Creative Destruction

November 10, 2013

Entrainment in Physics

Filed under: Content-lite,Geekery,Science — Brutus @ 1:39 pm

Saw a curious YouTube video, courtesy of Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht’s blog at Arts Journal:

I puzzled for a short while about how independent mechanical devices could sync up. The first commentator at Slipped Disc identifies the phenomenon as entrainment, which is accurate except that the comment refers to music therapy. With metronomes, however, there is no nervous system at work as with entrainment in humans. Rather, this video merely demonstrates a property of physics, also called entrainment, whereby interacting oscillating systems achieve mode lock or sync to the same period. In fact, the Wikipedia link in the previous sentence includes a CBS News report assuring everyone that it’s merely physics. This property was observed 350 years ago. Let me draw attention to the fact that the floating tray on which the metronomes sit moves sufficiently (left and right in the video) to allow the devices to interact. In truth, it took me only a little poking around to uncover the physics of it.

January 23, 2008

Human Evolution

Filed under: Media Analysis,Science — Brutus @ 3:31 pm

The BBC News has an article reporting that scientists have found evidence to suggest that human evolution is “speeding up.” Scare quotes are used for speeding up in the title of the article for good reason: it’s a reckless remark that can’t be proffered with a straight face. The study on which the article is based

looked specifically at genetic variations called “single nucleotide polymorphisms,” or SNPs. These are single-point mutations, or changes, in the genetic sequence of DNA on chromosomes.

If the mutation is advantageous then it will spread rapidly in the population, along with DNA on either side of the mutation.

It’s unclear to me whether it’s fair to conclude that evidence of a few changes in genetic sequence is tantamount to evolutionary change on the order of species change, which the article never states. Is there a term that describes minor genetic changes without meaningful change in the species? Put another way, isn’t a wide range of genetic variation within the species pretty normal without being evolutionary?

Researchers found evidence of recent selection in 7% of all human genes, including lighter skin and blue eyes in northern Europe and partial resistance to diseases, such as malaria, among some African populations.

This makes me wonder if the usual four mechanisms influencing evolution — natural selection, mutation, random genetic drift, and gene flow — shouldn’t be amended to include cultural election in the case of culturally preferred attributes such as skin type and eye color. (Nope, no suggestion of cultural bias or racial preference there. Move along.)

Also, if I’m not mistaken, when human evolution is discussed by regular folks without specialized training in genetics, the usual context is science fiction and the mode of evolution is either cultural (evolved minds) or biological (evolved bodies) or both. These are wildly divergent from a more narrowly defined science of genetic evolution, which apparently considers even modest change or variation evolutionary.

Without providing suitable context for the science and disclaiming the obvious associations with science fiction, the article invites credulous readers to infer that we’re pointed toward an a evolutionary breakthrough of some sort. What else could “speed up” suggest? The article muddies the waters further with these poorly framed quotes by Steve Jones, a genetics professor at of University College London:

“The general picture that evolution has speeded up in the last 10,000 years as we change from, to put it bluntly, being animals to being humans is clearly true,” he explained. “To suggest it is happening at this instant, I would suggest, is probably wrong.”

“At the moment we are in an evolutionary interval. We are in between two storms. One storm has more or less blown itself out, the storm of farming.”

I won’t bother to comment on the idiotic suggestion that humans aren’t animals. The more immediate problem is timescale. In evolutionary time, 10,000 years is almost nothing. Whether you believe in gradualism or punctuated equilibrium or some blend of both, it typically takes tens of thousands of years to observe changes to the genotype that aren’t merely chromosomal variations. Evolution is happening now, this instant; it’s always happening. But it isn’t instantaneous. Neither is a sunrise. Disclaiming such a thing is absurd to even a novice.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to remind gentle readers not to get science news from the popular press. Whereas the study may have uncovered something meaningful to a geneticist, it holds almost no value to the general public the way it is reported and veers dangerously toward suggesting things from the realm of science fiction. Science is very good a discovering how things work. It’s not so good at predicting things or even extrapolating trends more than one step beyond the evidence. Take the “suggestion” of human evolution “speeding up” with a sizable grain of salt.

October 16, 2007

Competition Spurs Failure

Filed under: Business,Economics,Science — Brutus @ 1:38 am

As with Adam’s anticipation of the demise of the newspaper, the demise of the recording industry has been prophesied for some time now. Periodic transitions from one medium to another have been disorienting, but it wasn’t until the digital era, when ripping tunes and file swapping became ubiquitous, that the economic model of the recording industry got to be seriously undermined. (Others have disagreed with me on this point in the past.) The RIAA has made itself a scourge by acting to protect its members’ intellectual property, which I find a legitimate response but others insist is preposterous. This is a brief background to provide context.

What surprised me to learn was that the recording industry has had a larger hand in its own eventual failure than even I suspected. As this article describes in some detail, recording companies (labels, if you wish) competed to attract listeners and sell albums, but rather than focus on developing musical groups and creating the best possible musical product (or maybe in addition to those things), they adopted a subtle technological trick to harpoon listeners. Louder music (average level rather than peak level) tends to give the impression of better quality to typical listeners, so over time, the dynamic range of music was flattened or compressed while made louder overall. The side effect the industry should have foreseen is listener fatigue, which causes customers to turn off the music.

This competetive strategy looks conspicuously like the tragedy of the commons to me. A few thoughtless competitors abandoned their values for a temporary and illusory edge in the marketplace until the practice became so widespread that the music itself was compromised. I suppose there are plenty of examples of both principled competition and weaselly competition. In this case, the weasels sealed their own fates first by enabling infringers and then selling listeners short (not in that order chronologically). Oddly enough, neither of these practices has had the same effects in the classical and jazz markets, where the best possible medium and best possible musical material have always been used to stimulate listeners’ interest and album sales. What a shame those simple values are lost in mass markets.

September 17, 2007

The Man With No Brain

Filed under: Ethics,Science — Robert @ 1:49 am


August 28, 2007

The Ratchet Effect at Work in Law Schools

Filed under: Blogosphere,Race and Racism,Science — Robert @ 12:14 am

A while ago we had an interesting set-to at Alas about the ratchet effect, with me saying it was real and pretty much everyone in the universe disagreeing with me. Scroll down to around comment 70 if you’re not interested in the post’s original topic. It drifted. 😉

Universe 0, Robert 1!  Wish I’d known about this guy’s work when we had the original argument.

April 12, 2007

Behavior Modification in Action

Filed under: Criminal Justice,Science — Brutus @ 4:05 pm

This report from the Seattle Times introduces a new solution to the old problem of bank robbery: be nice. Apparently, bank personnel who identify a suspicious character (often based on dress alone, especially dress that obscures identity) can head off a potential heist by being aggressively nice and corralling the questionable person in a “customer service on steroids” scenario. The report focuses on treating would-be robbers nicely, but the key factor in my view is simply having multiple people interact with the culprit before the fact (in the event of an actual robbery) who would presumably then be able to make a positive identification after the fact. Still, it appears to be effective at reducing the incidence of bank robbery in Seattle, which is for unexplained reasons unusually high.

I rather like the idle of using positive reinforcement and subtle behavior modification to thwart crime. It also makes me wonder whether a foreign policy of “aggressive diplomacy” might better serve our objectives than the gunboat diplomacy currently in use. The obvious difference in scale between individual crime and crises among nation-states might tend to make such a comparison nonsensical, but I still wonder if involving other nations in overwhelmingly nice endeavors (or a simple observation “we can see what you’re doing and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves”) would effect any change in the way despots and terrorists operate.

April 4, 2007

Malicious Ecophagy

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Science — Brutus @ 11:01 pm

I recently stumbled upon a really nasty threat in emergent science called “malicious ecophagy” that probably should have gone onto my earlier post called Steamrollers except for the fact that this threat doesn’t have the slow-moving inevitability of those I identified before. Rather, ecophagy (the consumption of the ecosphere) would most likely happen suddenly. The threat stems from the race in nanotechnology to create an assembler, a nanobot able to take apart material at the molecular level and reassemble it. Think of replicator technology contemplated in Star Trek fiction for a possible application.

The promise of such technology, which is partly the impetus for developing it, is the hope that, using nanotechnology, we would be able, for instance, to create corn from lawn clippings or clean up a toxic dump by merely rearranging the molecules. It could potentially be the end of want. An array of nanomedicine applications are also contemplated. The potential danger, however, is that if we manage to create an assembler, and if we can’t turn off the molecular transformation, the assembler could then go on to recreate itself ad infinitum until a swarm of biovorous nanobots have literally consumed the totality of biomass and reduced it to dust or some sort of gray goo. It has suitably been termed the “gray goo problem.” Science fiction has already suggested the problem, though of extraterrestrial origin, of an all-consuming biomass in the movie The Blob.

This passage from K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation describes the issue further:

Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term “gray goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: we cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with [self-]replicating assemblers. Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident.

This spells out the stakes fairly succinctly. Yet in their hubris, scientists appear to be confident that they can avoid the problem, and research continues apace because there is no regulatory agency to oversee and halt the development of potentially dangerous technologies. Indeed, weaponization of nanotechnology is virtually assured. It reminded me that in the dawning atomic age, the creators of the first atomic bomb considered the possibility that detonating a device might accidentally ignite the atmosphere. The danger was calculated to be sufficiently low, though, that the gamble appeared to be worth it. (We’re certainly comfortable with that particular doomsday scenario in hindsight.)

Everyone to whom I’ve described the gray goo problem has responded fairly simply that, well, we just shouldn’t go there then. We don’t want an “oops” we can’t recover from. That’s also the argument made by Bill Joy in his lengthy article in Wired titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. His preferred term is “relinquishment,” and he includes genetic engineering and robotics in a triumvirate of “GNR” (Genes-Nanotech-Robots) technologies that we should give up on before we outwit ourselves and alter something irrevocably. Joy’s credentials and scientific acumen are far better than anything I can bring to bear on the issue, and I rather trust his conclusions (and recommend reading the article). However, despite a few good examples of historical relinquishment, I have my doubts that we can muster the necessary humility and restraint to avoid delving ever deeper into the Pandora’s Box of science and technology. Like the so-called shot heard around the world, that “oops” muttered in a lab somewhere could be a signal event.

March 28, 2007

Just to add to the confusion…

Filed under: LGBT Issues,Science — Daran @ 7:32 am

Geneticists report ‘semi-identical’ twins:

Geneticists in the US have discovered a previously unknown kind of twins they have called semi-identical. The twins are identical on their mother’s side, but only share half of their father’s DNA.

OK, but then they say:

The twins are technically chimeras: that is, their cells are not genetically uniform. Some cells contain male cells with an X and Y chromosome, others have female cells bearing a double load of Xs. In the journal Human Genetics, the researchers report that the proportion of XY and XX cells varies depending on the kind of tissue being examined.

For the genes to be distributed in this way, two sperm cells must have fertilised a single egg. Some DNA from each sperm is present in each child.

That would make them identical twins surely? If each twin got the dna from a different sperm, then they’d be half-identical.

Or perhaps the proportion of cells of one type and the other varies from twin to twin as well as from tissue to tissue.

First, two sperm must fertilise a single egg. This does happen in about one percent of human conceptions. More often than not the fertilised egg does not form a viable embryo. This embryo must then split to form twins, who if they are to be identified as semi-identical, must subsequently come to the attention of scientists.

The Chimera aspect of this is more interesting than the twinning. For example, what would happen if the sperm were from two different men? Can a person have two fathers? Who would pay child support?

February 21, 2007

Surveilling Using Cell Phones

Filed under: Criminal Justice,Politics,Science — Brutus @ 1:21 pm

Here is a bit of shocking news (or not so shocking depending on your jadedness): the mic on your cell phone can be activated as a transmitter to allow eavesdropping on your conversations even when the phone is powered down and you are merely in the vicinity of the phone. From the link above:

The technique is called a “roving bug,” and was approved by top U.S. Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

As I understand it, wiretaps and bugs are legal when issued through a court, but the mechanism to effect a tap requires a personal visit to the compromised device or location. The roving bug is presumably activated remotely and mobile, which represents a technological development that makes eavesdropping push-button simple, and with it, invites abuses and rationalizations along the lines of “it’s only for a moment,” or “it’s merely temporary,” or “it’s for the greater good” by eliminating the plodding steps necessary to activate one.

I believe that this tool is so seductive (meaning so simple to use) that those in government with the technology (or others? criminals?) couldn’t withstand temptation to deploy it whenever they see fit, meaning illegally. The means/ends distinction inevitably slides too far over to the “end” side of the continuum.

Along similar lines — using technology against people in a bid for government control of populations — I learned that the U.S. military has weaponized microwaves and created a heat ray gun that burns flesh. The device is described as harmless and nonlethal, since the ray penetrates less than 0.5 mm of skin, but the lon-term effects are nonetheless unknown.

I don’t know for sure, but I sense that at some point we’ve passed the point where we have enough weapons and technology to deploy an effective military or police force. What we really lack is an enlightened and judicious humanity (characterized by diplomacy, restraint, and unwillingness to act preemptively) to act as a brake on our apparent technophilia.

While it looked like a good or necessary step at the time (and perhaps even in hindsight), the creation of the atomic bomb ushered in a new era of nastiness and angst from which we have yet to recover. Although the two technologies mentioned above aren’t nearly so sweeping as the bomb, they are certainly part of the same complex of idea that drive weapons technology. Maybe someout out there is actually saying once in a while “let’s not pursue this one, it’s too awful,” but I don’t get the feeling that’s true.

February 17, 2007

Dianne and John Howard

Filed under: Content-lite,Science — Daran @ 7:03 pm

Dianne will love this.

John will hate this.

January 25, 2007

Doomsday Creeping Closer

Filed under: Current Events,Popular Culture,Science — Brutus @ 11:24 pm

The University of Chicago publishes the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), which was created in the years just after World War II — 1947 to be precise. Among its other activities, it assesses the risk of annihilation from nuclear war with its most famous piece of rhetoric: the Doomsday Clock, which charts the threat by adjusting the minute hand of the clock figuratively a few minutes toward or back from midnight, which represents a “time’s up” mark. (Oddly, the graphical representations I’ve seen are usually timelines or xy coordinate graphs, not actual clockfaces.) The Doomsday Clock was back in the news a few days ago, when the minute hand was adjusted from 7 minutes to 5 minutes until midnight.


What’s interesting about this latest adjustment is that global warming has apparently overtaken nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to civilization. I’ve insisted for years that global warming operates on a geological time scale, making it nearly impossible to predict or observe from within the bubble of our much smaller human timescale, but the phrase is nonetheless used to describe the climate change (warming trend) we are currently experiencing, which occurs on an observable timescale. This is probably the case because climate change is a global effect, even if the warming/cooling trends take thousands of years to fully observe (at least in the past). Warming due to climate change will probably take some years yet to manifest fully — 30 to 50 seem to be typical estimates — and its full fury, or its effect on humankind, will take a bit longer than that as the ecosystem continues its collapse in stages. But there appears to be little doubt that it’s going to happen.

What’s especially curious to me is that it was predicted and warned against long ago, as early as the late 19th century, in fact, when petroleum and other fossil fuels were just beginning to be used in industrial quantities. The mainstream media, in its collective wisdom, has only just recently determined, however, that the story bears telling, as the issue has now reached a level of undeniability and consensus that the public has gotten interested (but not yet motivated to act). I saw one top story of 2006 that says global warming has finally been demonstrated. A little late to the party, I think.

January 24, 2007

HIV in Africa: An Economist Chimes In

Filed under: Economics,Health Care,Science — Robert @ 1:05 pm

Interesting. Very interesting. If we want to help Africa with AIDS, we should help with herpes and foster capitalism.

November 23, 2006

The Word “Race” Is Bad

Filed under: Race and Racism,Science — Tuomas @ 11:36 pm

I’m puzzled by the insistance of “race doesn’t exist except as a social construct” coming from folks on the left (/generalization) who then right after acknowledge that there are differences between “population groups” on “hereditary basis”.



November 2, 2006

Investigations begin into whether Bush administration muzzled climate research

Filed under: Politics,Science — Daran @ 3:53 am

Link. (via)

About time too.

October 31, 2006

US Military Recruits From All Classes, Races

Filed under: Science,War — Robert @ 1:54 pm

Some conventional tropes of critics of the American military:

* the military draws mostly or disproportionately from the poorest Americans

* the military draws disproportionately from minority populations

* the military draws disproportionately from the poorly educated

All wrong.

The median household income for recruits is slightly higher than the national median.

The top income quintile provides 22.85% of the recruits; the bottom quintile provides 13.66%. (Suggestion to the critics: switch your argument to an inquiry into why the poorest Americans feel so alienated from their country, they won’t even fight for it.)

Racial statistics are a little harder to pithily summarize, but basically the military is ethnically representative of the country. Blacks, who were over-represented by about 17% a few years ago, are now under-represented by about 4%. Pacific Islanders are the most over-represented group, with a whopping 649% over-representation. Asians are the most under-represented, at 69% of proportionality. Those groups are relatively tiny; the Big Three are all close to 1.0.

Educationally, the military considers a “high quality” recruit to be a high school graduate who scored above the 50% on the Armed Forces standardized test. The proportion of high-quality recruits has gone from 57 percent in 2001 to 64% last year (down slightly from 67% in 2004). Category IV recruits (essentially the “let’s give them a chance but not have high hopes” cohort) are 4.4% of total recruits.

The one piece of conventional wisdom that’s accurate: more recruits come from the South.

(H/T: NRO)

October 27, 2006

Substantive Criticisms of the Lancet Report: Part 2

Filed under: Iraq,Science,Statistical Method — Robert @ 10:06 pm

Only a week later than promised (hey, I’m not getting paid), my review of the problems I see in the Lancet article on mortality in the Iraq war.

The article is much briefer than the study, which I examined here. So this review will also, theoretically, be briefer (cheers from the gallery). In fact, I only found three issues. However, one of them is potentially damaging to the study’s methodological choices (although I lack the mathematical skills to make a determination of that point), another casts direct doubt on the reliability of the authors’ reporting, and the third makes it clear that the study’s sampling method was not, in fact, random. These are major issues, in other words.

To repeat my disclaimer from last time:
I am not a trained statistician; any numerical analysis which crawls its way into this post should be viewed with a skeptical eye and read broadly and generally. I am skeptical towards this article’s conclusions on grounds of its consistency with the other things that I know, but this post is not about that inconsistency, and is instead a list of what valid critiques I can come up with against the study and the article. I have skimmed the IBC press release slamming the study, and have glimpsed other criticisms, but have not done any extensive reading in the “opposition research”.

Criticisms of the article which also apply to the first document I reviewed will not be repeated unless new information is noted.

1. The study authors selected a target survey size of 12,000 people in 50 clusters through the country. The sample size is adequate. The small number of clusters raises a statistical concern. With each single cluster contributing 2% of the total study data, any unusual cluster will have a disproportionately large effect on the total outcome of the study. The authors make the (legitimate) point that movement in Iraq is difficult and dangerous, and word-of-mouth about the benign purpose of the interviewers propagating through the households of each cluster reduced this risk, an effect which would be greatly attenuated by a larger number of clusters. That is true, but immaterial to the degree of confidence we can have in the study result.

The mathematical statistics needed to figure out how many clusters you ought to use in a study are complex. An article in the International Journal of Epidemiology provides a nomogram (that there is fancy language for a “chart”) that tells you how many clusters you should use for a given prevalence rate (how often you expect to find what you’re trying to find), design effect (how much variation your methodology will create relative to an ordinary random sample), and cluster size (number of respondents per cluster). I do not know the design effect value, but we do know the prevalence rate (about 2.5%) and the cluster size (about 240). For middling values of design effect, the nomogram suggests between 125 and 1500 clusters be used.

It will take a better statistician than your humble correspondent to nail this one down, but it does seem plausible that the number of clusters selected is inadequately small.

2. On page 2, the study authors detail their selection methodology. Each cluster’s origin point was selected from a province and then a town weighted by population (fair enough). The cluster’s starting household, however, was picked in this fashion: “The third stage consisted of random selection of a main street within the administrative unit from a list of all main streets. A residential street was then randomly selected from a list of residential streets crossing the main street. On the residential street, houses were numbered and a start household was randomly selected.”

This is hugely problematic. If you do not live on a residential street which adjoins a main street in your town, then your household is excluded from the statistical universe the study is measuring. The study did not sample Iraq; it sampled the subsection of Iraq that happens to adjoin a major road in town. This is a problem for a study attempting to measure anything, but in the case of a study measuring wartime fatalities, it is a critical flaw. Main streets are densely populated areas. Densely populated areas are the locales to which insurgents in an urban conflict flock. There’s no point in carbombing Farmer Ahmed’s cow; you go to the market. Which is on a main street.

The study authors could have at least partially corrected for this non-random element of their sample by assessing the proportion of the Iraqi population that could have been sampled by this method, and using that total population figure in their overall calculations. They did not do this, and in fact make no mention of the non-random element of their selection.

This is a serious objection to the study’s validity; the most serious I have found.
3. Also on page 2, the study authors write “The survey purpose was explained to the head of household or spouse, and oral consent was obtained. Participants were assured that no unique identifiers would be gathered.”

This is problematic.  Not intrinsically, but because it directly contradicts claims made by the study authors concerning their validation work on the study, specifically in the area of detecting and accounting for multiple accounts of the same death. Study author Burnham, in a media interview (h/t Amp), said “Double counting of deaths was a risk we were concerned with. We went through each record by hand to look for this, and did not find any double counting in this survey. The survey team were experience in community surveys, so they knew to avoid this potential trap.”

If no unique identifiers were gathered, then it is not possible that they went through and checked for duplicates. Either they lied to the respondents, or they lied to the press, or their article inaccurately reflects the methodology that was in place.

Overview and Conclusion

When I completed the first half of this critique, my overall impression was that there were some issues with the study that I found troubling, specifically the strength of their claims regarding the study’s validity and the difficulty their methodology created for other researchers attempting to verify their work. However, I thought that on balance the authors had done an adequate job of a very difficult task, and that – while their numbers were probably a little bit high – they were on the right lines.

I am forced to reconsider that proposition. The exclusion of an indeterminate, but large, fraction of the Iraqi population from the study’s potential range of survey respondents – particularly in view of the fact that the excluded fraction is also the group most likely on common-sense grounds to have avoided mass fatalities – is extremely troubling.  It isn’t a priori proof that the study authors are dishonest or incompetent; it is proof that the study does not measure what it purports to measure. What appears to be an attempt to cover over another flaw, the impossibility of avoiding duplicate reporting under the study’s purported methodology, amplifies my concerns about the study’s integrity.

What are the real civilian casualty figures in Iraq? “Depressingly high” is an unsatisfactory answer, but until someone conducts a proper population-based study, that’s the best we have to go on.

October 3, 2006

Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” Is Incredibly Bad

Filed under: Feminist Issues,Science — Ampersand @ 7:13 pm

On the Family Scholars Blog, Brad Wilcox writes:

Linda Hirshman, call your office. A slew of books have been coming out from (mainly female) scholars discussing the way in which sex differences are linked to differences in social behavior and perceptions among men and women, with a big focus on the implications of sex differences for family life. Scholars who deny this biological reality are increasingly coming to look like fundamentalists who deny evolution.

As his sole example, Brad quotes a very favorable Washington Post review of Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain. But – as Linda points outThe Female Brain is incredibly crappy science. Linda refers to this post from the right-wing blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, but relies mostly on an remarkable series of posts on Language Log. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list).

Mark Liberman, a blogger at Language Log (and a professor at Upenn) has been looking up all the citations Brizendine uses to support claims “that deal with speech, language and communication.” What he’s finding, more often than not, is that her supporting citations simply don’t support her claims. For example, Brizendine claims:


August 26, 2006

Prenatal Link to Male Homosexuality Found

Filed under: LGBT Issues,Science — Brutus @ 12:06 pm

A new study in Canada points to evidence that having older brothers increases a male’s chances of being homosexual. Researchers are continuing their attempts to isolate a cause for homosexuality, which includes answering the nature vs. nurture question. This particular study comes down of the nature side, the theory being that mothers have some sort of memory for male gestations or births that affect sons born afterwards.

This area of inquiry has never made sense to me. If there is a certain incidence of a particular trait in humans, say blond hair or freckles, even though there may be observable predictors, they usually fall well short of being mechanisms we could control. Genetic defects are a different category, and it makes sense to me to try to limit them. But homosexuality isn’t a defect, at least to those who accept it as a regularly occuring variation (behavioral, genetic, or otherwise).

August 24, 2006

Pluto Demoted; Charon, Xena, Ceres Also Relegated To Minor Status

Filed under: Current Events,Science — Robert @ 2:06 pm

Astronomers have finally corrected the error of seventy five years ago, and recognized that bodies such as Pluto are not planets. (This also dashes the hopes of wannabes like Ceres, Charon (Pluto’s largest moon), and Xena (the large icy body in the outer system).

Some conservatives are in arms, but I view this is a reaffirmation of the status quo of 1929, before Clyde Tombaugh’s diligent work in scanning the skies paid off. Think of it like this, conservatives; how often do we get to roll back 75-odd years of misdirected “progress”?

Time to celebrate!

July 22, 2006

Identifying error

Filed under: Debate,Philosophy,Science — Adam Gurri @ 6:11 pm

Daran does an effective job demolishing the Slate response to the Lancet survey.  Then states:

But the true drawdropping irony in all of this is that Adam, apparently with a straight face, should cite this claptrap in a post exhorting the rest of us to higher standards of evidence!

I happen to believe that what occurred supports the arguments I made in that post.


June 15, 2006

Please Tell Me This Is A Joke?

Filed under: Humor,Science — Tuomas @ 3:16 pm

According to Annalee Newitz, feminists should take over genetic engineering. (Here's a hint: Study genetic engineering… women's studies doesn't exactly make you an expert on everything).

The whole article is about the most unintentionally hilarious things I've read for a while, and I urge you to read it all, and check the comments.
Here is a teaser:

That's why any feminist worth her sodium chloride should be charging into the debate on genetic engineering with a list of demands. Hell, yes, we want to change the biology of reproduction — and we want to change it now.

The primary goal of a feminist genetic engineering project is to cut the reproductive process loose from patriarchy and male domination. One simple way to do that is to make sure feminist politics are front and center in any discussion about how we will use genetic engineering to eliminate harmful birth defects. I think we can all agree that it would be great to make sure babies aren't born with holes in their hearts, but what about girl babies born with small breasts? Can't you just see some clueless researcher claiming that women with small breasts are "harmed" psychologically, and that therefore we should engineer all women to have big ones? Feminists need to shut that shit down right away.

Damn those clueless genetic engineering patriarchs! They need some womanly wisdom to guide them, and Annalee sure is the best person for that. (Leaving aside the fact that plenty of researchers in the field of biology and medicine are, in fact, women, and besides, I must admit that I really don't see researchers focusing on genetically engineering women's breasts bigger.)

As an aside, she makes me think that John Howard may have had a point:

[ edited for correction]

First of all, we want genetic engineering to transform the way families work, perhaps by making it possible for two women to create a baby without male intervention — or for more than two parents to create a baby. (Researchers in Japan have already bred a healthy baby mouse out of genetic material from two females, and researchers in England are working on a human baby that will have genetic material from two women and one man.)

H/T: PunkAssBlog.

June 13, 2006

How prejudiced are you really?

Filed under: Science — Daran @ 5:43 pm

Hat tip: The current edition of Scientific American.


So far I’ve done three of their tests:

Race: Moderate automatic preference for Whites.

Gender-Science: Strong automatic association of male with science.

Microsoft vs. Open Source (Available via the ‘featured task link, top right): Moderate preference for Open Source.

Edit: Sexuality: Moderate automatic preference for heterosexuality.

Edit: Presidents: Moderate preference for Other Presidents over Bush.

It’s a shame that there’s no simple test for preference between men and women. Come to think of it, another good test would be of ones association between “alledged victim”, “accuser”, etc., on the one hand and “alledged rapist” “defendent” etc.,on the other against “innocent”, “truthful”, etc., on the one hand and “guilty”, “lying”, on the other.

May 31, 2006

Brother Gore’s traveling salvation show

Filed under: Current Events,Politics,Science — bazzer @ 10:20 am

A friend of mine recently invited me to go see An Inconvenient Truth. I politely explained that sitting in a dark room and being lectured by Al Gore for two hours is not my idea of entertainment.

It's nothing personal, but global warming is a religion to Mr. Gore. I don't mean that as an insult, necessarily. He's clearly very passionate on the topic. But just as I don't want to hear a televangelist preach to me about how I should live my life, I don't want Gore doing it either. "Don't have an abortion" or "Don't be gay" would be replaced with "Don't drive an SUV," but at the end of the day, Al Gore is just another bible-thumper, complete with apocalyptic rhetoric about "the end of civilization."

And if there's anything that bugs me more than religious proselytizers, it's religious proselytizing masquerading as science. Science says average global temperatures currently seem to be in a warming trend. Fine. But once you've gone on to attribute Hurricane Katrina or Indonesian tsunamis to global warming, you are now squarely in the domain of religion, plain and simple.

Global warming is a serious issue, but also a political hot button. Too many people from both sides carry their ideological baggage to the debate, which is a shame. There is precious little in the way of sober, dispassionate scientific examination of the data. We need more of that, not less. We certainly won't be getting it from Al Gore, however.

May 30, 2006

Predictive power

Filed under: Economics,Science,Statistical Method — Adam Gurri @ 4:52 pm

I've started to look over the Prediction Markets.

What a fascinating phenomenon!  These buggers are apparently quite accurate, and Google has had their own internal one to help keep ahead of the game.  By all accounts, the larger the quantity of people involved, the more accurate they become.

The intelligence community has had already had one failed courtship with this new approach to aggregating information.

As they have been consistently behind the curve for as long as I can remember, it's somewhat tragic but nonetheless unsurprising that they would be unwilling to even try a new idea.

At any rate, I've been captivated by my obsession of the moment.

May 27, 2006

D&D Meets Physics

Filed under: Science — Robert @ 12:32 am

Coming soon: invisibility. Oddly, the article doesn't mention that the technology stops working after you attack someone.

May 24, 2006

The Stuff of Nightmares

Filed under: Science — Robert @ 10:22 am

Don’t click this if creepy bloodsuckers shambling along the ground creep you out.

Via Althouse, who is creeped out.

May 15, 2006

My Patent Idea, Stolen!

Filed under: Science — Robert @ 1:46 pm

Dang it, Mr. St. Clair beat me to the punch!

Oh well, mine still has the superior sparkly visual effects.

May 14, 2006

What’s The Female Case For Polygamy?

Filed under: Debate,Feminist Issues,Philosophy,Science — Robert @ 3:13 am

Re: polygamy, a commenter over on some lefty-fem blog asks "what’s in it for a woman that she couldn’t get more of with a monogamous marriage?"

I have a stab at an answer on that thread, but would welcome other ideas. Personally, although I am happily married, the idea of multiple wives strikes me as a window into hell. But intellectually, I am very curious as to what the positive case for the institution of polygamy is, from the female point of view.

April 27, 2006

Circumcision and Monogamy Most Effective Against HIV Transmission

Filed under: Science — Robert @ 11:37 pm

Very interesting study done in the field in Africa.

April 18, 2006

Angry People Suck?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Robert @ 11:06 pm

Interesting discussion of the contagiousness of emotion, and why surrounding yourself with positive people might be better for you.

(So much for blogging!)

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