Casey Luskin's New Home

It's Sunday and that means the church of skepticism is now in session. Guest speaker today is the insightful Thunderf00t who welcomes the Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin to his new home...


The Discovery Institute Bares All

The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture has shed their white scientist smock to reveal the religious vestments we knew were there all along. They've dropped all pretense of objectivity with their new website, Faith + Evolution. Obviously, Jonathan Wells and co. were getting uncomfortable with the restraint on their evangelizing, especially with the million dollar microphones they wield. Or perhaps it was their rich benefactors demanding they address religion, folding it into their pseudoscience (as if they hadn't already). Curiously, they chose to attack Francis Collins first with their headlining article "Is Francis Collins Right About Evolution?" That's like Beetle Bailey questioning Sarge.

At least now they have a vehicle for their Wedge Document to reside in, with appropriate cover for when it is again revealed to the world (2nd coming of the wedge?). Also, it will be fun to watch their banner evolve over time. Recall the CSC's original banner (when it was known as the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture):

which eventually evolved into this (see The National Center for Science Education for details):


Demonstrating Evolution With Robots?

I'm finding it hard to see how this is a demonstration of evolution:

Robots with fins, tails demonstrate evolution
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) — Robots wag their tail fins and bob along like bathtub toys in a pool at a Vassar College lab. Their actions are dictated by microprocessors housed in round plastic containers, the sort you'd store soup in.

It hardly looks like it, but the two swimming robots were set loose in the little pool to study evolution, acting out predator-prey encounters from roughly 540 million years ago.

The prey robot, dubbed Preyro, can simulate evolution.

This is not like robot evolution in the "Terminator" movie sense of machines turning on their human masters. Instead, Vassar biology and cognitive science professor John Long and his students can make changes to the tail of Preyro to see which designs help it avoid the predator robot.

"We're applying selection," Long explains, "just like natural selection."

It's selection all right, just not natural selection. These roboticists are tweaking their design towards meeting a predetermined fitness criteria. They're assuming what nature would select for without really knowing. If their robot swims faster, does that indicate their hypothesis is correct and that they know what nature's criteria was? No. Evolution is random mutations with unguided natural selection. This isn't the same thing. It's interesting nonetheless, but this work does not "demonstrate evolution".


The Horror of Woo

Troops claim 'supernatural powers' after pygmy sodomy
"Some soldiers from the 85th Brigade sodomised three male pygmies to gain supernatural powers and protection in Kisa village in Walikale territory,'' the Human Rights League of the Great Lakes said.

"The village chief was stripped and (sodomised) in the presence of his wife, his children and daughter in-law.

"The children in turn were stripped and raped in front of their father."
As bad as homeopaths, astrologers, psychics, 9/11 truthers, Jenny McArthy, and Sylvia Browne are, they're not this sick and inhuman. Third world woo sounds funny on the surface, but it often results in kidnappings, hacked-off limbs, and murder.

(h/t TYWKIWDBI, one of my new favorite blogs)


Judi Hoffman Blows The Kentucky Derby

The day before the Kentucky Derby, Judi Hoffman released her psychic picks for the race:
As many of you know, Judi accurately predicted 2008’s win, place, and show horses in the Kentucky Derby. She has decided to share her 2009 trifecta pick with all of her friends, she is playing 2 combinations, 7/12/19 and 5/14/18 lets see if she can make it 2 years in a row! One note though, she did mention that “Advice” the #4 horse could be a spoiler!
Predictions like that shouldn't be left on the web for too long. They might give the unwitting pause before subscribing to her "Inner Circle of the Enlightened". Why two different combinations with a bonus pick? Look at it this way...Judi picked 7 horses our of 19. That's 37% of the field. That means she had a 37% chance of one of them placing first or second or third. What are the odds of any 3 of the 7 placing in the top 3 positions? I calculate it as (7/19)*(6/18)*(5/17) = 3.6% (and I'd be happy if someone checks my math). The point is that she offered up 7 horses to win/place/show. Even though she was more specific, we know that psychics will take whatever they can get. That is, Judi could have claimed victory not only for a 7/12/19 combination, but also a 12/19/7 or 5/19/18 or 12/4/14...or any permutation of 4, 5, 7, 12, 14, 18 and 19. Even if she only got one right, that would been some victory, allowing her to claim that "the spirits weren't strong that day, but hey...I got one right!".

Unfortunately for Judi, none of her 7 horses placed in the top 3. The winning combination was, in fact, 8/16/2. Mine That Bird, #8, was a come-from-behind shocker, a 50-1 long shot. Judi would have been much better to only pick one horse, any horse, and have a 5% chance of being right. As it is, she didn't get anything right, which shows what a complete and utter failure she was as a psychic predicting this year's Kentucky Derby, especially when the psychic fields should have been veritably humming with the energy of this long shot.

Instead, Judi got 0% correct. Sign of the null set. Zip. Zilch. Nada. In other words, Judi wasn't very enlightening.

Despite all this, I do hope she gets better. Last I heard, she was dying from throat cancer and offering (for a price) to contact subscribers from the great beyond. Hopefully, would-be subscribers will take note that Judi's psychic powers ain't all that she makes them out to be, and that they won't be getting any phone calls from the grave. That's just silly. If she needs donations for medical bills, she should just ask rather than preying on those with ill-formed neuronal connections.


The Republican Conch

Watching the Republican party disintegrate reminds me of William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. You can easily imagine that the entire party crashed into the ocean on November 4, 2008, with survivors scrambling to the nearest deserted island. In fact, the signs of serious engine trouble can be traced at least back to 2006, if not before. Almost immediately, the survivors split into two camps - the rational speaking moderates and the hardcore, religious fundamentalist, right wing extremists. The balance of power shifted to those with the conch, specifically the Becks, Hannitys, and Limbaughs, whose values are bought and paid for by advertisers seeking wide audiences. These visceral leaders beat to a bloody pulp any who strayed from their group until they came back with whimpering apologies. Other, bolder moderates (e.g. Colin Powell and David Frum) have stood their ground, even when being pelted by the likes of Cheney and Rove. At the moment, it is difficult to see how the "new majority" will regain power when a full measure of their base continues to call for blood.

Let's listen in as one war-painted leader dances vulgarly around the fire:

CALLER: I just wanna say, Obama is a lot smarter than you folks give him credit for. You guys were on a roll, I have to admit, with all those tea parties. Everything was rolling along, the Republicans were gaining momentum. And he managed to change your entire conversational focus. And you let those three hundred thousand people —

HOST: My God. He’s so smart. His own party voted against him on Guantanamo Bay. How stupid was that, Cindy? His own party refused to fund the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

CALLER. Yeah but you know he can just move those people over here anyway. He’s already doing it with the one guy.

HOST: Yeah, sure, he can do whatever he wants. Let me ask you a question. Why do you hate this country?

CALLER: No, I love this country.


You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?

CALLER: Well, he seems to, he just moved (inaudible).

HOST: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?


HOST: Well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.

Check here for the host's identity. Also, David Frum offers his take on this at the New Majority site. Unfortunately, his is but a tiny conch.



Joomla! It's my new word for when self-righteous yet self-serving people get caught. Kent Hovind guilty of tax fraud? Joomla! Ted Haggard caught doing the naughty? Joomla! The Creation Museum blown away by a tornado? JOOMLA!

Well, that last hasn't happened yet, but give it time...

Here's the quick backstory on the origin of my new word. VenomFangX is a popular teen christian fundamentalist who has been evangelizing on YouTube for the past few years. He gained his share of supporters as well as detractors, particularly for being vehemently ignorant. Besides his stage name, he's also acquired the moniker "PCS" for "Poster-boy for Christian Stupidity". I first wrote about him back in October 2008, after he had gotten himself in a little legal hot water, which is bound to happen when the blissfully ignorant plays on the sharp rocks.

Apparently, he hasn't learned his lesson. Having developed quite a following, he used YouTube and his website to garner donations which he said he would donate to the Sick Children's Hospital after the first $500. Again, he was blissfully unaware that he was using these services and setting himself up as a financial middle man between two entities - his supporters and a hospital. That is, through an oral contract, he had apparently sold himself as a charity without legally establishing himself as a charity. Worse still, some accounts say he didn't even honor the contract, possibly keeping some if not all of the money for himself. The truth is still murky and may never be known. Suffice it to say that PayPal saw enough in this to suspend his account(s). So, to VenomFangX or PCS, here's a hearty JOOMLA! to you.

Oh yeah...if you visit his website within the next day or so, you will see this:

A much better synopsis can be found here:

VenomFangX/PCS/Shawn has all the markings of a great TV evangelist: greed and utter disregard for the teachings of Jesus.


The Skeptic

Zoe Saldana, who played Uhura in the reboot of Star Trek, has another movie this year: The Skeptic. The tag line for the film is "What do you believe?" - which gives you a sense of how dumb this movie will be. Hey geniuses, how about "What do you not believe?", or some evocative equivalent. If the movie was called "The Believer", then the tag line would work.

But it gets worse. Check out the plot summary:
After the mysterious death of his Aunt, a confirmed skeptic lawyer, Bryan Becket, dismisses reports that her house is haunted and moves in. Immediately occurrences begin he cannot explain. And beyond the occurrences there is something about the house which gnaws at Becket - some strange connection he senses he has with the house's past. Soon, the haunting turns personal, he hears voices suggesting clues to a deep mystery. He questions his sanity, seeks medical help, but instead finds assistance in a young psychic who immediately declares, "There's a very bad secret in this house." Together they embark on a terrifying journey to uncover the secret - a journey which leads them deep into the recesses of The Skeptic's own troubled mind.
The trailer (it is to laugh):

Groan. So, when will the movie be released? Turns out, it opened over two weeks ago, grossing a total of $6223, according to Box Office Mojo. Although Newsblaze gives it a not-unflattering-review, the critics at Rotten Tomatoes are less kind (and probably more accurate). The Skeptic has only shown on two theaters. My worry is they'll make some changes and re-release it. After all, it must have cost just a little more than $6223 to make the movie. Surely they want to recoup some of that money - unless it's such a dog that the distributors will charge more than it can potentially take in.


Jenny McCarthy Is...

(h/t Skepchick)

Challenging the Discovery Institute to Discover

How do we explain all the forms of life we see around us today? Compare the time when there was no life on earth with today, in which we see multitudes of species of which there are many still to be discovered. Put a black box between these two points in time. The black box has only one function - to get from there to here. To get from no life to life as we know it now. Creationists say the inner workings of the black box are rather simple: God created all life. Intelligent Design proponents say some intelligence "designed" all the life around us, including all that has come before and since gone extinct. Scientists who give us the Theory of Evolution say life evolved from an early self-replicating mechanism that evolved and branched out over millions of years.

The difference between these three views is that two of them leave the black box opaque, while the third is making it more transparent every day. Creationists and IDists have no way to support their particular views other than to attack evolution. The Discovery Institute has frequently linked evolution to eugenics (most recently regurgitated in a podcast here). If evolution was a person, this would amount to nothing more than an ad hominem attack. They have no real science to support them. But if they think they do, then let them answer this challenge:

History Awaits.

(links: Atheist Media Blog, Pharyngula, Thunderf00t, and C0nc0rdance)


So It Was A Crusade After All

This is really disturbing. During the days surrounding the invasion of Iraq, the daily Top Secret intelligence briefings provided by the Pentagon to the President were introduced with cover sheets that featured biblical verses. Displaying images of our military might (e.g. a lone tank in sunset, a group of soldiers huddled in prayer, dusty desert roads), former President Bush drew further inspiration of his righteous cause from quotes like:
Seek the Lord and His Strength; seek His face continually. - 1 Chron 16:11
Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses' hoofs seem like flint, their chariot wheels are like a whirlwind. Isaiah 5:28
GQ has the whole story on this, complete with images of the briefing cover sheets.
These cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. In the days before the Iraq war, Shaffer’s staff had created humorous covers in an attempt to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle. Then, as the body counting began, Shaffer, a Christian, deemed the biblical passages more suitable. Several others in the Pentagon disagreed. At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout—as one Pentagon staffer would later say—“would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.”
As I said, this is disturbing but not really surprising. The Bush administration reasons for going to war with Iraq are (and were) far less convincing than the backstory of selling an unnecessary war to the public. The only thing that has not been fully revealed is the true motivation for the war. We can speculate all we want, but without hard evidence, history instead will record that the intelligence agencies were buffoons and provided misleading information.

Think Progress and TPM introduced me to this story, headlining former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the putative culprit. For my money, the person who should have put an end to this was President Bush himself. But then, he never was one for maintaining that separation of church and state.


Fear of Flight

For some, the thought of taking their first flight is a little too much. I wonder what this poor fellow was thinking?



Star Trek Reboot

I saw the new Star Trek movie over the weekend and was surprised that it really worked well. I'm not a rabid Trekkie but I'm happy with this reboot to the franchise, if only for nostalgia's sake.

I only have one small nit: escape hatches in reactant feed tubes. That's just silly. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - there are NO escape hatches in reactant feed tubes! A risk analysis simply wouldn't have called for one and no engineer would design one. Other than that (and the rehashed plot), everything else was outstanding.

In the future, plan to see Zachary Quinto (Spock) fight typecasting, Chris Pine (Kirk) fight weight gain, and John Cho (Sulu) fight to stay in the closet.

Bill O'Reilly - Without Makeup

Ambush media captured Bill O'Reilly in the wild at the 2009 Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner - and it wasn't a pretty sight. I've always thought that, from his TV show, O'Reilly's makeup looked like it was put on with a putty knife. Very heavy handed with that caked on look to it. Now I know why.

(More photos at TPM)


Microsoft Dreams

We're the ones who are dreaming about a silicon utopia where computers are instant-on and starting apps don't result in spinning hourglasses and "program not responding" is an extinct phrase. Apparently Microsoft is dreaming as well. Here is their vision of the future:

Productivity Future Vision
Reality, of course, will be somewhat different. 404 Errors and File Not Found and the Blue Screen of Death will have their offspring represented in the future. After all, we are talking Microsoft, right?

Auto Fuel Efficiency - 70 Years and No Change

Ever get nostalgic about the good old days? The days when you dressed up to go on a plane flight...when movie theaters had curtains and ushers showed you to your seat? Bobby socks? Spats? Pants pulled up to the waist? Auto fuel efficiency??? Well, my friend, as you pine for days gone by, consider this: the car you're driving today might just be as fuel efficient as those in the era of The Great Gatsby.
Fuel efficiency of vehicles on the road: Little progress since the 1920s
A new study in the journal Energy Policy by Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni of the U-M Transportation Research Institute shows that overall fuel efficiency for vehicles in the United States was 14 miles per gallon in 1923 and 17.2 mpg in 2006.

The researchers documented and analyzed the annual changes in actual fuel efficiency of vehicles on U.S. roads from 1923 to 2006 by using information about distances driven and fuel consumed to calculate fuel efficiency of the overall fleet and of different classes of vehicles.

They found that overall fleet fuel efficiency actually decreased from 14 mpg in 1923 to a low of 11.9 mpg in 1973, but then rapidly increased to 16.9 mpg by 1991.

Little change in fuel efficiency and we lost the rumble seat? Some days I understand why we're bailing out the auto industry, some days I don't. Today I feel we should just let this dinosaur go extinct.