Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Dear America Redux

This is a revisit and update of an article I wrote after the 2006 US mid-term elections. After watching the Republicans gain total control of Congress last night, I felt it was worth another visit.

Dear America,

You voted.

You voted against poor people working hard to make a better life for themselves.
You voted against basic equal rights for all Americans to enjoy the benefits of marriage.
You voted against protecting women and against giving women a voice as to what they do with their own bodies.
You voted against keeping decent paying, union-protected, blue collar jobs in your own country, where they pay your fellow citizens.
You voted against giving every American child an equal piece of the educational pie.
You voted against protecting you fellow citizens from a health care crisis.
You voted against protecting your green spaces.
You voted against clean air.
You voted against alternative energy.

You looked at the will of the rest of the world desperately striving for a safe planet, stuck up your middle finger and voted against the rest of us.

You voted for fear.
You voted to tell gay people that they are not really equal; that they are worth less than straight people.
You voted to tell women that they have no say what happens to their bodies.
You voted to make sure that oil and gas companies have more say over the natural world, than do the people and animals who live there.
You voted to make sure that families can be financially bankrupted by a surgery, cancer treatment, or extended health issue.
You voted to give religion equal footing in our science classrooms.
You voted for rampant commercialization.
You voted to keep sending your sons and daughters to die in a desert for oil
You voted to fight a war against an enemy you don't know, in a political climate you don't understand.
You voted to make the world a more dangerous place.
You voted to allow the government to enter your home, call you a terrorist and hide you in a prison cell without charge – on no grounds.
You voted to condone the torture of innocent people.
You voted to ensure you keep the honor of having the highest gun-related homicide rate in the western world.
You voted for school shootings.
You voted to ignore international treaties regarding clean air, nuclear proliferation and land mines.
You voted to validate a corrupt CEO making (on average) 417 times the wage of his lowest earning employee.

Dear America. You Voted.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why The Internet Blows - and Redeems

Remember that fun little thing we did last post where we answered some questions that Creationists had about evolution? Remember how it was fun to denigrate them and make them look stupid? Guess what, we're doing it again! This time we're going to taunt an internet-based, rumour-mongering, conspiracy-theorist website - and one of its authors.

The story in this link would have you believe that a mere three(ish) days after the Malaysian airways flight disappeared, "they" are covering up what really happened. I'm not sure who "they" are, or what "their" motivation would be for not telling us every piece of information that "they" couldn't have possibly retrieved yet, might be. For what it's worth, neither does the author - Mike Adams.

BUT, that hasn't stopped intrepid Mike Adams from assembling six "facts" and presenting them to you as if they mean something. By "assembling facts", what I really mean to say is that Mike Adams has pulled a bunch of ideas out of his rear end, cobbled them together in some sort of delusional narrative, and then spewed it out onto the internet.

So, much as before I'll paste Mike's "facts" below in italics and then address them in normal text. Hint: my words will be the rational ones.

Let's begin shall we.

 Fact #1: All Boeing 777 commercial jets are equipped with black box recorders that can survive any on-board explosion
No explosion from the plane itself can destroy the black box recorders. They are bomb-proof structures that hold digital recordings of cockpit conversations as well as detailed flight data and control surface data.

This is true. It's really damned hard to destroy a flight data recorder (FDR), and a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) - like really hard. However this "fact" is moot at the moment because the aviation authorities don't have the damn things.

• Fact #2: All black box recorders transmit locator signals for at least 30 days after falling into the ocean
Yet the black box from this particular incident hasn’t been detected at all. That’s why investigators are having such trouble finding it. Normally, they only need to “home in” on the black box transmitter signal. But in this case, the absence of a signal means the black box itself — an object designed to survive powerful explosions — has either vanished, malfunctioned or been obliterated by some powerful force beyond the worst fears of aircraft design engineers.
 No. Emphatically, NO. The CVR and the FDR could be hundreds of feet deep in the middle of a very large body of water. The broadcast radius is about two miles. That means, you need to be in a two-mile bubble that includes the instrument, you, and the device you are using to receive the signal. See below on the amount of area that may potentially need searching. 
• Fact #3: Many parts of destroyed aircraft are naturally bouyant and will float in water
In past cases of aircraft destroyed over the ocean or crashing into the ocean, debris has always been spotted floating on the surface of the water. That’s because — as you may recall from the safety briefing you’ve learned to ignore — “your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.”
Yes, seat cushions float. So do many other non-metallic aircraft parts. If Flight 370 was brought down by an explosion of some sort, there would be massive debris floating on the ocean, and that debris would not be difficult to spot. The fact that it has not yet been spotted only adds to the mystery of how Flight 370 appears to have literally vanished from the face of the Earth.
 Have you ever seen footage from a Search and Rescue operation? It is really difficult to find things on the surface of the vast ocean. Even large, orange life boats have been missed by SAR crews. The surface of the ocean is a dynamic environment. White fuselage panels can look like wave crests, seat cushions are tiny. The ocean is so vast, that an entire, intact, floating cruise ship has gone missing.  The short version of this answer is, give it time and realize, they might not find the plane. 
• Fact #4: If a missile destroyed Flight 370, the missile would have left a radar signature
One theory currently circulating on the ‘net is that a missile brought down the airliner, somehow blasting the aircraft and all its contents to “smithereens” — which means very tiny pieces of matter that are undetectable as debris.
The problem with this theory is that there exists no known ground-to-air or air-to-air missile with such a capability. All known missiles generate tremendous debris when they explode on target. Both the missile and the debris produce very large radar signatures which would be easily visible to both military vessels and air traffic authorities.
 This is assuming a lot of things, including the idea that there would be motivation for such an act - something Mike doesn't address. However, one of the things that should be cleared up is that "the missile would have left a radar signature". It would have. However, contrary to Mike Adams' belief, the entire world isn't being actively scanned by radar. One of the reasons that planes have transponders is so that ground-based controllers can pick them up and track them. These receivers are the ground aren't so much radar, as they are really specialised radio receivers. Real radar isn't used until the planes are close to land. Except for the US and other navies using it on ships, powerful search radar isn't in use over the ocean. 
• Fact #5: The location of the aircraft when it vanished is not a mystery
Air traffic controllers have full details of almost exactly where the aircraft was at the moment it vanished. They know the location, elevation and airspeed — three pieces of information which can readily be used to estimate the likely location of debris.
Remember: air safety investigators are not stupid people. They’ve seen mid-air explosions before, and they know how debris falls. There is already a substantial data set of airline explosions and crashes from which investigators can make well-educated guesses about where debris should be found. And yet, even armed with all this experience and information, they remain totally baffled on what happened to Flight 370.
 If you turn off, or lose the transponder through an electrical fault, the plane vanishes. It could have flown for a while not transmitting its location. If it was over the ocean, as I mentioned in the last answer, it wouldn't be "on radar". 
Let's assume that the plane was flying at 500 kph (probably a low estimate) at 20,000 feet. If the transponder failed, but the plane kept flying, the circle to search in expands by 500 kilometers - in every direction - for every hour the plane is in the air. Let's again assume that the plane remained airborne for 15 minutes. That means the potential search area would be something like 196,000 km2. This doesn't account for the potential of a mid-air failure and the wreckage continuing on under its momentum.  That's a huge amount of space that needs to be searched at a low enough altitude to be able to see debris. 
• Fact #6: If Flight 370 was hijacked, it would not have vanished from radar
Hijacking an airplane does not cause it to simply vanish from radar. Even if transponders are disabled on the aircraft, ground radar can still readily track the location of the aircraft using so-called “passive” radar (classic ground-based radar systems that emit a signal and monitor its reflection).
Thus, the theory that the flight was hijacked makes no sense whatsoever. When planes are hijacked, they do not magically vanish from radar.
Sure it could have. Read the part above where I talked about the transponder being turned off. 
So, the reality is that there is likely no conspiracy, that "they" aren't hiding anything from you, and that "mainstream media" is telling you everything you know.

While I was writing this post, Wired published this article that articulates much of what I said here. It's nice to be right once in a while. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why Is This Even a Thing

A lot of electrons have been spread around as people light up the internet to talk about the recent debate between Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Ken Ham... he doesn't have a fancy title. Their debate lasted about two hours and they were discussing Evolution vs Creation. More broadly it once again thrust the escalating conflict between science and religion back into the public spotlight.

I have no wish to engage in what I believe is a zero-sum game. Neither side is going to be swayed by the other, no matter how persuasive the argument. Actually, to put a fine point on it, science-minded folk would be swayed if there is even one piece of testable, verifiable evidence to suggest the existence of a god or god-like figure. Creationists just won't accept scientific truths, even in the face of overwhelming, testable, verified evidence.

So, I'm not going to play out the he-said/she-said of the debate. You can watch if for yourself. Just do a google search for Bill Nye, Ken Ham, debate. Sit back and be prepared to cry at the willful ignorance of a huge section of the North American populace.

What I will do though, is respond to the placards and notes featured in this link. In the post author Matt Stopera got 22 self-identifying creationists to write down questions for people with a brain in their heads  who understand science and, in particular, evolution. The old saw about "There's no such thing as a stupid question" was just disproved 22 times.  However, in the interest of being an educator and in contributing to the public knowledge-base, I'll take on the challenge of answering these questions.

If you're a Creationist, I'll speak slow and use easy-to-understand words.

1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way? Ok, I'm not Bill Nye so for me to offer his opinion would be pretty rude. However I think that if Bill is encouraging kids to think critically, to weigh evidence, and to make decisions based on rational thought, rather than on blind faith.... then yes. Yes he is.

2. Are you scared of a divine creator? How can I be afraid of something that doesn't exist. That's like being afraid of a healthy meal at McDonalds, or of a kitty without a sense of vengeance.  

3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature, i.e. trees created with rings, Adam was created as an adult... I don't even know where to begin with this one. The earth wasn't created "mature". It wasn't "created" in the way that you are meaning. It began as a loosely consolidated mass of swirling dust and gas. Over time gravity compressed it into the earth we know today (about 4 billion years ago). As for trees... they grow a new pair of rings each year. That's just basic biology. I can't begin to give a rational answer about a fictional character like Adam.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution. Ah your smarmy grin says "I've got you." But your basic lack of understanding about a law that you are trumpeting says "I'm an idiot." Read the second law carefully. It says - loosely - that "the entropy of an isolated system never decreases." More simply, isolated systems will trend toward a state of entropy (greater disorganization). Creationists like to hold this up as proof that evolution can't happen because the system - life on earth - is not trending toward less organization. Rather evolution would suggest a trend to a more ordered system.

Guess what: The earth isn't an isolated system. The sun provides energy that fuels all the natural processes. With the input of energy, an open system will not trend toward entropy. Come on, this is basic stuff.

5. How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?  What the hell? Now you're just being obtuse. Do I really have to explain that the earth is a sphere that spins on an axis making it appear that the sun rises and sets? Really? Your question begs a follow up question from me... Do you really believe that the hand of a mythical god lifts the sun up into the sky each day and then lowers it back at night? Really?

6. If Evolution is true.... oh screw it. I can't type this garbage out any longer. Click the above link open in a new tab. Read the questions yourself and follow along below.  For the record. the answer to number 6 is "see #4".

7. What about them?

8. I think you don't understand the meaning of the word "objective". Let's assume you mean "subjective". I have to answer your question with two questions: Why does there have to be a subjective view of life? Why does there have to be a reason? Life is life. End of story.

9. Yes. By chance. Well not really chance. There is some really cool math modelling that describes the probabilities of life. In our case life came from Amino acids, the primordial soup, and energy from the sun, and the mutations that allowed the creation of fuel through chemical processes. You do know that scientists have made this happen in labs, don't you? Just, do yourself a favour and go read "The Selfish Gene", or "Climbing Mount Improbable" both by Richard Dawkins. They're great primers to the subject and both make the math reasonably easy to understand.

10. Oh FFS. That's not a question.

11. Rational-thinking people don't do that. Rational thinking people may subscribe to a theory that says life on earth may have been seeded by biological material trapped in interstellar dust that settled on the surface of the earth, billions of years ago. I assure you, no rational person believes that we were "intelligently designed" by space men.

12. First of all, how many in-between steps would you require? Because I think that if we produced four, you'd want five. If we produced 100, you'd want 101. Secondly, please do even a little bit of research. Lots of  intermediates have been found; not just Lucy. They include: Ardipithecus (the intermediate between humans, modern apes and our common ancestor), Australopithecus aka Lucy (a genus comprised of a number of pre-homo species linking us to both our common ancestor and modern hominids), Homo habilus (a direct link to modern humans and the first documented tool makers), Homo erectus (the first hominids to be documented outside of Africa, the first to colonize non-African lands), Homo rhodensiensis (our direct ancestors. They displaced the Neanderthals and are the most recent link to Homo sapiens). So, how many more do you want. You Creationists have always said "Show us just one transitional fossil. I've just given you five.

13. That's the first reasonable question of the bunch. The answer is: Not really, not directly. Metamorphosis is the process by which a living creature changes its overall form in the course of its life. Caterpillar to butterfly, tadpole to frog etc... It doesn't directly support Evolution, but it is an evolved process.

14. Yes, Evolution is a theory. A theory is a testable idea that is supported by prior research and a body of scientific, verified knowledge. You've just completely mis-represented what a theory is. It is testable, verifiable, and observable. On the other hand, Creationism is an idea, a story, a myth. It's got all the validity of Goldilocks. It has no evidence to support it, and no experimentation can be done to prove or disprove it. Please do not lump Creationism (or its bastard-cousin, Intelligent Design) in with scientific theories, like evolution. Evolution isn't taught as fact. It's taught as scientific theory. The reason Evolution is taught in science class, is that it's science.

15. Part A - see the above answer. Part B, I don't object to Creationism or Intelligent Design being taught in school. I object to them being taught in a SCIENCE CLASS. Stick 'em in an optional religion or philosophy class. I don't care. Most scientists wouldn't care either. Just keep them out of science classrooms and make them options.

16. You don't need an increase in genetic information in order for an organism to evolve. What you need is for a genetic mutation to take advantage of a given situation so that it (the gene) becomes successful in being passed on to the organism's offspring. There is no correlation between the amount of genetic information and the "height" - for lack of a better term, to which a species has evolved.

17. Breeding and passing on genes, if there has to be a reason. But, why does there have to be a reason? Why can't life just be for life's sake?

18. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.... and go read #12. I'm going to go bang my head into a wall to make all the stupid you're shoving in there, fall out.

19. Yes. Next.

20. Yes it is amazing. Why does that require an divine creator? Why not be impressed by the amazing natural processes that drive these phenomena?

21. It didn't. Big bang theory posits that an infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense collection of matter exploded outward. There was no star.

22.  Just go away. Common ancestor, divergent evolution.... you know what.... just crawl back under your rock and leave the rest of us alone if you can't do so much as a simple on-line search.

Here's a bonus for you: I read a comment on one of the pages that featured the debate between Nye and Ham. The commenter asked (and I'm paraphrasing), how can you believe in science when scientists are constantly changing their minds and rewriting text books and theories... whereas the bible was written thousands of years ago and remains unchanged. This one really had me scratching my head. I understand that the scientifically illiterate may not get that the body of scientific knowledge evolves and changes based on research and experimentation. Scientists disprove theories and generate new ones all the time, based on their experimentation. That can be hard to grasp. However, for a creationist to display such a profound lack of understanding about the one book (really three books: Old Testament, New Testament, and the Apocrypha) upon which they are basing their entire world view is beyond astounding.

The bible as it's read today, is far from what its original authors intended. The version you read today - the King James Bible - was written in 1611. It was more of a political revision rather than a simple translation. James wanted the bible to reflect emerging ideas about eccelsiology (which apparently has nothing to do with tasty pastries). Ideas about the status of Mary changed not once, but at least six times in 1700 years. Even in Christianity, various sects can't agree on the basics of who she was. The basic ideas of heaven, hell, and purgatory are taken from Zoroastrian beliefs; not ascribed by the word of God, as modern Christians would have you believe.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I feel better just getting this off my chest because reading the questions, listening to Ken Ham, and knowing that there are people in the world like Michelle Bachmann, spewing out idiocy just makes my head hurt. Knowing that something like 48% of Americans believe in Biblical Creation and dismiss evolution makes me weep for future generations.

So, I do this. I sleep better knowing that I can add my voice to the masses raging at darkness and ignorance.