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Saturday, May 31, 2008
Some think that Lucy is related to Flores Man
The latest Scientific American magazine (see podcast here) claims that most scientists still believe that Flores Man was a separate species of human that lived 20k years ago on a small Pacific island:
Steve: One of the big problems right now is there are a number of individual skeletons that we have but only one head.

Wong: That's right. There are lots of, maybe a dozen or so individuals have been discovered, many of them are represented by isolated bones and only one, that original skeleton, actually includes a head; so there is always been a question of, "Well if they find another head, will it be as small as this one?" That question is particularly important because there have been, ever since the discovery was announced, some researchers who have questioned whether or not the Hobbit represents a new species of human or whether it actually is just a modern human with a growth disorder that produced a small brain size.

Steve: So finding a second small head would be indicative of it really being a separate species and not an individual with pathology.

Wong: Exactly. It would clinch the deal really in favor of the majority of the researchers who believe that the Flores Hobbit is a new species of human.

Steve: So, what do you do now? You have to find some more fossils to try to really settle this issue, and one big thing would be to try to figure out how did this relative of Australopithecus, if that's what it is, get from Africa to Indonesia without leaving any fossils anywhere else?

Australopithecus is the supposed missing link between humans and apes. The main skeleton is called Lucy and is from Africa over 3M years ago. It looked like a chimp, except that some scientists say that it walked slightly more upright that most other chimps, and so they argue that it was just starting to evolve to be a human.

So what do Lucy and Flores Man have in common? Both were very short, and had small brains. Their brains were only a third the size of humans.

One problem with this theory is that we have just found one Lucy skeleton, and one Flores skeleton, and they lived three million years apart on opposite sides of the world! If they were really connected by 3M years of evolving cave men, we would see some evidence. It is easier to believe that we have been visited by space aliens.

Another silly article asks Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?

Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

The is wacky stuff. The magazine used to be better than this. The author of the article has a blog.

Update: The UK BBC has a story on this nonsense.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I happened to hear Dr. Laura Schlessinger plugging her latest book, and taking questions from an audience. A man asked:
I don't understand -- what are you going to do when it is proved conclusively by science that homosexuality is physiological and not a choice? ...

Aren't you with the hate the sin love the sinner crowd?

Dr. Laura denied that she ever said that homosexuality was a choice. I understand that she once said several things that offended gays, and she later apologized.

But I am wondering what the point to such a silly question is. Nobdy has found a "gay gene", and it is likely that no one will. But what if someone does? How is that going to change Laura's opinions?

Science has not found genetic explanations for much in the way of human behavior. Probably future research will find genetic correlations with various sorts of behaviors, but I doubt that the research will affect public opinion of those behaviors very much.

Sunday, May 25, 2008
Sandisk Sansa ipod is better than the Apple iPod
I like the Sandisk Sansa e280 mp3 music player. It sells a lot worse than the Apple iPod, but it has a lot of advantages.

It has 8G of flash memory, and is a whole lot cheaper than an iPod. You can sometimes buy one for about the same cost as the flash memory.

It has an FM radio, microphone, recorder, picture display, movie player, memory card slot, 20-hour battery life, and replaceable battery. It was years ahead of Apple on these features.

It is completely uncrippled. If you have a v1 unit, you can just plug it into a computer usb port, and all the files are plainly exposed for copying back and forth. You can copy data, and just use it as a usb drive if you wish. You can just use any file utility to copy music, recordings, playlists, or whatever. You can even edit the playlists directly, which are in a simple text format. (But annoyingly encoded in 16-bit unicode, so you have to be a little careful.)

With the v2 unit, the file structure is almost completely exposed. You cannot edit the playlists directly, but you can create them easily with just Msft Windows Explorer. While the device is connected in MTP mode, just right click on the device files you want on a playlist, and choose "Create playlist". You will then see a 0-byte playlist file on the device. You can rename it as you wish.

The choice of MSC or MTP mode is minor complication. In MSC mode, the device is just a regular usb drive with Windows assigning a drive letter. In MTP mode, it still looks like a usb drive, but instead of having a drive letter it is set up for communication with Micosoft Media Player and other computer music players. You can sync with libraries on your PC, if you wish.

The Apple iPod does not support either MSC or MTP mode. Instead it only supports a special Apple iTunes mode, where Apple puts artificial limits on what you can do. The Apple software works okay if you are buying from the iTunes music store, but it is really complicated and confusing to do anything else.

The Sansa v1 player allows loading the Rockbox alternative open-source firmware for playing music and games. The Sansa v1 firmware also has some quirks. You have to pause the music before turning it off, or else the next boot-up will be slow. The v2 firmware fixes this, and has a snappier user interface. Boot times are only slow if you add a playlist or something like that.

At first I found it annoying that I could not listen to music and recharge it at the same time. But I have discovered that if I just partially plug in the usb cable then I can do exactly that. Works great.

I have taken to calling the player my ipod, as if ipod has become a generic term for this type of music player. Terms like "music player" and "mp3 player" are inadequate. If someone asks for something more specific, I'll say it is a non-Apple ipod, or an ipod made by Sandisk. Then they understand.

Update: I've just discovered that the Sansa v2 player supports M3U playlists nicely. These are just ascii files with mp3 filenames in them. You can just load them on the main player or the memory card, and the player will find them the next time it boots up. There are just a couple of minor tricks needed. I'll post details if I have time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Silly letters about marriage
The San Jose newspaper has some wacky letters on same-sex marriage. This Monday letter said:
Let's suppose an initiative was passed, with an overwhelming majority, to bring back slavery. Would the court be accused of being "activist" when they struck down such a law? Isn't slavery a part of this country's deep-rooted tradition? Isn't it the will of the people?
This is a particularly bad example, because the courts did *not* strike down slavery. To the extent that they intervened, the courts made things worse. It took a civil war, and some constitutional amendments to end slavery in the USA.

A letter today said:

If marriage, at its very core, isn't about the potential for procreation, then why is there a social taboo and laws against closely related heterosexuals getting married? Obviously it is to avoid inter breeding.
He means "inbreeding".

Monday, May 19, 2008
NY Times readers say humans are not smart
For the second week in a row, the NY Times science section published a letter saying animals were smarter than humans. Last week was this:
I must disagree with the very premise of this article — that humans are “so smart.” Why must scientists and supposedly objective people be so egotistically ignorant? Classifying other animals as “dumb” is, well, dumb. Until we humans drop the attitude that we are so smart and so superior, the chances that we will continue to exist as a species become less and less. So let’s stop the collective pats on the back and start really looking at why other animals are so smart that they have not needed to improve for very long periods of time.
And this week:
What I finally determined was that apparently smart humans were messing with the natural predilections of animals, ... Should we blame the flies for adapting? I blame the allegedly smart humans for confounding their cues.
Evolutionists often have a real hard time saying that humans are better than animals in any way.

Saturday, May 17, 2008
American DNA
Michael Medved writes that Americans are evolving distintive DNA:
Nevertheless, two respected professors of psychiatry have recently come out with challenging books that contend that those who chose to settle this country in every generation possessed crucial common traits that they passed on to their descendents. In “American Mania,” Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. argues that even in grim epochs of starvation and persecution, only a small minority ever chooses to abandon its native land and to venture across forbidding oceans to pursue the elusive dream of a better life. The tiny percentage making that choice (perhaps only 2%, even in most periods of mass immigration) represents the very essence of a self-selecting group. Compared to the Irish or Germans or Italians or Chinese or Mexicans who remained behind in the “Old Country,” the newcomers to America would naturally display a propensity for risk-taking, for restlessness, for exuberance and self-confidence –traits readily passed down to subsequent generations. Whybrow explained to the New York Times Magazine that immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their “dopamine receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.”

John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School makes a similar case for an American-specific genotype in “The Hypomanic Edge” -— celebrating the frenzied energy of American life that’s impressed every visitor since Tocqueville. The United States also benefited from our tradition of limited government, with only intermittent and ineffective efforts to suppress the competitive, entrepreneurial instincts of the populace. Professor Whybrow says: “Here you have the genes and the completely unrestricted marketplace. That’s what gives us our peculiar edge.” In other words, “anything goes capitalism” reflects and sustains the influence of immigrant genetics.

I don't know whether it is observable in DNA, but Americans do appear to have some distinctive qualities.

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Same-sex marriage decision
The California Supreme Court has just mandated same-sex marriages by a 4-3 vote. Judge Kennard wrote:
As the opening words of the Chief Justice’s majority opinion indicate, this case is a continuation of Lockyer. There, this court held that local officials had acted unlawfully by issuing gender-neutral marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the officials made a legal determination that depriving same-sex couples of the right to marry was unconstitutional. ... Here, this court holds that under the state Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, same-sex couples have a right to marry, and that state officials should take all necessary and appropriate steps so that local officials may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

From such brief descriptions, these two decisions may appear inconsistent. ... What this court determined to be unlawful in Lockyer, and ordered city officials to

Rather, this court decided only that local officials lacked authority to decide the constitutional validity of the state marriage statutes and instead should have submitted that question to the judiciary for resolution.

This decision has many controversial aspects, but for now I'll just note the judicial supremacist nature of it. This court of seven judges is saying that it is the only body that is allowed to interpret the state constitution. That is just wrong. All Californians are responsible for upholding the constitution. The court is just making a political decision about its own political ideologies, and it wants all the power for itself.

Monday, May 12, 2008
There is no best technology, if you ignore cost
The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about whether the US EPA should mandate the "best technology available", regardless of any cost-effectiveness analysis. This essay explains why cost-effectiveness analysis ought to be essential to environmentalism.

Doing a cost-benefit analysis is essential to any engineering problem, and its necessity just seems like common sense. I don't even see how there could ever be a "best technology available", regardless of cost. There is always some way to spend more money to get a slightly better result.

There are apparently environmentalists who argue against a cost-benefit analysis. This is just more evidence that environmentalism is a big fraud. Anyone serious about improving the environment would want to analyze what will do the most good with the resources available.

Sunday, May 11, 2008
Narrow-minded law profs
A dozen feminist law profs have issued this public letter:
Our objection to honoring Ms. Schlafly instead stems from the fact that she has devoted her career to demagoguery and anti-intellectualism in the pursuit of her political agenda. ...

Finally, as lawyers and law professors, we are deeply disturbed by Ms. Schlafly’s similarly anti-intellectual campaign against an independent judiciary. Instead of engaging in reasoned debate, she regularly uses the label “activist” to decry judges and decisions with which she happens to disagree. ... she actively participated in the attempt to unseat Missouri Supreme Court Judge Rick Teitelman because of the substance of his judicial decisions.

We call on the University to rescind its offer of an honorary degree to Ms. Schlafly.

Other gripes have come from People For the American Way and Katha Pollitt in The Nation magazine.

Wash. U. points out that it has given honorary degrees to much more controversial political figures, such as Jesse Jackson.

The complaints are absurd and disengenuous. How can it be "anti-intellectual" to disagree with the substance of some judicial decisions?

Here is a kooky Crooked Timber blog attack on the degree, rebutted here. There is also a protest page.

Update: Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton has now apologized for the "anguish" suffered by those pathetic law profs.

Quantum crypto broken again
Here is research from Sweden:
ScienceDaily (May 11, 2008) — Quantum cryptography has been regarded as 100-percent protection against attacks on sensitive data traffic. But now a research team at Linköping University in Sweden has found a hole in this advanced technology. ...

But a new technology called quantum cryptography is supposed to be absolutely secure. Thus far, however, very few people have made use of it. It requires special hardware, for example with a type of laser that emits polarized light particles (photons) via optic fiber or through the air. Some companies and banks in Austria are testing the system, and trials are underway with satellite-TV transmission.

The security is guaranteed by the laws of quantum mechanics. ...

But Jan-Åke Larsson, associate professor of applied mathematics at Linköping University, working with his student Jörgen Cederlöf, has shown that not even quantum cryptography is 100-percent secure.

Quantum crypto is a big scam. The security is not guaranteed. The technology has no practical utility. This is just the latest of many weaknesses that have been announced.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008
National “DNA warehouse” bill passes
The physician group AAPS reports:
Passing the House of Representatives on a voice vote, S. 1858 has been sent to President Bush for signature. The Newborn Genetic Screening bill was passed by the Senate last December. ...

The federal government lacks the Constitutional authority as well as the competence to develop a newborn screening program, states Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (R-TX). ...

“Drafters of the legislation made no effort to ensure that these newborn screening programs do not violate the privacy rights of parents and children,” Dr. Paul noted.

I warned below that the GINA Act was paving the way for DNA privacy invasions.

Monday, May 05, 2008
Ben Stein's assertions
Jim Manzi writes:
Expelled makes two key assertions. First, the scientific establishment has prevented adequate consideration of Intelligent Design (ID). Second, the scientific finding of evolution through natural selection logically entails atheism and nihilism.
These assertions are indeed dubious, but I didn't notice the movie going that far. I would say instead that the movie asserted that (1) the scientific establishment is incredibly hostile to Intelligent Design (ID), and (2) Darwinism leads many people to atheism and a devaluation of human life.

I think that the scientific establishment would be better off letting the ID folks say whatever they have to say. At worst, it is just nuttiness that is of the sort that is common in academia anyway.

Relativity was invented before Einstein
Who Invented Relativity?. It concedes that Einstein really just had a reinterpretation of an existing theory, but Einstein gets most the credit anyway:
In the context of electro-dynamics, Fitzgerald, Larmor, and Lorentz had all, by the 1890s, arrived at the Lorentz transformations, including all the peculiar "time dilation" and "length contraction" effects (with respect to the transformed coordinates) associated with Einstein's special relativity. By 1905, Poincare had clearly articulated the principle of relativity and many of its consequences, had pointed out the lack of empirical basis for absolute simultaneity, had challenged the ontological significance of the ether, and had even demonstrated that the Lorentz transformations constitute a group in the same sense as do Galilean transformations. ...

Hardly any of the formulas in Einstein's two 1905 papers on relativity were new, but what Einstein provided was a single conceptual framework within which all those formulas flow quite naturally from a simple set of general principles.

One of the arguments in favor of Einstein is that he demanded and got credit at the time, while Lorentz and Poincare generously credited others. But this just reflects the fact that Einstein was more of a plagiarizing egomaniac:
Regarding Born’s impression that Poincare was just “recording Lorentz’s work”, it should be noted that Poincare habitually wrote in a self-effacing manner. He named many of his discoveries after other people, and expounded many important and original ideas in writings that were ostensibly just reviewing the works of others, with “minor amplifications and corrections”. So, we shouldn’t be misled by Born’s impression. Poincare always gave the impression that he was just recording someone else’s work – in contrast with Einstein, whose style of writing, as Born said, “gives you the impression of quite a new venture”.
The article really gets absurd when it argues that Lorentz and Poincare did not fully understand Relativity. They were regarded as two of the smartest men in Europe, and understood Relativity better than Einstein. It is true that Lorentz and Poincare wrote after 1905 of the possibility of the aether existing, but so did Einstein.

Saturday, May 03, 2008
Evolutionists preoccupied with motives
On a legal blog discussing the teaching of Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) in the schools, someone named Oren wrote:
I think it's been pretty conclusively shown (Kitzmiller) that ID is and always was religion. Most damning IMO was the revision of "Pandas" in which the word "creation" (and its cognates) was systematically removed to make the book more palatable as non-religious.
I responded:
The judge said that this was done in order comply with a Supreme Court decision. Why is it damning to comply with a court decision? Shouldn't everyone try to comply with the law?
Arnold Asrelsky responded to me:
Judge Jones did not say that the editors of 'Pandas' changed every instance of 'creationism' to 'Intelligent Design' in order to 'comply' with a Supreme Court decision. The changes were made to hide the fact that the 'new' 'Pandas' presented the same old Creationist text in a disguise meant to deceive the courts, the school boards and the general public. I hope you were making your comment tongue-in-cheek. Otherwise your comment is as deceptive as the 'Panda' editors' and your motives become as suspect as theirs were.

The wedge document of the Discovery Institute clearly states the its goal is to invalidate materialistic secular science. ID is the chosen term of a massive and well-funded PR campaign to subvert scientific inquiry. ...

The remarkable thing here is how the leftist-athiest-evolutionists make such unscientific arguments. They pretend to be advancing the cause of science, but they usually base their arguments on dubious mindreading instead of actual facts.

There are several good arguments against teaching ID in the schools. But these evolutionists focus on the alleged motives of others. They want to read the minds of the Pandas authors, the Discovery Institute, the Dover PA school board, and others who don't buy into the leftist-atheist-evolutionist party line. I made one little comment, and now the guy wants to read my mind!

The US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that Louisiana's Creationism Act was unconstitutional. Judge Jones found that the Pandas book was subsequently edited to remove references to creationism, and made inferences about the motives of the Pandas authors. I think that it is bizarre to denigrate folks for complying with a court decision.

Here is what Judge Jones ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005):

In Edwards v. Arkansas [sic], 482 U.S. 578 (1987), five years after McLean, the Supreme Court held that a requirement that public schools teach “creation science” along with evolution violated the Establishment Clause. The import of Edwards is that the Supreme Court turned the proscription against teaching creation science in the public school system into a national prohibition. ...

As Plaintiffs meticulously and effectively presented to the Court, Pandas went through many drafts, several of which were completed prior to and some after the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards, which held that the Constitution forbids teaching creationism as science. ...

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.

(It is curious that Judge Jone would get the name of his main precedential case wrong; the Edwards case was from Louisiana, not Arkansas. The mistake is not in the ACLU brief he plagiarized.)

You can draw your own conclusions about why the Pandas authors revised their terminology. The simplest explanation is that they were trying to comply with a court decision.

It is also a little bizarre to say that there is a "massive and well-funded PR campaign to subvert scientific inquiry". Whatever you think of the Discovery Institute, it is a tiny operation that has not spent one cent to subvert scientific inquiry.

Friday, May 02, 2008
Congress passes Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
Russell Korobkin makes a good point when he says that Amy, Beth, and Cindy may have the exact same cancer risk, and yet GINA forces insurance companies to discriminate between them. This seems unfair and economically inefficient to me. But he loses me here:
Exceptions should be permitted to allow insurers to surcharge customers who engage in risky activities within their individual control, such as smoking.
He defends his op-ed here.

This is the really insidious part of Korobkin's ideology. He wants the govt to decide what behavior you ought to be correcting.

There is no consensus about what is under your individual control. Recent research has shown that some smokers may have a gene that makes it very difficult for them to quit. Likewise, some obese people seem to be unable to lose weight. Many physical conditions can be ameliorated by actions that people are unable or unwilling to do. Does Korobkin really want the govt or the insurance company to distinguish "unable" from "unwilling"? It just cannot be done, with today's medical knowledge. It is like trying to separate nature and nuture; you can do it for a few things, but you cannot do it for most things.

It is amazing that there was no opposition to GINA. It is a horrible law that will waste health care dollars, create inequities, and ultimately be unworkable because it requires insurance companies to make distinctions that cannot be made. Ron Paul was the only one to vote against it.

I also commented on this law below.