Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A little indelicate but, then, that describes Jenny as well.

A couple of days ago the admirable NewSocProf made my black heart sing by posting something really interesting on the vaccines/autism hoopla. As y'all doubtless know, vaccines are extremely safe and are not related to autism. Not even a little bit. Nevertheless, some people continue to insist they are and, in the process, waste a lot of time, money, and, ultimately, lives.

But wait, you ask, 'lives', Drek? Isn't that a little harsh?

No. It isn't. Not only are folks who promote the vaccines --> autism nonsense placing our lives at risk directly- by facilitating the spread of preventable infectious disease- they are also indirectly leading to more problems with autism. See, every dollar used to promote an incorrect association between vaccines and autism is a dollar that could have been spent on autism research. Likewise, every dollar spent combating these blowhards is a dollar that could have been spent of preventative medicine instead. So, yes, there are essentially casualties associated with this insanity. And I'm not the only person who thinks so.

An enterprising individual or individuals have recently* established the Jenny McCarthy Body Count page, which explains itself thusly:

Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity from the United States. She is most well known for posing nude as a Playboy Playmate, for picking her nose on the MTV show Singled Out, and for being the girlfriend of actor/comedian Jim Carrey.

In 2002 she gave birth to a son named Evan. In 2006 she started promoting Evan as being a “Crystal Child” and herself as being an “Indigo Mom”.

In May 2007 Jenny McCarthy announced that Evan was not a “Crystal Child” after all, but had been diagnosed with autism (there is a possibility that he may have been misdiagnosed). She holds on to the mistaken belief that Evan’s alleged autism was caused by his receiving childhood vaccines. Most anti-vaccination believers claim that the compound thimerosal led to an increase in autism cases. The Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine is their usual target. However, thimerosal was never used as a preservative in the Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine. All vaccines licensed since 1999, with the exception of a few multidose container vaccines, have not contained thimerosal as a preservative. Autism has not declined since 1999, thereby scientifically disproving this connection. In addition, Jenny McCarthy's child, Evan, was not born until 2002, well after thimerosal had been removed from most childhood vaccines.

In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.

Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.

Is Jenny McCarthy directly responsible for every vaccine preventable illness and every vaccine preventable death listed here? No. However, as the unofficial spokesperson for the United States anti-vaccination movement she may be indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths and even one vaccine preventable illness or vaccine preventable death is too many.


If you visit the site you'll see two counters: one for "Number of Preventable Cases," (currently at 720) and one for "Number of prevantable deaths" (currently at 142). And they have links to the statistics to back up their figures. And they provide a good set of resources for folks who want more information from people who have the training and experience to evaluate the safety of vaccines.**

Take a look around. It's stark, it's direct, and it's absolutely right.


* And by "recently" I really mean "recently I became aware of".

** Hint: This does not include former Playboy models. She may be a very nice person, but she's a long way from being a physician or biomedical researcher.

As a random aside: It concerns me that NewSocProf regards me as a "disciplined blogger." Seriously? Me? I just like to talk. A lot. Discipline doesn't enter into it.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Advice you never asked for: Volume 1

I often find that people don't ask me for advice. This is a good thing as I don't know anything. Still, it means that in order to provide people with advice, I have to give it unsolicited. As you might expect, this works hand-in-glove with blogging which, after all, is a pass time for people who want to offer their opinions to those who haven't asked for them.

Today I want to briefly touch on a topic that some of my fellow grad students out there might be struggling with: writing loops in Stata.

A loop is a way to make software (in this case Stata) repeat the same behavior or behaviors over and over until it finishes some monotonous task. This is good because humans are not good at doing the same precise thing over and over again without mistakes. I, for example, often accidentally misspell "again" as "agin", which is still intelligible but makes me sound scottish. In Stata, loops are invoked using the "foreach" or "forvalues" commands, which you can look up in the help menu. A typical foreach command might look something like this:

generate paper=0

foreach year in 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 {
replace paper=paper+`year' if tenure~=1
replace job=0 if `year'==7 & tenure==0
}


The foreach command defines a macro, "year", which contains the values 1 through 7. Each time the program goes through the loop,* the next value of "year" is used whenever you see `year' in a command. So, the first time through the first replace statement would read, "replace paper=paper+1 if tenure~=1" while the second time it would read "replace paper=paper+2 if tenure~=1".

Now, the tricky thing with loops** is syntax. It may look in some fonts like I'm typing 'year' instead of `year'. If you can't see the difference between the terms I just wrote then, congratulations, this post is for you. See, in a correctly typed usage (i.e. `year') that first punctuation mark is not an apostrophe. Instead, it's that funny little mark that usually appears with the tilde. I've included a picture for your convenience:



If you use it properly, whenever you invoke the macro, then you're fine. If, on the other hand, you use an apostrophe, Stata returns an unhelpful error message that " ' is not a valid name". So, whenever looping, just remember that ` ~= ' and you'll be fine.




* The first time through it is referred to as "looping" the second time as "loop-de-looping" the third time as "loop-de-loop-de-looping" and so on until you go mad.

** Yeah, right, because there's only ONE tricky thing with loops.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

An old story, but I just feel like mentioning it for those who haven't heard.

So, yeah, you have to love this:

Hard to say what was more remarkable about the resolution that was read into the record and referred to committee Wednesday by a member of the 87th Arkansas General Assembly.

The resolution itself: HJR 1009: AMENDING THE ARKANSAS CONSTITUTION TO REPEAL THE PROHIBITION AGAINST AN ATHEIST HOLDING ANY OFFICE IN THE CIVIL DEPARTMENTS OF THE STATE OF ARKANSAS OR TESTIFYING AS A WITNESS IN ANY COURT.

...

Arkansas is one of half a dozen states that still exclude non-believers from public office. Article 19 Section 1 of the 1874 Arkansas Constitution states that "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled all such state provisions unconstitutional and unenforceable in a 1961 ruling in a Maryland case: "We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.'"

Carroll is merely trying to do some symbolic constitutional housecleaning, but it won't be easy.

In 2005, state Rep. Buddy Blair filed a resolution to affirm Arkansas' support for the separation of church and state. The resolution lost 39-44 in the House.


Just another reason to avoid Arkansas: They're out of their goddamned minds. On the other hand, maybe it's time for a snappy public relations campaign?



Yeah.... needs work.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Satire or Scary? You MAKE THE CALL!

Recently I became aware of a delightful little website called Christwire.org. As you might guess, this appears to be an unusually well-done website for those wacky ultra-conservative Christians we all know and love. I confess that I was, initially, rather surprised by what I found there as my introduction to the site was via an installment of their Ask Amber advice column. And oh, what advice it is:

Dear Amber,

I first want to say I’m a really big fan of your work on ChristWire and really enjoy your insight into our world’s pressing issues. The question I have for you today is really embarrassing, but I hope that by asking it here I can help other parents out there too.

Some time ago my daughter forgot to take her laundry from the dryer before taking off for volleyball practice, so I folded them up and went to put them up for her in room.

When I reached in her undergarment drawer and I will be frank, my heart dropped as I found one of those electronic phallic objects in it. They are used to ‘M’ and I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I thought to ask my husband, but didn’t want him to have to go through the embarrassment and anguish of such things. I instead asked several of my close girlfriends, some of who are not Christians, and some of them said this was a normal part of a healthy teen’s lifestyle.

The night I decided to talk to my daughter about all this, I heard well…I heard reason to not go in the room. I believe she was using the device then. Is this really alright behavior for a good girl or do I need to confront her? Please help!

- Concerned in San Diego

Dear Concerned in San Diego,

You need to immediately take that sinful device from your daughter. Masturbation is another form of pornography that will infest your daughter’s mind and serve as a gateway to far worse sexual activities.

Studies show that 87% of the women who become prostitutes did so because of unbridled masturbation as a teenager, and over 90% of girls who become pregnant as teenagers did so because of masturbation loosened their morals and made them more apt to engage in unprotected fornication.

Masturbation will make your daughter very comfortable exploring her body, and it will not be long until she begins to envision other people partaking in the deviant behavior with her.

This will of course lead to your daughter seeking out a male companion, or even female. As a teenager, your daughter’s mind is not yet developed enough to handle the pressures and responsibilities of being sexually active. It will lead to great sorrow in her life if you don’t put a stop to it right now.

So first, have a talk with your daughter and pray with her. Pray all that sinful desire of masturbation right out of her heart. Throw the device away, and then enroll her in some abstinence counseling sessions. These will teach your daughter the value and need of respecting her body until marriage. Masturbation is very unnatural and by taking proactive steps to get this bizarre behavior out of your teen’s life, you’ll ensure she has a better future.

-Amber


So, just to sum up, we have a grown woman who apparently can't bring herself to type the word "masturbate," we have claims that masturbation is a sort of gateway activity to prostitution and pregnancy (backed up by Schlafly Statistics no less), and we have a prescription for quite possibly the most awkward mother-daughter prayer session imaginable.

Not enough for you? Then keep reading:

Dear Amber,

My family are very devout Christians (I don’t even know if there was a generation of ust that wasn’t) and my father is also a pastor. I recently met a charming boy who I love dearly and in my heart I feel we can really go great places together, he’s wonderful.

The problem is that he is Muslim and my family do have a problem with trust, call them very patriotic. How do I explain to my family that they have to get to know the person and not judge on outside prejudice?

- Wisconsin girl in love

Dear Wisconsin Love,

Your parents love you with all their heart and are looking out for your best interest. Many people do not realize this, but the threat of Homegrown Terrorism is very, very high and every neighborhood may have an American jihadist traitor lurking about.
Jihad USA: Confronting the threat of homegrown terror is an excellent piece that will open your eyes against this very serious threat to America and potentially to your life.

Imagine the sorrow in your parents hearts if this young man is one of the hundreds of millions of Muslims who could potentially be working with homegrown terrorists, and he did something to harm you. Would that not be a cruel fate to place on your parents?

That is their concern, Wisconsin Girl. When you’re young it’s really easy to want to combat your parents and not take their word to heart. But know they are always looking out for your best interests and something in their guts is telling them, “no, no, no”.

So talk to them more about their views on terrorists in America and ask the young man about it too. If he becomes upset with you asking and gets offended, run! He may be guilty. Your parents love you and someone else does too, Wisconsin Girl.

- Amber


Right. So. A good Christian girl shouldn't date a muslim not because he's a muslim but because muslim=terrorist. And if he gets upset at that equation, then he must be guilty. QED, bitches!

Now, at first I was horrified by Christwire. Then, however, I started snooping. The site is ostensibly run by one Jack Gould, who claims to be the Youth Pastor at "Langley CC". If we assume that "CC" stands for "Christian Church" we can perform a google search, but the results are... inconclusive. I can't find a likely looking Jack Gould who isn't referenced solely on Christwire and the link on the first page of results for "Langley Christian Church" is more than a little... suspicious. Additionally, the site includes such fascinating articles as Blue ducks are gay! They face species extinction!* and Canada has an amateur army. That last one is by our beloved Amber and is predictably special:

Time and time again America has made the allied armies of every other nation on Earth look silly in comparison. Let’s take a good lesson from our aforementioned World War 2.

The Great War is surely one of the best examples of what happens in a world without an American military presence. It all started when the NAZIs and their blood-thirsty Chinese allies had just about conquered the Earth, from Russia to England, in under a year.

As France and an all but conquered Britain lay prostrate before the NAZIs in the West, the communist Soviets were one horseback and trying to defeat the Sino-NAZI alliance with rocks and potatoes, as they had run out of bullets.

...

Countries are now so delusional they think sending 20 soldiers and $1,000 of their fake money to a war effort — like the war on terror — is a real contribution. They think by sending their little trained farmers out with our soldiers, they are actively contributing to bringing peace and freedom.

The fact of the matter is that by not calling out these weak countries: Canada, Britain, France, Australia and everyone else in the U.N. that’s not America, we’re creating a dangerous environment. Without American, the U.N. is powerless.


Riiiiight. Now, on the one hand my experience with Conservapedia makes me all too aware that this level of craziness is, in fact, possible. On the other hand, Christwire is just a wee bit too over-the-top for me to quite believe. And so, good readers, I'm going to go out on a limb, refer to Christwire as brilliant satire, and invite you all to laugh along with me.

Unless it turns out they're serious, in which case we're all doomed.


* As a side note, he blue ducks are not facing extinction, but may die out in the U.K. Here's the original story from the Telegraph.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who says Hollywood never makes anything better?


(Click to enlarge)



(Click to enlarge)


For those who are unfamiliar with Dragonball Z- count yourselves as lucky. It is a painfully horrible cartoon from our friends in Japan. If you're curious, though, this is from the original cartoon:



Aaaaand you can see the preview for the upcoming live action film here.

It's not that I think the movie will be good. It's just that if the cartoon is a raging shit-sandwich, the movie is a raging shit-sandwich with onion rings on the side. Mmmmmm.


As a side note: I watched Dragonball Z for a while because a roommate of mine (NOT the FHR) was really into it. My strongest recollection- other than of pain- was of one character claiming he would train at "100 times gravity" in order to be a super badass. I'm fairly sure that hydrogen is a metal under that kind of pressure, so I was fairly amused. Muscles don't work too good when they've been rammed into a thin paste on the deck.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'm busy rewriting a program using loops...

So enjoy this exciting news about recently discovered fossils.


Paleontologists Discover Skeleton Of Nature’s First Sexual Predator

Startling, eh?


As a side note: I'm sure everyone has been watching these little Onion video clips for some time, but I've just discovered them. So I'm happy and y'all can just feel smug.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Sheboygan 90210

So, yeah, for today's post? Go read this over on Scatterplot. It'll be fun. Seriously. It's all about teenagers having sex.

Enjoy!

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Friday, March 20, 2009

You were given fair warning...

And, like last time, I'm too busy today to do anything more creative.



All hail TSS and its granting of wonderful filler options!

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Now that's cool.

You remember those photomosaics that were all the rage a few years back? Yeah? Well, as it turns out, now you can create your own! Using MacOSaiX or, if you're PC user, AndreaMosaic, it's become absurdly simple. Check out this mosaic of my Scatterplot user icon using a selection of images that have all- at one time or another - appeared on the blog:



Maybe I'm easily impressed, but that's just awesome.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The face of the enemy.

Given my ongoing and rather crippling addiction to Conservapedia, none of you will be surprised to learn of my trepidation at the launch of the new Conservapedia YouTube Channel. Now, not only can you read utter madness- you can get a full A/V version of it. And you thought Pauly Shore movies were bad. Since I know some of you still don't know what conservapedia is, allow me to "educate" you through the use of this handy propaganda film starring Andrew Schlafly himself:



Honestly, it's difficult to know what's scariest about this video but the implication that anyone at all believes Wikipedia to be an appropriate resource for teaching history to high schoolers is, at the very least, bizarre. Also, Andrew Schlafly sounds like he's going through puberty. Continually. I did not realize that before.

Have some fun poking around the admittedly scant pickings. You can check out such titles as "Evolution- Did it happen?" which is, amusingly, simply an advertisement for Conservapedia, and "Evolution- True or False?" And that's about all they have up right now, although I'm quite certain more will appear before long. Regardless, however, don't bother disagreeing with them as they have the best- absolute best- counter-argument I've ever seen. Specifically, if you check out Conservapedia's article on ad hominem you find this:



Or, in plain human writing:

Conservatives understand that the basic moral character of a person is always relevant to an argument. Liberals and Atheists are outraged by examination of an individual's character, considering it to be a personal affront, mainly because they are moral relativists. Conservatives understand how important it is that those debating an issue be trustworthy, otherwise a true debate/discussion cannot happen. An immoral person is of course incapable of making a legitimate, intellectual, argument because they come from deceit, like Richard Dawkins. [emphasis added]


So, in short, if they disagree with your ethics they don't have to bother refuting your argument because, by definition, it must be bad. And it doesn't appear to matter what you're arguing- that 2+2=4, that the sky is blue, whatever- you're just wrong.

Ah, Conservapedia: an electronic bullet to the brainpan.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Today's post will be interesting to nobody.

While it doesn't come up on the blog as often as, say, vaccines, I have mentioned before that I am a fan of science fiction. So much so that I actually have a tag for posts relating to sci-fi, which you can find at the bottom of this post. So much so that for a while I wanted to be a science fiction author and have even posted a rather tacky little story that I wrote back in high school. Have fun. So, yes, I am one of those people. And while my desire to write sci-fi has largely faded, I still take a keen interest in both written science fiction and its retarded cousin, televised or film science fiction.

In line with this, my wife and I have been watching the past seasons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. I have generally found the attempt at gritty realism to be much more compelling than the original's weird mixture of camp, comedy, and "drama." And just to make sure she understood what I meant, I actually conned my wife into watching the first twenty minutes or so of "Saga of a Star World." Yes, I am in fact a bastard.

Now, the thing to keep in mind at this point is that I know a few things about both modern physics, and about the fake physics commonly used in sci-fi. I've read enough books and short stories, and seen enough programs, that I can actually feel comfortable discussing the political, economic, and military implications of many types of fictional technologies.* Sometimes I feel so compelled to remark upon them that it can be quite amusing for others. My Former Hypothetical Roomate** frankly found the experience of watching Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes with me to be utterly hysterical, as it reduced me to incoherent stuttering inside of ten minutes. It isn't that I can't suspend disbelief- I can- it's just that having suspended disbelief, the new rules I've accepted have to make some kind of sense. And all too frequently, there are little... problems. And it's one of these "little" problems in Battlestar Galactica that I want to bitch about right now.

Okay, here's the thing: I'm not going to talk about the whole resurrecting cylon deal. No, it doesn't make any kind of sense, but I'm prepared to let that slide. I can sort of make some shit up about quantum entanglement and feel okay about it. I'll also ignore things like the difficulty in maintaining sustainable biospheres when so far removed from resupply. I'll even ignore the whole "love can enable humans and cylons to have children" thing because, really, it's so stupid that I have to just hum really loud and pretend it's not there. No, what I need to mention has to do with two things: (a) the Human-Cylon war and (b) jump drives.

Right, so, in Battlestar Galactica the Humans and the Cylons had achieved a sort of stand-off. The humans had their worlds, defended by the "Colonial Fleet" and the Cylons had their own worlds defended by... uh... creepy metal starfish filled with entrails and croissants of death. So, great, balance of power. Now, let's consider how the colonials and cylons get around. See, space is pretty big and it takes a long-ass time to get anywhere. So, both humans and cylons use "jump drives" which is sci-fi shorthand for a faster-than-light drive that more or less approximates teleportation: you pop out of existence in one spot, and pop into existence elsewhere. Now, this kind of drive almost always has a restriction attached to it: sometimes you can only use it in particular spots (e.g. "jump points"), sometimes it requires special fuel, etc. In the case of Battlestar Galactica, the only restriction seems to be that it takes some time to calculate the proper way to jump to a specific location. So, multiple jumps are difficult to execute quickly because you have to recalculate after each one. This appears to be the only restriction on the drive. It isn't big or fuel intense because a number of small craft are jump capable. Moreover, there appear to be no limits on where a jump can originate or terminate as ships have repeatedly jumped in and out of close orbit around a planet.

And there's the problem y'all need to take note of: they can jump in and out of close orbit.

See, here's the deal. Let's say YOU were the cylons. You knew where the human worlds were. You wanted to kill them all- and I mean every goddamn one of them. You have these faster-than-light drives that allow you to pop into existence without warning anywhere in range and you can place these drives on small craft.*** What do you do? Well, I'll tell you: you build a while bunch of high yield thermonuclear weapons, strap jump drives to them, and then just jump them straight into terminal trajectories over colonial cities. Maybe this is a difficult computation? Sure, but the thing is, you know where the planets are going to be at any given time. It isn't like they can take evasive action. So, take as much time with the supercomputers as you want- the targets will still be where you predict when the time comes. And this is, weirdly, the thing that bothers me most. The heroic colonial fleet? It's hot-shot viper pilots bravely defending the colonies from the cylon menace? Utterly pointless. It's like opposing ICBMs with platemail. It might make you feel tough, but it's completely useless. The show has actually written itself into such a position as to make itself nonsensical. And that just bugs the hell out of me.

Okay, I'm done.


* And people wonder why grad school has been taking me so long...

** God, when was the last time the good old FHR got a mention here? Sorry, buddy!

*** As a side note, unlike the colonials, the cylons place jump drives on every one of their killer-croissants. So they can't be either fuel costly or expensive to manufacture in large numbers.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

There's a dress code?

I often enjoy taking a turn about the wacky halls of Conservapedia, a place where logic isn't so much out of favor as actively opposed. In any case, I recently observed something in their headlines section that I simply have to share with you. I think you'll see why fairly quickly:



"Dressed in black," a German 17-year-old former public school student kills 15 people. Wearing all black is characteristic of anti-Christian belief systems. Our list of young mass murderers grows, and see how many were anti-Christian products of public schools. [emphasis original] [seriously, no shit, the emphasis is from the original]


Okay, so, wearing all black is characteristic or anti-Christian belief systems? Seriously? What about:

Priests?



Or nuns?



Or the Eastern Orthodox?



Or Martin Luther?



Or even the Puritans!



Are we seriously being told that Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox church are all either heavily populated with, or were founded by, folks with anti-Christian belief systems? Well.... yes and no:



Sometimes talking about Conservapedia feels like shooting fish in a barrel. Today, the fish are committing suicide before I can even get the gun loaded.


As a side note Andrew "The Banhammer" Schlafly is, so far as anyone can tell, formally affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. I say "formally affiliated with" rather than "is a member of" because, really, even I give Roman Catholicism too much credit to want to blame it- even implicitly- for the disaster that is Andrew Schlafly.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

As long as we're on the same page...

The Scene: Drek is chatting with a mathematician he met attending a sociology talk. The conversation has turned, after a lengthy discussion, to why Drek thinks sociology is important.

Drek: So, basically, I think the physical sciences have- and continue to be- very important but we need to develop our understanding of sociology so that we can manage the power those sciences have given us.

Mathematician: I actually have to disagree with you there. I haven't really seen any evidence that sociology is a science yet.

Drek: That's fair. We're pretty different from a lot of other sciences. At our best, we're very rigorous and scientific. At our worst we're little better than astrology. So, most of the time, we're probably solidly in the proto-science realm.

Mathematician: That seems about right.

Drek: So what about you? What sort of controversies do you have in your discipline?

Mathematician: Well, we have arguments over infinity.

Drek: Okay.

Mathematician: We can't define infinity axiomatically, which is a big deal since we try to define everything axiomatically. At the same time, infinity is pretty much indispensible to every kind of math except algebra. Without infinity we lose a lot. So one side says that, since all this other math is so useful, we should just accept that infinity is important.

Drek: And what about the other side?

Mathematician: They say infinity doesn't exist.

Drek: ...

Drek: Seriously?

Mathematician: Yeah.

Drek: That's kinda stupid.

Mathematician: Yes.

Drek: In light of all this... you really think you should be talking trash about my discipline?

Mathematician: Good point.

Drek: That's what I thought.


As a side note, it was a lengthy conversation and so this is a summary of what was said that accurately reflects what occurred without being perfectly accurate. Also, he was a pretty nice guy and I think I managed to convince him that what we're doing isn't impossible, just really f-ing difficult.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Well, what did I expect?

So, y'all know how I feel about vaccines. This probably also gives you a sense of how I feel about Jenny McCarthy, the stripper-cum-activist who hates vaccines. Also, she hates the english language, but that's not important right now.

Given the above, keep two things in mind:

(1) Jenny McCarthy thinks it's dangerous to inject oneself with inactivated viral material in order to develop an immunity.
(2) Botox is botulism toxin, which is of course a very dangerous substance derived from bacteria.

And then read this from an interview with McCarthy:

"I love Botox, I absolutely love it," she said. "I get it minimally, so I can still move my face. But I really do think it's a savior."


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right. According to Jenny:

Injecting kids with viral or bacterial material to prevent horrible diseases like pertussis = bad.

Injecting oneself with bacterial toxins so as to preserve an illusion of greater youth = good.

I guess it's good to know what she considers important.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Uh, Ray, I think you're missing something...

A while back I wrote a post dealing with a rather weird new approach to preaching to atheists: trying to convince us god exists through the miracle of the grocery store. No, I'm not kidding. I particularly drew attention to Ray Comfort's delightful explanation that the banana is an atheist's worst nightmare.* Nope, not joking:



Now, one would think that after a misunderstanding of biology this disastrous, a man would slink away and try to live a quiet, humble life. Yeah, one would think that, but one would be wrong. Turns out, Mr. Comfort has come out with a book about atheists. A book with the charming title, "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics." I haven't read the book, I concede, but that is due in no small part to the fact that he thinks bananas are a powerful refutation of my religion. Nonetheless, a number of others have been castigating him on Amazon.com in the comments. So much that World Net Daily**, the only newspaper that actually wants to sell you products for the end times- an irony*** so great it boggles the mind- has produced an article on his heart-wrenching experiences. And that's where Comfort manages to embarrass himself with biology yet again. Specifically, he observes the following:

"I simply expose atheistic evolution for the unscientific fairy tale that it is, and I do it with common logic. I ask questions about where the female came from for each species. Every male dog, cat, horse, elephant, giraffe, fish and bird had to have coincidentally evolved with a female alongside it (over billions of years) with fully evolved compatible reproductive parts and a desire to mate, otherwise the species couldn't keep going. Evolution has no explanation for the female for every species in creation," he said. [emphasis added]


Where to begin? Okay, first, not all species have males and females. In fact, given that the numerical majority of species are bacteria, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that most species don't have males and females.

Next we get to the issue of males and females needing to evolve simultaneously. Never mind that in the animal kingdom there exist a number of intermediate states that work just fine. Is explaining the evolution of sex a problem? Yes. Is it an insurmountable obstacle? Hardly.

But then we get to the real winner, that bit about wondering "where the female came from." Yeah. Ray? Here's a question that will just boggle your cramped little brain: what makes you think that the female came from anywhere? Or, put differently, why do you make it sound as though males appeared first and females were some sort of late comers? Is it possibly because you're so bound up in ancient sexist supersitions that suggest that women are nothing more than helpful subordinates to men- a perspective that is all too prominent among your co-religionists- to actually note the obvious alternative? Maybe earlier forms of reproduction were more similar to females and males are the relatively new additions? I admit, I find that argument more compelling given that for most species males are quite clearly more expendable than females. If such a revolutionary notion- that men aren't obviously the most important things around- had occurred to you then you might have at least phrased your lousy argument in a way that did not immediately reveal your shoddy grasp of biology and evolution.

I tell you, Ray: with enemies like you, we atheists hardly need friends.


* Of late I have been eating a lot of bananas and have been considering referring to them as "nightmares" but I think it might annoy my wife after a while.

** I see it as weirdly appropriate that the initials "WND" only miss "WMD" by one letter.

*** See, if you really believed the end times were coming, what would you want with all that currency?

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

You were advised that from time to time this might transpire.




Just carrying out my duties for the soc shriners. Let them, and their fezzes, rest in peace.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Well, that was comparatively complementary.

The Scene: Drek and his father are having a conversation on the phone, in which Drek's Dad mentions a PBS program he listens to.

Dad: So they had some damned sociologist on from the University?

Drek Uh-huh.

Dad: And he's talking about this research relating stress and prejudice and... uh... health?

Drek: Prejudice causes stress, which leads to poor health outcomes?

Dad: Right. Right. He was saying that people who experience prejudice are stressed and have worse health. And the interviewer- she was some gal from the University too, a Professor- she was saying, don't some ethnic groups have predispositions to some disorder?

Drek: Okay.

Dad: But this guy, he was saying, 'No, no. We're all the same. Different ethnic groups don't get certain disorders more than others.'

Drek: Except we know that's not true.

Dad: Exactly! So here's this guy- and his data don't even speak to this- just spouting off on this political line. He looks like a goddamn idiot.

Drek: Well, if it makes you feel any better, think how annoyed I would have been if I'd been listening to him. I mean, first, there's the bad argument and, second, he makes my discipline look like a bunch of idiots.

Dad: Yeah, that's the thing! He makes all of sociology look ridiculous when a lot of you guys are real scientists. That's what made me so mad.

Drek: Oh.... thanks!


Considering my family has for a lot of years assumed that "sociologist" means "post-modern communist" I'm actually rather touched at this exchange. Seriously.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Best. Comic. Ever.

Finding this funny is an antecedent variable to being regarded as my friend. You have been warned.



Now, here's the real fun. I posted almost this exact same thing over on Scatterplot. How long do you think it will take for someone to point out archly that since we have information on the ordering of events (i.e. first he thought correlation=causation, then he took a statistics class, then he decided correlation didn't equal causation) we may be able to infer causation? I bet we get it in five comments or less.


Special thanks to xkcd for the awesome.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Parenthetical asides aside...

A while back I wrote a post that went moment by moment through an anti-vaccine video by Mary Tocco and... well... pointed out how poor her arguments are. Indeed, this post was just another in a long series of posts stretching back into the dim pre-history* of this blog. As you might guess this post has garnered quite a response, both from anti-vaccination folks as well as the more medically responsible among us. Recently, however, this post earned a new comment from someone who identifies themselves as "Chiropractic Student (not crazy)". I found this particular comment interesting enough as to warrant a post of its own. So, below, find first the text of CSnc's comment, and then my response. And if you're not at all interested in this sort of thing, you're excused. Then again, if you're not at all interested in this sort of thing, why are you reading this blog in the first place? It's not like talking about the anti-vaccination crowd and other pseudoscientific flim-flam is unusual for me.

In any case, let's give the floor to CSnc:

Drek,

While I do agree with the majority of your statements, I really wish you wouldn't bash on chiropractors so much. While there is a community of D.C.'s that believe strongly in the anti-vaccine stance, not everybody in the field is included. We that aren't zealots get discouraged by those who assume that we all follow suit.

As a chiropractic student who was vaccinated as a child, I do believe that some vaccinations are necessary. I don't, however, believe that kids should be bombarded with as many vaccines at once (as they are these days). If a parent wants their kid vaccinated, I think they should at least spread it out a bit. Many claims the anti-vaccine crew have made can't technically be backed up by accepted scientific research, but what's the harm in at least spreading it out a little?

However, back to my point. Don't lump all chiropractors with the outspoken ones making radical claims. Many of us are interested in simply helping a patient with their spinal health and helping maintain a healthy nervous system. As in all things, whether it be politics or anything else for that matter, usually the most outspoken are the most radical and probably the ones you shouldn't listen to in the first place.

Thank you for your time


And now, to respond:

Dear Chiropractic Student (not crazy),

I wish to begin by, first, thanking you for leaving a concise and honest comment. I know that my post was rather inflammatory, owing to the inflammatory nature of its subject matter, and your restraint does you credit. I would also like to acknowledge what is manifestly clear to me: that while we each view the other as well-intentioned, we also view the other as misguided. I do not wish to place words in your mouth, and apologize if I have done so, but from your comments it very much appears that you regard me as wishing to do right by others, but also of having gone too far. Likewise, I believe you to be similarly motivated in the interest of others, but also to be missing critical points. I say this not to be mean or dismissive but, rather, to simply state what I think is the case: we respect each other's motivations, but disagree about actions.

If you'll permit me to address your points out of order, you observe:

I do believe that some vaccinations are necessary. I don't, however, believe that kids should be bombarded with as many vaccines at once (as they are these days). If a parent wants their kid vaccinated, I think they should at least spread it out a bit. Many claims the anti-vaccine crew have made can't technically be backed up by accepted scientific research, but what's the harm in at least spreading it out a little? [emphasis added]


Let's assume for the moment that you and I are in agreement that vaccines are necessary protection against disease. I rather suspect we disagree in part on that, given your "some vaccinations are necessary" caveat, but we will leave that alone for the time being. The issue at hand comes down to, "What harm could arise from not vaccinating children as quickly?" This is a reasonable and well-meant question but the answer, unfortunately, is "Quite a lot." You see, the issue is that until a child has been properly vaccinated** he or she remains vulnerable to contracting the disease in question. If the disease the vaccine is meant to protect against is rare in a particular area, the child may not be at risk from a delay but it is unfortunately difficult to predict when outbreaks of a disease will occur. I lived, for example, in a city that only narrowly avoided a measles epidemic deriving from an infected foreign tourist. This was an unpredictable source and any children or, indeed, adults in my community who were not vaccinated would have been in danger. Given that this is the case, what we have to do is weigh the potential danger from the infectious agent against the danger posed by the treatment and, fortunately for us, the overwhelming weight of medical and scientific evidence*** indicates that vaccines are very, very safe. Indeed, while adverse reactions to vaccination do occur (albeit infrequently), the majority of them are mild and more of an inconvenience than a real danger. Moreover, the overwhelming evidence is that the modern practice of relatively aggressive vaccination is also safe. Thus, the harm in spreading it out a little is that the child may be injured by contracting a disease that could have been easily prevented.

To really see my point, let's consider an analogous situation: you are the attendant at a below ground long-term parking structure. When people retrieve their vehicles (entering from a location you cannot see) they come up a spiral ramp, pay you a fee, and drive away. Because they are coming up a spiral ramp, the drivers of these vehicles cannot see what is immediately around the corner, and thus the top of the ramp is marked with warnings to pedestrians. Likewise, because customers enter at a location you cannot see, you have no way of knowing when a car will come up the ramp, but only that due to the nature of the patrons, it probably won't be more than twice per day. Now, one day during your shift, you notice that a child has sat down on the pavement at the top of the ramp and is playing a game. You can see that a car coming up the ramp would be unable to see the child, due to the angle of the car itself, and would almost certainly strike them. The result of such an accident would likely be significant injury or death. Let's say the child, if left alone, will play there for 30 minutes: given that only two cars typically leave the structure per day, there is a 1/24 or a 4.2% chance that, if you do nothing, an accident will occur. Knowing this, would you fetch the child out of the way? Unless I miss my guess, your answer is "yes." Now, consider that you also know that if you fetch the child out of the way there's a chance (1/10 or 10%) they may fall and skin their knee and a slight chance (1/1000000 or 0.0001%) that they may fall and break their neck. Would you still take action to get the child away from the 1/24 chance that a car will hit them? Again, I think your answer is almost certainly "yes." And this is the essence of the vaccination issue: an unvaccinated child is in effect playing in front of the ramp. Odds are good that, if we do nothing, they will be fine. But, then again, it is so easy to protect them from the danger, and the protection has so few risks, that to do otherwise seems nothing short of negligence.

Leaving this analogy behind, the issue is further complicated by the importance of herd immunity. An unvaccinated individual not only places themselves at risk, but provides a vector through which others- unvaccinated, immuno-compromised, or whose immunity has lapsed- can be infected. Thus, not only does an excessive delay endanger the child, it also endangers those around, including other unvaccinated children. I, of course, understand that you are not arguing against vaccination in general, but it needs to be understood that delaying vaccinations for no better reason than because it seems like it would be okay is, in fact, placing the child and their community at risk. And while I know that some argue that vaccination is "unnatural" and the body needs time to recover from it, the tendency is to vastly over-estimate how "unnatural" vaccination is. Consider that we all carry a sophisticated cellular response system for eradicating infectious agents. Vaccination simply gives this system experience with a weakened or dead form of a dangerous agent so that it can respond to the real thing more effectively. In other words, vaccines are a supplement to our natural defense. Antibiotics, on the other hand, are powerful but far more unnatural ways of fighting the same infection. Thus, in short, if you want to be natural, you want vaccines.

Turning to your other point, you ask that I not bash chiropractors so much. This is a reasonable request but I feel I should clarify that my intent was not to bash chiropractors so much as to bash chiropractic. I think that most of the practitioners of chiropractic are well-intentioned and, like you, simply want to help their clients be healthy. This is a respectable, even admirable, motivation. The problem is that the evidence indicating that chiropractic is actually useful in maintaining the health of the spine or nervous system is scant. Indeed, chiropractic was founded on the notion that disease is caused by misalignments in the spine (the infamous subluxations) and that spinal adjustments can, therefore, cure disease. By and large this has proven to be incorrect. Am I saying that chiropractors never help anyone? No, I'm not. Besides the simple benefit of the placebo effect, I do think that some ailments can be successfully treated by chiropractors. The thing is, such successes are in many ways accidental. Or, put differently, I might have a system for predicting what card will be pulled from the top of a deck and, even if my system is wildly inaccurate, it will still work every so often. Some ailments are amenable to chiropractic treatment just because of chance, not because chiropractic itself is a valid approach to treating disease. One might argue that chiropractic has changed since its origins and has become more scientific. Fair enough but, in this case, what is good or effective is less chiropractic and more medical or, in other words, chiropractors have become effective in proportion to their abandonment of chiropractic itself.

Again, I do not mean to be insulting so much as honest. I very much respect and commend your desire to help others. We both share such a desire. However, I view basing medical care decisions on flawed or non-existent research to be dangerous. At best, it exposes people to danger. At worst, it diverts their attention and financial resources from efficacious treatments towards nice sounding but ineffective bandaids. Thus, I must strongly contest your suggestion that spreading out vaccinations is without potential harm and question the usefulness of chiropractic.

Sincerely,

Drek the Uninteresting


* Defined as, "Before blogger introduced tags."

** And perhaps thereafter as vaccines are not 100% effective for all individuals.

*** I do make a distinction between medical and scientific evidence and anyone who has seen the error bars at medical conferences will know why.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Do you smell that? It's called "disdain."

A few of you have probably heard about* the recent near miss of asteroid 2009 DD45, a 200 foot wide piece of debris that passed within 40,000 miles of the Earth this past Monday (March 2nd). Had this rock struck us, it would have liberated an amount of energy equivalent to a thermonuclear weapon either at the surface of the Earth or somewhere in the atmosphere. The damage would have ranged anywhere from essentially unnoticeable** to potentially catastrophic. And if 40,000 miles sounds like a long way, consider that it's less than twice the altitude that many communications satellites use, and within the orbit of the moon. So, yes, in astronomy terms, this was a close thing. If you're wondering why you haven't heard of this already, it's probably because almost as soon as we spotted it, we determined it wasn't going to hit us anyway.

I am not interested in talking about planetary defense, however. Instead, I'd like to simply make an observation about the news media. Consider, first, this excerpt from an article on 2009 DD45 from Sky and Telescope:

Late word out of the IAU's Minor Planet Center: a small asteroid will pass close to Earth tomorrow (March 2nd) at 13:44 Universal Time. How close? The MPC's Timothy Spahr calculates that it'll be 0.00047 astronomical unit from Earth's center. That's only about 40,000 miles (63,500 km) up — well inside the Moon's orbit and roughly twice the altitude of most communications satellites!

This little cosmic surprise, designated 2009 DD45, turned up two days ago as a 19th-magnitude blip in images taken by Rob McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. It was already within 1½ million miles of Earth and closing fast.

Thankfully, the news media have become less sensationalistic when it comes to these asteroidal close calls — especially since one actually struck our planet last October 7th, at night, and the impact went virtually unnoticed.


Pretty reasonable, right? Okay, now consider this article from your friends and mine at Fox News:

A small asteroid buzzed by Earth Monday, though only real astronomy geeks in the Pacific would have noticed.

The rock, estimated to be no more than 200 feet wide, zoomed past our planet at an altitude of 40,000 miles at 1:44 p.m. universal time — or 8:44 EST.

Dubbed 2009 DD45, it was discovered only on Friday by Australian astronomers.

Forty thousand miles may sound like a lot, but it's only about one-seventh of the way to the moon, and less than twice as far out as many telecommunications satellites.

Had 2009 DD45 hit the Earth, it would have exploded on or near the surface with the force of a large nuclear blast — not very reassuring when you consider humanity had only about three days' notice.

According to the Australian news Web site Crikey, the asteroid is likely to be drawn in by Earth's gravity, meaning it may return for many more near misses in the future. [emphasis added]


Look, I get it Fox News, okay? I understand that you hate science. I get it that your political masters consider attempts to actually understand the world to be the work of the devil. But, really and truly, those "geeks" are the same people who are trying to keep an eye out for giant pieces of rock that, upon smashing into the Earth, could kill the entire human race. And if that happened we all know you'd be wondering why nobody was looking for those giant pieces of rock. Those "geeks" are trying to save your ass.

Show some respect, aiight?


* True story: I heard about 2009 DD45 from my barber who described it as considerably larger than it was, and then made a reference to "The planets going around the Earth." After a moment she then asked, "Is that right?" At which point I gently corrected her that, no, the ptolemaic model has been out of favor for some time.

** Like a recent impact that liberated the equivalent of 1 to 2 kilotons.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

You know you want one.

Given how much time I spend talking about statistics, several of my undergraduates recently brought a rather awesome website to my attention. I refer to Sassy Statistics, which offers a fine line of stats humor apparel. No, really, they do, and they're quite funny. Just check out this sample:

For the person who is willing to stretch pronunciation a bit and loves the analysis of variance comes this entry:



Or, for those who just love using Greek for their parameters, comes this witty offering:



There are a number of wonderful designs- one of which my lovely wife bought me* for my birthday- and most will give you a chuckle, if not an overwhelming urge to buy clothing. Have fun!**


* Bonus points if you can guess which one. It may even help you identify me someday, though I doubt it.

** No, I'm not getting a kickback from the company. Yes, I just find it funny.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

You know what they say about art and life...

After recent events, this comic from David Willis' Shortpacked made me laugh:



That is all.

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