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Debunking the Paradigm Shifters


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Wednesday, Apr 29, 2009
How GPS uses relativity
Pres. Obama said:
The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago….
GPS receivers work by listening to times being broadcast from 4 or more GPS satellites, and triangulating a location based on using the speed of light to calculate the distance to each of those 4 satellites. For this to work, the satellites must have extremely accurate clocks. (The receivers don't because they can infer the time from the satellites.)

The satellite clocks keep time differently in space because of a couple of relativistic effects. The clocks slow down because they are moving faster (special relativity) and speed up because there is less gravity (general relativity). The effects are tiny, but they are significant compared to the precision needed for GPS.

There are some other tiny errors as well. The clocks are not perfect, the satellite locations are not known perfectly, there are irregularities in the Earth's gravitational field, etc.

When the GPS satellites were first put up in space, there was some controversy over whether the relativistic effects were significant. So the satellites were programmed both ways. They soon found that they got higher accuracy with the relativistic calculations. This is commonly cited as experimental proof for relativity, as in Obama's remark.

However, it is not really true that we could never have a GPS system without relativity. To get higher accuracy than before, the GPS satellites are now re-calibrated on a daily basis. With these frequent corrections, it does not matter much if the relativistic corrections are used or not. If relativity had never been invented, GPS would work just as well, but physicists would be baffled as to why the daily corrections were necessary.

Backup that DVD
A pro-Hollywood op-ed says:
Finally, the availability of a DVD-ripping tool from a "real" company like Real would signal to consumers that copying DVDs is OK — a message that is contrary to the law and that will undermine the market for legal content. Despite pleas from Real and its allies on the copyleft, no court has ever held that it is "fair use" to copy a prerecorded DVD.
Fair use isn't the only argument. From the US copyright code, 17 USC 117 says:
(a) Making of Additional Copy or Adaptation by Owner of Copy. — Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program provided:

(1) that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program in conjunction with a machine and that it is used in no other manner, or

(2) that such new copy or adaptation is for archival purposes only and that all archival copies are destroyed in the event that continued possession of the computer program should cease to be rightful.

This would not apply if DVDs just had movies on them, in the way that music CDs just have music on them. But Hollywood insisted that they be computer programs, so that they could control regional distribution and play other games on consumers. If Hollywood made the DVDs to be computer programs with full knowledge that they would be subject to 17 USC 117, then we should be able to make backup copies.
Propaganda video contest
The leftist-atheist-evolutionist PZ Myers writes:
Discover Magazine is running a contest: make a video that explains evolution in two minutes or less. They've done this before, with string theory, ...
There is a funny similarity between evolution and string theory. Both fields are populated with zealots who are always trying to convince us that the theory is true, without actually telling us what is true about it.

There are many things that are true about evolution and string theory, but that is not what the video contest is for. The string theory videos did not explain anything that was true. The idea is to hype the theory as a grand theory of everything.

Friday, Apr 24, 2009
Jared Diamond story apparently bogus
AP reports:
NEW YORK (AP) — Two New Guinea tribesmen have filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit claiming Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond wrote a New Yorker magazine article that falsely accused them of murder and other crimes.

Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp say in a single-page filing in Manhattan's state Supreme Court that Diamond's article published April 21, 2008, accused them "of serious criminal activity ... including murder."

The article was titled, "Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?"

Stinkyjournalism.org has more details. An anthropologist adds:
Many like to hold out Diamond as a know-nothing dilettante, but the main thing that distinguishes this case is that it was published in the New Yorker, which gets read by people. Monographs of fieldwork in anthropology don't get read by people. They are peer-reviewed, but not usually fact-checked
I have criticized Diamond before, such as here. It is amazing how he can keep publishing these grand theories, get wide public acclaim, and not have any hard evidence for anything. When he says stuff that can be checked, it is wrong, and he is treated as a great genius.

I also wonder how the New Yorker magazine can maintain a reputation for fact-checking. Somehow it can publish these bogus stories, see them get disproved, and yet stand by the stories as if nothing is wrong.

Update: Steve Sailer points out that the lawsuit is being pushed by Stephen Jay Gould's widow. This is getting bizarre. Gould and Diamond were two of the most famous and widely read American scientists. Both got famous for publishing dubious theories that were praised for their political correctness. This lawsuit is going to be interesting. Too bad no one ever sued Gould for libel.

Wednesday, Apr 22, 2009
Recognizing randomness
The Bad Astronomer does a terrible job of explaining randomness:
Question for you: which of these two images shows dots that are placed at random, and which does not? ...

Another great example is this one: imagine you flip a coin ten times, and you keep track. Which of these sequences is more likely? HHHHHTTTTT or TTHHTHHTTH

He says the coin example shows equal randomness but he claims that one of the dot images is more random than the other! He does not see the contradiction between the examples.

If you follow his links, you will see that both dot images were randomly generated. They differ in how the dots are correlated, but not in how random they are. Occasionally you will hear a layman say that something is not "random" because of some sort of observable correlation. That is a mistake. All sorts of random variables show correlations.

For example, suppose I have a weighted coin that turns up heads 2/3 of the time, and tails 1/3. Some people might say that it is not random. But of course it is random. It certainly isn't deterministic. You might call it a biased coin or something else, but it is certainly also a random coin unless you can predict the outcome correctly each time.

Friday, Apr 17, 2009
Torture memos released
The Angry Left Bush-haters are all excited with this news:
The Bush Administration Office of Legal Counsel authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to put insects inside a confinement box as part of the Administration's "harsh interrogation" practice, as well as throwing detainees into walls, according to memos released by President Barack Obama on Thursday.

Read the full memos here.

"You would like to place Zubadayah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us he has a fear of insects," the Bush White House said.

"As we understand it, no actually harmful insect will be placed in the box. Thus, though the introduction of an insect may produce trepidation in Zubaydah (which we discuss below), it certainly does not cause physical pain."

But, the memo cautioned, to comply with the law, the CIA "must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain."

More precisely, these memos expressed an opinion about whether the insect would violate 18 USC 2340 which is the law that would make it "torture" if it were "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering".

Keep in mind that the FBI and military forces do not do any of this stuff. It was only done to 2 or 3 known terrorists who were refusing to talk about pending attacks. This is no big deal.

Thursday, Apr 16, 2009
Right to self-defense
Law prof E. Volokh gives this example of fallacious legal reasoning:
Third, defendant claims that the statute prohibiting the possession of stun guns impermissibly infringes on defendant's right to keep and bear arms for his own defense. We disagree. Const. 1963, art. 1, § 6 provides: “Every person has a right to keep and bear arms for the defense of himself and the state.”

The right to regulate weapons extends not only to the establishment of conditions under which weapons may be possessed, but allows the state to prohibit weapons whose customary employment by individuals is to violate the law. [People v. Brown, 235 N.W. 256 (Mich. 1931) (upholding a ban on carrying blackjacks).] The device seized from defendant was capable of generating 50,000 volts. Testimony in the lower court established that such weapons can not only temporarily incapacitate someone but can result in temporary paralysis. Our Supreme Court in Brown explained that the power to regulate is subject to the limitation that its exercise be reasonable. We conclude that the Legislature’s prohibition of stun guns is reasonable and constitutional.

He says that the judge has a "blindness" to the possibility of using a stun gun for self-defense. I don't think so. The judge pretends to directly address the point. Then he quotes some valid law, and gives a cite. He gives a couple of facts about stun guns. Then he just declares that the law is reasonable.

This type of faulty reasoning is so common in appeal courts that the judges must take a seminar in how to write such opinion. Note that the above opinion does not really address the defendant's argument at all. Yes, stun guns are dangerous and they can be banned if they are customarily used for illegal purposes. But using a dangerous weapon for self-defense is usually legal, and that is the only reason people carry stun guns, as far as I know.

The judges argument follows this pattern:

Defendant argues that he has a right to do X. Case law is against the right to do Y if conditions A and B are met. X is similar to Y. The facts show that condition A is met. Thus there is no right to do X.
This is faulty because the judge should look to see if condition B is met.

Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009
Google immigration propaganda
The NY Times has this article in favor of letting in more immigrants:
Mr. Mavinkurve, a 28-year-old Indian immigrant who helped lay the foundation for Facebook while a student at Harvard, instead works out of a Google sales office in Toronto, a lone engineer among marketers.

He has a visa to work in the United States, but his wife, Samvita Padukone, also born in India, does not. So he moved to Canada.

“Every American I’ve talked to says: ‘Dude, it’s ridiculous that we’re not doing everything we can to keep you in the country. We need people like you!’ ” he said.

So what makes this guy so brilliant? It goes on to explain:
But back in late 2006, maps produced by the service were taking too long to download and appear on phones. As customers waited for the maps to form, they racked up huge bills from cellphone providers, which at the time were charging for every minute or every byte of data transferred.

Enter Mr. Mavinkurve, who floated an alternative: cut the number of colors in each map section to 20 or 40 from around 256. The user would not see the difference, but the load times would be reduced 20 percent.

Mr. Mavinkurve used a rare combination of creativity, analysis, engineering and an understanding of graphics to find a solution that had eluded the rest of the team, said Mark Crady, a manager in the maps group.

No, that is not rare genius. There are millions of American programmers who know that trick. Maybe Google should hire more Americans.

Saturday, Apr 11, 2009
50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
An English prof trashes one of the most widely used college textbooks ever written:
It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write "however" or "than me" or "was" or "which," but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.
The book does have a strange popularity that goes far beyond any reason.

Saturday, Apr 04, 2009
Honest debate on same-sex marriage
The Boiled Frog Blog posts this open letter to Phyllis Schlafly:
Americans deserve an honest debate on gay marriage.

Today, in response to the Iowa Supreme Court's decision to strike down the ban on gay marriage, you issued a press release titled "Eagle Forum: Iowa's Supremacist Judges Overturn State Law and OK Gay Marriage." The Iowa Supreme Court issued a very detailed 69 page ruling. Your press release fails to address a single aspect of the ruling.

If you want a detailed legal argument, then I suggest Judge Zarella' dissent in Conn., in HTML or PDF. (The other Conn. opinions are here.)
Similarly, your pleading for "the will of the people" is intellectually dishonest. In this country, civil rights are not dependent upon the largess of the majority. Our judiciary is charged with the responsibility of preventing the tyranny of the majority over the minority.
Actually, civil rights have nearly always come from the majority. It took a war and a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, while the Supreme Court was trying to expand slavery. It was primarily by vote that bans interracial marriage were ended in the USA. The courts were responsible for forced racial busing, but I would not brag about that.
In your press release you go on to say "We can never allow the definition of marriage to simply mean two consenting persons who agree to share quarters and start applying to the government for benefits," I have idea what you are referring to when you say "applying to the government for benefits." It would appear that you are trying to imply that gay marriage is somehow connected to social welfare programs. That is dishonest.
It is legal throughout the USA for gays to share quarters and do what they want in private. The whole legal argument of same-sex marriage is based on same-sex couples wanting government benefits, such as being able to file a joint tax return and pass property without inheritance taxes.
While it is abundantly clear that you don't like same-sex marriage, it is entirely unclear why you feel that way. Even less clear is why you feel that you are entitled to impose your beliefs on everyone else.
She is not imposing her beliefs. Her position is that marriage law should be defined by the legislature, just like any other law. It is the majority of the American people who oppose same-sex marriage, including Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore.

I am not speaking for Phyllis Schlafly. I am just addressing this argument that opposition to same-sex marriage is dishonest. It is not just her view; it is the dominant view in the USA today and has been the dominant view on Earth for thousands of years. If you want to know why, just ask your friends and neighbors.

There is no true same-sex marriage in the USA today. While several states have court-ordered arrangements that approximate same-sex marriage for certain purposes under state law, there are no same-sex couples that are married under federal law. I think that it is dishonest for any American same-sex couple to call themselves married. They are not. The federal Defense Of Marriage Act does not permit it.

Is evolution used in medicine?
Evolutionist Jerry Coyne writes:
I have sometimes written that evolutionary biology doesn’t have much practical value in medicine or other areas impinging on humanity’s material well being.
I said something similar here. He now retracts this opinion.

One of his blog readers, David Hillis, sent him some papers that use "evolutionary analyses". They seem to be just mean genetics. Does any of this depend on any Darwinian principle or on what some people call macro-evolution? I'd like to see an example that explains just what evolutionary principle is being used, and for what purpose.

Update: Coyne has another post on what counts as evidence for evolution. I think that he is right that altho we have all sorts of DNA evidence for all sorts of fascinating things, it is not necessarily evidence for evolution unless it somehow contradicts what the evolution skeptics are saying.

Hillis has posted some followup messages defending his view, but he doesn't have much in the way of practical medicine that is really evidence for evolution. He says that the Discovery Institute rejects “natural selection, mutation, and common ancestry”, but if you follow his link you'll find that the DI spokesman merely endorsed encouraging Texas students to "analyze, evaluate, and critique some of the core evolutionary concepts like natural selection, mutation, and common ancestry." I am still waiting for a good example.

Thursday, Apr 02, 2009
Black does not reflect
Snopes denies that California is planning to ban black cars in order to curb global warming. A letter to the editor objects:
You're not taking my black car away

The California Air Resources Board has insisted that it never intended to ban black cars, only cars bearing low-reflectivity paint. Further, according to CARB spokesman Stanley Young, CARB has shelved its plan to require more reflective paint until manufacturers can find a way to make black paint more reflective.

Reflective black? Yeah, right. I'm sure they'll get right on that, after they finish the anti-gravity flying cars. Can these fine folks at CARB actually be that ignorant of basic high school physics? If so, why are they empowered to make decisions that should be based on science and technology?

CARB can have my black-on-black Mini Cooper when they pry the keyless-entry remote from my cold, dead fingers.

Mark Magee

The guy has a point. If the paint is more reflective, then it is not black.