Blaggregation at Darwin’s

I slept uneasily, my dreams full of ticking clocks, of racing the dawn, of improbable clouds just before sunsight and obscure preparations against the day. I dreamed that I could fly by selecting parts of a petroglyph body in my Firefox window and indenting them to high speed. When I tried, I fell up a Blade Runner hill, careening over an empty freeway as slick as Teflon.

I woke up to an insistently beeping cellphone alarm and got dressed to the Lola Rennt soundtrack. Clutching a bottle of soda which I knew I shouldn’t drink since, like mental illness, diabetes runs in my family (but unlike mental illness, only on one side), I stepped out into a beautiful morning slightly too cold for my tweed eigenjacket and slightly too warm for my black leather trenchcoat. (I guess it’s never springtime in the Matrix.) Forty minutes of strolling later, with a song in my heart — specifically, Infected Mushroom’s “Cities of the Future” — I arrived at Darwin’s, a sandwich, coffee and pastry place near Harvard Square. It was five minutes till eight; I was early, but PZ Myers was earlier.
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Skeptic’s Circle

I just came back from breakfast with PZ Myers, one of the Reveres and friends to find that the 59th Skeptic’s Circle is online at Pooflingers Anonymous. We here at Sunclipse are represented by “Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar” and “All the News that Fits, We Print“.

There’s lots of good stuff, it appears. Head on over to Confessions of an Anonymous Coward to spot the flaw in a “disproof” of relativity, and an interesting speculation on why people try to “debunk” relativity so often. Those who enjoyed my comments on science journalism should also appreciate Junk Food Science‘s treatment of “Salt Shaking News“.

And if the Skeptic’s Circle isn’t enough, Carl Zimmer just put up a metric armful of articles he’s written since 2001. His story archive looks like a fantastic time sink.

Finally, of course, we should all welcome Phil Plait into the League of Moral Ambiguity, for while he’s still vacillating between superhero and supervillain attributes, he’s definitely in a comic book!

UPDATE: Welcome, fellow Pharyngulans!

Moral Code Zero

And now, we return (momentarily) to Earth, where Warren Ellis has found a particularly inane screed from the Science Fiction Writers of America’s current vice-president. Quoting just a little bit:

I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs claim they’re just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they’re undercutting those of us who aren’t giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work.

The comments on Ellis’s site are, for the most part, scathing (although one person already wonders if it’s all a joke). Snide remarks about “webscabs” are just the sort of thing which make me want to give words away for free. Unfortunately, I don’t have too much science fiction sitting around in such a state that I would call it ready for release. . . .

One SF vignette follows below the fold. Nothing serious — just some text with which one can play “Count the Allusions.”
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A Wet World Far Away?

I was just hopping over to Bad Astronomy to check out Phil Plait’s site layout. Focusing on the margin widths, I didn’t see the text for several heartbeats. When I did, my heart stopped.

The European Southern Observatory has let forth a yawp over the rooftops of the world, announcing the most Earthlike extrasolar planet yet discovered. It’s about five times the Earth’s mass, it orbits the red dwarf Gliese 581 once every thirteen days. . . and it just might have liquid water on its surface.
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Group Theory Tonight at BU

Just a reminder:

This evening at 17 o’clock, or shortly thereafter, we will be meeting in Boston University mathematics territory to discuss group theory. Ben will be leading the discussion, poking us to consider the various transformations of the type

[tex] f: \mathbb{R}^2 \rightarrow \mathbb{R}^2. [/tex]

What are the different structures of interest which these mappings can preserve? What types of maps preserve distances, angles, areas, orientation (chirality), or topological properties? Notes for past group-theory sessions are available in PDF format, or as a gzipped tarball for those who wish to play with the original LaTeX source.

(Don’t forget your stat-mech homework!)

New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

shnood: (roughly) an imposter; a person oblivious to just how trivial or wrong his ideas are.

“Were there any interesting speakers at the conference?”
“No, just a bunch of shnoods.

“The magazine New Scientist loves to feature shnoods on the cover.”

Note: someone who’s utterly contemptible would not be a shnood, but rather a schmuck.

— Scott Aaronson (27 May 2006)

Those of you interested in the way the Wobosphere functions as a disputation arena (“We Can Fact-Check Yo’ Ass!”) may be interested in the following sordid tale of intrigue and skullduggery. I originally wrote most of this last October, in a lengthy comment on David Brin’s blog. The moral of the story, insofar as I can find one, is this: if you say that you can move your car forward by bouncing a soccer ball back and forth inside it fifty thousand times, you’ll get a quizzical look (at best). If you say the same thing but with “microwave photons” instead of soccer balls, you’re reporting on cutting-edge science!

Back in September, New Scientist magazine published an article on the “EmDrive”, a machine purportedly able to propel itself using microwaves bouncing inside a box. Those of us who remember the Dean drive and umpty-ump other wonder machines have no trouble recognizing this as the same old stuff: like all the wonder-powered spacedrives before it, it can only putter forward by violating the conservation of momentum. New Scientist‘s reportage provoked science-fiction writer Greg Egan to write an open letter saying he was “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine showed.

So it goes, as they say on Tralfamadore. Claims of exotic spacedrives fuelled by violations of fundamental physics are, sadly but understandably, about twopence a dozen. The aspect of the affair which Egan found truly disturbing — indeed, reprehensible — was the way New Scientist glibly provided a “news” piece full of pseudoscientific gibberish purely to justify how the EmDrive might work. (Their argument really pushed the limits of the absurd, too: Einstein’s relativity has momentum conservation built into its mathematical structure, so you can’t use relativity jargon like “reference frames” to sidestep the conservation law.)

Egan posted his letter to the moderated Usenet group sci.physics.research, and the physicist John Baez put a copy on the blog he co-hosts, The n-Category Cafe. This spurred enough people to write New Scientist that the magazine opened a blog thread to discuss the issue, opening with a self-exusing note from the editor, Jeremy Webb. (Said note, as far as I can tell, satisfied nobody.)
Continue reading New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

All the News that Fits, We Print

I have a theory about science journalism.

Well, perhaps “model” or “hypothesis” would be a better word. Also, the basic idea isn’t original with me, but I think I can pull together pertinent evidence from a wider variety of stories than most writing-watchers have done, thereby casting (I hope) a little more light.

I don’t know how many of my skeptical blagofriends are in the habit of reading Mind Hacks, so I figured I’d convey along this post by Vaughan about “electronic smog”.

The Independent on Sunday has the dubious honour of publishing one of the worst pieces of science journalism I have ever read on today’s front cover — claiming to ‘reveal’ that children are at risk from Wi-Fi computer networks because of their developing nervous systems.

The headlines include “Children at risk from electronic smog”, “Revealed: radiation threat from new wireless computer networks”, “Fears rise over health threat to children from wifi networks” and “Danger on the airwaves”.

This is despite the fact that not one single study has found a health risk for wifi networks.

Gotta love those extra letters in funny foreign words like honour.
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Mitsubishi Punctuated Equilibrium

Anybody drive a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution? If so, you’re aiding and abetting the forces of Satan, as Arnold Zwicky patiently explains:

The Lancer Evolution is, according to the Wikipedia page, “Mitsubishi’s flagship sports car”, in production since 1992 and now up to 2007 model X (that’s a Roman numeral, not an unknown quantity). The name “Evolution” was probably chosen to suggest progress, but it occurred to Swarthmore biologist Colin Purrington a little while back to wonder whether the name might be a drawback in parts of the U.S. where creationist, rather than Darwinian evolutionist, ideas have considerable currency — places where, you might say, “evolution” is a dirty word. Being a scientist, Purrington collected some data (from Mitsubishi) and assembled a nifty graph, headed “‘Evolution’ car dissed by Red States”:

Colin Purrington: Evolution units per million citizens

According to its Flickr page, Purrington has released this graph under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. He comments:

The quote is from the official marketing web site. There are no plans to release a “Lancer Creation” version, as far as I know. Las Vegas is probably driving the odd sales data for Nevada (it was a filming location for the Evolution-featurin’ flick, “Too Fast Too Furious”, I think). Not sure what is up for Maine. I probably need to rerun the statistics using “18-44 males” to get a more accurate estimate of the underlying car-buying population that favors Rally and NASCAR models. And, to be fair, I should include a control car (e.g., Galant) from Mitsubishi, just in case the red states have a tendency of “buying American”, which probably plays a part in these data.

Zwicky corrects, “Ah, not “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003), which was set in Miami and filmed in various Floridian locations, but “Redline” (2007); both movies destroyed a lot of cars and were not well received by critics, so it would be easy to confuse them.” One should probably also run a comparison to control for general economic well-being, which I’m sure affects car-buying habits. According to the manufacturer’s horrendously Flash-drenched wobsite, the 2006 Lancer Evolution will dent your wallet to a depth varying from $29,774 (“Rally Special” trim) to $36,924 (“the ultimate”). Comparing to other cars, foreign and domestic, in the same price range would be necessary in order to lock down all the variables.

Still, it’s a funny graph.

And when you’re tooling out in your MR Lancer Evolution to pick up your sultry atheist babe, be sure to give her a bottle of DNA perfume, in its spunky triple-helix bottle officially approved by the Ig Nobel Prize Committee.

IN OTHER NEWS: John Armstrong, whose taste in music is quite respectable, has said positive things about William Shatner. Cue the Four Horsemen and the Seven Seals.

stat mech problems up.

Please find the stat mech problem set here:

This covers the microcanonical and canonical ensembles. You should definitely be able to finish all of I and II by Monday 30th. Part III becomes more and more difficult as one progresses. I would expect everyone to have no problems completing A and B. C is not that hard if you’re willing to play with it. D is a bit more involved but should be within reach.

Let me know if you have any questions. eric


I seem to have some kind of dopaminergic reward pathway established for blog commenting. Every time I see a new post, I know I’ll either be happy because I agree with it, or I’ll get that little surge from disagreeing vocally! Any time I see a remark about “framing,” I’m either gonna like you or hate your guts, and my natural argumentative streak gives me a positive brain-boost either way.

Trying to find a simple principle which completely covers a complex and heterogeneous set of overlapping problems in which our pious platitudes frequently conflict with one another is, as Sean Carroll says, a mistake. Complex problems, regrettably, often demand complex solutions. If this discussion had, from the beginning, focused on specific and concrete examples, I believe we would have seen much more agreement — and much more productive disagreement!

Blogs are the enkephalins of the masses.

Enough of this. It doesn’t make a difference.

May I remind everyone that Michael Egnor is still saying ridiculous things?

Emotions of Small-World Networks

Neil Gaiman:

I’m in the UK right now, and it’s a long way away, and I’m reading about what happened in newspapers (because I don’t turn on TVs in hotel rooms. I don’t know why this is, but I don’t), still managing to think of this as something that happened, tragically, to Other People. And then I see this, and my heart sinks, because this is the Michael Bishop who I met in 1999 when we were Guests of Honour at World Horror, whose son was a Sandman fan and oh god, and then I click on this, and I get my nose rubbed hard and painfully in the fact that there are no Other People. It’s just us.

Mentally Ill People on TV

A funny thing happened to me this morning in connection with mass murder and the tragic extinction of human life.

I was walking to the office for another day of PHP-coding, and on Kirkland Street, I was stopped by a suit-wearing man whose close-cropped gray hair reminded me distantly of an evil landlord I once knew. He carried a microphone with, I believe, the CBS logo (I’m nearsighted and unobservant), and he was accompanied by another man carrying a TV camera. The microphone man asked, “Could we talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure,” I said. “What about?”

The shootings at Virginia Tech,” he replied, although he didn’t use hyperlinks (most people don’t, in ordinary speech). “And the footage that NBC put out about the killer.”

“Oh, I hadn’t seen it,” I said, which was true. A bit of web-crawling leads me to suspect that this “video manifesto” is what they were talking about, or part of it. See also Google Video. I’m not sure if there was any reason they picked me as opposed to any other pedestrian, and I don’t know how many other people they filmed. Perhaps a guy in a black trenchcoat, black fedora and Sinfest T-shirt is automatically the best guy to interview about a school shooting; I dunno.

They said that NBC had put video online from the killer (Cho Seung-Hui), and they asked me what I thought about that. What were my very first words?

“Well, I’m a firm believer in a transparent society.”

Yessir, meeting David Brin at ICCS 2006 sure ruined my ability to talk like a normal human being. Oh, wait, I lost that a long time ago — never mind.

I said that the whole thing was a tragedy, but the best thing we can do is prevent future tragedies and in order to do that we have to understand what happened this time. If there’s something that dark in human nature, we have to know about it, I told them. They thanked me and we started walking our separate ways. As I strode off, I heard one say to the other, “Okay, we got it.” Maybe I’ll be on the local CBS affiliate talking about preventing disaster through understanding, but I sort of doubt it.

They should have asked me for my Bill Hicks impression. Now that would be worth putting on TV.

UPDATE: See what Joel Achenbach has to say about this. His thinking seems to match up with mine.


“Well I’m a firm believer in a transparent society and if there is something that disgusting in human nature we mind [sic] as well be aware of it,” said one person WBZ’s Joe Shortsleeve spoke to.

Interestingly, when I saw myself appear on the screen, I called out, “I’m on TV!” just as anybody would in that circumstance. A friend of mine then walked past the computer just as the female news anchor asked, “How does the public benefit from seeing someone on TV who is clearly mentally ill?” He burst out gut-laughing. I’m not sure what that means, but probably nothing good. So it goes.

UPDATE THE THIRD: WBZ-TV makes it slightly tricky to link directly to the video you want, but try this.

I Guess It’s a Deuteron

Seed has just offered the world a “Cribsheet” on string theory. It looks pretty slick, although their portrayal of a “hydrogen atom” seems to have an extra nucleon (as Wolfgang notes in the Cosmic Variance thread). I’m inclined to forgive the multiple electron orbits, since they only show one actual electron — and besides, ellipses aren’t that great a way of drawing orbitals anyway.

(Incidentally, if you want to see orbitals in video, check out episode 51 of The Mechanical Universe, available for free online via Annenberg Media.)

They do cite Barton Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory (2004), which gives me a slight tinge of pride. I mean, somebody had to work the problems in the last five chapters to see if they were solvable by students and not just professors.

The portion of this post below the fold is a rough draft of several different rants, developed in embryonic form and smushed together. Read only if you’re exceptionally curious.
Continue reading I Guess It’s a Deuteron

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"