Archive for science and technology

So Simple it’s Hard to Imagine

For those who don’t play the guitar or banjo, a brief lesson on how such things work may be needed here. The beauty of what I am about to explain takes some background to understand.

A guitar, or a banjo, has strings that run from the saddle, at the body end of the instrument, down to the nut at the end of the neck.  Along the way there are frets, which are bars of metal inlaid into the neck.  Pressing a string down against these frets effectively shortens the string, thus creating a higher tone when the string vibrates.  The thing to notice here is that everybody who has ever played a guitar or a banjo has thought about raising the tone as something one does by pressing down on the string, to hold the string against the fret.

The strings are tuned relative to each other.  Which means that if you hold different strings down against different frets, you create different chords, notes that harmonize with each other.  A song usually has a number of chords that go together to make up the key that the song is played in.  Most of the time a key will have only three chords in it.  For example, the key of C has the chords C, F, and G7.

three types of banjo caposSometimes a guitar player, or a banjo player, is accustomed to playing a song in a certain key with certain chords.  But then he or she gets together with other musicians, or with a vocalist who needs to sing in a certain range, and maybe they want to play the song a bit higher or lower. Say they want to play the song in D instead of in C.  That means instead of C,F, and G7 you would need to play D, G, and A7, each chord one note higher than the chords in the key of C.  A good player will just play those chords.  But sometimes it gets all complicated, with special bass runs and other frills that are really hard to work in to the new chords.  It’s a lot easier to do this if the same chord “shapes” could be used and one could simply tune up all the strings by one note.  And this turns out to be easy to do.  You can use a “capo”, a kind of specialized clamp that holds down all the strings on a fret, thus raising them all by any number of notes desired.  Note that, again, the idea is that the strings are held down against the frets.  That’s how everybody thinks about raising a note.  By holding strings down against the fret.

Now we come to the problem with the five string banjo.  Such an instrument has four long strings and on shorter string that only goes part way up the neck.  So if you use a capo on such an instrument, the four long strings stay in tune with each other, but you need some way to raise the note on the fifth string.  A banjo player can do this by just tuning that string up to match the capoed strings.  That takes time and only works for a couple of notes before the string gets too much tension on it. So the fifth string needs a separate capo of its own.

I bought my banjo when Earl Scruggs died and I decided that the world needed to maintain the same number of banjo players.  I’m relatively new to playing the banjo.  The book I bought explained that one can buy a specialized fifth string capo, but that many banjo players use the tiny spikes used in building model railways.  These are embedded in the neck, and the string can be hooked under a spike head to hold it down on the fret.  Note again, hold it down on the fret.

Not liking the idea of having somebody drill holes in my banjo neck and put in little railway spikes, I investigated fifth string capos.  They also call for drilling and screwing into the banjo neck, so that a rail can be attached to the neck and a clamp can be swivelled down on just one string.  That’s when I found this little video showing how to make a fifth string capo out of a ball point pen cap.  What?

This blew my mind.  Not just because it is so simple and effective, and doesn’t require compromising the integrity of my banjo neck, but because this dude, or somebody, completely inverted the thinking required.  You don’t have to press down on a string to hold it against the fret.  You can raise the fret to press up against the string.  Genius.  So simple.  But duh, nobody thought of it in all the long history of banjo players playing banjos.  I didn’t think of it until I watched this video.

I told this method of capoing the fifth string to a banjo maker, Grant Wickland, on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, and suggested that a more elegant version of the capo could be machined out of brass.  He came up with this, the worlds first, as far as I know, brass fifth string capo inspired by the ballpoint pen cap.  I now have it hanging from a tuning peg on my banjo and I think Grant is adding one to each banjo he makes.

Fifth string capo for the banjo, machined out of brass.  A world's first.    Fifth string capo for the banjo, machined out of brass.  A world's first.

When I think about all those banjo players drilling holes into their banjo necks so they could glue in tiny railroad spikes, or screw on a rail on which a capo could slide, it really makes you wonder how it could take so long to discover this simple method.  Why isn’t this the standard way to capo the fifth string?

Considering this time lag between necessity and technological improvement helps me to understand why the hand axe was the only human tool for a million years.  Think about that.  A million years using the hand axe and nobody thought of putting a handle on it.  Something as obvious as putting a handle on that tool only seems obvious once somebody has thought of it and done it.  Until then, we all keep doing things just the way we’ve always done them.



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Sing Along with the Raging Grannies

I love the Raging Grannies.  Sing along with their “Legitimate Rape” song.

Here are the lyrics.

  • Author: Vicki Ryder
  • Tune: “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”

“Legitimate rape” is great birth control.
So says Todd Akin, and he oughta know.
If we are raped we can rest unafraid,
‘Cause we can’t get pregnant if forcibly laid.

Our female bodies are clever that way,
We only get pregnant when we say “okay.”
Doctors have told him, so it must be so,
The stork only comes if we don’t say “No!”

Rape won’t make babies and that is a fact;
There’s no global warming; the Earth’s really flat.
We heard it on FOX News so it must be true.
Well, Mr. Akin, we say “FUCK YOU!”

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Watch Your Language

Here’s a wonderful TED talk by Carl Schoonover, full of fascinating information about the how we see inside the brain, the history of cell staining, and different cutting edge research tools.  But it has a problem.  I tried to embed this, but WordPress won’t accept it for some reason.  So please just click on the link below.

This guy really knows what he’s talking about. He’s a scientist.  He knows the state of the art.  I’m fairly sure he isn’t a creationist.  I’m sure he isn’t arguing for Intelligent Design.  But he ends his talk, speaking of antibody staining and green fluorescent protein, with:  “These are functions that we could use in our own research tool pallet.  And instead of applying feeble human minds to designing these tools from scratch, there were these ready made tools right out there in nature developed and refined steadily for millions of years by the greatest engineer of all.”

No doubt he is speaking of evolution and nature as “the greatest engineer of all”.  But what a dangerous way to put it.  Personifying evolution and nature gives the I.D. people the impression that there was intelligence behind these developments.  These tools were not developed by “the greatest engineer of all”.  They came about as a result of evolution and natural biology.  Let’s not confuse the fundies any more than necessary.

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Monsters in our Military

I’ve watched that video clip of the American Apache helicopter murdering civilians, two of whom were a journalist and her driver, in Baghdad a couple of times recently.  Each time I watch it, it gets worse.  There is something that is is such a contrast between the disciplined request “Permission to engage?” and the callous disregard for human life displayed by what I presume to be a very young soldier.  No, calling him a soldier insults all soldiers.  Soldiers face the enemy, and risk getting killed.  This guy is just a technician.  He’s sitting back about a quarter of a mile away, with technology doing all his work for him.  All he has to do is push the button.  I’m not going to call him a soldier.  He’s like those drone operators in America, thousands of miles away from any danger, who kill people half way around the world.  Somehow America has found a way to filter out humanity and create killers with no conscience who can be trained to hold back until unleashed, but who actively itch to be unleashed and allowed to kill.

The language use is also instructive.  “Come on.  Light ’em all up.”  Not “Kill them in cold blood.” but something that sounds more like setting off a Fourth of July fireworks display.

“We’ve just engaged with all eight individuals.”  Is this kind of one sided slaughter really engagement?

And what is his comment when he learns that he’s murdered children?  “Serves them right for bringing kids to a battle.”  A battle?  This was a battle?  No, this was not a battle.  This was a cold blooded massacre.  Does this kid think he’s a glorious fighter for democracy?

So many questions flood my mind when I watch this clip: What kinds of filters does the military put on its training to get rid of people with any sense of humanity or compassion?  How do they test their recruits, and find the ones who have no heart, the real killers, the sociopaths?

I imagine this murderer, this heartless, compassion free, monster going back to America.  He finds a girlfriend.  He gets married.  He goes into business.  He’s a hero, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.  He gets respect.  He’ll probably be very successful.  How many people will recognize him as the monster that he is?

Since this clip has been released, and gone viral, will he be able to hide from his past, from what he’s revealed himself to be?  Will he laugh it off.  Will he strut and wear that T-shirt about loving to kill, loving to hear the wailing of the widows and children?   Will he turn to alcohol and drugs?  Or will he go to church every Sunday, and make sure the kids go too?

Well, who cares about him?   My question is, how do we protect society from rapacious killers when we have an institution that filters them out of the population, trains them, rewards them, and then sends them home to blend in among the good people we see all around us.

If anybody thinks we don’t need Wikileaks, they should watch that video clip a few times.  Then think about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we will never discover without organizations like Wikileaks shedding light on behavior that should sicken us all.

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Messing with the Internet Badly

Vic Williams, Republican, looks harmless but what is he thinking?So Arizona has a bill in the works to “protect people from one-on-one harassment”, according to Rep. Vic Williams, a Tucson Republican who helped sponsor the bill.  He sees this as a “bona fide” need.  And the solution to one-on-one harassment?  Make it illegal to “annoy” or “offend” anybody on line.   Sheesh.  There goes this site, and most of the other sites I enjoy, plus ninety five percent of the posts on Facebook.  This is obviously another example of control freaks looking for an issue to get their names in the news, while not having clue one about how the Internet works or what its values are.

I do see a problem with cyberbullying, stalking, and harassment.  But the answer is not to make laws against it.  The answer is to teach people how to deal with it.  Just about all of our communications systems allow us to block messages we don’t want to read.  Or we can just ignore the idiots who are harassing us, which is a fate worse than death for most of them.  If you are of a more reactive temperament, you can engage in flame wars and insults back at the bully.  On the Internet we can all be ten feet talk and talk like a drunken sailor on leave.  And if somebody is really being bothered, we need Internet savvy support people who can administer a cyber spanking to the perpetrator.  We don’t need a law making annoying somebody illegal.

For the past few months I’ve been harassed by an elderly troll.  He’s been sending out emails in all caps to everybody on his mailing list, calling me a coward and a liar.  I know they’ve gone to everybody on his mailing list because the idiot puts his entire list in the CC field instead of the BCC field.  I was really enjoying ignoring him, but finally somebody on his mailing list , some friend in his MLM downline, took him to task for being a jerk.  That seems to have stopped the harassment.  That’s the way you deal with cyber harassment.

I watched a TED talk the other night by Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, on the subject of controlling the Internet.  Falkvinge put the surveillance proposals in a different frame.  What would the previous generation, the generation before the Internet, have said if the government made it illegal to send a letter anonymously, gave itself the right to open each and every letter and copy the contents, and put a microphone on every restaurant table.  There would have been a huge outcry and protest.  But because the Internet is new, and the older generation doesn’t really understand that it is just a communications medium, they think equivalent controls on the Internet communications are just totally okay.  They aren’t.  We need the right to be anonymous.  We need the right to privacy.  We need the right to offend and annoy anybody.

Here’s another article that really sums up the battles over control of the Internet.  It’s long, but really worth reading.  I obviously favor anarchy and chaos when it comes to controlling the Internet.  But I do see the need for security.  Heavy security, so that hackers can’t access my bank account, steal my identity, or discover my real name and come to kill me.  Unfortunately it looks like the controls that various governments are pushing for are not going to protect me.  They are going to protect the governments, the establishment, and prevent me from being a part of a global community that is just now starting to take shape.

I often fear that we may someday look back on these past few years as the golden age of the Internet, before it froze us all out.  Of course if that happens, we’ll create dark nets and society will simply fracture.  And I guess that could be okay too.  But the fact is there is an old guard establishment that doesn’t understand the Internet and doesn’t use it very much, if at all.  The whiteout on the screen people.  But they do see that the Internet is changing the world, and this is making they very nervous.  We need to sooth them, educate them, and make sure they don’t do anything stupid that destroys what we love about this new world.

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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He was born February 12, 1809.  I couldn’t let this occasion pass without at least a mention and a happy birthday.

Charles Darwin delayed publication of his revolutionary theory for fear of the outrage it would cause.  Such a thoughful man.  If he'd only known.

I’ve been reading “Insectivorous Plants” recently, not because I’m that interested in insectivorous plants, though I am to some extent, but because I’m fascinated by Charles Darwin.  This book does not disappoint.  Once again, I’m amazed by how much he knew, over a  hundred and fifty years ago.  While there have been incredible advances in chemistry and biology since Darwin’s day, his writing still reads as if it were written by a contemporary.  Charles Darwin knew things.  He also was an amazing observer and describer of the things he saw.  I must thank Project Gutenberg for making his books available, instantly, in one place, for free.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether Charles Darwin would approve of this website, and my use of his family name as part of my pseudonym.  I suspect he wouldn’t.  I think I’m far too outspoken,  rude and confrontational for the Victorian gentleman.  Charles Darwin was concerned about other people’s feelings.  He did not want to upset the religious establishment, even though his theory of evolution by natural selection went against everything the church was teaching.  In fact, it became hard to remain a Christian once Darwin’s theories were completely understood.  How can there be Christianity without Adam and Eve, and original sin.  We can’t find either concept in our modern understanding of how we got here.  There was no first man and first woman.  If every woman could reach arms back in time to her mother, and her mother to her mother, back to the proto-humans,  back to small rodent like mammals with no recognizable arms to reach back with, there would never be a point where one could say this woman is human but her mother is not.  Evolution simply doesn’t work that way.

So if there was no Adam and Eve, no first human couple, there was no Garden, no snake, no original sin.  And that is the foundation of at least one branch, some claim the oldest branch,  of Christianity.  Original sin.  What a concept.  Without that we don’t need to feel guilty about simply being human.  Without that we don’t need Christ to take our sins upon himself, another fairly strange concept that goes back to the old idea of the scapegoat.   Without that, no Christianity.  No wonder the religious still are denying reality so furiously.

You see, Darwin is the start of our modern world.  That’s why he’s my hero.  And I hereby pledge to be a more compassionate and caring representative of his legacy to humanity.  I shall try to be more respectful of completely stupid ideas, just as he was.

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What does it mean to be Science Literate?

Scientific literacy means understanding how science works, not knowing the details.The Christian Science Monitor, that well respected paper with the oxymoronic name, has a quiz up to test your scientific literacy.  Needless to say there has been much discussion about whether the quiz is valid, and whether it actually measures science literacy.  I took the quiz.  I’m embarrassed by my score, which came in at 38 out of 50, or 76%, a bare passing mark.  But I also think this test doesn’t measure scientific literacy so much as it measures fact retention, science history knowledge, and stuff that is easy to find with a Google search so why bother remembering it.  I could see a Nobel Prize winning physicist getting a mark about equivalent to mine.  How much science trivia and arcana does one need to remember to be considered scientifically literate.

I think a much more valid measure of scientific literacy would be the degree to which one is willing to set aside empiricism in favour of woo, and one’s understanding of the scientific method.

Perhaps questions like:  If ten thousand people say that homeopathic medicine helped their headache, does this prove that it is effective?

Or:  If two scientists disagree on the interpretation of evidence for an aquatic phase in human evolution, does this mean that scientific understandings are just a matter of opinion.

Scientific literacy is about knowing how to ask questions, and how to evaluate the answers.Of course the best questions could not be multiple choice:  Flies taste through their feet, and have a reflex that lowers the proboscis when they taste sugar.  Design an experiment to determine the sensitivity of a fly’s sense of taste.

I’d welcome your questions that would indicate scientific literacy, beyond merely knowing the difference between meiosis and mitosis.   There are already some good suggestions in the comments at Skepchick, and I’m not trying to hijack that thread.  Take a look and then add your thoughts here if you have energy left over.

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It’s the Same Thing

P.Z. Myers posted recently on Pharyngula that Female Genital Mutilation has medical benefits, according to some wing nut Egyptian doctor, and an equally enlightened Egyptian female gynecologist.  The justifications are remarkably similar to what we’ve all heard for Infant Male Circumcision, and one poor sap decided to bring that to the attention of the thread.  Now, the thing I’ve learned is that when a thread is about FGM, a man better not step in and say ANYTHING about male circumcision, not even if it pertains to the post.  If he does, he’s going to be be slapped down with great gusto.

The comment:  danielrudolphsays:
10 January 2012 at 6:09 pm

The first part is startlingly close to the justification for male circumcision.

Which is 100% true and too obvious to be worth more than that one line.  But the reaction… wow.  Over the top or what?

The first reaction: Caine, Fleur du Malsays:
10 January 2012 at 6:17 pm

male circumcision
Well, that didn’t take long.

And then the shit storm: Caine, Fleur du Malsays:
10 January 2012 at 6:32 pm

male circumcision.

Aaaaaaaaaand in this corner, the 2nd idiot weighs in, with no visible reading comprehension and with a complete inability to discuss the topic at hand, because it deals with that most unimportant of subjects, womeeeeeeeen!
Can’t discuss women unless it is somehow tied into the ever more important subject matter of…men!

#################End of Comments from PZ thread##################

And then it all got worse.  I did not join in.  I have my own blog where I can state my opinions and few enough readers that I don’t generally have to argue with anybody.  So here’s the point I’d like to make:

FGM protest, a fairly new phenomenon and about time.I'm so glad there are people who care enough to protest.









Got that?  I’m against gender segregation.  It is wrong to talk about male circumcision without referencing FGM.  It’s just as wrong to talk about FGM and flame the poor guy who makes one short and to the point comment that references male circumcision.  IT’S THE SAME THING.  It’s about taking a knife to a helpless child for no good reason.  Can we get over the fact that some of those children are boys and some are girls?

Yes, I’ve read the Waris Dirie Story.  It blew my mind and infuriated me.  She’s one of my heroes for coming out as a spokesperson for this issue.  That took real courage.  And yes, FGM is often far worse than anything done to a male penis. Also yes, FGM is about controlling and dominating women whereas male circumcision is rooted in anti-sexuality in general plus the hysterical medical fad to combat masturbation.

But, and you knew there had to be a but here someplace, FGM is often not nearly as bad as male circumcision.  There’s as much ignorance about FGM as there is about Infant Male Circumcision.  People who have only been exposed to the Waris Dirie story assume it is always like that, and it isn’t.  The Waris Dirie experience is beyond horrible, and involves not just removal of the clitoris and labia but also restricting the vaginal entrance to a tiny hole, causing endless pain with menstruation and urination.  It is a brutal attempt to desexualize a woman completely and the male equivalent would be removal of the whole penis.  But for some Muslims cultures only the labia, all or part, is removed and that is virtually equivalent to male circumcision.  For many other Muslims it’s a ceremonial “nick” on the clitoral hood, a pinprick.  Some forms of that ceremony, known as Sunat,  leave the woman virtually unchanged as an adult.  Whatever the level of inflicted horror, most forms are perpetuated by women and accompanied by the same denial of loss we find with male circumcision victims.  Of course it’s still wrong and stupid and, most of all, illegal in America.

My point is that FGM is the same thing as male circumcision in that it’s a violation of the bodily integrity of an infant or a young person without consent.  It should be illegal in ALL forms, male or female.

Let’s cut the gender segregation here and stop flaming people who mention male circumcision on an FGM thread.  Once again:  IT’S THE SAME THING.


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But Don’t we Own Our Children?

What’s with the outrage over Kathleen Sebelius , secretary of Health and Human Services,  ignoring the scientists, sucking up to the Catholic church and the right to lifers, and overruling the recommendation by the  Food and Drug Administration to make Plan B, the “morning after pill”, available over the counter to anybody who might want and need it.  Why the outcry?  Isn’t this just the way our society works?  Don’t we own our own children?  Aren’t we allowed to chop bits off them for whatever twisted reason we may decide is a good one?  Uh…. Oh, no. That’s only if they are baby boys.  But… but if they are sneaking around having sex behind our backs can’t we make sure it gets them “in trouble”.  Isn’t that what they deserve.  We’re talking about our potential grand kids here.

Okay, I’m going to drop the sarcasm now and just admit to being totally baffled by this.  If the argument that having these pills available over the counter, without a prescription, would be sending a message that sex is permissible, isn’t this locking the barn after the horse has galloped away?  If a girl wants these pills, don’t you think it’s a bit late to suggest that she might listen to any message from a parent.  Wake up, folks.  She’s having sex.  Do you want her to get pregnant or not?

Don't you just hate it when the government gets you knocked up?
I feel fortunate that I’m no longer in a demographic that is directly affected by this kind of government interference with our freedom of choice.  But it is rather amazing that the Republicans and the Teabaggers will scream about government interference when it comes to taking away their assault rifles or regulating their predatory business practices, yet these same people applaud when the government steps in and takes away their daughter’s choice to avoid being pregnant. I guess government interference is only a bad thing when they interfere with you, not with anybody else.   It truly is a baffling and ironic world.

I always wonder how much the doctor lobby influences this kind of decision.  They are the ones who make the money by signing a prescription.  But the article does say that “The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have endorsed over-the-counter access to emergency contraception. “, so I guess my naturally suspicious mind is off base on this one.

The only influence I can see here is the religious faction, sticking their nose in everybody’s business as usual.   When will America tell them to piss off?  If a girl is old enough to get pregnant, she’s old enough to make up her own mind about contraception.  She isn’t sick.  She doesn’t need a doctor.  And if she didn’t have her parents’ permission to lie down with her lover, she doesn’t need their permission to protect herself.

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Curiosity off to Mars

Every once in a while I like to get my mind off religious idiots and terrestrial oppression.  It’s nice to take a break from bullshit and think about important mind blowing stuff.  NASA has just launched Curiosity.  “The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.”

Curiosity, the Mars rover.  This thing is big.  A lot to land on another planet.This is what Curiosity will be doing on Mars in August of 2012.  Incredible.

Okay, think about that for a minute.  Mars is a long way away.  It’s moving.  So are we.  And there are some human beings with the mathematical acumen to softly touch down on that planet more than nine months from now.  Unmanned.  No pilot guiding the landing.  Everything pre-planned and controlled right from planet earth.  If that doesn’t give you respect for science and technology, you’re in the wrong species.

I’m humbled by this achievement.  Normally I think of myself as a fairly smart person, but this goes beyond anything I could even imagine.  It really is rocket science.

So in August, if things go as planned, we will have a remote controlled car rolling around on Mars, drilling into the soil and analyzing samples.  I remember when Sputnik got the attention of the media, and shook America out of its science complacency.  To think that just a little over half a century has passed and we have our toys on Mars… the mind boggles.  I think I shall rejoice.  This is the best time to be alive in the history of humanity, and we’re here to witness it.

I have my fingers crossed.  Can’t wait to see the results.

Hey, a “sky crane” touch down?  What does that look like?  Something like this:  Curiosity will have a "sky crane touchdown"  Wow.


Just wow.  We’re living in science fiction.

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