Class Warfare Blog

May 30, 2017

If the Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:29 am
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The question in the title is a variant of “Are we alone?” Are there other sentient life forms in our galaxy? Enquiring minds want to know.

This post is prompted by a review of a new book (ALIENS: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili).  I have not read the book and do not intend to. The reason? The discussion is premature.

One of the powers of human minds is to imagine (possibly the greatest of human powers) but it has a gigantic flaw: garbage in, garbage out. If our imagination has little to no data to work on we come up with quite fallacious outcomes. This is how we got demons and gods and unicorns and leprechauns.

So, what evidence do we have regarding the universe? We have optical and EMR evidence for the existence of billion upon billions of stars in our galaxy and billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. But realize we have not known this for long. One hundred years ago, we knew that the Milky Way was a manifestation of other stars in our “neighborhood” but we though that that represented the totality our universe, too. We had observed fuzzy spots in those star fields but hadn’t acquired the evidence to recognize them as other galaxies. And while we had speculated that many of those stars would have planets about them, we had no direct evidence that was so until quite recently. The first actual planet circling another star was identified in … wait for it … 1992. So, we have been aware that there are other planets “out there” for all of 25 years. We have subsequently identified hundreds of others.

Do we have any evidence that life exists on those planets? No, but we do not have any evidence that life does not exist either. At this point, we are not yet ready to make those discoveries (although we are close).

The question in the title implies that since there are so many stars, there must also be unbelievably large numbers of planets, and if life is not an isolated accident, or divine bit of magic, occurring here and only here, then where are those other peoples? There is a mistake embedded in this question though, leading to flights of imagination fueled only by fairy dust. The universe is indeed vast, but the primary constituent of our universe is empty space, aka nothing. The next closest star to us is about four light years away from us. To go there to get direct evidence of what exists there, we would have to travel for four years at the speed of light. Since the fastest speed ever achieved by a man-made object is about 25 miles per second, and the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second, at that speed (as an average), a trip to Alpha Centauri would take a bit under 35,000 years. If we could get their magically and then sent data back to Earth, it would take four years to get here and when it arrived the information would be four years old.

The universe is unimaginably vast, but this is also misleading because it is also vast in time. A civilization could have arisen around Alpha Centauri, to the point that it was capable of building spacecraft capable of very high speeds who could have made the trip in under 20 years, let’s say. But if this occurred 100,000 years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone here to notice. (That doesn’t stop the imagination, of course, … Ancient Aliens!)

The universe is vast in time as well as space. In order to generate a signal that we could interpret as synthetic instead of natural, that civilization would have to exist within a small radius in space and time. If it is over 100 years out of phase with us now, we wouldn’t have a chance of detecting it. So, 100 years in time is our bubble. How many years has the universe been around? That number is 14,000,000,000 years, roughly. Our “time” as a species capable of detecting another sentient species in our vicinity is therefore about 0.0000025% of the time that has occurred to now. Considering that our spatial bubble is roughly 100 light years wide and the universe is roughly 28,000,000,000 light years wide, we have in out neighborhood, 0.0000012% of the universe’s space. Consequently, we have a combined fraction of the universe’s space and time of  3 x 10–14%. In other words, 99.99999 … 9999% of the universe is outside of our purview, either existing in the past or so far away as to be unattainable.

Something you need to know. Those extra-solar planet hunters … when they “find” evidence of yet another such planet, if that planet is, say, 540 light years away, when the light gets to us it is showing us what was going on 540 years ago. Even if there were a planet with a civilization what could produce radio waves or some such we could detect, that information is 540 years old. What is to say what will happen to us in the next 540 years? Right now our prospects of existing that long do not look good. At the rate we are shitting in our own food bowl, we might not have much of a civilization to be found by aliens.

April 25, 2017

Wrestling the Unconscious (and Losing)

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:44 am
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In a review of an author’s first nonfiction piece (Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious by Nick Romeo, April 22, 2017) in The New Yorker magazine, we are treated to a review of a serious attempt to address the unconscious mind by someone immersed in language, Cormac McCarthy.

I have yet to read the original article (I will) but a number of comments by the reviewer struck me and I will comment on them. here are three paragraphs snatched from that review:

“His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this ‘the Kekulé Problem’ because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, ‘Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.’

“His answer—which, he says, appeared in a sort of Kekulé moment of its own, as a sudden epiphany while he was emptying the trash one morning—is that the unconscious is ‘just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.’ The description of the unconscious as ‘not happy’ with language—as, in fact, ‘loathe to speak to us’—is not an isolated lapse into intentional language: throughout the essay, McCarthy personifies the unconscious as an ancient and inscrutable agent with its own desires and talents.

“McCarthy knows that some of this might sound eccentric. After declaring that the unconscious labors ‘under a moral compulsion to educate us,’ he inserts a parenthetical anticipating a dubious reader. ‘(Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).’ McCarthy doesn’t think the unconscious is interested in micromanaging our affairs, but he does seem to seriously believe that it has a broad interest in our wellbeing. The unconscious, he writes, ‘wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use.’”

I tend to agree that the subconscious abilities of our brains eschew the use of words and numbers. But studies do show that there is some understanding of things expressed in words and numbers by our unconscious.

McCarthy’s fixation on “Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium?” is misplaced, however. For one Kekulé was investigating the behavior of the chemical compound benzene specifically with regard to the shape of its molecules. So, his problem was geometric and not verbal. (We can forgive McCarthy this misunderstanding as its logic is probably of interest only to chemists.) So, basically the subconscious offered up a spatial option for a spatial problem.

Next, the image of a snake biting its tail is an archetype one can find embedded in cultures all over the world. Actually believing that snakes bite their tales and then roll around as a form of locomotion was taking things a bit too far, but this image is common enough that we have a term for it: ouroboros (see image).

May the circle be unbroken, by and …

And what McCarthy and more scientific researchers seem to ignore, possibly because it may be an insoluble problem, is how many times this image comes up in our dreams (day or night) and which then is rapidly forgotten. In my callow youth I kept a dream log. I learned a few things from it, namely that dreams are mostly rubbish, outtakes from a cornucopia of images we have stored, but also that they take almost no time to deliver. One time I remember falling asleep looking at a bedside clock and then having this very long, convoluted dream that switched locales so fast as to be breath taking. I then woke up with a start to see than only about five minutes of real time had elapsed. These dream episodes happen several times a night and the only ones we seem to remember are the last ones, which fade rapidly unless some effort is made to reinforce them. I no longer reinforce them, so I remember dreams 1-2 times per year at most.

So, consider the thousands of dreams I have had over the last year that have been forgotten. Since they seem to be snippets of images already stored in memory, I suppose they haven’t been forgotten, but there was nothing “new” about them as they were mishmashes of old images. Kekulé was struggling mightily with a problem involving the shape of a molecule and in the ongoing slideshow that was his dreams, an ouroboros pops up and this is latched onto by his conscious mind. He takes that and runs with it.

Did his subconscious really “solve” his problem for him? Is our conscious mind “under a moral compulsion to educate us?” Or is it just throwing up a slide show of images because your conscious mind has been engrossed in that topic? Or does the conscious mind filter out all of the rubbish and sift out the images because we are interested in something like at the moment?

The answers are: we do not know, we do not know (but highly doubt our subconscious has a morality), we do not know, and we do not know. The speculations of philosophers, authors, neuroscientists and the like are all grist for the mill but we still do not know the answers to those questions and their like. We are just beginning to find out. We now know that the subconscious processes of our brains use the same circuitry for the same purposes as do our conscious minds (the visual cortex for processing and storing images, the auditory cortex for processing and storing sounds, etc.). That seemed logical to assume, but now we know.

Since so much of our lives is governed by subconscious mental processing (a majority I believe) it is high time we learned more about it.

April 23, 2017

There is No Real Anti-Science Movement

There was a March for Science across this country yesterday. It did not draw huge crowds but the participants were enthusiastic. Unfortunately, many of the participants seem to be close to declaring that there is a war on science or some other foolishness. There is not.

To show you this, consider the staunchest climate change denier. If they went to the doctor and were diagnosed with a serious disease and were offered a treatment produced by the finest medical science in the world, do you honestly think they would say “Science? I want none of that. Send for an exorcist.”?

A climate change denying businessman looking to upgrade his IT infrastructure looks at the proposals and decides “We want none of this ‘high tech nonsense,’ we want biblically-inspired computers.” Whadya think?

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

The opposition to climate change is there because of economic interests that fear that taking it seriously will crimp their ability to make money. All of those politicians who say “the jury is not yet in on climate change” have no idea whether it is or it isn’t, but they are being paid to say it is not. The order President Trump made to have NASA stop studying the climate is not fueled by some “science is a waste of time and money” attitude on the part of the President. His party is being paid to do this.

Similarly, there is no scientific controversy over the Theory of Evolution. It is an established scientific paradigm. The religious have no problem with the theory (actually very few of them seem to even understand the basics); they have a problem with its findings. If the theory of evolution is true, then any creation story that contradicts it is false and, if you are from a religion that paints the Bible as being ultimate truth, you have a problem. The same thing goes for those religiously-minded who claim the earth is only 6000-8000 years old. To believe the scientific findings (the Earth is over 4,000,000,000 years old) is to toss one’s religion’s creation stories in the trash can and the beginning of “if the Bible got that wrong, what else does it get wrong?”

Science is all about living with doubt. Politics and religion are all about being absolutely sure you are right. Hence the conflict.

But do realize, it is the scientific results these people have a problem with, very specific results. On one hand, unborn children’s lives are sacred and on the other the Mother of All Bombs is a really cool outcome of war science. It is not “science” they question, only when science tells a narrative counter to one they cherish that they “oppose the science.” And since they can’t be bothered to learn the science to try to counter it (probably a futile effort anyway), they disparage it emotionally (I ain’t no kin to no monkey!) and politically (it is too expensive to invest a huge amount of money in uncertain science).

Targeted opposition to specific scientific findings is, however, feeding an anti-science attitude among those who do not want to get involved enough to see for themselves. I can’t see how this is helpful.

But, then, these are the same people who promoted an anti-government attitude (The government is tyrannical!) before they decided to run the government for their own benefit. I do not think they even bother thinking about the long term effects of their actions. There is too much money to be made in the short-term.

March 23, 2017

Finding Jesus … Holy Shit

I just finished watching a recorded episode of a CNN series called “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery.” In this episode (S1, E9) the title of which is “The Childhood Home of Jesus” we are led to consider whether said home has actually been found. The sole line of evidence for this “discovery” was a reference in a 7th C. document about Nazareth which referred to two churches, one of which was still in existence, the other was lost. The other was reputedly built upon the ruins of Jesus’ family home!

An archeologist had been invited to view the ruins beneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent which was in a building “said to be built upon the ruins of a church.” The examination of the caves under that building did indicate a former church being there but also there were “walls” within the walls indicating that the church might have been built upon the ruins of a house! Artifacts were found that date to the first century and we are off and running.

The question gets asked, “Could this be the childhood home of Jesus?” We are then treated with breathless commentary along the lines of “the house seems exactly to be the sort that Jesus would have grown up in,” and “this was clearly a home inhabited by a pious Jewish family.” Imagine that. A home in first century Nazareth inhabited by a pious Jewish family, how rare!

They have trouble steering a course through the lack of evidence, of course. They keep asking the question, “Could this be the childhood home of Jesus?” but in a one hour show it takes them to the 59th minute to finally utter “… it is possible, but can’t be demonstrated.”

Really? Then what was used to fill the time between the asking of the question and the answering?

Well, we got all kinds of comments indicating that understanding how Jesus was raised would tell us a great deal about who Jesus was as a man. Really, a god incarnate was going to be shaped by his upbringing and the teaching of his parents? Must be a particularly feeble god.

Part of the filler was descriptions of Joseph and Mary. (I wonder where they got the information?) It was carefully explained that Joseph wasn’t a carpenter but an artisan, a class of people who were consider lower than peasants who worked the land, yet later we were lead to believe that Jesus must have been part of an upper middle class household. (I would guess this was to not offend the upper middle class target audience for this diatribe.) Later we are told that Jesus worked for many years as a carpenter, which is rigorous work, making Jesus into a manly man. Apparently he worked his way up from artisan, making his father proud.

They found artifacts, such as wool spinning tools, which a “woman of the time” would use to spin wool (I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked!) … but immediately thereafter that woman had a name … Mary. Sentences began Mary this, Mary that, etc. They found glass beads that were typical of women’s dresses across the Roman empire for centuries, which would, of course, been part of Mary’s dresses.

Interestingly, Mary was responsible for teaching the boy Jesus how to be a Jew and be part of God’s plan. How a god incarnate would have gotten along without that instruction, is horrifying to consider.

Then there was a longish aside involving a revolt in 4 BCE involving rebels capturing the city of Sepphoris. This city was four miles from Nazareth but 15,000 Roman troops took the city back, crucified 2000 rebels and sold the rest of the inhabitants into slavery. Four miles is a brisk walk of an hour for a mature adult but Jesus was about two years old at the time (having been born in 6 BCE) and could never have made the trip, nor would a two-year old remember anything as an adult from when he was two.* But we were told that “even if Jesus didn’t see the events himself, he would have heard stories from that point onward.” Possibly this shaped his nonviolent mission, it was claimed. Apparently they hadn’t heard about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. And, the god of all creation fear the Romans? Really? I thought he made the Romans.

Then they segue to a Bible story from Luke about how Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth to preach and was rejected to the point of being dragged to a cliff with the intention of being thrown him off of it. But Jesus walked away … mysteriously … never to return to his boyhood home village. How this added to their case for the discovery of Jesus’ childhood home was not made clear.

I think they should have titled this series “Finding Jesus: Fantasy, Fiction, Fable.”

The only “evidence” they have is a mention in a 7th C. text regarding a church reputed to have been built upon the ruins of Jesus’ childhood home. At that time, I am sure there were no false claims of artifacts from that time being holy. The fact that an entire village of houses could have been built from the then known fragments of the cross was just another miracle. So, if that document said it, it is probably true.

They then took the ball and ran with it, using their imaginations and little else, they entertained the fantasy that they had found the childhood home of Jesus and, amazingly, that if that were able to be confirmed that it would tell them something. To most Christians, Jesus is the Creator God of their religion. He is the Father and Holy Spirit as there is only one god. That he was capable of creating the entire universe, the Earth, all of the plants and animals, and the first human beings and still needed his mother to teach him what “God’s plan” was is preposterous. That he would need any help at all is preposterous. That his mission was ever in doubt or in danger is preposterous. Everything must have happened as he planned it to happen. Period.

What were these people thinking?

And if that place really was Jesus’ childhood home, how could it have been forgotten? Oh, yeah, God lived around her a long time ago but we forgot where. Really?

What were these people thinking?

Oh, I forgot, thinking is not encouraged. It is entirely okay to get some press for your believers and provide them with some support for their beliefs even if it is entirely patent nonsense.

Just listen to the pretty stories and, above all, do not ask any questions.

* * *

* According to “The city (Sepphoris) is not mentioned in the acts and events of Jesus, but he probably has (sic) visited the city, which is in the near proximity of his childhood village of Nazareth. The city was a commercial center for the whole area and he may have received work as a carpenter.” And the beat goes on … they have no evidence but “he probably has visited the city,” looking for work … in the site of the horror that lead him to fear the Romans so very, very much.


March 6, 2017

All Kids Need to Learn is Great Teacher … Right?

Filed under: Education,Morality,Politics,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:14 am

I strongly recommend you read the article this post is based on (here). It was published in The Guardian (U.K.), translated from a Dutch source.

We have been told by conservatives and Neoliberals that the only thing kids need to learn is a great teacher, well that and a charter school, or a voucher system. All of these claims are not only bogus but they mask their true purpose and that is to extract private profits out of public coffers and, secondarily, to disenfranchise teachers unions and teachers, who tend to be and vote liberal.

For many years educational researchers have been arguing that the real cause of the bulk of the performance gap between groups of students is poverty. That if you were to fix poverty, then the education system would work for all (and it is working well, maybe not as well as we would like, but well).

This Guardian article brought up some new information that applies to this “argument.” (I hesitate to use the word argument to an issue in which one side is simply taking stances with little to no evidence to back them up, maybe disagreement is better.)

Here is a sample of that article:

“It all started when I accidently stumbled on a paper by a few American psychologists. They had travelled 8,000 miles, to India, to carry out an experiment with sugar cane farmers. These farmers collect about 60% of their annual income all at once, right after the harvest. This means they are relatively poor one part of the year and rich the other. The researchers asked the farmers to do an IQ test before and after the harvest. What they discovered blew my mind. The farmers scored much worse on the tests before the harvest. The effects of living in poverty, it turns out, correspond to losing 14 points of IQ. That’s comparable to losing a night’s sleep, or the effects of alcoholism.”

The effects of poverty are substantial and show up quickly. These are not some effects that take decades of poverty to occur.

“A few months later I discussed the theory with Eldar Shafir, a professor of behavioural science and public policy at Princeton University and one of the authors of this study. The reason, put simply: it’s the context, stupid. People behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce. What that thing is doesn’t much matter; whether it’s time, money or food, it all contributes to a ‘scarcity mentality’. This narrows your focus to your immediate deficiency. The long-term perspective goes out of the window. Poor people aren’t making dumb decisions because they are dumb, but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make dumb decisions.”

So, the drop in IQ stems from an evolutionary principle: if you want to survive, you must focus your attention on what you need to do so. If you are very, very thirsty, you can only think about finding water, etc. (Maybe this is another reason conservatives are against these findings; because evolution?)

So, what if people didn’t have the option of being poor by providing a universal basic income? Neoliberals respond to this idea with the claim that the poor will still make stupid decisions; they will fritter away any money we give them, so it is a waste of money. But, what if this had been tried? What really happened? Well it has been tried  … on people just like us up in Canada. (And is being repeated in Scandinavian experiments right now.)

“The experiment had started in Dauphin, a town north-west of Winnipeg, in 1974. Everybody was guaranteed a basic income ensuring that no one fell below the poverty line. And for four years, all went well. But then a conservative government was voted into power. The new Canadian cabinet saw little point in the expensive experiment. So when it became clear there was no money left for an analysis of the results, the researchers decided to pack their files away. In 2,000 boxes.

“When Forget (a researcher) found them, 30 years later, no one knew what, if anything, the experiment had demonstrated. For three years she subjected the data to all manner of statistical analysis. And no matter what she tried, the results were the same every time. The experiment – the longest and best of its kind – had been a resounding success.

Forget discovered that the people in Dauphin had not only become richer, but also smarter and healthier. The school performance of children improved substantially. The hospitalisation rate decreased by as much as 8.5%. Domestic violence was also down, as were mental health complaints. And people didn’t quit their jobs – the only ones who worked a little less were new mothers and students, who stayed in school longer.”

Wow! Just because a universal income worked there doesn’t mean it will work everywhere but it seems to address the problems effectively and is “feasible.” The author concluded with this:

“The costs of child poverty in the US are estimated at $500bn (£410bn) each year, in terms of higher healthcare spending, less education and more crime. It’s an incredible waste of potential. It would cost just $175bn, a quarter of the country’s current military budget, to do what Dauphin did long ago: eradicate poverty.”

I might add that the scales are never loaded correctly in these arguments. The Neoliberals are always loading the costs on one side of the balance and then decrying “We can’t afford it!” These are the same people who talk about the costs of environment regulations but never look at the benefits.

The $175 billion needed to implement this policy in the U.S. is chump change compared to the costs of not doing it. Consider that the U.S. government recently ponied up over 2 trillion dollars to bail out large financial institutions because of their patent malfeasance. We do not have to raid the Defense Department (I am not opposed but Neoliberals are), we can just get the money from the same place that 2 trillion dollars came from. Think about it like this: you get a $500 billion return for only $175 billion. That’s a hell of a discount.

The final point the author makes is “Poverty is not a lack of character. Poverty is a lack of cash.” This is a problem for conservatives because their ideology insists that poverty is a character flaw.

And … just stop with the “all kids need to learn is great teacher” bullshit, please!

February 24, 2017

Stop with the Theories!

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:47 pm
Tags: , ,

I read widely across quite a few topics. I suspect I am not alone in this practice. I am fascinated by particular tidbits of science that are far from any level of expertise I might have. Recently an article caught my eye; the topic was that the ambient temperature we experience affects our emotions. When we feel warm we tend to be more open and generous. When we feel cold we tend to be more suspicious. Interesting.

The article then continued with “The big question, of course, is why? Why are physical and psychological temperatures linked in the first place? There are two theories …

Can you see the word I have a problem with? Yep, the word theory. What the researchers had as the result of their work were: hypotheses, guesses, hunches, whatever, but theories, no. The word I prefer is “conjectures” as a better word than “speculations” in a case like this but I wouldn’t quibble much over speculations.

This happens in ordinary conversations: someone asks “Why is President Trump acting that way?” and you answer “Well, I have a theory….” No you don’t. The best you have is a wild ass guess. But this is a game you cannot lose which is why you play. You espouse your “theory” and if it turns up being right, you get props from your fellow travelers later. If it turns out to be wrong, there is no penalty.

I suggest that if anyone wants to propose a theory, they should be willing to put money on it.

A theory has to do one of two things to qualify as a theory: it has to be able to predict yet unknown facts or it has to make good sense of what we already know, aligning the topic of the theory with other fields of investigation, for example.

If you want it to be a scientific theory, there are additional requirements. To make a scientific theory, you have to make testable predictions. There have been any number of beautiful theories that turned out to be non-testable, e.g. God created the Earth. Since the claim is not testable, it is not a scientific theory. It is a claim, an supposition, a conjecture, etc. but it is not a theory.

So, the next time you hear someone ask “Why …” and you want to answer, you might say “I have a hunch …” or “I have an idea …” or the equivalent, but unless you have a full-blown scheme that makes complete sense out the source of the question or can make predictions, you do not have a theory.

So, please just stop with the theories.

February 20, 2017

Why, Oh, Why?

I read way too often, that there is an anti-science attitude coming from Christians and other highly religious fellows (Islamists, etc.) because <fill in the blank here>. Most of the reasons sound reasonable but they all miss the mark.

The anti-science attitude stems from this itsy-bitsy problem. If science contradicts the Bible or other religious scripture in the least little bit, then those scriptures become untrustworthy. Each religious pronouncement would then have to be evaluated and interpreted and, well, there goes the baby out with the bathwater.

This is obvious in the statements of Christian fundamental literalists; they are against the teaching of “god-less” evolution; they are against science that shows that the Earth is way older (actually 766 thousand times older) than can be deduced from the Bible; they are against the Big Bang Theory because it isn’t mentioned in the Book of Genesis. For those religionists who are not fundamentalists, the threat is the same but more subtle. They think that morals, for example, come from their god (all evidence to the contrary), and so when science contradicts religion, it is a slippery slope leading directly to science refutes religion. And then there goes morality and all human beings become ravening beasts, just like we see in the movies (a well-known scriptural source for the White House apparently).

The fascinating thing is that the religionists insist their religion is based upon faith, yet they spend time and massive amounts of money trying to prove their view of the world is true. Biblical archeologists prowled the Near East looking to prove the events of the Old Testament happened, only to prove the exact opposite. Adventurers have gone looking, even to the point of scouring satellite images looking for the remains of Noah’s ark, even though the same story was told many centuries before the Noah story was told (and “borrowed” several times prior also) and is probably just a convenient vehicle used to take over another religion’s turf. (Rome did this by equating conquered people’s gods to their own, thus bringing the “new believers” into their fold.) Jerusalem is the most excavated city on the planet, with many people looking for confirmation of David’s and Solomon’s kingdoms, only to end up with vague bits that mighta coulda come from then.

So, faith apparently is not good enough, conformation is desired, but when confirmation doesn’t come, when contradiction comes instead, the science then must be wrong.

This, of course, is wrapped in a culture in which “having faith” is considered a “good thing” but being gullible is not. Poker players will do very strange things and actually lose money rather than to allow themselves to be “bluffed” by another player. No one wants to know they could have gotten an article they just bought at a better price. So, what better example of being gulled is believing in a false religion? Denying that falsity is far easier than admitting one was taken in by fancy words. It is even easier to deny science than to admit being taken for a ride.

January 4, 2017

An Appalling Lack of Chemical Knowledge

Filed under: Business,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:21 am
Tags: , ,

As reported in The Grist:

This Plant in India Transforms CO2 into Baking Soda
Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals promises to prevent emissions of 60,000 tons of CO2 a year by redirecting it from a coal-powered boiler to a new industrial process.

Here’s how the technology works: As the chemical plant’s coal-fired boiler releases flue gas, a spritz of a patented new chemical strips out the molecules of CO2. The captured CO2 is then mixed with rock salt and ammonia to make baking soda.

The process, invented by Carbon Clean Solutions, marks a global breakthrough in carbon-capture technology. Most such projects aim to bury CO2 in underground rocks, reaping no economic benefit; that’s called carbon capture and storage (CCS). But Tuticorin represents the first successful industrial-scale application of carbon capture and utilization (CCU), meaning the carbon is put to good use and helps turn a profit.

Tuticorin’s owner says the plant now has virtually no emissions. And the facility is not receiving any government subsidies. Many carbon-capture projects have needed subsidies because of high costs, but Carbon Clean’s process is more efficient, requiring less energy and less equipment.

Carbon Clean believes that CCU could ultimately neutralize 5 to 10 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions from coal.


The operative (and errant) phrase here is “Most such projects aim to bury CO2 in underground rocks, reaping no economic benefit.” The reason is that if sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda, or sodium hydrogen carbonate) gets used, the CO2 gets released back into the atmosphere! Bloody Hell!

Effing morons!

Here are some of the myriad uses of sodium bicarbonate:
Used to kill cockroaches. Once consumed, it causes internal organs of cockroaches to burst due to gas collection. The “gas” is CO2!

Sodium bicarbonate is one of the main components of the common incendiary “black snake” firework. The effect is caused by the thermal decomposition, which produces carbon dioxide gas to produce a long snake-like ash as a combustion product of the other main component.

Sodium bicarbonate can be used to extinguish small grease or electrical fires by being thrown over the fire, as heating of sodium bicarbonate releases carbon dioxide. Note: It is also used in “dry chemical” fire extinguishers. The CO2 released is what really extinguishes the fire.

Sodium bicarbonate mixed with water can be used as an antacid to treat acid indigestion and heartburn. Part of the relief is due to CO2 being released which adds to the pre-existing stomach gas causing that gas to be released in a belch.

Morons! “… meaning the carbon is put to good use and helps turn a profit” means the CO2 is put back into the atmosphere! But as long as there is an effing profit, who cares!

Would you have read this and believed it? Would you have been fooled into thinking that this is a good thing for Climate Change reduction? Basically these idiots are renting the CO2 for a short time, causing no net reduction in atmospheric CO2. The only way for this to reduce CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere is for it to be not used! Which is exactly what this company scorned? Sequester it, lock it away? But we could sell it!



January 3, 2017

Follow-up on Agriculture-Smagriculture

We have been having a lively interchange in the comments to this recent post (see Agriculture-Smagriculture below) and it occurs to me that many readers may not be aware of how much industry has inserted itself into the public research that affects our health.

The N.Y. Times ran an article that lays out many of the themes involved in this complex story in an article titled “Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant” by Danny Hakim. If you read that article, imagine multiplying that situation by a very large number and you will get an idea as to the breadth and scope of this issue.

One of the reasons behind the Republican effort to “shrink government” is that when the government supports scientific research it is in the public interest and has to let the chips fall where they may lack of bias (well, at least a minimum amount; it is not immune to corruption). When corporations sponsor public research it is often on a “if it is good for us, it gets published and if it isn’t, it doesn’t” basis.

Academics are often in a “must publish” situation, also called “publish or perish.” Even tenured professors can undergo a tenure review if they do not show a strong publication record. While that is rare, you are not going to get to full professor without a list of publications longer than your arm. So, corporations include “non-disclosure” clauses in their contracts for research to give them the right to publish or not. Their argument is that it is proprietary research and there is money to be made which they don’t want to just give to their competitors.

There is a movement afoot to have all publicly sponsored research made available to the public. (Hey, we paid for it.) Much of it is behind pay walls at US$35 per article, which I can attest is as good as being hidden. Combine that practice with corporate-funded research that counters a sponsoring corp’s interests getting buried, never to see the light of day, and you can see the public is pretty much kept in the dark.

Do realize also, that this is a selective use of scientists’ and their universities’ public images. Any research a giant corp wants done could be done “in house,” but by having a prominent scientist, working at a prominent university, doing the research, well, that gives the findings an imprimatur they can’t get from their own “findings.” Of course, if the research is damning, those imprimaturs work against them, hence the “contract provisions” giving them the power to publish … or not.

A crippled federal government, a la the one envisioned by the GOP, will not have the funds to sponsor the research we need done by neutral investigators who publish their works in somewhat accessible journals. It is not by accident that “Big Business” favors the party striving toward “smaller government.”

January 2, 2017

Agriculture, Smagriculture

We were taught in school that roughly 8000-10,000 years ago an agricultural revolution occurred. Around that time modern humans, the only Homo species left, developed agriculture and the world became a better place.

Instead of wandering around a rather large patch of ground, hunting and gathering as we went, we settled down, first into small villages, then later into larger villages and then cities. Wow, the march of progress has begun!

But, this story glosses over a few facts, facts like human beings became shorter and less heavy because of this change, that human life expectancy decreased because of this change, that human well-being decreased because of this change. As a matter of fact, there was very little that was positive about this transition. And, once it was started by any tribe and made successful, all of that tribe’s neighbors had to conform or be pushed out. Agriculture allowed for a small population expansion, giving its proponents the ability to dominate their region by pure numbers. But, everyone became more miserable because of it. Farmers work longer hours than do hunter-gatherers. They are confined to the land and see the same land, day after day instead of being able to enjoy a wide variety of lands. Farmer’s diets were quite narrow compare to hunter-gatherers and because so much human waste accumulated, disease was more prevalent.

Once farmers began to domesticate workable and edible animals (by breeding them to docility by the simple expedient of “harvesting” all of those which seemed too aggressive or who tried to escape) their health got even worse. Many diseases of domestic animals were communicable to their “owners.”

We also became worriers. As hunter-gatherers we had to worry about the approximate now and slightly into the future. Once we started planting crops, we had to worry about protecting the crop from animals that would eat it; we had to worry about the harvest and the next harvest and, if we expand our fields, will there be enough water, and … etc.

So, why did we deliberately adopt a mode of existence that actually made our lives worse? The answer is simple, we were unable to see the future well enough to avoid that path. Our “suppositions/predictions” were based upon fictions which we could make as rosy as we wished. In other words, we couldn’t see the consequences of our actions well enough to make a different decision.

Fast forward 8000-10,000 years to … now. We now have a specialized cadre of humans trained to create and examine “suppositions/predictions” and those specialists have told us that there are unpredictable and dire consequences attached to our preference for the use of combustion (burning things) to provide the energy to support our current lives. Combustion requires combustible materials which are all carbon-based (only carbon-based living things can accumulate enough energy from the sun that their carcasses can return to us heat and light when they are burned). This combustion results in increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in excess of what forests and other plant bases can remove. This has the unintended consequence of causing more of the Sun’s energy to be retained in the atmosphere where it is shared with the land and seas resulting in warmer conditions everywhere. (More evidence here if you need it.) Those warmer conditions affect the distribution of insects, fish, crop plants, and people all over the globe and because we have built such an extensive, anchored to the land infrastructure, we cannot just up and move things.

So, we now have learned to estimate the consequences of our physical actions to a much higher degree than when we launched the agricultural revolution. And, what have we done in this clear case of being on a very negative path? We have reveled in short-term thinking, partying like it was 8000 BCE. “What do those pointy headed scientists know?” “If the globe is warming, why does it still snow in winter?” “It is all due to natural cycles (not).” An honest response would be “Hey, there are massive amounts of money to be made here, so we are going to hold the course, so fuck off!”

So, what have we learned in the last 10,000 years? Not so much.

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