Friday, August 27, 2010

Changes

Hi all!

I hardly ever write about my personal life here, but a lot of changes in my life have been happening, and I thought it was important to share them with you.  It's also why I haven't posted in a few days.

Most importantly, I've taken an indefinite leave of absence from my PhD work.  As much as I enjoyed the work I was doing, I'm not sure research is really what I want to do.  Plus, my advisor didn't have funding for the research, so I was reliant on teaching assistantships from Northeastern from year to year, giving me much less time to work on the research anyway.  So rather than continue on a path I'm not sure is the right one, I decided to take a step back and reassess what I want to do.  Who knows; I may eventually go back to my PhD, but for right now I think I made the right choice.

So, I've moved back to Long Island, NY, where I'm originally from.  My fiancée found a job down here a few months ago and I just moved down on Tuesday (hence no posts this week).  I'm now living with some family until I find a full-time job.  As much as being unemployed sucks, I'm really glad I made the decision to come back home.  In the meantime, I'm tutoring students to make a little money.  So if you're in the Long Island area and need a math/computer science/SAT and GRE prep/beginner trombone tutor, I'm available.*

On a more traditionally positive note, I've lost nearly 50 pounds since March!  I now have a normal weight, according to my BMI, for the first time since high school (maybe first year of college, not sure exactly when I crossed over to overweight).  I did it by centering my Chi, drinking stabilized oxygen and a homeopathic...  Hah!  Just kidding...  I actually counted calories (with the help of caloriecount.com), and eating less calories than I burn each day.  As a wise man once said: "Science, it works bitches!"

I did give myself one "free day" every two weeks, where I don't count calories.  I highly recommend this to anyone trying to lose weight.  It changed my mindset from "I can never eat X again" to "I can have X on Saturday," which makes eating healthy so much easier to handle.  And after a while, I didn't even want to eat tons of crap on my free days; I got so used to eating better that I started to enjoy healthier foods.  Some suggest that a free day every so often can also help you maintain your metabolism, which helps burn more calories when I'm not eating as much.  I'm not sure if this is actually true or not, but it does make a bit of sense to me.  Either way, it has worked for me.

I also started running regularly a couple of months ago, to get more exercise to go with my new diet, and discovered how much I enjoy running.  I'm going to run my first race soon: The Smith Point Bridge 5K on September 11th.  And I'm now a 10 minute walk from a state park with a number of trails I can run on.  If you've never been trail running before, you should try it.  It's like meditation for me.  I'm steadily increase the number of miles I run each week, and I'm hoping to run a marathon some time next year.

So that's all of the stuff going on with me.  I'm starting to get settled in the new surroundings, so I'll start posting more regularly again in the near future.  I'll also be looking for some skeptic/atheist hang outs on Long Island, now that I'm here for a while.  If any of you readers are from the area, let me know!



* I've been finding students recently on a website called wyzant.com.  If I'm not in your area, or you need a tutor for a different subject, you should check out the site to find a tutor who can help you.  And if you're looking to tutor yourself, I'd highly recommend the site.  I've found a number of students via Wyzant, and their website it very easy to use, and very professional  (as opposed to many other tutoring sites I've seen).  OK, I'm done shilling for websites, I promise!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Penn and Teller on Vaccinations

Penn and Teller finally cover the anti-vaccination movement on Bullshit!  And Orac found the full episode available online:


I really enjoyed the intro demonstration, about how even if vaccines did cause autism, vaccinating would still be better than letting kids get sick and die from preventable diseases.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Autism and Ultrasound Response

A while back, I wrote about a news report on Dr. Manuel Casanova, who is studying the possibility of ultrasounds contributing to the rising rates of autism.  To my surprise, Dr. Casanova actually responded in the comment section. I guess that means people actually read the crap I write about them.  Here is the comment he left:

Hopefully you will consider posting this small note. If possible I would like to clarify certain aspects of the controversial TV interview. The same was supposed to be about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). The reporter took the prerogative of dividing a lengthy interview into sections. I was not consulted in this regard. The part about ultrasound was tangential to the discussion and prefaced by my own comment that any speculations on the subject would be premature. I did provide some mechanistic explanations regarding similarities between the effects of utlrasound in animals and the pathology that we have described in autism. All of this was lost in the small TV clip when it was apprently decided that my personal interests would provide a better emotional response on the listeners. I did publish one article in MedHyp but the same was to make it clear that there are molecular mechanisms that are primed by ultrasound and are apparently abnormally expressed in patients with autism. Otherwise most of our other publications regarding the neuropathology of autism are in journals such as Neurology, Acta Neuropathologica, etc. I can easily see how somebody looking at the small TV clip would take an erroneous impression as to my way of thinking. However, if anybody is interested in further explanations, copies of articles (pdf's), etc, please email me your concerns at m0casa02louisville.edu. I will try my best to answer them.

Best regards,

Manuel

First, I have to say that I really appreciate Dr. Casanova taking the time to clarify the problems with the news report and interview.  It's nice to know that he's concerned with people understanding what he's doing, and the results he has so far.  I plan on emailing Dr. Casanova to get a few of the articles mentioned, to learn more about his work.

And looking back at my original post, I should have been more clear: most of my criticisms should have been aimed at the news report.  I have no issue with Dr. Casanova doing his research. My concern is with a reporter taking some preliminary research, and presenting it with the intent to scare people into thinking common and useful medical procedures are dangerous.  It goes to show that we have to be extremely careful about taking news coverage at face value.

Thanks for the reply, Dr. Casanova.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happy New Year...

to all you Neptunians out there!

Neptune was discovered in 1846.  Today is the first time Neptune will be in the same position around the sun since it was discovered.  That means one Neptunian year has past since it's discovery.  That's equivalent to about 164 Earth years!

So remember to wish everyone a Happy New Neptune Year! (If you want some odd looks, that is.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dinosaur Comics on Rebuttals to Intelligent Design

This is probably my favorite Dinosaur Comic ever:



"Bed bugs have institutionalized stab rapes."  How can you argue with that?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Today... is El Guapo's birthday!

Actually, it's my birthday today, not El Guapo's.  And I'm 25, not "33."  But I am hoping for a plethora of piñatas!


And if you've never seen this movie, then shame on you.  For everyone else, enjoy a round of tequila to celebrate!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Phil Plait's New Tat!

So Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy posted an interview he did at TAM 8 during the "Skeptics in the Tub" after-hours get together.  So not only do we get to hear from him, but we also get a look at his manly body.  Take a look:


As you can see, Phil is sporting a new tattoo on his upper arm, and he apparently got it done by the guys at LA Ink, for the show on TLC. The episode hasn't aired yet, but Phil mentioned that the video is available on the LA Ink website.  I took a look and found it pretty quickly.  Check out the whole process here (sorry, TLC doesn't seem to allow embedded video).

It looks awesome.  Nice choice Phil!  And nice job to Dan from LA Ink on a great looking tattoo.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Divers rescue woman from car, credit Mythbusters

Watch for the mention at the very end.






It's just a short mention, but it shows how unique Mythbusters is.  A show that's exciting and fun to watch, while giving us pieces of truly useful information.  And the information is not just for some slobs sitting around on their couch.  These are actual diving experts using techniques they learned on Mythbusters.  How cool is that?

Monday, August 9, 2010

But he has Teh Gay!

From Pundit Kitchen:


Those pesky facts...

Of course, the last panel is completely inaccurate: anti-gay conservatives are perfectly happy with massive amounts of cognitive dissonance.  

We don't take kindly to no relativity talk 'round here...

If you've never visited Conservapedia before, I highly recommend it for a good laugh.  It is the quintessential example on the internet of Poe's law in effect:  I honestly can't tell if the pages there are the opinions of true conservatives, or if they were put there by some troll making a mockery of conservatives. It's no surprise that articles on "counterexamples" to those evil liberal theories of the Old Earth and Evolution.  But I wasn't aware that there's another liberal theory threatening to tear the fabric of Christianity and the family asunder:  the theory of relativity!

[Relativity] is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.
It only gets better.  Here's one of their counterexamples:
9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.
Well that settles it.  Why write the whole list?  (I'm glad they did though, the whole thing is hilarious.)

I honestly thought this must be a hoax.  No one could be that ignorant of relativity AND willing to espouse their ignorance of it so gloriously (I continue to underestimate the power of fundamentalism).  Then I notices that the founder of Conservapedia, Andrew Schlafly himself, wrote and edited most of the page.  Unless Schlafly has dedicated his entire life to being a parody of the conseervative mindset, I suspect he, and other conservatives, actually believe the theory of relativity is a real threat to their ethos. 

With all these lists of counterexamples, it seems as though nothing we know about the world is true.  But don't worry, there is one "theory" that Conservapedia points out has not a single contradiction

Thursday, August 5, 2010

F Bomb

This isn't really relevant to anything I usually write about, but I thought it was hilarious.  One of the best web comics I've seen in a while:



The ending is absolutely perfect.  For some reason it reminds me of the ending to this Mitchell and Webb skit.  Both are perfectly timed, unexpected and ironic.  Really well done.


(from Cyanide and Happiness)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Prop 8 Overturned!

WOOT!

CONCLUSION 
Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis,the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

That's the conclusion of the 135 page ruling on the case by Judge Vaughn R. Walker, which you can read in its entirety here, if you're into that sort of thing.

This will get appealed, of course, perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Who knows what the Roberts court will do, given all the conservative Catholics there.  But for now, we can all celebrate the fact that marriage equality got an important victory today!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Louis CK on "White People Problems" and Miracles

Louis CK can always help me put my problems into perspective:




I just recently realized you never hear anyone say "Jesus Christ" on TV, while watching one of the new episodes of Futurama.  In the episode with Leonardo da Vinci, Bender brings the painting of the last supper, and Dr. Zoidberg says "Jesus Christ!... and his twelve apostles!"  It was really funny, and I realized soon after that it was because it was so unexpected to hear someone exclaim "Jesus Christ" on TV.  You don't think about it, but it never happens, and now because of the interview with Louis CK, I know why that is.  Because you can't.

And the bit about Captain Sully was absolutely right on the mark. Why exactly DID God throw those birds into the engines, anyway?

New Science Blogging Community: Scientopia

Since the recent exodus from ScienceBlogs, it appears that many of the blogs have re-emerged on a new science blogging community: Scientopia.  So, if your looking for some of the old Sb bloggers, or just a collection of science-related blogs, go check it out!

I'm curious about a few things myself:
  1. How successful will the new platform be?  And
  2. Will more bloggers from Sb make the move, if the community does take off?
I'll definitely keep my eye on Scientopia.  

Monday, August 2, 2010

XKCD and the trouble with accommodationists

This is why I love XKCD:


Don't forget to read the title text!  (Hover over the image to see it.)

To me, it points out that people who say things like that aren't saying anything about the value of the arguments of atheists and Christians.  They seem to be more concerned about pointing out how nice and accommodating they are, without taking the risk to actually talk about and defend what they believe, about a very important question.  

And it is important.  I became an atheist fairly young (in my early teens), but I continued to ask questions and think about my position.  I figured that if I was wrong, and a god actually did exist, I could be in big trouble, according to some arguing for that position.  Even though I suspected the whole heaven/hell thing was just a scare tactic to hold up a flimsy initial premise, I thought I should at least think about it long and hard before I commit myself to the opposing position.

I started reading about biology, physics, and eventually cognitive science, because consciousness was one of the big problems I had with the materialist position.  How could such an incredible ability, conscious thought and decision making, be explained if there is no supernatural soul, or mind?  While I don't have a definitive answer yet, I've found a number of interesting possibilities, in books like Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. 

I'm not sure either of them are right, or that their explanations are even defined well enough to test, but the point is their explanations are based on reasoned arguments and logical chains of inference.  The dualist explanation seems to be mostly based on ignorance; it's a "god of the gaps" argument.  "I can't think of a way consciousness could arise out of material alone, therefore it couldn't."  (I know there are some more philosophical arguments for dualism, which are more sophisticated than this.  I don't want to get deep into these arguments, although they are interesting.  Suffice it to say I haven't found them convincing.) I found that although we may not have a convincing theory of mind just yet, I'm much more confident that it can be explained materialistically, and that that is the only explanation that would explain anything anyway (if all I say is the soul gives us consciousness, I have explained nothing about how it works and why it should work that way).

My point is, its important to think about these questions.  And the fact that some people are willing to go out and argue their point on the issue is important.  We need as many people talking about it, and presenting new ideas and arguments.  The people who only complain that atheists and Christians are annoying, are mistaken in thinking the important thing is to always be civil and accommodating.  Rational thought and argument are important for getting at the truth.  That doesn't mean we have to be rude and condescending, but more often than not, these complaints seem to stem from the fact that atheists are questioning another person's beliefs, regardless of tone.

So to all of you who feel this way, try stepping out on a limb and talk about/defend what you believe.  I know sometimes people get mad at you for it, but it's important.  


(Wow, I didn't expect to write so much about a one panel comic this morning on the train.  I suppose that's why XKCD is my favorite web-comic: it inspires deep thought, starting from a simple observation.  Or it's because I'm a big geek.  Either way...)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

John Ramsey on the plausibility of unicorns

More stuff from the backlog of blog posts in my Google Reader, this time from GodlessGirl.  It's comedian John Ramsey, and his belief in unicorns:





I nearly choked on my popcorn from laughing at this.  

QI with Stephen Fry

Sorry I haven't been posting the past few days, I've been visiting family and helping build a shed for my fiancee's grandmother.  (OK, I was pretty much staying out of the way and cleaning up debris.  That counts as helping right?)  I got back home today and went through a few hundred blog entries backlogged in my Google Reader (including all 49 posts by Jen during her blogathon), and came across a video on Atheist Media Blog I had seen a while ago, and never got around to posting here:


The video is of a British show called QI (which stands for Quite Interesting) hosted by one of my favorite people in the world, Stephen Fry.  If you're a fan of British (or atheist/skeptical) comedy, you might recognize some of the guests, including Alan Davies, who is a permanent guest on QI, and David Mitchell, from That Mitchell and Webb Look.  The show's website has an excellent description:
Quite Interesting - or 'QI' to its friends - could loosely be described as a comedy panel quiz. However, none of the stellar line-up of comedians is expected to be able to answer any questions, and if anyone ends up with a positive score, they can be very happy with their performance. Points are awarded for being interesting or funny (and, very occasionally, right) but points are deducted for answers which merely repeat common misconceptions and urban myth. (Alan Davies has turned this aspect of the game into somewhat of an artform.) It's okay to be wrong, but don't be obviously, boringly wrong. In this way, QI tries to rid the world of the flotsam of nonsense and old wives' tales that can build up in your mind. QI not only makes us look more closely at things, it encourages us to question all the received wisdom we have carried with us since childhood. Think of the program as a humorous cranial de-scaler.
QI isn't really about pointless information, or shoring up vast banks of trivia, It's about finding undiscovered connections and seeing hidden patterns, just like the best comedy. After all, curiosity is hardwired in all of us; we just lose the ability to indulge it. "The lust of the mind", Thomas Hobbes called it, "that exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnal pleasure". There you have it, and from a philosopher not a press release. QI: better than sex.
How could any skeptic not want to watch a show like that?

Unfortunately it isn't show in America, :-( , but there are tons of YouTube videos to watch, and I have gone down the QI/YouTube rabbit hole a few times in the past, emerging hours later, once I get my fill of Fry and the other comedians (which is very difficult, they are all extremely funny and interesting).

If you've never seen the show before, check out some of the clips on YouTube, they are a great watch. And if you've seen the show before, then I've probably got you watching all the clips again.  Sorry to tie up your next couple of hours!

Here's another funny one to keep you going, about Earth's second moon, Cruithne (although Fry is mostly wrong about this one, Cruithne isn't really a moon, it's only a quasi-satellite):