Friday, November 30, 2012

Does the Universe Have a Purpose

Ran across this very interesting video by Neil deGrasse Tyson today.  Thought I'd share. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kentucky, don't believe in God, get a year in jail.

A bill passed in Kentucky, you know the home of the creation museum, that could potentially land atheists in jail for up to twelve months.  The bill requires people living in the state to acknowledge God's protection in regards to homeland security.  Punishment for failing to acknowledge God's protection carries with a punishment of up to one year in prison.

The law states:
The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln's historic March 30, 1863, presidential proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy's November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: "For as was written long ago: 'Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
I was too nice to draw devil horns on him.
When I first heard about this a few days ago my first reaction was to be incredulous.  Surely no one could pass such a bill here in the United States, not even in a state like Kentucky.  Someone had to be exaggerating the claims here. However, it seems this is really law.  Here was what I was able to learn about the bill.

Tom Riner (D)(even the Democrats have their share of religious nuts), a state representative and Baptist minister inserted this into a homeland security bill back in 2006.  In 2009 it was struck down by a Kentucky circuit judge as unconstitutional thanks to a lawsuit filed by American Atheists.  Since then it was appealed, the appellate court in Kentucky overturned the original ruling.  The Kentucky Supreme court then refused to hear the case, thus allowing the ruling of the appellate court to stand.

American Atheists is not taking this lying down though.  They have submitted a petition to the U.S. supreme court to here the case.  I managed to find a copy of the petition if you want to read it..

This is the most egregious violation of constitutional rights I have come across in a while.  I can't believe it has managed to stand as long as it has.  This law reminds me a bit of the Red Scare.  Then people were afraid of communists, some of those fears were founded and some were not but proper religious beliefs were often used as a litmus test to prove you were not a "godless communist."  The modern specter is terrorists, but the M.O. hasn't changed.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dr. Oz and Raspberry Ketone

Occasionally I get spam emails, and by occasionally I mean very very often.  I usually ignore them, most of them get caught by my spam filter but occasionally one gets through like the email that sent me this link:

This page is talking about the fat loss effects of raspberry ketone.  It is full of grandiose claims and comments by "users" which sound exactly like the way people in an infomercial are paid to talk about a product.  The link to the video of Dr. Oz speaking about it on the page is broken but I did manage to find a link to the same spot on his show from YouTube.  I suggest watching it.  

Dr. Oz, despite his credentials, has a habit of promoting quack medicine, and I'm hardly the first to speak about it.  A lot of people watch him and trust his advice so it is disappointing that he promotes unproven treatments without really any reservations.  He gives everyone a neat little demonstration where he puts some balloons in liquid nitrogen and they shrivel up while he tells us that raspberry ketone does the same thing to fat cells, because apparently an analogy equals proof in T.V. world.

To be fair, he does let his viewers know that they should not use this by itself and should instead use it only as part of a larger weight loss treatment plan, but he is totally positive in his review of effectiveness of the pill.  He never once mentions that there have been no medical trials done with humans showing positive effects for raspberry ketone.  Even his own site says ketone works best "when paired with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet of healthy and whole foods."  You know, those things that have a proven effect on weight loss all by themselves.

I did manage to find one study done with rats published back in May.  It seemed to have some promise, but unless I am misunderstanding the study it only showed promise in preventing weight gain.  The study was not designed to test ketone as a treatment to undo past weight gain.  Further, there are no studies done on humans that I found, nor did he mention any.  So to state without the slightest reservation that this product works is a huge stretch.  This is further compounded by the fact that weight loss supplements come out all the time and they never deliver on their claims.  This is not to say they are all useless, some do have limited effects, but they have never lived up to the hype.  What are the chances that this will be the one that does?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Land does not get a vote.

Before I start this post let me be clear this is not a post about which political party is the best.  Anyone who reads my blog know I lean left but I also admit that there are many problems with both parties, however, this post is not about any of that, it is about a group small but vocal group of Republicans who are complaining their side didn't win the recent presidential election, and in particular a really bad argument I have seen some of them appeal to in order justify these complaints.

I've seen a number of conservative/Republican bloggers (here and here) base an argument off of this map:

Of course one immediately notices that there is a lot more red than blue, this has caused some bloggers to proclaim that Romney was the real winner because he won more square mileage.  

Of course the following map of population density should give you an idea why Obama could loose on square mileage but still win the popular vote.

See, Romney one in lots of areas that had very low population density, while Obama, on average, did better in high density areas.  This shouldn't even be a surprise, since there are plenty of studies showing that people living in areas of high population density tend to skew more liberal than those living in areas of low density.

Of course a variety of justifications are offered, one person said that it was unfair that states like California had whole districts go to Romney but those districts votes went to Obama in the end because the overall majority in the state went to him.  The claim is that is is unfair for the votes of the people in that district to not count.  But how exactly is that more fair than the current system?  If you want a system in which every vote counts equally then we should get rid of the electoral college completely, not simply shrink the presidential voting blocs from state to district.  In fact this would be very bad for one simple reason, the state legislature draws up the voting districts, this would make it very easy for state governments to manipulate the results of elections.

Another complaint that is odd is that cities have most of the voting control, why should it be either surprising or unreasonable that the a larger population has more voting power than a smaller one?  Isn't that the way a democratic voting system is suppose to work?  The person with the most votes wins?  Are they suggesting that the votes of people in underpopulated districts should be worth more?

Of course one comment gave a reason for the complaint:
Bill O’Reilly makes a good point about the people who “want stuff.” Today Rush said: “It’s impossible to vote against Santa Claus!”. But we knew this all along. We knew that there were people in this country who believe that the government should provide them everything. And they knew Obama would punish the producers and hand over the fruit’s of their labors to them for whatever latest technological gadgets or worldly desires they covet. What we didn't know was how many of these losers there actually were—until today.
There you have it folks, people who live in cities voted for Obama because they are lazy bums who want everything for free, simple as that.  It fits the narrative they would dearly love to be true, but does it really seem likely that over fifty percent of the population expect the government to give them everything for free?  It seems to me that it is folly to assume that everyone votes for one party or the other for a singular reason.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Louisiana is in a worse state than I imagined.

I wrote a while back about Louisiana passing a voucher program that was likely to push creationism onto students by sending them to Christian private schools.  Well the bill passed and has been put into effect this year.  Thanks to a friend I got a link to a website which had scanned three pages from a 5th grade text book currently being used in in Louisiana voucher schools and being paid for by tax dollars.  Anyway, here is the link.

The book is not teaching "strengths and weaknesses" or "Intelligent design" it is overtly and explicitly teaching science from the perspective of Christian religious bias.  It goes as far as quoting bible verses as evidence that dinosaurs lived with humans and claiming that the flood is responsible for the geological column.

Here is a couple of gems from the book.  A table that explains the big bang as a "sudden explosion" and describes humans as the "highest level of animal" according to evolution.

One thing that struck me was there insistence that the findings of science are nothing more than the results of the biases injected by the people doing the science.

They say:
Man makes judgments about the evidence of fossils based up his beliefs. A man who believes God's record of creation and history will look at fossils in one way.  A man who believes in evolution will view fossils in a different way.
They then go on to give the student an activity to read several articles written by "creationists" and "evolutionists"  to try to determine what the writers bias is.  This is such an absurd and jumbled approach to science it is difficult imagining children getting anything out of it.  It is bad enough they are teaching these kids bad biology, but they are teaching them a horrible approach to science in general.  It is, of course, obvious that everyone has a bias, but the whole point of the scientific method is to attempt to eliminate those biases.  A person can start from any hypothesis they want and no matter how biased it is the predictions it makes will either turn out to be true or false.  If the predictions are false then the hypothesis fails.

The main thing they fail to mention is that the reason creationism doesn't count as science is because it makes no meaningful predictions about the world.  Take big bang which they inaccurately describe as a "sudden explosion," when it was first proposed the calculations predicted certain types of radiation should still be present in the universe as a result.  Measurements were taken and the radiation was found, thus there was evidence that it happened. (though not definitive proof)

Now take the creationists view point, "God created the heavens and the earth" by their own description.  What predictions can one make from that?  To ask the question differently what differences would we expect to see between a universe that God created and one that he didn't?  The fact is we don't know, we have no idea what differences there would be between those two things if any.  So with no predictions there is no way to test, or falsify as Karl Popper would have put it, the hypothesis that "God created the heavens and the earth."  Thus this is not a mere matter of competing beliefs as this text book wants to present it as.

The science in this book is so bad it should be criminal to lie to students this badly.  Late elementary school is a great time to cultivate students interest in science and instead they choose to squash it with ludicrous pseudo-science.  Now thanks to Louisiana they are using tax money to promote this stuff to students who may not even share their religion, because their parents have been told that sending their child to a private school is a guaranteed way to get a better education.  The evidence in this book says differently.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's that time of the year again.

What time of the year is it?  The time for eggnog and carols?  The time for decorating trees and eating more turkey than is medicinally safe?  Unfortunately no, its the time of the year when fundamentalists go around complaining that atheists are ruining Christmas.

I case you don't want to listen to the video here is the quote:
Atheists don’t like our happiness! They don’t want you to be happy! They want you to be miserable! They’re miserable, so they want you to be miserable, so they want to steal your holiday away from you.
First off I don't really know any atheists who are miserable by and large.  Of course just like everyone we have our good days and our bad, but we seem to fit within the normal bell curve of happiness with no major difference between us and the more religious people out there.

The truth is many atheists like the secular aspects of Christmas, it is a national holiday after all with many non-Christians celebrating it. For my part I enjoyed it quite a bit even after ceasing to be a believer, though thanks to people like Robertson I've been less fond of it the last several years since due to the influence of him and others people in my family think I'm one of those "miserable" atheists trying to steal the holiday.

Ironically it's generally not Christmas that make atheists miserable, it's the realization that there is a large number of people out there who still take Pat Roberson seriously.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Someone doesn't understand the concept of irony.

Who is this person you ask?  Well they wrote this article.

This person is confused because the people who rightfully complained that Rush Limbaugh called a woman a slut and jokingly agreed to pay for her birth control provided she would tape the sex for his enjoyment went on to form this movement. Rock The Slut Vote.  

A quick perusal of this blog revealed a host of errors in basic math, biology, and others, but this particular article caught my eye.  

They complain about how movements like this encourage us to treat women as mere sexual things for the entertainment of men, even comparing U.S. culture to that of fundamentalist Muslim countries.  They think that modern feminism is the same as that of Islam because they both treat women as sex objects for men.  I say they are completely different because what exemplifies the type of Islam they are speaking about is a desire for men to control every aspect of women's sexuality, while feminists want women to be in control of it.

Unlike the bloggers claim feminists are not saying that women are nothing more than vaginas, but to pretend that sexuality is not a very important part of most people's identity is absurd.  To me it seems clear that the use of the term slut is meant ironically and at no point does the "Rock The Slut Vote" site advocate for women to have sex with any man who asks her.  There seems to be an objection to the attempt get rid of the negative connotation of the term slut based upon the notion that women who have had lots of sexual partners are bad people right?  Also apparently words can never be redefined. 

This blogger could probably do with an education about the gay rights movement.  the term "gay" was originally used as an insult, and the movement actually did over a period of several decades change it to a normal and accepted term by using it to describe themselves.  So the concept is not as crazy as this blogger seems to think.

The blogger ends their article complaining about the lack of impact Christians seem to have on mainstream culture, but somehow also manages to believe that things Lady Gaga sings about somehow represents the mainstream culture of people who are no longer teenagers.  I'm guessing the reason they fail to impact mainstream culture is that they have no clue what that even is, but they have such a beautiful straw-man of what they think it is who am I to get in the way of that?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Revolution...worst sci-fi ever.

I've been watching a few episodes of a new science fiction series that has come out this year called Revolution.  Now, I am used to a certain amount of difficult to believe stuff in science fiction.  We all suspend disbelief to a certain extent when we watch it, but I have rarely run into anything in sci-fi so completely contrary to basic science as the plot of this show.

For those who have not watched here is the basic premise of the show.  "Something" happened one night and caused all electrical devices to stop working permanently at the same time.  The show then flashes forward about twenty years or so and the power is still off and people are living at a technological level similar to the early 19th century.  Nothing that requires electrical power works at all.

Now, ignoring anything else in the show this is the most nonsensical plot device I have ever seen, the person that wrote this could really have benefited from setting in on a physics class for jr. high children.

To explain, lets start with some basic education on how electricity is produced, for those who might not know. Let's start with this item on the right.  This is an alternator for a car. (cars also stop working in the show) Alternator's produce electricity to power your car and charge the battery so that the battery can be used to start your car.  How exactly do these work?  They aren't magic, hell they aren't even very complicated.  If you look at this one you will see copper wires bunched together on the outer edge of the device.  This bunch of wires runs around the outer edge of the alternator in a circle. A fan belt runs around the pulley on the end and down to another pulley attached to the drive shaft.  This causes the pulley on the alternator to turn while the engine is on, which in turn causes a magnet located in the middle of the wires to spin.  And....that's it.  It's called a dynamo and this is the primary way we have been producing electricity since the principal was discovered in the early 19th century.

But surely this is a simple device right?  Power plants produce electricity using a far more complex system right?  Nope, power plants use dynamos too, the only real differences are the size of the dynamo and what they use to power it's rotation.  Power plans typicality use steam instead of a drive shaft.  That's right steam, perhaps our world is closer to steam punk that any of us realized.  The steam is of course created by heating water with a variety of fuel sources oil/coal/nuclear/solar etc. but the technology of the dynamo has changed very little in nearly two centuries.

Batteries work a bit differently since they effectively store electricity using chemicals, it is still being produced using the same basic fundamental force.

What causes this to function is a force in physics called electromagnetism.   The magnetic field causes the electrons in the copper atoms to excite and move between atoms, and this is what generates the electricity.  The important thing here is that electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental forces in physics that make our universe work.  These are strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism.

So here is where we get to what makes the plot of this show horrible.  What killed the electricity?  It couldn't have been some form of EMP, because that would only kill electrical devices that are on at the moment of the EMP, and would have no permanent effect on older cars or machinery that were not dependent on computer systems to work.  Also even if it killed all power plants people still know how to build a dynamo.  A twelve year old could build one out of some copper wire and a magnet in his dad's garage, so it would be bad, but in a few years people would rebuild power plants and move on.  In the show, however, everything stops working all at once, even battery powered devices all within seconds of each other.  No one rebuilt anything because, the show tells us, electricity simply doesn't work anymore.

In order for this plot to work the "something" that caused all electrical devices to stop working would have to interrupt electromagnetism at a fundamental level to prevent dynamo's from producing electricity.  Electromagnetism is not just some neat trick that lets us power computers, it is one of the most fundamental forces in nature, and without we could not continue to live, even our bodies depend on it, it turns out that there are lots of electrical reactions in our body.  Ever heard of a neuron?  These are the cells in the brain that produce thought, and they do so through an electro-chemical reaction.  So if a device that could interrupt electromagnetic force were turned on we would all die almost instantly, since your brain would no longer be able to tell you to breath, your heart would stop beating, etc etc.  It makes the entire plot one of the most laughably unbelievable things I've ever seen.

For this reason alone Revolution gets my vote as one of the worst pieces of sci-fi to come out since Plan 9 from outer space.

So THAT'S who wrote the pilot for revolution.