Archive for December, 2009

Lynch and Granger: What Happened to the Boskops?

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Via Slashdot, here’s a really interesting (to me, at least) article in Discover: What Happened to the Hominids Who Were Smarter Than Us? It’s excerpted from Gary Lynch and Richard Granger’s book, Big brain: the origins and future of human intelligence.

It’s a good reminder that our self-serving notions of progress, while providing a comforting myth, are not necessarily always supported by the fossil record.

Pfeiffer to Cheney: Srsly?

Thursday, December 31st, 2009


From White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer: The Same Old Washington Blame Game.

To put it simply: this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President.


Schneier on Security Theater

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

I don’t want to excerpt it, because the whole thing is too awesome. From Bruce Schneier: Is aviation security mostly for show?

Someone is WRONG on the Internet

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

I think I’d seen this xkcd before, but I’d forgotten it until I saw it this morning in a post at

Seems apropos, given my recent kabuki with shcb about global warming denialism in the comments.

Bush Derangement Syndrome

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Here’s Mary Matalin on CNN recently, courtesy of Think Progress:

“I was there [in the Bush White House]. We inherited a recession from President Clinton and we inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation’s history. And President Bush dealt with it. And within a year of his presidency at this comparable time, unemployment was at 5 percent. And we were creating jobs.”

Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly is a bit one-sided for my taste much of the time, but he pretty much nails Matalin in his write-up: Matalin’s Alternate Universe.

Deep down, I’m pretty sure Matalin knows exactly what she’s doing, though it might take a round or two of waterboarding before she’d admit it. In the case of Dana Perino, though, I believe there’s considerably more confusion between fantasy and reality in that head of hers. Here she is talking to Sean Hannity back in November, in the wake of the Fort Hood attack:

A transcript, again courtesy of Think Progress:

PERINO: And we had a terrorist attack on our country. And we should call it what it is. Because we need to face up to it so that we can prevent it from happening again.

HANNITY: I agree with you. And why won’t they say what you just so simply said?

PERINO: They want to do all of their investigations. I don’t know. All of the thinking that goes into it. But we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term. I hope they’re not looking at this politically. I do think we ought it to the American people to call it what it is.

I know Perino is a bit of a dim bulb, and I’m sure she would have made a pro forma correction if anyone called her on her misstatement (not that Sean Hannity would be especially likely to do that). But her willingness to spout contrafactual gibberish like that is indicative of a deeper perceptual problem the she, and other Bush supporters, have.

In the minds of Bush loyalists, as abetted by high-profile historical revisionists and moral relativists like Matalin and Perino, it’s the Obama administration that is obsessed with deflecting blame for the president’s failures by pointing to inherited problems. Meanwhile, they spin as hard as they can (and then some) to push the myth that Bush… was not to blame for his failures, and inherited all his problems from Clinton.

Here’s Benen again:

The Matalin pitch, in a nutshell, is, “Sure, Obama inherited the Great Recession, two wars, a job market in freefall, a huge deficit, and crushing debt, a health care system in shambles, a climate crisis, an ineffective energy policy, an equally ineffective immigration policy, a housing crisis, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, a mess at Gitmo, and a severely tarnished global reputation. But what Bush got from Clinton wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.”

Except it was. After cleaning up H.W. Bush’s mess, Clinton bequeathed a prosperous, peaceful country, held in high regard around the world, with a shrinking debt, and surpluses far into the future. There was a burgeoning terrorist threat emerging, but Clinton’s team provided Bush with the necessary tools and warnings necessary to keep the nation safe. Bush failed miserably, despite having been given an incredible opportunity to succeed.

I know Benen is a partisan, but I think that assessment is accurate. While Bush was in office, the magnitude of his failures made it hard for supporters to reconcile their support for him with his actual performance. That’s why, with the exception of the rally-round-the-flag spikes after 9/11 and in the early days of the Iraq war, the trend of Bush’s support was always down, and why Bush ended his presidency with support numbers in the high 20s, as this graph from Pollkatz shows:


As the years pass it gets easier for Bush supporters to rearrange their memories to reduce cognitive dissonance. As long as they are content to live in a world of make-believe, that’s a perfectly viable approach. But those of us who don’t have the same incentive don’t have to pretend along with them.

Greg Laden: How do you know what to “believe”?

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Apropos my recent obsession with science vs. its opposite on the Internet, I really liked this item from Greg Laden: Skeptics: How do you know what to “believe”?

“My car is not running right. I think the elves that make it run have tummy aches.”

And then the mechanic tries to explain that there are no elves in the car, but the person insists.

“You have not seen that there are no elves in the car. And besides when you open the hood the elves become invisible. Anyway, the elves have tummy aches. Fix the tummy aches.” And so on.

That is what many people who are not scientists sound like when they are talking about science.

USA Today: Are celebrities crossing the line on medical advice?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

From USA Today: Are celebrities crossing the line on medical advice?

In her book Mother Warriors, McCarthy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, says she learned about autism from “the university of Google.”

Explaining complex science – especially in the few minutes allotted on a TV program – is challenging, Carroll says. Audiences sympathize with McCarthy, who says she doesn’t need science because she observes her son, Evan, every day. “At home,” she writes, “Evan is my science.”

“How can you argue with that?” Carroll asks. “It’s her child. It’s her body. They win.”

This really gets to the heart of what worries me about what I’ve taken to calling “The Perception Engine.” We’ve entered an era in which the distance between a human mind and the confirming (or disconfirming) information that would support (or undercut) a pet theory is essentially zero. Just as previous generations amplified their muscle power with steam and the internal combustion engine, we’ve amplified our senses. How will we use this newfound power? Will there be a flowering of reason and understanding? Or will a thousand conspiracy theories bloom, as people give in to the lure of confirmation bias?

Both, it sounds like.

Who Would Jesus Filibuster?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Yeah, I haven’t talked much about the healthcare bill. I’ve been following some of the coverage, but it’s hard for me to get excited about this particular sausage being made.

Here’s one detail that was amusing, at least, with a question that I think random outside observers can interestingly weigh in on. From C-SPAN, via ThinkProgress, there was this video you probably saw (if you’ve been processing every tidbit):

So, the actually interesting question is, is that caller for real? Or was it a joke? Josh Marshall reposted an excerpt from an email that makes a pretty good case that it’s fake: Spoof or #prayerfail?. I’m curious what y’all think.

DJO’s “Happy in Paraguay” ST:TNG Dubspoof

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

This should not be making me laugh. But it is.

Warning: Naughty words.

BrodyQat’s Desaturated Santa

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From San Francisco’s SantaCon the other day. Not Photoshopped:


More details at BrodyQat’s photostream. She even wore gray contacts. That’s dedication.

Change Blindness

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

It’s like an Improv Everywhere mission, but for psychologists:

Conspiracies Everywhere!

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two is never sure. — Anonymous

I’m surrounded by conspiracies. There was an excellent Tank Riot podcast the other day: Conspiracies, Part 6, which was mostly about the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film in particular. One point that Viktor made (loosely paraphrased): In the olden days, when some public figure was assassinated we all read the news reports, which were mediated by a professional class of interpreters, and we more or less knew (or thought we knew) what time it was. With the Kennedy assassination, though, where we had a source of objective truth (the Zapruder film), it didn’t make things better; instead, it made things much, much worse, serving as the raw material for an endless parade of conspiracy theories.

Or Climategate (of course), which Kevin Drum had a nice item on today (Quote of the Day: Climate Denialism), where the eponymous quotation was of Al Gore (as interviewed by John Dickerson in Slate): “What in the Hell Do They Think Is Causing It?”

If the people that believed the moon landing was staged on a movie lot had access to unlimited money from large carbon polluters or some other special interest who wanted to confuse people into thinking that the moon landing didn’t take place, I’m sure we’d have a robust debate about it right now.

Or there were all those beautiful shots of what surely was an upper stage of a (Russian, presumably) rocket venting propellant over Norway:


…of which Phil Plait in his excellent Bad Astronomy blog had many interesting things to say (Awesomely bizarre light show freaks out Norway), but which prompted a set of blog comments the most memorable of which was this one by user Billy:

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia all denny [sic] having launched a rocket at that time. Also, for it to be a rocket the spiral is too symmetric. To me this looks like a vortex of a very strong energy force. Perhaps a temporary black hole because of some thing happening to the earth’s magnetic field? I’m 99.9% sure this was not man made; at least not with anything that I know of…

To the above: NO WAY is that a rocket.

See? He’s 99.9% sure. He’s quantified his level of certainty. He’s being scientific.

Sigh. What began with the JFK assassination has picked up steam since we got the Internet. If you’re willing to ignore conflicting data and focus only on finding confirmation for your a priori opinions, Google is perfectly happy to let you enclose yourself in a snuggie of comforting factoids. Meanwhile, real engineers and scientists, people who have to make rockets go up and governments recognize the catastrophe that climate denialists would inflict on our descendants, people who measure their ideas not against what they want to believe, but against what actually is, labor on.

Update: Russia comes clean: Yeah, it was an upper-stage failure of a submarine-launched missile. So, what do you think the chances are that Billy is hard at work recalibrating his estimates in light of this anomalous data? Yup, I agree: Somewhere around 0.1%.

Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus

Monday, December 7th, 2009

You guys seem to really dig this stuff, so here you go: From Information Is Beautiful (via J.A.Y.S.O.N.): Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus.

LGF on David Hone on “Climategate”

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

It really does kind of rock my world that Little Green Footballs has gone from what I remember to being the kind of blog that mocks Rush Limbaugh and climate change deniers. Anyway: The Climategate Criminal Conspiracy.

NY State Senator Diane Savino: We Have Nothing to Fear from teh Gayz

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Most politics is lame, I’ll grant you. But this speech is a good example of why it’s still worth having elected representatives yack at each other in a fancy room with wood paneling and studded leather upholstery: