July 05, 2007

Orbo Or Not Orbo

Steorn said they'd demo the Orbo in July, and it seems like that will finally happen. The alleged perpetual-motion free-energy machine will go on display, according to reports, at the Kinetica Museum in London. It will repeatedly lift an object, for ten days, in a clear plastic case with no battery or other power source in evidence.


According to Steorn's CEO:

"The law of conservation of energy has been very reliable for 300 years, however it’s missing one variable from the equation, and that’s time," said McCarthy.

McCarthy explained to Silicon Republic that Orbo technology works on the basis that occurrences in magnetic fields do not happen instantaneously, and are therefore not subject to time in the way that, say, gravity is.

This time variance allows the Orbo platform to generate and consistently produce power, going against the law of conservation of energy which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Should be interesting to see what comes of this. It sounds fake and it sounds real. One hopes for real.

Update:...or not, again. Steorn cancelled the event due to "technical difficulties."

Posted by Luis at 12:24 AM | Comments (6)

April 12, 2007

Orbo Watch

Apparently, something may or may not be revealed about the Steorn Orbo saga on Friday. For a rundown on what Steorn Orbo is, either check out my prior blog post on it, or read this blog on Orbo developments, but the Reader's Digest version is that a company called Steorn says that it accidentally stumbled upon a way of arranging magnets so as to create a system which produces more energy than is put into it--the classic perpetual-motion "free energy" machine, which the company has now dubbed "Orbo." Sounds just like any number of hoaxes and false claims that litter the landscape every year--but the twist is that the company isn't acting like a bunch of fraudsters: they stopped sales and solicitations, took out a very expensive ad to call for a scientific jury to study and verify the technology, and are otherwise making the kind of noises that one would not expect from those perpetrating a hoax.

Now, Steorn has announced that on Friday, April 13, they "will be releasing the update on the Jury process and so on." People are expecting this to mean that the company will be releasing at least preliminary results on what the jury has found, and perhaps identifying members of the jury and publishing some of their statements. "Other info," possibly including some specs on the technology, are also expected. Steorn claims that they are producing around 100,000 devices that use the technology as samples, and that could be released anytime between now and July.

Will it turn out to be a hoax? Will it change the world? Is it just an incredibly elaborate publicity stunt to promote the TV show "Lost"?

One hopes, and yet one suspects.

UPDATE: False alarm. Steorn was just releasing an update to information already released. The only new information is the number of people on the jury, which is 22. Ho-hum. So wait until July, which seems to be the next date where they might come out with something. Or, from today's experience, not.

Posted by Luis at 03:30 PM | Comments (1)

March 09, 2007

Io, Again


You've got to just love the stuff NASA comes out with. This is a new image of Io, the wildest of Jupiter's moons, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it passes by Jupiter to get a speed boost as it travels to Pluto. Io can be seen with three volcanic plumes erupting--one of them, as you can see, spectacularly--and mountains bigger than Everest catching the morning sun on their peaks.

Beyond cool.

Posted by Luis at 12:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2007

If Only

You may or may not have heard of a company called Steorn, which is hyping a product called "Orbo." Despite the names, the company is not Norwegian--it's Irish (though the name "Steorn" is Norwegian, meaning to guide or manage). And the product is not a new piece of computer equipment or fashion accessory, it is, supposedly, a source of free energy:

Orbo produces free, clean and constant energy - that is our claim. By free we mean that the energy produced is done so without recourse to external source. By clean we mean that during operation the technology produces no emissions. By constant we mean that with the exception of mechanical failure the technology will continue to operate indefinitely.
Okay, already your skeptic's hat is firmly planted atop your head by now, no doubt. Interestingly, on the exact same page the above claim is made, the entrepreneurs themselves admit that "The sum of these claims for our Orbo technology is a violation of the principle of conservation of energy, perhaps the most fundamental of scientific principles."

Every so often, you get claims like this. Sometimes it's a promise of an invisibility cloak, other times it's a car that gets 200 miles to the gallon, but usually it's like the contention above--a free, clean energy technology which is also potentially a perpetual-motion machine, or close enough to one.

The interesting thing about this claim is that it's just odd and bold enough to make your tinfoil hat slip ever so slightly off-center so that the bozo rays from this company make you wonder just a tiny bit if there's actually something to it.

And admit it: you want it to be true. It would be so cool.

Here's the deal: these guys published a full-page ad in The Economist (which likely cost $160,000) last year claiming that they developed a technology which provides a "free, clean, and constant energy" source. They have invited skeptics and scientists to come and review the technology first-hand. The firm's CEO is not some conspiracy-theory nutcase (he says he doesn't believe in them), is not claiming that anyone is trying to suppress their findings, and promises to reveal and license the technology later this year after the independent scientific review has been completed. The noises they're making sound very much on-the-level ("until this thing is validated by science we won't be doing anything commercial with it"), and their process of validation seems like they're willing to pony up the goods for independent verification.

Facts like these are what makes the claim intriguing. On the other hand, the company has released no firm explanation or proof of the new technology; it has a very shaky financial history; and, let's face it, the technology they claim to have would violate the first law of thermodynamics. That being the case, a patent for the whole technology cannot be granted, which is convenient as a way to avoid revealing the whole technology in a patent application.

Nevertheless, the claims are enticing if vaporish:

Sean McCarthy stated in an RTE radio interview that, "What we have developed is a way to construct magnetic fields so that when you travel round the magnetic fields, starting and stopping at the same position, you have gained energy... The energy isn't being converted from any other source such as the energy within the magnet. It's literally created. Once the technology operates it provides a constant stream of clean energy."

In a demonstration to The Guardian at Steorn's office, a computer display reported the device to have an efficiency of 285%. The article goes on to say that Steorn claims to have measured efficiencies up to 400%. The device has been reported to be an all-magnet motor, with no electromagnetic component. Steorn also claims that according to its research the device can be scaled to almost any size, powering anything from a flashlight to an airplane.

None of these claims have been independently verified.

There is a huge chance that these guys are very clever scam artists who are trying to get investors to pour money into a fake technology which they can claim was an honest but failed attempt at a free and clean energy source (apparently, they have raised two and a half million euros, though that was before the public announcement--they claim that since the announcement and until the results of the validation are complete, they will raise no new investments).

But in the same way you hope that this time your lottery ticket will have the winning numbers, you find yourself willing, even if just a little bit, to suspend disbelief and imagine what it would be like if these guys were actually on the level and actually had something here.

Here's the CEO of the company talking about the whole shebang:

Posted by Luis at 10:21 PM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2007

...And Disregards the Rest

Here is another excellent example of the conservative mindset at work. Some people take science so simplistically that they do not try to understand a concept beyond the two words used to describe it--especially when they know that dealing with the issue would threaten the lifestyle they are comfortable with.

Of course, while that might explain people like Fox News' Neil Cavuto, it cannot explain someone like Pat Michaels, someone who actually studied the subject and holds a professorship, trying to claim that extreme cold weather events are proof that global warming is a crock. One would assume that a person who actually got a Ph.D. in ecological climatology would not be so idiotic as to say, "if you believe that warming causes cooling, you’re like my neighbors down in Virginia who think that if you put hot water in the ice cube tray, it freezes faster. It doesn’t work that way."

Unless, of course, you are a right-wing extremist who is so blinded by your political leanings and the money you can make whoring for the energy industry as to make nonsensical statements like that one--as if the Earth's climate is not complex enough for a warming trend to cause disruptions that could create extreme cold weather events in some places.

Which, of course, is another way that conservatives find to believe the "science" that suits their politics: find the rare "scientist" with credentials for the task, ignore their severely compromised status, and believe what they have to say, like a chain smoker buying into the "research" and "studies" funded by the tobacco industry that say smoking is harmless. It's little more than that--addictive behavior--which is why it's no surprise that it is a common practice in the Bush White House.

Posted by Luis at 10:00 AM | Comments (2)

January 02, 2007

They're Sheep, They're Here, Get Used to It

Researchers in the U.S. are carrying out experiments to see if gay sheep can be changed into straight sheep. This, naturally, has sparked all sorts of fun outcry, including people defending the sheep's "right" to be gay, and others saying it'll be a "cure" for homosexuality.

The fundies must be conflicted about this one. After all, if homosexuality could be reversed chemically, I am sure they would be overjoyed. On the other hand, accepting this research, especially before knowing whether it will be successful, would be the same as admitting that homosexuality does occur in animal species, and axiomatically that homosexuality is a natural process and not a choice (those sheep chose to be gay!)--both being conclusions they have soundly rejected.

Although I am usually favorable to most scientific research as a matter of principle, I am not very positive about this particular line. The only benefit I see is the possible light shed on mammalian reproductive biology, and then only if the experiments produce some kind of measurable and reproducible effect. However, the nature of the experiments themselves is disturbing, as it would appear to be an attempt by people who are anti-gay attempting to "cure" homosexuality. (How ironic it would be if they failed to make gay sheep straight but instead found a way to make straight sheep gay!)

But should the "desired" technique be found, it could lead to what is essentially forced chemical alteration of human beings, akin to chemical castration of sex offenders. This of course stems from the belief that homosexuality is a disease, or at least an "imbalance," something unhealthy and undesired, which should be "cured." It brings to mind a relatively bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Riker falls for a member of a sexless society who is sexual; when discovered, she is cured of her "deviancy."

Of course, there is also the possibility that a drug regimen could be found which does not change one's actual sexual orientation, but could make one temporarily more inclined to respond to sexual cues from a certain gender. Think of drugs that make a peaceful person violent; you have not changed their nature with the drugs, you have simply poisoned them with a mind-altering drug. This would be particularly dangerous because it could be used to "prove" that homosexuality can be "cured" or "treated" whilst doing no such thing. Similarly, if the experiment fails, fundies will likely claim such a result to be proof that homosexuality is not a biological process, which would also be a faulty conclusion.

All in all, it does not sound like a very worthwhile line of study--unless the researchers are closet fundies trying to "get rid of" gay people. In which case it might be worthwhile from that point of view, while repugnant and horrifying from others.

Posted by Luis at 10:02 AM | Comments (2)

December 30, 2006


Due to supposedly non-existent global warming, a huge 50-sq.-km chunk of ice has broken free of an ice shelf in Canada and could smite oil rigs and wreak havoc upon oil tanker shipping lines.

Let's think about this like a fundie televangelist: what, exactly, is god trying to tell us?


Posted by Luis at 09:52 AM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2006

Not Something You Hear Everyday

"Giant squid are a major source of food for sperm whales." [Source]
Posted by Luis at 02:28 PM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2006

The Beam in Thine Own Eye

Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye. --Luke 6:42
You'd think that in Kenya, a country now world-famous as being the cradle of mankind due to the fossils found by Dr. Richard Leakey there, would be proud of that distinction and would overcome quite some obstacles to claim international pride in the fact. Apparently, however, a bunch of fundamentalists have cowed the nation's museums enough to seriously consider hiding the fossils so as not to upset the people who believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and that evolution is "just one theory."

Leaders of Kenya's 6-million-strong Pentecostal church want the fossils "de-emphasized":
"The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact," said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, head of the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries.

"Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory," the bishop said.

The criticism that it is a "theory," of course, is a common creationist fallacy; Evolution is a "theory" just like gravity is a "theory." The theory is not about whether it exists, the theory is about how it works. Evolution clearly exists, and in that respect, it is not "just one theory," it is fact. The only thing that can overcome that is a faith in a belief that says you should ignore facts before your eyes in favor of the unsupported belief--which is exactly what these people are asking be done.

Now, even if one is to bend way over backwards and allow them their "theory" argument, consider what they have said: Evolution is "just one theory." Well, another "theory" is creationism. And that "theory" has vastly less evidence to back it up than Evolution has. So it should be "de-emphasized" more, yes? Even they themselves admit that Evolution goes against their doctrine--not their research, not their evidence, not their proofs, but their doctrines, which are lesser than research, evidence, or proof (unless you have the all-important fact-defying faith).

But then consider the irony: the fossils they are seeking to suppress are evidence to back up Evolution (hence their eagerness to suppress them). First, they dismiss Evolution is "theory," and say that because of this, evidence to back up that theory should be "de-emphasized." Imagine you come up to someone in the early morning and say, "Look, the ground as far as we can see is wet, therefore it must have rained last night." To which the other person says, "That's just a theory, so we should ignore your evidence for it and only look up at the sky. See, it is clear and sunny now, therefore there was no rain last night. Ha, what a jolly fool you are!"

If the religious folks were to have their own "theories" held up to the same rigorous tests that they castigate science for not passing (even when it does), their "doctrines" would shatter into tiny little pieces. Ergo, my quote about the mote and the beam from Luke. That's one thing religion is sometimes good for: maxims about principles and common sense. So why is it that the most holier-than-thou bible-thumpers violate these principles more than anyone else?

Thank goodness that the people running the museums have good sense and--

"We have a responsibility to present all our artifacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance," said Ali Chege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya. "But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists, or researchers on the other, saying the opposite."
[sound of me smacking my palm against my forehead]

Yes, it is tricky when one side wants to present evidence and the other side wants to suppress it. Whatever are we to do? After all, we are just simple museum folk.


Posted by Luis at 10:32 PM | Comments (2)

October 20, 2006

Landing on the Sun

There's an old joke about [insert your favorite group to be japed at here] planning to send a rocket to the sun. "Won't the astronauts burn up?" is the standard question, to which the reply is, "No, because we plan to land the rocket at night!"

Strangely, there is a serious real-life analogue that exists: a photograph taken of the sun... at night. By Japanese scientists, no less. [See photo below.] At least, partly at night. It was accomplished by capturing the image through the Earth, or at least partly so--half of the image was collected at night, as it was taken over 503.8 days and nights, with neutrinos. Since neutrinos can travel through the Earth rather easily, collecting them from the sun at night is not a hindrance.


Hat tip again to Cosmic Variance.

Posted by Luis at 12:02 PM | Comments (2)

August 25, 2006

Or Not 12

A week ago, I reported that we had 12 planets. Now we're down to 8. Either the Death Star is hard at work out there, or astronomers keep changing their minds.

As cool as the former explanation would be, it's the latter. Now, Pluto, Ceres, and Xena have been demoted from the "planet" category, and are now classed as "dwarf planets."

As much as I would have preferred more planets, I can see the sense to this. The question is, is this really the last word? They seem to be saying so now, but then again, they seemed to be saying so last week, too.

Posted by Luis at 11:01 AM | Comments (2)

August 17, 2006

A Dozen Worlds

I remember back in elementary school when another student made a science fair project and I noticed a few errors in it. One was that the solar system had eight planets. I mean, how outdated a source must that student have been using? Even if I hadn't been an astronomy buff at that early age, I probably still could have told them that there were nine planets in the solar system.

Five extra-terrestrial planets have been known about since ancient times, since they are visible to the naked eye and can be observed changing position relative to stars ("planet" comes from the Greek word for "wanderer"). While people had inklings that they were not just points of light or some other mysterious forms of matter, it was not until Galileo that it was generally recognized that planets are worlds, like (or not quite like) our own. The original six planets did not grow in number until 1781, when William Herschel discovered Uranus (no jokes please, despite there being no real good way to pronounce that planet's name in English). Interestingly, Uranus was first observed as early as 1690, but was not recognized for what it was, and even Herschel initially thought it was a comet. Later, he tried to name it "George's Planet," for the British monarch, but was overruled by the international community, which then began to set the commonly accepted rules for naming new planets.

Another celestial body was discovered between Mars and Jupiter in 1801, but was later considered not to be a planet because it was one of many objects that would later be classified as "asteroids." That first asteroid found in 1801 was Ceres. More on that in a bit.

After that, it was a game of gravity: Uranus' orbit was slightly off from what calculations said it should be, and so we started getting inferred planets--the idea was that the gravity of a then-unknown planet was affecting Uranus' orbit. This led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846--although Neptune, like Uranus, was observed long before. In fact, the first confirmed sighting of Neptune was by Galileo in 1612.

Neptune's observed orbit, however, seemed to also be unexpected, leading to another search for a planet that might be affecting the new discovery. That led to Pluto, but not immediately. It took almost a century to find the ninth planet, partly because Pluto, in fact, was not disturbing Neptune's orbit. In fact, Neptune's orbit was just fine--the astronomers had made a mistake in calculating the planet's mass. But the error led to the search that finally ended in 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh, following the work of Percival Lowell, discovered Pluto. The name was actually suggested by an 11-year-old girl named Venetia Phair (which is also a cool name), and was accepted not only because it fit the rules of planetary nomenclature, but because the first two letters (now making up the planet's sign) were evocative of Percival Lowell's name.

But Pluto would start arguments among astronomers which would lead all the way to today's news: is Pluto really a planet? When it's size (smallest of the nine planets, even smaller than the Earth's moon) and orbit (highly eccentric and well off the orbital plane of the rest of the planets) were determined, the differences between Pluto and the rest of the solar system cause many to believe that Pluto was not a planet, but some "captured" object, unworthy of planetary status. That's where the debate remained until now.

For the past two years, astronomers have been debating the classification for what constitutes a planet, and many believed that Pluto would be demoted. Well, the results seem to be in, and though it won't be official for another week, it seems that not only will Pluto remain a planet, but that three other objects will be added--and maps of the solar system will have to be re-written. Mind you, that's not due to any new discoveries, only an artificial construct of vocabulary. The new definition is:

A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.
In other words, it has to be round and orbiting the sun. Kinda inclusive, don't you think? It could lead to a whole bunch of new objects out there joining the planet club, despite being kinda dinky. Maybe they should set an arbitrary size limit as well--"you must be this tall to join the solar system." But for God's sake, leave Pluto in!

Pluto will indeed remain a planet, and another object, now only named 2003 UB313 (the discoverer wants to call it "Xena," but the convention of scientists is leaning towards "Persephone"). But there are two surprises: first, Ceres will become a planet. Though part of the asteroid belt, it is big enough, and, I guess, round enough to be considered a planet. The other surprise: Charon, which until now has been recognized as one of Pluto's moons (it has three in total). Charon will join Pluto as a planet, in a new category called "Plutons," which describes any Kuiper Belt-like objects (beyond Neptunian orbit) that have been or may be found. Charon and Pluto may become more like co-planets rather than planet and satellite; both orbit each other presenting the same face all the time.

There are a lot of other large spherical objects out there that could in theory join the club, so stay tuned. As for me, the biggest adjustment will be fitting in "Ceres" between Mars and Jupiter--it just seems so strange, kind of like getting used to the idea that Jupiter has 63 moons. I grew up with 12; 63 just isn't right. And I guess that's the whole point for some people.

Posted by Luis at 05:36 PM | Comments (2)

August 10, 2006

Evolution vs. Creationism Database

Ever get into an discussion with a creationist or an ID'er, and they throw some factoid at you "proving" evolution is fake? Or have you just read some creationist tract and are interested in the other side? Or, even more challenging, are you a creationist or ID'er and you want a healthy test of your beliefs? (Ha! As if.)

Well, in any case, check out the Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims. Even if it is of no immediate practical use, it's a very well-documented and exhaustive list of "arguments" forwarded by creationists to "disprove" evolution, each with an excellent explanation of why each claim is bogus. From "evolution is only a theory" to the "half an eye" argument and far beyond, it's all there. Very interesting reading.

And if you ever get the chance, watch this PBS documentary on evolution, narrated by Liam Neeson. Excellent series.

Posted by Luis at 10:58 AM | Comments (2)

July 19, 2006

Beyond Astronomical

On Saturday, I related the story about how I was hit by lightning, complete with an audio recording of the incident. I was amazed by being hit, wondering what the odds against that were.

Today, I found out something that makes the odds beyond astronomical, almost beyond belief: one of my co-workers, a professor whose desk is right next to mine, was also hit by lightning--same day, approximately the same time, and same intensity of electrical shock, but in a different part of town.

I know, your first reaction will be that they are pulling my leg. No way something that unlikely could happen. Probably they're having fun with me, maybe they didn't believe my story and are being sarcastic. What a sucker I am, right?

I'll admit, I can be gullible, but I can guarantee you that this is not the case this time. I trust this person implicitly; their personality is completely incompatible with that kind of a gag. My brother-in-law, that would be a different story. By this particular co-worker, not a chance. It's true: we were both hit by lightning the same day, at roughly the same time.

My co-worker, as it turns out, was jogging in a park near her home at the time (about 10 km away from where I was). Like me, she had misjudged the weather, and was caught off-guard by the sudden thunderstorm. In her case, it was already raining a little and she was wet when the lightning hit. She saw a flash and felt the electrical shock down her left arm as the thunderclap and lightning flash hit. Like me, she was startled, though my reaction right after that was, how cool was that! whereas my co-worker was much less enthralled by the experience. She ran for the nearest shelter, a small utility shed in the park, and waited out the lightning storm there.

But really, what are the chances? I calculated the odds, very, very roughly, of both of us being hit at 90 billion to one--but that's just for any two people being struck by lightning, and does not factor in the circumstance that we both work together in a small office. I have no idea how to factor that in, but I'm sure that if you did, the odds would go up to the point where you'd need a few sheets of paper just to contain all the zeroes involved.

Stranger than fiction....

Posted by Luis at 06:09 PM | Comments (2)

July 03, 2006

Schiavo Coda

Crooks and Liars has a pretty good wrap-up of the Schiavo affair. As it turns out, all the claims made about Terri Schiavo being conscious or aware were false. One of her nurses made claims about Terri speaking and reacting that the autopsy proved to be outright impossible (the nurse now faces loss of her license). Bill Frist's famous diagnosis of Terri as having responded to visual stimulus was thoroughly discredited by the autopsy, which showed Terri to have been completely blind. All 89 complaints against Michael Schiavo, including allegations that he beat and drugged Terri, that he denied her care, and much, much worse--every single one was proven to be absolutely false.

And yet, there are still multitudes of right-to-lifers out there who live in denial, seeing Terri as having been conscious and happy, and her husband Michael being a vile murderer. Such is the fundamentalist mindset, valuing belief over fact, faith over reason, and their own self-serving version of "truth" over reality.

Posted by Luis at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2006

A Biological Mandate

This from the AP/San Francisco Chronicle:

Men who have several older brothers have an increased chance of being gay, researchers say, a finding that adds weight to the idea that sexual orientation has a physical basis.

The increase was seen in men with older brothers from the same mother — whether they were raised together or not — but not those who had adopted or stepbrothers who were older.

For a long time, conservatives have been fighting the idea that homosexuality has a biological basis. The obvious reason they do so is that if homosexuality is biological, that means it is natural, and therefore not a "lifestyle choice." If being gay is natural, it would mean that most of the anti-gay arguments made by conservatives would collapse and they would no longer have a ostensibly "rational" shield to disguise their homophobia. Even more, a natural genesis for homosexuality would suggest for creationists that God made homosexuals the way they are, which would devastate many religious homophobes, unless they came to the conclusion (which they probably will) that God created these evil people as a test of our morality.

I've even heard conservatives go so far as to claim that gay people themselves say it's a choice; to do so, they had to dig way back into the early days of the gay rights movement and find a few radicals who made that claim as a way of asserting control over their sexuality. Few gay people make such claims, however; an overwhelming majority report being gay as a natural consequence, one they did not choose. The common phrasing is, "why would I choose to be someone who is so discriminated against?"

We've long heard the idea that homosexuality is biological; various researchers have come to that conclusion, and in that sense, this new study is nothing really new. Nor is the study conclusive. It does, however, bolster the general case, and helps opens the way for further study and research.

Conservatives naturally refute these findings:

Tim Dailey, a senior fellow at the conservative Center for Marriage and Family Studies disagreed.

"We don't believe that there's any biological basis for homosexuality," Dailey said. "We feel the causes are complex but are deeply rooted in early childhood development." ...

"If it is indeed genetically based it is difficult to see how it could have survived in the gene pool over a period of time," Dailey added.

That's another common argument against homosexuality having a biological basis: how could the genes for such a thing be passed on? Well, of course, there are many answers to that. For example, if it is genetic, it can be passed on as a recessive gene. But this study, which found that homosexuality occurs more often in men with many brothers, strengthens the case for homosexuality being a consequence of fetal development, and therefore not in the least dying out because a homosexual man does not have children. Apparently Mr. Dailey did not even understand the basis of the new study, or else this lame non sequitur was all that he had to fall back on.

There is also a biological and evolutionary advantage to homosexuality that has been forwarded, one that fits in very well with the idea that men with several older brothers have an increased chance of being gay. If a family group in prehistoric times had too many children and not enough caregivers, it could put the group in danger of not having sufficient resources to raise the children well. Gay members of the group would therefore be an advantage, adding to the number of caregivers who themselves do not produce offspring. The fact that this would kick in only after several heterosexual offspring were produced bolsters the case, suggesting a natural evolutionary solution to a life-threatening problem: family groups with more caregivers once a population threshold had been reached would be more likely to survive.

It is also heavily ironic in light of the policy of many religions which pressure their adherents to have larger families, especially with an emphasis on producing many male children. Such religious mandates would have the effect of increasing the homosexual population.

In any case, this theory, if true, would explain homosexuality quite nicely in evolutionary biological terms. Or even if you don't believe in evolution, it still would make the case for natural, and therefore God-ordained homosexuality.

If the theory can be proven, that would go a very long way to breaking down the societal objections to homosexuality, and perhaps, in time, even overcome the more primitive foundations of homophobia. One can hope. Just don't expect it soon.

Posted by Luis at 03:26 PM | Comments (3)

May 26, 2006

Five Years

There's a news report making the rounds about a team of researchers who claim that they will be able to produce an "invisibility cloak," or a "cloaking device," depending on whether you like Harry Potter or Star Trek more. The idea is that a "metamaterial" ("self-referential material"? Material that refers to itself?) will take light from one side of an object and bring it around to the other, as if it passed through the object. Thus, the cloaked object would be invisible--and not just to the eye. Light beyond the visible range as well as sound could also be warped to hide something.

Needless to say, I am taking this report with a grain of salt so big that nothing could cloak it. First of all, stories like this surface in the press every few months or so. Researchers somewhere claim that they're working on something amazing, and they're not too far from success in developing it. Usually it's a clean, cheap, and plentiful new power source, but almost as often it's some amazing gadget based on a startling new principle. The thing is, you always see news stories about these claims that they're on the brink of getting the thing... but you never hear of them again, there's never a report that they actually did it. See, that's the gold standard I'm waiting for: show me the money. Show me an actual cloaking device, and I'll be amazed. Tell me one is in the offing, just you wait, and I'll interpret that as another Brooklyn Bridge deal. Especially when you use words like "metamaterial."

But the real tell was in the details of the story:

He added that a cloaking material might not take long to develop, assuming there is sufficient research.

"If there is adequate funding, I'd have thought it would take in the order of five years," he said.

"Five years." Those are the magic words. (Not to mention "in the order of.") You see, I once heard an engineer say that when a project is vaporware and the team has no idea whatsoever when the thing will be finished, if even at all, any question about when the project will be finished will be answered: "It's five years away." Somehow five years is the magic amount of time. Some engineer apparently figured that five years was just close enough to sound promising, but just far enough away to allow for something to intervene by the time the deadline came up. Or people would just forget by then. I mean, really, if these "cloaking device" guys come up with nothing in five years, will you actually remember and say aloud, "Hey! Where's that cloaking device we were promised?"

Of course, the second tell was when he said the words "adequate funding." That's kind of a giveaway. Actually, it turns out that another team claimed that they were working on a cloaking device a few months ago. All this sounds like perpetual researchers vying for money from gullible people (like Dilbert's "Vijay, the World's Most Desperate Venture Capitalist"). Like this second team is trying to one-up the first team: "No we're working on a cloaking device! Really! Give us the money!" It brings to mind that scene from The Life of Brian where Brian is up on his cross with other condemned people, and when a clemency order comes along for "Brian," and he doesn't respond, others chime in: "I'm Brian, and so is my wife!"

Posted by Luis at 11:16 PM | Comments (0)

May 08, 2006

Adolescent Abstinence and Self-Delusion

A very informative story in the L.A. Times today, showing up the utter fallibility of abstinence-only sex education:

Virginity pledges, in which young people vow to abstain from sex until marriage, have little staying power among those who take them, a Harvard study has found.

More than half of the adolescents who make the signed public promises give up on their pledges within a year, according to the study released last week.

The findings have raised the ire of Concerned Women for America, a prominent conservative organization that advocates adolescent sexual abstinence.

"The Harvard report is wrong," said Janice Crouse, a fellow at a Concerned Women for America think tank.

Yeah! How dare they suggest that teenagers, especially ones who promised not to have sex, actually go and have sex! I'll bet that never really happens! Especially not my kids! Even if I had them!

I guess that this is an excellent example of "faith-based reasoning," as opposed to "reason-based reasoning." The idea that your kids are going to be perfect angels, that Christian kids are going to be less libido-driven than other kids, that you can actually get teenage kids to overpower their mammoth sexual drives by telling them nothing about sex except that they should promise not to have it until "marriage," which, to a teenage kid on hormonal surge, might as well be never. Complete, utter denial.

The conservative group, however, claims to have proof for how wrong those Harvard ninnies are:

"This study is in direct contradiction with trends we have been seeing in recent years," Crouse said. "Those who make virginity pledges have shown greater resolve to save sex for marriage."
Ah, nothing like facts and figures to resolve an argument. Well, at least from the Harvard people, who have an absolutely killer explanation as to why these conservative researchers are in the dark, aside from the obvious reasons, of course. The Harvard researchers, dealing with a survey population of fully 14,000, had the smarts not just to interview kids when they took the pledge, and then interview them again one year later--no, they were smart enough to come back again, five years later, and re-interview the grown-up people, with all that nonsense and adult-supervised pressure long absent from the scene, so they could get some honest answers.

And guess what? They found that of the kids who said they didn't have sex a year after they took the pledge, fully 73% fessed up to lying five years later. They did have sex, but were too embarrassed to admit it. Five years afterward, having grown up some, they were more willing to be open about their activity as teenagers.

Who'd have thought? Teenagers who promised not to have sex, actually having sex, and then lying about it! No! It can't be!

No wonder the "Concerned Women for America" were fooled. Moms pressuring their kids into making abstinence pledges, the kids breaking the pledge, and then swearing to mom that they didn't have sex. A completely unforeseeable course of events.

Posted by Luis at 02:14 AM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2006

The Futility of SETI

I am very much a fan of science, as well as science fiction. I am pretty certain that other life and civilizations exist out there, and am quite keen on the concept of contacting that life.

That said, I don't think SETI will ever accomplish anything. Here's why.

Imagine there is a tribe of primitive people on a remote and small archipelago in the south Pacific (where these imaginary tribesmen are usually located), who have never encountered anyone else in the world. They are way off of sea and air traffic lanes, so they have never even seen any evidence of others living on Earth. They do know the Earth is curved (they see boats going to their most distant island disappear over the horizon) and vast, and they wonder: are there any other people, any other tribes out there?

So they send their smartest people off to try to contact others using the most sophisticated communications technology they possess. These big brains climb the tallest mountain in the island chain, start a fire, and begin sending up smoke signals. The communications team figures that if anyone exists out beyond that horizon, surely they will see the signals, and if they do, they will reply in kind. The intrepid team spends weeks up on the mountain, sending signals and keeping a keen and vigilant watch on all horizons for any reply.

Eventually, after receiving no answers to their many signals, they decide to pack it in. Either there is no one else out there, or they aren't watching for smoke signals, or they aren't advanced enough to understand or send them, or they just don't care to reply. Regardless of which is true, they cannot find any evidence of life out there.

And as they walk down the mountain in resignation, they are completely unaware that at that instant, countless radio signals from dozens of highly advanced civilizations on Earth are coursing through the very space they occupy.

In this analogy, we are the tribesmen.

It has always surprised me that this probable truth is never discussed, that I have encountered at least, in public discourse about the search for intelligent life in the universe. No one seems to consider or at least speak aloud the most likely case that alien signals abound around us--but we simply don't have the technology to pick them up.

Think of the scientific arrogance: we are supposed to assume that the long-range communications technology we possess--electromagnetic radiation signaling--is somehow the ultimate in scientific achievement. Here we are, just beginning our scientific development, still without a unified field theory on how the universe works, and yet the technology we developed just a hundred years ago--the blink of an eye by cosmological standards, and just the very beginning of what is likely a long technological evolution--is the end-all-be-all of cosmic telephony. I find the idea highly unlikely. You might say that there is no better conceivable technology than radio to communicate--but I'm sure that what was thought of the last best way to talk before radio technology was developed.

I have little doubt that decades, centuries, or even millennia in the future, we will discover if not one, then many more advanced stages of communications technology, and when that time comes, we'll discover why things seem so silent in the universe when we listen just with radio telescopes.

Posted by Luis at 01:13 AM | Comments (4)

January 29, 2006

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago today, I had a class at the Computer Senmon Gakkou school in Toyama. I recall coming into the front office for the school, out of the snow. The staff there was excited, and asked if I'd heard the news. What news? They pointed to the TV mounted from the ceiling, where the news was playing. Very soon, they showed the clips available at the time, of the space shuttle Challenger blowing up. It was a devastating blow for me, as I had always been a fan of the space program. They showed it over and over again. Then I had to go to class.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, usually. But I am not one to dismiss them out of hand, either. From the evidence out there, I believe that Flight 93 was shot down and a panicked Bush administration didn't want to admit it. I don't believe, however, that Bush or his people knowingly manufactured 9/11. If the evidence is strong enough or compelling enough, then I'll give credence to a theory, and will not allow fear of ridicule or popular disbelief sway me.

The Challenger disaster has always been a matter of suspicion for me. Before the shuttle lifted off, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that made the twin boosters on either side of the main fuel tank (the big orange tank the shuttle rides on), warned that the cold temperatures could lead to the erosion of the O-rings holding the booster segments together. If the O-rings went, the shuttle would explode. NASA officials dismissed the warnings and went ahead with the launch.

The question is, why did they do that? NASA has been famous for canceling launches at the drop of a hat. Now they were receiving warnings that the shuttle might explode (in fact, Rockwell engineers also warned about ice damage to the orbiter), and they dismissed them? Mainstream reports hold that NASA had been embarrassed by delays and cancellations in 1985, and that was what compelled them to override safety concerns and launch anyway. However, I don't fully buy that; it's out of character with NASA protocols and past actions. And there is an alternate explanation which makes much more sense.

Politics has always influenced the space program. Presidents and other politicians, though disdainful of the money spent and often ignorant of the commercial value of the space program, are always instantly ready to bask in its light and use it to their political advantage. The selection of Morton Thiokol and the segmented booster design, in fact, was influenced by Thiokol being based in Utah, the home state of the senator in charge of the committee which made the decision to buy.

But the major political influence of that day was the fact that President Reagan was set to make his State of the Union address just hours after the launch, and boast about how we had just sent a schoolteacher into space. That administration was famously known for its love of theater and backdrop, and was intensely committed to playing up such drama to the hilt. Education was to be featured in the address, a schoolteacher was on the flight, and already NASA had pushed back the launch by a week. The week-long space flight was originally scheduled to be ending just as Reagan gave his address. Another delay, and Reagan would not be able to use the majestic flight and historic teacher-in-space to his political advantage. The wording from the address that he was scripted to use was this:

Tonight while I am speaking to you, a young secondary school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, is taking us all on the ultimate field trip, as she orbits the earth as the first citizen-passenger on the space shuttle.

Christa McAuliffe's journey is a prelude to the journeys of other Americans and our friends around the world who will be living and working together in the permanently manned space station in the mid-1990s, bringing a rich return of scientific, technical, and economic benefits to mankind.

Mrs. McAuliffe's week in space is just one of the achievements in space which we have planned for the coming year.

Adding to the legitimacy of administration pressure to lift off on Tuesday was the abortive flight cancellation the previous weekend. Challenger was schedule to take off on Sunday. Usually, because weather at the Cape is so volatile, the shuttle would be fueled up and the astronauts would board and the decision to launch would be made at the last minute. However, on Saturday night, bad weather was predicted for the next day, and NASA made an uncharacteristic decision to cancel the night before. The reason: if the launch was scrubbed on Sunday, then the unloading of fuel from the shuttle would mean they could not try again until Wednesday--which would be too late for Reagan's address. The fact that NASA cancelled early is a persuasive indication that the State of the Union address was a strong factor in the decision to launch.

Tragically, Sunday's weather was perfect, and had it lifted off then, Challenger would most likely have been safe. Instead, it was delayed until Tuesday. There was pressure from the engineers to scrub. There was pressure from the top to go. The question is, did the pressure from the top come from NASA, which was predisposed to safety? Or did it come from the White House, with Reagan chief of staff Donald Regan reportedly demanding, "Tell them to get that thing up!"

Unless someone makes a deathbed confession, we'll probably never know. But I do know which is more likely, and certainly which is much more in character.

Posted by Luis at 01:47 PM | Comments (1)

January 25, 2006

Climate Change

Talking about "coincidences," the right-wingers like to debunk and mock global warming as often as possible. Recent weather patterns, they tell us, are just the high end of a "normal" weather cycle, nothing to be concerned about. Well, if that is so, then explain this:

Last year was the warmest recorded on Earth's surface, and it was unusually hot in the Arctic, U.S. space agency NASA said on Tuesday.

All five of the hottest years since modern record-keeping began in the 1890s occurred within the last decade, according to analysis by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In descending order, the years with the highest global average annual temperatures were 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, NASA said in a statement. "It's fair to say that it probably is the warmest since we have modern meteorological records," said Drew Shindell of the NASA institute in New York City.

"Using indirect measurements that go back farther, I think it's even fair to say that it's the warmest in the last several thousand years."

So, is that a "coincidence"? If it's the high end of a weather cycle, then it's still the highest end in thousands of years. And it's not just that and the fact that we had a record number of hurricanes last year, there is wild weather all over. How long will we live in the fantasy that we can dump 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the earth's atmosphere each year, year after year, and not see any adverse changes in global temperatures?

And to those who guffaw and talk about how it's snowing more where they are, the overall warming trend does not mean it's getting warmer everywhere, it means that the overall increase is affecting and shifting weather patterns and creating global climate change--which includes more cold weather and snowfall in some areas. Like, say, here in Japan. "Global warming" is almost a misnomer; "global climate change" is perhaps more accurate.

Perhaps a little bit more serious consideration is in order.

Posted by Luis at 08:54 AM | Comments (3)

December 27, 2005

All of the People Some of the Time

See if you can decode this statement by John McCain to an MTV audience:

"Every young American should be exposed to every point of view. I'm not saying [intelligent design] should be taught in science classes. But I'm saying young people should be exposed to it. I also believe that God had a hand in creation. I certainly don't believe the Earth was created in seven days. But when I stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and look at that grandeur, I detect the hand of God there in the time before time. I see no reason why students should not be exposed to all theories, recognizing that Darwin's theory's certainly one that is generally accepted in most of the scientific community. I think it's not inappropriate to say there are also people who believe this. Let the student decide."
This is what I hear: "Intelligent design blah blah blah I'm not getting behind this BS but I want to at least minimally please the right wing core blah blah blah students rock."

I mean, really--"let the students decide"? Decide what? Not whether to have ID in science class according to his earlier statement, but if not that, then what? Or is this code for "ID is not science and doesn't belong in the science class but let's get it in anyway wink wink"? In a true academic environment, the students don't decide the curriculum--but then, McCain's statement was probably never intended to mean that students should have any say, but rather that parents, and through them, right-wing school boards and churches should. Steve Benen commented on this aptly:

In related news, McCain said he'd like to see students decide whether to believe the earth is flat, the South won the Civil War, the value of pi is exactly 3, and one can contract the AIDS virus through tears and sweat.
Maybe all the parents who want their children to learn only what is popular and/or approved by the church or the right wing should get together and occupy a deep-red state so only their kids get this claptrap. And then they can collectively wonder at why their kids score lowest on tests, and can't think straight or get jobs when they grow up.

On the other hand, probably McCain's "let the students decide" is more like a general utterance designed just to please students and the MTV crowd. Just as the "ID is not science" to please those who want science to be secular, and "the hand of God" to please the fundies. You can't please everyone but it really sounds like McCain is trying.

That makes you believe he'll probably try a run for the presidency in 2008. And he'd be the smart choice for the GOP--but he also clearly is not willing to give the fundies what they demand, which is full obeisance and compliance. They're willing to forgive a veneer of independence, but not nearly as much actual free agency as McCain would probably need. Which means they may get Frist and trash McCain, in the style of when they backed Bush. Which would be great; while McCain is probably the least objectionable Republican to Democrats, he's also too much of a party man and a GOP apologist to stem the tremendous damage that the GOP would continue to inflict on the country. He'd be a hundred times better than Bush, but he'd still be bad as he'd fully enable the GOP. And if someone like Frist were the candidate, the Dems would stand a much better chance of winning.

Posted by Luis at 03:51 PM | Comments (1)

December 21, 2005

Fundamentalist Rage

Well, Judge Jones himself predicted that the ID'ers would try to brand him as an activist. And here they go--from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, an organization bent on pushing ID:

"The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won't work."

"Judge Jones found that the Dover board violated the Establishment Clause because it acted from religious motives. That should have been the end to the case. Instead, Judge Jones got on his soapbox to offer his own views of science, religion, and evolution. He makes it clear that he wants his place in history as the judge who issued a definitive decision about intelligent design. This is an activist judge who has delusions of grandeur."

Of course, if you read the decision, you'll see that it is taught, going no further than is necessary. Every step is mandated and covers the legal arguments made before the court. There is no question but that if Judge Jones had failed to cover any of his points, these same fundamentalists would then be using those gaps to claim victory.

Not to mention that Jones is not "stopping the spread of debate" in any way, shape or form.

"Anyone who thinks a court ruling is going to kill off interest in intelligent design is living in another world. Americans don't like to be told there is some idea that they aren't permitted to learn about. It used to be said that banning a book in Boston guaranteed it would be a bestseller. Banning intelligent design in Dover will likely only fan interest in the theory."
Which, of course, is an inane statement. Jones did not ban anyone from learning about ID. The same students can spend every waking moment studying ID if they so please. Judge Jones simply ruled that it was not part of a science curriculum. Neither, I believe, does it purely ban ID, rather, it bans school boards from requiring it.

And again, he is not attempting to kill off interest or stop ID from developing; in fact, he states clearly that "[we do not] controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed."

"Discovery Institute continues to oppose efforts to mandate teaching about the theory of intelligent design in public schools. But the Institute strongly supports the freedom of teachers to discuss intelligent design in an objective manner on a voluntary basis."
This is a rather blatant lie. If they opposed efforts to mandate ID, why are they not in favor of this opinion? Further, they suggest here that ID cannot be discussed in the science classroom. I am fairly sure it does not do that--the ruling stated clearly that "it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom" (italics mine). A teacher should be able to bring up the ID argument without problem.

In short, these people are full of it. But there is some base, visceral enjoyment in seeing these people get hopping mad and braying this contrived pap as uselessly as a dog barking at the moon. Reason won out this time--sorry, Charlie.

Posted by Luis at 05:43 AM | Comments (1)

December 20, 2005

Judge Says "No" to "Intelligent Design"

It's official: U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III has handed down his decision in the Dover School Board case on ID, and he says it has no place in science classes. Jones ruled that ID was not science, and could not uncouple itself from its creationist underpinnings. I have yet to get my hands on a copy of the ruling, but from what initial reports say, the judge was almost contemptuous of those trying to get ID in the science class:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
This case is significant because it will act as precedent nationwide and will influence other courts, should ID'ers elsewhere try the same tactic in getting creationism into the public science classroom. Even better, since the people of Dover chucked out the entire 8-member school board that brought the case and replaced the entire board with Democrats, it's clear that the new school board will accept this ruling and of course not appeal, meaning that the ID'ers will have to work that much more to impose religious doctrine into public schools.

More on this as I get more information.

Update: the decision is now available online. It makes for excellent reading, and acts as an exhaustively researched and well-written analysis of ID, a seminal view of all the arguments for and against. Excerpts include:

...we conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child. ...

The weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates, as noted, that the systemic change from “creation” to “intelligent design” occurred sometime in 1987, after the Supreme Court’s important Edwards decision. This compelling evidence strongly supports Plaintiffs’ assertion that ID is creationism re-labeled. ...

After a careful review of the record and for the reasons that follow, we find that an objective student would view the disclaimer as a strong official endorsement of religion. Application of the objective student standard pursuant to the endorsement test reveals that an objective Dover High School ninth grade student will unquestionably perceive the text of the disclaimer, “enlightened by its context and contemporary legislative history,” as conferring a religious concept on “her school’s seal of approval.” ...

In summary, the disclaimer singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource, and instructs students to forego scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere. ...

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. ...

As referenced, the concept of irreducible complexity is ID’s alleged scientific centerpiece. Irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design, a point conceded by defense expert Professor Minnich.

And one of my own pet arguments:
ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed. (5:41 (Pennock)). This argument is not brought to this Court anew, and in fact, the same argument, termed “contrived dualism” in McLean, was employed by creationists in the 1980's to support “creation science.” The court in McLean noted the “fallacious pedagogy of the two model approach” and that “[i]n efforts to establish ‘evidence’ in support of creation science, the defendants relied upon the same false premise as the two model approach . . . all evidence which criticized evolutionary theory was proof in support of creation science.” McLean, 529 F. Supp. at 1267, 1269. We do not find this false dichotomy any more availing to justify ID today than it was to justify creation science two decades ago. ... we believe that arguments against evolution are not arguments for design.
The judge concludes:
After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions. Defendants’ actions in violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

Excellent. Just excellent.

While ID proponents may well try to frame this as judicial "activism," a quick read-through dispels any doubt whatsoever about that being the case. This is obviously well-grounded in law and reason. Even if it were challenged by appeal, It's pretty clear there would be zero chance of it being overturned.

Posted by Luis at 05:34 AM | Comments (3)

December 16, 2005

Appeals Court Judges Misses on Evolution

This story from the LA Times is out today:

A federal appeals court panel appeared sharply critical Thursday of a ruling this year that ordered the removal of stickers in science textbooks stating, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact."

Judge Ed Carnes of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the lower court judge had misstated facts in his ruling, overstating the influence religious protests had on the school board's actions. He also said the words on the sticker are "technically accurate," and that the Cobb County school board was justified in singling out the theory of evolution for comment.

"From nonlife to life is the greatest gap in scientific theory," Carnes said. "There is less evidence supporting it than there is for other theories. It sounds to me like evolution is more vulnerable and deserves more critical thinking" than other subjects.

Well, it seems Carnes either has a personal bias in favor of Creationism, or he's just not too bright. He doesn't even seem to realize what the "theory" of evolution is. That's a rookie mistake, like believing that the "theory of gravity" is about whether or not gravity exists. The "theory of evolution" is not a theory about whether evolution exists, it's a theory as to how evolution works. Evolution itself is clearly real, as proven by all the evidence--fossils dating back a few billion years, life forming more complex organisms as time progresses, with clearly defined branches of forms developing, one creature into two or more, one creature into another in a chain, leading up to present-day life. The core idea of evolution--that life changed from less complex forms into more complex ones--is about as solid as it gets.

You could argue that "evolution" has come to mean the theory of how, instead of meaning evolution as a whole. But not in this context. The people who put the stickers on those books clearly believe that evolution did not take place at all, and want students to get the official word from the government that God created all life in its present form. The phrase "Evolution is a theory, not a fact" is "technically correct" only if you completely ignore the context.

Further evidence that Carnes is bending things comes from his statement about "nonlife to life" being the "greatest gap in scientific theory." This only covers one part of the theory of evolution--the beginning--and completely ignores the remaining fossil record. One could still believe that God created the most primary life forms and let things snowball from there, and evolution is still real and present. But even that is still a "God of the gaps," using God to fill in for segments of scientific understanding not yet achieved.

Science can, without any contradiction or complication, be described as understanding "how God did it," not "whether God did it." Understanding that, evolution as described by science can be seem as an attempt to understand how life formed, whether as directed by God or not. The same can be said of how life began. If God did it, He must have used some method, one that could be described by science. Why is it so all-fired important for some people to believe that it was somehow magical? That it was not God directing the laws of molecular interaction so as to lead to the grandeur of life we see today, but rather some instant, mystical, clap-some-clay-together-and-poof-there's-life miracle that would be beyond science's ability to explain?

The outlines here are clear: people who believe that an old-looking guy with a beard and maybe a belly button slapped clay on clay and made life, and that's that; they believe that evolution is wholly untrue. This is a religious belief, and they're pissed that the evidence of the world contradicts that, and worse, that the government allows this contradictory evidence to be taught in schools. These are people who believe that all of evolution is untrue, and want this religious doctrine to be reflected in universal education. That's what the stickers are about; anything else is a snow job.

Note to Judge Carnes: get a grip on the issue.

Posted by Luis at 07:33 AM | Comments (3)

December 09, 2005

Incompetent Design

Via DKos, this scientist makes an argument which by itself knocks the so-called "Intelligent Design" theory completely off the stage. He points out that our "intelligently" designed bodies are not quite so intelligent: there are many flaws in our construction which can only be explained by evolutionary processes. These same flaws make absolutely no sense in a creationist paradigm. Our pelvises slope forward, for example, a throwback to a time when we did not stand erect, but used our knuckles to aid in walking. We have too many teeth for the size of our mouths, a product of a shortened muzzle or snout. The appendix and tonsils are unnecessary. And a list of other problems on top of these.

Certainly, a good examination of the structure of the human body would reveal a number of things that make no sense if it were supposed to be a pinnacle of design--or even a mediocre design, but well-built. These imperfections do not make sense if you assume a designer--but they make perfect sense if you assume an evolutionary process. This is similar to the fact that the universe is built in a way that contradicts a 6,000-year-old cosmos. The universe that we observe demonstrates light that has been traveling towards us for billions of years, and a momentum that points to a big-bang beginning about 14 billion years ago. Why would God create a universe with such built-in contradictions? Would He really construct a universe full of light heading toward us as if it had already been traveling for eons? The best (though pitiful) explanation is the whole "God is testing us" theory. But if God is omniscient, then He would have no need of tests. And if the test is purely for us, then isn't it kind of an unfair test? Or did God imbue us with with the quality of reason as a cruel joke?

I prefer to believe that the universe we live in and the bodies we inhabit are not a tissue of lies.

Posted by Luis at 11:37 AM | Comments (3)

December 01, 2005

Huge Fans?

I found this image on a Hubble site; it shows the center of the M51 galaxy, the image being hundreds of light years across:


According to NASA:

The "X" is due to absorption by dust and marks the exact position of a black hole which may have a mass equivalent to one-million stars like the sun. The darkest bar may be an edge-on dust ring which is 100 light-years in diameter. ... The second bar of the "X" could be a second disk seen edge on, or possibly rotating gas and dust in MS1 intersecting with the jets and ionization cones.
Me, I think they're huge fans of The X-Files and are trying to tell us something; see one version of The X-Files' logo below, and compare:


The Truth Is Waaaaay Out There.

Posted by Luis at 03:58 PM | Comments (2)

October 22, 2005

Freaky-Looking, Cool-Looking Moonscapes

Boy, the appearance of this moon almost freaks me out. I mean, it almost looks like a diseased, pockmarked vegetable pod split open rather than a moon of majestic Saturn. This photo of Hyperion courtesy of the NASA Cassini orbiter probe, taken Sept. 26, 2005 while 62,000 kilometers from the moon. Click on the image below for a larger (1024-pixel-square) version of the photo.


This raw, unprocessed photo from a few days ago, meanwhile, looks like something right out of a science fiction movie: the small moon Prometheus hovering just above Saturn's ring plane, while another moon (Dione?) passing in front of what I assume is Titan (again, click for the larger image):


I love this stuff.

Posted by Luis at 03:47 AM | Comments (3)

September 25, 2005

Science and Religion

Let's say it simply: science does not deny the existence of God. Science simply explains what we observe in the universe in a mechanical sense. It is fully possible to accept both science and religion wholly. Science only "contradicts" certain religious doctrines in the interpretations, and these details are when the doctrine attempts to use scripture to establish science. Historically, religion has always evolved to accept what science has found; where churches attempted to establish religious-based scientific dogma (the concept that the Earth was the center of the universe being the best example), they eventually changed the dogma to accept what science showed was true. It often took a great deal of time and they wound up cowing and punishing a lot scientists along the way, but it always happened. And so it will with evolution. It's just a question of how long it will take the fundamentalists to "forgive" the scientists for reporting what they see.

Posted by Luis at 11:28 AM | Comments (2)

September 04, 2005

Mars and Saturn


Remember the Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, which landed on Mars in January of 2004, and were only supposed to last 90 days? They were not expected to survive the cold and the dust of Mars for longer than three months, but the engineers apparently built them a hell of a lot tougher than anyone expected. One year and nine months later, they're still going strong. Engineers usually over-engineer any given project, giving what they build an extra margin of safety--but these rovers are now exceeding seven times their expected lifetimes! Both of them. That is no small feat by anyone's reckoning.

if you want to see the images they're still churning out, including Spirit's magnificent panorama from the vantage point on top of Husband Hill, check out their multimedia page.

Meanwhile, the Cassini probe continues on schedule to send back amazing images from Saturn. Picture below is a view of Saturn's moons Dione and Rhea; the double line cutting through them is an edge-on view of Saturn's rings, with the moons visible behind them. It's practically straight out of Star Wars. For Saturn photos regularly returned from Cassini, visit that probe's multimedia page.


Posted by Luis at 04:12 AM | Comments (2)

August 03, 2005

Reply to a Psychic

I have finished responding to a comment to a person calling themselves a psychic, and decided that due to the content and length of the reply, I might as well make it a blog post. It concerns the accuracy of psychic predictions, and how something can seem psychic without being so. My writing has been edited to take the form of a blog post; block-quoted and italic excerpts are from the comment left by the visitor to the site.

By the way I do know many psychics that have helped find lost or stolen children, that never accept a dime...
Fine. But that's a belief, not "knowledge," unless you have scientific evidence that what you heard or saw was indeed the result of some psychic powers, and not human intelligence, intuition and/or random events isolated and exhibited outside the context of the x number of times nothing happened. The point of this blog entry is not that all psychics are frauds, but that people like Sylvia Browne certainly seem to be frauds. As for people who call themselves psychics and are genuine in speaking and intent, as far as I'm concerned the jury is still out on that one. I will not accept the idea of psychic abilities until I see proof, but I will also not dismiss the idea of psychic abilities until I see proof. So far I have not seen anything even resembling proof.

By the way did you know Medical Doctors have something like a 60 to 70 percent accuracy rate? And don't even ask about brokers..
So? I would like to see the figures on that claim, by the way--inaccurate how, measured how, etc. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, no psychic has reached anywhere near that level of accuracy under scientifically controlled conditions. If you know differently, please point to the evidence; I'd be interested. But I believe that many and possibly all people who genuinely believe they are psychic are simply mistaken. One case (and I admit it is hearsay, but it serves as example) of a young man who studied psychic readings from a book he discovered, which professed to enable true psychic abilities, telling the reader how to psychicly read someone. He studied the book, and then tried it--and was amazed to find that the person he read said he was 100% correct! He continued on and did very well, believing earnestly in his psychic abilities.

At one point, a skeptic friend suggested he try something: the next time he does a reading, report to the client exactly the opposite of what he "read." If he read "healthy," say "ill." If he read that a family member died, report that a family member survived a health crisis. If he read the person was an optimist, tell them they were a pessimist. And so on. This person wanted to truthfully affirm his abilities, so he decided to do so, and carefully followed the concept as laid out, not trying to go too far and making it ludicrous and so "disprove" the challenge.

So he has a readee and he begins the session. As he goes on, the client gets this look of disbelief on their face, and the young man starts getting uncomfortable--they can tell how far off and completely wrong this reading is, he thinks. But he sticks to it. And at the end, the person he read just sits there in astonishment, and remarks: "That was the most incredibly accurate reading I have ever gotten!"

As I said, hearsay. But it demonstrates the concept about how "psychic" readings have problems in terms of calling them "accurate." The person being read almost always helps the reading with interpretation, working (as humans have the talent to do) to associate what is said with something in their lives. Case in point (not hearsay, I saw this on video): Carl Sagan once met with a class of college students, many who believed in horoscopes, many who did not. He told them that trained astrologers had drawn out highly specific readings for each one of them. The readings were passed out on pieces of paper, and each student read theirs privately. After going over the readings, the students were asked how accurate the readings were; in this case, almost all of the students reported that the readings were amazingly accurate.

Then the students were told to compare their readings with other students--and to their surprise, they found that they'd been had: all the readings were identical.

The point to this is that the readee does a great deal of work in finding "truth" in generalities. That's the way that the human mind works.

This can even happen in cases where psychics work with police. Now, if a psychic can regularly take a piece of evidence into their hands and report, "the body is buried 320 feet from the interstate 42 miles from Barstow, in a shallow grave under a walnut tree" that'll be quite amazing. If said psychic can demonstrate such accuracy 70% of the time, that'll be astonishing. But that's not what happens. Instead, generalities are given, which can apply to most situations, if the investigator is inclined to work with the reading and make the connections work. Sometimes a psychic may be highly intelligent and/or intuitive, and can give many clues with good accuracy in the same way that profilers can. This does not mean the person is psychic.

One cannot dismiss intuitiveness and knowledge. Cold readers use it dishonestly, but people who feel they are genuine can use it without even knowing. Intuition can feel a lot like psychic powers if you have good intuition. Intuition is little more than making associations at the unconscious level, drawing on the vast repertoire of knowledge of people that all of us possess. From the way a person dresses, you can make connections that might tell you what they do. Mannerisms and body language can telegraph a great amount of information about personality and emotional states that usually don't register at the conscious level. Good knowledge of people can discern common habits, common failings, common ways of dying and loving and feeling and reacting.

Additionally, people getting readings often give as much information than they receive. Readings I have seen are conversations, back-and-forth, which provide the reader (honest or otherwise) with a great many clues from which parts of readings may be derived, consciously or otherwise. A person not saying a single word, not giving a single fact or clue or any information during the reading will likely not get as accurate a reading.

Another part of the equation is the forgiving of misses. As I pointed out in the entry, a psychic gave a reading where most of the information was not confirmed and some was actually wrong, but King praised the psychic as being "100% correct." We dismiss the misses and focus on the hits. When a psychic gives clues that lead to the capture of a killer, that seems significant and is reported widely. But when a psychic can't contribute anything or is way off, that doesn't get reported.

Then there's the "alternate explanation" problem. When something happens that seems psychic, people jump to the conclusion that it is psychic--and do not run through all the possibilities to explain the situation, and so of course do not confirm whether or not they really happened. One psychic on Larry King told a story (hearsay, no proof that any of it happened) about a cactus. Apparently, two men were in the desert and one died. A TV psychic did a reading on the dead man's mother, and said that her son's friend who was with him when he died would bring her a gift, a cactus. Sure enough, some time later, he brought her a cactus. Proof of psychic ability! Well, not quite--there are alternate explanations which could very likely be true.

For example, the reading was public, and so word could have gotten back to the dead man's friend that he was supposed to bring her a cactus, and then for whatever reason, he decided to do so. Or perhaps the mother told him, directly or indirectly, and he said, "hey, yeah, I was thinking of doing just that" (truthfully or not), and so did. Or maybe it was simply that in this case, the gift of a cactus--representing the hallowed ground on which the woman's son died--was simply an intuitive and very reasonable guess. None of these require psychic abilities to be true, and since none were investigated, one cannot claim that one "knows" psychic powers were the explanation, however easy it may be to jump to that conclusion.

These phenomena--readee association, not recording the misses, intuition, and ignoring alternate explanations, can make something completely mundane and non-psychic appear to be amazingly psychic.

Again, I'm not saying that psychics or psychic powers don't exist; I am simply pointing out how we commonly mistake things for psychic when they are not. And these phenomena and others like them are exactly what the frauds take advantage of to fool people. But they are also what we commonly use to fool ourselves, however earnest we feel and however much we believe we are taking an "objective" approach.

The bottom line is, if something can be explained in other way, it isn't proven--until you can dismiss the other ways and leave nothing but your hypothesis--and that's what scientifically controlled tests are all about: making it impossible for anything else to explain the situation. And when psychics submit to these conditions (which they rarely do), their performance suddenly drops to levels that anyone could achieve through mundane talents. Excuses about "negativity" and "bad vibes" are just that--excuses.

Finally why isn't the other side of the coin ever shown, I once did a reading ... [writer goes on to detail a reading where an accurate prediction was made]
In my experience, that's about all that ever gets shown, at least from psychics. I've heard psychics--including yourself--tell about their many hits, but I've never heard psychics listing their misses.
... I once did a reading Where the man asked did my father leave me anything That I haven't found yet. I told him I saw sports tickets (which he kept saying he would do because they never went to sporting events they preferred to watch them on TV this was something they had discussed even described what they looked like though truthfully I was not able to read the team name He then asked me where to find it I told him the room they were in and that appeared to be inside a desk draw. Now I had read for him over an hour and told him many things and passed the many tests people like to give you. Later his wife said to me he doesn't think your real, I said "Why? He said the tickets were in a short dresser draw not a desk. Swear true story!
First, your story here is not clear in many respects (I'm sorry, but your writing is a bit fuzzy). Your sentence, "I told him I saw sports tickets (which he kept saying he would do because they never went to sporting events they preferred to watch them on TV this was something they had discussed even described what they looked like though truthfully I was not able to read the team name" is both a run-on sentence and is unclear in meaning. He kept saying he would do what? Buy sporting tickets? Because they never went to sporting events? Was there a typo? Very unclear.

But the gist of your story shows flaws: first of all, intuitiveness. Tickets to sports events were found in a drawer (I'll forgive you the inaccuracy of the type of drawer, but it should be noted). Now, if you asked me--a non-psychic--to look for sports tickets in a strange person's house, where would I look first? No doubt, I would head straight for a desk drawer. That's not psychic. That's intuitive knowledge. It's like predicting that cottage cheese would be found in a refrigerator or that you would find a TV in a living room.

The only part which could be claimed as psychic would be the prediction of sports tickets. And on this, I am unable to judge because I do not have access to the transcript of the conversation. For all I know, any number of verbal or even visual cues could have inspired this guess--a shirt with a sports team logo, the fact that men (often fathers and sons) commonly go to sporting events, or perhaps you heard him say they enjoyed sports and guessed tickets before he told you they never went to events but only watched TV. Depending on the whole hour of the reading and the contextual clues within, your prediction could be explained in many different ways without the need to ascribe them to psychic powers.

I also don't know the other numerous "hits" you claim, nor am I informed of what "misses" you may have experienced, or what the ratio was. Nor do I know the nature of the hits--were they things no one could have possibly guessed, were they things which anyone could have guessed, were they predictable via hints and clues the person's appearance, mannerisms and speech provided, were they little things like "you chew gum" which have a 50% chance of being hit-miss and you got 50% of them right? Without the specifics, there's no way I can judge the accuracy or inaccuracy of your claims. And this is assuming you are 100% honest and genuine. What you give me is not even close to real proof; if I believe it, then I am not believing facts, I am believing unsupported claims. And I am not calling you dishonest or a liar, what you describe could absolutely be not psychic and you could absolutely believe it is.

Such is the nature of people's acceptance of psychic abilities: not based upon carefully observed and analyzed facts or evidence, but in the vast area of uncertainty that is subjective experience.

But if you believe you are psychic, then visit this site and apply to take the million-dollar test. They will put you under scientifically controlled conditions. You will describe your psychic ability, and then together you and they will draw up mutually agreed-upon tests that will rule out all other possibilities. The tests will accurately count miss-to-hit ratios and account for probabilities for each guess (e.g., you get points for predicting correctly that a certain Muslim person eats bacon twice a week, but no points for predicting correctly that they avoid pork products).

If you are, as you claim, truly psychic, then you can claim a very public victory for the legitimacy of psychic reading, while you collect the million dollars and do a great deal more unpaid work because you'll have a wonderful nest egg. How can you lose?

Posted by Luis at 05:14 PM | Comments (4)

July 31, 2005


Pluto is no longer the farthest planet from the sun. And I am not referring to the period between 1979 to 1999 when Pluto's eccentric orbit brought it closer to the sun than Neptune (which won't happen again until 2226).

No, this is different. They have, so they claim, discovered a tenth planet.

The planet (photos here) is at least as large as Pluto and may be 50% bigger. It orbits the sun 9 billion miles out, three times farther out than Pluto, though its orbit is just as eccentric as Pluto's--at closest approach, the new planet would be only a little farther out than Pluto is at its farthest. It takes 560 years to orbit the sun, as opposed to Pluto's 248 years. It revolves around the sun at a 44-degree angle relative to the ecliptic plane which most planets inhabit (Pluto is the other exception, at 17.5 degrees off the ecliptic).

A name for the new planet has been submitted (but not made public), which is good because the present name of "2003UB313" would be hard to pronounce. It might be named "Xena," in recognition of (a) the TV warrior princess, and (b) how geeky these guys are.

Of course, there is a question of whether it's even a planet or not, as scientists are in disagreement that even Pluto is a planet; the eccentricity and deviance from the ecliptic could identify these bodies as captured objects, which wandered into the solar system from the outside and got captured in the sun's gravitational pull.

But seeing them as planets is way more fun.

Posted by Luis at 04:27 AM | Comments (0)