This weekend was the first cold snap I’ve experienced since moving into my apartment. I ran into an odd problem where I realized it wasn’t immediately obvious how my apartment is heated. I conducted an successful experiment to answer this question, and wrote it up into a short paper. I used writelatex.com to format the paper into it’s final form.
Just a few moments ago, I learned of the disaster today experienced by SpaceShipTwo. One pilot died, and another was injured. These humans were pushing at the edges of human experience. It’s sometimes hard for me to find the right words in a situation like this, so I’m going to go with someone else’s. In case Apollo Eleven experienced a problem, this speech was prepared by William Safire:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Last week something really cool happened in space. A spacecraft has been flying through space for the last 17 years with no contact from NASA was contacted and is now being used to conduct science. Originally launched in 1978, the International Cometary Explorer (ISEE-3) has traveled to comets, explored the sun, and more. It carries on-board several different sensors and instruments used to gather observations.
The spacecraft was brought to my attention by xkcd 1337. I discovered at that time that people were trying to reconnect with the spacecraft, but it seemed pretty helpless. They didn’t have the equipment or the codes to control the craft, and only a few months to put it together.
I was very wrong to be skeptical. Through a crowd-funding effort, money was raised to get the code written, and to get time at the Aricebo telescope, which was one of the few places on earth that would be capable of communicating with ISEE-3.
Last week, the team announced that they were successful, and that they were now in command of the spacecraft.
This blows my mind. The spacecraft was launched five years before I was born. We sent it all over the solar system. We forgot hot to talk to it, but left it on, and it was still chugging along. A group of people got together, figured out how to talk about it again, commandeered the largest satellite dish in the world, and is going to send it off again to do more science.
It’s a testament to both the brilliance of the initial engineering and the team behind it now. Congratulations to them both.
This summer is shaping up to be really great. I have two major trips planned. The first is next week to Madison, Wi, for the Games+Learning+Society conference. This will be my first major academic conference and I couldn’t be more excited. One of the themes for my summer is gamifying education, a topic that apparently will receive some staunch criticism from a giant in the field. I am going to be very interested in what Dr. Gee has to say.
This trip is also going to be great because the two people that really got me into this field are going to be there: Constance Steinkuehler and Sean Duncan. Their 2008 paper “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” [PDF] was posted to reddit (or somewhere I happened to stumble upon) pre-press and it opened a new world to me. Since then, I’ve earned my M.Ed., hope to start my Ph.D. soon, and I have no doubt that my career will be focused on this area.
My next major trip will be in July, as I head off to The Amazing Meeting! I know every year this conference is packed with awesomeness, but I can’t help but feel like this year is the best yet. Just take a look at their list of speakers. It’s going to be my first time to Vegas, and I’m kind of skeptical that it’s all that great for someone like me.
I have a few big projects I’m working on this summer. I’m not ready to talk about Democritus in depth, yet, especially without hearing the criticism I will hear next week, but I am excited about it so far. My gut tells me that this is something that is really needed and will be huge, but I also realize that I must be skeptical of my gut, as it tends to be wrong. I will go ahead and offer a short explanation of the project.
Democritus is a next-generation Learning Management System that includes social networking and game mechanics as core features. On the technical side, it is an HTML 5, with no java / flash / other third party plugins. I’ve said for years that BlackBoard is crap, so I’m finally doing something about it.
Last weekend, I once again attended Skepticon in Springfield, MO. I would link to the website, but it’s apparently expired sometime in the last few days. This was a the third year the conference has been held, and it’s been bigger every year. The first year, it was just Carrier and PZ, who were great. Last year, it expanded to two days, and this year it was three. I really hope it continues to grow, as it’s really nice to be able to spend some time around like-minded individuals.
That said, the conference had one major problem this year: it allowed itself to be defined by some criticism that occurred before the conference started by someone who wasn’t even attending. The criticism was that the conference would have been better named “atheistcon” instead of “Skepticon.” I really think this criticism is pretty ridiculous, so I’m not going to spend time talking about it here, especially after hearing so many people talk about it at the conference, especially DJ Grothe and Randi. They both seemed very defensive to me and I didn’t understand it at all.
Phrases like “atheism is skepticism about only one thing” and “I’m an atheist because there is no evidence” were hammered on so much, I just wanted to yell “get on with it.” I mean, it’s 2010, is this really an issue? Was this actually unclear to anyone? Never-the-less there were some really good points made, and it was great to hear Randi in person.
DJ Grothe made a really good point that I had to applaud. He said that he would rather hang out with someone who is skeptical about everything but god than someone who is skeptical about only god. Examples given were Bill Maher, who is a prominent atheist, but pushes some really bone-headed ideas, compared to Martin Gardner, who was very skeptical, but believed in a deist god never-the-less. I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. I’ve stopped going to some of the local skeptical meetups because they are populated with people whose only concern is religion and have really strange ideas about other things.
Don’t get me wrong, Religion is an important topic to discuss and be skeptical of, but listening to atheists who believe the crap about vaccines and autism, or push Zeitgeist as a good source for information is not my idea of fun. I’m not going to accept atheism as ‘good enough.’ The end goal is skepticism.
There were several speakers at the conference I had never heard of before. The best speaker at the conference was John Corivino, a philosophy professor, gay rights activist and skeptic. It’s safe to say that I’m now a fan, and I hope to get more opportunities to hear him speak. His best trait? The ability to effectively explain and communicate nuance.
David Fitzgerald was someone else who I hadn’t really heard of before. He gave a talk on the historicity of Jesus which was very good. He has a book out called “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that show Jesus never existed at all.” After hearing his talk, it’s definitely on my wishlist. The historicity of Jesus is a topic that’s very interesting to me, even though it has a reputation of being somewhat ‘out there.’ In the last decade or so, it looks like the scholarly case for a mythical Jesus has really been put together, though, and can hold up to criticism. I would go so far as to even call it compelling.
Other new speakers included Debbie Goddard, Amanda Marcotte, and Greta Christina. These talks were all very good, though I don’t have much to say about them. Marcotte’s presentation on Skepticism and Feminism was very good to hear. I haven’t paid much attention to feminism; it just isn’t something that I’ve been interested in, but after hearing her talk, I think it’s something I should be interested in. It’s important, and I should learn more.
I did have an interesting conversation with a Christian who stopped to witness to me in the hotel. It was very cordial, even though his accusations of “you never really were a real christian” irked me. Who is he to say that? I didn’t go that route, though, and I think we had a pretty good conversation. I was helped by the fact that he had a background in psychology, so I was able to bring up our cognitive biases when he started talking about ‘evidence’ for god. He didn’t really have a reply to that, and kept complaining about superficial christians. I don’t think either mind changed at all, but these are the conversations we need to be having.
Overall, the conference was great. We had some of Ray Comfort’s people outside handing out copies of their annotated Origin of Species, and there was a gun show right next door. Other than the expected “you’re going to hell” accusations, everything was very civil. I can’t wait to attend again next year.
Hulu recently made Carl Sagan‘s famous PBS documentary series Cosmos available for free viewing online. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend watching it. It is the best documentary series I’ve ever seen, and for me, it was a complete life changer. There is a moment in the last episode of the series that completely shattered some cognitive dissonance that had been building up for months: the amount of evidence for evolution, versus my dogmatic rejection of it. The moment is just a simple statement: “[we] accepted the products of science, but not it’s methods.” The intensity I felt in that moment has been rarely replicated. It perfectly described my actions in a way that was undeniable, but also provided the solution: drop my dogmatic beliefs in favor of evidence based knowledge.
Since that time, I sometimes forget what it’s like for people who reject evolution. Sometimes, as hard as it is to believe, I forget that anyone actually rejects evolution. It’s so obvious to me now, that I forge that there are other perspectives out there. There are probably many causes for this, but there is one that I want to focus on for this post: Nearly everyone benefitting from modern technology has implicitly accepted evolution.
The theory of evolution was a breakthrough of truly monumental proportions, and today, it’s applications have extended well beyond just academic biology. For example, it’s used in forensic science to help solve crimes. How many people accept DNA evidence, but don’t realize that without the theory of evolution, we wouldn’t be able to analyze DNA? How many people use materials everyday that were designed using principals derived from the theory of evolution?
How many people wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the theory of evolution? Modern medicine depends on an understanding of evolution. If the theory of evolution didn’t accurately reflect reality, modern medicine would not be successful at all. Instead, we see life expectancy growing at an exponential rate.
Shouldn’t someone who truly believes evolution wrong and even evil, reject all these things? If they’re truly dedicated to their beliefs, they should. Instead, we see their rational side appear when they need it. If they’re sick, they ignore the man behind the curtain, and implicitly accept the benefits of evidence-based knowledge. Next time I’m pulled back down to earth by someone who doesn’t believe in evolution, I just want to ask them this: then why do you accept it’s products?
I was excited to see that the H.M.S. Beagle people have launched an online version of their store. This is the local science store where I bought my chemistry lab, microscope, and a few books. While it appears that they could use some help in the design portion of their operation, they’re awesome for everything science related.
It’s painful to admit it, but I am a former ditto-head. Yes, I used to tune in everyday to the Rush Limbaugh show, and even called in once. But all that’s in the past now, as I’ve come to a more enlightened view of the world. It also helped that I’ve had run-ins with other members of the Limbaugh family, Limbaugh’s nephew who drew this wonderful picture of/for me. But this post isn’t about that. I happened to tune in a while back (on accident), and I just happened to hear a commercial I was very familiar with from those old days. I had a somewhat different reaction this time around though.
What was the commercial? Zicam Homeopathic Medicine (pdf). To add insult to injury, this was mere moments after hearing Rush call himself ‘the voice of reason.’ How disgusting. Rush Limbaugh has said some pretty outrageous things in his time, most recently with his comments about ‘phony troops,’ so this doesn’t even rank that high, but it is, never-the-less, a perfect example of just how convoluted conservative / christian thinking can be.
I wonder if he even knows what homeopathy is?
There are a few twists to this story, though. According to the PDF linked above, studies demonstrating the efficacy of the treatment have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and according to this post I discovered from a few years ago, it seems the homeopathic label may just be a marketing ploy.
What the hell?
But the situation is even more muddled a few paragraphs further down in the pdf, where it says:
Zinc gluconate is recognized as a homeopathic drug because it has known “homeopathic provings” and/or known effects which mimic the symptoms, syndromes or conditions associated with the common cold, which it is administered to treat.
So, Zicam is homeopathic? It’s homeopathic and has demonstrated it’s efficacy? Someone call James Randi.
Really, what the hell is going on here?
The James Randi Education Foundation Forums provides a little insight.
- It seems that Zicam has been sued and lost when someone lost their sense of smell.
- It’s homeopathic because it’s active ingredients causes the symptoms they’re trying to cure.
- It’s dosage is much larger than normal homeopathic ‘medicine.’
- Zicam seems to be trying to do an end-around the FDA in order to bypass the scrutiny needed to bring their ‘medicine’ to market in a non-homeopathic way.
The bottom line. Zicam seems to be some really messed up ‘medicine.’
Looking at all that, is it really that surprising that Rush Limbaugh personally endorses the product? It’s a match made in heaven.
On Saturday I ventured out of my apartment to a place in Kansas City I’ve not been before: Parkville. I’ve been near it, but never in it. I’ve been missing out. This is a charming little town, right on the missouri River and smack dab in the middle of the KC Metro area, but strangely isolated. The town only has about 5,000 people in it, so it’s small, but it’s home to Park University, which I wish I had known about before. Of course, as a private institution, it would have been out of my price range, but still, it looks like such a nice place.
Saturday was a nice day, and there were people milling about, I really got the whole small town feeling. But I wasn’t there to just check the town out; I was a man on a mission. About a week ago, I heard about this store, called the H.M.S. Beagle. I had posted to a local freethought group about available local amatuer science clubs, and someone mentioned this store. If only I had known about it before… This store isn’t like those dinky ’science’ store like the Discover Channel store. Those stores sell little more than ’science toys.’ This is the real deal. And it’s a nice looking store as well.
They have glassware, Science and Technical books (new, used, and rare). A ton of telescopes. Geological tools. Slides. Chemistry Sets. Kids science clubs. Adult science clubs. The people who work there all have backgrounds in science (either already have a degree, or a student working towards a degree). I talked to the owner, and he informed me that they can order anything they don’t already have, including… dissection specimans! Dissections have always given me the willies in the past, but now I’m actually looking forward to doing one. That’s a ways off in the distance, though. There’s probably a bunch of legalities I need to find out about, too.
They also supply chemicals, which would have been wonderful to know while I was making my movie over the summer. Well, a nice person supplied me with some Sodium anyway. Thanks again, nice person!
I don’t yet have the resources to start working on my lab, but next month, I ought to. It’s probably a good thing, because I need to have some idea of some specific things I want to do first. Right now, some bacterial cultures are on the list, but I won’t get a microscope until Christmas time, so I should probably hold off on that. There was a neat little book at the store called ‘Grandads Wonderful Book of Chemistry,’ that may offer some pointers. The biology book I’m working on has been great so far, but I’ve not gotten too in depth yet. I want to finish Gödel, Escher, Bach first. (BTW, if you haven’t read GEB, then I highly recommend it.)
I got up early this morning and headed into campus to view the lunar eclipse. Wow! It was as beautiful as ever. Before this year, I had never taken the time to view a lunar eclipse. However, this is the second one I’ve seen this year. Sure, I lost a few hours sleep, but man was it worth it.
This was a two-for-one morning, since the eclipse was right at sunrise. First I got to see the beautiful red-moon, and then watch it disappear as the sun rose in the opposite sky.
There has been a rumor going around, re-enforced by legitimate news sources reporting that Mars will be as big as the moon for a while. This is completely false, of course, but looking up at the moon this morning, I can see how the rumor could have gotten started. It took only the tiniest leap of the imagination to think of the moon as mars up close. Never-the-less, it was still imaginary.
So if you missed out this morning, too bad! Next time around, take my advice: Lose a couple hours of sleep and see something beautiful.