Yeah, There's a Blog for That

Sleep Talkin’ Man

The “definitely not G-rated” sleep talking ramblings of a guy named Adam, as recorded by his wife.

Jan 19 2010
“My badger’s gonna unleash hell on your ass. Badgertastic!”

“No, not the cats. Don’t trust them. Their eyes. Their eyes. They know too much.”

“Just look at yourself. Yeah, now look at me. You don’t stand a chance. It must suck to be you, I’m sure.”

Unscrambling an Egg

What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory

Sean Carroll is interviewed by Wired, on the subject of the arrow of time. He should write a book or something.

[W]hy was the entropy ever low to begin with? Why were the papers neatly stacked in the universe? Basically, our observable universe begins around 13.7 billion years ago in a state of exquisite order, exquisitely low entropy. It’s like the universe is a wind-up toy that has been sort of puttering along for the last 13.7 billion years and will eventually wind down to nothing. But why was it ever wound up in the first place? Why was it in such a weird low entropy unusual state?

That is what I’m trying to tackle. I’m trying to understand cosmology, why the big bang had the properties it did. And it’s interesting to think that connects directly to our kitchens and how we can make eggs, how we can remember one direction of time, why causes precede effects, why we are born young and grow older. It’s all because of entropy increasing. It’s all because of conditions of the Big Bang.

What Are the Odds?

DNA’s Dirty Little Secret

In Puckett’s case, where there were only five and a half markers available, the San Francisco crime lab put the figure at one in 1.1 million—still remote enough to erase any reasonable doubt of his guilt. The problem is that, according to most scientists, this statistic is only relevant when DNA material is used to link a crime directly to a suspect identified through eyewitness testimony or other evidence. In cases where a suspect is found by searching through large databases, the chances of accidentally hitting on the wrong person are orders of magnitude higher.

The reasons for this aren’t difficult to grasp: consider what happens when you take a DNA profile that has a rarity of one in a million and run it through a database that contains a million people; chances are you’ll get a coincidental match. Given this fact, the two leading scientific bodies that have studied the issue—the National Research Council and the FBI’s DNA advisory board—have recommended that law enforcement and prosecutors calculate the probability of a coincidental match differently in cold-hit cases. In particular, they recommend multiplying the FBI’s rarity statistic by the number of profiles in the database, to arrive at a figure known as the Database Match Probability. When this formula is applied to Puckett’s case (where a profile with a rarity of one in 1.1 million was run through a database of 338,000 offenders) the chances of a coincidental match climb to one in three.

It’s scary that a judge didn’t find these statistics relevant, and scarier still that the FBI is denying database access to scientists who might confirm that their statistics are right or wrong.

I wonder, though, if the defense asked if the police had tracked down the other ~300 suspects who would have fit the DNA profile in the US, and if that would have raised reasonable doubt?

FOOF is not for the Faint of Heart

Things I Won’t Work With: Dioxygen Difluoride

aka FOOF

Sulfur compounds defeated him, because the thermodynamics were just too titanic. Hydrogen sulfide, for example, reacts with four molecules of FOOF to give sulfur hexafluoride, 2 molecules of HF and four oxygens. . .and 433 kcal, which is the kind of every-man-for-himself exotherm that you want to avoid at all cost. The sulfur chemistry of FOOF remains unexplored, so if you feel like whipping up a batch of Satan’s kimchi, go right ahead.

George Will is a Boulder

Global warming advocates ignore the boulders

He’s certainly not a scientist, nor, seemingly, is he scientifically literate.

In his latest steaming pile of op-ed on global warming, Mr. Will attempts to call into question the “settled science” of global warming by discussing virtually no science at all. Seriously — a bunch of politicians not being able to agree on a course of action does nothing to question the science. And likewise for businesses making a business decision. But it is the claim that there has been no recent warming that is what really bugs me. George almost gets it right earlier in the op-ed, when he says there has been no statistically significant warming in the last 15 years, but here he (and many others) sin by omission. If one follows the link back to the BBC interview with Phil Jones, one gets a better picture

Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

In other words, if one has a sufficiently noisy data set, it is always going to be possible to pick a subset of the data where the noise masks any statistically significant trend. It doesn’t mean the trend isn’t there, or that the best fit is a zero slope. When Jones says “Yes, but only just” he’s telling us that one can just draw a flat line through the data, but this means that one could also draw a line with a slope of 0.24C per decade through the data, and it would have the same importance — you can’t exclude warming at that rate, either.

Imagine this question being asked instead:

Do you agree that from 1995 to the present it’s possible there has been global warming at a rate as high as 0.24C/decade?

The answer would have to be essentially identical, i.e. it would have to be yes. You can only statistically exclude warming at a higher rate than that!

What one certainly can’t do (that is, with any intellectual honesty) is conclude that this is an absence of warming. Statistically speaking, if the best fit to the data were a line with no slope, one could rule out neither an increase nor a decrease — one could only quote a limit on those trends. That’s one of the things about science — we try and quantify our results, rather than bandy about generalities. You might force a sound-bite answer out of a scientist (or worse, get there by ripping a quote out of context), but the instinct is to properly qualify the result.

So what if you don’t want both of the above scenarios to fit Dr. Jones’ answer? If you want a statistically significant answer you have to do as he suggests and look at a longer set of data in order to beat the noise down (random noise will average out with the square root of the number of data points). Anyone who does experimental science knows this, and is one of those things that a scientifically literate person should know. So the choice of a short data set is a form of cherry-picking — selecting a data set in such a way as to present a misleading result. If one looks at a longer data set, a statistically significant trend does emerge, and it is one of warming.

George, you’re not a scientist. I had some respect for you in the days I used to read your opinion pieces, because you could and did make cogent arguments, even if I did not agree with you. But science is based on facts, not opinions, and when you have to misrepresent those facts to make your point, your conclusions aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed.

Update: there’s more

Land of Confusion

Don’t confuse them with facts

At this point, Judi forwarded me their correspondence, along with a despairing note. She is probably somewhere drinking right now.

You see, like me, she can remember a time when facts settled arguments. This is back before everything became a partisan shouting match, back before it was permissible to ignore or deride as “biased” anything that didn’t support your worldview.

If you and I had an argument and I produced facts from an authoritative source to back me up, you couldn’t just blow that off. You might try to undermine my facts, might counter with facts of your own, but you couldn’t just pretend my facts had no weight or meaning.

But that’s the intellectual state of the union these days, as evidenced by all the people who still don’t believe the president was born in Hawaii or that the planet is warming. And by Mr. Thompson, who doesn’t believe Henry Johnson did what he did.

Here Comes the Bribe

Paying Zero for Public Services

[T]he idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance. Anand took this idea further: to print them en masse, widely publicize them, and give them out to the Indian people. He thought these notes would be a way to get people to show their disapproval of public service delivery dependent on bribes.

It’s somewhat difficult for me to appreciate how corruption of this type this can go on; it seems like there has got to be a critical mass of bribery for it to become socially “accepted,” and it’s just not in place in this form in the US (our corruption takes place at higher levels of government). And we have a population that isn’t generally shy about protesting or otherwise calling attention to injustices of this caliber — that’s our mindset. But I wonder how much more difficult it is for true democracy to take hold where such corruption is widespread, and the people don’t have this will to speak out.