27 March 2009

Today Show on MSNBC screws up Equinox

As usual a news show tries to trump up how the Equinox is the only time you can balance an egg on end. This is entirely untrue, debunked by Phil Plait here and here. But that's not the fun part of the below video.

25 March 2009

Appeal to Authority

Logical fallacies are viewpoints brought up during arguments which appear logical on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper are in fact mostly unfounded. One common fallacy is the appeal to authority, where you assume that just because someone is an "authority," that they have to be right. For example, "Pope Urban VIII said that Galileo's views were wrong, so since I trust the Pope I'm going to agree with the Pope and say that the universe is actually geocentric." Sometimes the flaw is that the "authority" isn't actually authoritative in the topic in question - the Pope isn't an astronomer, the President of the US isn't a meteorologist, etc. But even if the "authority" is actually an authority, that doesn't make him/her automatically correct. Even authorities make mistakes - look at Tycho Brahe for example. This is also the entire point of peer reviewed journals, to give the authorities the chance to duke it out.

So that said, when the NY Times Magazine devotes a 28-screen-long article to singing Freeman Dyson's laurels as a motivation for us to listen to his arguments about CO_2 levels, I find myself quite disappointed. Dyson is an authority on quantum physics and sci-fi concepts (such as the Dyson sphere, which led to Larry Niven's Ringworld concept/series); he is NOT an authority on environmental science. I don't care how many people think he's a genius, he isn't a genius in this field. And even if he were, even authorities can make mistakes. It is NOT appropriate for the NY Times to promote an individual's ideas based solely upon that individual's reputation. If the article were billing itself as a biography of Dyson's life, it could be an excellent one, but the article is trying to give us a view of Dyson's ideas and as such it is a remarkably poor one.

I guess in the end by expecting the NY Times to live up to its reputation, I too am guilty of putting too much faith in authority.

22 March 2009

Belt of Venus

On an evening flight from Minnesota to Connecticut Friday evening, I finally saw the Belt of Venus for the first time. I didn't have my camera handy and photos through windows never come out well anyway, so here's a photo from a Google search:

The Belt of Venus is actually the Earth's own shadow cast in the sky. As you probably already know, the bright blue of the daytime sky is due to light from the Sun being scattered by dust in the atmosphere. When you take away that light from the Sun, what you're left with is a dark sky. The Belt of Venus appears on the Eastern horizon just after the Sun is sets in the West because the sunlight doesn't reach the Eastern horizon at that time. This is also why I suspect I haven't ever seen it previously - too high a horizon all around me where I live.

17 March 2009

Texas BOE to vote on Science Standards again

Once again Texas has reviewed and revised its state science standards, and once again they're trying to put in creationism. In this instance it's particularly bad because textbooks for the largest state in the US will be selected based upon these standards. If this bothers you, especially if you live in Texas yourself, here's some info on who to contact to complain and bring some sanity back into the process.

13 March 2009

Do we know basic science?

Unfortunately the answer is No. It's predictable that 31% of US adults surveyed said that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time - thank you religious right! What's less comprehensible is that 47% didn't know the amount of time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun. IT'S A YEAR - THAT'S WHY WE HAVE THE YEAR IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Despite this complete ignorance, around 80% said that basic scientific research and education are important. Just not important enough for them to know any of it.

12 March 2009

"The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act"

The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act is supposedly intended to protect the intellectual property of scientists and their funding sources. Right now the NIH requires that all research funded by them be made available to the public for free after a certain proprietary period (in addition to their usual publication in peer-reviewed journals). Passing the bill would allow the NIH (and other federal groups such as the NSF, etc.) to remove this requirement from federally funded researchers, so that the researchers could choose to (or additional private funding sources could require them to) only publish their work in expensive peer-reviewed journals.

There is some debate about whether this is really as bad as it sounds. On the one hand, it sounds like the Act would allow the stifling of scientific communications and would mean that the American public would have to pay twice to see the work that their taxes paid for. On the other hand, it's my understanding that all federally funded research is required to be public domain and it's not clear that this Act would counteract that, or that the NIH and other federal groups would choose to do what the Act would allow. In addition, it might allow researchers to use multiple funding sources for a project which they may be unable to do right now - pharmaceutical companies may require NDAs for their work which the NIH regulations currently rule out since the researchers have to publish publicly.

Some links for more reading
The Act itself, Library of Congress
Phil Plait/Bad Astronomer's first post
His second post
A lawyer's opinion
Financial Times article

08 March 2009

Video hosting services?

Google Video is going to cease hosting new videos, so I need a new service to compress and host videos for my classes. Unfortunately Wikipedia's comparison charts of video services doesn't list all the things I want to know about. Here's what I'm looking for; the first few are required characteristics, "preferred" are additional characteristics I really want, and "optional" are bonuses.

  1. Unlimited file size (or at least 500MB), unlimited time (or at least 90 min)

  2. Cross-platform compatible

  3. No additional software required for viewing (things like Java, Flash are ok since most computers have them already)

  4. Compresses videos as well as sharing them, so they're faster for students to download on slow internet connections

  5. No bandwidth cap, or 1.5GB/week / 8GB/month minimum.

  6. Free to me and viewers

  7. No account required for viewing (preferred)

  8. I can choose not to display my name/account with videos I post (so I can use the same account for personal use) (preferred)

  9. I can choose to not allow students to find other videos that I posted (ditto the purpose) (preferred)

  10. I can choose to unlist videos I post, so no one but my students with a direct link are likely to find them (for intellectual property reasons) (preferred)

  11. Download of video available (preferred)

  12. Organization of videos into "folders" so I can post a link to the folder and the student can access all videos for that class in one place, and not the videos for other classes (optional)

  13. Tool to upload multiple videos simultaneously (optional)

  14. Upload tool allows me to resume paused or interrupted uploads (optional)

Anything else I should be looking for? Who do you like that has these? Google Video had 1-9. YouTube already fails at #1. I started looking at Vimeo and RapidShare, but don't know much about them. Edit: RapidShare seems a bit sketchy, Vimeo has weekly bandwidth limits below what I need.