to the great benefit of all mankind, in part because of the work done in math and science by the great tranche of pre-WW2 immigrant Jews from Europe.

Now you have joined up with people who want to trash the scientific enterprise and heap insults on one of the greatest names in intellectual history. For reasons unfathomable to me, you and Ben Stein want to sneer and scoff at our understandings, hard-won over centuries of arduous intellectual effort. Don't the two of you know, don't Jews of all people know, where this anti-intellectual agitation, this pandering to a superstitious mob, will lead at last? If you truly don't, I refer you to the fate of Hypatia, which you can read about in my last book (Chapter 3), or in Gibbon (Chapter XLVII). Your new pals at the Discovery Institute no doubt think Hypatia got what she deserved.

Civilization is a thin veneer, David. Reason and science are bulwarks against the dark.

The mistake that these people make is to equate science with atheism. It is true that, as science advances, and more scientific explanations are put forth, much of the need for God, at least insofar as an explanation for natural phenomena, is removed. But then, that's the nature of natural phenomena--if they require the supernatural, they are by definition not natural.

But it doesn't follow that a belief in science in general, or evolution in particular, requires atheism. Many (including Manzi in the link above) have pointed out numerous examples, going back to Aquinas, of the compatibility of rationality and reason, and theism. Stein and Klinghoffer would return us to the dark ages, even if they don't realize it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:20 AM

May 01, 2008

Doomsday Has Been Postponed

Apparently, global warming is being delayed:

Commenting on the new study, Richard Wood of the Hadley Centre said the model suggested the weakening of the MOC would have a cooling effect around the North Atlantic.

"Such a cooling could temporarily offset the longer-term warming trend from increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"That emphasises once again the need to consider climate variability and climate change together when making predictions over timescales of decades."

Gee, what a concept.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:08 AM
Green Fascism

There's an interesting post over at New Scientist on the new eugenicists. What's even more interesting, though, are the numerous comments, which repeat many of the myths about population growth and control, and feasibility of mitigating it through space technology, including space (to use the politically incorrect word) colonization.

I don't really have time to critique in any detail, other than to note that anyone who makes feasibility arguments on the latter subject by referring to Shuttle costs is completely clueless. Sadly though, years ago, Carl Sagan did exactly that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:35 AM

April 30, 2008

Et Tu, Alan?

Alan Boyle has a long review of the movie Expelled. While I largely agree with it (and it has reduced my estimation of Ben Stein, who seems to have gone completely off the deep end, tremendously), it is marred, severely in my opinion, by the use of the politically loaded word, "swiftboating," not just in the text, but in the title itself.

He seems, from context, to be using the word in its popular, but grossly mistaken and (Democrat) partisan sense, as in "spreading malicious lies about something or someone." But for those of us actually paying attention at the time, and using more enlightened sources than Lawrence O'Donnell screaming "Liar! Liar! Liar!" at John O'Neill, the word means "revealing inconvenient truths about a political candidate who is a Democrat." Most of the charges of the Swift Boaters were in fact validated--on the subject of Christmas in Cambodia, despite it being "seared, seared into his memory," John Kerry was either lying or fantasizing, and his campaign essentially was forced to admit that. And the video of his Senate testimony in which he slandered his fellow sailors, airmen, marines and soldiers, calling them war criminals, was indisputable.

So it would be far better to simply avoid the word, given the fact that it has almost exactly the opposite meaning to two different sets of readerships, and is bound to raise hackles, regardless of the context. I expect it from political polemicists, but I expect (and almost always get) much better from Alan.

I'll have more thoughts on the movie itself (which I haven't seen, and have no plans to), but will save them for another post.

[Thursday morning update]

Alan responds, but seems to miss the point that I was making. Apparently, to him, the term "swiftboat" as a verb simply means "negative campaigning," something that he doesn't like. But I don't think that's what it means to most people, on either side of the partisan divide. As I describe above, Democrat partisans have come to use it to mean not just negative campaigning, but lying about their candidate, whereas those of us who were opposed to John Kerry (for reasons that the Swift Boat Vets stated, and many others) view it as telling inconvenient truths that didn't reflect well on him. Both of those fall under the rubric of "negative campaigning," if by that one means saying things about a candidate (or a concept) with the intent of making people think less of them.

Now, in light of what I think is my understanding of Alan's point, I disagree. I actually have no problem at all with negative campaigning per se, if the campaign is truthful. I think that in order to make a judgment about a candidate or an issue, the more information the better, both pro and con. If a candidate happens to be an ax murderer, would there be something reprehensible about pointing this out? I think that it would be information that the voting public would have a right to know, despite the fact that it's (sigh) "negative."

Likewise, I have no problem with movies that oppose evolution, per se, as long as they're honest, and I would not characterize such movies as "Swift Boating" (particularly since I think that the Swift Boat Vets, in pointing out facts about John Kerry of which the voting public was largely unaware, performed a public service). From what I've heard about Expelled, however, it's scurrilous, and to associate the tactics used there with John O'Neill and his cohorts is slanderous, if not libelous, to them. There's been a lot of discussion about the movie in the last couple days, and the war on science in general (a war that, by the way, contra Chris Mooney's flawed, or at least limited, thesis, is thoroughly bi-partisan). I hope to provide a link roundup and some thoughts of my own shortly, if I can find the time.

In any event, I continue to find Alan's usage of the new (and ambiguous) verb "swiftboating" problematic, for reasons stated above. As I already noted, I expect to hear that word from "political consultants" on partisan talkfests on the cable news channels, but not in a reasoned discussion about science and society.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:18 PM

April 25, 2008

Fascists Of The Corn

David Freddoso is still angry about our insane and, in my opinion, criminal ethanol and sugar policies:

The problem is that our sugar industry has even better lobbyists than big ethanol. They enjoy price supports, which we pay for both through the Treasury and in the supermarket. The price of our sugar is usually twice that of the world market. The sugar growers love it -- even if they cannot sell all of their sugar, they have a guaranteed government buyer at an inflated price. The corn growers love it too, because high U.S. sugar prices push our food industries to use high-fructose corn syrup (ever seen that on a product label?) as an alternative sweetener -- yet another artificial support for the world price of corn.

Not to mention wreaking havoc on the Everglades. Price-supported sugar cane is using up a lot of the water that both south Floridian humans and animals need, and they do this with the same political clout that they use to get the subsidies and tariffs, for an industry that is not all that big in terms of the economy.

Even if we want ethanol, we can't solve the problem by importing sugar, because there are tariffs in place. We can't import the ethanol itself because there's a high tariff against that, too. Wherever you turn, there's no way out -- Americans don't enjoy economic freedom, we live in a managed economy.

It makes me especially proud of my country when I see Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) call foreign delegates' concerns over a potential doubling of world hunger "a joke..."

Let's call these people out for what they are--Republicans and Democrats alike--fascists. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

[Update a few minutes later]


[Update early evening]

Oh, wonderful:

Key House and Senate farm bill negotiators reached agreement today on the main elements of the farm bill...[T]he five-year bill would raise the target prices and loan rates for northern crops beginning in 2010, raise the sugar loan rate three-quarters of a cent and include a sugar-to-ethanol program.

Oh, that's just great. We have a program that makes us overpay for sugar, and now we're going to start a new program to subsidize the ethanol we create from it -- because without the subsidy, the inflated sugar price we've created will make the ethanol unprofitable.

Just when you think it can't get any worse, they always find a way.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:19 AM

April 24, 2008

Throw In The Towel?

Is it time to give up on finding a vaccine for AIDS?

If the animal model is useless, that's going to make it very hard to test new ones. The only ethical way to do it would be to work with people who engage in risky behavior, and that's going to be very problematic in terms of getting credible results.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:50 AM
Are We Real?

Phil Bowermaster (along with Jerry Pournelle) has some thoughts about Intelligent Design, panspermia and simulated universes. How would one go about looking for the easter eggs, if they exist? Sagan had an interesting one, in Contact.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:39 AM

April 23, 2008

Coming Climate Change Attractions

Are you ready for a new glacial advance?

It is generally not possible to draw conclusions about climatic trends from events in a single year, so I would normally dismiss this cold snap as transient, pending what happens in the next few years.

This is where SOHO comes in. The sunspot number follows a cycle of somewhat variable length, averaging 11 years. The most recent minimum was in March last year. The new cycle, No.24, was supposed to start soon after that, with a gradual build-up in sunspot numbers.

It didn't happen. The first sunspot appeared in January this year and lasted only two days. A tiny spot appeared last Monday but vanished within 24 hours. Another little spot appeared this Monday. Pray that there will be many more, and soon.

The reason this matters is that there is a close correlation between variations in the sunspot cycle and Earth's climate. The previous time a cycle was delayed like this was in the Dalton Minimum, an especially cold period that lasted several decades from 1790.

Northern winters became ferocious: in particular, the rout of Napoleon's Grand Army during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 was at least partly due to the lack of sunspots.

That the rapid temperature decline in 2007 coincided with the failure of cycle No.24 to begin on schedule is not proof of a causal connection but it is cause for concern.

It is time to put aside the global warming dogma, at least to begin contingency planning about what to do if we are moving into another little ice age, similar to the one that lasted from 1100 to 1850.

It might be a PITA to dike Florida and Bangladesh, but it would be a lot easier than staving off half a mile of encroaching ice in the upper midwest and Europe. Crank up your SUV and build some new coal plants before it's too late!

[Update later afternoon]

Well, it's good news in the near term at least, for those living out west, which has had a drought for the past few years. This year was the biggest snow pack in this millennium.

[Thursday morning update]

The criticism begins.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:39 AM
Caught In The Act?

Some rapidly evolving lizards have been discovered on an Adriatic island:

The transplanted lizards adapted to their new environment in ways that expedited their evolution physically, Irschick explained.

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves--muscles between the large and small intestine--that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation's cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

"They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves," Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. "This was a brand-new structure."

Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

It will be interesting to see not only if there is a genetic basis for this change, but if they can still interbreed with the original species. If not, that's called a "new species," folks.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:14 AM

April 21, 2008


[Update a few minutes later]

Alan Boyle has a link roundup of commentary on the movie.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:31 AM
Feel-Good Disaster

Virginia Postrel writes about the economic ignorance of the global warm-mongers, a group that unfortunately includes all three presidential candidates. I just hope that Phil Gramm or someone can get McCain to come to his senses on the issue once he's actually in office.

The connection between higher prices for energy and reduced carbon dioxide emissions may not have hit the national consciousness yet, but the LAT's Margo Roosevelt reports that California utilities--and eventually their customers--are beginning to realize this isn't just a symbolic issue.

...The DWP, to whom I pay my electric bills, wants out of the carbon dioxide caps. It apparently thinks the law shouldn't apply to socialist enterprises.

Isn't that always the way? The laws are for "the little people."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:05 AM

April 18, 2008

Darwin And Hitler

Derb has some thoughts:

As so often with creationist material, I'm not sure what the point is. Darwin's great contribution to human knowledge, his theory of the origin of species, is either true, or it's not. Is David saying: "When taken up by evil people, the theory had evil consequences. Therefore the theory must be false"? Is he asserting, in other words, that a true theory about the world could not possibly have evil consequence, no matter who picked it up and played with it, with no matter how little real understanding? Does David think that true facts cannot possibly be used for malign purposes? If that is what David is asserting, it seems to me an awfully hard proposition to defend. It is a true fact that E = mc2, and the Iranians are right at this moment using that true fact to construct nuclear weapons. If they succeed, and use their weapons for horrible purposes, will that invalidate the Special Theory of Relativity?

If David does not think that Darwin's explanation for the origin of species is correct, let him give us his reasons; or better yet, an alternative explanation that we can test by observation. That a wicked man invoked Darwin's name as an excuse to do wicked things tells us nothing, nada, zero, zippo, zilch about the truth content of Darwin's ideas.

I always have to scratch my head at conservatives who are perfectly comfortable with Adam Smith's invisible hand when it comes to markets, but can't get their heads around the concept of emergent properties in the development of life. And of course, the opposite is true for liberalsfascists.

[Evening update]

Jonah Goldberg has more defense of Darwin (and Einstein). Bottom line, with which I agree:

Nazism was reactionary in that it sought to repackage tribal values under the guise of modern concepts. So was Communism. So are all the statist and collectivism isms. The only truly new and radical political revolution is the Lockean one. But, hey, I've got a book on all this stuff.

He does indeed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:57 PM

April 14, 2008

He's Beyond The Event Horizon

John Wheeler has died:

Unlike some colleagues who regretted their roles after bombs were dropped on Japan, Wheeler regretted that the bomb had not been made ready in time to hasten the end of the war in Europe. His brother, Joe, had been killed in combat in Italy in 1944.

Wheeler later helped Edward Teller develop the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.

The name "black hole" -- for a collapsed star so dense that even light could not escape -- came out of a conference in 1967. Wheeler made the name stick after someone else had suggested it as a replacement for the cumbersome "gravitationally completely collapsed star," he recalled.

"After you get around to saying that about 10 times, you look desperately for something better," he told the Times.

He was a giant in physics, and inspired a lot of great science fiction. RIP.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:09 PM

April 13, 2008

Why Bother?

Thomas James, on the difficulty of writing post-apocalyptic survival stories about people with no interest in survival.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:34 AM

April 08, 2008

This Would Be A Disaster

Academia has already been greatly damaged by post-modernists and an extreme leftist bias over the past few decades, but fortunately math and science have been spared, to date. Those days may be coming to an end, though, as Christina Hoff Sommers warns about the potential Title IXing of science, based (ironically) on shoddy science (similar to the "comparable worth" myth).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

April 07, 2008

Don't Panic

C'mon, people, I appreciate the concern, really, but get a grip (or is that grippe?). It's just the flu.

In most cases, you don't need to see your doctor when you have a cold or the flu. However, if you have any of the symptoms below, seek medical advice.

Emphasis mine. The first five bullets never happened, the hoarseness lasted about three days last week, I never had much of a sore throat, and the cough is a lot better today (i.e., I didn't do it much). I've got most of my energy back, and I think I'm mostly over it.

I think that there is a lot of wasted money in the health care system of people seeing doctors when there's really not much that they can do. It also clogs up emergency rooms. It's particularly bad when they bully them into prescribing antibiotics, which have no effect on a virus, and then they take half the course and quit, thus breeding more resistant bugs. I'm not the type to avoid a doctor if I need to see a doctor, but really folks, it's just the flu.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:17 PM

April 04, 2008

Getting Better All The Time

Men no longer have go through the drudgery of determining whether or not chix are hawt. We can now have the computers do it for us:

"The computer produced impressive results -- its rankings were very similar to the rankings people gave." This is considered a remarkable achievement, believes Kagian, because it's as though the computer "learned" implicitly how to interpret beauty through processing previous data it had received.

I wonder what units it used to judge? Millihelens (that amount of female beauty required to launch a single ship)?

Of course, that was the easy part:

Kagian, who studied under the Adi Lautman multidisciplinary program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University, says that a possible next step is to teach computers how to recognize "beauty" in men. This may be more difficult. Psychological research has shown that there is less agreement as to what defines "male beauty" among human subjects.

No kidding. I've sure never been able to figure it out. Maybe it can just check his bank balance.

Which brings up an interesting (and potentially politically incorrect) point. I think that women are clearly much better at determining whether other women are attractive to men than men are at figuring out whether or not other men are attractive to women (at least physically). I suspect that this is because physical attributes are (for evolutionary reasons, unfortunately) where women primarily compete, so they have to be more attuned to it. I also think that this is why women tend to be more receptive to same-sex relations than men, even nominally heterosexual women (hence the concept of the LUG--lesbian until graduation). In order to be a judge of feminine pulchritude, it helps a lot to appreciate it, and it's a shorter step from there to wanting to experience it up closer and personal than it is for a guy. Particularly a guy like me, who finds men disgusting, and is eternally grateful that not all women do.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:02 PM
Can Animals Think?

It's always been obvious to me that they do, at various levels. I've always found bizarre the notion of some scientists that only humans are capable of cognition. As this long but interesting article points out, it makes no sense in evolutionary terms. The cognitive traits that we have had to have their origins somewhere, though what's even more interesting is that it seems to be a parallel development (that is, like the eye, intelligence has evolved more than once). And it's not anthropomorphizing to recognize clear thoughtful and volitional behavior in cats and dogs. I don't understand the thinking of these modern-day Descartes (he didn't believe that animals were capable of feeling pain) who believe that animals are simply automatons. But then, some of these loons didn't believe that newborns were capable of feeling pain, either, and used to (and perhaps still do) perform major surgery sans anesthesia, ignoring the screaming.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:35 AM

March 31, 2008

The Evidence Continues To Mount

I remember when I first started blogging, over six years ago, it was considered quite controversial to state that being hit by extraterrestrial objects was a legitimate concern, and one in which we should invest resources to prevent. But over the past few years, evidence continues to accumulate that there have been significant events within historical times that, had the occurred today, could cause millions of casualties. For example, some researchers are now quite confident that if God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He did it with an asteroid.

On the other hand, a half-mile-wide object would make a hell of a bang that should be pretty obvious from orbit today, so one has to be a little skeptical. I'd like to see how they arrived at that diameter.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:55 AM

March 28, 2008

Damn You, Global Warming

Damn you! It's interfering with the Canadian seal hunt

"It's a very slow start," said Phil Jenkins, spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, noting that sealing boats were finding it difficult to get to the herds because of thick ice.

Emphasis mine. Just another one of those insidious effects.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:43 PM

March 19, 2008

What's Going On?

The oceans don't seem to be warming. Even NPR says so.

This is obviously one of those many insidious effects of global warming.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:34 PM
Space Visionary

I don't remember the first book I read by Arthur Clarke, or my age when I read it, but I would imagine that it was less than ten. But I do remember that, whatever book it was, it spurred me to go find more.

In the 1960s, Flint's auto industry was booming, and one of the founders of General Motors, Charles Stewart Mott, still lived there. He was worth a couple hundred million at the time (equivalent to a couple billion today), and he had established a foundation for education that had rendered the Flint public school system one of the premiere ones in the country at the time. Part and parcel of this was the public library system. I lived within walking distance (and a trivial bike ride) of the main branch. I would haunt its science fiction section daily, in hope of finding a new Clarke (or Heinlein, or Asimov) book that I hadn't read, and I recall the anticipation when I would discover an unread one that had just been returned by the previous borrower. I often wouldn't even wait to get home, instead sitting down in a chair to devour it in the library.

More than Heinlein, more than Asimov, both of whom were strong influences on me, Clarke taught me about the precision and beauty of science and engineering, and of the importance of making science fiction plausible. I liked all of his work (including the non-science fiction, such as Glide Path, a story of the development of radar during WW II), but I liked the solar fiction the best. It realistically presented me with an exciting future in space into which I could imagine growing up. When 2001 came out (sadly, he died only a month before the fortieth anniversary of its initial screening), it redefined science fiction movies in a way that no other did, before or since (and no, sorry kids, Star Wars doesn't count--despite the space ships and flying vehicles, it's fantasy, not SF). Barely a teenager, I watched, enraptured, as Clark and Kubrick took me first into earth orbit, on that spinning space station, then on to the moon, then on to Jupiter in that amazing nuclear-powered spaceship that had no fins, no streamlining--just ungainly, but realistic-looking and functional hardware that would work in the vacuum and darkness of deep space. (Sadly, as an aside, we seem much closer to Hal the talking computer today, seven years after the movie was supposed to take place, than to even the Pan Am space transport or space station, let alone moon bases and manned Jupiter missions.) It was a future that I could envision, and one toward which I could work, by studying math and science.

But it wasn't just one side of Snow's two cultures--Clarke had his spiritual and artistic side as well, and he inspired one to think deeply about the meaning of existence. One of his best books is much less hard science than most: Childhood's End, a book about how humans evolved, and where we are evolving to, a subject that becomes ever more relevant and prescient as (or if) we are truly approaching a Vingian singularity. I've always thought that it would make a great movie, if Clarke were involved, but there's no chance of that now.

He didn't just have interesting stories and themes--he was a beautiful, eloquent, emotive writer. As I mentioned in the previous Clarke post, we stole some of his words for the foreword of our space ceremony, of which he was one of the major influences that caused us to create it:

Five hundred million years ago, the moon summoned life out of its first home, the sea, and led it onto the empty land. For as it drew the tides across the barren continents of primeval earth, their daily rhythm exposed to sun and air the creatures of the shallows. Most perished -- but some adapted to the new and hostile environment. The conquest of the land had begun.

We shall never know when this happened, on the shores of what vanished sea. There were no eyes or cameras present to record so obscure, so inconspicuous an event. Now, the moon calls again -- and this time life responds with a roar that shakes earth and sky.

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world -- but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.

Rarely do I get tears in my eyes from reading, but one of the most moving short stories of his that I ever read won a Nebula Award1. And justly so. It has an ending poignant and tragic, not just for an alien civilization, but for a man's faith in his God.

I only met him once, though I suppose that still makes me fortunate, in that most never got to meet him at all. It was not long after I graduated from Michigan with two engineering degrees--the product of his influence (and that of others as well, most notably Gerard O'Neill). I was working at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California (near Los Angeles), and I had just written a paper on a concept that I'd come up with, called a "tidal web," that I presented to the Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing in 1981. It was a geostationary structure consisting of a series of tethers in gravity gradient, connected together in a ring, to create a huge platform on which sensors and transponders could be placed. This would in theory eliminate the need for station-keeping satellites, and allow a much higher density of GEO usage, with it being limited only by spectrum and EMI interference issues, rather than physical concerns about collision. (Unfortunately for me, it later turned out, based on calculations performed by Dan Alderson for Larry Niven while researching Ringworld, that it would be orbitally unstable, and eventually fall to the earth.)

Not long afterward, Clarke gave an evening lecture at TRW in Redondo Beach, not far from where I worked and lived. I attended it, and afterward, met him briefly and, knowing of his interest in geostationary structures, gave him a copy of the paper. I later got a brief, but gracious note from him, postmarked from Colombo, Sri Lanka, indicating his interest and gratitude, and that he had added it to his collection of such things. I still have, and treasure, that letter.

I'm sure that he was disappointed, as were many of his readers, that his 2001 vision didn't come true, even without the monolith. After all, in the 1940s and 1950s, he probably would have been astonished (or incredulous) if someone had told him that we'd have landed a man on the moon in 1969. When we appeared to be doing so (which was the case while the movie was being written and produced), it was seductively easy to extrapolate it to lunar bases in the 1970s and Mars missions in the 1980s, as the space station was being constructed in earth orbit. But he'd have been even more astonished, and appalled, to think that we would never go back after 1972, and spend the proceeding decades in low earth orbit, very expensively.

While he lived a long life, it's sad that he died just as interesting and different things are happening that may finally have the prospect of turning at least some of his space stories into reality. Clarke had three well-known laws about technology (though J. Porter Clark has a good related one of his own). But one of his lesser-known ones (at least I think it's his--I can't find a link with a quick search) is that we tend to be optimistic about technological progress in the short term, and pessimistic in the long term, due to the exponential nature of technological advance. I try to use this law to temper my expectations in both directions, and (at least) be optimistic about the long term, as long as it's not long-term enough that (in the famous words of Keynes) we're all dead. The long term was too long for Sir Arthur, but if and when we do have the lunar bases, and the nuclear cruisers to Jupiter, it will be in no small part due to the role that he played in challenging minds, young and not so young, and painting vivid and credible pictures of the future in their heads that motivated them to go out and attempt to create it.

So remember him, and go reread some of the classics. And if you've never read them for the first time, I'll cast my mind back to my childhood and youth, remember the thrill I felt when I opened up a new, unread one, and envy you.

[Early evening update]

One other point about his prescience in the sixties (or at least, I hope so--it seems likely to me as a general point, if not the specific company). The clipper ship that went up to the space station in 2001 didn't have a NASA logo on it. It was Pan Am.

1. I just noticed in rereading it, a failure of imagination that wouldn't strike one reading it in the 1960s. It's interesting that, in the late fifties, he thought that a starship would be bringing data back to earth on magnetic tape and photographs. It just shows how hard it is to get the future right.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:49 AM
Do They Come In Peppermint?

Striped icebergs. Must be global warming.

I don't think they have them in Lake Michigan, though.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:59 AM
More Clarke Thoughts

From John Derbyshire:

It is plain from his life and his work that Clarke was deeply in love with the idea of space. In 1956 he went to live in Sri Lanka so that he could spend his spare time scuba diving, the nearest he could get to the silence, weightlessness, and mystery of space. That profound imaginative connection with the great void is one of the things that separates science fiction writers and fans from the unimaginative plodding mass of humanity -- the Muggles. Clarke had it in spades. The other thing he dreamt of, and wrote about, constantly was alien civilizations: how incomprehensibly magical they will appear to us when we encounter them, and how they will deal with us.

He mentions Bradbury in his remembrance. Some thought of them as four: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury. I never did. I like Ray Bradbury, both as an author, and personally (I met him occasionally when I lived in LA), but I never considered his work science fiction, at least not hard science fiction. It was more in the realm of fantasy and poetry to me (and of course, Fahrenheit 451, which was a political dystopia).

[Late morning update]

Bruce Webster agrees:

I'm not sure I've ever met, talked to, or read of an engineer or scientist who was inspired to become such because of something Bradbury wrote. I'm not saying they're not out there -- I just think it's a very small number, especially when compared to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

Yes. I enjoyed some (though not all) of Bradbury's work, but I was never inspired by it. It just seemed too far from an attainable reality to me.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Even Bradbury himself agrees:

First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time--because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:09 AM

March 18, 2008

The Last Of The Giants

I'm hearing that Arthur C. Clarke has passed. I assume that it's true, but I'll have more thoughts later. In several ways, he was my favorite author--not just science fiction author, but author, period, growing up. Currently at a loss for words.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here's a link to the story.

Among many other things, he wrote the foreword to our July 20th ceremony (though not for that purpose--it was fair use).

[Update a couple minutes later]

Instapundit has some instathoughts.

[Update a few minutes later]

Bruce HendersonWebster already has a requiem up. He must have had it preprepared, like the MSM.

I have to dispute this, though:

The irony is that Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein would all have loved to go into space personally, but obviously were never able to.

He's joking, right? When it comes to Asimov, the man wouldn't even get on an airplane, let alone a rocket. If he had to travel long distances, it was always by train. The notion of the actual man going into space, regardless of his fantastic imagination, is ludicrous.

Meanwhile, Clark Lindsey has a link roundup.

Also, I should note that Bruce explains my post title in a way that I didn't, for those who didn't get it. And the fact that I have to explain it makes me feel old. More when I write a serious post about it.

[Update on Wednesday morning]

Sorry, wrong Bruce. It was Bruce Webster, not Bruce Henderson, who emails that Asimov would have loved to go into space, if he could do it via train. It must be a mite confusin' to have a Bruce blog. Do they sing the Australian philosopher's drinking song over there?

[Another update]

Bruce also notes that he didn't have the eulogy in the can:

I made my living as a writer for several years (see, mostly in computer journalism, and have published over 150 articles, columns, and reviews, plus a few books. Because of my tendency to, ah, wait until the last minute, I often wrote those articles, etc., the night before (or the night after) they were due. For example, during the two years I wrote a column for BYTE, I typically wrote that column -- usually 3000 to 4000 words and sometimes as much as 7000 words -- in one sitting, late at night, the day before deadline. So a 540-word post about something near and dear to my heart is hardly breaking a sweat.

Actually, being a major procrastinator myself, I can (strongly) identify with that. Apologies for the mistaken assumption.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:59 PM

March 15, 2008

Very Cool

Literally. There are icebergs in Lake Michigan. Must be global warming.

Hope they aren't a problem for the whales.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:43 PM

March 11, 2008

Why Is Earth Here?

Lileks seems to be a co-religionist with me:

You know, every so often I run across comments on message boards from the "12 Monkeys" demographic, the people who wish people would just disappear and leave the earth alone. If the Aftermath show has any message, it's how useless the world would be without people. Without humans it's just hunting and rutting, birthing and dying, a clock with no chimes. It's always interesting how people romanticize Nature, and ascribe all manner of purpose and intelligence to it, lamenting the injuries people wreak on the innocent globe. I'd love to read an interview with Gaia in which she says that her goal all along was to come up with a species that could produce Beethoven and make rockets to send the music deep into space. Now that's something to make the other planets sit up and take notice. You think the point is merely to provide a home for thirty billion varieties of insect? I can't tell you how much they itch. Sorry about the earthquakes, but it's the only way I can scratch.

I do believe in a teleology, and this belief is not scientific at all.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 AM

March 10, 2008

Everything You Know Is Wrong

...about greenhouse theory?

Miskolczi's story reads like a book. Looking at a series of differential equations for the greenhouse effect, he noticed the solution -- originally done in 1922 by Arthur Milne, but still used by climate researchers today -- ignored boundary conditions by assuming an "infinitely thick" atmosphere. Similar assumptions are common when solving differential equations; they simplify the calculations and often result in a result that still very closely matches reality. But not always.

So Miskolczi re-derived the solution, this time using the proper boundary conditions for an atmosphere that is not infinite. His result included a new term, which acts as a negative feedback to counter the positive forcing. At low levels, the new term means a small difference ... but as greenhouse gases rise, the negative feedback predominates, forcing values back down.

And why is there resistance to his theory? Follow the money:

NASA refused to release the results. Miskolczi believes their motivation is simple. "Money", he tells DailyTech. Research that contradicts the view of an impending crisis jeopardizes funding, not only for his own atmosphere-monitoring project, but all climate-change research. Currently, funding for climate research tops $5 billion per year.

Miskolczi resigned in protest, stating in his resignation letter, "Unfortunately my working relationship with my NASA supervisors eroded to a level that I am not able to tolerate. My idea of the freedom of science cannot coexist with the recent NASA practice of handling new climate change related scientific results."

It's always amusing, and frustrating, to hear people who attack skeptics ad hominem because they're on the take from Big Oil or Big Coal, when places like the Competitive Enterprise Institute actually get very little of their funding from such sources. But climate researchers are always portrayed as objective, noble and selfless, unswayed by the need to maintain their grant funding stream from Big Climate Change. All I know is that I wish I was getting paid as much to be a skeptic as some apparently think I must be. Or getting paid at all, for that matter. But so far, not a single check has shown up in the mail from Exxon-Mobil or Peabody. It's also an interesting story, in light of Hansen's complaints that he was "muzzled" by the administration, all while he was going around giving speeches evangelizing to the faithful.

I also found this criticism underwhelming.

Dr. Stephen Garner, with the NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), says such negative feedback effects are "not very plausible". Reto Ruedy of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies says greenhouse theory is "200 year old science" and doubts the possibility of dramatic changes to the basic theory.

Yes, can't be overturning two-hundred-year-old theories. That would be completely unprecedented in science.

[Update in the afternoon]

This cautionary essay about science journalism seems to be relevant: beware the underdog narrative.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:14 AM

March 06, 2008

I Always Suspected It

I've always thought that Monster cables were a scam, and that the supposed quality improvement couldn't justify the ridiculously high prices, and that it was quite annoying that they've monopolized so much shelf space in the electronics stores. It's hard to get reasonably priced audio cables (though things are better at Home Depot). But really, I've always figured that most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Monster and lamp cord.

Well, it turns out that supposed audiophiles couldn't distinguish between Monster and coat hangers. But I suspect that the scam will continue, with salespeople continuing to push them. There are probably great margins for both the manufacturer and the retailers.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:56 AM

March 05, 2008

More On Cholesterophobia

A few weeks ago I said that we don't do enough science when it comes to heart disease, and may confuse correlation with causation. Here's another interesting bit of data that reinforces the notion that cholesterol levels don't necessarily cause heart disease.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:32 AM

March 04, 2008

Not Part Of The Consensus

Bill Gray is predicting global cooling within the next decade. And he's willing to put money on it.

Of course, as he notes, at his age, he may not be around to find out whether or not he won the bet.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:14 AM

March 03, 2008

A Cure For Diabetes?

It seems to work in mice:

Last year, Dr Terry Strom and his team demonstrated that they could stop the on-going destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in mice using a combination of three drugs, although they were unable to regenerate the cells.

However, when they added an extra ingredient - an enzyme called alpha 1 anti-trypsin - a significant rise in the number of beta cells was seen.

I'm not sure what the point is here:

It is exciting that these drugs could stop the immune system from attacking insulin-producing cells, but it is too early to tell whether these cells recovered in the mice or if new cells were produced.

Does it matter, from a practical standpoint? I can understand why the researchers would be curious, but a cure is a cure.

Anyway, here's hoping that it can work in higher mammals.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:03 AM

March 02, 2008

Proves Her Point About The Math Thing

Charlotte Allen is embarrassed to be a woman. She gets the math wrong here, though:

Women really are worse drivers than men, for example. A study published in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health revealed that women clocked 5.7 auto accidents per million miles driven, in contrast to men's 5.1, even though men drive about 74 percent more miles a year than women.

Since the statistic is on a per-mile basis, the fact that men drive more miles a year is irrelevant. So the disparity--5.1 versus 5.7--is actually quite small, and perhaps within the statistical error.

Of course, the thing that statistics like this don't reveal is how many accidents they cause, unbeknownst to them, because they are oblivious to their surroundings. I'm always bemused by someone who I know to be a terrible driver bragging about the fact that they've never had an accident. Not to imply that men don't do this as well, of course.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:05 AM

February 29, 2008

A Nanotech Dustup

A week-long debate over at the LA Times (similar to the one that Homer Hickam and I had on space last fall).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:31 PM
Got A Second?

On Leap Day, some thoughts on timekeeping problems from Alan Boyle.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:32 AM

February 28, 2008

Eating Themselves To Death

A new theory about the end of the Neanderthals:

"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors (such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans)," he said.

Such diseases have very long incubation periods, he further explained, so affected individuals may not show symptoms for a very long time. Similarly, people who consume TSE victims may not exhibit signs of illness immediately after eating.

"Neanderthals would have been unlikely to spot any causal relationship between cannibalism and TSE symptoms," Underdown said.

No kidding.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:08 PM
Good Medical Advice

Joe Katzman has some, as do his commenters. Doctors are not gods.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:11 AM

February 26, 2008

Are Americans Stupid?

Phil Bowermaster has some thoughts:

See how deftly it's done? Stupid religious Americans, clever "heathen" Europeans. Unfortunately, in the context, this doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. Americans are opposed to stem cell research because we're ignorant religious bigots. Okay, sure. But we're opposed to nanotechnology for the same reasons? And GM foods?

GM foods? Now wait a second...a lot of Europeans are opposed to GM foods. I bet they would even say it's on moral grounds! Yet somehow, they manage to pull that off without being either 1) religious or -- more importantly -- 2) stupid. Personally, I think being morally opposed to GM foods is kind of stupid, and being "morally" opposed to nanotechnology is idiotic. However, I don't see how American stupidity is dumber than European stupidity; one may be informed by religious belief, the other by a paranoid superstitious dread of scientific progress. Advantage: Europe? If you say so.

I just hope that Americans aren't stupid enough to fall for Obama, as the Democrats currently seem to be.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:04 AM

February 25, 2008

Is The Leopard Still There?

The snows of Kilimanjaro are back.

Not to mention that the arctic icepack is growing.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:06 PM
Not So Identical

Apparently "identical" twins don't even have identical genetics:

Identical twins emerge when a zygote -- the fertilized egg that develops into an embryo -- splits into two embryos. As such, they should have the same genomes. The researchers speculate that as the cells making up each embryo divide over and over again during development in the womb, mistakes occur as dividing cells shuffle copies of their DNA into daughter cells.

But genetic differences between identical twins might also accumulate after development over a twin's life as well. "I think all our genomes are under constant change," Bruder told LiveScience.

I think that this has implications for cloning as well. It may not be possible to exactly clone an individual, and the differences could turn out to be quite noticeable.

[Update in the evening]

Per some comments, the key point in this story is that it has long been known that there are differences in twins (personality, eyesight, fingerprints, etc.). But those are things that can arise even from an identical genome. The genes are not a blueprint, but rather a recipe, and even if a recipe is followed carefully, the results are not always guaranteed to be the same. The point of the article is that, contrary to previous theories that obvious differences in twins could be attributed solely to different environments, that the genome itself wasn't necessarily the same. That is new.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:22 PM
Which Is Greener?

Driving, or walking? John Tierney stirs up a hornet's nest of vegans and other morally overrighteous high-horse riders (see comments). I mean, to question Ed Begley, Jr. Isn't that just the height of apostacy?

This reminds me of a piece that I've been thinking of writing about overall energy and fuel costs, including human fuel. With the ethanol boondoggle, we've gone back to the point at which we're using crops for transportation (something we largely left behind at the end of the nineteenth century) and we now have increasing prices in both food and fuel as they compete with each other for the same farmland. This isn't a good trend for the Third World (consider that one of the effects of the ethanol subsidies has been a dramatic increase in corn and tortilla costs in Mexico, making a poor country even more so).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:18 PM

February 22, 2008

Mystery "Solved"

Scientists now have a plausible, and likely theory for what created the Burgess Shale:

By looking over hundreds of micro-thin slices of rock taken from the famous shales, the researchers have reconstructed the series of catastrophic underwater landslides of "mud-rich slurry" that killed tens of thousands of marine animals representing hundreds of species, then sealed them instantly - and enduringly - in a deep-sea tomb.

The mass death was "not a nice way to go, perhaps, but a swift one - and one that guaranteed immortality (of a sort) for these strange creatures," said University of Leicester geochemist Sarah Gabbott, lead author of a study published in the U.K.-based Journal of the Geological Society.

I use the scare quote because that's the word used in the headline. This kind of language, I think, is (at least partly) what bothers people who continue to rebel against evolution, and science. It is a certainty of language (like "fact," rather than "theory") that they consider hubristic, and arrogant. After all, when Sherlock Holmes "solved" a case, it generally was the last word, case closed.

In this case, what the word means is that scientists have come up with a plausible explanation for an event for which they'd been struggling to come up with one for a long time, and it is sufficiently plausible that there are few scientists who argue against it, thus presenting a consensus. Does it mean that they have "proven" that this is what happened? No. As I've written many times, science is not about proving things--scientists leave that to the mathematicians. What scientists do (ideally) is to posit theories that are both reasonable and disprovable, yet remain undisproved.

There may be some other explanation for what happened up in what is now Yoho National Park that corresponds better to what really happened, but until someone comes up with one that makes more sense, or comes up with some inconvenient indisputable fact that knocks this one down, it (like evolution itself) is what most scientists, particularly the ones who study such things for a living, will believe.

And of course, I won't even get started on how upset some anti-science (and yes, that's what they are, even if they don't recognize it) types will get over the statement that one of the ancestors of humans is in that shale.

[Update a few minutes later]

Oh, the main point about which I put up this post. This is an excellent illustration of how rare are the circumstances in which we find the keys to our biological past. Those that demand that we cannot know the history of life until every creature has died on the body of its parents, perfectly preserved, are being unreasonable. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, we do science with the (rare) evidence that we have, not the evidence we'd like to have. There will always be many huge holes in the fabric of the evidence, barring the development of a time machine to the past. We simply do the best we can with what we have, and put together theories that best conform to it. To say that God (or whoever) did it isn't science--it's just a cop out. And that is true completely independently from the existence (or not) of God (or whoever).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:11 PM
A New Take On An Old Subject

Jason Bellows muses on life without the moon. Asimov had a much longer essay on this topic, decades ago, in which he speculated not only about its impact on the development of life, but on the development of intelligence, science and civilization.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:41 AM

February 21, 2008

An Evolutionary Golden Oldie

In light of the decision of my current home state, Florida, to teach evolution as "only a theory" (as though there's something wrong with that), I thought that I'd repost a post from early on in the blog. You can no longer comment on it there, but you can here, if anyone is inclined. Here is the repost:


The Jury Is In

In a post last week, amidst a lot of discussion of evolution, Orrin Judd made the mistaken claim that evolution is not a falsifiable theory (in the Popperian sense), and that (even more bizarrely and egregiously) defenders of it thought that this strengthened it.

On a related note, he also added to his list of questions about evolution a twelfth one: What would it take to persuade me that evolution was not the best theory to explain life? What evidence, to me, would disprove it? I told him that it was a good question, and that I'd ponder it.

Well, I did ponder it, and here is my response.

First of all, the theory is certainly falsifiable (again, in the theoretical Popperian formulation). If I were coming to the problem fresh, with no data, and someone proposed the theory of evolution to me, I would ask things like:

Does all life seem to be related at some level?

Is there a mechanism by which small changes can occur in reproduction?

Does this mechanism allow beneficial changes?

Can these changes in turn be passed on to the offspring?

Is there sufficient time for such changes to result in the variety of phenotypes that we see today?

There are other questions that could be asked as well, but a "No" answer to any of the above would constitute a falsification of the theory. Thus the theory is indeed falsifiable, as any useful scientific theory must be.

The problem is not that the theory isn't falsifiable, but that people opposed to evolution imagine that the answer to some or all of the above questions is "No," and that the theory is indeed false.

But to answer Orrin's question, at this point, knowing the overwhelming nature of the existing evidentiary record, no, I can't imagine any new evidence that would change my mind at this point. Any anomalies are viewed as that, and an explanation for them is to be looked for within the prevailing theory.

And lest you think me close minded, consider an analogy. An ex-football player's wife is brutally murdered, with a friend. All of the evidence points to his guilt, including the DNA evidence. There is little/no evidence that points to anyone else's guilt. Had I been on the jury that decided that case, it would have at least hung. I might have even persuaded a different verdict, but that's unlikely, because I'm sure that the jury had members who were a) predisposed to acquit regardless of the evidence and/or b) incapable of critical thinking and logic, as evidenced by post-trial interviews with them.

But for me to believe that ex-football player innocent, I would have to accept the following (which was in fact the defense strategy):

"I know that some of the evidence looks bad for my client, but he was framed. And I can show that some of the evidence is faulty, therefore you should throw all of it out as suspect. I don't have an alternate theory as to who did the murders, but that's not my job--I'm just showing that there's insufficient evidence to prove that my client did it. Someone else did it--no one knows who--it doesn't matter. And that someone else, or some other someone else, also planted evidence to make it look like my client did it. It might be the most logical conclusion to believe that my client did it, but that would be wrong--the real conclusion is that it is a plot to confuse, and it just looks like he did it. Therefore you shouldn't believe the evidence."

Is this a compelling argument? It was to some of the jury members. And it apparently is to people who don't want to believe that life could evolve as a random, undirected process.

The only way that I could believe that OJ Simpson is innocent at this point would be for someone else to come forward, admit to the crime, and explain how he planted all of the abundant evidence that indicated Orenthal's guilt.

The equivalent for evolution, I guess, would be for God (or whoever) to reveal himself to me in some clear, unambiguous, and convincing fashion, and to tell me that he planted the evidence. At which point, of course, science goes right out the window.

But absent that, the evidence compels me to believe that OJ Simpson murdered his wife (as it did a later jury in the civil suit), and the evidence compels me to believe that evolution is as valid a theory as is universal gravitation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:40 PM

February 20, 2008

Democrat Science Policy

Alan Boyle has a comprehensive write up of the "debate" between the Clinton and Obama science advisors at the AAAS meeting. I can't say that I'm thrilled about either of their proposed policies. But I don't expect much better from McCain, particularly given that he's drunk deeply of the global warming koolaid.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:56 AM

February 19, 2008

The Problem With Democracy

There will always be more sheep than wolves. There will also be a lot more sheep than sheep dogs.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:48 PM
Sagan Memories

I was never a big fan of Cosmos, though I think that it did a lot of good in interesting people in space. I'm listening to a rerun on the SCIHD channel, and I recall why.

Sagan's voice is too pompous, too arrogant, and the ubiquitous sonorous tone, and pauses, which lent themselves to parody ("billions and billions") are really arrogant. I wish that he had written it, and someone else narrated.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 PM
Must Be Global Warming (Part 15,478)

There's a massive snowstorm in Greece. You know, that balmy, Mediterranean country? Did Al Gore visit recently?

I don't know who said it first, but when it's hot, it's climate, but when it's cold, it's

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:51 PM

February 12, 2008

Losing His Marbles

I have to agree with Derb:

I've always liked Ben's stuff -- used to read his diary in The American Spectator way back in the 1970s. Smart, funny, worldly guy, with just that endearing streak of eccentricity. I'm sorry to see he's lost his marbles.

Me, too. Some conservatives have this very strange blind spot when it comes to evolution.

[Update a few minutes later]

Derb eviscerates Stein's thesis. As is usually the case, his attack on evolution (or as he calls it, "Darwinism") is founded on a profound ignorance of the subject.

[Late afternoon update]

Well, this is a heck of a way to celebrate the old man's 199th birthday:

Florida's department of education will vote next week on a new science curriculum that could be in jeopardy, because some conservative counties oppose it.

Nine of Florida's 64 counties have passed resolutions over the last two months condemning the new curriculum that explicitly calls for teaching evolution. The resolutions, passed in heavily Christian counties in the state's northern reaches, demand that evolution be "balanced" with alternative theories, mainly creationist.

That's not really Florida. It's more like deep southern Georgia, culturally...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:01 AM
More Stem Cell Advances

This stuff really is moving along at a good clip:

"Our reprogrammed human skin cells were virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells," said Plath, an assistant professor of biological chemistry, a researcher with the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research and lead author of the study. "Our findings are an important step towards manipulating differentiated human cells to generate an unlimited supply of patient specific pluripotent stem cells. We are very excited about the potential implications."

The UCLA work was completed at about the same time the Yamanaka and Thomson reports were published. Taken together, the studies demonstrate that human iPS cells can be easily created by different laboratories and are likely to mark a milestone in stem cell-based regenerative medicine, Plath said.

Repeatability--one of the hallmarks of solid science. Of course, they always have the standard caveat:

"It is important to remember that our research does not eliminate the need for embryo-based human embryonic stem cell research, but rather provides another avenue of worthwhile investigation."

I think that, at some point, the embryo work will be abandoned, because even for many researchers, it's ethically problematic. But they will have to do a lot of correlation and validation before they can get to that point.

In any event, stuff like this brings us much closer to escape velocity.

[Via Fight Aging]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:08 AM

February 08, 2008

Happy Birthday, Chuck!

Alan Boyle has a roundup of links about Darwin's birthday. I don't have much to say right now, except that his theory is probably the most controversial, and most misunderstood (and most powerful as well, in many senses) in the history of science.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:52 PM
Progress In Longevity

I don't know if there's much point to living ten times as long if you're a nematode, but if it works for us, too, Methuselah, here we come.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:33 PM

February 06, 2008

That Didn't Take Long

John Kerry says that yesterday's tornadoes were caused by global warming.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:51 PM

February 01, 2008

As If It Weren't Bad Enough

Global warming will lead to an increase in zombie attacks.

I blame George Bush.

Fortunately, some of us have been prepared for a while.

[Mid-afternoon update]

Saved by the sun:

The Canadian Space Agency's radio telescope has been reporting Flux Density Values so low they will mean a mini ice age if they continue.

Like the number of sunspots, the Flux Density Values reflect the Sun's magnetic activity, which affects the rate at which the Sun radiates energy and warmth. CSA project director Ken Tapping calls the radio telescope that supplies NASA and the rest of the world with daily values of the Sun's magnetic activity a "stethoscope on the Sun." In this case, however, it is the "doctor" whose health is directly affected by the readings.

This is because when the magnetic activity is low, the Sun is dimmer, and puts out less radiant warmth. If the Sun goes into dim mode, as it has in the past, the Earth gets much colder.

Take that, undead!

Zombies and vampires. Is there any problem the sun can't fix?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:10 AM

January 31, 2008


Here's an interesting article on the economics of repugnance. As Sally Satel (and her donor, Virginia Postrel) have pointed out, an unwillingness to allow a market in kidneys is murdering thousands every year, to help ease the stomach of so-called biomedical "ethicists."

Note to Leon Kass, and others: the "yuck" factor, like all emotions, should be viewed as suggestions, not commands.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:28 AM
Don't You Just Hate When

...the atmosphere explodes?

This planet is dangerous. I really think we need a back up.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:54 AM

January 30, 2008

"I Am An Intellectual Blasphemer"

That well-known right winger, Alexander Cockburn, confesses his sins on the climate change religion.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:19 AM
We Need Science In Medicine

One of the prevailing myths of modern life (I use the word here in the sense of something that everyone believes, not necessarily something that is false) is that cholesterol causes heart disease and stroke, and that reducing it will reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But the recent Vytorin issue should give us cause to question this conventional wisdom.

Whenever I've looked at the research, I've never been able to see any clear indication that taking cholesterol-reducing medication actually reduces risk, per se--all that the clinical studies that I've seen seem to indicate is that cholesterol reduction is taking place. But correlation is not causation. It could be that both high cholesterol and vascular disease are caused by some third factor that hasn't been identified, and that in reducing cholesterol, whether by diet or medication, or both, we are treating a symptom rather than a cause.

My point is, that I don't know the answer. But I don't have a lot of confidence that the medical community does, either. And I remain wary of taking medications with unknown side effects and potential for interaction with other things I ingest, when the benefit is unclear. And I write this as someone who lost both parents to heart disease (my father's first heart attack occurred when he was about forty five, and he died from a second one about a decade later). But they also had much different lifestyles than I did--they grew up with poor diets during the depression, they both smoked like chimneys, and they were both overweight. So I don't necessarily believe that genetics is destiny, at least in this case.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:40 AM

January 29, 2008

Yenta Science

Is there a scientific basis to EHarmony?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:38 AM

January 21, 2008

Breaking The Aging Contract

Derek Lowe is more hopeful than many of his colleagues.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:21 AM

January 17, 2008

Irrational Economics

Michael Shermer, who has a new book out on the subject of the evolutionary basis of markets, has a piece on why we often make foolish economic decisions. Envy counts for more than money, apparently.

[Update a little after noon]

More evolutionary psychology: why the pill has reduced the need of men to marry.

I've often pointed out that the people who really change society are not the politicians and ideologues, but the engineers.

[Update in the afternoon]

I thin that the first article provides a good example of why, despite their irrationality, socialism and wealth redistribution schemes are so intrinsically appealing to so many, and why they won't die out, despite their manifest empirical failures. Too many people would prefer that everyone be poor than that a lot are wealthy while a few are superwealthy. Which is sort of depressing, because it means that the ideological wars over this will go on as long as human nature remains what it is.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:58 AM

January 14, 2008

"Who Says Nothing Exciting Ever Happens In Canada?"

That's Joe Katzman's comment at this interesting post by Donald Sensing on a major asteroid impact in North America thirteen thousand years ago.

...the worst consequence of the cataclysm was the mass extinctions of the late Pleistocene that have heretofore been attributed to overhunting by the Clovis peoples of the continent. The extinctions were additionally blamed on the Younger Dryas. The new impact theory, though, says that the comet's multiple explosions (caused by its breakup in the high atmosphere) themselves caused the extinctions: "at least 35 genera of the continent's mammals went extinct – including mammoths, mastodons, camels, ground sloths and horses." That's 35 whole genera, not just species, that died out. Just at the time of the extinction the researchers found a significant band of soot in sediments from widely-separated sites.

Let me be the first to blame George Bush.

Evidence continues to accumulate that this sort of thing happens a lot more often that we used to think (particularly considering that thirty years ago few people thought that it ever happened). We're going to feel very stupid if we get hit by one that we could have diverted had we not been so short sighted about becoming spacefaring for the past half century.

Unfortunately, the short sightedness continues, in the form of ESAS. And actually, for that, I do blame George Bush, though I guess he thought that once he hired a rocket scientist to run NASA, he didn't need to think about space any more.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:57 AM

January 02, 2008

Eat Your Salmon

More evidence that Omega-3 is good for you:

Fish oil and its key ingredient, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon), have been a mainstay of alternative health practitioners for years and have been endorsed by the American Heart Association to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fatty acids like DHA are considered "essential" fatty acids because the body cannot make them from other sources and must obtain them through diet. Years of research have shown that DHA is the most abundant essential fatty acid in the brain, Cole said, and that it is critical to fetal and infant brain development. Studies have also linked low levels of DHA in the brain to cognitive impairment and have shown that lower levels may increase oxidative stress in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Based on the positive results, the National Institutes of Health is currently conducting a large-scale clinical trial with DHA in patients with established Alzheimer's disease. For those patients, Cole said, it may be too late in the disease's progression for DHA to have much effect. But he is hopeful that the NIH will conduct a large-scale prevention clinical trial using fish oil at the earliest stages of the disease -- particularly because it is unlikely that a pharmaceutical company will do so, since fish oil in pill form is readily available and inexpensive.

There are a lot of other reasons to be consuming Omega-3. This is just one more.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:17 PM

December 31, 2007

Child Abuse

Political correctness is damaging young boys:

Research by Penny Holland, academic leader for early childhood at London Metropolitan University, has also concluded that boys should be allowed to play gun games.

She found boys became dispirited and withdrawn when they are told such play-fighting is wrong.

But you can bet kids will continue to get suspended for as little as drawing pictures of guns.

Remember this the next time someone complains about a Republican war on science. Yet another reason to get the government out of the schools.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:40 AM

December 29, 2007

Force Protection Improvement

It's a little harder to mount a suicide naval attack using cheap boats now. The US Navy is using remote control machine guns. This technology on land vehicles improved force protection in Iraq too.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at 02:33 PM

December 20, 2007

Traffic Jams

A mathematical analysis that I'd always assumed was the case, but had never actually seen. This is where smarter cars could help.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:23 AM

December 17, 2007

This Made Me Laugh

There are three topics that will launch endless threads at Free Republic: evolution, homosexuality and the the War On (Some) Drugs. These are the cleavage lines in the conservative movement.

Anyway, this one, from an evolution/creationism post, made me laugh:

I guess the some apes just refused to stand up in an effort to avoid putting on clothes and going to work. These are probably the apes that want to hold on to their culture. I have a neighbor that appears as though he's reverting back to an ape. He even put up a tire swing for his kids.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:09 PM
Good News On The Flea Front

There is a non-chemical way to control them:

The lead researcher also examined vacuum bags for toxicity and exposed fleas to churning air in separate tests to further explore potential causes of flea death. He and a colleague believed that the damaging effects of the brushes, fans and powerful air currents in vacuum cleaners combine to kill the fleas. The study used a single model of an upright vacuum, but researchers don't think the vacuum design has much bearing on the results.

What I don't get, though, is how you get the cat to lie still while you run the Hoover over her. I know that Jessica wouldn't stand for it for a microsecond. And it would be tough to do a good job on the tail. Maybe they'll do some further research.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:14 PM

December 16, 2007

So Much For The "Consensus"

"Don't fight, adapt.

Also, is oil production really peaking? Not in Brazil:

Wait a minute. Wasn't oil supposed to be running out? Wasn't all the oil out there already discovered? If this new "Sugar Loaf" field in Brazil pans out, the world oil picture won't be the same.

Brazil will become an even bigger exporter in a decade or so than projected and could put pressure on the club of petrotyrants that now has a monopoly on resources. Best of all, it throws doomsday assumptions about oil "peaking" on its head.

The world produces about 85 million barrels of oil a day, according to the International Energy Agency. Global energy demand is expected to rise 55% from 2005-2030. Peak oil theories abound that new discoveries are not keeping up with oil usage. But it's significant that the new demand also is fostering big new discoveries, largely from the very countries where demand is growing most.

It's gloomy times for gloom mongers.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:54 AM

December 13, 2007

More On Fruity Fruit Flies

John Tierney had a discussion with one of the researchers. As he notes, the public reaction to this research is fascinating. Sexual orientation (like evolution) is one of those areas where people check their rationality at the door.

And (as is more and more the case the longer I blog), this isn't the first time I've discussed this issue.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:45 AM

December 11, 2007

Watch Out

A very nasty new virus. If you get a cold that gets very bad, particularly with lung congestion, get to the doctor immediately.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:19 AM
Making Fruity Fruitflies

I doubt if this will work for humans (for one thing, I'm pretty sure that my heterosexuality has nothing to do with my sense of smell), but it does show that sexual orientation is a lot more complicated that most people want to think.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:09 AM

December 07, 2007

Scientific Literacy

Should this be a necessary characteristic of a president?

If so, I suspect that none of the major candidates, of either party, would qualify (though perhaps Ron Paul might, being an MD). Hillary!, Obama and Edwards are all lawyers. So are Giuliani and Thompson, and Romney has a JD and an MBA (though McCain might have picked up math and science at Annapolis). Why would they know much about science? And historically, while there have been exceptions, not that many people come to politics at all, let alone the presidency, via science.

There's a lot more to scientific literacy than understanding (and agreeing with) evolution, and being in favor of embryonic stem cell research. In fact, I don't think that Al Gore is scientifically literate (in the way I understand that phrase--a good understanding of basic scientific principles, and able to both perform and recognize good analysis, including the math, as well as a facility with logic).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:35 AM

December 03, 2007

Copernicus Weeps

Well, at least Sophie gets it right. If she's his wife, she married an idiot. Or at least an ignoramus.

[Update while later]

Perhaps it's not so surprising:

Well of course that's what they'd say. Aren't the French told from birth that the entire Universe revolves around them?

I wonder how Americans would do? Sadly, probably not much better.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:32 AM

November 30, 2007

How To Raise Smart Kids

Don't tell them that they are.

I think that it's going to be tough to estimate the huge damage to society that the "self esteem" movement has caused.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:33 AM

November 29, 2007

You Earth-Hating Hosers!

Canadian beer drinkers threaten the planet.

Mark Steyn's shirt buttons (presumably the lower ones) are bursting with pride.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:18 PM

November 28, 2007


Apparently, I'm not doing enough of this:

"It was hard to believe at first," said Marc Hamilton, associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia and leader of the research team. He said the team didn't expect to find a strong signal when they began researching what happens to fat when we remain seated. But the effect, both in laboratory animals and humans, turned out to be huge.

The solution, Hamilton said, is to stand up and "putter."

Hey, but isn't sex good, too?

Seriously, when I was at Rockwell (a decade and a half ago) I used to do a lot of MBWA (management by walking around). It was a big plant. These days, working from home, not so much. I've added an inch or two to my waist. I do stand a lot, schmoozing in the hallways, when I go to a conference, every couple months, but I also notice that it kills my back. I can walk for hours, but standing is miserable, at least at the end of the day.

What to do...?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:00 PM
Diet Advice

Randall Parker says eat more salmon (and nuts and eggs), and less bread. That's not news, but there's more confirming data for it, and too many people are still fataphobic, and don't understand the dangers of high-glycemic carbs.

Oh, and if you're a guy, try to have a high testosterone level, though it's less clear how to do that dietarily...

As I wondered in comments over there, does this mean that one can get the benefit by artificially raising testosterone levels, or is the high level just a marker for something else that's the actual cause?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:59 AM

November 27, 2007

"Soulless Scientism"

John Tierney takes on Leon Kass.

Hey, if Kass wants to call me a "Scientist," I'm OK with that. I'll always take rationality over mysticism.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:36 PM

November 18, 2007


This post from Dr. Helen seems somehow relevant to this recent one by me, in terms of not bothering to read the whole paper (and in this case, not even necessarily understanding it, even if they did).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:49 PM

November 12, 2007

Some Nobels Are Better Than Others

Listen to the IPCC, not Al Gore.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:39 AM

November 10, 2007

The Hurricane Season That Wasn't

Brendon Loy has some thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:20 AM

November 08, 2007

A Cancer Cure?

Phil Bowermaster has an interesting interview with a researcher who think he may have one, that will start being tested in human subjects next year.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:58 AM

October 31, 2007

Building Stronger Bones

...through vibrators.

No, not that kind of vibrator. Get your mind out of the gutter:

Dr. Rubin, director of the Center for Biotechnology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is reporting that in mice, a simple treatment that does not involve drugs appears to be directing cells to turn into bone instead of fat.

All he does is put mice on a platform that buzzes at such a low frequency that some people cannot even feel it. The mice stand there for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Afterward, they have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform — and correspondingly more bone.

It would be interesting to see if this could palliate effects of free fall on bone and muscle strength. Of course, "standing on" something is kind of an oxymoron in weightlessness. But perhaps they could strap themselves down to a vibrating table. It would beat the exercise machines they currently use.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:27 AM

October 30, 2007

Keep An Eye Out

Someone let me know when they see the first instance (and it's when, not if--I can almost guarantee that there will be one) of a Global Warmmonger making the claim that this year's mild hurricane season is evidence of climate change. I'm fearless in my prediction, because I haven't yet seen any meteorological phenomenon for which this hasn't occurred.

[Update at 1 PM EDT]

Speaking of hurricanes (or hurricane shortages), here's an article that says that "scientists" (I use the scare quotes, because I think they're really planetary engineers--many people confuse science and engineering, most notably in "rocket science") are getting closer to being able to steer hurricanes. But this is an interesting dilemma:

...the hurricane modifiers are fighting more than the weather. Lawyers warn that diverting a hurricane from one city to save life and property could result in multi-billion dollar lawsuits from towns that bear the brunt instead. Hurricane Katrina caused about $41 billion in damage to New Orleans.

At first glance, this might be a problem for people who want to divert asteroids. It would be ironic if we went the way of the dinosaurs over fear of lawyers...

But the situations aren't quite the same. The earth is big, but it's not that big, and the Caribbean and Gulf are pretty small places when it comes to herding hurricanes. They have to go somewhere, and almost anywhere you send one is likely to encounter someone with the phone number of an ambulance chaser.

But (as Douglas Adams once noted) space is big. As long as you ensure that the rock (or dirty snowball) misses the planet entirely (which shouldn't be that hard if you catch it early enough), there should be no fear of a day in court.

[Mid-afternoon update]

Is climate too complex to make accurate predictions? Color me shocked.

"This finding reinforces not only that climate policies will necessarily be made in the face of deep, irreducible uncertainties," says Roger Pielke, a climate policy expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US. "But also the uncomfortable reality – for climate modellers – that finite research dollars invested in ever more sophisticated climate models offer very little marginal benefit to decision makers."

But hey, if it makes us tighten up our hair shirts, it's all worthwhile.

And note, asteroid trajectory prediction, even with all the perturbations, is much more amenable to modeling.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:14 AM
Looking For God the brain. I think my brain is broken, in that regard.

[Early afternoon update]

Derb has some related thoughts:

People like TD and myself understand that the universe is a deeply mysterious place, and the human personality likewise. (In reference to which, by the way, I refuse to let anyone get away with using the word "materialist." either positively or negatively, unless that person can demonstrate to me that he has at least attempted to understand modern theories—which are (a) incomplete and (b) mathematically extremely sophisticated—about the nature of matter. Having read Roger Penrose's Road to Reality will do as a proxy.)

On the other hand, we "unwilling unbelievers" are not willing to confess belief in the kinds of historical events claimed as real by all the big religions. Those events seem to us just too highly improbable; and in any case, you have to pick which set to believe in. The Christian account of the Son of God, the Muslim account of the Messenger of God, and the Hindu account of the seven (I think it is) Incarnations of God are mutually exclusive for devotional purposes. The most parsimonious explanation, it seems to us, is that all of them were just made up. Further, the mysteries of faith just don't seem very interesting to us by comparison with real mysteries like the one mentioned in passing in the previous paragraph. They have a contrived quality, and are not very imaginative.

On the other hand, conservatives like TD and myself are inclined to defer to human nature in its generality, and there is no doubt that human beings are innately, instinctively religious. The Dennett-Dawkins-Hitchens program to sweep away all those musty old cobwebs of faith and deliver humanity into the pure clear light of reason just bears far too close a resemblance to every other millenarian project, from Spartacus's City of the Sun to New Soviet Man. No thanks. Human nature has its unappealing side, but grand projects to overhaul it invariably end with a mountain of corpses. We'll take humanity as it is, religion and all. This attitude is, it seems to me, the essence of a conservative outlook.

Though I'm not a conservative, I pretty much agree with the whole post.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:11 AM

October 29, 2007

Back To Florida

Just in time for Noel, though it looks as though it's going to curve around and miss us. Actually, though, if it remains just a tropical storm, I wish it would come up and cross the lake, which is still five feet below normal after they drained it last year for the hurricanes that didn't happen.

So much for the dire hurricane predictions for this year, and the notion that global warming means that they'll be bigger and more frequent, and that it's already happening. So far, it's 2004-2005 that look anomalous.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:09 PM

October 16, 2007

First Red Wine

...and now garlic turns out to be heart healthy. And a cancer preventative. Life is good. If everyone would eat it, few would be bothered by the aroma.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:56 AM

October 12, 2007

Not Just A Warmmonger

Nobel Prize winner Al Gore is also a warmonger:

The trouble is that Gore's preferred policies will lead to a poorer, energy starved world. Far better, one might think, to tackle malaria, sea level rise, drought, hunger, and so on directly rather than by tinkering with the chemical composition of the atmosphere. As Indur Goklany has shown, we can do this for a fraction of the cost.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:49 AM

October 09, 2007

Scientific Cascades

I've been skeptical about the link between dietary fat, and weight and poor health for a long time (at least since I first read Barry Sears' analyses, over a decade ago). John Tierney (who has fortunately escaped from behind the Times Select prison) writes that the "science" behind the linkage is bogus, and that our fat aversion is probably one of the leading causes of obesity, since we switched to carbohydrates, which are much worse for us. But the reason that the bogus theory was promoted and accepted for so long is an interesting story of scientific sociology:

It may seem bizarre that a surgeon general could go so wrong. After all, wasn’t it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal “food pyramid” telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

Hmmmmm.....does it sound like another current scientific "consensus"?

Of course, it doesn't mean that all theories have this problem. But it does mean that we are entitled to a little skepticism when we are told that there is a scientific consensus. Particularly when we are bullied into believing it, and treated like heretics in our skepticism, and there are some other potential agendas at play.

Of course, the good news for me (though it was too late for my parents) is that even if we don't know what is the best diet to prevent coronary disease, we are coming up with other, better solutions:

From a snippet of a patient’s skin, researchers have grown blood vessels in a laboratory and then implanted them to restore blood flow around the patient’s damaged arteries and veins.

As Instantman (from whom I got both these articles) says, bring it on.

[Wednesday morning update]

Jonathan Gewirtz has further thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:07 AM

October 08, 2007

Emergent Properties

I was watching television tonight, on one of my new HD channels on DirecTV (no, I didn't get paid for that, but I wish I had). If you want to understand this concept, and unintended consequences, go no further than to watch The Producers (either version).

They deliberately picked the worst play, the worst playwright, the worst director, the worst cast, and it turned into a hit. And things like that can happen all the time.

[Morning update]

Sorry some found this post cryptic. Let me rewrite. I was watching "The Producers" (movie version of the musical) last night, on one of the new DirecTV HD channels (a fact that was incidental to the real point, which was that I was watching The Producers). The unintended, and undesired success of their musical was an emergent property of their attempts to make it a failure, by choosing the worst of everything, which somehow resulted in a hit. I was not slamming HD--I was plugging DirecTV for being the first to offer a large number of HD channels.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:22 PM

October 03, 2007

Anyone Think She'll Say Anything About Space?

At least of any significance?

Join Hillary Clinton at this milestone policy speech addressing some of our Nation's serious challenges--global warming, globalization, and the Bush Administration's war on Science.

No, me neither. In fact, if it's anything like Kerry's space or science policy, it will be all about being not George Bush.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:34 PM

September 30, 2007

Killing The Planet

By driving a Prius.

Boy, these indulgences just aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:17 PM

September 28, 2007

A Problem With Our Priorities

Bjorn Lomborg:

Why are we so singularly focused on climate change when there are many other areas where the need is also great and we could do so much more with our effort?

He explains. (Hint: it has more to do with saving our souls than with saving the planet.)

[Update a few minutes later]

Funny, Saint Al doesn't seem willing to debate the issue.

Not surprising to me. He's not the brightest bulb on the string, and probably wouldn't hold up very well to people who actually understand it.

And no, contra comments, this is not an expression of "hate for Al Gore." It's simply a dispassionate assessment of his intelligence, particularly considering that he flunked out of divinity school. How dim do you have to be to manage that?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:49 PM

September 27, 2007

Good Article John!

Tierney wrote a better article than I could Tuesday about why the legacy for the ages that can happen in our lifetimes is the first footprints on Mars. The sponsor could be remembered as the next "Prince Henry the Navigator, King Ferdinand, [or] Queen Isabella". This is an argument I implied here in a scholarly way and in passing here in a grandiose way and a whimsical way here. In the process I attempt to refute Jeff Bell and James Van Allen who are both opposed.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at 10:54 AM

September 25, 2007

You Mean It Wasn't The Aboriginals?

Did an extraterrestrial impact cause the Ice Age extinctions? If so, this could be one more motivation to get our act together in terms of finding and managing these things.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:18 PM
Wind Shear

A tutorial. This should be of interest to anyone in hurricane country. In many ways, wind shear is a more important factor in the intensity of storms than water temperature (one reason that the effect of global warming, if it occurs, is not obvious, with respect to more or more intense hurricanes).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:00 PM
It Came From Outer Space

Supergerms. No word on whether or not kryptonite has any effect.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:12 PM

September 15, 2007

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Is most scientific research sloppy?

I wouldn't be shocked if that were the case. We see enough examples of it (global warming being one notable area) to think that it could be just the tip of the iceberg. Getting it right is hard work, and there are a lot of researchers out there who are desperately working on degrees, or under the pressure to publish or perish, even if the research turns out to be perishable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:21 AM

September 14, 2007

PC Revolution

The Earth is just about half-way through the agricultural revolution where one worker can on average produce food for two workers and their dependents now. From the beginning of the agricultural revolution that freed up folks to make other goods and services around 1750-1850 to today where we have only half of workers worldwide give or take working in agriculture, 6 times as many people and 35% more calories per person from 1960-1990 alone.1

Compare that to the BBC radio report saying that since the dawn of the PC revolution (I got my Apple ][+ with disk drive and language card mail order near the dawn of the personal computer revolution in 1983). We are nearly at one billion PCs worldwide and on a pace for 3.5 billion PCs worldwide in about ten years.2 Interesting times indeed.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at 03:28 PM

September 08, 2007

Open Source, Finally

Jim Hansen has released the code for his models.

On two separate occasions, Hansen, who two weeks ago contrasted royalty with “court jesters” saying that one does not “joust with jesters”, raised the possibility that the outside community is “wondering” why (using the royal “we”) he (a) “bothers to put up with this hassle and the nasty e-mails that it brings” or (b) “subject ourselves to the shenanigans”.

Actually, it wasn’t something that I, for one, was wondering about it all. In my opinion, questions about how he did his calculations are entirely appropriate and he had an obligation to answer the questions - an obligation that would have continued even if had flounced off at the mere indignity of having to answer a mildly probing question. Look, ordinary people get asked questions all the time and most of them don’t have the luxury of “not bothering with the hassle” or “not subjecting themselves to the shenanigans”. They just answer the questions the best they can and don’t complain. So should Hansen.

It will may interesting to see what happens when it's deeply scrutinized. I know that a lot of the GW evangelists may not like it, but this was always my understanding of how science is done.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:01 PM

August 24, 2007

Is There Anything That Global Warming Can't Do?

Whether it's increasing the salinity of the oceans, or decreasing it, we know who to blame.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:47 AM

August 21, 2007

The Left's War On Science

Chris Mooney wrote a book called "The Republican War On Science."

While it was obviously (from its title) of partisan intent, it was well researched, and did make a good case for it. And it even purported to attempt to appear bi-partisan, by pointing out a few examples of political attacks on science from the left. However, it gave them extremely short shrift, in my opinion. Here's just one example of the kind of thing with which he could have balanced the book, had he truly wanted to.

My problem with Chris' book is that it was too polemical, when he had an opportunity to make a serious point--that science is continually under assault by people with an agenda from all points on the political compass. By attempting to make it a partisan issue, it results in a misdiagnosis of the problem. After all, if it's only a "Republican" war on science, then the solution is simple--elect Democrats. Unfortunately, the problem is much more complex than that, and the notion that it's not holds us back from finding a real solution.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:36 AM

August 20, 2007

Another Reason To Exercise

You'll think better:

Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.

This theory emerged from those mouse studies at the Salk Institute. After conducting maze tests, the neuroscientist Fred H. Gage and his colleagues examined brain samples from the mice. Conventional wisdom had long held that animal (and human) brains weren’t malleable: after a brief window early in life, the brain could no longer grow or renew itself. The supply of neurons — the brain cells that enable us to think — was believed to be fixed almost from birth. As the cells died through aging, mental function declined. The damage couldn’t be staved off or repaired.

Gage’s mice proved otherwise. Before being euthanized, the animals had been injected with a chemical compound that incorporates itself into actively dividing cells. During autopsy, those cells could be identified by using a dye. Gage and his team presumed they wouldn’t find such cells in the mice’s brain tissue, but to their astonishment, they did. Up until the point of death, the mice were creating fresh neurons. Their brains were regenerating themselves.


Though I'm not sure how it explains all those brilliant jocks out there. Or Richard Simmons.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:23 AM

August 19, 2007

Makes Sense To Me

Don't make biofuel--burn oil and plant forests. Wow, is that politically incorrect (but probably correct). Saint Al would have a fit.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:21 AM

August 18, 2007


The more I hear from James Hansen, the less impressed I am with him as a supposedly objective scientist.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:56 AM

August 17, 2007

Katrina, Take Two?

OK, only one model has it going to New Orleans. Let's hope that the consensus of the other models is right, and it's heading for Mexico.

Or maybe Karl Rove is just revving up his black-killing weather machine one more time, for old time's sake.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:51 PM

August 11, 2007

Some Heretical Thoughts

On science, society, and climate change. From Freeman Dyson.

[Update a few minutes later]

It slipped down the page, but I have an explanation as to why I think that Jim Hansen should have egg on his face, since there seems to be some confusion in the comments section there.

[Sunday morning update]

On this Robert Samuelson piece, I agree with Glenn:

Personally, as I've noted before, the whole debate seems to me to be a religious sideshow. Regardless of what you think about global warming, there are lots of good reasons to avoid burning fossil fuels. But the global-warming discussion in the media is a consensus identity narrative designed to achieve political ends, not an effort to find facts or protect the environment. And this also accounts for the backlash.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

August 09, 2007

An Army Of Climate Analysts

Looks like 1998 wasn't the hottest year, after all. But it took a blogger to figure it out:

NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as record-breaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II. Anthony Watts has put the new data in chart form, along with a more detailed summary of the events.

Guess the trend wasn't as trendy as they thought.

Hansen should have egg on his face. Someone from the MSM should ask him about it. But I doubt if they will. It's another one of those stories that's too good to check.

Now that they have the data right (assuming they do) they should rerun the correlation analysis for hurricane frequency and intensity.

[Update late afternoon]

Maybe I should have titled this post "An Inconvenient Truth."

[Saturday update]

Since there seems to be some confusion in comments as to why Dr. Hansen should have egg on his face, Coyoteblog explains (with a lot of other commentary).

When a scientist refuses to reveal his algorithms or models, but simply insists, 'trust me, the numbers are right," and someone else has to go through the trouble of reverse engineering them, and finds that the numbers are in fact wrong, said scientist should indeed have egg on his face. As the blog notes, that's not how science is supposed to be done. Research is supposed to be replicable. Hiding the ball makes this difficult, and it's one of the reasons that those promoting (and often deliberately overhyping) climate change aren't trusted. And it brings into question all of the data and casts doubt on all of the researchers, even the best ones.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:57 PM
Three Cheers For Carnivores

Randall Parker:

Carnivorous birds and wolves toil to protect forests from their natural enemies. What great animals. Cheer them on as they kill, kill, kill!

Maybe we need to bring in some wolves to solve the deer problem. But I'd still rather have the venison for myself.

And I should note that I don't read Futurepundit as much as I should. Lots of good stuff there today, from life (and brain--drink coffee!) extension tips and breakthroughs, to the construction costs of nuclear plants.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:46 AM

August 08, 2007

Destroying The Planet

With organic farming.

Earth haters. I think we should boycott Whole Foods.

[Update at 3 PM EDT]

But wait! There's more! Exercise causes global warming, too.

<VOICE="Homer Simpson">Global there anything that doesn't cause it?</VOICE>

I blame George Bush and his mountain bike.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:20 AM

August 04, 2007

Will Climate Change Make Hurricanes Worse?

Maybe, but there's zero evidence of it to date:

Last month, Roger Pielke, Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, released the most comprehensive paper ever published on the subject of damage trends in Atlantic hurricanes. The article will appear soon in the peer-reviewed journal Natural Hazards Review.

Is the planet warmer than it was? Yes. Is there any trend in hurricane-related damages in the United States, where good records of damages exist? After accounting simultaneously for inflation, population, and property values, no.

I always find it irritating when the media report this or that hurricane as the "most expensive ever," as though there's some worsening trend in hurricanes, without putting it into context. Yes, hurricane damage will increase in the future, but not because hurricanes are getting worse, or more frequent. It's because the value of the property at risk continues to increase. Fortunately, so does the general wealth of the society, though we do need to solve the moral hazard of subsidizing people who choose to live in hurricane-prone areas. But selfishly, I hope not before I sell the house in Florida.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:50 PM

July 10, 2007


Virginia Postrel reiterates a point that I've made many times--that even if we accept a scientific consensus on climate change doesn't mean that we should blindly follow their advice on what to do about it:

...even assuming that scientists agree on the facts, science can only tell us something about the state of the world. It cannot tell us what policy is the best to adopt. Scientists' preferences are not "science." You cannot go from an "is" (science) to an "ought" (policy).
Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:14 AM

July 05, 2007

Politically Incorrect

...truths about human nature. I agree that a lot of what drives suicide bombing among young Muslim men is the polygynous culture, but that doesn't explain the married doctors in the UK.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:34 PM

June 27, 2007

The Science Of Homosexuality

An interesting overview over at New York Magazine.

It's long been obvious to me that homosexuals (and heterosexuals, as I am) are born, not made. What I did find interesting was the notion that women may not have an inherent sexual orientation, or at least one not as clearly delineated as that of men. It certainly jibes well with my own observations. But I'm skeptical that there's no such thing as a male bi-sexual.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:40 AM

June 26, 2007

Quiet In The Tropics

Will it be a gentle hurricane season? Well, I obviously hope so. We're almost a month into it, with just two minor storms, and it does look like things are going to stay calm for another month. But the peak of the season is still a couple months off, so I don't think it's safe to draw any conclusions yet.

Of course, I fearlessly predict that regardless of how many hurricanes there are--more, fewer, or the normal amount--some will attribute it to SUVs, and claim that it's evidence for climate change.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:40 PM

June 24, 2007

A New Microbiological Zoo

Here's a very interesting article that says that RNA is much more important than we used to think, with profound implications for medicine, biotech and even evolutionary theory.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:49 AM

June 08, 2007

Did Al Gore Pass Through Wyoming?

Eight inches of snow in the Bighorn Mountains. In June.

Must be global warming.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:36 AM

June 05, 2007

Thoughts On Global Warming

...from Freeman Dyson.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:38 PM

June 04, 2007

Is There A Consensus?

...on climate change? Apparently not.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:04 AM

May 18, 2007

An Early Warning System

...for pandemics.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 AM

May 17, 2007


I decided to pull this up into a separate post, because I think it illustrates exactly the problem that Frank Tipler was identifying. Two comments:

"I'll add that General Relativity is sort of a "dead end" in physics in the sense that practically nothing depends on it. You can't really use it for anything.


Rand, I think you just cited the exception that proves the rule when you referenced GPS. Where else do you use general relativity on a regular basis? It's an interesting topic, but doesn't seem to be core to a physics degree.

Well, I provided at least one more example--tracking NEOs that might hit us in the next few decades.

But the point is that if you don't understand general relativity, you won't even know whether or not you need to consider it. I'm simply staggered by the notion that it's an esoteric field that has no use.

Any time you do an orbital calculation, you have to know whether or not you can get by with Newton, or whether or not you need to incorporate Einstein. It may be that in many cases you don't need to, but to not even consider it would be professional malpractice, just as someone doing a suborbital rocket would need to decide whether a flat-earth (i.e, Galileo) model was good enough, or if they had to do it Newtonian, and consider the differences in the model. And how could you possibly make such an assessment if you don't understand General Relativity?

To me, this simply reinforces Tipler's point.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:35 PM

May 14, 2007

Whose Ox Is Being Gored?

Literally, in this case, given the name of the high priest.

I wish I'd thought of this:

I keep reading about how hybrid cars and compact fluorescent lightbulbs can reduce the production of greenhouse gases, but I have yet to see an article about the savings that could be achieved if we were to stop delivery of newspapers and magazines and do all of our news reading on line.

Hey, I think it could rival toilet paper usage reduction as a solution to the problem. Maybe even beat it.

Hey, now I'm thinking dual-use here. I'm a genius (no need for applause in comments, but you know you want to...). It's not just for training puppies and parakeets any more!

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:59 PM
A Skeptic

...not a denier. That's my position on AGW, as it is on other religions. Thomas James explains why with a tale of science as it should be taught.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 AM

May 07, 2007

Darwinism Debate

Andrew Ferguson has a report on the debate that I asked about last week, that (sort of) answers my question. And I see that Derbyshire had the same question:

Darwinism, viewed one way, can easily be considered morally disastrous. But, responded pro-Darwin Derbyshire, Is it true? "The truth value of Darwinism is essential," he said. "The truth value always comes first." If Darwinism is true--and its undeniable success in explaining the world suggests that it is--and if Darwinism undermines conservatism, as West had claimed, "then so much the worse for conservatism."

I'd like to think that he was influenced by the email I sent him with a link to my post before the debate, but I suspect that he was already loaded for that particular bear. And I agree with Gilder, despite his disbelief:

"Darwinism may be true," he said, "but it's ultimately trivial." It is not a "fundamental explanation for creation or the universe." Evolution and natural selection may explain why organic life presents to us its marvelous exfoliation. Yet Darwinism leaves untouched the crucial mysteries--who we are, why we are here, how we are to behave toward one another, and how we should fix the alternative minimum tax. And these are questions, except the last one, that lie beyond the expertise of any panel at any think tank, even AEI.

It is possible to try to build an ethical system out of evolutionary theory, I suppose, but it's certainly not necessary, and not necessarily desirable.

[Afternoon update]

Derbyshire cites my previous post, and has further thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:07 AM

May 05, 2007

A New Wrench In The Works

...for climate models? And Warmmongers like Gore?

Precisely accounting for everything in the atmosphere that can influence changes in global temperatures is critical to scientists' quest to accurately predict what Earth's climate will be in the future. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assessed the potential risks of human-induced climate change, notes that the overall effect of clouds and aerosols on the amount of heat held in the atmosphere is still uncertain. Finding a previously unknown ingredient in the mix further complicates an already complex picture, but it also holds out the promise of resolving some nagging problems in climate change science.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:28 PM

May 03, 2007

Save The Planet

We'll just starve all those pesky Asians:

...the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting this week in Bangkok concludes that rice production was a main cause of rising methane emissions in the 20th century. It calls for better controls.

"There is no other crop that is emitting such a large amount of greenhouse gases," said Reiner Wassmann, a climate change specialist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:20 AM
A Missing Question

This seems like kind of a strange symposium:

There is a growing debate among conservative thinkers and pundits about whether Darwinian theory helps or harms conservatism and its public policy agenda. Some have argued forcefully that Darwin's theory provides support for conservative positions on family life, economics, bioethics, and other issues, while others have countered that the effort to justify conservative policy positions on Darwinian grounds is fundamentally flawed. Does Darwin's theory help defend or undermine traditional morality and family life? Does it encourage or discredit economic freedom? Is it a spur or a brake to utopian schemes to re-engineer human nature?

Doesn't it matter whether or not the theory is valid? Is it only something to be discussed in terms of its effects on conservatism (or for that matter progressivism)? If it turns out that it somehow is harmful to traditional morality and family life (I'm not sure that the empirical evidence bears this out, even if it does in theory), does that mean that it shouldn't be taught in science classes, even if it's the best scientific explanation for the fossil record (and human behavior)? What is the point of this symposium?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:00 AM

May 02, 2007

More Lockup, Less Crime?

Bernard Harcourt is finding some very interesting and powerful correlations between crime rates and institutionalization rates. And you can't just look at prisons. I'm not an expert in the field, but I suspect that this may be groundbreaking, with some interesting implications for public policy.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:14 AM

May 01, 2007


At least I had a good excuse.

Readers may interpret that comment in any way they wish.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:07 PM

April 30, 2007

Good News For Alzheimer's Patients

The disease may not be as destructive of memory as previously believed. That means that if they can come up with a cure, or ways of repairing the neuronal damage, people may be savable as the persons they were. This would reduce the attractiveness of the cryonics solution for them, if true.

[Update in the afternoon]

I should clarify that last sentence, per the question in comments. What I mean is that it would reduce the attractiveness of cryonics as a cure for Alzheimer's. That is, if you believe that Alzheimer's is destroying your mind, you'd like to preserve it before it's all gone, so even though it's currently illegal, it would be desirable to have yourself frozen now in the hope that they can repair you in the future, rather than the empty husk of the Alzheimer's-addled you, from which all knowledge of who you are is gone.

This research provides an alternative. Let the mind go, if it can be brought back with future therapies, even before you're suspended, without taking the risk on freezing it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:05 AM

April 26, 2007

Looks Like It Wasn't The Cell Phones

They may have found out what's really killing the bees.

I never bought the cell phone theory, anyway. I know that those things have been getting smaller and smaller, but I don't know how they would have gotten the bees to use them, or sign up for a twelve-month plan.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:09 PM
I'm Shocked, Shocked

Carbon credits turn out to be bogus.

Well, so were the indulgences that the Church sold, that went and got Luther's tonsure all in a knot. It's just one more indication that this is about moralizing and religion, rather than science. In theory, though, you'd think that carbon credits would be more confirmable. I mean, you don't have to wait until you're dead to find out whether you got your money's worth...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:23 AM

April 23, 2007

Bedlam Revisited

Some thoughts on our unwillingness to force treatment or confinement on the dangerously mentally ill. Of course, it's a fine balance of civil liberties:

No one who knew him seems surprised by what he did. On the contrary, dorm chatter characterized him explicitly as a future school-shooter. One of his professors, the poet Nikki Giovanni, saw him as a disruptive bully and kicked him out of her class. Other teachers viewed him as disturbed and referred him for the ubiquitous "counseling"--an outcome that is ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness and akin to "treatment" for a patient with metastasized cancer.

But even that minimal care wasn't given. The shooter didn't want it and no one tried to force him to get it. While it's been reported that he was involuntarily committed to a "Behavioral Health Center" in December 2005, those reports also say he was released the very next morning. Even if the will to segregate an obvious menace had been in place, the legal mechanisms to provide even temporary "warehousing" were absent. The rest is terrible history.

That is not to say that anyone who pens violence-laden poetry or lets slip the occasional hostile remark should be protectively incarcerated. But when the level of threat rises to college freshmen and faculty prophesying accurately, perhaps we should err on the side of public safety rather than protect individual liberty at all costs.

If the Virginia Tech shooter had been locked up for careful observation in a humane mental hospital, the worst-case scenario would've been a minor league civil liberties goof: an unpleasant semester break for an odd and hostile young misanthrope who might've even have learned to be more polite. Yes, it's possible confinement would've been futile or even stoked his rage. But a third outcome is also possible: Simply getting a patient through a crisis point can prevent disaster, as happens with suicidal people restrained from self-destruction who lose their enthusiasm for repeat performances.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:18 AM

April 20, 2007

Bring It On

Could global warming reduce hurricanes?

Why not?

As a (current, at least) south Floridian, sounds good to me.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:42 AM

April 19, 2007

How To Deal With Them

In the wake of the shootings, Jennifer Roback Morse writes about the intractable problem of the mentally ill (as it's more than abundantly clear that the shooter was). This is something with which I, unfortunately, have some personal experience. It is tragic, and frustrating. But in this particular case, it was also devastating to dozens of innocents and their families.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:21 AM

April 16, 2007

I Prefer Cats To Dogs, Though

You Are 65% Left Brained, 35% Right Brained

The left side of your brain controls verbal ability, attention to detail, and reasoning.

Left brained people are good at communication and persuading others.

If you're left brained, you are likely good at math and logic.

Your left brain prefers dogs, reading, and quiet.

The right side of your brain is all about creativity and flexibility.

Daring and intuitive, right brained people see the world in their unique way.

If you're right brained, you likely have a talent for creative writing and art.

Your right brain prefers day dreaming, philosophy, and sports.

Are You Right or Left Brained?

Also, there were quite a few choices about which I was unsure. I think it would be more accurate if they put in a third option for "roughly equal" (e.g., the geometry versus algebra question--I'm good with both).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:14 AM

April 11, 2007

Birds And Bees

Via Alan Boyle, here's an interesting article at the Gray Lady about sexual desire. This part rang true to me:

The results suggest that having a good set of sexual brakes not only dampens the willingness to commit rape or sexual abuse, but the desire as well, giving the lie to notions that “all men are the same” and would be likely to rape their way through the local maiden population if they thought they could get away with it.

That's me. I'm physically incapable of raping a woman (which isn't to say that I don't want to have sex with many of them). If she has no desire, mine generally evaporates, almost instantly.

Oh, and you'll be as shocked as I was to learn that men and women are different (and not always in the ways that you might expect).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:08 AM

April 10, 2007

Kerry-Gingrich GW Debate

Planet Gore is live blogging it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:12 AM

March 23, 2007

Not Sauce For The Gander

We're on break now until 10:50 AM PDT (actually, MST, but same thing), when Charles Miller will speak on what looks to be a proposal to actually resurrect a NASA-like entity. But meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg makes an interesting point about Al Gore and the Warm-mongers:

It's funny, the same people who insist that dissent is the highest form of patriotism when it comes to the war, suddenly think you're a moronic bastard or environmental traitor if you want to debate global warming a bit more, even when the solutions being discussed could cost — in monetary terms — far more than the Iraq war.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:57 AM

March 21, 2007

Stifling Of Dissent

Louise Riofrio is having problems with academics. Check out the previous two posts as well for the whole story.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:19 PM
Missed Opportunity

Al Gore is going to testify on global warming today, in about half an hour. Bjorn Lomborg will be on the second panel. Unfortunately, they won't be debating each other, which is something I'd pay to watch. I think that Gore would get eviscerated.

[Going to check the schedule]

It's going to be carried on CSPAN3, if you don't have the bandwidth.

[Checking DirecTV schedule]

Dang. I only get CSPAN and CSPAN2.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:23 AM
Evolution Of Morality

Here's an interesting article on precursors of morality in apes.

[Via Alan Boyle]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:03 AM

March 19, 2007

Who Chooses?

This post by Ron Bailey on whether or not parents might do things to help ensure that their offspring are straight reminds me of this post of mine from a while back:

Suppose we find that there is something different about the brains of gay men and women (a proposition for which there's already abundant and growing evidence). If we can come up with an affordable, painless therapy that "fixes" this and converts them from "gay" to "straight," should we a) allow them to take advantage of it, or b) forbid them from doing so, or c) require them to? And should "straight" (i.e., exclusively heterosexual) people be allowed to become gay, or bi?

These are the kinds of issues that separate me from conservatives.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:32 AM

March 07, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Here's a guy who wants to solve global warming by mimicking volcanoes:

For two years after Pinatubo erupted, the average temperature across the Earth decreased by 0.6C.

The volcano's location close to the equator helped make Pinatubo the perfect model for explaining how sulphur in the stratosphere could reduce global warming.

Instead, controversially, he wants to duplicate the effects of volcanic eruptions and create a man-made sulphur screen in the sky.

His solution would see hundreds of rockets filled with sulphur launched into the stratosphere. He envisages one million tonnes of sulphur to create his cooling blanket.

A million tonnes. This would be a great market for suborbital vehicles.

If you can deliver a ton per flight, that would be a million flights. Let's say that the marginal cost per flight is a hundred thousand or so (I think we can do a lot better than that). That would be a hundred billion dollar program. That seems like a bargain compared to many of the nostrums currently proposed. And boy would it give us a flight rate.

Of course, someone over at Free Republic pooh poohs it, because he doesn't understand the concept. Even if one were to use a Titan (can't be done--they're out of production), the payload he quotes for it is to GEO. Just tossing stuff up in the atmosphere, you could probably get a hundred tons at a time. In fact, even if they were still in production, a Titan would be the worst conceivable choice for this mission. Deltas would make a lot more sense--clean propellants, and new vehicles with a high-rate production line, and their upper-stage performance issues would be irrelevant, since they wouldn't need one. But it would be crazy to do it with expendables of any kind.

With suborbitals, I'd think you could do a hundred flights a day out of a given spaceport. If there are a ten spaceports scattered around the world, that's a thousand flights per day. At that rate, you'd get the stuff up in three years.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:16 AM
The Real Problem

Eric Scheie wonders why the global warming scolds don't scold us about eating meat.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:41 AM
Why Do People Believe In God?

Razib asks.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:32 AM

March 06, 2007


One of the early proponents of anthropogenic global warming has changed his mind:

His break with what he now sees as environmental cant on climate change came in September, in an article entitled "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in l' Express, the French weekly. His article cited evidence that Antarctica is gaining ice and that Kilimanjaro's retreating snow caps, among other global-warming concerns, come from natural causes. "The cause of this climate change is unknown," he states matter of factly. There is no basis for saying, as most do, that the "science is settled."

Let the inquisition begin.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:19 AM

March 02, 2007

Save Us, Saint Al!

I found this over at Free Republic. I also found it cute.

And Andrew Bolt talks about the problem with offsets, and the "do what we say, not what we do" hypocrisy:

...there's a moral problem. Offsets are really best suited for people rich enough -- like Gore -- to afford them.

They let the rich pay someone else to use less so they can use more. And so the aristocrat can party on under the chandeliers, while the power-rationed peasants sit out in his dark.

Of course, one hypocrite like Gore shouldn't discredit an entire cause. Yet it can't be an accident that global warming attracts more hypocrites than most faiths.

There's Tim Flannery, criss-crossing the world by jet to tell us to use less oil.

There's British PM Tony Blair lecturing Britons to cut their emissions, but declaring it "unreasonable" to expect him therefore to stop flying off on his overseas holidays.

And there's Prince Charles booking out all of a jet's first and second class to fly to New York to accept a green award from Gore.

Ah, Gore again. Which reminds me of Laurie David, one of the producers of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

David, too, demands we save the world by cutting our gasses, yet turns out to be as addicted to private jets as her friend Al.

Asked recently to explain such inconvenient hypocrisy, David spluttered: "Yes, I take a private plane on holiday a couple of times a year."

But -- and here's where she shows she's nobler than you -- "I feel horribly guilty about it."

See? The global warming faith is more about how you feel than what you actually do. Even the makers of An Inconvenient Truth demonstrate that. What a circus.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:33 AM
Science Versus Faith

Two flow charts.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:36 AM

February 28, 2007

Doing Well By Doing Good

Gore's hypocrisy is apparently even greater than we thought. Bill Hobbes explains.

And I agree with him (and Glenn Reynolds) that there are lots of non-GW reasons to reduce our use of fossil fuels. When the enviros get serious about this, and stop looking for excuses to abandon technologies, and run our lives through watermelon social-control schemes, there will be lots of solutions, including nuclear ones.

[Late-afternoon update]

Some interesting thoughts on Al Gore's motives:

If he believed what he was saying on its own merits, then he would be behaving differently. Since his behavior and his rhetoric do not match, we learn something about him: that there is likely some other motivation for his policy preferences.

Those policy preferences - limit carbon, mandate the use of certain technologies, restrict land use, etc. - all seem to entail increasing governmental control over the economy. Mr. Gore’s actual motivation would appear to a fair-minded observer to be a desire to increase government power in the economic sphere - and environmental concern over global climate change is simply the convenient rhetorical tool to flog in the service of that agenda.

Wasn't I just talking about watermelons?


Iowahawk has a program to allow sinners to repent.

Caution--high amusement factor.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:56 PM
Empty Symbolism

Lileks, on Gorebal Warming:

The demands of the faith are specific and exacting. You must believe that climate change is largely the fault of man — specifically, lard-bottom Americans driving around for no reason in cars the size of Spanish galleons. You must believe the change will be catastrophic — billions will be killed when the jet stream reverses and knocks everyone over, or drowned when a ceaseless series of Katrinas backs up the Mississippi and sends tsunamis across the heartland.

You must believe that this disaster can be prevented with fluorescent light bulbs, whirring cars that run on pixy dust, methane traps strapped to the hindquarters of cows, and magic federal dollars that invent new forms of energy by virtue of being congressionally bequeathed. You must believe that ruining the American economy will somehow convince India and China to ruin their own.

Any skepticism brands you an Enemy of the State — actually, an enemy of the State of Fear, which is required to bring about far-reaching change, like a one-car-per-family limit or mandatory limo pooling at the Oscars. Skepticism makes you a flat-Earther, a Luddite, a Holocaust-denying creationist oil-company stooge who would rent the Exxon Valdez and troll the Arctic, shooting polar bears marooned on ice floes.

[Afternoon update]

A commenter thinks that Mr. Lileks is being hyperbolic in the above statement, and doesn't think that global warming skeptics have been equated with Holocaust deniers. I give you Exhibit A: Ellen Goodman:

Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

Yes, such a trivial difference--past, versus present and future. One suspects that she'd probably put Kyoto skeptics in the same bin.

And then we have the case of Dr. Heidi:

Cullen’s call for decertification of TV weathermen who do not agree with her global warming assessment follows a year (2006) in which the media, Hollywood and environmentalists tried their hardest to demonize scientific skeptics of manmade global warming.

And from the same source:

Scott Pelley, CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent, compared skeptics of global warming to "Holocaust deniers..."

No, no suppression of dissent there.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:09 AM

February 04, 2007

He's Just Not That Into Ewe

Here's some interesting data on sexual orientation of sheep that, if it holds for humans as well, would seem to confirm my thesis (actually, a better exposition of it is found here):

A bare majority of rams turn out to be heterosexual. One in five swings both ways. About 15 percent are asexual, and 7 percent to 10 percent are gay.

That seems, to me, empirically to be about right for humans as well.

Does anyone here really believe that there are Freudian explanations for this among sheep? Well, I think the ones for humans are just as bogus.

And the potential consequences?

The more likely path is gentler. Science will gradually convince us that sexual orientation is innate, more like the color of your skin than like the content of your character. Condemnation of homosexuality as a sin will subside. Freed from the culture wars, we'll turn to the biological differences between race and sexual orientation: Homosexuality defies the aspiration to procreate with your mate, and it's easier to isolate and alter in embryonic development. Resentment will give way to pity. We'll come to view homosexuality as a kind of infertility—a disability, like deafness. The rhetoric of "acceptance" will shift from liberals to conservatives. We'll inoculate our offspring against homosexuality out of love, not hate.

The sheep researchers intend nothing like this. But they didn't foresee the initial uproar over their work, either. It has come from the left, not the right. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has tried to quash their research, falsely depicting them as bigots. PETA, like President Bush, thinks that bad ideas come from bad people, and you have to stamp out the whole lot.

But bad ideas—communism, eugenics, wars of liberation—don't happen because they're bad. They happen because, in the beginning, they're good. What we do with the biological truth about homosexuality, for good or ill, isn't written in our hormones or our genes. It's up to us.

As I asked Professor Kurtz a while ago:

Suppose we find that there is something different about the brains of gay men and women (a proposition for which there's already abundant and growing evidence). If we can come up with an affordable, painless therapy that "fixes" this and converts them from "gay" to "straight," should we a) allow them to take advantage of it, or b) forbid them from doing so, or c) require them to? And should "straight" (i.e., exclusively heterosexual) people be allowed to become gay, or bi?

This isn't about technology, or science. It's about whether these kinds of choices should be those of sovereign individuals, or of government.

[Monday update]

For some reason, this reminds me of the Philip Dick novel. But if androids dream of electric sheep, are they male or female?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:55 PM

February 02, 2007

OK, They Are Similar

I mean, they are two digit numbers.

Like Instapundit, I'm unsurprised. The friends of those promoting global warming often do their cause little good.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:03 PM
A Choice

Iain Murray comments on the latest IPCC summary:

...gone from the Summary is the icon of the Third Assessment Report – the “hockey stick” graph. The fact that it took two amateurs to get the scientists to realize the hole in their argument there is indicative of the state of climate science today. The IPCC has been wrong in the past. The fact that there’s nothing really new in this document suggests that as we learn more about the science, yes we may well find more evidence of human involvement in the climate, but when all’s said and done it won’t amount to anything to worry about. If we go down the road of emissions suppression, however, that will be something to worry about. We could stabilize emissions at a cost to the world of 5 percent of GDP (bear in mind that the Iraq War is costing America 0.8 percent of GDP and the world as a whole a lot less) and still have warming or we can all get richer and more resilient. That’s really the choice on the table.

[Afternoon update]

Jonathan Adler has further thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:26 AM

January 30, 2007

"Like Rapture For Geeks"

Why chicks don't dig the singularity. It's a long, but interesting read.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:27 AM

January 29, 2007

I Can Just See The New Ads

The new, guaranteed, stop-smoking-instantly kit. Consisting of a hammer and ice pick.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:04 AM

January 24, 2007

Staving Off The Glaciers

Did the anthropogenic climate-change era start thousands of years ago?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:52 AM

January 18, 2007

More On Born To Believe

Michael Novak writes about prayer. His example of Sartre is just more evidence for my thesis, I think. If I've ever prayed in my life, it was only as a very young (pre-school) child, and then only because I was told I was supposed to. I don't ever recall any sense that there was anyone home when I did so, and I haven't done so since the age of five or so.

As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, he tried hard all his life to be a serious atheist, but even he felt himself breaking out in thanksgiving to God for certain beautiful days, certain stunning events. Of course, he then withdrew these "prayers," but he quite recognized the naturalness of the impulse in himself. He wrote that being atheist is in practice much harder than many let on. One needs to stay on watch at every moment against little surrenders. The world so often seems "as if" there is a God.

Despite the fact that he reasoned himself into atheism, he was a natural-born believer. I've never felt an impulse such as that he describes, and the world has never seemed "as if" there is a God to me.

[Update a few minutes later]

Oh, and just to make clear, nothing in either of these two posts should be construed as an argument either for, or against, the existence of God. If God exists, He does so entirely independently of my, or anyone else's beliefs about Him.

Errrr...unless, of course, you think that God exists for those who believe, and doesn't for those who don't. Which may actually be the closest thing to the truth.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:49 AM

January 15, 2007

Born To Believe

Razib over at Gene Expression has an interesting interview with Heather McDonald on faith and conservatism, and her disillusionment with much of what conservatism seems to have become. I disagree with her that George Bush hasn't damaged the cause of conservatism. While I agree that he's not a conservative, and that his policies shouldn't do so, the popular mythology is that he is a conservative, and so they will.

But more interesting to me is this tangent, brought up by the Derb:

I don't want to rain on Heather Mac Donald's parade, especially after the sweet compliment she paid me in that Q&A Ramesh linked to, but consider the following:

—-The inclination to be religious is, like most other aspects of human personality, heritable in part.

—-Religious people, a few oddities like the Shakers aside, are more philoprogenitive than irreligious people.

He goes on to make an amusing comment about what the conservative view on gene tweaking will be when parents want to make their kids more religious, but I think he's right--the tendency to be religious, or believe in a god probably is partially heritable, which makes me think that, in some ways, it's similar to the homosexuality debate. Derb wrote once (or at least that's my recollection) that while he wasn't enthusiastic about religion, it wasn't possible for him not to believe in God (he'll hopefully correct me if I'm wrong). I'm the opposite. No matter what kind of case people make to me for it, I don't find it possible to believe. It just doesn't fundamentally compute. I have no sense whatsoever of a higher being that has any interest in me or my activities.

If both Derb and I are born that way, then there are probably people in between (to use my homosexual analogy, call them bi) and they're the ones on whom proselytizing works, because they have a disposition to buy it. Some, like Derb, need no instruction in the matter, and others like me, are immune to it, but for many (perhaps most) religious training is important, and they have "a choice." And like bi-sexuals, they assume that everyone is like them, so that if they've made a choice to not believe, then someone who believes anyway is mentally ill, and for those who choose to believe, those who don't are immoral. As with homosexuals, I just assume that people who believe are born that way, just as I was born not to, so I don't get my skivvies in a knot about it either way.

[Update mid afternoon]

An enterprising commenter has found a link to Derb's current religious views, which is an interesting read. The quote that I referenced above was, I think, prior to 2004. I hadn't realized that his views had been evolving so much (and so much away from religion) in the last couple years. If I had, I'd have asked him about it when I saw him in DC a couple months ago.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:49 AM

January 10, 2007

Anti-Aging As Spinoff?

There's an interesting discussion over at Fighting Aging, on the efficacy of the current institutional and philosophical approaches to life extension:

I think I take the opposite side of the argument from Linksvayer above: in my opinion it matters greatly as to the banner you raise funding beneath. The problem we face today is not a lack of funding for medical research per se - rather, it is a culture disinterested in tackling aging head-on. It doesn't matter how much money is flowing into the study of aging or treating age-related disease if the defeat of aging is not a primary, agreed-upon, widely supported goal. There has never been any trouble in raising funding for new methods of tackling specific age-related disease, but look at the rate of progress today in extending healthy life span in the old; it's faster than zero, but if healthy life extension continues to be incidental and inefficient, we will all still age, suffer and die - and not significantly later than we would have done if medical science stood still. In this context here, I rate "not significantly" as a couple of decades - sounds good, but it is enormously worse than what is possible if we get our act together.

It doesn't have to be that way, however - we have a chance to change things quickly enough to matter. The change we need to enact is at the level of infrastructure, understanding and intent. When the expected cost of development and commercialization of new technology runs into the hundreds of billions, it doesn't happen by accident. At that scale, the only change and progress to come about is that enacted deliberately and with intent, in an atmosphere of sufficient support and understanding to make ongoing fundraising and collaboration possible.

In other words, if you're not working on A, don't expect to achieve A.

For someone my age, there could be a big (as in fatal) difference between ten years and twenty, though it's obviously much more critical for those more advanced in age than me. "Spin-off" is often used as a (flawed) argument in favor of NASA spending. It's not flawed just because many of the things claimed for it (teflon, Tang, microchips) are patently false, but because the argument can always be made that if one wants better microchips or breakfast beverages, efforts spent directly toward those ends will be more effective. I think that "Reason" is making the same argument here, and he's right.

I wasn't sure how to categorize this post. This kind of research, and breakthroughs, are going to require a combination of science (figuring out how stuff works) and technology (figuring out how to make it work better).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:58 AM

January 04, 2007

Evangelistic Atheist

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary theorist, and popularizer of science, but over at the NYT Review of Books, H. Allen Orr isn't very impressed with his recent screed against religion:

Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:12 AM

January 03, 2007

Stupid Smart People

Jane Galt talks about the not-so Bright Daniel Dennett (who I think is brilliant in many ways, but certainly not this one). He really does seem clueless about human nature, and the need for belief systems.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:48 AM

December 23, 2006

Reading Miscomprehension

In the course of searching for something else, I just ran across this old post, that I'd never seen before, in which I was astonished to read:

This brings me to Rand Simberg, a smart guy that is a big supporter of ID (that’s slang for Intelligent Design).

Apparently, he somehow infers that I'm a supporter of ID because I believe that science is a method of achieving knowledge, rather than a compendium of facts. But I don't see how anyone could have read that post, or any other that I've written on the subject, and think that I support ID in any way, let alone a "big" one.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:51 PM

December 22, 2006

A Scientist Who Became A Priest

Colby Cosh remembers Carl Sagan.:

He continued to expound the gospel even as improved modelling showed that the likely effect would be closer to "nuclear autumn." But his fancies came to an end in 1991 when he warned Western governments that ignition of the Kuwaiti oil fields by Saddam Hussein would be certain to induce the equivalent of nuclear winter. When Saddam lit the match, it was only Sagan's prestige that fell to below zero. In his 1996 book The Demon- Haunted World, he all but acknowledged that his own "baloney detector" had suffered interference from his personal politics. Yet contemporary iconographers now claim that Sagan's hypothesis, though wrong, frightened Mikhail Gorbachev so badly that Sagan can be credited with playing a "role" in ending the Cold War. (If you believe what the Soviet generals have to say on the subject, Ronald Reagan's investments in missile-defence research -- which Sagan fought to the point of civil disobedience-- were more persuasive.)
Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:58 AM

December 21, 2006

They Must Be Worrying About The New Glacial Advance

Iain Murray notes that, now that the Democrats control Congress, global warming isn't as urgent an issue as the hysteria mongers have have been telling us it is.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:48 AM
Dissension In The Ranks

Some climatologists are getting concerned that their scientific results have been hijacked by global warming evangelicals with an anti-growth agenda. It's about time.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:17 AM

December 20, 2006

The Impending Return Of The Glaciers

Better fire up your SUVs. We have to fight off the new global cooling trend.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:09 AM

December 15, 2006

Break Out The Ice Cream

This could be huge. I'd like to see it replicated as soon as possible. Some researchers may have come up with a cure for diabetes. And it's an unconventional one, out of left field:

Dr. Dosch had concluded in a 1999 paper that there were surprising similarities between diabetes and multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease. His interest was also piqued by the presence around the insulin-producing islets of an "enormous" number of nerves, pain neurons primarily used to signal the brain that tissue has been damaged.

Suspecting a link between the nerves and diabetes, he and Dr. Salter used an old experimental trick -- injecting capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot chili peppers, to kill the pancreatic sensory nerves in mice that had an equivalent of Type 1 diabetes.

"Then we had the biggest shock of our lives," Dr. Dosch said. Almost immediately, the islets began producing insulin normally "It was a shock ? really out of left field, because nothing in the literature was saying anything about this."

The only problem I see is that this is worse than stem cells from a human sacrifice standpoint. How many people will a small band like the Hot Chili Peppers be able to cure? Just how much capsaicin can they produce, and how fast?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:16 PM
Thoughts On Cow Flatulence

From Lileks:

The idea of people sitting at home in sweatpants watching a big TV while shoveling in the Haagen-Daz mortifies the social engineers; they can practically feel the planet wobble on its axis from the cumulative weight of so much freedom and prosperity.

The preferred model for a nice, controlled population is a dense city where your small apartment has a tiny fridge st0cked with bean curd molded into pleasant, food-like shapes. Trains take you to your job, which is either building trains, fixing trains, designing public service posters for trains, cleaning trains or writing software to operate trains. Once a week you'll pull on your best taupe-hued hemp jumpsuit and take the train to the biweekly Culture Expo to hear something held up to enlightened ridicule (anything's game, except Islam and Global Warming).

It may sound like hell itself, but at least it's sustainable.

Makes me want to get in the SUV and head to McDonald's. And I don't even like McDonald's.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:58 AM

December 10, 2006

Do I Smell A Class-Action Lawsuit?

To how many other people has Verizon been quoting their rates as 0.002 cents, when they meant $0.002? And of course, the stupefyingly defiant ignorance of basic mathematics is indeed frightening.

Via emailer Erik Max Francis, who notes:

Here's the full customer service call recording on YouTube (which is long enough to get tedious but here it is for reference):

But here's a YTMND entry that chops it up and only gets the juiciest bits (and despite most YTMNDs, isn't obnoxiously flashy and annoying):

What's interesting to me as a crank-watcher is how many people in the comments in the various blogs and places it comes up (like and are actually siding with Verizon ...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:44 AM

December 08, 2006

Why Women Aren't Funny

A long but interesting disquisition, by Christopher Hitchens.

He makes an interesting point that I'd never thought about before--that the male equivalent of childbirth for women is war.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:44 AM

December 04, 2006

Champions Of Death

Alec Rawls writes about the anti-Norman Borlaugs, Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:28 PM
A Flight From Science?

A Welsh theologian laments the lack of rational discourse in today's society.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:17 AM

December 02, 2006

The Economics Of Healthy Eating

Donald Sensing runs the numbers on red wine and dark chocolate.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:03 AM
Who Is Bisexual?

I made the mistake of wading into one of the typical sexuality threads over at Free Republic, in which I made my usual claim about the (obvious, to me) fact that sexual orientation is inborn (either genetic or in utero, or both). Someone asked me to cite a poll to that effect.

I wouldn't have much confidence in the results of such a poll, though I'm sure that it would reveal some number of people who claim to be purely homosexual. But I suspect that many who are bisexual wouldn't admit it. That's why I prefer to estimate peoples' sexual orientation by their behavior, rather than by polls. And the insight I got from this is that condemnation of gays on the basis that they have a choice and are making a bad one is a bisexual behavior.

Think about it. If someone claims that homosexuals have a choice (that is, it really is a "preference"), then how can they know that? The most reasonable supposition is that they themselves have a choice, and assume that everyone is like them. I know that I don't, and didn't have a choice in my sexual orientation (strongly het), and I imagine that homosexuals are just the same way, except they're homo, rather than heterosexual. People who do have a choice are properly classified as bi, to one degree or another. Therefore (unless they're being completely illogical--not outside the realm of possibility) people who believe that others have a choice must do so on the basis that they do themselves, and thus such a belief is a bisexual behavior (and ergo, bisexuality is a fairly broad characteristic among the population). I think it possible, perhaps even likely, that there are more bisexuals than heterosexuals. But most of them engage in heterosexual activity, because they can, and it's more socially acceptable.

Further support for my theory is the behavior of many (but by no means all) men in the absence of women (e.g., prisons), in which they are willing to engage temporarily in homosexual behavior, though I never would. It also explains why there could be whole societies (such as Sparta) that encouraged homoeroticism. I'd have been out of luck there, but at least heterosexuality must have been allowed, or they'd have gone the way of the Shakers.


Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

December 01, 2006

Swinging Both Ways

When Jim McGreevey declared that he was a "gay American," I declared him a bisexual American, with much disagreement in my comments section (though Tammy Bruce agreed with me). Well, now it turns out that his "boyfriend" (who claims to be straight) says that I was right:

Through lawyers, Cipel had threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment shortly before and after McGreevey's resignation. A lawsuit was never filed.

"I think McGreevey had no choice. There was a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. And he didn't know what to do, and his advisers told him, 'come out first,' and he would be perceived as the victim" and thereby gain control of the story, Cipel said.

While he said McGreevey did make sexual advances toward him on several occasions, Cipel said the former governor also frequently spoke about heterosexual encounters, including sex with prostitutes on trips to Germany and the Dominican Republic.

"I believe that Jim McGreevey is bisexual," Cipel said.

Color me unsurprised.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

November 30, 2006

Not The End Of The World

A conversation with Bjorn Lomborg.

DDT is not dangerous to humans, but it is dangerous to some animals. So if you're in a rich country where you have malaria under control, clearly you should ban DDT or severely restrict its use.

But our concern about DDT in the early 70s basically meant that most of the developing world restricted their use as well. That was probably an immensely bad judgement because yes, it harms animals like birds, but it also saves human lives. These actions undoubtedly led to many millions of lives lost. So that is one example of where we need to be very careful about what we do.

But I think we are doing a little bit the same thing with climate change discussions right now. We have spent so much time over the last 10 years trying to do something about climate change. We have a treaty that will essentially do nothing whatsoever about climate change and it will still end up costing us quite a bit. And you've got to ask yourself, couldn't we have spent that amount of time and effort and consideration on addressing some of the issues in the world where we could have done an enormous amount of good?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:14 AM

November 28, 2006

Only Three Times As Much?

I know you'll be shocked to learn this, but women talk more than men. I also found this an interesting statistic:

...what the male brain may lack in converstation and emotion, they more than make up with in their ability to think about sex.

Dr Brizendine says the brain's "sex processor" - the areas responsible for sexual thoughts - is twice as big as in men than in women, perhaps explaining why men are stereotyped as having sex on the mind.

Or, to put it another way, men have an international airport for dealing with thoughts about sex, "where women have an airfield nearby that lands small and private planes".

Studies have shown that while a man will think about sex every 52 seconds, the subject tends to cross women's minds just once a day, the University of California psychiatrist says.

My, how politically incorrect.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:46 AM

November 15, 2006

The War On Science

Contra Chris Mooney's thesis, it's not a unilateral Republican one:

More than anything else, even the misrepresentations themselves, the collective willingness to overlook bad policy arguments unsupported (or even contradicted) by the current state of science while at the same time trumpeting the importance of scientific consensus is evidence of the comprehensive and pathological politicization of science in the policy debate over global warming. If climate scientists ever wonder why they are looked upon with suspicion among some people in society, they need look no further in their willingness to compromise their own intellectual standards in policy debate on the issue of disasters and climate change.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:48 PM

November 05, 2006

More Stern Criticism

Christopher Monckton excoriates the Stern Report and the "science" behind the global warming policy pushes:

First, the UN implies that carbon dioxide ended the last four ice ages. It displays two 450,000-year graphs: a sawtooth curve of temperature and a sawtooth of airborne CO2 that's scaled to look similar. Usually, similar curves are superimposed for comparison. The UN didn't do that. If it had, the truth would have shown: the changes in temperature preceded the changes in CO2 levels.

Next, the UN abolished the medieval warm period (the global warming at the end of the First Millennium AD). In 1995, David Deming, a geoscientist at the University of Oklahoma, had written an article reconstructing 150 years of North American temperatures from borehole data. He later wrote: "With the publication of the article in Science, I gained significant credibility in the community of scientists working on climate change. They thought I was one of them, someone who would pervert science in the service of social and political causes. One of them let his guard down. A major person working in the area of climate change and global warming sent me an astonishing email that said: 'We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period.' "

And Chris Mooney thinks that there's a Republican war on science?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:45 PM

November 04, 2006

Giving The Business the Stern Report:

Stern’s novelty was to produce two figures: that global warming would eventually reduce the size of the world economy by 10% if left to fester; but that curbing emissions at his recommended level would cost only 1% of global wealth.

Between those two suspiciously certain figures lies a world of conjecture, supposition and stabs in the dark. Stern is the ecological equivalent of a dodgy intelligence dossier revealing weapons of mass destruction which don’t exist – which makes it a typical Blairite production. Doubts have been hardened into certainties, contradictory facts downplayed or omitted. The result is a tax-raising manifesto which could see Great Britain – which generates just 2% of world carbon emissions – sleepwalk into a growth-destroying agenda which will hit the poorest hardest.

Meanwhile, at the University of Arizona, Roger Angel has a better idea:

"The concept builds on existing technologies," Angel said. "It seems feasible that it could be developed and deployed in about 25 years at a cost of a few trillion dollars. With care, the solar shade should last about 50 years. So the average cost is about $100 billion a year, or about two-tenths of one percent of the global domestic product."

Much cheaper!

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:48 AM

November 01, 2006

A Life Extension Twofer

Well, I'm ready to drink my hundred glasses of red wine a day. Vive la vin!

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:46 PM

October 12, 2006

Crushing Of Dissent

Nuremberg-style trials for global warming skeptics?

Next time they call people fascists, some of these folks need to look in the mirror.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Jonah Goldberg (with whom I had the pleasure of chatting for a few minutes last night) has related thoughts.

So much of the demonization of conservatives from liberals in the last fifty years has worked on a formula which goes something like this: "I want use the state to impose my dreamy good intentions. Conservatives are evil. So, if they get ahold of government they will use government to do evil in the same way that we would do good."
Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:19 AM

October 10, 2006

Guys, Send This To Your Gals

Several health reasons why s3x is good for you. Particularly as you get on in years.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:14 PM
Them And Us

This isn't surprising, given human nature, and the evolutionary process that developed it. It's in our genes to distrust "the other."

But one of the features of the Anglosphere is its ability to build trust institutions, even in the face of physical diversity. I'd like to see some cultural cross comparisons. Any takers on further thoughts?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:30 PM

September 27, 2006

Meanwhile, In The Pacific

Speaking of hurricanes, while the Atlantic remains quiet, the biggest storm of the season so far is pounding the Phillippines, and due to hit Manila directly. It unexpectedly went from a tropical storm to a Category 4 typhoon in twenty-four hours. It just shows that we have a long way to go to be able to predict these things. It also shows that we don't pay much attention to tropical cyclones unless they affect the US, because I haven't seen anyone reporting it.

Anyway, the lack of predictability brings up our immediate dilemma. We're about to go out of town for ten days. Should we shutter up before we leave (which would be a royal pain, amidst the other packing)? It seems unlikely that there will be a storm that hits south Florida during the first week of October, but you never know.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:52 AM

September 14, 2006

Worried About Arctic Ice?

Read Professor Pielke.

I was amused at the unintended irony of this story at the BBC:

President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren told the BBC that the climate was changing much faster than predicted.

What does that say about their ability to make predictions?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:39 PM
The Key To High-Protein Diets?

This may be a breakthrough for obesity:

After the volunteers had eaten, Dr Batterham took blood samples from them every 30 minutes for an hour and a half, and measured the concentration of peptide YY. As she suspected, it was the high-protein meal that coaxed the greatest production of the peptide.

Having proved the point in people, she then turned to a more reliable laboratory animal—the mouse. First, she showed that mice do, indeed, respond to a high-protein diet in the way that people do. Both the short-term response (more peptide YY) and the long-term one (a reduction in obesity) were the same in rodents as they were in humans.

Having confirmed that similarity, she was able to experiment with the idea that peptide YY might be used directly as a slimming agent, thus getting rid of the side effects of a diet composed of meat, eggs and cheese—such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver and bone abnormalities. She did that by using mice that had had the gene for peptide YY knocked out of their DNA, and thus could not produce the hormone.

In this case, obese mice stay obese even when fed on the murine equivalent of Atkins. Dose them with peptide YY at appropriate levels, though, and they will lose weight even on a normal, non-Atkins mix.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:24 PM

September 12, 2006

Not So Close

This is interesting. Many human social rules carry over into cyberspace.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:59 AM

September 11, 2006

Science Wars

I just got review copies of Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War On Science, and James Lovelock's most recent work, The Revenge Of Gaia. Both titles seem a little overwraught to me, and I've already expressed skepticism on Chris Mooney's thesis. But I'll report anon, after reading them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:54 PM

September 05, 2006

It's A Looooonnnnggg Time

I'm puzzled by this post by Clayton Cramer, who thinks:

I am prepared to believe (at least for sake of argument) that all of these complex mechanisms could have developed as a result of blind, random chance. But what are the chances that all of these complex mechanisms managed to develop in less than 700 million years? More importantly, what are the chances that cells that blindly, randomly developed one of these structures or enzymes were the ancestors of cells that blindly, randomly developed all the rest of these useful mutations?

On my planet, 700 million years is a really long time. Is there some kind of mathematical analysis that he's done to indicate that it's for some reason insufficient?

I think that part of the problem is his continued use of variations of the phrase "blind, random chance." This is a common misperception among evolution skeptics (who have apparently never read "The Blind Watchmaker" or other books that describe how evolution actually works). They seem to think that it stumbles around blindly, as though it were like the million monkeys randomly typing Shakespeare attempts. In fact it is directed--it simply isn't directed by intelligence. It's directed by what works. If a mutation occurs that has an advantage in the environment, it is preserved, and the next generation builds on it.

Imagine the monkeys, except when one of them accidentally gets a letter of the sonnet right, they don't have to type that part any more--it's preserved in their next attempt, and they just bang on the keys to fill in the spaces around it. Each time they get one right, it becomes more sonnet like. If the sonnet has, say a couple thousand characters, then the monkey might get each one right within a few dozen keystrokes (assuming that he's really typing randomly, and not skipping some keys entirely--which is an interesting analog to the concept of future development paths limited by existing morphology, described in Gould's book The Panda's Thumb). Even with thousands of characters, a rapidly typing simian would pound out the poem in a couple days, while having no knowledge of what he's doing.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:13 PM

August 29, 2006

Forget About Ernesto

It turned out, like Alberto, to be dramatically overhyped (but I guess it's better to be safe than sorry, and it may still do a lot of damage in the Carolinas and Mid Atlantic). The real hurricane season has begun:

The computer models are very bullish in developing waves coming off the coast of Africa in the next two weeks, and I expect we'll have at least two new named storms by the time the peak of hurricane season arrives, September 10.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:32 PM

August 28, 2006

Not One Sided

Chris Mooney emails me to tell me that his book, about the so-called "Republican War On Science," has been released in paperback today, with a new introduction and call to arms against ID.

As I told Chris, while I disagree with a lot of the things that Republicans do with respect to science, I think that the war is more than bi-partisan. Democrats and so-called "progressives" peddle a lot of junk science toward their own agendas, and arguably (and historically) do it even more than Republicans (e.g., think the eugenics movement). Lysenko wasn't a "right winger," after all...

In fact, it might be interesting to have a blog debate on this topic. I don't think we'd resolve quantitatively who is worse, but I suspect that we could convince a lot of people that there's plenty of guilt to go around.

Anyway, go get the book, if you haven't, and judge for yourself.

[Update in the evening]

Chris has kindly offered to consider a debate. But if I do that (not definite yet) I'd have to read his book first. A review copy is on the way.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:11 AM

August 25, 2006


National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield is calling it quits at the end of the season. Certainly the last two years have to have been pretty rough on him. Here's hoping that he'll get a lighter season as a send off.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:14 PM

August 24, 2006

Non-Destructive Stem Cell Research

Economist reports that my idea about doing non-destructive stem cell research has been successfully tested.

Once a fertilised egg has divided into eight cells, one of those cells can be removed in a biopsy without reducing the chance of a successful pregnancy....such biopsied cells might, instead, be encouraged to reproduce—thus generating a line of stem cells.

I expect other people had the idea before I did (I'd be obliged for an earlier cite.) In any case, I presented it badly enough to be criticized by NASA Watch. Now I just need to get the other idea I thought of in fall 2004,, to turn a profit.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at 10:00 AM

August 18, 2006

Genocide, Not Ecocide

Environmentalists (most notably, recently, Jared Diamond) are fond of using Easter Island as a cautionary tale of what happens when resources are depleted in a non-renewable manner. Well, it's looking a lot like this example is a fairy tale:

By the time the second round of radiocarbon results arrived in the fall of 2005, a complete picture of Rapa Nui's prehistory was falling into place. The first settlers arrived from other Polynesian islands around 1200 A.D. Their numbers grew quickly, perhaps at about three percent annually, which would be similar to the rapid growth shown to have taken place elsewhere in the Pacific. On Pitcairn Island, for example, the population increased by about 3.4 percent per year following the appearance of the Bounty mutineers in 1790. For Rapa Nui, three percent annual growth would mean that a colonizing population of 50 would have grown to more than a thousand in about a century. The rat population would have exploded even more quickly, and the combination of humans cutting down trees and rats eating the seeds would have led to rapid deforestation. Thus, in my view, there was no extended period during which the human population lived in some sort of idyllic balance with the fragile environment.

It also appears that the islanders began building moai and ahu soon after reaching the island. The human population probably reached a maximum of about 3,000, perhaps a bit higher, around 1350 A.D. and remained fairly stable until the arrival of Europeans. The environmental limitations of Rapa Nui would have kept the population from growing much larger. By the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most of the island's trees were gone, but deforestation did not trigger societal collapse, as Diamond and others have argued.

I'm sure that the argument now will be that they were about to collapse any year now, but the evil white men killed them before they had a chance to.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:51 AM
Where Are They?

It was supposed to be a higher-than-normal hurricane season this year, but it's actually below normal, so far. And of course, some ignorant prognosticators even claimed that it was going to be higher than normal (and that way in the future) due to global warming. Roy Spencer explains both why this is nonsense, and why atmosphere and ocean modelers should be a little more humble.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:06 AM

August 07, 2006

As If We Didn't Have Enough Problems

Bedbugs. They're baaaaccckkk.

It's funny, you always hear that expression, "don't let the bedbugs bite," but you never actually associate it with the very real phenomenon that spurred it, if you've never experienced it. And it may mean that we have to rethink the balance between comfort and perceived threats to health from pesticides. Of course, it's nothing compared to the holocaust caused by the banning of DDT. Thanks, Rachel!

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:05 PM

August 03, 2006

Don't Know Much About History

Just in case you weren't aware that Pat Robertson is an idiot:

The Rev. Pat Robertson said he hasn't been a believer in global warming in the past, but this summer's record-breaking heat is "making a convert out of me."

Yes, we never had hot summers before we started driving those SUVs.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:17 PM

August 02, 2006

Shake And Bake

There's apparently been a pretty good temblor up in the north bay of the Bay Area (think Marin County) about twenty minutes ago. Maybe they'll mention it at the top of the hour.

You can bet that, with the heat we've had lately in CA (as well as everywhere else),people will be dredging up the claims about "earthquake weather."

Hopefully it's not a foreshock of something a lot bigger.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:05 PM

August 01, 2006

Here's The Confusion

This is a follow-up to the earlier post on whether or not gay men are more promiscuous than heterosexual men. I just read the transcript of Ann Coulter's comments at Kaus:

Mr. BEINART: It's called bigotry, Ann. What part of bigotry don't you understand?

Ms. COULTER: Are you claiming that gays are generally not more promiscuous? Is that what you're claiming? Are both of you maintaining that gays are not--some segment of gays are not more promiscuous than heterosexuals? Is that the big point here?


Mr. BEINART: I'm saying that I don't know that there's any empirical evidence whatsoever here.

Ms. COULTER: No. I'm asking Larry here.

Mr. BEINART: And it's a--it's a--it's a bigoted stereotype that you are fomenting.

Ms. COULTER: You don't know any evidence that gays are more promiscuous than heterosexuals?

Mr. BEINART: Where's your--where's your evidence, Ann?

Ms. COULTER: Where have you been?

Mr. BEINART: Where's your evidence?

Ms. COULTER: It's a fact.

Mr. BEINART: Give me the evidence. Cite chapter and verse. You have no evidence whatsoever.

Ms. COULTER: I just cited the bathhouses. We don't have heterosexual bathhouses. It's well known.

Can anyone tell me what modifier is missing throughout this exchange (in which, while I'm not a big Coulter fan, and generally like Beinart, he comes off as an ignorant ass)? Hint, this isn't strictly about homosexual versus straight.

Oh, and for extra bonus points, is it a societal given that "gay" applies only to males, and not to homosexual females (i.e., lesbians)?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:18 PM
Because They Can

Ann Althouse (who's guest blogging over at Instapundit while Glenn does vital research on diving equipment in the Caymans) asks if it's bigoted to say that homosexual men are more promiscuous than heterosexual men.

Well, of course it's not (despite the fact that Ann Coulter said it). It's an obvious fact. But it's not because homosexual men are hornier than heterosexual men--it's because their partners are both much more willing and eager to put out, and to put up with promiscuity. Women serve as a governor on the libidinous urges of men. When men do it with men, there's nothing to damp the activity level.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:04 AM

July 13, 2006

Meet The New Metaphysic

Same as the old metaphysic. John Derbyshire has a lengthy critique of George Gilder's latest tilt at the evolutionary windmill:

Scientists discover things. That’s what they do. In fast-growing fields like genomics, they discover new things almost daily — look into any issue of Science or Nature. What has the Discovery Institute discovered this past 16 years? To stretch my simile further: Creationists are walking into that room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers right at the peak of the Golden Age of flight, never having flown or designed any planes themselves. Are they really surprised that they get a brusque reception?

...Creationists respond to this by telling us that they can’t get a hearing in the defensive, closed-minded, “invested” world of professional science. Creationist ideas are too revolutionary, they say. The impenetrably reactionary nature of established science is a staple of Creationist talk. They seem not to have noticed that twentieth-century science is a veritable catalog of revolutionary ideas that got accepted, from quantum theory to plate tectonics, from relativity to dark matter, from cosmic expansion to the pathogen theory of ulcers. Creationism has been around far, far longer than the “not yet accepted” phase of any of those theories. Why is the proportion of scientists willing to accept it still stuck below (well below, as best I can estimate) one percent? The only answer you can get from a Creationist involves a conspiracy theory that makes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look positively rational.

Three or four paragraphs into George’s piece, seeing where we were headed, and having accumulated considerable experience with this kind of stuff, I did a “find” on the phrase “scientific establishment.” Sure enough, there it was: those obscurantist, defensive old stuffed shirts of “consensus science” — the Panel of Peers, George calls them — keeping original thought at bay.

In George’s example the original thinker was Max Planck, whose first publication on his revolutionary quantum theory of radiation was in 1900. Poor Max Planck was so thoroughly shunned and ostracized by that glowering, starched-collar Panel of Peers for daring to present ideas that violated their settled convictions, that five years later they made him president of the German Physical Society, and in 1918 gave him the Nobel Prize for Physics! Those mean, blinkered scientific establishmentarians!

Creationism has been around in one form or another for well over a century, which is to say, more than 20 times longer than the interval between Max Planck’s first broadcasting of his quantum theory and his election as president of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The fact that Creationism still has no scientific acceptance whatsoever — no presidencies of learned societies, no Nobel Prizes, not a bean, not a dust mote — does not show that the science establishment is hostile to new ideas, it only shows that scientists cannot see that Creationism has anything to offer them.

What gets the attention of scientists is science. Scientists do not shun Creationism because it is revolutionary; they shun it because Creationists don’t do any science. They started out by promising to. The original plan for the CSC (then CRSC) back in 1992 had phase I listed as: “Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity.” The CSC has certainly been energetic in writing and publicity, but if they have done any scientific research, I missed it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:58 AM
Why Women Should Change Diapers

They're better designed for it.

Boy, am I going to catch heat for this.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:56 AM

July 07, 2006

The Friendliness Problem

Some thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:22 AM

June 26, 2006

I Never Fail To Be Amazed

At not only how different the state Doppler radar is from the local one, but at how little rain one can get from a "heavy shower' on the local Doppler. I filled the pool this morning in the hopes that one of the many "thunderstorms" predicted for today would actually hit us. We watched all weekend as they approached southeast Palm Beach County, and would either stall, or fizzle out, just before they reached us. We really need the rain here. And thunderstorms are one of the three things that I like about south Florida, relative to south coastal California.

Still, I'm glad that we have much better weather forecasting and sensing than we did as a kid growing up in southeast Michigan, when the best they could do is tell you that they had "tornado watches" and "warnings" and it was based on a WAG as to where they were going to go.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:09 PM

June 22, 2006

Turning The Tables

Tim Carney takes on the ad hominem fallacy of attacking policy papers based on the funding sources of the institute that generated them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:46 PM

June 15, 2006

An Ursine Arctic Donner Party

Polar bears are eating each other:

"During 24 years of research on polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region of northern Alaska and 34 years in northwestern Canada, we have not seen other incidents of polar bears stalking, killing, and eating other polar bears," the scientists said.

Environmentalists contend shrinking polar ice due to global warming may lead to the disappearance of polar bears before the end of the century.

It's George Bush's fault of course. If only we'd signed on to Kyoto.

Actually, while it helps emphasize the surprise of the researchers, the fact that they haven't seen it in such a short period of time tells us nothing about how common it is historically. And in any event, the American Geophysical Union says that we can't definitively blame it on SUVs.

Sorry, Al.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:12 PM

June 14, 2006

Everglades Python Problem

It's bigger than many had hoped:

Scientists from several institutions, including the National Park Service, have joined Mazzotti's team in hopes of controlling, if not eradicating, the python population. But that's pretty hard when it's uncertain how many are out there and where they hang out...

...Most pythons have been seen near roads or other manmade structures, so officials had hoped they had not ventured too deeply into the park. But that turned out not to be the case. They are everywhere.

"Burmese pythons are right in the heart of Everglades National Park," Mazzotti says. And they are wreaking havoc on the system, eating everything from gray squirrels to bobcats and threatening efforts to restore native species to the park.

Unfortunately, it's an ideal home for pythons. They are "habitat generalists," meaning they like to live between wet and dry areas, and they like to climb trees, and they are good swimmers, and there's lots of animals for them to eat. That's also just the kind of environment that appeals to alligators.

"So here they are, hanging out in the same places, doing the same things," Mazzotti says. "And on more than one occasion, several of which were witnessed by the public, they have gotten in fights."

I haven't seen any, but I don't spend that much time there.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:11 PM

June 13, 2006


I've always been in favor of cloning, until I read this:

The former vice president, a Democrat, said on Monday that by the end of the summer he would start a bipartisan education campaign to train 1,000 people to give a version of his slide show on global warming featured in the film "An Inconvenient Truth" and book of the same name.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:12 AM
Those Bastards

That well-known climatologist, Bill Clinton, says that his former VP is right--GOP policies are going to give us more hurricanes. Well, he certainly knows about big blows, anyway.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:58 AM

June 07, 2006

What Would We Do Without Experts?

Recent groundbreaking research indicates that (are you sitting down?--I don't want to feel responsible for anyone who hurts themselves falling to the floor in shock) many teenage girls feel pressure from boys to have sex.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:33 PM
Living With Global Warming

Amidst media hysteria from Al Gore's latest propaganda, Iain Murray has some suggestions for the most sensible approach to the problem if it is a problem--adaptation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:31 AM

June 01, 2006

Something Long Needed

Not that I'm a conservative, but I think that many of those who are will find it useful. A petition for conservatives against Intelligent Design.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:27 PM
Equal Opportunity Politicizing

And you thought there was a Republican war on science? Check this out. Iain Murray has more thoughts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:58 AM

May 26, 2006

Another "Historic Victory"

For Kyoto:

Translated: the developed countries realize they aren’t going to be able to meet their Phase I commitments without fudging the issue, while the developing countries, currently commitment-free, want them to cut emissions deeply but do not want commit to any cuts themselves.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 AM

May 24, 2006

An Inconvenient Fact Check

TCS Daily is on Al Gore's case.

Gregg Easterbrook (who seems to be better at this stuff than he is at space policy) pans the "documentary" as well.

[Update on Thursday morning]

How Kyoto held back progress in solving the problem.

[Another update]

Al Gore's penguin army.

[Late morning update]

Editor Nick Schulz responds to "rebuttals" to the TCS Daily piece.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:29 PM

May 11, 2006

Even Handed

For those who think that Intelligent Design is a "conservative" (as opposed to a religious) fetish, Anthony Dick has a review of what sounds like an interesting documentary, Flock Of Dodos, over at National Review. No new arguments in support of science, but he puts forth the old ones well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:12 AM

April 25, 2006

An End To The Musical Fruit?


Smart cooks know they can ferment beans, and make them less gas-inducing, by cooking them in the liquor from a previous batch. But Granito's team wanted to find out just which bacteria were responsible for this.

When the researchers fermented black beans with the two bacteria, they found it decreased the soluble fiber content by more than 60 percent and lowered levels of raffinose, a compound known to cause gas, by 88 percent.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:21 PM

April 21, 2006

Obvious Scientific Result Break

I haven't seen a lot worth reporting since the wireless came back up, but I did run across this piece, in the "bears use the woods as a toilet" category, which claims--hold on to your hats, now--that men influenced by attractive women don't always make great decisions:

"We all think we are rational beings, but our research suggests ... that people with high testosterone levels are very vulnerable to sexual cues. If there are no cues around, they behave normally, but if they see sexual images they become impulsive..."

What would we do without researchers?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:53 PM

April 18, 2006

I'm OK, You're Biased

Here's an interesting article on perceptions of bias. It turns out (not surprisingly) that we underestimate our own, and overestimate others'.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:21 AM

April 14, 2006

A Rare Editorial

From Paul Hsieh, on global warming.

I don't expect this one blog post to immediately change many minds on this contentious issue. For now, I'd be satisfied with making the point that the issue is not the simple slam-dunk as is typically portrayed in the usual news media. Nor are the opponents of global warming hypothesis/Kyoto treaty necessarily stupid or corrupt.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:05 AM

April 10, 2006

Pianka Smeared?

It doesn't look like it. Cathy Young writes about religious zealots on both the left and the right, attempting to pervert science to their own ends.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:13 PM

April 09, 2006

Bad Week For Creationism

Via John Rennie (who seems to be blogging at Scientific American now) comes this sad story about "Dr. Dino" (aka Kent Hovind) and his dinosaur Bible park:

Escambia County authorities this week locked up a museum building at the theme park on North Palafox Street in Pensacola after Circuit Judge Michael Allen ruled the owners were in contempt of court.

Owners of the park, which shows how dinosaurs may have roamed the Earth just a few thousand years ago, did not obtain a building permit before constructing the building in 2002. They have argued in and out of court that it violates their "deeply held" religious beliefs, and that the church-run facility does not have to obtain permits.

Did I say sad? I meant hilarious. What a bunch of scam artists.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:34 AM

April 05, 2006

A Canary In The Coal Mine?

Well, actually a swan in the wild. It was found dead of avian flu, in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said that if H5N1 was confirmed, ministers would have to make an immediate decision on whether all farm birds across the United Kingdom would be brought indoors.

A decision would also be made on whether restrictions would be imposed on the movement of goods from poultry to eggs.

Not good news for the UK, or the world.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 PM

April 04, 2006

Time Travel?

This guy thinks it's possible, in this century. He takes all the fun out of it, though:

...Mallett – an advocate of the Parallel Universes theory – assures us that time machines will not present any danger.

“The Grandfather Paradox [where you go back in time and kill your grandfather] is not an issue,” said Mallett. “In a sense, time travel means that you’re traveling both in time and into other universes. If you go back into the past, you’ll go into another universe. As soon as you arrive at the past, you’re making a choice and there’ll be a split. Our universe will not be affected by what you do in your visit to the past.”

So what's the point? Does that mean that I can go to another universe and affect it, and then come back to this one? It would certainly be great for historical research (though you'd kind of screw over the denizens of that other universe). Anyway, I won't be investing in this guy's theories any time soon.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:36 AM

March 30, 2006

They Have To Be Carefully Untaught

Here's a study that says that children are natural scientists:

Apparently it takes a concerted effort on the part of many so-called science teachers in the public schools to slowly beat it out of them, over the course of several years.

But I wonder if anyone pondered the implications of this?

Schulz said she believes this is the first study that looks at how probabilistic evidence affects children's reasoning about unobserved causes. The researchers found that children are conservative about unobserved causes (they don't always think mysterious things are happening) but would rather accept unobserved causes than accept that things happen at random.

This probably explains the appeal of ID (partly because evolution isn't properly explained). If one believes that evolution is "random" (which is how it's too often explained), then there will be a natural tendency to look for the man behind the curtain.

But of course, it's not. What's random is the mutations themselves, not how they're selected. One sees many fallacies related to this in critiques of evolution, in which people figure out the probability of a monkey typing a sonnet, by assuming that each monkey starts anew with each try, and showing that it's astronomically improbable. With that assumption, of course, the creation of the sonnet is quite unlikely.

But if a monkey gets the first word right, and that's the starting point for the next monkey, then the result will out, and in a surprisingly short time, because the process isn't random. It's directed by an evolutionary force (in this particular case, the desire to have something that looks like a sonnet).

In the natural case, of course, it's driven by the fact that things that don't look like sonnets (that is, that have traits that cause their phenotypes to die before reproducing) don't go on to the next generation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:00 AM

March 28, 2006

"Creationists' Best Recruiting Sergeants"

Madeleine Bunting, on how the militant atheism of Dawkins and Dennett may be backfiring:

...while Dembski, Dawkins and Dennett are sipping the champagne for their very different reasons, there is a party pooper. Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."

There's no room for complacency, urged Ruse over lunch in London last week. Last December's court ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in some Pennsylvania schools may have been a blow, but now the strategy of the creationist/intelligent-design lobby is to "chisel away at school-board level" across the US. The National Centre for Science Education believes that as many as 20% of US schools are teaching creationism in some form. Evolution is losing the battle, says Ruse, and it's the fault of Dawkins and Dennett with their aggressive atheism: they are the creationists' best recruiting sergeants.

Yes. Too many people believe in God for this to be a successful debating tactic. People have to be made to understand that religion and science don't have to be incompatible, and that we don't have to abandon science (as the "science" of intelligent design does) when the going gets tough. As Galileo said, the one tells us how to get to heaven, the other describes of what the heavens are made. Of course, with modern science and rocketry, perhaps science will allow us to do both.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:39 AM
First It Was The Creationists

...and now it's the geocentrists, who want to return to the days of Ptolemy:

Mention geocentrism and physicist Lawrence Krauss sighs. He is director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University and author of several books including "Fear of Physics: A Guide for the Perplexed."

"What works? Science works. Geocentrism doesn't. End of story," Krauss said from Cleveland. "I've learned over time that it's hard to convince people who believe otherwise, independent of evidence."

To Sungenis, of Greencastle, Pa., evidence is the rub.

For several years the Web site of his Catholic Apologetics International ( offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could disprove geocentrism and prove heliocentrism (a sun-centered solar system).

There were numerous attempts, Sungenis said, "some serious, some caustic," but no one did it to his satisfaction. "Most admitted it can't be proven."

There's also no proof that the Earth rotates, he said.

But what about Foucault's famous pendulum? Its plane of oscillation revolves every 24 hours, showing the rotation of the planet. If the Earth didn't rotate, it wouldn't oscillate.

Nope, Sungenis said: There just may be some other force propelling it, such as the pull of stars.

These loons are like the "NASA faked the moon landings" type. They're impervious to facts, evidence or logic. But everyone can look down on someone:

Sungenis wants to make sure "people don't classify geocentrists with Flat Earthers. We don't believe that at all."

Oh, well, that's all right then.

[Late afternoon update]

One of Jonah's emailers had a (sort of, well not really) defense of geocentrism:

It is not my intent to defend geocentrism, but I do weary of the common rebuttal that "the earth goes around the sun." Imagine, if you will, if the earth and sun were the only two bodies in the solar system. How would one make the case that the earth went around the sun and not vice versa? And is it not curious that no one argues that the moon goes around the sun, although technically, it does? The problem is not who revolves around whom, but what frame of reference yields the simplest description of motion. Copernicus did not overthrow geocentrism so much as he provided a different reference point that made it possible to describe planetary motions as ellipses rather than epicycles and other wierd paths.

Well, no, even that doesn't help.

The problem with geocentrism isn't that it merely claims that the sun goes around the earth. It's true, as Jonah's emailer writes, that both earth and sun revolve around each other (though the sun barely budges in its tiny orbit around their common center of gravity, which is contained entirely within itself, and superimposed with the motion resulting from its interactions with all of the other planets).

The geocentrists' problem is that they believe that the sun going around the earth explains the daily cycle of light and dark. But the sun and earth revolve around each other once a year, not once a day. They are essentially denying the very fact of the earth's rotation in inertial space. Note that their explanation also makes it much more complicated to explain seasons, since they've essentially denied the natural motion that causes things to go through an annual cycle (that is, the sun can't go around the earth both once a day, and once a year).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:46 AM
New Global Warming Theory

It's not caused by CO2--it's caused by H2O.

That nasty dihydrogen monoxide. Is there any evil it's not capable of, any problem of which it's not, at root, the cause? It's got to be the most deadly substance on the planet.

How many more must die before we get the message? We must wean ourselves off it as soon as possible.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:34 AM

March 27, 2006

God And Darwin

Here's an interesting piece on both the irreconciliability of theistic religion and science, and the non-need for it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:43 AM

March 23, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different


...some experts question if asexuality even exists. There's been virtually no research on the subject. Psychologists disagree on how to define it. And there's no certainty on what might influence it. Do hormones, genetics, personal experiences play a part? With no clinical or scientific conclusions on the subject, asexuals create their own definition.

And that definition is a far cry from celibacy, Jay pointed out. "It's not a choice. Celibacy is a choice, whereas asexuality is just the way that you are. Much like being gay is not a choice, or being straight or being right-handed," he said.

Some studies show that asexual behavior does exist in the animal world. Dr. Anthony Bogaert of Brock University in Ontario, who has conducted one of the few studies of human asexuality said he found as much as 1 percent of the population may be asexual.

But, as with other abnormal sexual orientations, there are some people determined to "fix" them.

And before anyone gets upset with my use of the word "abnormal," there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:32 PM

March 21, 2006

Not Just For Floridians And Gulf Coasters Any More

Joe Bastardi says that the Northeast is due for a major hurricane, perhaps this year (note, probably not a permalink):

The current cycle and above-normal water temperatures are reminiscent of the pattern that eventually produced the 1938 hurricane that struck Providence, R.I. That storm killed 600 people in New England and Long Island. The 1938 hurricane was the strongest tropical system to strike the northeastern U.S. in recorded history, with maximum gusts of 186 mph, a 15- to 20-foot storm surge and 25- to 50-foot waves that left much of Providence under 10-15 feet of water. Forecasters at say that patterns are similar to those of the 1930s, 40s and 50s when storms such as the 1938 hurricane, the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricanes and the Trio of 1954--Carol, Edna and Hazel--battered the coast from the Carolinas to New England. The worry is that it will be sooner, rather than later, for this region to be blasted again.

New York can't be complacent--there is potential for twenty-foot surges coming up the East and Hudson rivers, which could make New Orleans look like a kiddie pool.

It also says that this season will be another busy one, but not as bad as last year, when we ran out of names. A pretty easy prediction--just regression to the mean coming off a record.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:24 AM
No Choice

For people who continue to believe that sexual orientation is a choice:

Deciding to "come out" to your family is still quite an ordeal for gay youngsters in the west, but in the Middle East it can be catastrophic. Having a gay member of the family brings shame on the entire household; it can cause fathers to lose their jobs and make brothers and sisters unmarriageable.

Some families respond to a son or daughter's coming out with physical violence or by throwing them out of the house. Others send them off to be "cured" by psychiatrists who offer ludicrous remedies and charge a fortune.

Not surprisingly, some gay and lesbian Arabs try to escape these problems by taking refuge abroad. In theory at least, the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and several other countries now provide asylum for those who are persecuted because of their sexuality - but the chances of actually getting it are slim.

Who would "choose" to be this way, given the often horrific consequences?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:38 AM

March 14, 2006

Are They Born That Way?

I don't really have anything new to say on the subject of the heritability of sexual orientation, but it seems that occasionally I have to restate my position on it, because it's one that I very rarely see in public discussion of this issue, and it's one that I find immensely clarifying. My latest urge to do so is catalyzed by a post from Jonah Goldberg, on a CBS story.

One of Jonah's correspondents writes:

Where they come from is irrelevant. Consider the question: Where Do Adulterers Come From?"

By nature, I am an adulterer. Simply put, one woman is not enough and serial monogamy is no solution. My guess is that most men are in the same boat. History supports my hypothesis. Througout history, most cultures have supported polygamy (one man, many women). An incredible number of people continue to support polygamy, including the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

However, I have been married for twenty years and have successfully overcome the temptation of adultery. And the temptation has been very real, including outright invitations from very attractive people. So what?

I give myself credit for withstanding the temptation. Yes, I give myself credit for overcoming my natural impulses. Am I wrong? Am I actually a psychological monster who takes great pleasure in torturing myself? I do not believe so. In fact, I believe that my adjustment to a monogamous society has been less difficult than my adjustment to the everyday society of work with all of its Puritannical poses.

So, the question "Where Do Homosexuals Come From?" is irrelevant to the question "Should I behave in accordance with my homosexual impulses?"

While I think that, strictly speaking, the writer has a legitimate point, it's a matter of degree, and sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. Maintaining his marital vows obviously goes against his nature, but that doesn't make it miserable. He at least is able to have sexual relations with someone who he finds sexually attractive, which is worth, I think, a lot. I don't think that you can compare his "sacrifice" with what (I infer) he expects gay people to do--either remain celibate or engage in sexual activity with a gender that they find repulsive (sexually speaking).

Turn society on its head. Suppose that Jonah's correspondent (assuming that he is a heterosexual) were somehow thrust into a society in which it was heterosexuality, rather than homosexuality, that was disapproved of, or even illegal. How willing would he be to have to engage in sexual relations with men?

I know that the answer for me would be Rosy Palms (assuming that I weren't physically forced into a homosexual relationship), but I wouldn't be happy about it. That's the situation that he asks gay people to accept.

My theory (well, I'm not the first to come up with it--I think that Kinsey did a lot of work in this area) is that peoples' innate (that is, the degree that is a result of genetics or womb environment) sexual orientation is not a binary state. Most are heterosexual, many are bisexual, and a few are purely homosexual, with gradations in between.

Again, as I've said many times in the past, people debating this issue tend to assume that everyone is like them. Even I'm guilty of this to a degree, except that as an extreme heterosexual (and not one formed by my environment--no one ever told me growing up that there was anything wrong with being gay, at least at home), I can understand that a homosexual man is just as turned off at the thought of doing it with a woman as I am at the thought of doing it with a guy (which is to say, a lot). I can't imagine being a woman and wanting to do it with a man--if I were a woman, I'd be a lesbian.

It's the people in between, many of whom are capable of and tempted to do it with either sex, who get morally righteous about it, because they assume that everyone is like them, everyone can do it with anyone they want, but that they are morally superior because they choose to only engage in moral, heterosexual activity. I don't feel morally superior to gays in my decision to stick with the ladies, because I have no choice. I assume that they don't either.

This point is key to the discussion about gays being "converted" to heterosexuality, via Jesus, or other means. If there are success stories, it's because they were never really "gay" to begin with, but were bisexual, with potential for heterosexuality. The failures are the ones who are purely homosexual. I know that there is no therapy (short of major brain surgery) that could make me gay. I'm straight, and have been since birth, as far as I can tell. I was never "confused" about my sexual orientation. The instant I became truly aware of the concept of sex (as in desire to engage in it), I was also acutely and instantly aware of the kind of equipment that I wanted my sex partners to have. But I accept that others are not like me (as is obvious by their behavior, both in their choice of bed partners, and in their debating arguments). I don't know if my theory is correct or not, but it seems to me to fit all the facts, and to have tremendous explanatory power.

[Update a few minutes later]

Derbyshire has a useful comment:

Jonah: That second correspondent of yours illustrates the old legal approach, i.e. that homosexuality is a thing you **do**. The current sensibility in western societies is that homosexuality is something you **are**. This is, as I pointed out in the pages of NR a year or so ago, quite a profound metaphysical shift.

Exactly, and I think that it's an enlightened sensibility, because it almost certainly corresponds to human reality. I think that adultery is something that someone chooses to do. I don't think that simply having (non-adulterous) sex with a person with whom you're oriented to having sex is in the same ethical category.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:09 AM

March 01, 2006

Chocolate, Veggies And Health

Some interesting research results:

Hollenberg's follow-up work, reported in the PNAS paper, confirms that the islanders also have far larger exposures to cocoa flavanols. Tests showed that flavanol-residue concentrations in urine were six times as high in the islanders as in the mainlanders.

At the Cocoa Symposium, Hollenberg reported that dramatic long-term benefits may be attributable to the islanders' cocoa habit: Their death rate from heart disease is less than 8 percent of that in Kuna mainlanders, and cancer kills only 16 percent as many islanders. The two populations were matched for age, weight, and a number of other factors that might affect heart and cancer risks.

Hollenberg concludes that the Kuna epidemiological data, although preliminary, "indicate that a flavanol-rich diet may provide an extraordinary benefit in the reduction of the two deadliest diseases in today's world."

Pretty impressive. Unfortunately, it turns out that, while dark chocolate is in theory good for your heart and helps fight cancer, the manufacturing process tends to destroy the particular flavonoids that confer the benefits. Hopefully, now that they know this, Hersheys et al can figure out how to make a healthier chocolate that still tastes good.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:08 PM

February 26, 2006

The Fragility Of Science

Some sobering thoughts, and a warning to Daniel Dennett, from John Derbyshire:

Science is...a fragile thing, and might easily be lost. (The same applies to math. Readers of, ahem, my forthcoming book will learn about a key development in mathematical thinking that was discovered in ancient Alexandria, then lost, then rediscovered 1300 years later.) It is my belief in this fact that makes me so defensive of science, and so hostile to obscurantist thinking, under which heading I include both Left Creationists like Wieseltier and Right Creationists like the "intelligent design" crowd. They are playing with fire. So, by their absurd provocations, are the village atheists like Dennett. If we lose science (again?), we shall be plunged back into a world far less comfortable, far darker and crueller, than this one. If the LCs and the RCs join forces, they might just possibly bring on that world... if the Islamofascists don't beat them to it.

The natural tendency of human beings is to think religiously. Science and math are deeply unnatural activities, favored by only a scant few, who could easily be rounded up and dispatched by a mob of more normal human beings. Scientistic triumphalism of the Dennett variety is therefore foolish. An attitude of respectful humility by the more-scientifically inclined towards the more-religiously inclined is not only intellectually proper (at any rate to those of us non-Dennettians who think that religious belief is intellectually respectable, and that the reality of human nature should be faced honestly), it is prudent.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:46 PM
Not Fun Much Longer

At the end of an interesting article on the evolution of blondes, I found this:

Film star blondes such as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Sharon Stone and Scarlett Johansson are held up as ideals of feminine allure. However, the future of the blonde is uncertain.

A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.

Am I the only person who said "Huh?" upon reading this? I'd be interested to see the actual study, because it sure doesn't make much sense to me as reported.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:43 PM

February 24, 2006

Woody Guthrie, Call Your Office

A return of the dust bowl?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:50 AM

February 20, 2006

"Flock Of Dodos"

Carl Zimmer reviews what looks to be an interesting and important new documentary about the science/philosophy war in the biology classrooms, and has some guest thoughts from the director, who has some thoughts about science education

2) Attitude - “Never rise above.” It’s one of the simple principles we learned in acting class. Whenever you condescend (as perhaps I did in the above paragraph) you lose the sympathy of your audience. Plain and simple. When evolutionists call intelligent designers idiots, its fine among evolutionists, but for the broader, less informed audience, it just makes everyone side with the people being condescended towards. It’s a simple principle of mass communication. Furthermore, even though Stephen Jay Gould was my hero in graduate school nearly 30 years ago, today he is culturally irrelevant for undergraduates at the introductory level. His essays, which I cherished as an introductory student back then, are now unusable. My students at USC literally asked me to never assign them his essays again. They find his style and voice to be arrogant, elitist, condescending, verbose … the list goes on and on.

One of the things that I try (probably not always with success) to do on this blog is to educate people on the issues of evolution and ID without being condescending to the latter. It gets very difficult, though, because I often get the sense that the two groups are talking entirely past each other, because each thinks that it has a monopoly on the truth, when in reality (if there is such a thing) neither does.

And along those lines, while I love Daniel Dennett's books, he continues to do the same thing, and persists in the foolish "Bright" strategy. Leon Wieseltier isn't impressed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:40 PM

February 08, 2006

A Quantified Culture

James McCormick has a fascinating book review over at Albion's Seedlings, on how westerners think differently, because of our use of math and the scientific method. Sadly, it's a trait that we may be losing as a society, because we value it too little.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:33 AM

February 06, 2006

The Power Of Multiplication

Eugene Volokh has an interesting (and frightening) series of posts on the innumeracy of both the general population and the press. There are anecdotes that I'd like to think that aren't true, but fear that they are, about science students unable to do simple arithmetic. We've become much too dependent on "computing machines."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:58 PM

January 25, 2006

It's A Heinlein-o-Rama

Over at The Corner. Just keep scrolling up.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:53 PM

January 22, 2006

Don't Know Much About Geography

I'm reading Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and while it's entertaining, I was irritated early on by technical errors in it. In the discussion about the "beanstalk" (which I can only infer is a space elevator), the supposed physics professor explains that it's used so that that it's not necessary to "reach escape velocity" with a rocket to get to earth orbit. Of course, it's not necessary to reach escape velocity to get into orbit--in fact, it's not possible to do so. Escape velocity is the velocity necessary to leave orbit, and depart from the gravitational pull of the body you're orbiting altogether.

This one is forgiveable, though, and a common error. What really boggled my mind was the next one, in which he explained that the earth physicists didn't understand what "held it up."

Either Scalzi is appallingly ignorant of physics himself, or this is some future in which the people of earth have forgotten basic physics (though if that's the case, this is the only hint of it that I've seen in the book so far). The physics of space elevators is well understood. A space elevator is "held up" in exactly the same way that water is held inside a bucket being swung in circles on a rope--through inertia which appears as a centrifugal "force" in the rotating reference frame. The intergrated mass of the elevator times its centripital acceleration exceeds its weight if it extends sufficiently far beyond its natural orbital altitude (in this case, geostationary orbit, since it rotates with the earth once every twenty-four hours).

Scalzi has been compared to early Heinlein by many reviewers, but Heinlein always worked pretty hard to get his basic science right (which is one of the reasons that I liked to read him--it was entertainingly educational). It's disappointing that Scalzi doesn't seem to take the same care in his exposition, particularly since many may take his descriptions at face value.

[Update a few minutes later]

I discussed this topic more extensively last fall.

[Sunday night update]

When I was a kid, if I had a question about one of Bob Heinlein's books, it would remain a question. There was no place to discuss it, except with my (few) friends who'd also read the book. But now, I can read a book, I can make a comment on it, and the author himself shows up to clarify the issue in my comments section. Just how cool is that?

And I've no idea how he knew that I was whining about the book. I'd be both flattered and amazed to learn that he reads this blog daily, so I'm guessing that one of my other readers emailed him to tell him.

Of course, if you visit his bio section, and read the comments (including his), in addition to being a very imaginative and entertaining writer, Mr. Scalzi seems to be a genuinely good guy.

Anyway, don't consider this post a book review. It's just a comment that occurred to me shortly after beginning reading it. Other than what I wrote above (which may be just a consequence of misreading on my part, as noted in comments), I expect to enjoy it quite a bit.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:11 PM

January 13, 2006

Stop Global Warming

Cut down the rain forests:

Keppler and his colleagues discovered that living plants emit 10 to 100 times more methane than dead plants.

Scientists had previously thought that plants could only emit methane in the absence of oxygen.

David Lowe, of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, said the findings are startling and controversial.

"Keppler and colleagues' finding helps to account for observations from space of incredibly large plumes of methane above tropical forests," he said in a commentary on the research.

But the study also poses questions, such as how such a potentially large source of methane could have been overlooked...

Hey, I can answer that one--maybe because we haven't come up with a way to blame it on the rapacious, capitalist, resource-scarfing western world.

Seriously, it really is amazing, given that living animals definitely emit a lot more methane than dead ones (particularly after a Mexican meal).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:57 AM
A Feyn Man

In honor of the rerelease of some classic books, Cathy Seipp has some stories about a quirky genius.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:33 AM

January 11, 2006

Is ID Conservative?

I was going to comment on the post from Tom Bethell here, but Derb handles the situation well, and I'm busy as hell, what with NASA releasing their final CFI for CEV today (I'm working with one of the major subcontractors for one of the bidders on the proposal), which I have to read, pronto. Not being a conservative, I don't really have a dog in that particular fight, but I do find it amazing that so many people who call themselves conservatives are so profoundly anti-science, even if they don't realize it. It's certainly not a classical liberal (which is probably the best description of me) position.

But actually, I guess I do have a few more thoughts, or expansions on Derb's thoughts, regarding the flawed logic in the argument of the blind watchmaker.

William Paley's flawed argument has been refuted over and over again, and yet Tom Bethell repeats it. Here it is:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.

There are significant differences between watches and living creatures, that render this argument specious. If one examined a living creature, one would first discover that it is, in fact, living, and not a mechanical artifact that would wind down after time and cease to work, unless one wound it again, at which point it would be resurrected. The living creature reproduces, and its offspring, while resembling it, are not exact replicas. The watch would not reproduce, no matter in how much proximity one brought it to other watches, of whatever watch gender (if such a thing even existed and could be determined by examination). In other words, unlike the living organism, there are no obvious mechanisms by which a watch could possibly have descendants that were different from, and perhaps improved over, itself.

And there is a ready explanation for the watch that requires no invocation of supernatural powers--simply put, watchmakers exist. They are real, material beings, whose existence no serious rational person doubts, for whom the evidence of existence is in fact indisputable from a scientifically objective viewpoint, from whom one can procure watchmaking and watch repairing services.

Life in general, on the other hand, appeared long before man. Even biblical literalists admit to this--man (and woman) weren't created until the sixth day, after all the other beasts, over which they would have dominion.

The same argument applies to Tom Bethell's archeological artifact. The most natural explanation for an archeological artifact is that it was created by a human, because that is, as Derb points out, one of the fundamental precepts of archeology.

But that doesn't satisfy when explaining life, because in order to postulate life as designed, one must postulate a designer. In the case of the watch, it's easy--people done it, and there are plenty of people around to blame it on, and no one disputes the existence of people. Their existence is scientifically, indisputably provable.

But who is the designer for those things that came before people? If Behe et al want to pretend they're talking about space aliens, to avoid the issue of bringing religion into the classroom, then they have to also confess that they're only delaying the problem, because who then designed the space aliens?

It's not possible, ultimately, to talk about "intelligent design" without talking about a god of some kind, and once one does that, one leaves the realm of science which, like it or not, is the realm of materialism. Humans, being a form of life, are material beings themselves, capable of designing things, so artifacts requiring designers that were designed after humans came along are readily explained. The mystery is how life came to its diversity in the absence of humans, since humans came to the show pretty late. And once we resort to designers, we end our scientific inquiries, and simply yield to the same ignorance we had before the enlightenment.

The IDers (and creationists) may be right, but they're not being scientific. My predilection remains with the people who have given us the knowledge and technology that allow me to live a long, comfortable and healthy life, relative to the nasty, brutish and short one that prevailed prior to the scientific method.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:21 PM

January 07, 2006

They Still Don't Get It

Derb explains science to his fellow conservatives Tom Bethell and Peter Robinson (and no doubt many more, such as Hugh Hewitt):

Evolution is not the end term of a syllogism: it is an explanation for the observed variety of living species--an extremely successful and fruitful explanation. For 100 years and more, every new fact brought to light has conformed to the theory; none have contradicted it. Nor is any alternative theory in play. Nobody is doing science -- tackling problems, uncovering new facts, generating testable hypotheses, making predictions -- on the basis of any other theory. Nobody, nowhere...

...yes, material causes only are admitted in science, because science is the attempt to find material explanations for observed phenomena. Likewise, only hollow balls 2.5 inches in diameter are allowed in tennis, because tennis is a contest played with 2.5 inch diameter hollow balls. Whether other kinds of balls exist is a matter of opinion among tennis players and fans, I suppose; though if a player were to come on court and attempt to serve a basketball across the net, the rest of us would walk away in disgust.

Just so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:05 PM
Behind The Hype

A few days ago I posted on an article about how boy monkeys and girl monkeys have differing toy preferences. Cathy Young dug into the study a little deeper.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:46 AM

January 04, 2006

Year 21 A.D.?

Jay Manifold has some thoughts on potential different calendars.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:49 AM

December 30, 2005

Just In Case There Was Any Doubt

Boy monkeys like toy cars, and girl monkeys like dolls.

So much for the blank slate.

And though I have no time to crack wise on this subject, I give you the Freepers:

Nancy Hopkins is hunched over the toilet as we speak. Could someone out there please be a dear, and hold her hair for her?
Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:21 PM

Steven Milloy has the top ten junk science claims of the year. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Whelan has her own list on health reporting:

Kevin Trudeau's book on Natural Cures which argues that "medical science has absolutely, 100 percent failed in the curing and prevention of disease," and says that tap water can kill you and that organic food is our only hope — is one of 2005's best-selling advice books.

As long as our public educational system remains an overfunded, bureaucratized, managed-by-education-majors disaster, there will be a ready market for pseudoscientific nonsense.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:29 AM

December 29, 2005


Crichton, on complexity.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:34 AM

December 13, 2005

Just What We Need

Orthodox Jews are getting involved in the Intelligent Design debate. And in my own neighborhood.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:13 AM

December 08, 2005

An Archeological Find

In downtown New York:

Several historians and archaeologists interviewed about the find said they did not have enough information to compare its significance with other discoveries in Lower Manhattan. In 1979, the walls of the Lovelace Tavern, which was built in 1670, were found during excavation for the building at 85 Broad Street that now serves as the headquarters of Goldman Sachs. And in 1991, digging for a federal building a block north of City Hall turned up the African Burial Ground that dates from the early 1700's. In both cases, at least some of the remains were preserved.

A battery wall appears on maps from the 1760's, but some archaeologists said they have a hunch that this wall may predate that one by as much as 60 years. Some say the discovery of the coin near the base dates it to at least the 1740's. There is no way to tell for sure exactly how old the wall is, but the archaeologists want to study the material in and around it.

And it's holding up subway construction...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:21 AM

December 07, 2005

Crazy Love

Researchers have determined that schizophrenics have more sex. Or something like that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:52 PM

December 06, 2005

Damned "Fundies"

I'm wondering if this guy is faking a "hate crime".

A college professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled after he derided Christian conservatives said he was beaten by two men along a rural road early Monday.

University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki said the men referred to the class when they beat him on the head, shoulders and back with their fists, and possibly a metal object, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

It's not like it hasn't been done before, after all.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:37 AM

December 05, 2005

James Cameron, Call Your Office

He's going to have to redo the movie, if he wants to get it right.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:29 PM

December 04, 2005

The Non-Science Of "Intelligent Design"

Need I say more?

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

The article also claims that even evangelical colleges are getting disillusioned.

[Via (admitted conservative) John Derbyshire]

Blogger John Farrell has a suggestion for Dr. Behe.

[Monday morning update]

More thoughts on the sterility of Intelligent Design as science:

If we continue with Behe’s analogy, we might expect that the decades before 1965 would have seen big-bang proponents scolding their critics for ideological blindness, of having narrow, limited and inadequate concepts of science. Popular books would have appeared announcing the big-bang theory as a new paradigm, and efforts would have been made to get it into high school astronomy textbooks.

However, none of these things happened. In the decades before the big-bang theory achieved its widespread acceptance in the scientific community its proponents were not campaigning for public acceptance of the theory. They were developing the scientific foundations of theory, and many of them were quite tentative about their endorsements of the theory, awaiting confirmation...

...Unfortunately, the proponents of ID aren’t operating this way. Instead of doing science, they are writing popular books and op-eds. As a result, ID remains theoretically in the same scientific place it was when Phillip Johnson wrote Darwin on Trial — little more than a roster of evolutionary theory’s weakest links.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:36 AM

December 02, 2005

When Archeology Meets Politics

Has King David's palace been found?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:50 AM
In Defense Of Science

As usual (on this subject, that is), I agree with John Derbyshire:

Malraux (I think it was) said that there are two reasons to be a socialist: You may love the poor, or you may hate the rich. There are similarly two reasons to get worked up about I.D.: You may love science, or you may hate religion.

My entire and sole motivation in writing against I.D. has been love of, and reverence for, science, and indignation that people should claim a place for their theory at science's table when they have done no science whatsoever to back it up, and plainly have no intention of doing any, and when their fundamental premises are not merely unscientific, but willfully anti-scientific.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:47 AM

December 01, 2005

A Conceptual Breakthrough?

Alzheimer's may be a third form of diabetes.

"Insulin disappears early and dramatically in Alzheimer's disease. And many of the unexplained features of Alzheimer's, such as cell death and tangles in the brain, appear to be linked to abnormalities in insulin signaling. This demonstrates that the disease is most likely a neuroendocrine disorder, or another type of diabetes," says researcher Suzanne M. de la Monte, professor of pathology at Brown Medical School, in a news release.

If so, that might provide some clues to treating it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:14 PM
The Evidence Continues To Mount

<VOICE="Homer Simpson">Global warming. Is there anything it can't do?</VOICE>:

Some climate experts have said the potential cooling of Europe was paradoxically consistent with global warming caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping "greenhouse" emissions.

How long do we have to wait to fire up our SUVs? When the ice in Chicago is higher than the Sears Tower?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:43 AM

November 28, 2005

Good News On The Infection Front

Carl Zimmer writes about the discovery of powerful new antibiotics from frogs. The best thing about them is that they may be impervious to the development of resistance on the part of bacteria.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:42 AM

November 13, 2005


I'm watching (in the background) The Wizard of Oz. I just noticed that when the wizard hands out the diploma to the scarecrow to give him a brain, the scarecrow says (apparently as evidence of his newfound knowledge) that "...the sum of the squares of the sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square of the other one."

The problem being, of course, that it's not true, at least not in Euclidean geometry. Pythagoras' Theorem applies to right triangles, not isosceles triangles (triangles with two equal sides).

But then, perhaps the movie was making a subtle statement that having a diploma and spouting intelligent-sounding nonsense is all that constitutes smarts...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:38 PM

November 09, 2005

The Marketplace Of Bad Ideas

I wish that more people could be this honest.

(And yes, before you email or comment, I am aware that The Onion is satire, thanks.)

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:26 AM
Intelligent Design By Voters

Yesterday was kind of depressing, from an electoral standpoint, particularly in California, but there was one bright spot, for those who value science education.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:32 AM

November 08, 2005

Math Is Hard

And not just for Barbie. This article says that math problems are getting too big for our brains.

Well, that's one of the thing that transhumanism is for. This part bothers me, though:

Math has been the only sure form of knowledge since the ancient Greeks, 2,500 years ago.

You can't prove the sun will rise tomorrow, but you can prove two plus two equals four, always and everywhere.

This begs the definition of the words "knowledge" and "prove." Two plus two can be proven, I suppose (inductively from one plus one equals two), but only within the confines of the mathematics that you're using. It's not "sure" or "knowledge" in any absolute sense.

What they really mean is that some of the tougher mathematical problems are not amenable to classic deductive analytical proofs, but are more reliant on brute-force computations, possible now because we have machines that can perform them in a useful amount of time.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:32 AM

October 04, 2005

"The Scientific Method Can Transcend Politics"

Michael Crichton testified before the Senate last week on the politicization of scientific research.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:56 AM

September 30, 2005

From Ape To Man

Carl Zimmer has an interesting analogy for those who still don't understand evolution, and instead prefer to jump from "gap" to "gap."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:49 AM

September 15, 2005


An article in this week's Economist says that hurricanes are getting worse. It doesn't offer any particular support for the theory that this is a result of global warming, though. And the sample that it shows is only over the last third of a century, so it's entirely possible (and even likely, if one goes back further for data) that this is a periodic phenomenon, not a secular one. We're simply heading into a near-term period of increased activity. It's not a propitious time to own real estate near the Florida coast (as we do).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:18 PM

September 11, 2005

Getting Old Is Like Getting Drunk

Apparently, one loses one's verbal inhibitions as one ages.

If this isn't valid research, it oughtta be.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:48 PM
Speak For Yourself

Jake Gyllenhaal says that "...every man goes through a period of thinking they're attracted to another guy."

That's the problem with the homosexuality debate. Everyone takes their own sensibilities and projects them onto everyone else. For the record, I've never "gone through a period of thinking that I was attracted to another guy," so here's where Mr. Gyllenhaal's theory falls to the ground. Much of the debate over the innateness of sexual attraction occurs among people who are to some degree bisexual (which is why so many think it's a "choice," since for them it is, and so they assume it is for everyone). But for me, and pure homosexuals, it is clearly not.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:24 PM

September 08, 2005

Junk Science In The Classroom

Jay Manifold says we should teach the controversy. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne write that we shouldn't "teach both sides," because one side is wrong. Well, in terms of science, that's certainly the case. And here's an interesting essay by John Poulos, who wonders why many Christians can believe in spontaneous order in the free market, but not in biology:

And what's true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country.

The natural question... is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet?

The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself, a stunningly obvious example of spontaneously evolving order. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store...

[Both of the latter links via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:51 AM

August 30, 2005

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Well, OK, maybe not everything. But perhaps a third of it:

...a third of medical research articles published in major scientific journals and then cited over a thousand times in the literature are later contradicted or have major questions raised over them.

Remember this the next time you hear about a "scientific study," particularly about politically charged issues, such as global warming. As Iain points out, this is an important point:

We acknowledge that most studies published should be viewed as hypothesis-generating, rather than conclusive.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:34 AM

August 25, 2005

Taking His Name In Vain

At least one of the "four hundred scientists" that the Discovery Institute claims signed their petition against evolution says that he disagrees with it:

Davidson says he was seeking a place where people "believe in a Creator and also believe in science.

"I thought it was refreshing," he says.

Not anymore. He's concluded the institute is an affront to both science and religion.

"When I joined I didn't think they were about bashing evolution. It's pseudo-science, at best ... What they're doing is instigating a conflict between science and religion."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:54 AM

August 23, 2005

Recreating Art

Alan Boyle has an interesting story of forensic art history, with another demonstration of the power of the scientific method.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:23 AM

August 22, 2005

In The Womb?

Via Geekpress, here's a long but interesting article on the current state of research into the question of the origin of homosexuality. It's also an example of pretty good science reporting in the MSM.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:18 AM

August 19, 2005

A Simple Muddle

I haven't read the whole thing (it's twenty-thousand words) but Lee Harris has what looks to be an interesting essay over at TCS on evolution, ID, religion and beliefs in general with which, at least glancing through it, I suspect I'd largely agree.

[Update a few minutes later]

If you don't mind registering, or are registered, with The New Republic, and are (unlike me) a conservative, Russ Douthat writes about the danger of Intelligent Design to conservatives.

[Update at 11:30 AM EDT]

A commenter seems puzzled as to why I don't want to be labeled a "conservative." Well, simply put, it's because I don't think of myself as a conservative, though there are (as he points out) some "conservative" positions with which I agree. There are also many with which I strongly disagree. I don't just object to the "conservative" label--I object to single-word labels in general, because none of them very accurately describe me, and they constitute laziness on the part of the labeler and are often a substitute for a willingness to actually debate (e.g., see this more recent post). It's easier to call someone a "conservative" or (for that matter) a "conspiracy theorist" than it is to actually engage in a serious discussion of the issues (in which one might risk actually losing the argument).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:11 AM

August 08, 2005

More Intelligent Design Criticism

Cathy Young has a piece in today's Boston Globe in which she quotes yours truly. I'll probably have more on this subject later in the week, but this is my last day in California, and I've got a lot to do before I head back to FL tonight.

[Update on Wednesday morning]

David Adesnick says teach the controversy.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:16 PM

August 03, 2005

Thoughts On The Anti-Evolutionists

David Klinghoffer has a piece at National Review today in which he attempts (and fails, in my opinion) to make the case that conservatives should be opposed to Darwin, or at least open to doubting Darwinian evolution:

One prominent evolutionary psychologist, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, has written frankly about rivalry in academia, and the use of cutting rhetoric in the defense of established ideas: “Their champions are not always averse to helping the ideas along with tactics of verbal dominance, among them intimidation (‘Clearly…’), threat (‘It would be unscientific to…’), authority (‘As Popper showed…’), insult (‘This work lacks the necessary rigor for…’), and belittling (‘Few people today seriously believe that…’).”

I bring this up because Intelligent Design aggressively challenges the status of many professionals currently laboring in secular academia. And because one of the hallmarks of the defense of Darwinism is precisely the kind of rhetorical displays of intimidation, threat, authority, and insult that Pinker describes.

This is what I call the "Bozo the Clown" fallacy.

It often comes up on Usenet discussions, in which someone comes into a newsgroup with a wacky idea, and when it's immediately and appropriately shot down in flames, they whine "...well, they laughed at Galileo, and Einstein." To which the correct response is, inevitably, "...yeah, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

The fact that some weak arguments are defended by certain tactics doesn't logically imply that all arguments defended by those tactics are weak, and we can't draw any conclusions about the validity of arguments based on the tactics of those who hold to the propositions that are being defended. Psychoanalysis (even psychoanalysis employing evolutionary psychology, clever though the gambit is in this application) is not useful here. Just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes (as is the case with Intelligent Design) we say "clearly" because things are clear, and sometimes claims that an argument is unscientific are just claims about an unscientific argument. If David Klinghoffer is unable to understand why most scientists believe that ID is unscientific, then the solution is to better educate himself on the nature of both the theory of evolution and of the scientific method in general, instead of grasping at rhetorical straws, like the Bozos on Usenet.

Which brings us to the president, and his remarks yesterday (and I have to say that while I understand Glenn's concern, I tend to fall into the Goldstein camp myself).

Unlike many, I'm not particularly upset by them, as far as they go. While he may be sincere in his statements, I also think he's playing to his base (as he was when he said that he'd sign an assault weapons ban renewal if Congress passed one--an empty promise). I'd be more upset if he'd explicitly advocated that ID be taught as an alternate viewpoint in a science class, but he merely said "school."

I've noted before that while I think that ID is nonsense, I've no objection to it being taught in public schools, given that we're going to have public schools, as long as it's not taught as science. Given all of the other secular nonsense being taught in public schools (to the degree that anything is taught at all), such as how we're all going to die unless we give up our cars, the world is overpopulated and getting worse, that greedy businessmen are the cause of the world's problems, etc., it's hard for me to get very excited about a little religious nonsense being taught there, or even allowing prayers. Lord knows (if he exists) that there are worse things that children could be (and are) doing there.

My position has always been that it's the very concept of a one-size-fits-all public school system that is at the root of the problem, in which there will always be inevitable clashes between the state and parents of what they want their children to learn. I'd prefer that my children learn the scientific method, and I think that society would be better off if all children did, but I don't believe that society is well served by imposing that value on all of its citizens with involuntary tax dollars.

[Update on Wednesday evening]

Alan Boyle has a lot of good commentary, with comments from his readers.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:43 AM

July 13, 2005

The World's Oldest Profession

It apparently goes back further than mankind itself. The New York Times reports the first observed case of monkey prostitution:

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)
Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:51 PM

July 12, 2005

Don't Know Much About Biology

In discussing AIDS drug prices, Derek Lowe notes that:

I've known some pretty good Brazilian scientists, but the country isn't up to being able to discover and develop its own new ones. (Very few countries are; you can count them on your fingers.)

I'd never thought about this, but I imagine it's true. There's a reason that so many countries send students to the US (and the UK, and few other places) for their education. I recall a chapter in one of Feynman's autobiographies, in which he described the state of physics education in Brazilian universities. It was basically rote memorization, with no apparent comprehension of the actual meaning or applicability of the formulas. It would be interesting (and sad) if that remains the case.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:20 AM

July 10, 2005

New Venue For The Debate

Amy Wellborn has an interesting discussion about evolution and ID among Catholics (it's interesting because this is usually a fundamentalist Protestant issue). As usual, the same flawed and ignorant arguments about "lack of intermediate species in the fossil record" keep cropping up. I've probably already said all I have to say on this subject for now.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:31 PM

June 22, 2005

Do You Have To Be Psycho be successful in business? Here's an interesting article about your boss, the potential psychopath:

...cynics might say that it can be an advantage to lack a conscience. That's probably why major investors installed Dunlap as the CEO of Sunbeam: He had no qualms about decimating the workforce to impress Wall Street. One reason outside executives get brought into troubled companies is that they lack the emotional stake in either the enterprise or its people. It's easier for them to act callously and remorselessly, which is exactly what their backers want. The obvious danger of the new B-Scan test for psychopathic tendencies is that companies will hire or promote people with high scores rather than screen them out. Even Babiak, the test's codeveloper, says that while "a high score is a red flag, sometimes middle scores are okay. Perhaps you don't want the most honest and upfront salesman."
Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:57 PM
Another Shocker

Having org@sms relieves stress in women.

Who woulda thought? Where is Obvious Man when you really need him?

I'll bet there are millions of men sending this link to their wives and girlfriends as I type.

And yes, I am in fact trying to establish a reputation for this blog as all womens' org@sms, all the time. I mean, it can't be all space and dog rape.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here's an entertaining Free Republic thread about the article.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:15 AM

June 20, 2005

Imagine My Shock discover that women can fake org@sms. I found this part interesting:

When women genuinely achieved an org@sm, areas of the brain involved in fear and emotion were deactivated. Those areas stayed alert however when women were faking it.

The researchers also found that the cortex, which is linked with consciousness, is active during a fake org@sm but not during the real thing.

Sounds like fun research for all involved. You have to wonder, though, if some of the response is influenced by the experimenters. I'd think that it would be kind of hard for people to do what comes naturally when they know they're being observed. Sort of a variation on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

[Update on Monday evening]

At the risk of alienating a large (perhaps, even likely, intelligent) portion of my readership, I nonetheless feel compelled to ask, is this why blondes have more fun?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:39 AM
Brain Size Follow Up

I think that a lot of people misunderstood me in this post, judging by the comments.

I'm not claiming that brain size correlates perfectly with intelligence, and that size is the only factor of interest. Obviously, there's no reason to think that a non-human brain twice the size of a human brain would be expected to be smarter. My point was that for humans, with normal brain configuration, it's a reasonable assumption that a bigger brain is generally going to be smarter than a smaller one. There's just room for more brain stuff that constitutes smarts (and I don't think that transport speeds have much relevance, relative to numbers of neurons).

With regard to Gould, yes, I did read The Mismeasure of Man, and I also read between the lines. He was a dedicated Marxist, and the very notion that there could be a correlation between "race" (and yes, I know that this is an imprecise concept, and a social rather than biological construct) and intelligence would have been anathema to him, which was why it was so important to him to debunk it. I have no particular beliefs about whether or not whites are on average smarter than blacks, or vice versa, but I think that it's absurd to claim that it's impossible for there to be any gross correlation between intelligence and melanin content. Anything that's heritable will have variability in human populations, and anyone who doesn't think that IQ, however measured or defined, doesn't have a heritable component is indulging themselves in the blank slate fallacy.

Of course, the whole issue, while it may be of scientific interest, shouldn't be so societally controversial. So what if whites are dumber, on average, than blacks, or vice versa? We don't deal with average people--we do, or at least should, deal with individuals. It doesn't matter what group I come from if I have a high IQ, and am one of the people raising the average for that group. Such research cannot rationally be used to justify any particular social policy, at least any that's congruent with the Fourteenth Amendment.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:25 AM

June 18, 2005


Here's a research result that will be sure to shake up the academic community--people with bigger brains tend to be smarter than people with smaller brains.

While I guess there's some utility to quantifying the effect, what person with a reasonably sized brain would have thought otherwise? The effect may not be linear with brain volume, but it's almost mathematically provable that there would have to be a positive correlation. Does anyone imagine that a brain the size of a walnut could be as smart as one the average size of a human brain? To argue otherwise seems as spurious as the stubborn insistence by some (such as the late Stephen J. Gould) that there's no relationship whatsoever between "race" and IQ--it has to be driven more by political correctness than by logic.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:27 AM

June 14, 2005

Women Should Feel Lucky

...that they have org@sms. If they do. Because they don't need them, evolutionarily speaking.

That's the shorter version of what Lisa Lloyd says, anyway. In a cool new blog I discovered via Carl Zimmer, called Philosophy of Biology.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:48 AM

June 11, 2005

There's A Fungus Amungus

And it kills mosquitos. This could save the lives of millions.


Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:00 AM

June 03, 2005

New Hope

Jay Manifold has a story of a little girl and a telescope.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:30 AM

June 02, 2005

Save The Skeletons

John McCain is at it again. I'm frankly mystified at why he's in such a rush to close off scientific inquiry. Unless perhaps he's on the take from Indian casino money...

Maybe next year he'll sponsor a new law making it illegal to criticize sanctimonious Senators. Given their track record with his other anti-speech legislation, the Supreme Court would probably have no problem with it.

[Update at 12:20 PM EDT]

For those who, like the commenter, are wondering what this is all about, here's a good article describing the situation. And yes, a Google on "NAGPRA McCain" would provide many helpful links.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:18 AM

May 11, 2005

Where Is Their Luther?

Speaking of greening, Phil Bowermaster has a post on the potential reformation of the environmental movement.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:58 AM

May 05, 2005

Good News For Bill Clinton

They may have finally found a cure for herpes--licorice (sorry, subscription required). You can't just eat it, though--you have to mainline it:

Researchers at New York University ran lab tests on white blood cells, some of which were infected with the herpes virus. Exposing the infected cells to the licorice ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, shuts down LANA. That starts a chain reaction of biochemical changes in the white blood cells, leading to their suicide and the virus' death. The uninfected cells showed no detrimental effects from glycyrrhizic acid, the researchers report in the March Journal of Clinical Investigation.


Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:51 AM

May 03, 2005

Another Star Trek Perspective

Orson Scott Card says that we don't need Star Trek any more:

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.

Little of this seeped into the original "Star Trek." The later spinoffs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry's rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

That's the sense that I've always had as well, based on many encounters with Trekkers, few of whom seemed interested in real space activities, or reality in general.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:29 AM

April 25, 2005

Warning To Nancy Hopkins

Do not, repeat, do not read this article. If Larry Summers' comments cause fainting spells, this piece from those sexist pigs at that reactionary mag, Scientific American, will give you an aneurysm.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:21 AM

April 20, 2005


For some reason, I don't think that these people are taking the new government food pyramid seriously.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:24 PM

April 14, 2005

Save Frodo From John McCain

John Miller explains. Moira Breen (who will probably be the go-to gal on this subject) has more.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:06 AM

March 31, 2005

Encouraging Diet News

At least for me.

It's long been known that caloric restriction is one means of extending lifespan in lower mammals (e.g., lab rats) and presumably humans as well. It's a tough diet to maintain, though, since most who try it are perpetually hungry. Now there's evidence that most of the benefits can be attained by periodic fasting (alternate days), allowing a normal dietary intake, but at more irregular intervals.

It makes sense that, like many features of civilized (in the literal sense, meaning cities and civilization) lifestyles, regular meals are unhealthy for us, since our ancestors were probably more in a "go hungry until you can chase down the next mastodon, then feast" mode, and evolutionarily adapted to it. So we need to consider not just what we eat (more paleolithic foods, like meat, nuts, fruits and berries and less or no grain) but when we eat it as well, if we want to do what our bodies (are still) evolved to do.

This is good news for me because I'll often go long periods without eating, just because I get busy, and have no need for regularity to my meals. Unfortunately, many (particularly hypoglycemic types) start to feel bad if they go more than a few hours without food. Of course, it's possible that if they change their diets and habit, that they could get used to it as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:24 AM

March 10, 2005

Can't Get You Out Of My Mind

Alab Boyle reports that researchers are learning more about where earworms live, and how they work. Not enough yet to get rid of them, though.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:49 AM

March 02, 2005

Already Irretrievably Sliding Down The Slope

Stanley Kurtz is seemingly disturbed by trends in neuroscience:

So we ought to be “tweaking” the biological architecture of male and female brains? We are headed for dangerous times. The new interest in brain biology is a two edged sword. It has raised legitimate questions about social constructionist orthodoxy. Those questions ought to be debated. But the new brain biology is itself on shaky ground and should not be treated as an alternative orthodoxy, much less as a license to tamper with the human brain.

There's a new book on this and related subjects coming out soon, that I'm reading and will be reviewing when it does. The bottom line is that this work is going to progress, because some of it will be therapeutic, which is to say that it will fix things that all agree are broken, and such fixes will be (other than the potential implications) uncontroversial. The problems that Professor Kurtz and people like Bill McKibben and Leon Kass are going to have is that the line between therapy and enhancement is always going to be blurry, and their arguments against this particular medical progress will always appear arbitrary in light of past medical progress.

By what logic will they propose that neural implants that allow the blind to see are somehow beyond the pale, but that glasses or laser surgery are all right? And if such an implant can help someone with an IQ of 40 achieve some semblance of intellectual normality, why would that be wrong?

But once such capabilities become reality, it's only a matter of time before someone with normal IQ, or even higher than normal, will want to interface to a computer to enhance their memory. It may even be that some women, who are good at math but would like to be brilliant, will take advantage of the technology (i.e., "tampering with the human brain"). In many ways, of course, we already do this, albeit in a very crude manner, via monitor and keyboard. Where will they draw the line, and on what basis?

The title to this post implies that we are on a so-called slippery slope, and indeed we are. But part of the slippery-slope argument relies on the fact that there's something very bad, something to be avoided at all costs, at the bottom. But it's a slope that we've been sliding down since the first homo something or other picked up a rock and took down a prey with it, significantly enhancing the effective reach of her body, or since the first accountant figured out that by making marks on a tablet he didn't have to rely solely on his memory of a transaction. It may not be obvious, but those acts were the enhancing of the human body and mind via technology, and they're no different in kind than "tampering with the human brain," whether via drinking a cup of java, or in-serting stem cells to regrow neurons in Alzheimer's patients.

The bottom of the slope may very well be a post-human future, but it should be one for individuals to decide, not governments. If Stanley wants to argue the ethics of this, that's a reasonable thing to do, and I encourage him to evangelize to as many as he can of his position, so they can make more informed ethical choices as to which procedures to use as the technology continues to develop. I get frightened, though, when such arguments start to spill over into discussions of public policy, and passing laws against treatments that may save, extend, and enhance human life, however the meaning of that phrase continues to evolve in the future as it has since we first became human.

[Update about 11:40 AM EST]

I have one more question for Professor Kurtz, given his concerns about gay marriage. Suppose we find that there is something different about the brains of gay men and women (a proposition for which there's already abundant and growing evidence). If we can come up with an affordable, painless therapy that "fixes" this and converts them from "gay" to "straight," should we a) allow them to take advantage of it, or b) forbid them from doing so, or c) require them to? And should "straight" (i.e., exclusively heterosexual) people be allowed to become gay, or bi?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 AM

February 28, 2005

But Do They Ask For Directions?

This is interesting (and no doubt confounding to those who continue to deny that homosexuality is inborn). Gay men tend to read maps more like women.

Gay men employ the same strategies for navigating as women - using landmarks to find their way around - a new study suggests.

But they also use the strategies typically used by straight men, such as using compass directions and distances. In contrast, gay women read maps just like straight women, reveals the study of 80 heterosexual and homosexual men and women.

Don't tell the faculty at Harvard--Nancy Hopkins might have to hie to her fainting couch again.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:49 AM

February 21, 2005

Is There Anything They Can't Do?*

The Simpsons, that is. Here's an article about using the show for the instruction of higher math. And here's the unofficial Simpsons episode index for math references.

[Via The Corner]

* Reference is to the episode in which Homer asks the same question about donuts.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:55 AM

February 15, 2005

Half Educated?

Chad Orzel has a couple interesting posts about the relative value of literacy versus numeracy in both society and the academy.

...I do think there is an imbalance here, and it bothers me. If a student were to come in and say "You know, I just can't handle literature classes. I'm no good at reading, and I'm not comfortable with it, so I don't want to take any English classes," most faculty would think that there's something wrong with that person. And yet, I hear functionally equivalent statements about math every time I bring this subject up. Bright people will say "I think science is really neat, but I just can't handle math," and see nothing wrong with that.

If a student professed a distaste for reading as frankly as some express their distaste for math, we'd think that they were intellectually stunted. Illiteracy is a sign of a learning disability, while innumeracy is shrugged off as just one of those things.

I do think that one could argue that in fact much of critical theory in literature is unadulterated crap. Does anyone think that it would be as easy (or even possible) for an English major to hoax a physics paper as it was for Alan Sokal to mock postmodernists? Clearly Sokal understood much more about the literary theories (to the slight degree that they're not nonsense) than any of the humanity professors will ever know about physics--at least enough to pull the wool over their eyes.

What's dismaying to me is that for many, it's not only acceptable to have no ability at math, but many take perverse pride in it, and are often rewarded both in academia and in life.

[via Derek Lowe, who has additional commentary.]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:02 AM

February 14, 2005

The Core Of The Issue

In the midst of deconstructing Michael Behe's latest channeling of Bishop Paley, Ron Bailey agrees with moi about the Intelligent Design controversy (not surprisingly), and identifies the real problem:

It is not the role of public schools to confirm the religious beliefs of their students. Parents who want their children to benefit from the latest findings of science would reasonably be irked if evolutionary biology were expunged from the public school curriculum. There is another way around this conundrum. Get rid of public schools. Give parents vouchers and let them choose the schools to which to send their children. Fundamentalists can send their kids to schools that teach that the earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Science geeks can send their kids to technoschools that teach them how to splice genes to make purple mice. This proposal lowers political and social conflict, and eventually those made fitter in the struggle for life by better education will win.

My comment was:

if science is a religion (in the sense of a belief system, which I think it is), then is it a legitimate subject for public schools? As I've said previously, this is largely a symptom of a much larger problem--the fact that we have public schools, in which the "public" will always be at loggerheads about what subjects should be taught and how. But given the utility of learning science (something that I employ every day, whenever I troubleshoot my computer network, or figure out what kinds of foods are good or bad for me), I think that it is an important subject to which everyone should be exposed. But if I were teaching evolution, I would offer it as the scientific explanation for how life on earth developed, not a "fact" or "the truth."

The problem arises when some scientists, blind to their own faith and its tenets, come to believe that their beliefs represent Truth, and that those who disagree are fools and slack-jawed yokels. And with that, I come full circle in once again agreeing with Hugh that the media does a disservice to the debate when it doesn't respect the beliefs of those who feel that their children are being indoctrinated away from their faith.

We will never resolve this conflict as long as so many continue to insist on a "one-size-fits-all" school system.

[Update a few minutes later]

Along those lines, here's a pretty scary story (though not a new one, to anyone who's been paying attention), or at least it should be for parents with kids in public schools:

According to benchmarks for middle school education, the top objective for the district's math teachers is to teach "respect for human differences." The objective is for students to "live out the system-wide core value of 'respect for human differences' by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors."

Priority No. 2 is where the basics come in, which is "problem solving and representation — students will build new mathematical knowledge as they use a variety of techniques to investigate and represent solutions to problems."

..."The 'antiracist' and, actually, 'anti-American' curriculum permeates the school environment," Lillian Benson, whose children, ages 8 and 11, attend the district's schools, told in an e-mail.

"My children do not know Christopher Columbus, except that he was a racist who caused the death of many innocents or the founders of the nation. They have hardly heard of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln even though we live in the area that began it all. What they do know about is the wonders of Ghana, Mexico and China," she said.

Another parent, Julie Agarkov says it's ridiculous that people living in the community pay top dollar so their kids can attend good public schools, yet she still pays to send her son to the Boston area's Russian School of Mathematics "to ensure that he gets a good math education."

Bold face on "math teachers" is mine.

The piece has some good quotes from Joanne Jacobs as well.
A few years ago, when a friend had a child, and was soliciting opinions on whether to send him to a public school, my advice was not to, because he'd not only end up homeschooling him anyway, to teach him the things that he wasn't learning, but he'd also have to waste additional time unteaching him much of the pernicious nonsense he would have accumulated by wasting his several hours a day at school.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:16 AM

February 09, 2005


[Warning: Extreme Political Incorrectness Ahead!]

Here's an interesting article that says that human tribes without words for numbers larger than very small numbers (e.g., one) have trouble counting:

Some argue that--at least until recently--the Pirahă haven't needed a counting system. Because they don't trade with the outside world, they can simply indicate by gesture that they would like to exchange, for example, this basket of nuts for that chicken. Cultures with more elaborate trade systems--especially those that use currency--require the ability to label specific quantities, notes Gordon.

As a result, the tasks Gordon gave the Pirahă people in his Science study may have seemed alien to them. In one typical test, the researcher set out a group of one to 10 nuts and asked each participant to place an equal number of batteries--used because of their availability and size--on the table. The participants performed perfectly when matching sets of up to three batteries, but at four batteries the accuracy rate dropped to about 75 percent, and by nine none of the Pirahă got the right answer...

...the example of the Pirahă tribe shows that language may have more sway over numerical concepts than many previously imagined.

..."The lack of number-words seems to preclude the ability to entertain concepts of exact number," Gordon says. "There may be other ways to learn and represent exact numbers, but in the normal course of human learning, language is the route we take."


First, let's deal with the (politically hyperincorrect) notion that this is a tribe that's genetically incapable of dealing not only with higher math, but basic arithmetic.

It's possible, and to determine that, one would have to take a few offspring of the tribe, and raise them in a culture in which they were taught mathematics, and see if it took.

I think it unlikely--they're probably fully sapient--but that gets us on to my more serious politically incorrect take on this.

We've been told for years by the politically correct that "ebonics" or "black English" is as legitimate a form of the language as standard English, and that black children shouldn't be penalized for using it (even though such usage could cripple them in the potential range of employment and social opportunities in which they might otherwise engage). That it had its own grammar, but was just as useful a language, with the ability to express just as complex concepts, as the norm.

Well, maybe. But consider this thesis, based on the article cited.

If the grammar (and vocabulary) of a language can restrict the ability to deal with mathematical concepts, isn't it possible that an inner-city patois is similarly unable to allow the mind to grasp concepts that are necessary for life in a highly technological society?

What I have in mind is specifically the construction, "I ain't got no [fill in the blank]" or "I ain't got none."

Any rational breakdown of these phrases would indicate that they are a double negative (the word "ain't" presumably being "I have not"). There's nothing wrong with the word "ain't" in this analysis, though it's somewhat crude, but its meaning in this construction is important. If one were to interpret the phrase literally, accepting the meaning stated of the contraction "ain't," it would mean "I have not got no whatever," which is a double negative. Having none of nothing means that one has something. In the specific case, saying that "I have not got no bananas," would literally mean that I do in fact have a non-zero quantity of oblong, pointy-ended tropical fruit with a yellow skin and sweet starchy interior. That in fact, his statement meant the exact opposite of what he was attempting to convey. If one wanted to express the opposite--to wit, that one had none of said tropical fruit--one would say that "I have no bananas," with the singular negative descriptor.

Now, I know that everyone knows that when one says it the ebonics way that the meaning is intended to be that yes, he has no bananas, he has no bananas today.

But still.

This may sound pedantic, but the concept of a double negative is a vital one in the instruction of algebra (a pre-cursor for calculus, the gateway to higher mathematics). If you said to a fluent ebonics speaker (who was unfamiliar with standard English) "What is the product of negative two and negative two"? would it be:

a) easier
b) harder

to convey the notion that the answer was a positive four?

Just askin'

[/Extreme Political Correctness]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:24 PM

February 08, 2005

The ID Wars Rage On

John Derbyshire has been fighting the good fight over at The Corner. He describes why I'm always hesitant to get into this subject, and why the battles never end over at Free Republic:

I like a good knock-down argument as much as the next person, but I must say, ID-ers are low-grade opponents, at least if a bulk of my e-mails are any indication. They are still banging away with the arguments I first heard when the whole thing first surfaced 10-15 yrs ago. "What use is half an eye?" "The odds against this are a trillion to one!" etc. etc. There is nothing new here. I understand why biologists get angry and frustrated with ID-ers. All the ID arguments have been patiently refuted many times over. The ID-ers response is to come back with... the same arguments.

Derbyshire co-blogger Jonah has some thoughts as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:33 AM

January 24, 2005

Suicidal Canadians

If this story is right, they have helped seal their doom by signing Kyoto:

At the peak of the last ice age, which began 70,000 years ago, 97% of Canada was covered by ice.

The research showed that without the human contribution to global warming, Baffin Island would today be in a condition of "incipient glaciation".

"Portions of Labrador and Hudson Bay would also have moved very close to such a state had greenhouse gas concentrations followed natural trends," said the scientists.

The experiment had probably underestimated the amount of ice that would exist today in north-east Canada without human interference, they said.

I don't know whether this is true or not, but particularly in light of the broken hockey stick, I find it just as plausible as the hysteria coming from the global warming types. And if it is right, apparently we aren't doing enough to stave off the return of the glaciers.

Time to go out and fire up the ol' SUV.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:37 AM
A Victory For Political Correctness

All the mau-mauing by the faint-hearted women scientists and feminists has compelled Larry Summers to back down from his perfectly reasonable speculation on one of the causes of the numerical disparity between men and women in the professions of science and math. Too bad.

I hoped that he would say something like the following: "I'm sorry that my remarks were so misinterpreted by so many who should be more capable of calm, rational analysis. I hope that they'll go back and read them again. I also regret that this incident has shown so many in academia to be antithetical to the spirit of debate and free inquiry. Perhaps, though, this can be a lesson for us all, and used as a basis to discuss the broader issues of how dissenting speech has been shut down on campuses all over the nation."

Alas, it was not to be. Sadly, he basically retracted instead. I hope that when he left the press conference, he at least muttered, under his breath, "E pur si muove..."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:10 AM

January 21, 2005

Works For Me

I'll be that a lot of mothers, wives and girlfriends are going to be emailed copies of this story:

"We know that mites can only survive by taking in water from the atmosphere using small glands on the outside of their body.

"Something as simple as leaving a bed unmade during the day can remove moisture from the sheets and mattress so the mites will dehydrate and eventually die."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:48 AM

January 19, 2005

More Crushing Of Dissent

Errrr...except that the dissenter is getting his story out in the Washington Post. I'm always amused by these major newspaper stories about the brave dissenters who think that they're being oppressed, and that the public isn't getting the "truth."

But the article contains a couple of key nuggets:

"I'm strictly trying to understand the Earth as a planet," said Hansen, who started his career studying the clouds around Venus but switched in 1978 to climate modeling.

Great. Go for it. But what makes you think that renders you a policy expert, particularly on matters that affect the national and global economy?

John Marburger, the president's Science Advisor is quite pithy on this point:

"I take his work seriously. His work has had a big impact on this administration's climate-change policy," Marburger said. "But he's not an economist. The fact that he's a good scientist does not necessarily make him the best person to formulate policy that would affect the economy."

That's what most people in the policy debate miss. Kyoto and CO2 reduction enthusiasts complain that the people making the decisions don't understand the science. But what makes them experts on all the other aspects of policy that would be affected by their nostrums?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:05 PM
Having Trouble With The Concept

I haven't said anything about the latest flap with Larry Summers, but Steven Pinker says it all:

First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is—every one of Summers’ critics has misunderstood it. The hypothesis is, first, that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical—that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal [sic] differences were innate...

...CRIMSON: Were President Summers’ remarks within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?

PINKER: Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa...

...the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.

I should note that this is a similar argument to that aroused by The Bell Curve. To say that a group of people has an average characteristic tells us absolutely nothing about how we should treat individual members of that group, and to think that it does is to fundamentally fail basic tests of ability to reason.

I found most of the Crimson's questions clueless and inane, and it's clear that Professor Pinker did as well. And Professor Hopkins, who got the vapors at hearing things that (irrationally) upset her, should be embarrassed to call herself a scientist.

Jonah Goldberg isn't impressed, either.

[Update in the evening]

Jane Galt has further thoughts.

[Thursday morning update]

Virginia Postrel weighs in:

The flap over Larry Summers' bravely analytical comments on why women might be scarce at the top of math and science scholarship demonstrates that political correctness is alive and well and, even more depressing, that a remarkable number of scientifically talented women are incapable of understanding plain English or the difference between general statistical patterns and individual data points. It's been a long time since female scientists did so much to advance the stereotype of women as hysterically incapable of rational analysis.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:53 AM

January 09, 2005

Et Tu, David?

I hate to resurrect the ID debate just when it's finally dying down, but in a disappointing column from the usually smart David Warren, he makes the following false assertion:

"Evolutionism" is the prevailing speculation, that by minute alterations in traits, in continuing response to environmental pressures, an isolated group within a species "evolves" to the point where its members can breed with each other but no longer with others, and -- presto! -- you have a new species. But the "presto" has never been observed in nature, and there is a universal paucity of transitional forms. The speculation may even seem plausible, but remains an act of faith. It isn't science, because it isn't falsifiable: there is no way to test if it might be wrong.

There are many ways in which to test if if might be wrong, and so far it passes all tests (DNA relationships, location in strata, etc.)--I'm aware of none in which it's failed (e.g., the classical pre-Cambrian rabbit). To say that there are no transitional forms is not only false, but meaningless, because all forms (other than perhaps ourselves, since we now control our own evolution) are transitional forms.

I really have no idea where he came up with this, and I don't have time to go into this in depth right now, but these assertions are just flat out wrong.

[Update on Monday morning]

While a comment in this post doesn't necessarily apply to David Warren, and it wasn't made in this post, I thought I'd respond here to keep it near the top of the page. Cathy Young (of Reason fame) asks:

Why on earth would you take seriously, and bother to respond to, the comments of someone who states upfront that he believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?

I respect religion, and I don't think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ's resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any "respect" when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence? It's worth noting that all this talk about the need to respect even irrational beliefs is limited to beliefs that (1) have the cachet of tradition and (2) are shared by a large number of the population. No one is asking for respect for believers in astrology. Nor would any conservatives feel compelled to show "respect" for the opinions of radical environmentalists who argued the recent tsunamis were caused by Mother Earth's anger at pollution and global warming.

I'm not sure what "take seriously" or "respect" mean in the context of this discussion. If by that you mean that they're a legitimate point of view that I have to consider to be possible, I do that only in the limited postmodernist, Goedelian sense that anything is possible, and that there's ultimately no way to prove the tenets of science. It doesn't mean that I would spend any amount of time wondering whether or not I should change my opinions on them. But the problem arises in the statement "...I don't think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ's resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any "respect" when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence?"

The problem with proving and disproving things is that proof and disproof is relevant only to people who use those as tools to attain knowledge, or consider the scientific method to have value. I'm certainly one of the latter, as (presumably) Cathy is, but if you think that knowledge comes from a divinely inspired book, then proofs and disproofs are beside the point, and there's no way to prove them wrong, even to someone who believes in proofs, but certainly not to them. The scientific method only works for people who believe in it. It can only be claimed to be "better" in the context of its own beliefs (e.g., materialism).

She makes a good point that the degree of respect afforded to a point of view seems to be function of the number of adherents to it (it's been noted that there's little difference between a cult and a major religion except the number of believers). That's not a rational point of view from the standpoint of evaluating the belief system, but it is one from the standpoint of not involving oneself in religious wars that may be unwinnable because one is outnumbered. And of course, the West and the enlightenment are in fact at war with one of the world's largest religions, at least in its most extreme form, many of whose beliefs (e.g., misogynism, indivisibility of church and state, intolerance of other religions), are in fact intolerable to us. Intolerance is the one thing that our modern society apparently won't tolerate (unless it's intolerance of Christians and Israel), and I suppose that makes sense when it comes in as extreme a form as Wahhabism.

I'm not sure that I have an entirely satisfactory answer for her, other than to recognize the practicality that a large number of good people do feel their faith threatened by some of the teachings of science (particularly when many of its practitioners and evangelists, such as Richard Dawkins, are so vehemently and needlessly anti-religious). I would hope that my view represents a reasonable compromise--that people of faith are entitled to believe whatever they wish, as long as they don't impose it in a science classroom, and in turn, scientists should be less dogmatic about their own views as representing reality, rather than simply being the consequence of a belief in objectivity and materialism.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:12 PM

December 29, 2004

More On ID

Well, as I feared, I did set off a debate about Intelligent Design, which wasn't my intent, but was inevitable (unless I allowed no comments on the post). Hugh hopes that I'll respond to this post.

As I said, I've discussed this in depth previously, and I suspect that Professor Reynolds (John Mark, not Glenn) is reading some things into my comments that I don't intend.

I understand that this is not a science discussion, but a science (and philosophy) metadiscussion. That is, a discussion about how to discuss it.

I (unlike many scientists and evolutionists) recognize that science is a philosophy in itself, and one that is faith based. I don't know if anyone followed my link to my previous discussions on this topic, but it would have been helpful if they had. Particularly if they continued to follow the links back to this post and this one.

For instance, I wrote:

The problem with creation theories is not that they're inconsistent with the evidence--they are totally consistent, tautologically so, as Eugene [Volokh] says. The problem is that they tell us nothing useful from a scientific standpoint. In fact, there are an infinite number of theories that fit any given set of facts. I can speculate not only that all was created, but that it was created (complete with our memories of it) a minute ago, or two minutes ago. Or an hour ago. Or yesterday. Or the day before. Or, as some would have it, 6000+ years ago. Each is a different theory (though they all fall into a class of theories) that fit the observable facts. They are all equally possible, and all (other than some form of naturalistic evolution) untestable.

And furthermore, they offer no hope of making predictions for the future. After all, if a creator can whimsically create a universe in whatever manner he wishes, including evidence that he didn't do it, how can we know what he'll choose tomorrow? Orrin Judd likes to make much of the fact that many evolutionary psychologists believe that free will is an illusion, but if that's the case in a naturalistic world, how much more so must it be with a whimsical creator, who can not only make us as he chooses, but unmake, and remake us on the same basis, whenever he chooses?

Of course, the argument to that is that the scriptures say that God grants us free will, which may be true, but once again, it isn't science...

...I have faith in the scientific method, but I can't prove it's the best way to achieve knowledge to anyone who doesn't. Unlike many who believe that the scientific method is the correct one, I admit that this belief is based on faith.

To me, the argument of evolution versus...well, other unspecified (and unscientific) explanations is not about true and false--it is just about science versus non-science. If I were to teach evolution in a school, I would state it not as "this is what happened," but rather, "this is what scientists believe happened."

In other words, I don't want to indoctrinate people what to believe--I just want to make sure that when they take a science class, that they're getting science, and not a religion dressed up as science. Whether they want to accept science is up to them...

...Unfortunately, the debate can tend to degenerate quickly, on both sides. Many creationists view evolutionists as godless propagandists, with the agenda of poisoning the minds of their children against their faith. Some evolutionists (particularly devout atheists), don't recognize that their own belief system is faith based, and believe that it really is an issue of right versus wrong.

I don't believe that people who believe in creationism are stupid, or mad--they just have a different belief system. The only thing that I object to (and justifiably frustrates people like [biologist] Paul Orwin) is when they try to argue the issue, when they clearly don't understand evolution, and don't want to take the time to learn about it (other than, perhaps, wrongly, from creationist screeds). This isn't a matter of intelligence or sanity, but ignorance (which can fortunately be readily cured).

If one is going to critique a scientific theory, it is only polite to become educated on it (which means reading the works of its proponents--not just strawmen written by its opponents). Otherwise, it's a waste of everyone's time, by asking questions that have been answered many times, and often long ago.

With regard to my statement that science is a philosophy that rests on faith, I wrote the following:

Belief in the scientific method is faith, in the sense that there are a number of unprovable axioms that must be accepted:

1) There is an objective reality
2) It obeys universal laws
3) Its nature can be revealed by asking questions of it in the form of experiments
4) The simplest explanation that fits the facts is the one that should be preferred

There are other tenets, but these are the main ones.

I'm not saying that Professor Reynolds is ignorant of evolution, and I apologize for simply snipping so much old stuff rather than responding directly with new prose, but it's frustrating to rewrite things I've written in the past, and it's important for him to understand that I am not arguing the truth of his or my beliefs--I am only arguing about what the name of the class in which they are taught should be.

He claims that the boundary between science and non-science is not the clear bright line that I claim it to be. He also claims that not all scientists are Popperians.

Perhaps. I can only speak to my own view of what constitutes the scientific method, which I believe (notwithstanding my heresy about it relying on faith in the form of unprovable axioms) is reasonably mainstream among practicing scientists.

My own gripe about science education in this country is that it's not taught as a philosophy of how to attain knowledge, but rather it's simply taught as a compendium of "facts" that must be learned. Given that it starts out with this fundamental misunderstanding (promulgated, unfortunately, by many incompetent science teachers), it's not surprising that many take umbrage at the teaching of "facts" that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.

So if science is a religion (in the sense of a belief system, which I think it is), then is it a legitimate subject for public schools? As I've said previously, this is largely a symptom of a much larger problem--the fact that we have public schools, in which the "public" will always be at loggerheads about what subjects should be taught and how. But given the utility of learning science (something that I employ every day, whenever I troubleshoot my computer network, or figure out what kinds of foods are good or bad for me), I think that it is an important subject to which everyone should be exposed. But if I were teaching evolution, I would offer it as the scientific explanation for how life on earth developed, not a "fact" or "the truth."

The problem arises when some scientists, blind to their own faith and its tenets, come to believe that their beliefs represent Truth, and that those who disagree are fools and slack-jawed yokels. And with that, I come full circle in once again agreeing with Hugh that the media does a disservice to the debate when it doesn't respect the beliefs of those who feel that their children are being indoctrinated away from their faith.

[8:15 PM EST update]

In response to Carl's comment (see comments), I'll republish a post from early in this blog's life, almost three years ago:

Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that's who pays for it--not, in a manner similar to National "Public" Radio, because it's necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like "The National Science Quiz."

It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, "How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?"

I threw something (it's been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I'm sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.

"This is not science!" I yelled at it, ineffectually. "Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it's the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it's why very few people understand anything about science!"

Science is not a compendium of "facts." Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That's why I get upset when someone says that "evolution is a fact." Not just because it's untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.

Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that's what is implied by the "science quiz" described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).

When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.


Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of "facts," (which I couldn't manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don't consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity--perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.

What's my point?

Learning physics wasn't about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That's what all science should be about.

But instead science, when it's taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don't understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it's generally taught, is pure drudgery. It's little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.

It's also little wonder that the phrase, "it's only a theory" has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is "only a theory," then it's not a fact, and we need not believe it.

So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks--to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a "fact," or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.

Of course testing theory against empirical data is crucial to understanding how the process works, but my concern is that the system is out of balance. If Carl believes that it's currently all theory, that's clearly as wrong as it being all fact (and given the educational system and educational degrees in general, I suspect that much of the "theory" being taught is wrong as well).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:49 AM

December 27, 2004

The IDers Rear Their Heads Again

Hugh Hewitt discourses on the introduction of ID in the public schools, alongside evolution. At the risk of setting off another evolution debate here, while his point about the MSM making ID defenders out to be gap-toothed sibling-marrying Bible thumpers is well taken, he's quite mistaken on the general policy issue. He's viewing this through the eyes of a lawyer, but that's not how science works:

My limited expertise is not with the interaction of ID and evolutionary theory, though it seems to me quite obvious that the hardest admission to wring from a evolutionist enthusiast is that while even conclusive proof of evolution wouldn't deny the existence of God, no such proof has yet been offered.

Of course no such proof has been offered. Proof of the validity of the theory (and there's nothing about that word that should shake our confidence in evolution or any other scientific theory) of evolution does not, and cannot, exist. And that's true not only for evolution, but for gravity, quantum chromodynamics, and any scientific theory that one wants to consider. Proving that theories are correct simply isn't how science works.

How science works is by putting forth theories that are disprovable, not ones that are provable. When all other theories have been disproven, those still standing are the ones adopted by most scientists. ID is not a scientific theory, because it fails the test of being disprovable (or to be more precise, non-falsifiable), right out of the box. If Hugh doesn't believe this, then let him postulate an experiment that one could perform, even in thought, that would show it to be false. ID simply says, "I'm not smart enough to figure out how this structure could evolve, therefore there must have been a designer." That's not science--it's simply an invocation of a deus ex machina, whether its proponents are willing to admit it or not. And it doesn't belong in a science classroom, except as an example of what's not science.

I've made my position on this subject quite clear in the past. ID, and creationism in general should be able to be taught in the public schools. Just not in a science class--they need to be reserved for a class in comparative religions. Of course, I don't think that public schools should even exist, but that's an entirely different subject.

The point is that ID isn't science--it's a copout on science and the scientific method, and as I said in my post a couple years ago, creationists attempting to get their views into science class, whether explicitly as the 6000-year-old solution or dressed up as science, as in ID, is a failure of their own personal faith in their own beliefs. They seem to think that if science doesn't validate their faith, then their faith is somehow thereby weakened, and that they must fight for its acceptance in that realm.

But that's nonsense. Faith is faith. It by definition requires a suspension of disbelief. If their faith hasn't the strength to withstand science, then they should reexamine their faith, not attempt (one hopes in futility) to bring down a different belief system that is entirely orthogonal to it.

[Update at midnight eastern time]

Hugh responds:

I do believe in Intelligent Design --in Christianity, actually-- but the point of my posts yesterday was not to wade into those battles, but to underscore the Washington Post's lousy reporting on the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania.

That's, of course, beside the point. I already agreed with him about the abysmal nature of the reportage on this issue. But whether or not he believes in ID isn't the issue. The ultimate issue is what should be taught in science classes (regardless of whether the school is public or private). I'd be interested in his thoughts on that, in light of the discussion here.

I'd particularly like to see his thoughts on it considering that he's essentially admitted that ID is tantamount to Christianity, which, last time I checked, was not a branch of science...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:27 PM

December 19, 2004

Circumstantial Theories

Ann Coulter has an amusing column in which she shreds Bob Shrum, the architect of perennial losing demagogic political campaigns, and Mark Geragos. Like her, I'm amazed that the guy can even get clients, let alone charge them millions of dollars, given his record. The only winning case of his that I can think of is Susan McDougal vs. the Mehtas.

But she makes an interesting point that many people don't understand:

...even Geragos and Sherman would never sneeringly dismiss evidence in a murder trial as "circumstantial evidence." Only nonlawyers who imagine they are learning about law from "Court TV" think "circumstantial evidence" means "paltry evidence." After leaping for the channel clicker for six months whenever the name "Scott Peterson" wafted from the television (on the grounds that in a country of 300 million people, some men will kill their wives), I offer this as my sole contribution to the endless national discussion.

In a murder case, all evidence of guilt other than eyewitness testimony is "circumstantial." Inasmuch as most murders do not occur at Grand Central Terminal during rush hour, it is not an uncommon occurrence to have murder convictions based entirely on circumstantial evidence. DNA evidence is "circumstantial evidence." Fingerprints are "circumstantial evidence." An eyewitness account of the perpetrator fleeing the scene of a stabbing with a bloody knife is "circumstantial evidence." Please stop referring to "circumstantial evidence" as if it doesn't count. There's a name for people who take a dim view of circumstantial evidence because they don't understand the concept of circumstantial evidence: They're called "O.J. jurors."

It occured to me as I read this that "circumstantial evidence" is to the legal world what "theory" is to the scientific. The most reliable evidence, far more than eyewitness testimony, is circumstantial, and theories are the stuff that science is made of, but one would never know that to hear them denigrated by creationists. In fact, the evolution debate is a perfect example of exactly what Coulter is describing here, in which the circumstantial evidence for evolution via natural selection is overwhelming, but much of the nation are OJ jurors, because no one has caught a dog in the act of having kittens.

Just as few murders occur, as she says, during rush hour in Grand Central, the vast majority of the fossil record is lost to us as well (though there's enough to see "transition species," since all species are transition species). But since that's only "circumstantial evidence" of something that's only a "theory," it's unlikely that we will ever find enough evidence to satisfy people who don't even understand how science works, or want to. And in light of that, here is a brave and admirable man.

Colling... finds a place for God in evolution by positing a “random designer” who harnesses the laws of nature he created. “What the designer designed is the random-design process,” or Darwinian evolution, Colling says. “God devised these natural laws and uses evolution to accomplish his goals.” God is not in there with a divine screwdriver and spare parts every time a new species or a biological structure appears.

Unlike those who see evolution as an assault on faith, Colling finds it strengthens his own. “A God who can harness the laws of randomness and chaos, and create beauty and wonder and all of these marvelous structures, is a lot more creative than fundamentalists give him credit for,” he said. Creating the laws of physics and chemistry that, over eons, coaxed life from non-living molecules is something he finds as awe inspiring as the idea that God instantly and supernaturally created life from nonlife.

Though I'm a skeptic when it comes to God, I find it more so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:53 AM

December 17, 2004

Good Riddance

The Kyoto Treaty is effectively dead.

The conventional wisdom that it's the United States against the rest of the world in climate change diplomacy has been turned on its head. Instead it turns out that it is the Europeans who are isolated. China, India, and most of the rest of the developing countries have joined forces with the United States to completely reject the idea of future binding GHG emission limits. At the conference here in Buenos Aires, Italy shocked its fellow European Union members when it called for an end to the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. These countries recognize that stringent emission limits would be huge barriers to their economic growth and future development.

Another myth about "enlightened and progressive Europe, leading the world" falls.

Read this, too:

...climate scepticism is gaining ground in Western Europe. It is even becoming respectable. Many organisations, often cum websites, provide ample information about the views of the climate sceptics, thus breaking the de facto information monopoly of the pro-Kyoto scientists belonging to the 'established climate science community'.

Good. Now maybe we can have a rational discussion about politically and economically realistic solutions.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:33 AM

December 13, 2004

No Imagination

This is an interesting breakthrough in organ preservation--wood frogs that freeze solid in the winter, and then thaw without apparent damage in the spring. They're attempting to apply it to donor organs.

Scientists say they don't see any immediate potential for putting an entire human body in a science fiction-style deep freeze...

Well, it seems like a significant step in that direction to me.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:40 AM

November 24, 2004

More On Stealth Killer Comets

Jay Manifold says we're still being too complacent. This is one of the stronger arguments for becoming a true space-faring civilization as soon as possible, to my mind.

He also links to this collection of textbook disclaimers, which seems to be pretty popular on blogdex right now:

This textbook suggests that the earth is spherical. The shape of the earth is a controversial topic, and not all people accept the theory. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:14 AM
A Must-Read On Exploration James Cameron, who is guest-editing a special issue of Wired this month.

As we mourned the Columbia astronauts, they were frequently referred to in media as "explorers." The real tragedy of that accident is that they were not explorers. They were boldly going where hundreds had gone before. They were researchers working in a lab that happened to be in orbit. Did their research have value? Of course, but only in the sense that all science has value. Was it worth the price they paid? Not by a light-year. Did they die in vain? Only if we don't learn and take to heart a lesson - not that foam can peel off the external tank and damage the reinforced carbon leading edge of the wing, or even that NASA culture needs to change. But that even after four decades of technical progress, travel to and from space is inherently dangerous, so only go there for a good reason.

In my mind, there is only one reason good enough, and that's exploration. That means going somewhere, not in circles. But actually going somewhere, like the moon or Mars, is considered too risky and expensive. Those high school touchdowns scored by Neil and Buzz and the others are trophies that have been gathering dust, but we still fantasize that we are the same team we were then. The reality is that we have become risk averse, willing to coast on the momentum of past accomplishments. If we study the problem, build tools and systems, and so on for the next 50 years, we can jolly ourselves along that we are still those clever Americans who put a man on the moon back when was that again?

If the next step is to send humans to Mars, then we must reexamine our culture of averting risk and assigning blame. We don't need any miracle breakthroughs in technology. The techniques are well understood. Sure, it takes money, but distributed over time it doesn't require any more than we're spending now. What is lacking is the will, the mandate, and the sense of purpose.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:33 AM

November 04, 2004

Bush's Science Policies

Ron Bailey has a rational discussion of them, and a well-deserved slap at scientists who fancy themselves policy makers:

...a word of unsolicited advice to scientists who want to play in the public policy arena. Facts by themselves do not immediately entail the adoption of particular policies. Many of the scientific "facts" cited by activists arise from contested epidemiological data and controversial computer models. For example, if humanity is significantly warming the planet, it is entirely possible that the best policy is to encourage rapid technological progress and economic growth so that any problems caused by such warming can be dealt with more effectively and fairly in the future. And how does one make the trade-off between possibly harming a few species of birds through the use of DDT, and using the insecticide to prevent the deaths of millions of people each year from malaria? These are political decisions. Suggestive scientific data certainly help guide our decisions, but they do not mandate any particular policies—not even those championed by the most brilliant researchers.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:47 AM
Mmmmmm, Brains...

Mouse brains, that is. This may be a major medical breakthrough. Phil Bowermaster has the story. He also has some thoughts about post-election civility and blogging.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:24 AM

October 27, 2004

Stealth Killer Comets

There may be more of them out there than we know:

With about 1 percent of incoming comets ending up on relatively short-period Earth-crossing orbits, it is expected that several thousand dormant comets could be currently posing a potential threat to our planet.

Recent surveys of the Earth's immediate vicinity should have turned up some 400 such objects, whereas only a handful have so far been found.

The researchers dismiss the current belief that all the "missing" comets have disintegrated into meteor streams. If this had happened, they argue, then we should be seeing a far greater number of meteor showers and a much brighter zodiacal cloud than is observed.

They propose instead that the majority of these comets have become exceedingly black, with such low surface reflectivities that they could not be observed against the blackness of space by optical means.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:09 AM

October 26, 2004

Dumb Science

Orson Scott Card isn't impressed by the Kerry campaign's science policy or politics.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:26 AM

October 13, 2004

A New Strategy

I wrote recently about the evolution of cooperation, and its implications for Iraq and the Middle East. I noted that the winning strategy in an iterated prisoner's dilemma game was "Tit for Tat."

Now I discover that on the twentieth anniversary of the original computer tournament, a new, even better strategy has been discovered.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:25 AM

October 12, 2004

A Clash Of Religions

Jay Manifold has a long, but interesting series of posts on a recent seminar on evolution versus "intelligent design" in Kansas.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:42 AM

October 11, 2004

Science At Risk

Moira Breen is trying to get the word out about a bill that could be disastrous for American archaeology and anthropology.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:17 AM

September 27, 2004

Freedom Of Research

I think that this is a good thing, for the same reason that Ramesh (presumably?) thinks it bad--because if true, it provides constitutional protection for cloning.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:26 AM

September 17, 2004

The Evolution Of Democracy

Twenty years ago, a political science professor at the University of Michigan came out with a seminal book titled the Evolution of Cooperation.

In it, he described how cooperative strategies could have evolutionary-beneficial consequences, and thus be selected for. In particular, via a series of computer game tournaments in which algorithms were submitted to play an extended iterated prisoner's dilemma, he identified a strategy that was the most successful called "Tit for Tat" (TFT). (Read the link for information as to how the game works.)

In this strategy, you retain a memory of past interactions with other entities, and you treat them exactly as they treated you the last time you dealt with them. If they cooperated the last time, you cooperate. If they defected on you the last time, you defect on them the next. If it's your first interaction, you cooperate.

The strategy has four characteristics that made it successful. It's simple and can be clearly and easily recognized after a brief period of time, it's forgiving, it's provocable and retributive (so that you can't get away with screwing it), and it's nice (that is, it never screws anyone for no reason--its default is to cooperate). In essence, it is cooperative, and is rewarded for being that way.

One of the interesting things about it is that the more similar algorithms it has to deal with, the better it does. Put in an environment of non-cooperators, it has a much harder time, but it can still be more successful than them, and if it has a few others to cooperate with, it can survive even in a sea of non-cooperators.

Non-cooperators, on the other hand, don't do well in a cooperative society. A non-nice strategy (one that always, or occasionally, or randomly defects unprovoked) won't do well in a world of TFTs, because after the first time they get screwed by it, they will not cooperate with it again, at least until it changes its ways. So while it gets a big payoff the first time, it gets a much smaller one in subsequent exhanges, whereas the TFTs interacting with each other always get the medium benefit.

Thus, it's possible for a small group of cooperators to "colonize" a larger group of non-cooperators, and eventually take it over, whereas a group of non-cooperators invading a larger group of cooperators will not thrive, and will eventually die out. This is the basis for Axelrod's (and others') claim that there is evolutionary pressure for cooperation to evolve.

This may hold the key to fixing Iraq, and ultimately the Middle East. While there's a lot of bad news coming from that country right now, the fact remains that much of it is calm and at peace--that part doesn't make the news. It may be that nationwide elections won't be possible in January, but certainly it should be for some regions (particularly the Kurdish region).

The Jihadists and ex-Ba'athists are determined to prevent a democracy from forming there, but if such can be established in large areas, it will provide an unnurturing environment for them there. Then we can gradually expand them, and tighten the noose around the Fallujahs over time. What we have to pay attention to is not the level of violence, but over how widespread a region it is. As more and more of the country becomes not only pacified, but wealthier, with a stake in continued peace and freedom, we can continue to shrink the territory in which the terrorists, the ultimate non-cooperators, can survive, and eventually kill them or starve them out.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:52 PM

September 09, 2004

Really Bad Timing

For my move to Florida, if this article is correct.

Scientists say we are in a period of enhanced hurricane activity that could last for decades, ending a 24-year period of below average activity. They also say the law of averages has caught up with Florida, with a change in atmospheric steering currents turning the state into a hurricane magnet.


Ivan probably won't be the last storm to have us in its boresight this year.

It makes me start to wonder how big, or how many nukes it would take to disrupt these damned things, or if that's even feasible (ignoring, of course, the radiation issues)?

[Update a minute or so later]

As if they didn't have enough to deal with, with a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on them, the Caymans and Jamaica just had a Richter 6 earthquake.

I, of course, blame George Bush.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:01 AM

August 15, 2004

Rogue Waves

ESA (the European one, not the Elbonian one) has some satellite data that validates sailors' reports of
ship-killing waves.

Mariners who survived similar encounters have had remarkable stories to tell. In February 1995 the cruiser liner Queen Elizabeth II met a 29-metre high rogue wave during a hurricane in the North Atlantic that Captain Ronald Warwick described as "a great wall of water… it looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover."

And within the week between February and March 2001 two hardened tourist cruisers – the Bremen and the Caledonian Star – had their bridge windows smashed by 30-metre rogue waves in the South Atlantic, the former ship left drifting without navigation or propulsion for a period of two hours...

..."The same phenomenon could have sunk many less lucky vessels: two large ships sink every week on average, but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to 'bad weather'..."

...The fact that rogue waves actually take place relatively frequently had major safety and economic implications, since current ships and offshore platforms are built to withstand maximum wave heights of only 15 metres.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:38 PM

August 02, 2004

Uncertainty, Global Warming, and public policy

Another item in the latest Industrial Physicist is a piece on understanding the uncertainties in global warming models, and the public policy implications of those uncertainties. It's well worth a read if you care about global warming in particular or science and public policy in general.

One of the hardest things about ensuring that public policy is based on sound science is that sound science inherently involves uncertainties. Politicians like yes or no answers, but science only gives really reliable answers in the very long term, far longer than the relevant political timescales. In order to make policy based on sound science, politicians have to take uncertainty into account, and allow for the possibility that the policies may need to be adjusted as new information becomes available.

Posted by Andrew Case at 02:41 PM

July 28, 2004

Kerry Clean-Suit Flap Exposes Media Bias Against “Nerds”

America needs a "Million Nerd March" on Washington.

John Kerry is now a victim of an old prejudice that no civil rights organization has ever been willing to address. Kerry was totally unaware of this old prejudice when he arrived at Kennedy Space Center last Monday for a town hall meeting at Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Space Coast. He got a rude awakening in the wake of that visit.

The image of Presidential candidate Kerry crawling through the Space Shuttle hatch in a NASA clean suit or “bunny suit” has been received with wild laughter by television commentators and some newspapers across the nation. That picture was splattered across many a tabloid front page in juxtaposition with an old image of actor-director Woody Allen wearing a similar suit from one of his old comedy satire films.

I think the real geeks here are the reporters and pundits who associate everything technical or scientific with comical nerdiness. A lot of folks who don't possess a clear grasp of science or technology have a disturbing tendency to ridicule others who work in those areas. When some reporters and editors saw Kerry wearing the uniform of a clean-area worker, they gleefully seized the opportunity to attack Kerry as a geek or nerd. A similarly unfair, but less pervasive response to President Bush wearing a flight suit came when he hopped out of the plane on that aircraft carrier last year. We just aren't used to seeing these drab politicians in the specialty garb of certain professions.

John Kerry is a longtime opponent of the exploration of space exploration by astronauts and onboard scientists. His Senate voting record reflects his desire to reduce America’s human space exploration effort. Regardless of his record, NASA had nothing but good intentions in mind for Senator Kerry during his visit. One of the best ways to win over an opponent to space exploration is to keep the dialog going and inviting that opponent to taste a bit of the experience.

Too many of our fellow human beings go through daily life without ever looking up or forward. Politicians tend to be highly tuned into their immediate surroundings and happenings. An effective space exploration advocate needs to understand how narrow the world of politics is. It is very important to invite people like John Kerry inside places like KSC and to give them an opportunity to both see and share the space vision through real experiences and not just lofty words about the high frontier.

I am appalled by the journalistic response to these images of Kerry. Space exploration advocacy today is not received much better than it was in the 1920s when American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard was ridiculed as the "Moon Man" by the New York Times. Legendary talk show host Johnny Carson got a lot of mileage out of mimicry of the late space scientist and commentator Carl Sagan.

Hollywood is particularly cruel toward scientists and people in lab coats. Scientists and engineers are stereotyped no less than the Mexicans and Black Americans were in old movies and television programs. Movies like THE RIGHT STUFF and MARS ATTACKS! both took deadly aim at "rocket scientists."

There is no National Association for the Advancement of Scientists and Engineers to speak up for the targets of derision and ridicule. Thankfully, the real damage done to the cause of truth and science by these stereotypes may not really be that bad. Opinion polls indicate that the majority of Americans support a robust space program. Many in the general public, including scientists and technologists, also get a kick out of most of these comic stereotypes. The major downside of creating the geek stereotype is that it may discourage some of our brightest and most creative students to avoid studies and careers in science when they see how people of science are portrayed in the news and entertainment productions.

Ultimately, the Kerry photos are fair game for the press and comedians. The "Town Hall" meeting part of the KSC visit was a typically contrived campaign event. I hope that Kerry will return to KSC one day and insist on meeting with the real KSC people--the technicians, the firemen, the welders, the midlevel managers and the working engineers. I would also like to know if there was a single Republican or Green Party supporter allowed to join the "audience."

Posted by Jim McDade at 08:05 AM

July 27, 2004


Ron Reagan (who wouldn't have this platform if his last name wasn't Reagan) just made a speech in which one would never know that embryonic research is perfectly legal in this country. I was also struck by this sophistry this morning listening to NPR, when they talked about "restrictions" on such research under the Bush Administration. I don't agree with the President's policy, but this is no more "restricting" such research than not funding artists by the NEA is "censorship."

The policy is that no federal funds will go to such research, not that it is forbidden. But if they told the truth about that, they probably wouldn't get the political pull that they hope to, and overthrow the evil Bush administration, that ostensibly forbids research that might have saved Ron's dad (not).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:34 PM

July 09, 2004

I Am Quite Disturbed the thought that commenter "Brian" from this post teaches undergraduates.

Scroll down a ways, and be amazed.

[Update a few minutes later]

I should add, that there's another howler there:

Regarding Newton's second law of motion, F=ma is just fine for all physics short of things traveling greater than 0.95 the speed of light, or quantum effects.

He's apparently confused, thinking that I'm referring to Einstein's Special Relativity version of Newton's Second Law, in which rest mass is converted to true mass via the factor gamma, which is a function of velocity, or F = dp/dt where p = m*v, or in the Einsteinian version, p = gamma*m*v.

Gamma is a function of velocity. It's 1/(1-v^2/c^2)^1/2 (or in words, it's the inverse of the square root of one minus the ratio of velocity squared over the speed of light squared). For low velocities, it's one divided by the square root of one minus a tiny number, or simply one, so at low velocities, mass equals mass. But for high velocities, you're starting to divide one by a very tiny number (as the difference between 1 and velocity squared over c squared becomes infinitesimal), so gamma blows up to be a huge number. That's why mass approaches infinity as its speed approaches that of light.

As I pointed out in the other thread, in the Newtonian case it is simple to take the derivative:

F = dp/dt = d(mv)/dt = m*dv/dt + v*dm/dt. But dv/dt is acceleration, so we get:

F = ma + v*dm/dt.

The Einsteinian case is a much more complicated derivative, because it's a much more complicated function of velocity. But it's not relevant, since we're not talking about near-light speeds. The fact remains that Newton's Second Law is F = ma + v*dm/dt. The only reason that we always see it as the more simple (and incorrect) F = ma, is that this is a special case in which the mass is constant (the derivative of a constant is zero, and the second term goes away). This is the case for most physics problems, but it certainly isn't for rocketry, in which the vehicle is ejecting mass (that's what makes it go).

Anyway, as I said, it's very disturbing that this person is teaching anyone, let alone undergrads.

[Update at noon Eastern]

Professor Hall, who does teach undergrads as well as grads (and I'm glad of it), expands on his comment via email:

I think Brian's a bit of a putz in his comments. However, he's right about F=ma and F=dp/dt. Derivation of the rocket equation is a little tricky to work out, as you say. However, the chain rule does not lead to the correct equation.

In the 2nd law,

F = dp/dt

F is the sum of all applied forces, and p=mv is the linear momentum of the particle of mass m.

If you apply the chain rule to this equation, you get

F = m dv/dt + v dm/dt

as you noted.

However, in order for the chain rule to make any sense here, the two v's must be the same v. What v is it?

If it's the velocity of the particle, then this equation can't apply to a rocket, since it couldn't lift off the ground. On the ground, v is zero, and initially dv/dt is zero, so F is zero. If F is zero, the linear momentum cannot change, so v remains zero.

If it's the velocity of the mass leaving the rocket, then initially F = v*dm/dt, which is essentially correct. However, the v in the dv/dt term is clearly not the velocity of the mass leaving the rocket. It's supposed to be the velocity of the rocket.

The correct derivation of the rocket thrust equation uses a control volume approach, which is essentially a summation of Newton's 2nd law over a continuum of particles of different velocities (the rocket and the propellant clearly have different velocities).

This leads to the following vector equation for rocket motion

F + ve dm/dt - vehat A (Pe-Pa) = ma

The terms on the left comprise the sum of all external forces acting on the

F includes all the forces such as gravity, drag, ....

The term ve dm/dt is the thrust due to the rocket, where ve is the exhaust velocity and dm/dt is the mass flow rate (negative number, since m is the mass of the rocket, which is decreasing). The vehat A (Pe-Pa) term is the pressure force. Vehat is a unit vector in the direction of ve, Pe is the exhaust pressure, and Pa is the atmospheric pressure.

I'll just add that a) I'm glad that at least some of my readers and commenters are smarter than me and b) while I didn't say that the chain rule led to the rocket equation, I did imply it, and that was a mistake, and c) I had known that at one time, but it's been a long time.

And we are in agreement that Brian is a putz.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:58 AM

July 05, 2004

Suspending Too Much Disbelief

John Derbyshire, contrarian that he is, didn't like Spiderman II.

Even comic-book movies must obey certain unities. In the realm of science fiction -- and c/b movies are a species, even if a low one, of science fiction -- the golden rule is: You can have one highly implausible bit of science. The rest of the science should be sound, or at least should follow logically from the central implausibility. THE TIME MACHINE is a great sci-fi novel because, once you have granted the central, fairly preposterous, premise that time travel is possible, everything else is just basic Darwinism and stellar evolution, as it was understood at the time.

The central notion in SPIDERMAN is that if you get bitten by a spider whose genes have been messed about with in a certain way, you will develop the ability to shoot 100-ft silk threads from your wrists (without, apparently, any loss of body mass). This is preposterous -- though not at a sensationally high level, as spider genes can be messed around with in an infinity of ways, and we don't actually know what would happen if you were bitten by a spider whose genes had been messed around with in way No. 29,485,672.

Having been persuaded to suspend our disbelief with respect to Spidey's powers, we should not then be asked to swallow any more preposterosities. And we know perfectly well what whould happen if you dumped a fusion reaction into the East River -- ka-BOOM.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I intend to, and won't let this curmudgeonly review put me off of it, though I actually agree with the principle. That was one of the things that bothered me about the first movie. Once you tell me he's been bitten by a radioactive spider, then fine, I'll buy the superpowers on the part of Spidey. I'll even accept the notion that, as Derbyshire points out, he doesn't have to conserve mass.

But Mary Jane has no superpowers, yet she performs a superfeat near the end of the movie, when she falls off the cable that's being flung around (face it, she wouldn't have been able to hang on to it that long without her arms being torn off), and then catches the side of the cable car as she falls some distance toward it.

Sorry, just Not.Gonna.Happen. It defies physics and the strength, both muscular and structural, of a normal human body, even one pumped on adrenalin. I enjoyed the movie up to that point, but that bit really bugged me, because there was no good reason for it--it could have been just as exciting while being realistic.

And of course, there's the other thing that bothered me about the movie--the ending.

Parker was under no obligation to keep Harry in the dark about his father's end. Just because he was requested to, he didn't agree to the request, and he did himself and Harry a disservice by allowing Harry to continue to live on in a fantasy world about his father's true nature, a world that's likely to cause him to attempt to kill Parker's alter ego (and hence Parker) in the future.

At a minimum, he should have at least pointed out to Harry that the fact that Spiderman returned his father's body to his home didn't mean that Spiderman was the killer. He might not have accepted it, but there would have been no harm in exercising a little logic on him, even if he wanted to spare him the knowledge that his father was a murderer (though again, I think that was no favor).

Also, he's not protecting MJ by not reciprocating her love. The key is to keep his identity a secret (though not from her). I found it highly unsatisfactory, but apparently it was more important to them to set up some dubious sequel plot than to employ logic, or ethics.

I guess that SF movies will never get made right until they hire me as a script advisor. And listen.

[Update on Tuesday]

For those endlessly or otherwise fascinated by bad movie physics, check out this site (including a review of Spidey I). It says The Core (which I haven't seen, and probably won't) takes the prize for the worst movie ever in this regard.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:14 AM

June 13, 2004

Black Irish?

Archaelogists have discovered evidence that some people in the borderlands of England may be descended from Moors from northern Africa, Roman soldiers brought over to guard Hadrian's wall. One more interesting ingredient to the mix of Picts, Saxons et al.

Also a little ironic, considering that many of these people are the so-called Scots-Irish who settled much of Appalachia and the American south, with its slavery and anti-miscegany laws.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:38 PM

May 26, 2004

The Sky Was Falling

It turns out that, for the expedition that lost so many people on Everest eight years ago, Chicken Little was right.

An analysis of weather patterns in May 1996 suggests the mountaineers died when the stratosphere sank to the level of the summit, 29,000ft above sea level.

The freak weather caused pressure and oxygen levels to plunge within the "death zone" - the area above 26,000ft where the oxygen is extremely thin.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:07 PM

May 19, 2004

The Excluded Middle

As anyone who reads Andrew Sullivan knows, John Derbyshire is probably the most (what Andrew (and other gays) call) "homophobic" writer at National Review.

Apparently, in response to a post yesterday about the genetic origins of homosexuality, he got an email from a (vociferously non-conservative) supposed expert in the field, who wrote:

...if it were a genetic disease defense, it would have a certain very simple and identifiable inheritance pattern, and it certainly does not have that pattern. Identical twins would both have it, but the chance that a homosexual man's identical twin is also homosexual is only about 20%.

I have a theory about the genetic basis of human sexual orientation, that I never hear anyone discuss, but to me makes perfect sense, and fits the facts (including the one quoted above, assuming that it is indeed a fact). I discuss it here, and in comments to this post.

Simply put, some are born homosexual, some (probably more) are born bisexual, and most are born heterosexual. For the first and third groups, their sexuality is indeed thrust upon them. to speak.

If that's true, then the twin studies might actually provide some insight into the relative genetic component, assuming they're separated twins. If two separated twins (the cite above doesn't indicate whether they were separated or not) turn out to both be homosexual, that to me is a good indicator of homosexuality with either a genetic basis, or uterine environmental basis, or both. Of course, the only way to truly determine the genetic basis may be to allow human cloning...

In any event, it seems to me that my theory would dictate that the cases in which one twin is homosexual, and the other not, are cases in which both were born bisexual, and for various post partum environmental reasons, made different choices as to partners. It also explains why some homosexuals can be "cured," and others can't. The ones who can be were never homosexual in the first place--they always had a choice and simply decided to start choosing differently.

Long story short, this "expert's" provision of this "fact" (and I'm pretty sure I've seen different numbers) has little relevance to the debate, unless you really do have the simplistic viewpoint that all people are either purely homosexual, or heterosexual, with nothing in between.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:10 PM

October 20, 2003

They Don't Have A Choice

Via Vodkapundit, here's an article with more confirmation that sexuality and gender are hardwired from birth.

I suspect that the conservative blank slaters will remain in denial, but the fact remains that the only ones who truly have a choice are those born, to one degree or another, bisexual. I certainly don't now have, and never have had, in living memory, a choice.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:01 AM

October 13, 2003

Toppling Dietary Gods

Rear-guard defenders of the food pyramid and conventional nutrition have always claimed that the only thing that matters about diet is the caloric intake, and that protein/carb ratio is irrelevant. Now there's been a scientific study that proves them wrong.

"A lot of our assumptions about a calorie is a calorie are being challenged," said Marlene Schwartz of Yale. "As scientists, we need to be open-minded."

Others, though, found the data hard to swallow.

"It doesn't make sense, does it?" said Barbara Rolls of Pennsylvania State University. "It violates the laws of thermodynamics. No one has ever found any miraculous metabolic effects."

Well, sorry, Barbara, apparently someone just did.

It doesn't violate laws of thermodynamics at all. It only violates the conventional wisdom of folks like you, whose nostrums have been keeping people unhealthy for decades.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:23 PM

September 08, 2003

The New Totalitarianism

As you may have noticed, I'm back (in San Bruno, not LA, to which I won't be back until Thursday). In addition to fighting off small procyonidae and wondering at the pacific Pacific, I read a little over half of The Blank Slate, by Pinker. This is a brilliant book, and a very important one, which I can't recommend highly enough, not just to people interested in evolution, or anthropology, or evolutionary psychology, but most importantly to those interested in sociology and political science. Its scope is broad, and it covers a number of topics of current political strife in the context of the bizarre and mistaken, but common notion (at least on many college campuses) that human beings truly are a "tabula rasa," a product purely of their environment, and that human nature doesn't exist.

I'll probably be referring to it quite a bit in future posts, but I wanted to note this bit from page 157 of the edition that I have (paperback).

The ideological connection between Marxist socialism and National Socialism is not fanciful. Hitler read Marx carefully while living in Munich in 1913, and may have picked up from him the fateful postulate that the two ideologies would share. It is the belief that history is a preordained succession of conflicts between groups of people and that improvement in the human condition can come only from the victory of one group over the others. For the Nazis the groups were races; for the Marxists they were classes. For the Nazis the conflict was Social Darwinism; for the Marxists, it was class struggle.For the Nazis the destined victors were the Aryans; for the Marxists, they were the proletariat. The ideologies, once implemented, led to atrocities in a few steps: struggle (often a euphemism for violence) is inevitable and beneficial; certain groups of people (the non-Aryan races or the bourgeoisie) are morally inferior; improvements in human welfare depend on their subjugation or elimination. Aside from supplying a direct justification for violent conflict, the ideology of intergroup struggles ignites a nasty feature of human social psychology; the tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups and to treat the out-groups as less than human. It doesn't matter whether the groups are defined by their biology or by their history. Psychologists have found that they can create instant intergroup hostility by sorting people on just about any pretext, including the flip of the coin.

The enemy with which we are now confronted easily slips into the same mold (not surprising, since they have long allied themselves with both groups--the Nazis during WW II and the Soviets in the Cold War).

For the Islamacists the groups are religions, the conflict is jihad and a restoration of the Caliphate, the morally inferior people are the kufr and infidels, and the destined victors are, of course, them. Like the Nazis and Soviets, their movement arose from failed states of once-proud people (Weimar Germany for the Nazis, Czarist Russian in the wake of the Great War for the Soviets, and the lost Arab civilization after their defeat in Europe and the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, followed by European colonization).

The only difference (and its significance is primarily that it will make it easier to defeat them) is their almost total lack of any industrial infrastructure, or ability to build one. At least in the case of the Nazis and Soviets, task one was to rebuild the ability to wage war. The Islamists choose instead to use our own weapons, and their own people as cannon (and daisy-cutter, and bullet) fodder. Whether because this is an inability to develop their own capabilities, or a disinterest isn't clear, but as Pinker later shows, it could be the former--it is, in its current state, truly a failed culture.

As an example, later in the book (again, the application to the Middle East is mine, not Pinker's) he points out four modes of human transactions (as earlier described by the anthropologist Alan Fiske):

The latter requires a much more sophisticated knowledge of economics, and complex institutions such as monetary systems, futures markets, written enforceable contracts, credit, and interest (that is, the recognition that not only time is money, but that money held over a period of time is additional money). It also overturns the intuitive notion (to which Marx fell prey) of the labor theory of value, and indeed the very notion of objective, unchanging value (on which the Equality Matching mode is fundamentally dependent).

The Arabs and Muslims have a problem. Their economies are based on a combination of Community Sharing (among clans) and Authority Ranking (of which Saddam Hussein's regime was an exemplar). Further, their religion, to all extents and purposes, makes market pricing illegal, because the Koran prohibits the collection of interest, thus not recognizing the time value of money. It's impossible to run a market economy without allowing interest (and, in fact, recognizing this, some Arab states have come up with elaborate schemes to collect it without admitting that they are).

Of course, the Bible has strictures on usury (or interest). In fact, for that reason, only Jews were allowed to be bankers throughout much of history, and the fact that they were perceived to be earning money by using the funds of honest Christians contributed to the historical enmity against them. But few in the post-reformation West take the Bible literally on this particular score (though it survives in the form of some states' anti-usury laws, which restrict interest rates, recognizing that some interest is essential but still revealing a natural bias against a perceived "unfair" amount).

Thus, while we are indeed dealing with a totalitarian ideology determined to ultimately rule the world, and have all live under its strictures or die, ironically, until Islam is similarly reformed to reflect economic reality, our new totalitarian enemy will never be the threat that the Nazis and Soviets were. And of course, in the wake of such a reform, they would likely stop trying to murder us and take over the world, because it's all of a piece.

This is not to say, of course, that the threat is not dangerous--what happened two years ago this coming Thursday gives the lie to that. And as we saw on that sunny September morning, they can be very effective even when wielding our weapons (in fact, much more so than when they restrict themselvse to their own). We should be very thankful that they finally got our attention before they got their hands on the really good stuff, and it's our ongoing responsibility, now that we see them for what they are, that we continue to keep it from them.

One more point, just to preempt any silly notions that the situation is symmetrical, and that we are the new totalitarians, and want to rule the world, and crush it beneath our GI army boots, and tie up the oppressed, force Big Macs down everyone's throat, prop their eyelids open with toothpicks and make them watch Britney polish Madonna's tonsils with her tongue.

We don't oppose them for their beliefs, except to the degree that their beliefs require that they kill us for ours. We don't want to make everyone Christian, or Jewish. We don't want to enslave or kill people because they don't worship the right god, or wear the right clothes, or avoid being raped. If we have an ideology, it's an anti-ideology--a belief that ideologies have murdered millions in the past century, and that we are going to do whatever we must to prevent more murders of innocents. The "group of people" who we may have to kill are not a group in the sense of race, or class, or even religion, and they place themselves in the group by their beliefs and behavior, not by accidents of birth. We can live with anyone, except people who cannot live with us.

They are in a battle for domination, and rejoice in death--even their own. We are in a battle for own defense, and would prefer that we didn't need to send our young men and women overseas.

They desire to kill as many innocents as possible--men, women, children, and lack only the means to do so. When they are successful, they ululate in the streets and pass out candy. We desire to kill as few as possible, and only the guilty--those who sit in their caves and palaces and plot mass death. We spend millions of dollars, and risk our own soldiers' lives to minimize the deaths of innocents, and when, despite out best efforts to prevent it, innocents die, we don't cheer--we often grieve, and we launch investigations to determine the cause.

Christianity was once a bloodthirsty religion, but it was reformed. So can Islam be.

But Islamism, like its predecessors, is immune to reform. There is no solution, ultimately, except its total defanging, if not eradication.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:37 PM

August 11, 2003


Diana Hsieh posts this story, about supposedly educated people. I'd like to think it's apocryphal, but sadly, I've had too many similar experiences to think so. She, and husband Paul, via whom I found the link, say it's good for a laugh, but I don't find it very funny.

About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.

My jaw dropped a little. I blurted, "What?!" Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?"

"But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly." I protested.

"No it wouldn't," the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity."

Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?" I countered, "why didn't they float away?" "Because they were wearing heavy boots," he responded, as if this made perfect sense.

As the piece points out, this was a philosophy major, who would have presumably had a class or two in logic. There was a time that philosophy majors could, and would have been expected to understand physics, because physics and science itself was in fact an outgrowth of philosophy (it was called "natural philosophy"). That day seems, sadly, to be past. But how can anyone this appallingly ignorant be considered well or broadly educated?

And even worse, he didn't realize how ignorant he was--he probably thought himself well enlightened on the subject, and more than competent to lecture to his lesser undergraduates. He was "don't know squared" (which is sadly, for obvious reasons, often the case).

Equally sadly, I have a similar story from the aerospace industry itself. Back when I worked at the Aerospace Corporation, a couple decades ago, I was fresh out of school, and sitting in a meeting with more senior people, discussing a conceptual design for a new military geostationary satellite. The subject was how to provide orientation. The two traditional choices were spin stabilization (many of the Hughes communications satellites used this technique) and active reaction control, which was more accurate, but limited the lifetime, due to depletion of propellant.

I (or someone, but I think it was me) suggested using gravity gradient stabilization (that is, taking advantage of the fact that a non-spherical satellite will naturally orient itself in the local vertical position, due to differential tidal forces between the line of the orbit and the small distances of the appendages from that line). The response of one of the supposedly experienced engineers was, "There's no gravity gradient at geosynchronous altitude."

I was a little surprised. "Oh, you mean there's not enough to do the job?" (I was thinking that perhaps he'd already considered it, and run the numbers.)

"No, there is no gravity gradient effect that high--it only applies in LEO."

Note that he wasn't making a quantitative argument, he was making a qualitative one. Low orbits had gravity gradient, high ones did not.

Being much his junior, I didn't want to get into an argument about it, but my boss, who was also attending, happened to be Vladimir (Val) Chobotov, author of books on orbital mechanics and a reigning expert on the space debris problem, so I figured he'd speak up. He didn't.

Walking back from the meeting with him, I asked him what that was all about. It turned out that I was right, but he hadn't thought it worth getting into it with him in the meeting. We later wrote up a paper suggesting it.

What happened? Sometimes even engineers don't always apply good scientific principles. In this case, I suspect that he was an airplane guy who'd migrated into the space business (as often was the case in the beginning decades in the space industry), and had never really learned the fundamentals of orbital mechanics, or the underlying principles. Instead, he'd probably taken a space systems design course, and been given a lot of engineering rules of thumb, one of which was, no doubt, that gravity gradient can be used in LEO, but not in GEO.

And that's not a bad rule of thumb, as long as you understand where it comes from. Gravity gradient is indeed much less at twenty thousand miles altitude than at two hundred miles, and for most satellites could be considered, for practical purposes, to be non-existent. But we weren't talking about most satellites--we were looking at a new concept, much larger than anything previously deployed in GEO, with long booms and appendages that might, in fact be used for G-G stabilization. But because he didn't understand the physics, he mistook a rule of thumb for natural law, even though the law of gravitation says that the earth's gravity extends out to infinity, though it drops off as the square of the distance. As evidence that it works much farther away than GEO, consider an object over ten times as far again (the original subject of this post), the Moon.

The Moon's rotation rate is exactly the same as its orbital period. As a consequence, it always shows the same face to the earth--we never saw the "back" side of it until we sent the first probes in the 1960s. Isn't this an amazing coincidence, that the two rates would coincide so that the view from earth was always the same?


The moon is in what's called a tidal lock, another way of saying that it's stabilized by the gravity gradient. It's not perfectly spherical--it's a little unbalanced, and one side has a little more mass than the other. Over the eons, gentle but persistent gravity gradient torques have oriented it into its present state and stabilized it there, always with the heavy side either facing away, or toward the earth, and thus it always presents the same view in the sky.

And of course, had we wanted to have a discussion of the issue in that meeting, that's exactly the example I would have used then.

But to get back to the original topic, this to me is another example of C. P. Snow's two cultures (well described in Pirsig's Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance): the liberal arts types who are ignorant of mathematics and science (and often perversely proud of the fact), and the scientists and engineers who have to actually make things work.

[Update at 12:14 PM PDT]

For those who didn't get enough spacecraft dynamics in this post, go check out this little discussion of Explorer I from Professor Hall, who's back from his motorcycle trip to Montana.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:43 AM

April 10, 2002

Luddism At The Top

Listening to Bush speak out against cloning spurred me to sign the petition here. This is the first issue on which I think that I would have preferred Gore.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:26 AM

April 05, 2002

The "Wisdom" Of Repugnance

In a post about the recent finding that first-cousin marriage carries a lower risk of genetic defect than previously thought, Charles Murtaugh says:

...although we consider it tragic that a Huntington's patient might have affected children, we aren't repulsed at the very idea of allowing him or her to reproduce. This suggests that our repugnance at brother-sister incest (which carries a much lower than 50% risk of Huntington's-level disease) has little if anything to do with genetics. Score one for Leon Kass's "wisdom of repugnance" thesis.

I don't think so. An evolutionary-psychology explanation for such repugnance (and in fact, all repugnance--after all, repugnance is an emotion, and emotions are just our genes' way of getting us to do what they want) is that it evolved precisely as a result of the evolutionary benefit of not getting it on with your siblings.

But not all evolutionary adaptations are advantageous in the modern world. What repulsed us on the savanna is not necessarily something to be feared, or disgusted by, in the twenty-first century. Repugnance is like any other feeling--consider it a suggestion, rather than a mandate. Repugnance, by itself, cannot provide an infallible basis for laws, particularly when it's not universal.

I share most people's repugnance about incest--I feel none about cloning, regardless of what Professor Kass thinks (or, to be more accurate, feels). Unlike him, I can distinguish between blind evolutionary urges, and true wisdom, which is a much more recent human development.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:45 PM

February 26, 2002

Nevada Says Yuck to Yucca

I've been spending a few days up in the Reno area, and since the President's decision to go ahead with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, it seems to have moved up in the local political agenda. Senator Reid is accusing Bush of "lying" and breaking his campaign promise, but of course, this is just demagoguery--Bush promised nothing except to make a decision based on "sound science." Since most politicians wouldn't know sound science if it came up and yelled in their ears, I'm not inclined to grant the Senator much credibility here--it's really a judgment call. Mr. Bush may be mistaken, but he can't be objectively accused of promise-breaking.

The Dems here are trying to leverage it as a campaign issue against Republicans, but the consensus seems to be that this won't have much traction, because the local Republicans are opposed to the decision as well. It doesn't seem to be a partisan issue here--it's viewed more as Nevada against the rest of the country. It's just the latest manifestation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, with which I am normally sympathetic.

Unfortunately, nuclear energy and nuclear waste are not issues amenable to decisions based on sound science--people tend to get too emotional about things that they don't understand.

There aren't any simple solutions to this policy problem. Nuclear energy is potentially the most environmentally benign source available in the near term (though the federal policy on it has been idiotic since the inception of the industry, making it much more hazardous and expensive than it need be, by mandating intrinsically bad plant designs).

But waste disposal is probably the most pressing problem, and it's one that's independent of plant design. And even if we were to renounce nuclear power today (with the attendant economic and environmental damage as we either destroy local economies from energy shortages, or increase production from much dirtier coal plants which produce the evil CO2, and actually put out more radiation than properly-operating nukes), we still have tens of thousands of tons of waste sitting in unsafe conditions at existing plants.

Every criticism of Yucca Mountain applies in spades to the available alternative--continuing to accumulate it at the plants in a wide range of conditions, few of them good. If Nevada wants to fight this decision, they'll have to do more than simply naysay it and declare that, after over two decades and billions of dollars, it needs more study. They have to offer a viable alternative.

And any alternative should consider the following: one generation's waste is another's commodity. Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was a waste byproduct of cracking oil for other purposes. Thus, one of the features of the Yucca Mountain solution is that the waste will be available to us in the future when we may find it useful, and any alternative should ideally have that feature as well.

But on the bright side, another feature (well, actually, it's a bug) of the Yucca Mountain plan is that it will cost billions of dollars and take several years to implement. This effectively lowers the evaluation bar for competing concepts--they don't have to be either cheap or fast, as long as they're better.

Those of you who read my ravings regularly probably know where I'm going with this. Many eons ago, when I was an undergraduate, I took a course in aerospace systems design. The class project was to come up with a way to dispose of nuclear waste--in space. While it was (of course) a brilliant study, it has also been more recently analyzed by people who both knew what they were doing and got paid for it. It turns out to be (at least technically--politics are another matter) a non-ridiculous idea.

These are the basic options: dropping into ol' Sol, which is really really expensive, and puts it totally out of the reach of our smarter descendents; lofting it out of Sol's system completely, which is cheaper than putting it in the Sun, but still expensive, and practically if not theoretically out of reach of future recyclers; a long-term orbit, which is accessible, but long term can't be guaranteed to be long-enough term; and finally, on some planetary surface, most likely the Moon because it's the most convenient.

Lunar storage sounds like a winner to me. There's no ecology to mess up there, the existing natural radiation environment will put that particular grade of nuclear waste to shame when it comes to particle dispensing, and we can retrieve it any time we want, while making it hard (at least right now) for terrorists to get their hands on it.

So, great storage location. Now, how do we get it there? Aye, there's the rub.

The two problems, of course, are cost and safety. It turns out that both are tractable, as long as one doesn't use Shuttle, or any existing launcher as a paradigm for the achievable. The key to both reducing cost and increasing reliability is high flight rate of reusable systems--what I call space transports.

Fortunately, like space tourism, hazardous waste disposal may be a large enough market to allow such a system to be developed. A thousand tons is a thousand flights of a vehicle with a one-ton payload. And there are many thousands of tons of nuclear waste in storage. And the tonnage will only increase if it's further processed for safe handling and storage (such as vitrification, in which it is encased in glass).

Preliminary estimates indicate that it can in fact be done economically in the context of the current nuclear industry operating costs; the major issue is safety. This issue has been addressed as well, and it's something that Nevada (a state that also offers high potential as a home for rocket racing and the space tourism industry) should take seriously as a possible alternative to terrestrial storage.

If anyone in Carson City is interested, I'm available for consulting...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:49 PM

January 09, 2002

How Many Hairs Can Dance On The Head Of A Human?

My little contretemps with Iain over the difference between theory and fact, and the nature of epistemology in general, inspires a rant^H^H^H^Hdisquisition on the nature of science and how it's taught (or not).

Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that's who pays for it--not, in a manner similar to National "Public" Radio, because it's necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like "The National Science Quiz."

It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, "How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?"

I threw something (it's been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I'm sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.

"This is not science!" I yelled at it, ineffectually. "Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it's the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it's why very few people understand anything about science!"

Science is not a compendium of "facts." Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That's why I get upset when someone says that "evolution is a fact." Not just because it's untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.

Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that's what is implied by the "science quiz" described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).

When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.


Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of "facts," (which I couldn't manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don't consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity--perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.

What's my point?

Learning physics wasn't about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That's what all science should be about.

But instead science, when it's taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don't understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it's generally taught, is pure drudgery. It's little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.

It's also little wonder that the phrase, "it's only a theory" has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is "only a theory," then it's not a fact, and we need not believe it.

So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks--to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a "fact," or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.

I just hope that my struggle doesn't long remain a lonely one.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:11 AM