How to debunk a myth: Skeptical Science doesn't follow their own advice

An excellent article on how to debunk myths (by Skeptical Science):

  1. Lead off with the facts.  You need to state the facts, not the myth. Otherwise, the myth gets reinforced.
  2. If you have to explain the myth, precede it with a warning. State the myth. Then, provide an alternate explanation.
  3. Three facts are better than twelve.
  4. Use simple, clear language. The power of myths is that they are usually simplistic. Your facts need to be able to replace the myth.  Shoot for an explanation simple enough that they can repeat it.
  5. Focus on the undecided; there will always be an unswayable minority especially if it runs contrary to their core beliefs.
  6. Use graphics.
Here's an example of myth-busting done right:

But here's the thing.  Right now, on the Skeptical Science website is this graphic:
If that doesn't reinforce the myths, I don't know what does!

Lose 1000 euros every time or 7000 euros one time?

Apparently, if Germany bails out the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), it will cost Germany about 1,000 euros per capita.  Germans naturally balk at having to send a thousand euros down to the lazy bums (incidentally, the national stereotypes are wrong: Italians work longer hours than Germans, but it's similar to how a poor Vietnamese farmer works longer hours than an American farmer -- the American has more machines and more land and is therefore more productive).

On the other hand, if these countries default and have to leave the euro for their second-tier currencies, then German banks will lose enough that every German will in effect lose 7,000 euros per head the first year and incur smaller losses in future years. That's because the loans that the banks have on their books are worth far less.

So, is it rational to just bail the countries out? I'm not sure. Because you can be sure that it's not going to stop with this one-time. There will be another bailout a few years now, and as these things go, that bailout is going to be more expensive than this one. Therefore, it's probably time to stop throwing good money after bad. I don't think Germany's reluctance to carry out a bailout is irrational.

Penn State vs. UC Davis

Penn State students rioted because their football coach was fired for not doing enough to stop the abuse of children.

UC Davis students lodged a silent protest against police abuse.  The video is powerful if you have not seen it:

The two campuses seem to have completely different moral compasses.

China battling for scientists' minds

Coincident with a NY Times opinion about how China can defeat America:
China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game. It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails.
is an email I got from a Chinese scientific conference. They offer to pay me an honorarium to participate in the conference if I would organize a session consisting of scientists from outside China:
 The first author of each paper in an invited session must not be affiliated with an organization in China’s mainland. "(Invited Paper)" may be added below the title of each paper in the invited sessions. Invited session organizers will solicit submissions, conduct reviews and recommend accept/reject decisions on the submitted papers. 
Is this "buying affection" or is it something much more strategic? Invited papers at scientific conferences are quite prestigious, so they are giving me the ability to distribute favors and offering to partially pay my way.  At a time when science budgets in America are disappearing, the Chinese are actively building up their scientific expertise and gaining international exposure.

Google needs to think of G+ as a network, not as a destination

Google just doesn't get it.  They had a good social thing going with Google Reader, but they had to mess it up.  Here's an email that someone sent to my wife:

Please forward this link to Lakshman ... Previously, we used to share good articles via Google Reader. That service has been disabled now ...
Sent to you via Google Reader
Karachi to Bombay to Calcutta | History of Flight | Air & Space Magazine
I used to follow him on Google Reader.  Anything he shared was sure to be good and here's the clincher: I would see it when I was in the mood to read longish articles.  Google killed the share/follow feature on Google Reader, killing the one social thing they actually did well.

Instead, Google has replaced it with two buttons:  a +1 button and a G+ share button.  The problem with these is that there is no way to subscribe to someone's +1s on G+ -- there is no RSS feed for it.   And the G+ share is simply too invasive. While I do want to hear status updates from all my friends, I don't really care to read all the articles that all my friends post. I know which ones have reading tastes similar to mine.

Instead of thinking of G+ as a destination, Google would be better served to think of it as a network. With different clients and different services.  And Google Reader would be the client of G+ when it comes to reading longish articles.  Such an architecture would be a lot better than what they have now.

Patent madness

Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble over their Android-based e-reader (the Nook). Microsoft is now squeezing more money off Android manufacturers than they can make selling Windows Mobile. Apparently, the patents they are suing B&N over are:

1. placing a loading status icon in the browser.
Really? This is novel? Here's somebody demonstrating a framework for doing this for Ajax-web applications:

2. browser that recognizes background images and loads them after text.
Images loading after text has been a feature of pretty much every browser since the original Netscape.

3. Tab controls for use by all applications instead of application-by-application.
This has been a feature of Macs since forever.
4. Using handles to change text size.
This is standard functionality in any text reader. I think even emacs used to have it.

5. storing and annotating text that is not modifiable
Again, pretty standard functionality in most readers.  Even Ghostscript used to have this.

Software should never be patentable. All we'll end up with are these types of bogus patents.

p.s. A commenter on Slashdot uses irony to make the same point:

People have known for decades that it's sometime useful to give users feedback about something that takes a long time, by displaying a progress meter or at least "Please wait" or "loading" or "initializing the galaxy." When GUIs got popular, displaying it as an icon was natural. When small screens started to get more popular, it became somewhat common to eschew fixed-position widgets in favor of using the entire screen as a "content area" because there was so little to spare for scrollbars, status displays, or whatever. 
Yet despite this situation, no one could figure out how to display a loading status icon in a content area. Or at least no one easily could. But then Microsoft Research applied themselves to the problem, and with a lot of insight, experiments, trial and error, hard work, and just plain luck, they figured out how to do it. I've never seen a Microsoft handheld computer, but presumably they used the novel solution in a product. But nobody wanted it, so it died. And Microsoft, too, may some day die. 
The secret for how to display a status icon in a content area, could become lost when Microsoft dies. But no. Not willing to let their efforts be buried by the sands of time as a lost trade secret, they took advantage of patent law, which gave them a brief monopoly (a mere 20 years within themillennia that people have been doing mathematics) for which We The Public received public disclosure for how their invention works. 
And what did Google and Barnes & Noble do? They renegged on the disclosure-for-monopoly deal!! Instead of having to figure out on their own, how to display a status icon in a content area, they dishonorably read through all of Microsoft patents, learned all the secrets ("aha! That's how to display a status icon, where the icon is in the content area! Ingenious!") and defied the monopoly. 
And here you all are, blaming the victim, Microsoft. Yet without Microsoft, would you know how to display an icon inside a content area instead of outside it? Or would you be pounding your keyboards in frustration? "It doesn't compile!" or "It doesn't run right! There's my icon, but it's outside of the content area! How did they do it!" or "There's my icon inside the content area, but WTF, it doesn't say 'Loading'! How is the user supposed to know it's loading something, if I can't figure out how to make the icon say 'Loading'?!" Please, people, think of the inventors and their technical solutions. Without the monopoly, they might not have had any incentive at all, to solve the long-standing mystery.

What's a photograph worth?

Nice photo, this ... right? How much do you think it is worth?

It recently sold for $4.3 million dollars.

The next time you are by a rural riverside, see if you can take a picture like the one above. Don't be surprised if you don't find anyone willing to pay you the $4.30 it'll cost to print it out.

Seriously ... who pays $4.3 million for an easily reproducible photograph?

Can radar see earthquakes?

Enough people have now asked me if we can use radar to predict tsunamis that I've now started treating it as a serious question that deserves a serious answer.

But ... maybe all those people were just ahead of the curve ...?

Images courtesy National Weather Service Forecast Office, Norman.

One more thing I can not do

When I recently got a government grant for some weather research, I had to sign this document:
Human trafficking! Can't do that no more.

Seriously ... congress in its wisdom has decided that it's a good idea to make government contractors promise not to use slave labor. Good intentions, but this is what it means in practice -- schmucks like me getting science grants have one more piece of paper to sign.

Patent madness

Sometimes, pigs can fly. I hereby quote an article from the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute:

... software development is an individual, creative activity, more akin to writing a novel than designing a jet engine. A single programmer can inadvertently infringe dozens of software patents in the course of a single project ... We don't expect novelists to hire patent lawyers before publishing their work; nor should we expect computer programmers or their employers to have patent attorneys on retainer
I am sure that the code we write for weather forecasting probably violates dozens of patents. Luckily, we have no money, so no body sues us.  Still, being judgement-proof is no way to operate.

Why Americans don't choose STEM careers

The NY Times has yet another article wondering why American students don't major in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). This time, it's on how many students start out in STEM fields and change:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.
Based on my highly scientific sample of about a dozen second-generation Indian Americans who started out in science/engineering but switched careers, the article is wrong. It is not because the kids can't grok the math or find the subjects boring. On the contrary, it is solely because engineering and science in the United States are low-status occupations. Doctors are high-status, and so students stick with it. The reason the kids didn't pursue STEM careers is that they have better options -- bankers and lawyers make more money.

The reason why graduate students in engineering are mostly immigrants is the same reason that most fruit pickers in Georgia are Mexicans. Americans don't want to do this stuff.  Science, engineering and fruit-picking is what people fresh-off-the-boat do.

The Right kind of prayer

I think it is a bad idea when government officials attend overtly religious events in their official capacity. Still, it is a fine line when a state governor attends the ground-breaking opening ceremony for a new factory and the ceremony is quite religious:

Beshear attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for a new factory run by FlexFilm, a company based in India that makes materials for packaging, printing, insulation and other purposes. The plant represents a $180 million investment, and is expected to create 250 jobs in Kentucky. As the local newspaper the News-Enterprise reports, the groundbreaking included a Hindu ceremony, the bhoomi poojan.
The governor's Republican opponent was not pleased:
“He’s there participating with Hindu priests, participating in a religious ceremony,” Williams said. “They can say what they want to. He’s sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don’t know what the man was thinking.”
Just in case you get the idea that this fellow is objecting to mixing religion and state, he clarified that it wasn't the prayers that he minded. They just had to be the Right kind:
To get down and get involved and participate in prayers to these polytheistic situations, where you have these Hindu gods that they are praying to, doesn’t appear to me to be in line with what a governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ought to be doing.
Me, I think there is no Right kind of prayer. And government officials should stay out of it in any official capacity. Having said that, if I were a government official and I had to attend an event that started with a prayer, I'd bow my head and keep with the ethos of what's happening. At that point, it's about respecting the host, not about religion.