Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bill Gates Publicly Supports Vaccinations

This is important.

So I had to take a look, because I wanted to see what Gates had really said, and about whom. It turns out he didn’t actually use the phrase “child killers,” but he did say that anti-vaccine groups “kill children,” which does pretty much amount to the same thing. I can see why people would be outraged by that — I’m outraged, too, but not in the way the people who issued the press release would like me to be. Because I’m outraged that there most likely are 50,000 people who are willing to protest, when what Bill Gates said is absolutely, 100% correct.

We need more big name people to talk about the importance of vaccinations and how the anti-vax movement is dangerous. Jenny McCarthy gets a ton of press for her statements and admittedly sad story. But the people making the (correct) argument against her rarely get as much focus. The results the anti-vaxxers' antics are not inconsequential. People have died. This point needs to be hammered home again and again. Not vaccinating your kids leads to death. It's not every kid that doesn't get vaccinated, but it is enough of them that every American should be up in arms against the anti-vax crusaders. These deaths are a very preventable tragedy.

So, tell everyone you know how important vaccines are and how dangerous it is to not get them. You could save a life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Star Trek: The Animated Series is Now Online for Free!

The best news of the day.

Star Trek: The Animated Series has been unjustly neglected by all but the most devoted Trekkies for most of the 36-plus years since it originally aired. The animation may — does — look cheesy by today’s standards, but some of the stories are truly excellent, and they did get all but one of the original cast members to do their characters’ voices.

Well, has now put every episode of the series online for free viewing (though not, alas, downloading). If you’ve not seen any of the 22 episodes of the series, but are a fan of ST:The Original Series, you’re in for a treat. Some of them are just so-so, but even the worst of them is better (to my mind, anyway) than 70% of the episodes of ST: Enterprise.

I all ready play original series episodes in the background at work. These will have to join the queue.

Ant Death Circles

I had never heard of this. Apparently sometimes ants can get caught up in a circle following the ant in front of them and then keep going in a circle until they starve to death.

This is a species of army ant, Labidus praedator. These ants are completely blind so they get about by sniffing trails left by the ants in front of them. They, in turn, leave chemical trails of their own. The system works smoothly when everybody's going in a straight line in one direction...

But when the lead ants start to loop, bad things can happen (and remember we humans loop too, we can't hold a straight course over long distances without external points of reference). If the ant-in-front loops and intersects with its old trail, the whole crowd then turns in on itself and everybody gets caught in the endless circle.

Check out this fascinating video of this in action.

The article mentions that this is something that never happens to humans which is true in a literal fashion. You've never (at least I never have) seen a group of humans stuck endlessly circling about until they die. I have seen people, though, blindly following the lead of someone else. Most people are sheep and don't want to stand out or be the first to do something for fear of looking foolish. They will willingly go along with a crowd even if they have some reservations inside. It's a hard thing to overcome because no one likes to be embarrassed.

The Observer Effect and Police Dogs

Most people know that our pets, especially dogs, like to please us. Well, it goes for police dogs, too.

My confusion about what was going on in Harper's head reflects a common misconception that is also apparent in the ways dogs are used in criminal investigations. When we think dogs are using their well-honed noses to sniff out drugs or criminal suspects, they may actually be displaying a more recently evolved trait: an urgent desire to please their masters, coupled with the ability to read their cues.

Several studies and tests have shown that drug-sniffing dogs, scent hounds, and even explosive-detecting dogs are not nearly as accurate as they have been portrayed in court. A recent Chicago Tribune survey of traffic stops by suburban police departments from 2007 to 2009, for example, found that searches turned up contraband in just 44 percent of the cases where police dogs alerted to the presence of narcotics. (An alert is a signal, such as barking or sitting, that dogs are trained to display when they detect the target scent.) In stops involving Hispanic drivers, the dogs' success rate was just 27 percent. The two largest departments the Tribune surveyed—the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police—said they don't even keep track of such information.

But don't blame the dogs; their noses work fine. In fact, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently conceded, after 12 years and millions of dollars of research, that the canine snout, fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution, is still far more sensitive and reliable than any technology man has been able to muster when it comes to detecting explosives in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problem is our confusion about when dogs are picking up a scent and when they are responding to cues from their handlers.

This is similar to a well-known problem in physics - the observer effect - where a person observing an event has an impact on the event and skews it. Obviously this is slightly different in that the dog's handler can safely observe the dog in action; they just have to be careful not to give the dog false clues so that the dog ends up simply trying to please its master rather than do its job.

It seems like this could have a bearing on parenting, as well. When raising children we must be careful that they do not end up doing something just to gain our approval. They must learn to do the right thing even when it is harder or they worry it might mean our disapproval somehow (if, for example, they try to accomplish a task but fail).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tracing Lines and Chaos Theory

Watch this very cool video where 500 people attempt to trace the line the previous person drew. What starts off as a straight line quickly becomes a mess.

A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals from clement valla on Vimeo.

Others have commented on how this resembles evolution or the human condition. That sounds about right.

But what I like about it is how it beautifully represents chaos theory. This is a branch of mathematics that has applications in a number of science fields. More people have probably heard of the butterfly effect. This comes out of chaos theory and it in effect states that small changes in initial conditions can lead to wildly different outcomes. In this video notice how that at first the lines change only slightly, but by the end it looks completely different from its original state. If you ran this experiment again and started with the same first line as this one, you would have a completely different outcome. That's chaos theory.

It really is a fascinating subject and has led to all sorts of discoveries in meteorology, physics, and other sciences.

Paying State Worker Less is a Bad Way to Balance the Budget

Ezra Klein brings us a chart showing what Wisconsin's state and local government workers make compared to their private sector counterparts.

So, why would these people take less money? Presumably they like their work. Maybe they like being public servants. Maybe both. Either way, it seems ludicrous to want to pay them less money. You will just get fewer qualified people wanting to take these jobs. Maybe that's what Republicans want. However, the GOP is often quick to decry government incompetence. You're not going to get the best workers if you're not paying them enough to make it worth their while. I'd rather have someone choose to go work for a state government as, say, a regulator than go work on Wall Street and contribute nothing to society other than pushing for lower taxes on rich people in order to only benefit themselves.

Montana Makes the National News!

I'm so proud of my state. We made the national news!

A Montana legislator is proposing the state embrace global warming as good for the economy.

Republican Rep. Joe Read of Ronan aims to pass a law that says global warming is a natural occurrence that "is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana."

Reaction by scientists and environmentalists to House Bill 549 has been harsh. University of Montana climate change professor Steve Running calls it an indefensible attempt to repeal the laws of physics.

Oh...we made it for stupidity. Damn.

Something that I have a hard time understanding is why science has become so politicized. There isn't a serious scientist out there who will say that scientists never make mistakes, that theories never have to be revised or thrown out. But they will tell you that when multiple differing experiments conducted by many different scientists and validated by many others, then the likelihood of a theory being accurate continues to increase.

So, why is that that we have politicians constantly deriding science? Not too hard, to understand, I suppose. They see political and personal gain from it. So, why do people elect politicians who pull this crap? Because science is hard to understand and politicians are good at whipping up fear with banal sound bites. So, why are pols allowed to get away with this? Shouldn't someone, somewhere, be tasked with reporting on these stories and explaining them to people? Hmmmmm...oh, yes!

The media!

I think I remember learning somewhere that the media's job was to get to the bottom of things and report on them. Unfortunately we have a media who get upset when one of their own calls someone a liar even when they clearly are. This seems to be born of cowardice and a desire to befriend the elite at the top. It's sorta hard to buddy up with someone when you call them out on their bullshit in your news story.

It's sad and rather pathetic. Politicians should not be basing decisions based on short-term personal gain, but the long-term benefit of all. But when there is no one willing to ensure that pressure is maintained on them to do that, it's probably not going to happen.