Category Archive: Science & Data

Mar 26

I Don’t Care What You Call Pluto

PlutoVox published an article last week that made me want to slam my head against the wall, The Debate Over Pluto Will Never Die. Here’s the Latest Argument for Why It’s a Planet. Astronomer Kirby Runyon has come up with a new definition for a planet. And if we use it, there will be hundreds of planets in our solar system. For example, our Moon would be a planet. And hell, why not?

Remember: the Moon is quite a lot larger than Pluto. In fact, the largest 7 moons in the solar system are bigger than Pluto. So size isn’t the issue. Oh, you think a planet is something that orbits the sun and a moon is something that orbits a planet. Guess what? It ain’t nearly that simple. The Moon doesn’t orbit around the Earth. The two objects orbit around their center of mass. I have discussed this issue before, The Unusual Pluto-Charon Binary Orbit. It turns out that the Earth-Moon center of mass is inside the Earth. But the Pluto-Charon center of mass is way outside Pluto.

Orbits Are More Complex Than They Seem

The same thing is true of the Sun, although Jupiter is the only object large enough to make the Sun wobble. But my point is that if you looked at the Earth-Moon system orbiting around the Sun (the center of mass is effectively the center of the Sun), you would not see the Earth making an ellipse around the sun with the Moon circling it. Instead, you would see the two objects zigzagging around the sun. So if you look at it from a large scale, it looks very much like the Moon is orbiting the Sun. Because it is.

Now look at the Pluto-Charon system. It’s the same, but even more zigzag. So if Pluto is a planet, I sure don’t see why the Moon isn’t. So why not?

A New Planet Definition

Runyon and some other astronomers have suggested this as the definition of a planet:

A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape … regardless of its orbital parameters.

Got a problem with that? All of these objects ultimately orbit the Sun anyway. If the Earth suddenly disappeared, the Moon would continue to orbit the Sun. So there you go: the ultimate definition of a planet that couldn’t possibly be designed just to make Pluto a planet. And I say this knowing that Brian Resnick reported, “Once he’d seen this side of Pluto, Runyon was bothered that it wasn’t a full-fledged planet anymore.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t care. I so don’t care that it’s annoying. Call Pluto whatever you want. And I’ll go further: call the Earth anything you want. I can certainly come up with a definition of planet in which the Sun has only 4 planets, knocking out the four rocky inner “planets.” Because, as Juliet put it:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet …

Pluto Is Fascinating — Whatever You Call It

I find Pluto fascinating. I don’t need to call it “planet,” “dwarf planet,” or even “rose” to find it fascinating. Is it only the large things that are worth studying — worth caring about? From my perspective, the Earth is the most interesting plant for what I think are obvious reasons.

But here’s the thing: our solar system is amazing. Rather than fight about what category to place Pluto in, why don’t we take a moment to marvel at the fact that Triton orbits Neptune backwards? And speaking of that, how in the universe did Venus get that backwards day (which happens to be longer than its year)? Or how about if you took all the debris of the asteroid belt (including “planet” Ceres), you’d have a “planet” about 1/25th the size of our Moon?

Space Garbage

There is something nice about the current official definition of planets: it creates 8 of them. They divide very nicely into two types: small rocky ones close to the Sun and big gaseous ones far from the Sun. They are completely dominant regarding their moons — all orbit a point inside the planet. I think the Earth has the largest moon relatively speaking, and it is only 1% of the Earth’s mass. (Charon is 12% the mass of Pluto.) But I’m willing to give it all up.

I propose the following definition:

Space garbage is anything that isn’t a star, broadly defined (including black holes, quasars, and so on).

So you say “planet” and I say “space garbage.” And literally nothing about the science of solar systems changes.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/03/26/call-pluto/

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Feb 25

Chinese Room Argument

John Searle - Chinese Room ArgumentThe argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle. It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science, and cognitive science generally.

–David Cole
The Chinese Room Argument

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/25/chinese-room-argument/

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Feb 19

Human evolution and the Myth of Control

Bone House Wasp - Very Good MotherMother Nature Network published an interesting little article some time ago, Kooky Cartwheeling Spider Among Bizarre New Species. It seems that 18,000 recently discovered species were given official names this last year. And so the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at State University of New York (SUNY) decided to highlight ten of these creatures. Think about that for a moment. Humans have spent thousands of years cataloging different animal species, yet we can still be discovering tens of thousands of them each year. According to the article, there are still 10 million yet to be discovered. This number is also the estimate of the total number of species on the earth. Thus far, humans have only been able to catalog about 1.5 million species.

The group of creatures include some things that demand a rewrite of Hamlet, “There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in your worst nightmares.” Take the bone house wasp. Although disturbing, we must admit that she is a hell of a good mother. She creates a nest in a hollow stem of a plant. At the bottom, she lays her eggs. On top of it, she puts a dead spider for the hungry baby wasps, once they are born. That’s actually rather nice of the mother in regard to the spider — paralyzing, and having them eaten alive seems a much more common approach in the wild. The creepy part comes when the mother wasp piles dead ants on the very top. This is done to ward off predators because of the smell of the ants. So think about a nursery with rotting corpses piled by the door to keep others away. Effective, loving, and very creepy!

For the creationists out there, there is the Limnonectes larvaepartus. It is a frog from Indonesia that gives birth to live tadpoles. That’s interesting because most frogs lay eggs and a few frogs give birth to baby frogs. This new frog is what we might call “the missing link.” But as we know from creationist apologetics, there will always be “holes” in the diversity of life. Nothing will convince them because they cannot be convinced. They “know” the truth and are only looking for things that justify what they already “know.”

Another of the new species is Torquigener albomaculosu, a kind of pufferfish. The male of this species attract females by creating beautiful designs in the sand. That reminds me of the following “Effective Catcalls” cartoon. Females really do appreciate a man who can provide a nice home.

Effective Catcalls

The sad thing about all the species we are discovering is that plants and animals are going extinct at an even faster rate. Of course, life forms are always going extinct — it is the nature of life. But it is hard not to figure that we are largely responsible for the fast rate. Thus far, we have done this by destroying habitat, but as time goes on, the climate forcing is going to be a much bigger — even catastrophic thing.

Still, the amazing diversity of life on the earth is staggering. At the same time, mama wasps are just like human mothers in all they do to protect their young. And I know that a lot of people will dismiss what the wasp does as just instinct. But our great brains don’t seem to change the overall nature of things. We humans are pre-programmed to think that human babies are cute and worth protecting. We may obscure that with ideas like “feeling” and “choice.” But I think that’s all rubbish. We are all on autopilot, we just have these big brains that trick us into thinking we are in control.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/19/human-evolution-and-the-myth-of-control/

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Feb 13

Smartphones Have Reduced Us to Goldfish

GoldfishThe average human’s attention span is… oh look, a bird!

According to scientists, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer.

Researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms.

The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.

Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.

–Leon Watson
Humans Have Shorter Attention Span Than Goldfish, Thanks to Smartphones

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/13/attention-span-goldfish/

Feb 10

Forensic Pseudoscience — Oppression of the Poor

Radley Balko - Forensic PseudoscienceTwo years ago, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote a really important article that bears revisting, A Brief History of Forensics. I’ve never been one to watch those forensics dramas on the television. Just the same, I didn’t know just how screwed up the state of forensics was. It seems that many parts of forensics are not settled science, or in fact, science of any kind at all.

Balko is most interested in bite mark analysis. Having managed a dental office for a couple of years, I found it interesting that this is a particularly gloomy area of pseudoscience. “There has yet to be any scientific research to support the notion that the marks we make when we bite with our teeth are unique. But even if we could somehow know that they are, we still wouldn’t know how those unique characteristics are distributed across all of humanity. And even if we knew those things, we still don’t know if human skin is capable of recording and preserving a bite in a way that would allow those markers to be identified.” That last one is the killer as far as I’m concerned: how is it that we could have been relying on such analysis without ever having answered such a fundamental question?

Forensic “Scientists” Don’t Look for Truth

The reason that Balko gives for this state of affairs is that forensic “scientists” are not interested in questioning the basis of their work. As he puts it, they are focused on “solving cases.” I don’t like that phrase. Better would be: “closing cases.” Because it really does seem that no one — not the prosecutors, the police, or the forensic “scientists” — are interested in finding the truth. As far as they are concerned, they already know the truth.

It’s like the line in The Usual Suspects, “To a cop the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.” And that’s largely true, but it blinds them in cases where things aren’t simple. And it turns forensic “scientists” into little more than apologists, simply arguing for whatever theory the police are pushing.

Forensics Isn’t Science

The actual history of forensics is that of a field developed by people in the criminal justice system. And it has worked just the opposite of the way that science works. When a scientific theory becomes established, scientists have an incentive to beat away at it and find holes in it. That’s how you become a successful scientist. In forensics, once a theory becomes established, no one dares question it. Balko put it this way, “A fingerprint analyst testifying for the defense might disagree with a fingerprint analyst for the prosecution, but he isn’t going to call into question the premises on which the entire field of fingerprint analysis is based.” And in case you were wondering: yes, there are now people outside the field calling into question the reliability of fingerprints — evidence that has sent countless people to their deaths at the hands of the state.

Actual Scientific Forensics

The only kind of forensics that actually did come out of a scientific field and not criminal justice is DNA analysis. And this is really interesting: when forensic analysts are talking about bite marks, for example, they talk about certainty. The same goes for fingerprints, bullet lead composition, voice “prints,” and on and on. “[T]he one area of forensic science in which you will see experts testifying about probability is DNA Testing.” Of course, Balko is careful to note that this doesn’t mean that these other kinds of analyses are useless. But just like with eyewitness testimony, people are often convicted — even killed — because of the word of a single analyst based upon suspect science.

Balko thinks that the solution is to take forensics evidence out of the hands of judges who have no experience that would allow them to determine if these techniques were solid science or just pseudoscience. He wants to put it in the hands of scientific review boards. While I think that would certainly be an improvement, we have a much bigger problem. We have an entire justice system that is inherently unjust.

A Much Bigger Problem

People forget the first federal drug law — Harrison Narcotics Tax Act — was explicitly racist. It was a doctor who testified to the “fact” that, “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Similar things were said about the Chinese with regard to opium, and later, about Mexicans and “marijuana.” There will always be an underclass that the government will always oppress. To me, we need to rethink our harsh sentences in the light that many people convicted are innocent; the laws are unequally applied; and the laws themselves criminalize things that powerless people like to do.

Bearing all these things in mind, the powerful need to let go of their certainty. But that will never happen. Of course, it may also be that in a century, people will still be put to death based upon bad bite mark science. So let’s try to stop that, but we need to push much further.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/10/forensic-pseudoscience/

Jan 24

Why the Neolithics Did So Much Trepanning

TrepanningMore than 1500 trephined skulls have been uncovered throughout the world, from Europe and Scandinavia to North America, from Russia and China to South America (particularly in Peru). Most reported series show that from 5% to 10% of all skulls found from the Neolithic period have been trephined with single or multiple skull openings of various sizes. Many of the skulls show evidence of fractures. In some cases the operations were incomplete, as if the patients suddenly woke up and terminated the procedure. Some skull openings showed evidence of healing, meaning the patients survived the operations; others did not. In these latter cases it is impossible to determine if the patients were already (or recently) dead or whether the patients died soon after the procedure. Trepanations were performed in children as well as adults and in both males and females. The majority of trephinations, though, have been found in adult males…

Neolithic man was a hunter and his life experience revolved around this activity. Cave dwelling paintings also testify to this phenomenon. Consequently, he was very aware of hunting and war injuries. Neolithic man noticed, for example, that penetrating injuries to the chest and abdomen were usually fatal to man and animal. Likewise, massive blunt head injuries were invariably lethal. Nevertheless, blunt injuries to the head, if not massive, were not invariably fatal. With mild blows to the head, man or animal could be knocked down briefly and then get up and run. At other times, a man could be left for “dead” in the back of the cave, but after a period of time, he could “miraculously” recover and become “undead.” It was only with head injuries that primitive man noted that this phenomenon took place — namely suddenly becoming “dead” after an injury and then “undead.” Or, as we would describe it, that a head injury caused a momentary loss of consciousness (LOC), as in a concussion, or a more prolonged LOC, as in a cerebral or brainstem contusion — and then recover as the cerebral edema subsided and neural circuits were reestablished.

Of course, primitive man did not understand the pathophysiology involved. For the Stone Age man, there was also no awareness of the inevitability of death and no recognized mortality as part and parcel of the human condition. Diseases, pain and suffering, and death took place as a result of sorcery, evil spirits, or some other supernaturalistic intervention. People could become gradually “dead” from an illness or injury and then become “undead” because of some phenomenon. In the case of injuries, these conditions were caused by observed specific events, such as penetrating injuries or serious blows. These… did not occur randomly. Such was also the case with becoming “dead” and “undead,” and the primitive surgeon of Neolithic times understandably reasoned that he could also do something to bring back to life those individuals essential to the survival of the group.

Observing that small injuries to the head, more frequently than other injuries, resulted in “dying” and “undying” (ie, spontaneous recovery), they must, according to Prioreschi, come to believe that “something in the head had to do with undying.” More blows would not accomplish the ritual, but an opening in the head, trephination, could be “the activating element,” the act that could allow the demon to leave the body or the good spirit to enter it, for the necessary “undying” process to take place. If deities had to enter or leave the head, the opening had to be sufficiently large.

Prioreschi writes: “It would appear that he was trying to recall to life people who had died (or were dying) without wounds (or with minor ones), in other words, people affected with diseases and people whose small wounds were not so serious as to prevent ‘undying’…” Incomplete trepanations, as mentioned previously, are explained, not because the patients died during the procedure, but because of patients waking up and interrupting the procedure by suddenly becoming “undead.”

–Miguel A Faria
Neolithic Trepanation Decoded — A Unifying Hypothesis

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/01/24/trepanning/

Jan 15

Human Thought in a Dark Room

I’m sure that many of my readers will like this little meme. But to me, it shows such total contempt for the search of knowledge that it makes me really angry. And I don’t know that I have seen a more clear example of the way that much of the atheist community deifies science.

I am, as most of you know, trained as a scientist. I have a PhD in physics. And maybe the fact that I don’t work in the field shows that I have a fundamentally different orientation. But that isn’t my experience. Most scientists I know don’t make a fetish of it. Science is to them what it is to me: a really powerful tool for learning new things of a very specific nature. And that’s it.

A Million Dollars

The whole meme reminds me of my favorite line from Citizen Kane. Bernstein scoffs at Thatcher, Kane’s guardian. The reporter says, “He made an awful lot of money.” And Bernstein replies, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

The meme presents four ways of gaining knowledge. But the test is rigged. It’s defining knowledge as the kind of knowledge that science excels at. But I’ll come back to that. My point is that people who put these kind of memes together so want to limit the human experience. As Bernstein said in the script (cut from the film), “He [Thatcher] never knew there was anything in the world but money.”

Philosophy

According to the meme, “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.” So it’s a way to learn things, but a really bad one.

There are a number of things wrong with this. For one, the search for knowledge isn’t as categorical as this makes out. Work by Kant and Schopenhauer laid intellectual groundwork for Darwin’s discovery. But most people have an extremely childish view of how science actually works.

Perhaps most annoying to me is that math is a branch of philosophy, not science. People get caught up in counting, and think that it is real and thus “Science!” But giving names to quantities is not math. It’s like claiming that knowing the names of different bacteria makes you a microbiologist. It’s so silly.

Metaphysics

The meme claims, “Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” Apparently, the writer doesn’t know what the word “metaphysics” means. From Merriam-Webster, metaphysics is “a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.” That’s right: it really doesn’t have anything to do with Edwardian mysticism.

The cosmology part of this is amusing. Most people think of this as part of science. And it is! In a limited form. But every time I hear some subgenius go on about how cosmology is settled because of the big bang, I think they sound like fundamentalists. Science said it, I believe it, that settles it. Not really.

Don’t get me wrong, the big bang is as established as natural selection. But most people do not find it a satisfying cosmological answer for the same reason they don’t find “God” a satisfying answer. It just raises another question. And that’s fine! But ultimately, cosmology is a metaphysical issue because science isn’t designed to find ultimate answers.

Theology

The meme continues, “Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting, ‘I found it!'” This is probably the most offensive part of the whole thing.

The implication is that theology is the most rigid form of religious belief. It isn’t even religious belief, much less of the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” variety. There have been many theologians who were atheists and agnostics. It’s only quite recent in the US that theology departments are overrun by theists.

And this part of the meme begs the question. Of course, the point of such simple-minded memes is to preach to the choir. No Christian is going to read it and think, “I’ve been so wrong! I’m an atheist now!”

Science

And so we come to the end of the meme, “Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a fucking flashlight.” It’s only at this point in the meme that I wondered, “Why are we looking for a black cat in a dark room?”

I’m not an idiot; I get that it’s an analogy. But as I indicated above, this is a rigged analogy. It all falls apart if you change it to being in a dark room looking for a reason not to kill yourself. Science isn’t all that helpful in gaining that kind of knowledge.

But it’s worse than that, because the example just begs to be criticized on quantum mechanical terms. Once you turn on the flashlight, it isn’t a dark room so you literally can’t find the black cat in a dark room. Consider it on more practical grounds. What if turning on the flashlight caused the black cat to run out of the room before your eyes adjusted?

I suppose I shouldn’t really complain because the kind of people who write these things have a really limited understanding of science — and pretty much everything else. But geez!

Tribalism in Meme Form

This is all about tribalism. You can love and respect science without dismissing other ways of knowing. And it really disturbs me that this is the default position of the New Atheism. It never really bothered me that theists were tribal and awful. But I thought that humans could — if they opened their minds — be more accepting of others. But no. It’s just another “I know the One True Way” of experiencing the world. This is why we will always fight wars.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/01/15/human-thought-dark-room-meme/

Jan 03

Countable Infinity and Rick and Morty

Countable InfinityWhen it comes to math, I think it is best that I assume everyone is really ignorant. So forgive me for going over some really basic ideas about infinity. But I have good reasons for doing this. Some time ago, I wrote, Infinity Is Not a Number. In it, I discuss how the great Christian apologist William Lane Craig used a total misunderstanding of infinity to “prove” that the universe is not eternal. I was pointing out that this brilliant man was ignorant of the fact that infinity is not a number.

I guess I can understand. Mathematicians use infinity (∞) along with a lot of numbers. To understand infinity as a mathematical concept, you really have to study limits. And that isn’t something students get into until college — if then. It’s really when you start to study calculus that you get into limits. And that is done for the opposite reason: to understand the infinitesimal. It’s actually the same thing, but I won’t bore you with it. You either understand what I’m talking about (It’s the reciprocal, stupid!) or you would require a good deal more exposition than I’m willing to expend.

Countable Infinity

But there are some things about infinity that are intuitive to people of this time and place. For example, if you think of the whole numbers (0, 1, 2, 3…), you know that there are an infinity of them. Regardless of what natural number you can come up with, there is always a number that is one unit larger. Let’s combine the whole numbers with all the negative whole numbers (…, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, …) that infinity space is twice as large. But that doesn’t mean there are twice as many integers as whole numbers. Both sets contain an infinite number of elements. But they are both “countably infinite.”

So what does it mean that they are countably infinite? It means that you can pick any number in the series and count to it. Consider the whole numbers again (because it is easier). You can count from 0 to 15,000,000 or 15,000,000,000 or whatever. It will just take time. If you have an infinite amount of time, I guess you could count all the whole numbers (and, unintuitively, the integers). (Note: this is one reason immortality is so terrifying: eventually you would get to the point of counting all the whole numbers.)

Rational Numbers

Now let’s consider the rational numbers from 0 to 1. These are just the fractions. You can tell that they are countably infinite. You just start counting: 0/1, 1/1, 0/2, 1/2, 2/2, 0/3, 1/3, 2/3, 3/3, etc. It doesn’t matter that many of the numbers of duplicates. The denominators go on forever. Thus, the number series is infinite. And we know it is countable because we are counting it. In theory, we can count all of the numbers. The same is true of all the rational numbers — not just the ones between 0 and 1.

So a countable infinity of countable infinities is a countable infinity. You would think that all infinities would thus be countable. But no.

Irrational numbers are numbers that cannot be represented as a fraction of two integers. You know: numbers like π and e. The set of all these numbers does not represent a countable infinity. Indeed, the irrational numbers between any two numbers are not a countable infinity. Think about it. It’s mind blowing.

Rick and Morty

Rick and MortyI was thinking about this because I was watching an episode of Rick and Morty, “Rick Potion No 9.” In it, Rick turns his human world into Cronenberg-world. So in order to fix things, Rick goes looking for another reality, “There’s an infinite number of realities, Morty. And in a few dozen of those, I got lucky and turned everything back to normal. I just had to find one of those realities in which we also happened to both die around this time.” (Note: if there were an infinite number of realities, there would be an infinite number of realities where Rich “got luck,” but I’ll leave that as something to consider on your own time.)

The implication of this episode (and others) is that at every instant, there are an infinite number of realities, and each one creates an infinite reality at that point — and on and on and on. I’ve long thought this is what Planck time must represent: the time at which every possible quantum reality is spawned. But that doesn’t much matter. It’s just a thought. But I like Rick’s idea of an infinite universes (“realities”) constantly spawning an infinite number of universes.

Countably Infinite Universes

As outrageous as this notion is, it would still represent a countably infinite number of universes. I find that vaguely comforting. Of course, there’s all that dark matter and dark energy. Maybe that’s where the non-countably infinite universes exist. I don’t really care. I don’t like thinking about things that can’t be counted. Irrational numbers are as strong a proof of the non-existence of God that I can think of.

But let me leave you with a practical thought. As many of you know, I think memorizing multiplication tables is a waste of time. I think children would be better served watching Rick and Morty. They’d have a chance of thinking about math. And it wouldn’t make them hate math. Finally, it might get them to watch Existenz.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/01/03/countable-infinity-rick-morty/

Dec 09

Burmese Pythons Are Destroying the Everglades

Burmese PythonThe Burmese python is a massive snake native to Southeast Asia that arrived in South Florida in the 1980s, possibly released into the wild by careless pet owners. There are now as many as 300,000 of these invasive creatures slithering through the state, and they’ve been known to eat alligators, bobcats, rabbits, and birds.

Now scientists have discovered that Burmese pythons — which can reach 18 feet in length and swallow a bobcat whole — are even more ravenous than they realized. In a new paper in Bioinvasions Records, a team of researchers describe slitting open the intestine of a dead 14-foot python and finding the remains of three different white-tailed deer. The snake appears to have gobbled them up, an adult and two fawns, in just 90 days.

The implications are disturbing. “If this was just one snake that ate three deer in isolation, that’d be one thing” says Scott Boback, a biologist at Dickinson College and lead author of the study. But the incident comes alongside growing evidence that the Burmese pythons are ravaging native wildlife in South Florida’s Everglades. “When you put that all together, you’ve got to say, okay, something serious is going on here.”

–Brad Plumer
This 14-Foot Python Was Caught With 3 Deer in Its Gut. That’s a Bad Sign.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2016/12/09/burmese-python-everglades/

Dec 02

You Really Don’t Know Nerds

Nerds StereotypeFor the last couple of months, the most popular article on Frankly Curious is, This Is Not a Math Joke. I assume it is being passed around on reddit or something. I really have no idea if people like it because they agree with it or because they find it amusing that people like me exist. It is about a “math” joke that appeared on an episode of The Simpsons. And I claimed that it was not a math joke but a joke for non-nerds to laugh at what they think of as the kind of thing nerds think of as funny.

I’m more idiosyncratic than most nerds. And I’m definitely not a “science nerd.” But I’ve spent most of my life in and around science, so I can pass. And when I came upon the following bit of computer code, I was amused:

int i;main(){for(;i["]<i;++i){--i;}"];read('-'-'-',i+++"hell\
o, world!\n",'/'/'/'));}read(j,i,p){write(j/p+p,i---j,i/i);}

A Computer Science Joke

Now a true computer science nerd would probably be able to explain all of this little bit of C code. But I can’t. I do, however, understand it enough to find it hilarious. For example, it pretends to increment through i and do nothing but decrement i. That is very funny. But it’s even more funny that it doesn’t actually do that. To even start to explain what I think it does would require knowledge that 99 percent of my readers don’t have. And it would take a long time to explain.

This was one of the winners of the first (1984) International Obfuscated C Code Contest. And part of the problem with this bit of code is probably found in the README about that year’s contest, “Restrictions against machine dependent code were not in the rules in 1984.” You see, one of the great things about C is that it is basically just a micro-step above assembly language. And compilers do allow you to take a normal variable and use it as a pointer to the memory address of that value. Hence, i["]<i;++i){--i;}"]. And where exactly "]<i;++i){--i;}" would point relative to the original memory address would indeed be machine dependent. (I told you that you wouldn’t understand.)

What Nerds Are Really Like

The thing is, when I was in graduate school, people were crazy about the Obfuscated C Code Contest. It’s similar to the way that grammar geeks love the sentence, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This is what nerds do. Actually, this is what nerds are. Popular conceptions of nerds are based largely on what children who were into science acted like. It’s equivalent to assuming boiler techs must all punch women they like in the shoulder, because that’s what they did when they were six years old.

It’s this idea that has always made me hate films and plays about mathematicians: where’s the math?! Because, you know, for mathematicians, it really is all about the math. That’s not to say that they don’t have regular lives too. But the math is the reason anyone wrote a script. These things are like a film about Jacques Cousteau where he’s never on a boat.

All I’m asking is that society give nerds their due. I suppose that The Simpsons can be forgiven, because that particular “math” joke involved kids. But let’s be very honest: “i 8 sum pi” is what society thinks of us. And I hate society for it.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2016/12/02/know-nerds/

Nov 06

Great Salt Lake and the New Normal of Drought

Great Salt LakeBrad Plumer wrote a disconcerting article over at Vox, NASA Images Show Utah’s Great Salt Lake Shrinking Dramatically. Over the last five years, Farmington Bay, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, has been reduced to one-quarter of its previous size. It’s basically just a river now. And this has huge environmental and economic ramifications.

(This is something that the modern world has forgotten. We are so focused on quarterly profits that we don’t see that most of the time economic and environmental interests go hand in hand. Interestingly, you would think that conservative economists would be most interested in this. But in general, they aren’t. Sure, they’re talk of externalities. But they aren’t much interested in it, because they are committed to having little government interference in the market. And dealing with externalities requires the government. Or business people who are enlightened — rarer than unicorns.)

No Mention of Global Warming

Brad Plumer is the guy at Vox who normally writes about global warming. But in this article, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Instead, he talked about the drought and the diversion of water. Currently 40 percent of all the river water flowing into the Great Salt Lake is diverted. Of course, that hasn’t changed. The real issue is the drought. And my question is: why the drought?

Now I get why Plumer didn’t mention global warming. There is no way to know if the current drought is due to global warming. But I think it is a mistake to get too caught up in what you can know for certain. For one thing, it just plays into the the denial industry. And as I have said many times before, the biggest issue with global warming is rainfall, not temperature.

Temperature-Rainfall Correlations

There has been a lot of work looking at temperature and rainfall correlation. My first year in graduate school, I shared a cubical wall with a young Chinese student. He looked at the last century of data for the United States. And it was frightening. The northeast had a positive correlation: more rainfall with higher temperatures. But everywhere else it was less rainfall with higher temperatures. And that was especially true out here in the west.

Note that just because there has been a correlation in the past, that doesn’t mean that global warming will cause the same effect. But as you may have noticed, we’ve been seeing drought in the west and very wet winters in the northeast. And it makes sense. So far this season in northern California, we’ve seen good rainfall. Most people are very hopeful. I’m not. I fully expect us to be below normal rainfall at the end of the season. That’s because I think “normal” rainfall is now a lot lower than it used to be.

Death of the Great Salt Lake?

So I think things are going to be very bad for the Great Salt Lake. They can stop diverting water and that will help. But my working theory is that they aren’t in the middle of a drought. They are just getting used to the new normal. And that new normal may be that there is no Great Salt Lake. It will be like the Owens Lake. But that one dried up due to the actions of the people who lived there. If the Great Salt Lake dries up, the culpability will be far broader.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2016/11/06/great-salt-lake/

Nov 05

How to Be an Awesome Psychic on Twitter!

Criswell - PsychicWhen I was a kid, I was very interested in a lot of really silly things. I loved the film Chariots of the Gods? I even read the book and two of its sequels: Gods from Outer Space and The Gold of the Gods. Also, I was really into In Search of…, although long before its run was over I had seen the light. But all that stuff — Bigfoot, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle — I loved into my middle school years. One thing I never went in for were the psychics.

Part of this was that I was into magic — as in slight of hand, conjuring — the art form. And psychics were such obvious frauds. That was especially true for people like Uri Geller and Kreskin — men who were standard mentalists (a form of performance magic) — who insisted that what they did was “real” instead of just tricks.

Celebrity Psychics

Even more pathetic were the newspaper and television psychics. At eight years old, I had them pegged. I always like what The Amazing Criswell says in the movie Ed Wood, “It’s horseshit… Eddie, there’s no such thing as a psychic. People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo… Eddie, we’re in show biz. It’s all about razzle-dazzle. Appearances. If you look good, and you talk well, people will swallow anything.” That’s what these people were.

The best example of this during my life was Jeane Dixon. Each year, she would come out with dozens of predictions. Some of them were outrageous. And some were simply educated guesses. And later, she would talk about the predictions that she got right and ignore the far greater number that were wrong. Mathematician John Allen Paulos even coined a term for this, “The Dixon Effect.”

The Twitter Psychic

The Dixon Effect has never gone away. There have apparently always been psychics and there apparently always will be. And it is always the same con. But Twitter makes doing this sort of thing so much cooler! Check out this Tweet that went viral after the Cubs won the World Series in game seven in extra innings:

As I write this, it has over 300,000 combined retweets and likes. And it’s understandable. Look at the date on it: 4 November 2014 — two years ago. Wow! GIO must be one amazing psychic or analyst or something, right?! Wrong.

How It Works

What people like GIO do is create a huge number of predictions on Twitter. And then, as each prediction goes wrong, they delete the tweet about it. By the time the actual event comes around, they are left with only the tweets that are right.

Aja Romano explained the whole thing over at Vox, That Viral 2014 Cubs World Series Tweet Seems Too Good to Be True. That’s Because It Is. She even provides an image of Noah Hiles doing this now: New York Mets 2017 WS Champs; Cincinnati Reds 2017 WS Champs; Milwaukee Brewers 2017 WS Champs; and so on.

What Jeane Dixon would have paid for such abilities: just make the wrong predictions go away! It’s really kind of brilliant. But it is, just as with Uri Geller and Kreskin, a magic trick. And now that you know how the trick is done, it loses its magic. Of course, for me, it’s totally cool. When I see a magic trick, I don’t go, “Wow!” I go, “Now let me figure out how that was done.” It’s really no different than solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2016/11/05/psychic-twitter/

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