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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bendik gets his horoscope read, part four

in which our astrologer branches out even further

So yeah, I've had my horoscope written up for a lark. I've not paid anything, only going by the free 'previews' that I have been getting since signing up. Those paying attention to the series can remember that I have so far been subjected to plain astrology, an important Lunar Transit period which was to bring untold opportunities for me (it didn't), Tarot (which promised me travel and wealth, neither of which happened) a Reiki Grid that was to bring me happiness and wealth (it didn't).

At the time when I received this I was still in this Transit Period. I received yet another email from Jenna, my Personal astrologer. Its subject line read "I have cleansed your Energy Bendik!" (A common theme in her emails is the lack of a comma when my name is added to the end of a sentence for effect)

Ah yes, Energy. Capital-E nergy. And mine was apparently tainted or dirty. (It apparently doesn't wash well in the shower)

She is worried that I am not using my full potential (which can only be attained by paying for a full reading) and wants to help me. She will make a shield for me, using magnetic energy, which will shelter me from... well everything from alien abductions to toothache I suppose. She didn't really say. Only that it would make me feel more energetic and more positive and better-liked and all that jazz.

Since none of these emails would be complete without a sell-in, she offers to make me my own personal Great Book of Revelations which was to tell me, well, everything about me. Just look at this feature list!
  • Your precise and personal Astrological dataYour general characteristics and how you react to others; your fundamental needs, values and orientations in life; your essential energies and your elemental make-up.
  • How you approach life and how you appear to others; your basic stance in life and the way you come across and the face you show to the world.
  • The Inner You and your true motivation; your drives, aims and ambitions.
  • Your mental interests and abilities; how you please youself and other people.
  • Your emotions, moods, feelings and your romance; how you accept or avoid confrontation and how you deal with your deeper emotions.
  • How you set and achieve your goals and in which manner you direct your energy.
  • How you grow and expand your skills and knowledge; the areas in life which you enjoy and how you achieve compromise and harmony.
  • The areas in life that challenge or are difficult for you; how you assess your possessions and how you approach problems and trials.
  • Your originality, imagination and the areas in which you are unique, unstable or compulsive; how you can control your feelings better and guide your energy towards sucess.
  • How you fit into to your generation; how you share common interests and how you can contact people around your age to help you move forward in life.
  • New energy and ambition and how greater personal knowledge will help you place yourself in life and help you achieve your goals and ambitions.
What a list of things that would be revealed to me if I just bought this book!

If only I didn't know myself already and thus didn't need another person to tell me about me (though the narcissistic me is digging the attention, just think to have a book written entirely about myself!)

I again opted not to send in any money, just very amused at the cold-reading like process of throwing out all sorts of different methods (Astrology, Reiki, Magnetic Energy so far, more will come :) to see which of them I am positive to.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It is difficult to make choices

We all make hundreds of choices every day, ranging from the minor and trivial, to the life-changing and major decisions.
Most of us consider ourselves rational beings, and try to weigh our choices against one another to figure out what to do.

Unfortunately, it is quite easy for the brain to be manipulated into making a choice we otherwise would not have made.
In addition, for the choices where we do want to make them, it is possible to have a choice be much harder than it need be.

For instance, having many options can often be a bad thing because it makes choosing between them so much harder.

Allow me to make an example, starting with the trivial:

You are at the store for your shopping. On the way out, you come across the freezer and think 'Hey, some ice cream would be delicious in this sweltering heat.' This store prides itself in its ice cream, and has over a hundred different flavors for you to choose from. You stand there wondering and pondering which flavor to go for, and after a couple of minutes you give up trying to decide and go buy an apple instead.

You are at another store for your shopping. This time, the store has only three flavors. Easily, you grab a cone of chocolate ice cream and pay and go out and enjoy your ice.

How many of you have faced this scenario? It is very common. Your brain is incapable of comparing all hundred flavors of ice against one another, especially since you likely have only tasted a tenth of them, and just draws a blank when you ask it to decide which one to go for.

It need not be the trivial choices that get this problem. Say you want to choose an insurance provider for your health. If there are hundreds of different options of your plans and coverages and prices you can sit for hours trying to decide which one to take.

The flipside is, that more choices do give you a better fit when you have made the choice in the end. There should not be much denying that. However, you don't necessarily feel better about your choice then. With many options, you can never be sure that you would not have liked option K better than option Q, or maybe you should´ve gone for Option b2 instead of C94. If your only choices were the broad A, B and C, then while you might be better off with a choice midway between B and C, you will feel better about the choice itself.

In addition, the illusion of choice can often lead to strange outcomes. Dan Ariely uses this example:
A journal offered the following subscriptions for sale:
a) $69.99 web-only (with back archives) subscription.
b) $99.99 print-only subscription. (without back archives)
c) $99.99 print and web subscription. (print and back archives)

The salespeople figured that since the web version was essentially free, once you had bought the print version you were entitled to the same archives on the web. Sounds sensible enough. But nobody in their right mind would choose option B, since option C was superior in every way. They noticed that, and removed option B from their subscription forms.

Sales dropped quite considerably, even if they only removed the item that nobody bought. Why is that?
Well, since option C is so obviously superior to option B, it creates a very strong incentive to buy option C, because it is obviously a good deal! When all three options were there, people compared C to B when determining whether or not to subscribe. And boy does that subscription look good then!
When option B was removed, C was compared to A and then none of them have the obvious 'Good deal!' quality over it.

For more on the subject, I recommend the following two TED talks:
Dan Ariely asks: Are we in control of our own decisions?
Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice

Monday, May 25, 2009

Praying for health

This Norwegian newsstory shook me up a bit. It concerns a doctor who referred a drug addict to a Christian Saviour Center for help. I'm pretty used to these kinds of reports from the US, but it still made me uneasy. And with our national healer "Snåsamannen" I realize now there is more irrationality in our country than I like to acknowledge.

Still, stories like the one about the 13-year old boy from Minnesota who's parents are refusing him normal treatment for his Hodgkins lymphoma, shows how strongly these convictions take place in some people's minds.

The Norwegian reporting on these two cases, pretty accurately reflects the standard Norwegian sentiments on these matters. The final line in the report on the 13-year old is as follows (my translation): "The Hauser family are catholics, but actually believe in natural medicine developed by Native Americans."

The sneer in that sentence is important to me. It reflects the logical problems with alternative treatments that are not based in reality. When there are limitless possibilites to treatments that are based on fantasy, how do you separate and classify them? And how can you combine things that are from different schools of thought (and nothing but thought) so to speak ? Why should native american medicine work if you believe God is the only one with healing power?

Update: The mother has now returned with her son for treatment. Thank goodness. Maybe he will get a chance to grow up and learn to think for himself one day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

IDA - Darwinius masillae

So, a few days have passed since all the hubbub over the hubbub over Ida, and Ida herself. I finally got around to reading the article (reading scientific papers on a friday night; I'm going in the right direction) and I just want to assure everyone; the paper was thorough and did not indicate that the hype was to compensate for lack of quality or to hide faults. It deserves some hype, although it still seems a bit unusual and over the top.

One of the authors of the paper and the man who curated the fossil for Oslo's Natural History Museum has held a few lectures for us in our Evolution class. They were all good, and one thing that shines through about this guy (Jørn Hurum) is his love of science, and his wish of communicating it to lots more people in a fun way. In a way you could say he thinks science needs better PR-agents, and he's working on it himself since no one else seems to be doing it.

He is also the guy behind the discovery of the largest Plesiosaur, found on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. He also worked with the History Channel on that project (as on this Ida-documentary that will be released soon), and the trailer for the Svalbard-monster-documentary is quite fabulous.

Have you ever seen such blatant disregard for the fact that paleontology is perceived to be the second most dry and boring subject in the world? (Second only to geology in public opinion.)

Just recognizing the kind of guy Jørn Hurum is (a fun, lively guy who thrives on science) makes the way they appealed to the mass media a bit easier to understand.

But, I guess I have to agree with a lot of the critics out there, that certain media were not ready for hardcore science back on their newsdesks and they really messed up. Also, too many scientists were completely unprepared for the incorporation of websites and bling into publication of tweed-smelling papers, and the shock may have led some to be extra critical, and assuming the fuss was there to hide some horrible lack in science.

For example, PZ Myers writes on the Panda's Thumb:

When Laelaps says, “I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold,” I think he’s being spectacularly understated. Wilkins also knocks down the whole “missing link” label. The hype is bad news, not because Ida is unimportant, but because it detracts from the larger body of the fossil record — I doubt that the media will be able to muster as much excitement from whatever new fossil gets published in Nature or Science next week, no matter how significant it may be.

Go ahead and be excited by this find, I know I am. Just remember to be excited tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, because this is perfectly normal science, and it will go on.

It's a valid point, but at the same time I think Hurum and his crew are catching up on some long overdue publicity for science.

Mediocre media

Now, over to the media and their scientific illiteracy. Norwegian tabloid VG's headlines were:

Norwegian scientists dropped bomb: This is "The missing link"

Made breakthrough findings
* Found 47 million year old monkey skeleton
* Claims it can explain evolutionary theory
* Named after scientists daughter "Ida"

Only one of the three statements is correct, the one regarding the naming. And even that is imprecise, as Ida is only a nickname.

In the article i link to above, they even manage to claim that she may be the answer to how we developed from apes to humans. There were no apes 47 mya. Apes lack tails, like gorillas, chimps, and us.

The middle statement is pretty far out as well, as if there were a single fossil that proves evolution. And as if evolution wasn't already fact. But then again, I don't know what I expect from a paper whose headline directly beneath this was "Flight attendants take off clothes. See their naked stunt."

Update: This commentary in Norwegian nicely sums it up.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moneyfolding fun

About a week ago I mentioned the "A lesson in history" document which was forwarded to us by our sister. It was the usual conspiracy theories about the coincidences between the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Lincoln. Some factual, some fabricated, most irrelevant. I promised her then that I would blog about the whole email, and I did half of it earlier.

It also came with an exercise in folding some money, as if careful folding of an American $20 bill could give a clue about 9/11. I have replicated the images here, courtesy of user "Gutter Monkey" of the Something Awful Forums.

In the left image, it is claimed that when the White House is folded like that, it looks like the Pentagon on fire. I would disagree (the Pentagon does not have a top like a roman column) but I suppose if you squint... The right one is supposedly one of the two towers also on fire. Ominous stuff.

But who is responsible for these atrocities? Why, none other than

GASP! The US Government knew all along, they planned it, and they planted this hint about it for... um.. some strange reason.

If someone had only discovered this BEFORE september 10, 2001 then only the whole disaster could be averted!


Funny how these chain emails always end in the same way. Personally, I am going for "Coincidence, with a great amount of manipulation of the data to even make the coincidence."

Y'see, that Osama name there is only a typo. What they meant to write was

Obama! I knew it! He was the cause of it all!
But who made him do it?

The plot thickens! Hitler and Hilary were the cause of it all!

Okay, by now you can probably tell that I am not taking this very seriously. I see no reason to. Those who hunt for patterns will find them. They mean absolutely nothing, they are complete and utter fabrications. There are no secret messages in our money.
Instead the rest of this post will be to showcase some hilarious things that can be done by folding money, and to prove that if you fold (manipulate) your money (data) enough, you can make it say whatever you like.

This Australian $5 bill can be folded to show a toothy monster.... bite.... a treestump. Yeah that's right. Bite a treestump.

Happy, or sad?

This Canadian $10 bill features Prime Minister John MacDonald. He doesn't quite look himself here.

Who can say no to Hood Lincoln?
Why Action Jackson, that's who!

Here's a whole page of those, they're awesome)

TIE Fighter Washington disagrees.

We can fabricate whatever "truths" we like quite easily. Just because a piece of information can be folded, or edited, to show something does not necessarily mean it is true. It would be much more true if the $20 dollar bill said out loud "Osama'll trash a tower" rather than this convoluted mess. See also Numerology and Word Codes. Don't be fooled by the hype.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A "missing link" has been found

According to newspapers all around the world, a new 47-million year old fossil is now described in full. It is likely this is one of the ancestors of both apes and humans in evolutionary history. This specimen has been given the name Ida.

As we can see from the image of the fossil, it has humanoid features, yet a long ape-like tail. Thanks to some extremely lucky fossilization, a lot of tissue was preserved and even its last meal, this was a herbivore.

A team of scientists, led by Jørn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, have spent the last couple of years examining this fossil. The findings were released today, with much pomp and circumstance. This contrary to the way scientific findings are usually announced, silently in some journal somewhere out of sight of the layman.

I'm not going to comment too much about the science of it all because most of what goes on in a biological journal is way above my head. Here I am just a layperson like everyone else. (I hope Marit can comment some more on the creature itself later.) Instead I am going to comment on what struck me when I saw the newspaper articles about this, and clicked on through to the webpage about Ida.

Yes, that's right. A webpage about Ida. My first thought when I saw that, full of flash and videos and Facebook links, was 'This doesn't look like an ordinary scientific announcement.' In fact it was so unusual to see it presented like that that first I started to wonder if this all was very overstated. Having been jaded by advertisements before, I often apply the rule that the more flashy the advertisement, the duller the product itself. Scientific journals so far have been grounded in the principle that the truth does not need special effects to be attractive. They are boring and do not get much circulation outside their nearby peers.

I think this way is wonderful. We need some 'Celebrity' scientists and 'Rock concert' discoveries again and some major findings and breakthroughs to capture everyone's attentions. And, while they might be adequate for the lab rat community, a journal entry really does not parley anything to me, the layperson. Press releases, shows, newspaper articles, fancy webpages, they're great! I'm more of a physics person myself, but this find so far has made me think about biology again! And that's great!

Right now a large part of the world does not care about, or care for, Science (Capital S.) Here on this blog though, we do. And I love this approach. I hope more scientific teams take note of this approach and try to make the information a bit more accessible to me, the layperson. Sure, there are museums but still as Science-happy that we are, we don't visit them often. We do however visit the Internet and Twitter and Facebook often. And that gets the word around.

Sure, you run the risk of making a big fuss out of what might still turn out to be a dud. In Science you always do. And we've found lots of missing links before. And there will be more. Every fossil found just creates two more that are missing. I am not here to talk about the science of it, I leave the analyzing of it to proper biologists. I comment on the approach, the announcement, the hype. "Any pop band is doing the same thing, any athlete is doing the same,” Jørn Hurum told the New York Times “We have to start thinking the same way in science.” I couldn't agree more.

You can read more about Ida at http://www.revealingthelink.com/
There will be a television show about her, made by David Attenborough, next week on BBC, NRK, and it will likely spread around on the Internet really fast afterward.
On June 5, she will be on display at the Museum of Natural History in Oslo. Marit and I will go there and report.

Bendik gets his horoscope read, part three

First, apologies to my readers for boring them with the first two parts of this series. There will be many more, until I have exhausted my supply of emails from Jenna, but I will try to include more commentary and less verbatim quoting from now.

So my dear friend Jenna the Astrologer is emailing me again.
I received one email in the beginning of October, saying that my wonderful, full-of-opportunities Transit Period was going to be from 27 October 2008 to 7 January 2009.

Finally some actual, testable claims! If you read the previous entries in this series then you probably spotted the vague, generic, Forer-style Cold Reading in those. I was overjoyed to see a date, an event which I could compare Reality to when it arrived.

As expected, she also said that I did need her help, getting a more detailed reading, to get the most of this period in my life. I did not understand why. If it was Destined In The Stars that I was to have a period of prosperity, then surely it was Destined no matter what I did. Or rather, whatever I was Destined to do, would fit into my Destiny. Sorta self-referential, these Destinies.

A week later I received another email saying she was disappointed that I did not choose to act on this amazing offer, and that the price got reduced from $60 to $45 because of the superstrong bond we shared since my first contact. I ignored that one too.

Another week later, another one.
And another one one week after that again.
And yet another on the day when my Transit was about to start.

So my Transit period started. I was promised fortune, love, money, everything in it but... (spoiler alert) nothing special happened during the period. It was a totally uneventful period apart from all the usual things that happen in that period. (My birthday, Christmas, New Year's, and all those entails) In fact I will go out and say that it was a totally mundane and average period. I did not find fortune, not find love, and no special happiness.

Well okay one special thing happened midway in the period, and that was another email from Jenna my Personal Astrologer!
It had now been a month and a half since my last email from her, and two and a half since the last with any substance, so I was quite surprised to see it.

Jenna says she had not given up on me and had taken the initiative to make me a Crystalline Reiki Grid! The explanation offered is so good I will quote it here:

There is no magic or sorcery in all of this. We now know that magnetism exists as it has been proved by scientific techniques and it is certain that this energetic field can have extremely beneficial effects. The technique of the grid has existed for thousands of years and is extremely efficient. [...] To make this grid work properly for you and so that you get the best out of it's influence, all you need to do is to concentrate on the photo which I have attached to this email. The grid will then be 'activated'.

I just love this paragraph. We know that magnetism exists, indeed. The rest of it is just total and utter mumbo-jumbo. And that is what is so great a bout it. It just sounds so... plausible! Or at least authoritative. Or something.

Anyway I concentrated on the photo for a couple of moments and activated my grid. Dunno what else was supposed to happen. Nor really did I understand how this grid would sense that I was concentrating on a picture of it halfway across the world, but that's Reiki for you.

"An energy friendly environment in which a full spectrum of color and frequency can vitalize and balance the chakra system."

I couldn't make up a sentence like that if I tried.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Wow. Just Wow.

I'm so glad there are people out there doing all the dirty work and then sharing the fruits of their labor with us laymen (I hope I get to do that too, someday!).

One example is Phil Plait, aka the Bad Astronomer, who digs through lots of interesting stuff and relays the best to us (actually that doesn't sound too bad). I can also profess with authority that he's a really fun guy; he likes girlie drinks and pancakes at night, and I met him, and he's really nice.

Anyhoo, he puts out a lot of pretty pictures that some heroes even further back work their butts off to produce, and today I was almost flabbergasted by the clarity and beauty of these photos. Must be seen. Makes me feel like this (Neil Armstrong after first Lunar walk.

Okay, over to the pics:
I have to give Phil some hits for these photos, so go HERE.

and HERE.

Humans can be pretty cool.

Pictures in the links by Theirry Legault. Picture of Neil Armstrong by Buzz Aldrin.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Creationism and the Swine Flu

I don't know exactly what it is about creationists that really gets my goat. Is it the blatant denial of the scientific method and what it can tell us about reality? Is it the blind following of dogma dictated by a 2 000 year old book? Is it the fact that it directly and happily attacks my one true love, evolution? Or is it that it promotes crappy ideas that end up hurting people?

The hypocrisy burns my mind, and yet I'm eerily drawn to it. I just have to read the latest idiocy and willful ignorance gleefully smeared all over the intertubes. One man who has been cropping up all over the place lately is this one: Ray Comfort. You may have seen his extremely uninformed video called "The Atheist's Nightmare", where he claims that bananas are proof of God.

Hopefully, you know enough about human history to know that none of the plants we eat today do not resemble their appearance from a few millennia ago. Wild bananas are green, hard, and full off seeds.

You may also have already seen this delightful comic strip by Doonesbury:

Ray Comfort does not seem to understand even basic evolutionary theory. He's way too upset about what being an animal does to his morality (I wish he would realize that it being an animal does not ruin anybody's morals).

On his blog a while ago, he wrote this:
The spread of the so-called 'swine flu' demonstrates yet again how useless and sometimes deadly a mutation can be. Furthermore, as the infection spreads around the world, the search for an antidote is desperately sought, but the very fact that the virus is seen as something to be opposed actually supports the Biblical view of this world. It is always good and right to oppose sickness, but in evolutionary terms, why don't humans simply resign themselves to it and allow the strong to survive? The evolutionary point of view would say the virus has a 'right' to live, so 'good luck' to it!

First of all, the mutation leading to the swine-flu is BENEFICIAL for that organism. It gets to party with a whole lot more hosts as a result of that mutation. The fact that it hurts us humans as opposed to swine is completely irrelevant to nature. Evolution does not say anything along the lines of "rights" to live, it is in no way normative and in no way directed by value judgments (nor does it give value judgments). Also, our understanding of evolution makes many viruses preventable.

It is quite simple for a person who is a part of nature to use their rational mind to decide what they think is good or bad. However, Comfort follows God, an unknowable being with unknowable motives, and his view is thereby closer to the one he tries to ascribe to his strawman "darwinists". Let God decide.

Just to be clear, it is absolutely essential to understand why he denies evolution so fervently. First of all, it has nothing to do with science. He doesn't even attempt to understand the science behind evolutionary theory. And, as he demonstrates in the video below, he thinks that evolutionary theory destroys his sense of morals. If anything, I think it heightens our sense of morality, because even though we are not accountable to God, we are accountable to every living thing around us, our future selves and our future children. Ray Comfort is waiting for the apocalypse, so his relationship to earth can be destructive without him imagining any consequence. Now that is scary.

About three minutes in, he makes some of the most ignorant claims about evolution I've ever heard. I'm ok with the fact that the people he asks questions of in the beginning are not able to explain evolution satisfactorily, but the fact that he, who spends so much time wanting to tear it down attempts to do so by distorting the facts or apparently never having asked those questions to anyone with a sliver of understanding, only reflects his blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Also, once again, he flaunts the fact that it is not about science for him, it's about God, and his own trembling sense of morality. The little dialogue he refers to in the end (about how to SAVE people, reminds me of this So-Called "What If.." game that some evangelicals like to play. They make you admit that you may not have lead a perfect life, and then prompt you to accept Jesus as your savior after scaring you with the scenario that there may be a God, who is very, very, angry with you for not living a perfect life after he created you that way. And one time, Todd Friel on a radio show made a huuge mistake. He tried this tactic on anti-theist number one, Christopher Hitchens. (Author of God is Not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything.)

The radiotalk can be heard at pharyngula or be found on youtube.

Michael Reiss - Creationism in the Classroom?

Michael Reiss was at the University of Oslo wednesday 06.05.09, giving a talk on the question: "Should Creationism Be a Part of the Science Curriculum?"

From the description, and the note in Norwegian that he was fired over arguing the affirmative and also that he is a priest, made a lot of people think we were going to see a real-live flesh-and-blood creationist. We have a few here in Norway, but I've never seen them.

So, everyone was riled up with their pitchforks and burning sticks, and we were all surprised when he turned out to be a very moderate, well-spoken and most of all rational man.

A summary of his lecture:
He started out by talking about the rise of creationism. He knew that it was not much of an issue here in Norway (the few we have are considered loonies by the general public), but also bringing up that fact that it is not only an issue in the US any more; it's popping up in the UK, and he cited a study showing that 10% of medical students in Glasgow were creationists.

He brought up two main reasons for its rise in the UK,
- more muslims (and thereby less scriptural criticism)
- religion losing influence, which leads to polarization and more fundamentalism.

This last point is particularly interesting. I once took a course called Religion and Modernity, and the point was basically the same; most people feel confused by relativism and their fragmented reality, and this leads to superimposing a black-and-white picture on the world, joining strict churches that tell you exactly what to do, and voting for strong leaders like Bush.

I find it interesting too that in Norway, most people are members of the state church. Imagine that, we have an official state religion! Most people do not even consider the fact that they are registered (about 80% are, even though most of these only attend church at Christmas, or never). We do have religious freedom though, and kids with other religions were allowed to skip the class called "Christianity" that we had in school up to the mid-nineties. (It´s now replaced by a more general course called Religion).

One might think that religion's prominent place in Norwegian society would lead to a more religious population, but in fact, this is not so. I think the fact that everyone automatically gets a religion at birth makes it a bit more unimportant. Also, the fact that it is the state religion (Lutheran) means that the state democratically removes any crazy rules or prohibitions from the church. We have a very liberal church, and I think this is mostly due to the state's role.

Some churches and denominations have removed themselves from this practice and are way more restrictive and conservative in their teachings. I think it it telling that people here are mostly fine with the state church, but that there is also room for joining more conservative denominations. However, most of my friends think you must be a Jesus-freak(derogatory term) to join one of those denominations. And most people are fine with saying they believe in God, but not fanatically. But in the US for example, to have a religion, you need to actively seek it, and this probably leads many more people to join weird churches. And since all churches are separate from governing bodies, many of them are likely to be even more nutty.

It reminds me of an example from Freakonomics (the book, not the blog):
They write about a law passed somewhere that you had to have car insurance for your car. They compared two different places where one place provided an ok default package, and the other didn´t have a default. Most people in the first place chose the default. Where there wasn´t a default position, most people ended up overpaying and getting more insurance than they needed. They claimed that this is due to the fact that most people just don't want to deal with all kinds of decisions throughout every day, and if there's an allright option set up, they'll take it. If not, they won't be able to orient themselves quickly enough and end up with some weird choice.
This is sort of like religion to me: make the default position ok, and provide other choices. Most people will stick with the default. But if there is no default position, people will scurry all over the place, taking all sorts of options even though they are not ideal.

Anyway, back to Reiss' talk.
He talked a bit about the different possible relationships between science and religion, focusing on Ian Barbours four models:
- conflict (represented by Richard Dawkins)
- independence (Steven Jay Gould, Non-Overlapping Magisteria-NOMA)
- dialogue (for example the antropic principle, physicists asking metaphysical questions
- integration (combining math and aesthetics )

He then described quickly the different understandings of biodiversity as presented by science and religion, and mentioned that the creationist view of evolution implies a collapse of their moral world and the afterlife if evolution is true.

He then moved on to the specifics of the British school-system. He explained how origin myths are discussed in religion class, and this is also where teaching ethics and controversial issues is done. In these classes students are also introduced to creationist and "evolutionist" views (his word!).

The science classes should not bring up creationism, as it has no scientific validity, he said. But, he said, IF a student should happen to bring it up while in science class, the teacher should not ignore the question. Rather, he claims it could be a useful tool and a foil for examining the evidence for evolution, the nature of science and how science works.

Which I think we can all agree is not a horrible standpoint.

He also mentioned that creationism is a very sensitive issue for many students, and that it has not been decided in science how to deal with this kind of issue. And even though I don't think creationism has anything to do with science, I agree to his point that we should recognize the fact that science totally messes up their world view and it is therefore reasonable not to ignore them when they bring it up. But he was quite specific that it should not be discussed unless a student brought it up seriously first.

During the Q and A, it seemed that quite a few people were "dissapointed" in his moderate stand, and someone finally asked why he had been fired over his position on this issue.

Reiss explained that in his opinion, it was all a gross misunderstanding, and a huge debacle had followed. There had been a debate where he was arguing AGAINST including creationism in the science classroom. A few journalists had been present, and some newspapers included a brief report on the debate the next day. However, The Times, which is a rather large and respected paper, had picked up the story without confirming their facts, and had mixed up who was on which side. A storm of letters followed, demanding he resign from his position in the Royal Society, and he was finally called in to the Royal Society to discuss the matter, even though it seemed to be a waning issue. The Royal Society were quite fed up with the issue, and even though they admitted he had done nothing wrong to his face, they said they would still like him to leave, to appease the furious public. He had accepted, as he also holds a good position at a University.

I thought this sounded like a sad story, and even though his viewpoints were valid and wellgrounded, I was disappointed that he didn't take the battle. Also, this illustrates how the public mind and the media works. No matter if The Times had printed a retraction, and if he specified that "I've spent more time debating the opposite position than anyone I've ever met.. literally", people will remember him as that creationist-guy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sex, Sex, Sex, part 3

So, here's part three of a still growing series on sex

Researchers have recently identified an ant species that reproduces without sex.

There are farming ants. Apparently some species have been at it for about 80 million years, which makes our own agricultural revolution seem like a tweet in comparison to a novel. These ants would collect plant detritus, dead insects etc, and instead of eating it themselves, would use it to grow mushrooms.

When the researchers started examining the ant colony to find out how they organized their little farm, they noticed that they never came across any males. Upon genetic testing, they found that the population was all females, and in addition, they were all clones of the queen.

They also found upon dissection that all the females had lost an essential part of their reproductive organ in evolutionary time.

As you all have probably heard, there are some advantages to sexual reproduction, including creating greater genetic variation in recombination. There are some animals that have the ability to reproduce asexually, but this is rarely the main form, and especially not the only form, of reproduction. THe problem with a population of clones is that if one individual can get sick, all of them can get sick.

In spite of this, this species has evolved away the capability for sexual reproduction, and thereby the need for men! Ha-ha!

And since we're talking about ants, there is another "freak of nature" which happens to be an ant. The organism with fewest chromosomes is an ant.

For most eusocial insects, reproduction is quite different than our own. The females are diploid, and the males are haploid, meaning they only have half of the chromosomes of females. That is, the females have chromosome pairs (such as having XX for sex in humans), while the males only have one half of the pair(only one X). This means that if a female lays an unfertilized egg, it turns into a male drone, and if it is fertilized, it turns into a new female.

When the human genome project was being completed, the researchers constantly had to reduce their estimate for how many genes we awesome, complicated, advanced humans have. It turned out we only have about 25 000, about the same as mice. (Fruit flies have about 14 000, rice has 60 000!) They were at this point really realizing that complexity does not only stem from the amount of genetic material.

So, these ants are social insects, which implies that they have complex social behavior, and when this discovery was made in 1986, it was one of the first clues that genetic material and complexity are not as correlated as we would like to think.

As far as I could tell, not much research has been done on this variant of the species (it is apparently part of a species complex of very similar sibling species with varying chromosome numbers).

Given this fact, I have to mention that when I took one of the introductory courses in Molecular Biology at Uni.of.Oslo, one of the lecturers mentioned this species and the original article published in 1986. He claimed that he had found the research som interesting and surprising, that he immediately had contacted the people who found them and asked for some specimens. And he got some. A short while after, there was apparently a fire at the original research institute and all the original specimens had vanished. They had gone into the field again, but had been unable to localize the original one-chromosome population.

All this means that there is a researcher at the University of Oslo that has the only specimens left of this species, and he is keeping them hidden in one of his offices. He claimed he would get to them eventually, and that he was quite secretive about it, to be sure that he was still the only one with access to them. He's getting older, and I only hope he has confided in someone as to their whereabouts. Or that he can get crackin on his research!

That little digression serves to tell about how weird and haphazard research can be and develop, and also how weird some scientists are. I mean really; he's held on to those specimens for 20 years now!

Also, one can wonder why the number of chromosomes has been reduced so drastically. In general, choromosome number should increase, as this gives more room dealing with harmful mutations, and more room for variation.

Bendik gets his horoscope read (part two)

So about two weeks after my last correspondence with my personal astrologer Jenna, I received another email from her.

She had received another new and strong "feeling" about me and since her intuition is never wrong, it is because The Transit is very close to happening. So she did what every rational being would do, flipped out the ol' Tarot deck.

O'yes, we have branched out from Astrology to Tarot now. This woman is certainly multitalented!

She writes:
I did this reading using the Marseille deck of Tarot Cards. The results I had were very surprising. This is why I think that it is absolutely essential that I warn you as soon as possible. [...]The result of this latest reading I have done for you has completely confirmed the astrological reading which I sent you on the 15 September 2008.

My actual 3 draws!

She then goes on about the Tarot reading and the interpretation:
The number 7 on the card represents the 7 colours of the rainbow, this is a succesful number and also represents material gain. [...]The Chariot represents continuous movement and a journey towards a new place and also suggests victory and sucess. The person which is shown on this card (this is an asexual being Bendik and in fact represents you) wears a golden crown and this symbolizes richness, power and triumph. This card shows pure sucess. The person's face is radiant and happy with himself and self-confident, this is one of the most fortunate cards of the whole Tarot deck.

Well thanks for calling me asexual there! Other than that the Chariot represents travel, it represents not being constrained (as the sides of the chariot is open) It is a very favorable card indeed.

Next card, The Star:
Firstly this card reminds us of a beautiful woman in love, a gentle and sensual woman. The number on the card perfectly symbolises a solid and deep relationship because the number 17 indicates a full cycle and is the imprint of strong spirituality (10 plus 7). The 1 plus 0 plus 7 total 8 and this is not purely by chance because this figure is also the number of stars on the card: 8, a number which is also associated with infinity. This card represents someone and announces the beginning of a new cycle and a very beneficial period as far as your love life is concerned.

Sure, let's also bring in some numerology. Always a sure hit. Where she got the number 10 to add to the 7 I do not know. The stars in the card are ripe with imagery both in their numbers and placement.

The nudity of this woman evokes purity yet also sensual attraction. This card represents intimity, sensuality, charm and attraction and I can see that there will soon be a powerful force of attraction created between you and this person you have in mind.[...] This is a very positive card and the hope which it offers will help to change or create a new situation. Through this I read a strong sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and fulfillment. This card quite clearly indicates the possibility of a loving union with this person you care so much about.

The World Card
This card clearly represents the beginning of a new cycle and marks the start of something new and intense. Something is being set firmly into place. This is one of the most beautiful cards of the deck. Firstly the number 21, which is of course 20 plus 1, represents a new cycle and 21 can also be considered to be 3 times 7 which is a very harmonious set of numbers representing harmony and satisfaction in all areas; sentimental, material and intellectual. The World in the sense of this card is formed by the Earth and all the other astral bodies and demonstrates the harmony, accomplishment and satisfaction which you will soon experience Bendik because of this very intense Transit you will soon be living through. The central personality appears to be someone happy and fulfilled. The laurel leaf crown symbolises the prize awarded by all your efforts, your honor and sucess. This is a very satisfying card and it also symbolises travel. It seems that you will be required to move around during relatively short periods however you will get a great deal out of this travel. This card clearly shows the sucess and acheivement which awaits you.

Okay a bit more numerology, sure.
As a whole the cards really did not tell me anything the first reading didn't. I was about to enter a Transit phase and it was going to be important to me both on a professional and romantic level.
Note: In a later email she reveals the dates of the Transit Phase to me, and the period has long passed as of this writing. It was largely uneventful.
I have not been traveling much like the Chariot and the World cards said I would. The longest trip I have taken since september has been a single trip to Stockholm and back on the same day as I had to visit my company's branch office there. I would hardly call that traveling.
The economic and professional changes I was promised have also not surfaced. I have the same job I had a year ago, and have not had a pay increase or position change since I started getting readings from Jenna. Other than starting writing on this blog, which will undoubtedly bring me a huge "victory and success" my life itself has been rather uneventful and the Tarot cards did not predict much.
As for the "loving union with this person you care so much about", I really have no idea who she means. If any female readers of this blog want to have a go at proving this part of Jenna's Tarot reading correct, leave a comment :)

As usual, the end of the letter was a link for me to order a full reading, paid. I again chose not to but this time I hoped that the next message would not take long to arrive. It came only two weeks later, and will be the subject of the next entry in this series.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bendik gets his horoscope read (part one)

In September 2008, when I was feeling particularly activist skeptical, I stumbled over an ad for a free horoscope reading. I cannot remember on which site I saw it, but I decided to fill it out and see what it could say about me. With the often-sought "open mind", I filled out the questions about me truthfully, entering in my birthdate, time, and place, and submitted.

After submitting, I hit up my library to read more about astrology, feeling fairly certain that I would recognize the tricks and features used.

Shortly after I received an email saying that "Jenna" was in the process of creating my horoscope and that I would receive the full reading after a couple of days. It arrived and immediately it kicked off with wonderful news for me.

I have just discovered that not only are you soon going to live through an event of great astrological importance but also that you were going to blessed with a period of chance and opportunities. This is very serious Bendik, I rarely come accross such vibrant astrological configurations and you can believe what I say because I never express myself in this way lightly. [...]
As soon as I started looking at your details I felt a surge in my knowledge of you and I only can explain it by the creation of a strong connection between us when we first entered into contact. This bond has an enormous advantage for me as I am able to discern exactly what you are feeling at this time. [...]A Transit period is on the way

This Transit Period, to last 72 days, but still an undetermined start time was supposed to bring me major changes to my life. Both in the workplace and romantically. She wouldn't say though when it was supposed to start, only that it was going to start "soon" and that I needed her help to make the most of it. Because if The Universe is going to bring me good luck it is not determined already, I need to grab it myself. The Transit Period is a rare event that does not happen for everyone and even then rarely. Good timing for me that I chose to get my horoscope read just before it was about to happen!

Because Jenna and I now already have a very close bond, it was very important to her that I got all the opportunities the Universe was wanting to provide to me. Thanks to again this bond, she was able to tell me lots of things about myself:

I know that you are someone who has a lots of qualities and you are aware that you have been given certain talents... very special talents, unique only to you and while you have known of these abilities you haven't fully acted on them now, have you? I have received some general ideas about your character and I know that you can bit a bit stubborn in getting what you want. I can see that you like the outdoors and you do not like to make decisions too far in advance. You are an unusually generous person, with the genuine desire to help others but you also have a bit of selfish side. It's this taking care of yourself than allows you to better take care of others. I am getting the distinct impression that you are street smart and you value this ability much more than the classroom smarts that others have. I see travel in your future, either because you love somone or because you need this person. There is a sense that you do not show your emotions readily and you often feel strong feelings but keep them inside. The experiences you have had in life have made you a bit more perspective than most and that's why you are wise beyond your years in many ways.

Holy Forer Effect, Batman! This paragraph is all of course 100% correct about me. How did she do it? We really must have that bond and she was able to deduce all that just from my birthdate and checking the stars!

Towards the end of the email I get a repeat of all what this Transit Period is supposed to bring me. She offered to make me a more detailed reading, for a charge of course, astrological time isn't free, about the following list of items:

More precisely, As far as your professional career is concerned. I will tell you:

- why this period will be one of the most favorable moments of your career
- what this victory is and how you can acheive it in your job
- when and how this victory will take place and what it will change for you
- what changes you can expect financially
- How the situation will change your work situation in the average to long term
I will also let you know what will be the impact of this transit on your love life:
- when this encounter will take place
- where you will meet
- how you can recognise the right person
- how you can seduce this individual and start building something good together
- if this is really the love of your life
- what kind of future you can expect together

I chose not to send in my credit card details and instead clicked the 'Please don't send me any more messages' link. Fortunately, that link didn't work, because a couple of weeks later I got a new message. And they only get better!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"A lesson in history"

Our other sister just forwarded to us a good fun chain e-mail regarding similarities between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It also had some fun dollar-bill folding exercises at the end.

Sure, most of our readers have probably been through this list already, but we exist to educate and enlighten (along with giving hugs) so I will take a trip down the list here on this blog.

The version just sent to us was in Norwegian, but I took a look in my own personal archive of these things and found the English version it appears to be translated from. For the sake of avoiding the translator telephone game, I will just use the English version rather than re-translating the Norwegian version back into English.

It goes a little something like this:

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.

Both were particularly concerned with civil rights

Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.

Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.

Both were shot in the head.

Lincoln's secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theatre.
Kennedy's secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.

Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners.

Both successors were named Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

Both assassins were known by their three names.

Both names are comprised of fifteen letters

Booth ran from the theater and was caught in a warehouse.
Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theater.

Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

Let's take a look now shall we, at each one in a bit more detail:

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
These statements are, in fact, true. Other than that though, their political careers were not very similar. JFK enjoyed success after success in the political life while poor ol' Lincoln had mostly unsuccessful attempts at national office.

Presidential elections are only held every four years. Therefore, neither of them could have been elected in '57, '58, '59, '61, '62 or '63. Given that only every four years it is possible to have an election, the window of opportunity for coincidence is very big.
The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.
Honestly, this is reaching a bit. Census.gov says that a very big amount of names in America have seven letters. Just browse through that list a bit. If you graphed the number of people with a number of letters in their surnames, I am fairly certain you would see a bell curve centering on someplace between six and eight. Really. Seven letters.
Both were particularly concerned with civil rights
The accuracy of this statement is questionable at best. Lincoln was not a civil rights enthusiast. Sure, a lot of it happened during his reign, but both presidents would probably have maintained the status quo had not external events not under their control changed things up.

Whilst Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery, his primary concern was to keep the Union alive, not about whether or not blacks were slaves or free. Lincoln stated that were it possible to keep the Union together while still allowing slavery in the southern states, he would've done so. The rules, laws and regulations abolishing slavery were not actually enacted until after his death. The Emancipation Proclamation was meant as a war-ender, not something used to permanently end slavery.

Kennedy left most civil matters to his successor Johnson.
Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.
This one too could have been worded better. It appears to me as though the bad wording is intentional on the will of the list-writer to conceal some differences and to instigate "hmm that's curious" thoughts.

Edward Lincoln died of tuberculosis in 1850, well before Lincoln took office. He was four at the time.
Willie Lincoln got typhoid and died at the end of their first year in the white house. He was eleven at the time.

The Kennedys however, rare enough that a presidential couple in America is young enough to be of childbearing age, had two children that survived. The aforementioned dead one died from being born too early. So the circumstances regarding the deaths are very different.
Both presidents were shot on a friday.
Really, one in seven chance. Even before you think about that both were shot at a public event, and more public events are on the weekend than during the week itself.
Both were shot in the head.
Well yes, that is where you aim if you want to kill a person who is sitting, since the rest of his body is shielded by the chair/car he is sitting in. Also it is the best chance of a kill.
Lincoln's secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theatre.
Kennedy's secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.
Ah how here is where it gets good: Lincoln did not have a secretary named Kennedy. While JFK did have a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln did not have a secretary named Kennedy. His secretaries were John G. Nicolay and John Hay.

In addition, presidents always get warned not to go wherever they go. There is a good precedent for this: One third of all U.S. Presidents have been attempted assassinated! This is also based on part fifty-six of my common cognitive mistakes series of articles, forgetting the misses and remembering the hits. Lincoln documented around eighty threats and letters about plots to kidnap and assassinate him, but these are never counted in letters like this. If you make enough predictions, one is bound to come true.
Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Never mind that that is half the country, so a 50% chance of that being correct before anything else.
John Wilkes Booth considered himself a Northerner who understood the south. He was born in Maryland which was a part of the Union during the war.
Oswald however was born in New Orleans I suppose this makes him a southerner. But his motives were not based on regional differences, like Booths were, so it should not matter.
Both were succeeded by Southerners.
Well if you look at the statistics of American presidential tickets, you will see that most of them have one person from the north and one from the south. It is extremely common. It's called balancing the ticket. It happens to this day and will likely always continue to happen in America.
Both successors were named Johnson.
Yeah. It is the second most common name in America.
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.
This one is also true and is a neat little coincidence, except it isn't really a coincidence. There is nothing special about the number 100. It's just a nice round number. If we looked at more things about these vice presidents I am sure we would find just as many things that involved the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 or 42 as 100. Once we start looking for numbers we will find them, as long as we can choose which numbers we want to look for afterward.

There are numerous differences between the two Johnsons, anyway.
John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

Wrong. Booth was born in 1838. May 10, to be exact.
Both assassins were known by their three names.
No. They are -now-, but John Wilkes Booth's life was well-documented before he went on to shoot the president. He was an actor. He was featured in many plays. He was usually named J. Wilkes Booth or John Wilkes, to distinguish himself from his father and brother who also were named J. Booth.
Lee Oswald did not use the name Harvey before he was caught and made famous.

Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

Well this too depends a bit on the definition of assassinated. Booth was shot by the police when he eluded arrest. Oswald was shot by a private citizen in an act of vigilantism, after he had been caught.

A month before Lincoln was assassinated he was in Monroe, Maryland.
A month before Kennedy was assassinated he was in Marilyn Monroe.

Unless you want to try and label JFK as a necrophiliac... Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. JFK was shot on November 22, 1963. More than a year's difference.

What does this all mean?
Absolutely nothing. We so desperately need to live in a universe where stuff like this does not "just happen" and our brains try so desperately to make sense of it all. To understand why and how. We try patterns and tendencies. We need that our universe is orderly and understandable. In trying to find patterns we try to find a big "something" that provides a reassuring pat that it all makes sense. That "something" can be The Cosmos or The Illuminati who are well known to leave cryptic hints about their existence everywhere, yet refuse to be discovered. But alas. It doesn't work that way.

Next week we'll fold some dollar-bills and see what we can come up with.

Source: snopes.com, this blog entry borders on downright plagiarism of Snopes, how awesome their article is.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Yet another common cognitive error

Part 3 - Post hoc ergo propter hoc
Or in plain English After therefore because of

This is the third and probably the most common, hardest to combat fallacy we can make. It comes from not properly understanding cause-effect relationships so that it could look like event A was the cause of C, while in reality B was the cause.

Quacks in particular like this fallacy very much. It is the root of most folk wisdom, miracle cures, and superstition. If you have a headache and take a pill then your headache disappears then it would be logical to think that the pill did cause the headaches disappearance. However if you instead of taking the pill spun around four times, did some arcane incantations and sacrificed a goat, and then your headache disappeared, it too would be easy to think that it was the cause.

As one example of how easy it is for us to fall into this trap, let me use an example from one of my homeboy psychologists, B.F. Skinner.

Skinner put a pigeon in a box along with a machine that dispensed food at random intervals. The pigeons learned to associate whatever behaviour they had just been doing as food arrived, with food. Thus they would try to do the same thing again thinking it led to receiving food. For example if a pigeon had just been looking over its shoulder when food arrived, it would keep looking over its shoulder in an attempt to receive food.
Sounds simple enough, this is a pigeon after all, they have a brain the size of a fingernail so...

Well, not as much. The experiment has been replicated on humans time after time, and works like a charm. You can place a human in such a box with a score display, and tell him that his score will be based on his actions and it's up to him to figure out the scoring formula. Even if score here too is given out randomly, a person will keep trying the same actions that he did just before receiving points, much rather thinking that he did the process wrong instead that the whole process was faulty.

The world is a complicated place with hundreds of factors at any time affecting what is happening. Determining the exact cause and effect of many scenarios is downright impossible. Sure, you can think that pressing the brakes of your car slows it down, and that is a fair assumption. However, when you start thinking that saying 'Baby needs a new pair of shoes' and kissing the dice before rolling them will lead to a good roll, then that's less probable. Do it once and it gets stuck in your head as a possible cause and you keep doing it.

We all have our rituals, lucky charms and quirks that we do. There isn't much of a miracle cure to make yourself immune to this thought. No matter how skeptical you can be, you may always have the thought "but what if it was kissing the dice that helped them come up twelve". We live in a deterministic universe, but our senses and understanding are not sufficient to parse and understand all the cause-effect relationships when they are not immediately obvious. We mentally eliminate things that are not obviously the cause. We also have troubles seeing multiple causes for a single effect, or multiple effects coming from a single cause.

And this is a pitfall that we will fall into time and time again. We need our reasons. If something happens we as humans have to go and search for the reason for it. If we can't immediately and obviously find it, we can and will draw a mistaken conclusion from it and end up with the wrong cause-effect relationship in our head. And then we try to replicate it later.