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Blog for Choice Day - January 22, 2007 Technically I’ve missed Blog for Choice day, but it isn’t really tomorrow till after I’ve slept, and there’s something that’s been bugging me.

Why do people, even those who support abortion rights, talk about conception? It’s a pre-scientific concept. The Feast of the Conception dates back to the 7th century, long before anybody had any notion of how the mechanics of reproduction worked at a cellular level. It was clearly just a word that meant something like when life begins, so people who say “life begins at conception” aren’t actually saying anything meaningful.

People who try to nail conception to a particular stage of cellular reproductive development can’t even agree on which stage it is. Same say it’s fertilization, some say implantation, some say the whole period from fertilization to implantation.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to use actual scientific terminology when discussing matters of science? Personally, I think anyone who places the point of individual life beginning prior to gastrulation just hasn’t given the matter any serious thought.

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So, if I went and saw An Inconvenient Truth, but I left my air conditioner running while I was out, is that a net gain or loss for the environment?

That was the day, pretty much. Walked about Manhattan a bit, sat in a Starbucks and did a bit of sketching (came up with a new design for a character that I might eventually wind up including in the webcomics that I’ve been not doing for three years now), met [livejournal.com profile] bugsybanana for the movie, then we had dinner at Congee Village, and had a view of the fireworks as we walked down Allen Street.

The movie’s really good. Gore’s smooth, confident in his material, and funny, totally blowing away the media’s invented “wooden robot” stereotype from 2000. The scientific errors are so few and so minor that the oil industry’s shills have been reduced to nitpicking his word choices or lying about the content of Gore’s presentation.
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I’ve got links about all of them in my Del.icio.us account:

  • Stephen Kilnisan, jeweler and techie, is also the unofficial historian of New York’s diamond district, the stretch of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues through which most of the diamonds sold in the US first pass:

    His eye is caught by two gentlemen huddled in conversation outside 11 W. 47th St. “You see that?” he says. “They’re making a deal.” He narrates the transaction as it unfolds. “One of them pulls out a pouch containing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of diamonds. They haggle for a while, then the handshake. Deals are still made on handshakes here.” In fact, according to the Diamond Dealers Club bylaws, “Any oral offer is binding among dealers, when agreement is expressed by the accepted words ‘Mazel and Broche’ [‘good luck and a blessing’] or any other words expressing the words of accord.” Even more remarkably, since the Talmud prohibits resolving conflicts in non-Jewish courts, disputes on 47th Street are not handled by civil courts but upstairs at the Diamond Dealers Club, where a board of arbiters presides over oral hearings (notes are never taken and the hearings are never recorded) and deliver judgments based on common sense, trade customs, and principles of Jewish law. For generations, this is how diamond dealers throughout the world have conducted business, and it continues to be the principal mode of operation on 47th Street.

  • The Monkey Chow Diaries — can a human being subsist on nothing but monkey chow? Probably not.

  • The Mini-Microsoft blog’s FAQ on Microsoft’s review, promotion, and job-change process.

  • The nest architecture of the Florida harvester ant — Walter Tschinkel of Florida State U’s Dep’t of Biological Science made casts of the structure of ant’s nests by pouring orthodontal plaster into them. He also tried using metals, thus learning on all our behalf the valuable lesson: “Pouring red-hot aluminum in the bottom of a 2-meter pit runs the risk of having ones socks catch on fire from the radiant heat.” There are photos! Of the ant’s nest models, not the burning socks.

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More from Kitzmiller v Dover:

Footnote 7, page 46:

Throughout the trial and in various submissions to the Court, Defendants vigorously argue that the reading of the statement is not “teaching” ID but instead is merely “making students aware of it.” In fact, one consistency among the Dover School Board members’ testimony, which was marked by selective memories and outright lies under oath, as will be discussed in more detail below, is that they did not think they needed to be knowledgeable about ID because it was not being taught to the students. We disagree.

Page 121:

In fact, one unfortunate theme in this case is the striking ignorance concerning the concept of ID amongst Board members. Conspicuously, Board members who voted for the curriculum change testified at trial that they had utterly no grasp of ID. To illustrate, consider that Geesey testified she did not understand the substance of the curriculum change, yet she voted for it.

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Wow. So, that Kitzmiller v Dover School District decision (that’s a PDF), great reading, eh? What, you haven’t been reading the 139-page decision on the Pennsylvania Intelligent Design suit? Here, some highlights:

Pages 24, 25:

Dr. Haught testified that this argument for the existence of God was advanced early in the 19th century by Reverend Paley and defense expert witnesses Behe and Minnich admitted that their argument for ID based on the “purposeful arrangement of parts” is the same one that Paley made for design. […] The only apparent difference between the argument made by Paley and the argument for ID, as expressed by defense expert witnesses Behe and Minnich, is that ID’s “official position” does not acknowledge that the designer is God.

Page 28:

Moreover, in turning to Defendants’ lead expert, Professor Behe, his testimony at trial indicated that ID is only a scientific, as opposed to a religious, project for him; however, considerable evidence was introduced to refute this claim. Consider, to illustrate, that Professor Behe remarkably and unmistakably claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God. […] As no evidence in the record indicates that any other scientific proposition’s validity rests on belief in God, nor is the Court aware of any such scientific propositions, Professor Behe’s assertion constitutes substantial evidence that in his view, as is commensurate with other prominent ID leaders, ID is a religious and not a scientific proposition.

Page 137:

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.

And here’s a great bit. Michael Behe, expert witness for the defense and author of ID book Darwin’s Black Box (in which he claims that the immune system is irreducibly complex and therefore cannot possibly be explained by evolution) posted in an ID blog about his testimony:

The cross examination was fun too, and showed that the other side really does have only rhetoric and bluster. At one point the lawyer for the other side who was cross examining me ostentatiously piled a bunch of papers on the witness stand that putatively had to do with the evolution of the immune system. But it was obvious from a cursory examination that they were more examples of hand waving speculations, which I had earlier discussed in my direct testimony. So I was able to smile and say that they had nothing more to say than the other papers. I then thought to myself, that here the NCSE, ACLU, and everyone in the world who is against ID had their shot to show where we were wrong, and just trotted out more speculation. It actually made me feel real good about things.

Here’s how the judge saw things (page 78):

In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.” (23:19 (Behe)).

We find that such evidence demonstrates that the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution.

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Unintelligent Design Network, Inc:

We hereby propose that a new debate be held, including members of the scientific community to argue that evolution should be taught as is, members of SEAO or the Intelligent Design Network, Inc. to argue that life shows evidence of an intelligent, omnipotent creator, and member of our organization to argue that although life was designed by an all-powerful creator, he is in reality pretty dumb and not very good at it. [...]

There have been 23 elephant-like animals in history, and yet only two survive today (and we add, they're not doing very well). Clearly, this is the mark of an all-powerful creator who is stuck on the same stupid idea and can't figure out why the hell they keep dying off. Hmm, perhaps it's because giant, big-eared mammals with huge, prehensile noses are ridiculous? I mean, WTF? A giant, powerful, grasping… nose? It looks like something a preschooler would make up. [...]

And who the hell though giraffes were a good idea? Bloody unlikely looking, if you ask me. And those tyrannosaurus, with the tiny little arms? Why even leave the arms in, except to flail about Corky looking for a snack. Speaking on this subject, did you know whales have hip bones? That's like if a human engineer put an outboard boat motor on a city bus. I think it's clear God never went to college, and I'm thinking it's sketchy he even has his GED. They guys in middle school shop class made more function and professional looking projects that half of God's motley menagerie.
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I keep thinking I’m gonna have to give up reading political blogs. Between filthy James Lileks’s cowardly half-accusing Oliver Willis of antisemitism and Glenn Reynolds’s whining yet again about bias in the NY Times (“chief architect”, aieee, oh the pain) I feel like hitting someone and not stopping till I topple from exhaustion.

But then every once in a while I find something like a link to a story about study of scrotum shape in ancient Greek sculpture, and it all seems worthwhile.

Oh, and I found that scrotum link through Kevin Drum, who also linked to an article in the LA Times about how genetic sex differences. Apologists for sexism will gleefully jump on bits like this:
All told, men and women may differ by as much as 2% of their entire genetic inheritance, greater than the hereditary gap between humankind and its closest relative — the chimpanzee.
...but I note that it’s an article on a technical topic written by a staff writer for a general news source, and according to Grumer’s First Law of Science News must therefore contain at least one glaring error. Wait to discover what the error is before using this news to buttress your worldview.
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OK, that’s two books bought on odd persistent impulse, and both good. The first was Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, the second Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. Clearly my book muse knows where to find the good stuff.

(Y’know what’s wrong with the world? Search on Amazon.com for pynchon mason dixon and you get three hits for books about Mason & Dixon before the actual book comes up. It’s like loading your LJ Friends page and getting 75% posts about reading an LJ Friends page.)

I’m just three-quarters of the way through Botany. It’s about the history of agriculture, taking the thesis that plants and humans have shaped each other rather than just us shaping them. Pollan focuses on domesticated plants — apple, tulip, marijuana, potato — and associates a human desire with each one — sweetness, beauty, intoxication, control — and devoted on chapter to the history of each. For apples he focuses mostly on John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), for tulips on the Dutch tulipomania, and for marijuana on modern illegal growers (including his personal history along those lines). I assume the potato chapter will focus on Ireland, the famine, and the ugly social politics around that. Along the way he’s developing a theme about Apollonian vs Dionysian mental states, and the conflict between paganism and monotheism. [livejournal.com profile] cthulhia, I think you’d dig this book. (And I’ve no idea whether the author pronounces his last name like “pollen”.)

I finished up the third chapter while in Ground this evening, and just did a little sketching:

Just one sketch today )
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Today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day looks like something out of The Day After Tomorrow.
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The early part of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon describes (with much fictional elaboration) the first mission the pair went on, observing the 1761 transit of Venus from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the only successful observation of the event from the southern hemisphere. Transits of Venus are rare — they come in pairs, eight years apart, with over a century between pairs. The last pair was in 1874 and 1882; no transit of Venus occurred in the 20th century.

We’re about to get the first of a pair, tonight. People on the east coast of the US will be able to see the end of the transit at 5:25 AM, weather permitting. Europeans will be able to see the whole thing. West-coast Americans miss out. Next transit is in 2012, but it won’t be visible from New York. After that, it’s 2117 and 2125.

The Hayden Planetarium is setting up telescopes and viewing screens in Central Park, and I’m tempted to go, but the forecast is for cloudy weather. And Boston’s expecting rain. Damn.

Update: More about the transit of Venus, including a visibility map, and another map for 2012.

Another update: Actually, it’s on June 8th, not tomorrow. And it looks like the ingress starts a bit after 5 AM GMT. The egress (the part visible from the eastern US) will be after 11 AM GMT, which will be, what, 6 AM here?


Dec. 25th, 2003 12:27 am
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I finished Urth of the New Sun this evening; a bit of a slog. The first four books remain brilliant even on the third reading, but the fifth just isn’t as good.

Now I’m reading a galley of Cory Doctorow’s upcoming novel, Eastern Standard Tribe. It’s fun so far, but one thing has me puzzled. Cory’s invented coffium, coffee made with heavy water that doesn’t cool off. Assuming that’s an exaggeration (even stars cool down eventually), does this idea work scientifically? Does heated heavy water take a dramatically longer time to cool than light water does?

I’ve tried using Google to find out what the specific heat of heavy water (D2O) is, without luck. This suggests to me that it’s the same as the specific heat of H2O (1.00 cal/g °C). Anyone out there know any different?

Heavy water is about 10% denser than regular water, which would slow its cooling a bit since you’ve got more mass trying to shed heat through the same surface area; I assume you’d get a 10% increase in cooling time, but I haven’t bothered to look up the actual formula and run the numbers. That’s not enough of a change to justify the claim Cory’s narrator is making.

It also has slightly higher boiling (101.42° C) and freezing (3.81° C) points than regular water does, and it’s about 10% denser; I don’t know what that would do for cooling, if anything.
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Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor (Volume 3 of the Book of the New Sun), Chapter XXV:

“It was a period of great confusion as well. My astronomers had told me that this sun’s activity would decay slowly. Far too slowly, in fact, for the change to be noticeable in a human lifetime. They were wrong. The heat of the world declined by nearly two parts in a thousand over a few years, then stabilized. Crops failed, and there were famines and riots. I should have left then.”

David Adam, writing for The Guardian:

It turns out that Ohmura was the first to document a dramatic effect that scientists are now calling "global dimming". Records show that over the past 50 years the average amount of sunlight reaching the ground has gone down by almost 3% a decade. It's too small an effect to see with the naked eye, but it has implications for everything from climate change to solar power and even the future sustainability of plant photosynthesis.

It’s a very odd article. I scrolled back up to the top of the page to make sure it hadn’t been published on April 1st.
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New developments in the neurology of love:

When you first fall in love, you are not experiencing an emotion, but a motivation or drive, new brain scanning studies have shown.

I wasn’t aware that motivations and drives weren’t considered emotions. I guess they’re lower on Manslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Early on in a relationship, the images showed that the brain seems to be very focused on planning and pursuit of pleasurable reward, says Fisher, mediated by regions called the right caudate nucleus and right ventral tegmentum. The same regions become active when a person enjoys the pleasure of eating chocolate, she adds.

There are also patterns that resemble aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder. [...]

Color me surprised. Then erase that color, ’cause I’m not surprised at all!

The team has since moved on to examining the final phase of romance. "We are now looking at people who have just been rejected," says Fisher.

Contact Helen Fisher, Anthropology Department, Rutgers University, all fifty or so of you.

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Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] bruceb for the link to this National Geographic story about an armored sea snail. In addition to the shell that most snails have, this one’s also got magnetic iron scales covering its underbody and foot. As with so many weird creatures, this was discovered in a deep-sea hydrothermal vent, a hostile alien environment we don’t have to go into space to find. The photo of the as-yet-unnamed beastie looks a whole lot like something out of Farscape.
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I’ve seen on two people’s journals today that the Vatican is telling people that condoms don’t cut down on the spread of AIDS.

I hunted around a bit for details, and found the Straight Dope: They’re just passing around a bit of false information that the anti-sex people have been spouting for at least a decade, since 1992, when Mike Roland (editor of Rubber Chemistry and Technology) wrote to The Washington Times claiming that the latex used in condoms has intrinsic pores around 5 microns in size, which would let the HIV virus (0.1 micron) float right through.

Thing is, Roland didn’t examine condoms, he examined latex gloves, which are made to much looser standards. (And even those standards have been tightened up since then.)

This would explain why lab tests have shown that no known STD can penetrate an intact condom.

And you folks in the Vatican, remember: False witness and fraudulent council both get you the Eighth Circle, so better get yourself to confession!

April 2017



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