60 Minutes Spins for BP

60 MinutesMike Wallace must be spinning in his grave. Tonight, Scott Pelley presented a segment on 60 Minutes, BP Cries Foul in Massive Oil Spill Settlement. They describe it as, “Is BP backpedaling on a settlement with oil spill victims, or are some Gulf Coast businesses exploiting BP to the tune of more than $500 million?” But even as ridiculous as that sounds, it was worse.

Even if the story had been as evenhanded as that description makes it sound, it is a towering example of false equivalence. In the golden years with Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes took on the big guys and how they were screwing the little guys. Now? 60 Minutes wants us to decide whether the little guys are screwing the big guy BP, who just happens to have destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.

But the segment was not evenhanded. Even the people who were against BP’s whining didn’t defend the people who were supposedly scamming the criminally polluting corporation. They just made the argument that should have made 60 Minutes not do the story: BP made an agreement and now that the public pressure is off, they are trying to wriggle out of their agreement.

One thing that was never mentioned was that the more you clamp down on fraud, the more that actual deserving people get refused. So 60 Minutes mentioned a few cases that sounded outrageous, but made no mention of what are undoubtedly far more that were marginal but which BP also doesn’t want to pay. But such nuance is hard to get across when you spend so much time spinning for BP.

I did learn something really interesting: who is representing BP. It is none other than the man who brought you the 43rd President of the United States, Mr Ted Olson! The man could sell ice to Eskimos. And sure enough, he was brilliant on screen. But I couldn’t help but think that Pelley only asked him questions Pelley knew he could answer. Here’s a great example:

Scott Pelley: Is this a matter of BP’s attorneys just having been hoodwinked? You accepted a deal without fully realizing what it meant and now you’re stuck with it?

Ted Olson: No one could have anticipated that the system would go completely off the tracks, but that’s why you have appellate courts. And that’s why we have the Supreme Court. BP will take this as far as it is necessary to go to make sure that this settlement agreement is construed properly.

But check out the slippery logic that BP is using. It is wrong for small businesses to use the law to their advantage at BP’s expense. But it is right for BP to use the law to its advantage—including going to the Supreme Court where the conservatives are very likely to go their way. As it is, BP got a great deal in the settlement. They are just trying to make more money now. And I don’t blame them. That’s what companies do: little and small. And that’s all that’s going on here on both sides.

What’s appalling is that 60 Minutes thought that a third of their show ought to be dedicated to allowing BP to make their case in the court of public opinion. It’s disgraceful.

We Are Great When We Gaze at the Stars

Beta Pictoris bWhen the first planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet, was discovered, I was amazed. I think most people think of astronomy as being about building bigger and bigger telescopes, just like blowing up a photograph. But just like in the movie, it doesn’t work that way. Just in the most basic sense, imagine looking into a very bright light and how difficult it would be to see a small dark object right next to it. That ought to give you some idea of the problems.

The first confirmed exoplanet discovered was orbiting around Gamma Cephei. It was detected the same way about half of all exoplanets have been detected: Doppler spectroscopy. This is an amazing bit of science. But there are actually too many things to explain it all like centers of mass (stars aren’t stationary in their solar systems) and Doppler shifting of light (the color of light from objects moving towards or away from us gets changed). But the main thing is that the star sends out visible light and the planet sends out infrared light. Based upon the shifts, we can find out a certain amount about the planetary mechanics of the system.

A more obvious technique for locating exoplanets is the transit method. This is very simple, but it doesn’t always apply. If the planet crosses between the star and us, it blocks out some of the light. By seeing the difference, we can determine what the radius of the star must be. For example, the exoplanet that circles the romantically named HD 209458 star was first discovered with Doppler spectroscopy. But then other scientists went back and measured the brightness of the star and found that it decreased by a tad less than 2% every 3.5 days. Thus they could determine its radius to be about 30% greater than Jupiter.

This is all amazing stuff, but I read something today that shocked me, Length of Exoplanet Day Measured for First Time. I couldn’t imagine how they managed that feat. The reason it is possible to measure this value is because the planet, Beta Pictoris b, is one of the few exoplanets that we have managed to take direct pictures of. It’s a huge planet, of course: 65% larger radius than Jupiter’s and a mass between 5 and 10 times. Plus, it orbits about twice the distance from Beta Pictoris than Jupiter does from the sun. All of these things make it easier to see.

And now we know it rotates about twice as fast as Jupiter: about 100,000 km/hr at its equator. It likely spins so fast because it is a very young planet: just 20 million years old. The rotations of planets slow over time because of the gravitational pull on them by the sun, which eventually locks them so that the same side always faces the sun. This has happened to Mercury. And the same mechanism explains why the same side of the moon always faces the earth.

I’m not clear on exactly how they determined the rotation speed. I know the basics: they looked at the star light reflected of the planet. Since the planet has a lot of carbon monoxide in its atmosphere, they looked at the band of light that wasn’t there: the CO absorption line. But that band was broadened, again because of Doppler shifting. Based upon that, they could determine how fast the CO molecules were moving when they were reflecting the light.

This stuff amazes me. We little humans on our little planet are able to determine what is happening 63 light-years away. Of course, it’s still true that when it comes to terrestrial matters, we aren’t any more evolved than chimpanzees. But when we gaze at the stars or doodle our ideas, we are at our best.

The Banal Webdriver Torso Mystery

Space Alien

Among computer geeks, Webdriver Torso has been a big deal for the last week or so. You should feel good about yourself if you have no idea what I’m talking about. But let me explain, because it is rather interesting. Webdriver Torso is a YouTube Channel. It was started roughly six months ago. And in that time, it has uploaded over 77,000 videos. And other than two that I’ll discuss later, they are all of the same format.

Each video is 10 seconds long. The image displays a white background with a red and a blue rectangle. Along with the images are tones that sound like something that would come out of the old modems. The image and tone frequency changes once per second. Here is the most recent upload:

Thus far, no one knows who is behind Webdriver Torso and this is driving a lot of people crazy. In fact, some people have suggested it might be space aliens, although I don’t know how serious they are. So Stephen Beckett at the BBC decided to look into it, Webdriver Torso YouTube Mystery Clips’ French Connection. And he found out some interesting things.

Webdriver Torso History

The first video posted to the channel was a clip from the animated television series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. And strangely, it is only accessible to French viewers and then only if you pay two euros for the privilege. This video sat on the channel all alone for a month before the standard videos started to appear. And then, after more than a thousand of these things, a six-second video of the Eiffel Tower at night was uploaded. So Beckett thinks whoever is doing it is French.

In the article, Beckett seems to have the solution to the riddle, but he just doesn’t want to accept it:

Perhaps it could it be a piece of stray automation software?

The channel shares part of its name with Selenium WebDriver, a tool used to test websites…

A related explanation was put forward by The Guardian, which spoke to software engineer Isaul Vargas. He said he’d seen a video of these patterns—created by set-top box provider YouView—filmed at a conference.

However, when the BBC spoke to Mr Vargas he acknowledged he had been mistaken: “I found the video and when I re-watched it I found that wasn’t the case, it had a different test pattern.”

However, he added that he still thought that the patterns could be the result of some sort of automated tests.

Mystery Solved?

Exactly. Clearly, some person or company has developed a new program for uploading videos onto YouTube. So they created a testing program that creates random videos and then uploads them. It may then download them and correlate them with the original image as well. It could also be someone doing a related test like looking at changes that YouTube makes to videos. Or any number of other things.

I think it is only mysterious for people who don’t have actual experience with how software is developed and tested. I remain slightly curious as to exactly what Webdriver Torso is doing. But that’s just the details. And I know the details won’t be that exciting. Unless, of course, space aliens are sending the coordinates of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.


It turns out the channel belongs to Google and, as suspected, was used for testing.

Seven Tenets Beat Ten Commandments

Satan MonumentWe all know that Mississippi is the worst state in the union by most metrics, but it would seem that Oklahoma is now the most hateful state. It’s kind of like Texas but more backward. So this last week I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Oklahoma Republicans allowed a privately financed Ten Commandments monument to be put on the capital grounds. But The Satanic Temple did not like this. So they have commissioned a sculpture of Satan with two children gazing up lovingly at him, which they want Oklahoma to put on their capital grounds.

Now we know how this is going to end. Oklahoma, after all, stopped providing spousal benefits to all National Guard personnel, rather than allow same-sex couples to also get them. Did I mention that Oklahoma is the most hateful state in the union? Anyway, in this case, the courts will find that if Oklahoma is going to allow the Ten Commandments on their grounds, they have to allow the Satan monument on their grounds. So Oklahoma will decide to have no monuments on their grounds.

Of course, first Oklahoma will argue that the Ten Commandments are not religious. They will claim that they are the basis for our common law and so forth. This is all nonsense, of course. Just look at the Ten Commandments. I think it is widely understood that the first three are only religious, having no content that we would recognize as secular law. But what is not as widely appreciated is that in terms of emphasis it is almost exclusively religious. Of the roughly 326 words in The Ten Commandments, only 77 (24%) are what we would think of as secular. What’s more, of those 77 words, 27 are taken up with a long list of things you cannot covet, when one word would have done. That would have produced just 17% of the text.

And really, much of the 77 words are not what we would think of as laws anyway. Being nice to mom and pop is 22 words; no sex outside of marriage is 5 words; not being jealous of your neighbor is 33 words. So there are really only 17 words out 326 that any modern person would consider part of the secular justice system—that’s just 5% of the text. But just read through it: the focus is on what you do for God.

My favorite part of the commandments is the first: You shall have no other gods before me. You ever get the impression that this was written during a transitional period when the Jews were moving from polytheism to monotheism? Because how can you read this as anything but, “There are other gods, but I’m the top banana!”? And this gets us back to Satan. Now the truth is that the Bible is kind of unclear which characters are Satan. Was it Satan that tempted Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden? Most Christians will tell you that it was, but the Bible doesn’t say so. What’s more, Satan in the Old Testament is not a foil for God. He’s more like a prosecutor, always testing God’s chosen ones. Think of Job.

It is only in the New Testament that Satan turns into a kind of god: yin to God’s yang. And that means that Christianity kind of slid back into polytheism, although no Christian I know will admit to this. I mean, what is the great war at the end times all about anyway? If it weren’t a close contest, why would anyone fight the war? Similarly, if Satan is a god just like Yahweh, how do we know which side is good? All we’ve ever read is propaganda from Yahweh’s side. And given what Yahweh does to us on a regular basis and how he acted throughout the Bible, I think we may be on the wrong side.

The satanists see the casting out of Satan as a symbol for all people who society treats as outcasts. So their mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.” And they have “seven fundamental tenets,” which make the Ten Commandments sound like the late Iron Age dogma that they are:

  1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
  2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forego your own.
  5. Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
  6. People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
  7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

That sounds a hell of a lot better to me. It is also general. It doesn’t have to say that murder is wrong, because that follows directly from the third tenet. What’s more, it isn’t religious at all. Obviously, the Satan monument is trying to make a point about pushing religion on other people and about the separation of church and state. But I think we would have a far better society if the Seven Tenets were displayed on government land everywhere.

Darwin’s Bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry HuxleyLast year I highlighted Bartolomeo Cristofori for the birthday post. He was the inventor of the piano, and so I discussed how it was different from the harpsicode and the clavichord. It’s quite interesting. If you haven’t read it, I recommend checking it out.

On this day in 1825, the great biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was born. He was a comparative anatomist—someone who looks at similarities and differences in species. What has long fascinated me is how people like Huxley were able to classify different species so accurately. When we started doing genetic work, it didn’t much upset what we already knew about species’ relationships.

Huxley was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his public support for evolution. He was a prominent part of the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. So prominent, in fact, that it is often referred to as the Huxley–Wilberforce debate. Wilberforce was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, arguing for the Bible. In the most famous exchange, Wilberforce asked Huxley if he descended from monkeys on his mother’s side or his father’s. According to Isabella Sidgwick some time afterward, “He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous.” Booyah!

What is perhaps most interesting about Huxley is that he was skeptical of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. Note that natural selection is what is important about Darwin’s work; the idea of species’ evolution was not new to him. But Huxley’s skepticism was scientifically based. He was an empiricist and rather typical in not accepting anything until it was fully proven. And just like now, the religious zealots who would not accept evolution under any circumstances grabbed onto his doubts.

It is clear that Huxley and the others won this debate. And indeed, in the United Kingdom they did where roughly 80% of the people accept evolution through natural selection. But in the United States that number is only 40%. That is so embarrassing. Check out this graph:

Views on Evolution

And now we have people like Ken Ham who dress up their religious dogma in the clothes of science. But they don’t do science. Their entire effort is meant to stop debate—to stop science. And I’m not at all convinced that they won’t be successful. Certainly we need Huxley today more than ever.

Happy birthday Thomas Henry Huxley!