Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dear The Internet: Today I made the cutest blasphemy EVAR*!

Better late than never, right? OK, so Steve Bowen informed me on Thursday that Thursday was "Everybody Draw Muhammad" Day, which would have been cool if I weren't working fourteen hours that day. BUT! It reminded me that I had made a previous commitment, in a proud tradition of blasphemy, to blaspheme some more. Without further ado:
Click for huge. Oh, and also for ALL FOUR PANELS. It didn't take long because I'm un-skilled, it took long because I forgot. (My lack of skill is irrelevant to the delay.) Anyway. I think I hit the big five: pigs, dogs, the Kaaba, and liquor, all while drawing the prophet Muhammad and me spending some quality time together. Rock most hard.

If you're interested in the individual panels: 1, 2, 3, 4. Enjoy!

EDIT: Photobucket does not want to give me the full-size version of the four-panel thing in all of its irreverent glory, for some reason. If anyone knows of an image hosting service that's man enough to put up a 1044x3122 image on the free, let me know - otherwise I can be e-mailed for full-size versions, if anyone wants 'em.

* - With the possible exception of Moo-ham-ed, I must admit.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Wrongest of Wrongnesses in the History of Wrongitude

Editor's Note: Do I count as my own editor? I mean, I edit my own stuff, but... nevermind. Look. My last post was a little vapid, pontificating as I was on an overnight webcomic kerfuffle that ended up being wiped off the face of the internet anyhow. I feel kinda bad about it. So I'm breaking my "weekends-only" rule to say something of a little more substance. This is also the third post in recent memory where I have used the word "kerfuffle" for lack of a better term. Should I consult a doctor? Or just a thesaurus?

I recently read on Pharyngula about a paper by Doug Theobald (subscription to Nature required) calculating the likelihood that the proteins shared by all organisms on the face of the planet came to be shared by a concatenation of events besides common descent. In other words, regardless of the likelihood that life came to be in this or that particular way (which Creatards frequently yammer on about, assuming evolutionary teleology and all sorts of other bullshit), what are the odds that life came to be, as it in fact did, by other means than common descent?

PZ's summary and the news coverage make for fascinating reading - really, you should check it out - but I'm going to jump right to the number at the end and play around with it. That number is 1:102,680 against. So, sure, the common proteins shared by all modern organisms could have come about by some other means than common descent, but the odds are real fuckin' long against it. How long? So long. Like, it's hard to think of a way to be wronger, mathematically speaking - these guys are wronger than anyone has ever been wrong in the history of wrongitude (sounds like "longitude").

I have a phrase I use to describe "as sure as I get," and that is, "As sure as I am that the Sun's coming up tomorrow." This is meant to convey pretty fuckin' sure but not quite 100% certain (because I'm not 100% certain of anything, other than the fact that I am now having some kind of experience, and that I've always got room for doubt). Sure, something could happen so that the Sun doesn't rise tomorrow, but the data so far suggest extremely otherwise. Just how much otherwise? Well, let's take every day in Earth's 4.54-billion-year history as a data point.*
4,540,000,000 x 365.25 = 1,658,235,000,000
(1.66 trillion, or 1.66 x 1012)
Hmm... that leaves us a shit-pot of orders of magnitude to make up. But yeah, it's settled: we're surer of common descent than we are that the Sun will rise tomorrow!

"But wait," comes the Creatard rebuttal, "You can't just count the days up like that, you have to take into account how many of us there are! After all, a large enough number of rabid IDiots can't be wrong!" Well, OK. It doesn't work that way, but we'll humor you. Let's just say that all 6.8-billion of us are Christians, and we have been since the Earth was formed. Not only is this over-generous to the literalists in giving them the actual age of the Earth rather than their Reader's Digest Condensed Books version, giving them all of the current population throughout all of Earth's history, and giving a decidedly democratic bent to our epistemology, it doesn't even come close.
(1.66 x 1012) x (6.8 x 109) = 1.13 x 1022
"But... but... twenty-two isn't nearly close enough to two-thousand-six-hundred-eighty," replies the anti-science crusader. "And I believe that your numbers are wrong with every fiber of my being." You know what? That's still not good enough. I'll give you a data point for every nucleotide base pair inside of every single cell of every person now living on the planet for every day throughout all of Earth's history - and you know what that nets us? Take a look:
(3.1647 x 109 base pairs) x (1 x 1014 cells) x (1.13 x 1022) = 3.58 x 1045
Fuck! That's still not enough! OK, but what if every atom in the observable universe, itself a number beyond ordinary human comprehension, spawned a Universe with a special Earth with seven billion humans believing in Creation with every fiber of their being? Yeah, what then?! This is what:
(1.5 x 1082 atoms in the observable Universe) x (3.58 x 1045) = 5.37 x 10127
Just to recap, we've given a data point in favor of the Sun rising tomorrow for each of 3-billion-odd nucleotide base pairs inside of all hundred trillion cells in the bodies of six to seven billion people observing a sunrise for every single day (including leap years!) across Earth's four-and-a-half billion year history, repeated for every atom in the observable Universe. And given all of that, we're still surer that all life is related by common descent than we are that the Sun will rise tomorrow.

Suck on those numbers! Tomorrow's a dark day for creationism, epistemologically speaking. Yeah, I'd say the future prospects for monotheistic creation myths are looking pretty dim. We should just turn the light out on intelligent design, and leave the real science to light our path into the future.

OK, I'm done now, for real. Man, playing around with degrees of certainty is fun!

* - Yes, OK, to calculate the actual odds of the Sun not coming up tomorrow, I would have to calculate the odds of something happening which would prevent the Sun coming up. Fine. Not the point, and that's why this entry gets the "humor" tag. I'm just going to treat it as a chance event and assume the Sun doesn't rise tomorrow, making it 1 failure out of 1.6 trillion successes. I need to keep this back-of-the-envelope compatible, after all.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rambling Towards Consensus

I wish there were some way for me to get paid for taking aimless, random wiki walks. Seriously.

OK, so there's this fancypants principle called the observer effect, which basically says that the act of checking things out will change them - observation has effects, in other words. It's hard for us to think about this if we haven't already been taught, visually-oriented as we are; our eyes passively receive photons, which trivially diminishes ambient light, but otherwise doesn't change much (Wikipedia's example of a tire pressure gauge is quite helpful, though). But when we're talking about a subatomic particle, we can't just wait for the relevant information to waft off of it from the background noise already present in the environment, we have to bounce an intelligible signal off of the object of our curiosity and that signal has an effect - bats would probably understand this better, or they would, if their prey responded to sonar. OK, last try: submarine captains understand. Fuckin' cripes.

Perhaps a better example, one I could relate to my pre-teen siblings, is the reason that an ice cube feels colder than ice water. Physically, they've got the same temperature and the same chemical composition, but why does one feel colder than the other? Well, because phase changes involve the transfer of energy: taking H2O molecules apart from an integrated crystalline structure into a free-flowing pile is a process that requires work, and your body heat rushes to the task in the same way that a kid with a wrecking ball would jump at the opportunity to reduce a building to a pile of bricks. Since it takes more heat from you, it feels colder, even though it's not.

Now, before you jump down my throat, let me reassure you that I know the observer effect and the perception of temperature aren't even the same sport, let alone in the same ballpark. What I'm getting at is not this or that physical phenomenon, but rather the philosophical point that they both touch on: we are active participants in reality, and not passive outside observers of it. Thus, all that we do shall in some way be inherently tinted by bias, since you cannot view at all without having a point of view. This goes double for culture, including discussons concerning any aspect or element thereof. I am continuously amazed at the extent to which people - myself included - are able to avoid taking this fact into proper account.

That was my point, and here is my case: on Wednesday, an internet mans with a great many fans did proceed to poke fun at Wikipedia by sharing his idea for an imaginary entry on malamanteau. Well, some yahoo then went and created the actual page for it, which is funny but doesn't quite fit Wikipedia's policies for a wide variety of reasons which others have capably pointed out. (TL;DR version: Randall Munroe made a joke, and Wikipedia is not a compendium of webcomic jokes; if fans started using the word "malamanteau" in their speech, the comic would get a bullet under the inspired activities section; the media attention this kerfuffle has already generated would probably justify an "in the media" section, but that hasn't been done yet; if the term enters common parlance, then the origin and etymology and early controversy and everything could go on its own page. Gawd.)

These policies (and others like them) are at the same time both the source of my respect for Wikipedia as a project, and the reason that I'll probably never be an active contributor. I gave them a once-over and then edited the phrasing of the Two Envelopes problem, but while double-checking my work I fell into a rules rabbit hole from which I was only able to escape by saying, "Balls to this!"

Anyway, Randall Munroe is a Wikipedian himself, and he jumped into the discussion Thursday morning, saying, "Hey, this is cute but totally unnecessary. How about we all chill out?" (I'm paraphrasing.) He closed by saying, and I'm quoting now, "Also, just so you know, nobody used the word 'disambiguation' until you people showed up. <3">disambiguation was used long before Wikipedia, as a cursory search of Google Books before opening your mouth would have revealed." Munroe responded to this in the best possible way by saying, "Moreover, I took some measurements, and my mom barely sits halfway around the house! I'm starting to suspect you're not an entirely reliable source on these matters!" This, of course, caused the other party to get butt-hurt because someone more popular was not taking him/her seriously.

What this discussion has revealed is that Wikipedia does in fact have words that it likes a whole lot, but not the ones Munroe pointed out in his joke. No, these favorite words are things like notability, neutral point of view, and Wikipedia is not a dictionary. What I find hilarious about all this, however, is that the discussion about how this ought to be treated has become something of an issue unto itself: by trying to clamp down and say how not-notable the whole thing is, the ensuing argument has in the process become something notable. Looking at things jacks up pageviews; talking about things changes the state of the discussion; even looking for things will affect Google trends. Using the internet invariably amounts to participating in it, and trying to control it is often an exercise in futility.

Of course, now that I go to check the state of the discussion on Sunday night, I find that everything's been resolved (and all the links I had to points in the discussion are now broken, thanks). Now searching for the word will redirect you to something generic about xkcd without explaining anything about all the discussion that ensued, a fine compromise in that nothing has been accomplished but at least everyone has shut up. Jeez, you'd think all these people were married or something.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

101 Interesting Things, part forty-two: Musical Roads

So you know how when you're driving along the highway doing a hundred and ten miles an hour at two in the morning on maybe ninety minutes of sleep after drinking all weekend, and you nod off for a second and you're probably going to run off the road, but then you hear this obnoxious BZZRRRT sound as you cross into the shoulder? You can relate to that, right? No?

Well, OK, you'll just have to trust me that that's how it works. They're called "rumble strips," and some guy figured out that closer grooves in the pavement produce higher pitches and farther grooves produce lower pitches. Pick your speed, and you can make music:
It's called a musical road, and they've got 'em in Denmark, Japan, South Korea, and the USA. Here's another:
So yeah. There's not a whole lot to this, except that roads can be used as musical instruments. Which is awesome, don't get me wrong - I'm just saying, once you've explained the principle, there's not really a whole lot more you can say about it. I could get into the human angle, but I'm more fond of robots. So here's a robot playing a violin, which I think is also way cool:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Free Trip to Heaven! Details Inside.

I saw the above on a church sign on my way to work the other day. In this town, you can't throw a rock without busting a church window - or at least I can't. There are churches every three to five blocks along the main thoroughfares, and every single one of them has a sign proclaiming this or that trite religious message. But occasionally there's something that brightens my day, such as this imaginary conversation fuel.

Of course, my first thought on seeing this was that I needed to go in and ask someone about this "free trip," acting like I was negotiating a business deal and completely ignoring the religion aspect. In the first place, what exactly is meant by "free"? I hear that you need to promise your soul to the right magical man in the sky, and souls are hot commodities! But if I could get into Heaven on the free, then I don't need to worry about my soul - I can keep it available for all kinds of other shady deals later on down the line, and still get through the pearly gates at the end of it all.

But even if this is one of those cases where "free" doesn't mean "no cost," but rather means "no monetary cost," then I've still got questions. Like, what about that whole "ten percent of your income for life" thing? That's, like, the complete opposite of any definition of "free" I've ever heard! But if I can get into Heaven and still keep all my money, then I suppose a soul or two isn't such a high price to pay after all.

Then again, all this haggling makes me a little suspicious of the whole operation. After all, there are all kinds of "free" deals where the thing you get is a piece of shit, more of a Lucky Strike Extra than something you actually want. Lots of people seem to be under the impression that Heaven is the Best Thing Ever, which sounds good at first; but when you read the fine print, it turns out that Heaven is actually more like Church Forever, which sounds about as boring as Hell to me. Even if that's not true, there are a million ways that Heaven might disappoint me, and only a relatively small number of ways that it might make me happy. For instance, say I enjoy illegal drugs and sex with multiple partners* - what does Heaven have to offer me in this department? Not a whole lot, it would seem.

This leads rather naturally to my last question: what kind of satisfaction guarantee do I get with this deal? I may not like Heaven, after all, so I'd like to keep my options open and know what else is available, or at least recoup some portion of my investment. I'd expect that the preacher (or whoever would listen to me this far) would tell me that the Bible is the guarantee, to which I would counter that the Bible is the offer - and offers aren't their own guarantees. What I'm after is something I'm promised in case the deal goes sour. What do I get if the offer falls through? This is where things ultimately get too shifty, even for me. I mean, I can't talk face-to-face with anybody else who has used this product, I can't try before I buy, there's no "double your money back" offer (or anything even remotely close) - in fact, I've got nothing whatsoever to suggest that this offer is even legit in the first place!

Maybe I'm in the wrong business. You know what? This gives me an idea for a business proposal of my own. How about you send me your money and prayers, and then I'll work with Satan to get roller coasters and water slides in Hell. The fastest-growing religion says God isn't too fond of bikinis, so I doubt that Heaven is likely to clear my building permits. But I'll bet that if I can bring in enough converts, Old Nick could be persuaded to let everyone party down. I've got the offer details somewhere around all these rolling papers, spoons, and hundred dollar bills... give me a minute...

* - Saying this to a preacher with a straight face would, by the way, be at once the most difficult and most rewarding part of the whole process, assuming I even got that far.