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Saturday, Jan 31, 2009
Solar eclipse coincidence
New Scientist magazine reports on solar eclipses:
At the height of totality, the fit of sun and moon is so perfect that beads of sunlight can only penetrate to us through the rugged valleys on the lunar surface, creating the stunning "diamond ring" effect.

It is all thanks to a striking coincidence. The sun is about 400 times as wide as the moon, but it is also 400 times further away. The two therefore look the same size in the sky - a unique situation among our solar system's eight planets and 166 known moons. Earth is also the only planet to harbour life. Pure coincidence?

Almost undoubtedly, say most astronomers. ...

But the presence of a large moon - one large enough to cause total eclipses - might also have been crucial. If so, that has important consequences for the search for life on other planets.

It is a fact that life on Earth is dependent on a large number of unexplained coincidences. Life on other planets might be extremely unlikely.
US prosecutors are out of control
The LA Times reports:
The U.S. attorney in Los Angeles has launched a federal grand jury investigation into Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in connection with his response to the molestation of children by priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, according to two law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

The probe, in which U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien is personally involved, is aimed at determining whether Mahony, and possibly other church leaders, committed fraud by failing to adequately deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

Authorities are applying a legal theory in an apparently novel way. One federal law enforcement source said prosecutors are seeking to use a federal statute that makes it illegal to "scheme . . . to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."

In this case, the victims would be parishioners who relied on Mahony and other church leaders to keep their children safe from predatory priests, the source said.

To gain a conviction on such a charge, prosecutors would have to prove that Mahony used the U.S. mail or some form of electronic communication in committing the alleged fraud, the source said.

This is the same law that is being used against impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and others.

This is crazy. The evidence for sex abuse is extremely thin. One priest pled guilty to a couple of molestations back in 1986. Nothing else has been proved in court. Even if you personally disapprove of how the LA bishop has been running the church there, since when did that become a crime? Maybe he did what he thought was best. Maybe he even had poor judgment. Maybe he was lousy at predicting who would become a good priest. Since when does a US prosecutor have the power to second-guess such decisions? Why don't they prosecute Pres. Barack Obama for pushing a flawed fanancial stimulus plan instead of more directly addressing the financial problems? That would make as much sense to me.

Here are some more US prosecutors who are out of control:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Twenty federal agents raided the home of the mother-in-law of Barry Bonds' personal trainer on Wednesday.

Madeleine Gestas and her daughter Nicole Anderson, the trainer's wife, are the target of a tax investigation that the lawyer for Greg Anderson said was aimed at pressuring the trainer to testify at Bonds' upcoming trial.

Bonds, Major League Baseball's career home run leader and a seven-time MVP, has pleaded not guilty to charges he lied to a federal grand jury in 2003 when he denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs.

"Even the mafia spares the women and children," said Anderson's lawyer, Mark Geragos.

Lead prosecutor Matthew Parrella didn't immediately return a telephone call on Wednesday.

Geragos said he believes the raid was in response to his refusal to tell prosecutors whether Anderson would testify. Geragos said he ignored a letter faxed to his Los Angeles office on Monday by prosecutors that asked about Anderson's plans for the Bonds' trial.

Anderson served more than a year in prison for refusing to testify against Bonds before a federal grand jury. Geragos said that on the day after her husband was released from prison, Anderson's wife received a so-called target letter informing her that she was under investigation.

A lot of people resent Bonds for breaking baseball records that were held by Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and others. It appears that federal agents will stop at nothing to try to discredit his achievements.
New Scientist says Darwin was wrong
The leftist-atheist-evolutionist PZ Myers is upset:
Pity Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, which published an issue in which the cover was the large, bold declaration that "DARWIN WAS WRONG". He has been target by a number of big name scientists who have been hammering him in a small typhoon of outraged private correspondence (I've been part of it) that his cover was a misdirected and entirely inappropriate piece of sensationalism.
It is funny how these guys seem to have a need to deify Charles DarwinDarwin. The NY Times reports:
Two arresting new books, timed to co­incide with Darwin’s 200th birthday, make the case that his epochal achievement in Victorian England can best be under­stood in relation to events — involving neither tortoises nor finches — on the other side of the Atlantic. Both books confront the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on; both conclude that Darwin, despite the pernicious spread of “social Darwinism” (the notion, popularized by Herbert Spencer, that human society progresses through the “survival of the fittest”), was no racist.
This is wacky. Darwin's famous book was titled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In The Descent of Man he wrote:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes ... will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.
I don't know whether Darwin was a racist or not, and I think that it is odd that anyone cares. The two new books claimed that he opposed the slave trade. So what? Nearly everyone opposed the slave trade in Darwin's day. Real scientists would be interested in Darwin's scientific ideas, and not worshipping him for his political or moral views.

I mentioned before that human evolution is speeding up and now the book has been released and the author has been interviewed on the 2blowhards blog.

Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009
Blago is innocent
Here is why I think that Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is innocent.

  • He was not allowed to call defense witnesses, such as Obama'a buddy Rahm Emmanuel who has said publicly that they had many discussions about the Senate appointment, and no one suggested anything improper.
  • U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has not yet even been able to get an indictment against Blago.
  • Blago has raised many millions of dollars, but no one has ever found that he has pocketed a dime of it.
  • Fitzgerald's arrest warrant was not for bribery or any generally recognized crimes, but for depriving the people of Illinois of "honest services".
  • The FBI agent who testified against Blago about the authenticity of certain wiretaps refused to answer questions about whether there are other wiretaps that would exonerate Blago, or to explain the context for the wiretaps.
  • Blago has the guts to publicly defend himself, and has refused to negotiate a plea bargain.
  • Fitzgerald has a history of unfair prosecutions, such as against Scooter Libby.
  • Fitzgerald has demanded that certain witnesses not testify, saying that such testimony might interfere with his attempts to elicit the testimony that he wants. It seems clear that he is threatening Blago's associates with prosecution, but will offer them immunity if they accuse Blago of crimes. If those associates tell the truth under oath before Fitzgerald makes deals with them, then he may lose his chance to get the statements that he wants.
  • The Fitzgerald arrest and press conference last month was so over-the-top that it is clear that we have some overzealous prosecutors who will twist the facts to get public support for their ambitions.
  • The wiretaps don't actually say anything criminal. This is typical quote from Blago:
    I’m going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain. You hear what I’m saying. And if I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself.
    If he is talking about cash for himself, that would be a bribe. But he could be talking about political favors for the people of Illinois, and there would be nothing wrong with that.

    Yes, I know that no one is defending Blago. The strongest defense of him on TV has been Geraldo Rivera, who called Blago a dirtbag but also said that bluster is not a crime. Here are the Blago blogs, where a couple of law profs defend him.

  • Tuesday, Jan 27, 2009
    Science writer goes gooey
    NY Times science reporter Dennis Overbye writes:
    When the new president went on vowing to harness the sun, the wind and the soil, and to “wield technology’s wonders,” I felt the glow of a spring sunrise washing my cheeks, and I could almost imagine I heard the music of swords being hammered into plowshares.

    Wow. My first reaction was to worry that scientists were now in the awkward position of being expected to save the world.

    Barack Obama campaigned in opposition to what scientists say is the cleanest, cheapest, and surest way to harness nature for energy -- nuclear energy. I don't see any reason to believe that he will be any more pro-science than G.W. Bush.

    Monday, Jan 26, 2009
    Promise, peril seen with embryonic stem cells
    The San Jose newspaper reports:
    At first glance, that might seem a potential gold mine for biotech companies, particularly in California. Indeed, a 2004 study commissioned by Proposition 71's proponents predicted the measure's passage would generate more than 2,000 jobs a year on average during the stem-cell institute's first five years. ...

    And because so little is known about embryonic cells, most of the $635 million the institute has handed out so far has been for basic research on those cells or to new laboratories at universities and other nonprofit entities. Companies have received less than $6 million.

    That ballot proposition committed California to spend $3B on stem cells, but it has been a gigantic failure so far. As the article explains, there is plenty of money for embryonic stem cells, but hardly any worthwhile applications. The most exciting human stem cell research and therapies do not even involve embryonic stem cells.

    Sunday, Jan 25, 2009
    Unfair impeachment trial
    Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich goes on an impeachment trial tomorrow. The Chicago Tribune reports:
    Blagojevich again today restated his innocence as part of a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the victim of unfair impeachment trial rules.

    If the Senate grants approval for Cain's testimony, the FBI agent will be able to testify that his affidavit was an accurate reflection of what was on the secret recordings as well as the procedures used the verify the accuracy of the intercepted conversations. If Cain testifies, an assistant federal prosecutor will accompany him to Springfield to instruct the FBI agent "not to answer questions" that go beyond the scope of Fitzgerald's authorization.

    Yahoo News reports:
    But the governor and his lawyers are boycotting the trial on grounds that it has been stacked against him.

    "As much as I'd love to participate in the Senate trial and in the Senate process, under the current rules that the Senate provides, they're not allowing me to participate in that process," Blagojevich said. "To participate in a process that denies fundamental fairness, fundamental due process -- to be part of a process that doesn't allow for calling of witnesses and, worse than that, doesn't allow for me or any citizen to challenge charges that brought against me -- is a fundamental violation of the Constitution. It is a trampling of the Constitution."

    Though the impeachment trial rules do not actually prevent Blagojevich from calling witnesses on his behalf, the governor objected to a rule that bars testimony of any person whom U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald thinks "could compromise" his criminal investigation of the governor. He also objected to a rule that says that "no objection ... may be made against all or any part of the House impeachment record."

    The governor said the impeachment rules prevented him from calling witnesses to refute the charges. Among those he wants to call are White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and US Republican Jesse Jackson Jr.
    Bush holdover U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should not have the power to dictate the rules under which the Illinois governor is tried. Blagojevich should have the right to cross-examine any witness against him, and to present his own witnesses in his defense.

    The federal case against Blagojevich is based on an obscure law (18 USC 1346) that makes it a crime to use the mail or a telephone wire to to deprive the Illinois citizens of the intangible right of honest services. Here is a 2002 essay on this dubious legal theory and why it is controversial. There is currently a petition for the US Supreme Court to hear the issue as it was applied to convict Conrad Black, a Canadian newspaper man who mismanaged his business. The court threw out this "honest services" nonsense once before, and I hope they do it again.

    I don't know whether Blagojevich is a crook or not, but I think that he is getting railroaded. If he took a bribe or committed some real crime, then they should prove it using the same court procedures that are used to convict real criminals.

    This whole episode reminds me of what happened to Arizona governor Evan Mecham about 20 years ago. There was a national campaign against him because he had refused to declare an MLK holiday, even tho it would have been illegal for him to do so. The state legislature had already decided against the idea. He also made some insensitive comments such as saying that some visiting Japanese businessmen got round eyes after seeing the nice Arizona golf courses. The Arizone legislature impeached him on various corruption charges and threw him out of office. He faced those same charges in a criminal court, and was acquitted on all grounds.

    Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009
    Hobbit too symmetrical to be human
    Science news:
    ScienceDaily (Jan. 21, 2009) — In a an analysis of the size, shape and asymmetry of the cranium of Homo floresiensis, Karen Baab, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Anatomical Scienes at Stony Brook University, and colleagues conclude that the fossil, found in Indonesia in 2003 and known as the “Hobbit,” is not human. ...

    The results of the analysis of the asymmetry of the skulls, which refers to differences between the right and left sides of the skull, refutes the suggestion that the LB1 skull was that of a modern human with a diagnosis of microcephaly. In modern humans, a high degree of asymmetry may indicate that the individual was diseased. ...

    “The degree of asymmetry in LB1 was within the range of apes and was very similar to that seen in other fossil skulls,” says Dr. Baab. “We suggest that the degree of asymmetry is within expectations for this population of hominins, particular given that the conditions of the cave in Indonesia in which the skull was preserved may have contributed to asymmetry.”

    So let me get this straight. Some African missing-link ape-man from millions of years ago migrated to some little Indonesian island where it lived like cave men until 17k years ago. It looked like a small-brained human but it was not human. And this is all based on finding one skull and Karen Baab declaring that the skull looks symmetrical!

    This is way too wacky for me. If there were really a whole new species of ape-man that lived for millions of years, then there should be a long trail of fossils from Africa to Indonesia. Finding one lousy symmtrical skull doesn't prove anything. Aren't all skulls symmetrical?

    Monday, Jan 19, 2009
    Atwood novel too brutal, sexist
    A Canadian newspaper reports:
    TORONTO — A Toronto parent says if students repeated some of the words from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the school halls, they’d be suspended, so he questions why it is OK in the classroom.

    Robert Edwards, who launched a formal complaint about the Canadian novel, says the foul language, anti-Christian overtones, violence and sexual degradation probably violate the Toronto board’s policies of respect and tolerance.

    “If you look at the board’s policies, it goes to these great lengths to talk about respect and not using profane language, and in fact so do the policies at Lawrence Park Collegiate,” where Edwards’ 17-year-old son was studying the book in his Grade 12 English class.

    “The board is adamant about those policies, but then puts books like this in places.”

    The book is an example of leftist bigoted hate speech. Using it for a school reading assignment makes as much sense as reading the Turner Diaries.

    Sunday, Jan 18, 2009
    Obama gets goofy science advise
    Jeff Jacoby has Questions for Obama's science guy, John Holdren, such as:
    2. You have advocated the "long-term desirability of zero population growth" for the United States. In 1973, you pronounced the US population of 210 million as "too many" and warned that "280 million in 2040 is likely to be much too many." The US population today is 304 million. Are there too many Americans?
    Those American population increases have been almost entirely from legal and illegal immigration. If he were really serious about his environmentalist views, then he would advocate tight immigration limits.

    But of course the science alarmists are heading in a different direction. Marc Sheppard writes:

    When word first broke that the remarkable Hudson River emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 was caused by a flock of Canadian geese, two thoughts immediately occurred.

    One – Somehow PETA would focus more on the agony of the geese that were sucked into both of the plane’s jet engines than the safety of the 150 passengers and five crew members, perhaps even suing US Air and hero pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger for animal cruelty.

    And Two – Somehow, somewhere, global warming would be blamed.

    Well — no word yet from the animal advocates.

    But their fellow greenies in the climate alarm department didn’t disappoint.

    Here is a scientific paper with ominous claims about how climate change will cause bird strikes.

    Monday, Jan 12, 2009
    Human evolution is speeding up
    One of the big frauds perpetrated by 20th century evolutionists has been that humans stopped evolving when they left Africa 50 to 200 thousand years ago.

    Newsweek says:

    And Steven Pinker, one of evo-psych's most prominent popularizers, now admits that many human genes are changing more quickly than anyone imagined. If genes that affect brain function and therefore behavior are also evolving quickly, then we do not have the Stone Age brains that evo-psych supposes, and the field "may have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over" 50,000 years ago, Pinker says.
    Jonathan Haidt says faster evolution means more ethnic differences.
    It stands to reason that local populations (not continent-wide "races") adapted to local circumstances by a process known as "co-evolution" in which genes and cultural elements change over time and mutually influence each other.

    … No new mental modules can be created from scratch in a few millennia, but slight tweaks to existing mechanisms can happen quickly, and small genetic changes can have big behavioral effects, as with those Russian foxes. We must therefore begin looking beyond the Pleistocene and turn our attention to the Holocene era as well - the last 10,000 years. This was the period after the spread of agriculture during which the pace of genetic change sped up in response to the enormous increase in the variety of ways that humans earned their living, formed larger coalitions, fought wars, and competed for resources and mates.

    … traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices. Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a "game changing" scientific event.

    And Pinker says in the NY Times magazine:
    The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.
    Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending have written a new book on The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Their site has these teasers for the first couple of chapters:
    In this chapter, we consider the accepted belief that human evolution stopped 40,000 years ago. Then we dispel it; in fact, it looks as if human evolution has become more and more rapid. ...

    Unlike Alien, despite the title, this chapter argues that interbreeding between Neanderthals and emergent modern humans was likely, and shows how even a small amount of interbreeding would have caused humans to pick up useful Neanderthal genes.

    Thursday, Jan 08, 2009
    NY Times created the Einstein myth
    I happened to see a book of prominent NY Times front pages in the last 150 years. It is fascinating to see how historical events were reported.

    One thing that surprised me was a 1929 front page story about a new theory of electromagnetism from Albert Einstein, and how it was his most important theory yet. The article started:

    EINSTEIN EXTENDS RELATIVITY THEORY; New Work Seeks to "Unite Laws of Field of Gravitation and Electro-Magnetism." HE CALLS IT HIS GREATEST "Book," Consisting or Only Five Pages, Took Berlin Scientist Ten Years to Prepare. Origin of Matter Theory Seen. His Relativity Theory. EINSTEIN EXTENDS RELATIVITY THEORY

    Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES.

    January 12, 1929, Saturday

    Page 1, 930 words

    BERLIN, Jan. 11.--Professor Albert Einstein, author of the theory of relativity, general and special, issued the following statement today explaining his new "book," consisting of five pages, upon which he has labored for the past ten years and which will be published next week:

    The NY Times archives have many other such silly articles about Einstein, including this:

    EINSTEIN ANNOUNCES A NEW FIELD THEORY; He Introduces a Vector of 5 Components Into 4-Dimensional Space-Time Continuum. ABANDONS WORK OF 1929 His New Mathematical Concept Is an Outgrowth of Kaluza's Hypothesis. Old Unitary Theory Abandoned. EINSTEIN ANNOUNCES A NEW FIELD THEORY Comment of Professor Wills. Einstein's Statement.

    October 26, 1931, Monday

    Page 1, 1496 words

    A preliminary announcement by Professor Albert Einstein of the completion by him, in collaboration with Dr. Walter Mayer, his assistant, of part of his work on a new unified field theory, supplanting the one announced by him in 1929, upon which he had spent more than ten years...

    This is bogus. Einstein never found a new field theory. Physics was creating quantum mechanics at that time, and that should have been front page news. But Einstein played no part in that. I suspect that the NY Times did more than anyone else to create a false myth about Einstein. Even when it wrote about quantum mechanics, the NY Times gave the impression that it was Einstein's invention, as in this 1931 article.

    The NY Times seems to have started this nonsense in 1919:

    LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS; Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations. EINSTEIN THEORY TRIUMPHS Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to be, but Nobody Need Worry. A BOOK FOR 12 WISE MEN No More in All the World Could Comprehend It, Said Einstein When His Daring Publishers Accepted It.
    This was pretty absurd. Einstein once published a paper saying that the relativistic deflection of starlight would be exactly the same as expected under Newtonian theory. The actual 1919 experiment was inconclusive.

    Here was the long 1919 followup:

    DON'T WORRY OVER NEW LIGHT THEORY; Physicists Agree That It Can Be Disregarded for Practical Purposes. NEWTON'S LAW IS SAFE At Most It Suffers Only Slight Correction, Says Prof. Bumstead of Yale University.

    ... Einstein is a great Swiss mathematician and physicist, who holds a professorship in Germany at present. His trump card was the "principle of relativity," which is the new theory that has set the world agog. "Lorentz's theory is a side issue," claimed Einstein. The fundamental thing is the principle of relativity which expressed simply is this: The universe is so constituted that it is impossible to detect the absolute velocity of the motion of any body through space.

    It was Poincare who coined the "principle of relativity", derived the Lorentz contraction, and published it before Einstein.

    Meanwhile, the distinguished mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson writes:

    This talk is called the Einstein lecture, and I am grateful to the American Mathematical Society for inviting me to do honor to Albert Einstein. Einstein was not a mathematician, but a physicist who had mixed feelings about mathematics. On the one hand, he had enormous respect for the power of mathematics to describe the workings of nature, and he had an instinct for mathematical beauty which led him onto the right track to find nature’s laws. On the other hand, he had no interest in pure mathematics, and he had no technical skill as a mathematician. In his later years he hired younger colleagues with the title of assistants to do mathematical calculations for him. His way of thinking was physical rather than mathematical.
    Contrary to the myth, Einstein always got excellent math grades in school. Dyson appears to be aware of the fact that the theory of relativity was primarily created by mathematicians, not Einstein.

    I have wondered how Einstein could get so much credit for things that he did not do. It was partially because he was an egomaniac who dishonestly claimed credit and concealed his sources. But he had to have had a lot of help to get such a fancy reputation. It now appears that the NY Times was the biggest benefactor to his reputation.

    Monday, Jan 05, 2009
    Obama is corrupting a Senate appointment
    I think that Barack Obama should get more grief for manipulating the appointment of a US Senator. I don't just mean his lying about contacts with Gov. Blagojevich.

    It has been reported that Blago offered the appointment to Rep. Danny Davis, but he turned it down under pressure from Obama and Dem. Majority Leader Reid. If so, then it is Obama and Reid who have corrupted the process. The governor has the power and the duty to make the appointment, and he has not been indicted or impeached. Obama and Reid have threatened not to seat any Blago appointment, and I don't think that they have any constitutional authority to veto an appointment. Now it appears that Burris will become a senator instead of Davis, and will be because of improper tampering by Obama and Reid.