Saturday, February 28, 2009

The bus...

After going to the trouble of making my own "atheist bus" headlines (I have several ready to go if I decide they're worthwhile), I find out there's a website already set up that puts it on the bus for you and everything.

Friday, February 27, 2009

There's probably no...

There's probably no teapot. Now stop worrying and drink your damn tea.

Ding-dong, the witch is (probably) dead.

Looks like the Aus. government's compulsory web-censorship plans are dead.

Nick Xenophon changed his mind (even though he was doing it because he figured it would help his anti-gambling stance), so they don't have the senate numbers any more.

I'm leaving the banner up for now though, because Conroy has had his tits all over this like a stripper looking for a 20, and if it can be revived, you can bet he'll do it - I expect this legislation to be a zombie and rise again, looking for brains.
(Stephen Conroy is the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy... and rubbing his tits all over brain-eating zombies)

What's the point in metaphors if you can't mix them? Or stick 'em in a blender on "pulverise"?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Technology stuff

Hey, did you know the Chinese have a cell-phone battery that can last a lifetime?

(line break in link now fixed)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The law of recursion

An observation based on reading many comment threads:

As any comment thread grows sufficiently long, the probability that Godwin's law will be mentioned approaches 1.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reading the man

I'm reading Darwin's Origin of the Species.

I've read extracts before, and one day I sat in a library and read a chunk of it, but I've never actually read the book before.

I'm not doing anything high-minded like reading it for the blog for Darwin campaign or anything - it just happens to be one of the many books I bought when I was in Washington D.C. last year, and I've read the other science books (Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, both recommended). I just wanted to read it, and there was a reasonably-priced edition.

I feel the same sense of excitement I had when I plunged into D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, a book which can unfortunately only be experienced for the first time once. (If you've never read it, do yourself a favour and try to find a copy. Mine was the shorter 328 page edition.), except that with Origin, instead of a well-regarded descriptive book on the fringes of mainstream biology, we have a book critical to modern biological thought.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oh, brave new world ...

... that has glider guns in't!

This is freaking cool. But if Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions or cellular automata are unfamiliar, don't go there just yet, read this first.

Wow, I want to explain six different things at once. Where to start.

There's some amazing chemicals (quite a few different ones) that undergo Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, which switch between states. The image shows one such reaction where there's a cyclical colour change.

If you set up a BZ reaction in a thin layer (say something like a petri dish), then you can observe beautiful cycles of spiral waves.

Very similar spiral waves of excitation are observed, for example, in certain cardiac problems.

Now, to go off in a completely different direction, there are mathematical constructs called cellular automata (CAs).

These are basically a layout of cells - often in a line, or sometimes in a 2-D array (or sometimes even in higher dimensions), which evolve according to simple local rules (such as "if the cells either side of me are both black, next step I will change to white"). The image here is of the development of one such CA, called "Rule 30". As you progress down from the top, each row of the image represents one "time step" in the development of this 1-d cellular automaton.

While they were originally purely mathematical ideas, patterns that arise in essentially the same way, and look very much like those seen in some kinds of cellular automaton do occur in nature, for example, on some kinds of shells:

Further, people have noted in the past that a particular kind of cellular automaton, the cyclic cellular automaton can generate very distinctive spiral waves that look somewhat like BZ spiral waves.

The most famous of these cellular automata is undoubtedly Conway's game of Life, a 2D one that produces some amazingly intricate patterns.

One very early pattern that was discovered is called a glider - a pattern only a few cells across that changes in such a way that it appears to "fly" diagonally in a straight line.

In 1970, Bill Gosper, in response to a challenge by Conway to find a Life pattern that would show "unlimited growth", designed a constuction that produces a constant stream of gliders, called a "glider gun". (There are a large number of other constructions that exhibit such unlimited growth.)

Using many structures such as this, it has been shown that it is possible to construct a kind of computer that is equivalent to a Turing machine.

In 2005, Motoike and Adamatzky discussed using Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions in the construction of logic gates in liquids, and there has been a bunch of other related papers.

Now to the new bit. There's a new paper up on arXiv where a bunch of researchers the University of West of England (including Adamatzky) have constructed, using BZ reactions, a chemical version of a glider gun (it's not exactly a game-of-life glider gun, but it has similar properties.

As the authors say in their conclusion, "theoretical ideas concerning universal computation in these systems is closer to being realized experimentally. We were able to manipulate glider streams, for example annihilate selected streams and switch periodically between two interacting streams. We were also able to show that glider guns could be formed or annihilated via specifi c interactions with glider streams from a second gun. We also showed examples where glider guns could be used to implement simple memory analogs."

They also say, "[t]hese discoveries could provide the basis for future designs of collision-based reaction-diffusion computers". Indeed.

There may well be implications relevant to the development of the earliest self-reproducing structures (protolife) on earth.

via The physics arXiv blog

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What distinguishes the best arguments for god from those of the ordinary believer?

Atheists are often derided for arguing against the dumb arguments for God that we encounter every day. (Well, it makes sense - those are what we're hit in the face with. Those are the ones in the media, in things like school board meetings, in everyday conversations, and the ones that show up in our blog-comments.)

But many of us get slammed for not engaging with the arguments of the sophisticated theists. I've seen a couple of supposedly sophisticated arguments before, and not been impressed.

Now, Greta Christina takes on the best arguments for God.

(Well, they're framed as "questions for atheists", but they're basically a list of "but what about this?" arguments for God.)

And one thing really stands out. I can see the difference now.

What distinguishes the best arguments for god from those of the ordinary believer?

They're not in ALL-CAPS, 14-point purple Comic Sans, they're correctly spelled, and they show a passing acquaintance of grammar... apart from that, well... they're pretty much just slightly more polished versions of exactly the same arguments we see all the time.

That's it.

That's all they got.

I am sad.

Dissing the doctor

PZ discusses a reporter at the L.A. Times dissing Jill Biden over her doctorate.

The really really stupid thing about this is you don't need to do more than the most basic research available to any moron with a good dictionary on the shelf or a keyboard - if you type "doctor" into wikipedia, it clears things up very nicely.

In short - the word "doctor" comes from the Greek "Didaktor Philosophias"* -- "teacher of philosophy", via Latin. Since the earliest degrees were law degrees, and the first law degrees were doctorates, the first such "doctors" were all doctors of
law - licensed to teach law. As the word "doctor" became more heavily used to refer to medical personnel, lawyers were known as "civil doctors".

*(transliterated into Roman characters here, since many people reading this don't read ancient Greek - though mathematical types can generally sound it out; I presume few actual ancient historians or people of classical education are readers of this blog)

The use of the word "doctor" to refer to someone of great learning in a particular academic sphere predates the use of it to refer to medical doctors.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on this. I have a PhD myself, and like most such, I'm not a stickler for titles.

Within any academic institution, I ask people to call me by my first name. However, if someone insists (against my wishes) on calling me by a title, then I will ask that if they must do so, they at least give the correct one.

(For some reason, at that point most of them knock it off and just use my name. Why not when I asked? Don't ask me.)

One reason I ask to be called by my first name is that I think when you're discussing ideas, they need to be disrespected. Beautiful and precious darlings though they may be, ideas that don't stand up to the harshest scrutiny need to be taken down to the idea vet, and given radical, lifesaving surgery, or for the ones beyond such help, unceremoniously put out of their misery.

Now if people are too busy bowing (and yes, that's actually happened) and respecting the person, they can't at the same time kick the crap out of their ideas. When that happens, there is no hope for them (the people or the ideas).

So first names, like we're colleagues trying to figure this stuff out. Paradoxically, I see it as a sign of respect, but it's a very particular kind of respect.

Outside of academia, my own attitude is one of laissez-faire - generally, my PhD is completely irrelevant. Most people neither know nor particularly care what a PhD is, and I don't tend to bring it up unless it's directly relevant to the conversation, someone specifically asks, or is being a major dick about it in some way.

Well, my employer puts it on my business cards; I don't begrudge them that, since they say it makes them look good.

There is exactly one person who universally refers to me by the title "Doctor". Perhaps ironically, given the current discussion, it's my GP. (He puts it on every prescription, on every referral, and calls me "doctor" to my face. And when he does it, he makes it mean something. It's very touching.)

So, given I don't really use it myself, it might seem weird to care about the use of academic titles.

But on the other hand, it annoys me to see people disrespect the honorific. A PhD is generally a signal that someone has done a great deal of very hard work, sometimes at a significant cost to themselves, their families and maybe even their health. It's also generally a sign that that someone knows a lot about their particular subtopic.

That entitles them to be called "doctor" in formal writing, whether or not a reporter with an inferiority complex likes it or not. Further, if the possessor of such a title wants their title used at other times, then dammit, they have that right, too. If you don't like it, go and damn well get one, and then you can tell people not to call you doctor.

Good luck with that. We could use more people who give a damn about learning, especially among reporters.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Carnival Of the Elitist Bastards IX: Keepin' yer wits about ye

Pirates be needin' to keep their wits and cutlasses honed. So here be a little tale to ponder.

We pirates be splittin' some booty - government bailout booty! We been busy doin' executin', so we be decidin' some executive bonuses are in order - an' we be takin' aboard a thousand bars o' gold!

We pirates be likin' three things. Mostly, we be likin' to live. Secondly, we be likin' gold. Thirdly, we be likin' to see a good keelhaulin' or three over a tot of rum, as long as we be the one gettin' the rum and not the keelhaulin'.

The senior pirate among us be proposin' a division of the treasure. Bein' democratic pirates, we all vote on agreein' to this division, but not likin' ties, the senior pirate also be havin' the castin' vote. If the proposal be voted down, the senior pirate be keelhauled an' fed to the sharks, an' the next most senior pirate be proposin' to divide the loot.

In order of seniority, we be the captain, the first mate, the bosun, the bosun's mate and the scurvy crewman. So how be we dividin' the booty?

Arr. While ye ponder that, sharpen yer wits by readin' this month's Carnival of the Elitist Bastards!

Splendidelles takes on a lubber who is apparently a stranger to robust dissent and administers a telling riposte... largely by letting the lubber's screeches speak for themselves.

Annie has moved blogs to 'a refrigerator box at The Virtuous Skeptic'. Annoyed at being treated as 'an invisible, inconsequential mindless paramecium,' in Nurse Is Not A Dirty Word, Annie points out that the contributions of nursing research to developments in patient care are being ignored.

PalMD at White Coat Underground asks what the inauguration of a new President will do for medicine. Beginning with the "ethical apocalypse", he tours the sorry legacy of the previous administration. (Apologies to PalMD - the original direct link to the article had a glitch in it - now repaired)

Z, over at It's the Thought that Counts calls on politicians to quit raising ignorance over expertise. In "Academia versus politics?", Z argues that politicians should be leading public opinion toward what needs to be done, not watering Steven Chu's expertise on energy policy down for tenuous political advantage.

Blake Stacey at Science After Sunclipse takes on the issue of the New Scientist with the "Darwin was wrong" cover (a popular target, for obvious reasons). However, never one to just run with the herd, Blake takes aim at the gross oversimplifications of the editorial, where Lord Kelvin's famous quote is taken out of context and put to bad ends. Blake argues that Elitist Bastards are people who care to get things right, revealing a much more interesting tale than the usual story of a grumpy and out of touch physicist. Blake says that his post is 'somewhat complementary to this post by my blogo-friend GG' - and indeed, it also takes on the tendency 'to streamline and oversimplify science history to the point where it presents a genuinely misleading impression of not only how things happened, but how science is done'.

George at Decrepit Old Fool takes on faith-based gambling (in its myriad guises) in his post Betting against the house. He points out that placing faith above data and knowledge is what built Las Vegas - and also landed us in some serious messes.

Meanwhile, over at Thoughts in a Haystack, John Pieret delivers a broadside in New Year, Old Crap, where he takes on a lubber who links eugenics and the Holocaust to ... you guessed it! ... "Darwinism." Pieret (now there's a piratey-sounding moniker) shows him the plank.

Stephanie at Almost Diamonds writes about the joy of making the world a little better by helping turn someone's rough diamond into a gem. We loves gems.

PodBlack Cat tackles the impact of superstition in traditional beliefs and looks at some amusing titles in 'Year Of The Ox - Charming Tradition Or Load Of Bull?'. (Catgirl pirates! Arr!)

Dana over at En Tequila Es Verdad reckons that getting people to read more science books seems like an Elitist Bastard-worthy goal. After seeing the nonsense produced by the scurvy knaves that some of our game crewmates have tackled, I can only say "Aye!"

Arr, and there be the skeptical scribblins o' some other sea dog, who wants ye to keep a weather-eye out. Better take a look, to be sure.

So, what should the captain propose to his crew?

I not be spoilin' a pretty puzzle so quickly, by just showin' ye where to dig. But if ye be yet curious and at the same time, too full o' rum to be figurin', the rattlin' finger bone of old Pete will point the way to dividin' a paltry hundred gold pieces. Ye'll have to figure it out from there.

Or in lego-comic-form, here. (Yes, that's where all the images come from.)

The skeptical reader

Some people may be smart but readily fall prey to learning things that aren't true. Like that split-infinitive (or more generally split-verb) nonsense -- which is what you get when a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals try to impose a restriction that is inherent in Latin onto English (where it has never belonged) and as a result make beautiful writing ugly. It infects even relatively intelligent people, and Steven Pinker gives a good argument that it may be what made Justice Roberts stumble when administering the presidential oath.

And it's not just language you have to be skeptical about. No less a body than the National Endowment for the Arts writing gushingly about literacy (pdf), fibs to us in graphical form:

Three years at the left hand end takes up almost as much room as six years at the right hand end! The aim is to make the upslope at the end look twice as strong as it really should - to give stronger support to their claim that "this dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working". (Lied to by a federal agency? Whodathunkit?) Now if they're willing to fudge the graph, really, how much can you trust that they haven't massaged the figures? Kevin Drum is completely taken in, reproducing the glaring fib with nary an indication he even noticed he was being lied to. There's something about graphical lies that tends to slip under the radar. Watch out!

Over at Understanding Uncertainty, Horace (David Spiegelhalter) looks at studies that say (among other things) that street lighting reduces fatal-injury road crashes by a huge amount. It was taken up by the media, leading to sensationalist headlines. Firstly, based on the quoted figures, the number in the press release was plain wrong (it's 65% not 77%), but various sources of bias lead to this smaller figure being an overestimate, and possibly a very dramatic overestimate. But that won't stop the media in search of a beat-up!

On the topic of things to be skeptical about, the BBC reports that a government-funded books project has edited the famous shanty What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?, though the charity running the project say it has "absolutely nothing to do with political correctness"; they claim the alteration to "grumpy pirate" was to make the rhyme fit a pirate theme, rather than censorship. Now I'm all for pirate themes ... but why then not "drunken pirate"? Is this another media beat-up, or political correctness run amok? Or even a little of both? Go read the story and the explanation given by the charity and decide for yourself. I'd give 'em both a skeptical eye.