Posts Tagged ‘Inferno’

Why I am a Feminist

Inferno
Inferno
Mon Jan 19, 2015 9:36 pm by Inferno

There have been, in the past, a few discussions about what feminism is and why or why not one should be a feminist. I will try to lay out why I think the discussion is purely semantic and why we should all be feminists.

 

Part 1: The meaning of feminism

The first part we need to discuss is a definition of feminism. Wikipedia defines feminism as follows:

Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies that share a common stated aim: to define, establish, and defend equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.

Note that feminism aims for equal rights, not special rights. The underlying assumption is that women currently have fewer rights in many areas. Establishing this will be the second step. For now, let’s take a look at another definition. In her HeForShe-speech, Emma Watson put it thus:

For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

This goes a step further: while one could argue that the Wikipedia definition suggests raising rights for women (while not raising those of men), Emma Watson’s definition makes it clear that both sexes should have “equal rights and opportunities”. This is an important point: in some few areas, men are at a disadvantage to women. In Austria, a woman is more than twice as likely to receive custody of a child, even if her ability to do so is in grave doubt.

 

Part 2: Accepting that there is a problem

Having accepted that feminism isn’t “wanting to subjugate all men” or something equally silly, we can move on to establishing that there is a problem.

Looking at only one of literally thousands of possible pieces of evidence, we find that out of 535 members of Congress (US), only 20 are women. The reasons put forward are manifold, but it seems that “family planning” plays no role here. Instead, it is thought that women doubt themselves more than men and are less likely to consider running for office. The evidence does not suggest that women are actually worse.

This undermining of women’s self-perception lies, I believe, at the heart of the issue. Sadly I can’t find the article so you’ll either have to believe me or not, but in a (New York Times?) article a few years back, an author asked women about their career choices. The overwhelming majority cited their self-perception (“I’m not good enough,” etc) as the main problem. This was (unconsciously) made worse by their mentors, who would encourage their male counterparts because they actively sought attention, while the females at the respective jobs didn’t actively search for encouragement (“If I’m good enough, I’ll be told”) and consequently didn’t feel like they were good enough.

I believe that perhaps the largest task the feminist movement faces is to encourage people to throw away their conscious and unconscious biases. We know that they exist when it comes to race. Implicit Association Tests are routinely used to seeing what sort of bias a person (or group of people) has against a different group of people. (White vs black, national vs “immigrants”, etc). To mention but one 2012 study, people were more likely to think of men in presidential terms than women.

When following instructions to sort images rapidly, the average person found it easier to pair words like “president”, “governor”, and “executive” with male names and words like “secretary”, “assistant”, and “aide” with female names. In other words, many people had great difficulty associating women with leadership.

This is powerful evidence that women are thought of as less capable and it might be part of the reason why women choose not to go into political careers. (Or scientific careers, etc.)

I could have also mentioned other pieces of evidence: rape victims by gender, pay by gender, etc, etc. It doesn’t paint a very equal picture.

 

Part 3: Hostile opposition on both sides

The most remarkable thing about feminism, in my opinion, is the staunch opposition to it from both men and women. I can sort of understand the male side: long-held rights and special treatment will be lost if the cause succeeds. What I can’t understand is the opposition of females.

A typical and very moderate opposition (or rather, counterargument) to feminists is typified by this picture:

 

The content of the picture is true. The jobs mentioned are far skewed in the “favour” of females. I say “favoured” because I mean there are more females in those jobs than males, not that those jobs are great. This is also the false imagery this picture evokes: “Feminists are fighting to get into jobs like engineering and programming even though they have such superb jobs like kindergarten teachers, nurses and flight attendants.”

This is false, and it’s trivial to prove false. In general, programming and engineering are well-paid jobs with fairly high social standing, even though the path is a difficult one. Kindergarten teachers, on the other hand, are regarded as little better than better playmates for the children of rich people. In Austria, a kindergarten teacher can be happy to make one-fifth more (≈1000€) than the absolute minimum (≈800€), below which you get help from the state. This isn’t much different in other countries. While the numbers may be wrong, salary.com lists the median annual wage of a flight attendant as ≈867,000$ and that of a kindergarten teacher as ≈853,000$ (both with little to no chance of rising through the ranks), while even an entry-level engineer can make between ≈850-64,000$, with the possibility of making ≈8100,000$+ at the end of the career.

Is it any surprise that men don’t typically want to become kindergarten teachers? Men are usually encouraged to find a job at or above their qualification, so kindergarten teachers and the like are “left over” for women. As someone working in education, I can assure you that men are welcomed with open arms in any education-related job. We are currently seven men in a team of about forty. My principal specifically wanted more men, as there were only four men in a team of forty before. Six people joined the team, three were men. How is that not fair? More than that, it is extremely unfair, considering about twenty contenders were women and only five were men.

This was but one of the many bogus objections I could have looked at.

 

In any case, let’s take a look at the other side:

I’m using random pictures I found on the web searching for “I don’t need feminism.” Most of the arguments are as confused as this one.

The argument isn’t that women are inherently weak. The argument is that men are (consciously or unconsciously) oppressing women in one form or another. It would have been equally wrong to claim, fifty years ago, that “I don’t need black rights because black empowerment implies that we blacks are currently weak.” No, it simply meant that white people were wielding all the power and didn’t give black people a chance to show just how strong they were.

 

I will only link to the next three, because they offer insight into the great misapprehensions surrounding feminism:

Person 1 claims that “feminism = not wanting men to compliment you“, which may be true for a vocal minority, but certainly isn’t true for the movement as a whole. It also ignores pretty much everything feminists fight for.

Person 2 claims that “feminism = ignoring the inequalities faced by men“, which I showed to be false in the definition.

Person 3 claims that “feminists demand entitlements instead of working for the money” even though the wage gap should be obvious to all thinking people.

Every time I see one of these “I don’t need feminism” pictures, I notice that it was feminists who achieved the rights of the women opposing feminism to do the things they now take for granted. Let’s consider this for a second: working in every job? Feminism, check. Being able to vote? Feminism, check. Being able to dress the way you like? Feminism, check.

Why are some women fighting so hard against the very movement that has achieved so much and is trying to achieve so much more for them?

 

Part 4: Why I am a Feminist

There are many reasons I could put forward and all of them would be valid reasons. I could let Joss Whedon speak for me. I could let this woman speak for me who rightly points out that society teaches women “Don’t get raped” instead of teaching men “Don’t rape.”

The truth of the matter is that there isn’t one big reason why I’m a feminist: there are many reasons, all of them equally important. But if I had to pick one reason, then it would be this: “I am a feminist because I support perfect equality of the sexes. Without this first step, how will we achieve equality for smaller, less vocal minorities?”

Misunderstandings about Atheism

Inferno
Inferno
Wed Nov 05, 2014 3:42 pm by Inferno

I recently saw an interview with David Mitchell. One topic discussed was his stance on religion. Here’s what he said:

1) Up until 0:30, it’s rather uninteresting: So he’s not an atheist, he’s an agnostic. I’d point out that he’s wrong, he’s an agnostic atheist, but that’s not a huge problem.

 

I’ve mentioned it a few times all over the forum, so I won’t go into it here, but “agnostic” is a qualifier about the position of God, it’s not a position in and of itself. You can be an agnostic about everything, aka. claiming that nothing is knowable, but you can’t purely be an agnostic about whether or not God exists: If your life does not include a God or gods, then you’re an atheist.

 

2) The first real problem I have is between 0:30-0:40. David says that he “wants there to be an all-powerful, benevolent God”. That’s fine, lots of atheists want that. In fact, I’ll use two definitions now:

An atheist is a person whose world view does not contain a God or gods.

An anti-theist is a person whose world view does not contain a God or gods, sees both organized religion (i.e. churches) and religion itself (i.e. the belief in a God) as something detrimental. Such a person would not like for there to be a God.

 

Christopher Hitchens famously said:

Such a person [an atheist] might very well say that he wished it were true [the existence of a god]. I know some atheists who say, ‘Well, I wish I could believe it. I just can’t. There’s not enough evidence for it’ … I say I’m an anti-theist because I think it’d be rather awful if it was true … you would never have a waking or sleeping moment where you weren’t being watched, and controlled, and supervised by some celestial entity from conception until, well, not even until your death because it’s only after death when the real fun begins, isn’t it? It’d be like living in North Korea.”

This is what I understand anti-theism to be: Absolute opposition to both organized religion and the hope of an afterlife. I’ll be absolutely clear: I agree with Christopher Hitchens that any god yet proposed* would be ghastly and I seriously hope that there is no god.

 

*That needs extra clarification as well: The gods of ancient Greece do not count as gods in this context. They are basically humans with super-powers, not gods. If they do count as gods, then I’d have no problem with them, they’re awesome.
What I do have a problem with is the bogus claim that a god can be both all-powerful and all-loving and that there can be a heaven.

3) The next problem I have is between 0:45-1:01.

David says that there are, and I have to be fair here, “some atheists” who want to tear the comfort of religion away from people. While it may be true that there are some people who want to do that, that’s not the position of the vast majority of atheists. Or anti-theists, for that matter.

Instead, most atheists I have talked with are perfectly happy to let people pray in their own homes or even in churches as long as religious stupidity (genital mutilation, fanaticism, religiously motivated killings, opposition to homosexual marriage, etc.) stays within the confines of their own homes or even churches. Another famous Christopher Hitchens quote goes as follows: “What about the most important minority in the history of the world? … We have to be insulted and outraged every day by what we see and what we read. By slaughter and murder. Slaughter and murder and barbarism and insult and superstitious nonsense.”

If religion and the insanity associated with religion wasn’t shoved down our collective throats, I think few people would have a problem with religion. As it stands however, I see it as my duty to stand up to it.

 

4) The last problem I have is between 1:25-1:35. David says (roughly) that “the idea that you take away one of the excuses, that the killing will suddenly stop happening is absurd.”

Quite right, that is an absurd proposition. That’s why I’ve never seen anyone make it. There is one argument put forward by Christopher Hitchens that there would have been peace long ago in Northern Ireland if there had been no religion, but I think that’s wrong. There certainly might have been a better chance, but I think the struggle would have been largely political instead of largely religious.

However, things like 9/11 would undoubtedly never have happened. If not for the crazy idea that you get rewarded for your death in an afterlife, nobody would have strapped a bomb to themselves and blown themselves up. It’s ridiculous.

Much of the opposition against evolution would be gone, a good deal of anti-science would simply vanish. Genital mutilation would be gone almost entirely. Abortion clinics would be largely safe. And so on and so forth. A lot would definitely change and the way David explains it is a simple misrepresentation.

I hope this clears up some of the misunderstandings about what atheism is and what atheists believe. There will be, I hope, a fair amount of discussion on this issue.
Some people may disagree with the distinction of atheism and anti-theism, nor atheism and agnosticism.
Some people may disagree with the notion that a god is by definition a bad thing.
Some people may disagree that religion interferes too much.
Some people may disagree that the things I listed under 4) will go away if religion were to disappear.

Ah well…

School reality in Austria

Inferno
Inferno
Sat Mar 08, 2014 12:00 am by Inferno

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time now but I never got around to it. I wanted to continue my politics series, but atm Austrian politics really sucks and I’d rather not talk about it.

In my last post on education, I briefly brushed on one astounding fact: Education is hereditary. I stated that “between 60-80% of learning achievement can be predicted by looking at the background of children”.

I won’t delve into why that is too much, but I want to explain how that creates problems for teachers.

I am currently teaching at a school in Vienna. It’s not a bad school at all, in fact I’m quite happy about the school’s infrastructure, the colleagues there, the children and of course the parents. All in all, I’m satisfied.

Could things be better? Of course they could. Our computers and printers are slow and old, our projectors hardly work at all and we’ve barely got enough space to work on. (About the size of an average computer screen, 1.5 if you’re lucky.)
Compared to Nordic countries, that’s nothing! In Sweden, I had my own desk and two cupboards. That’s about as much as our head mistress gets!

All that aside, there’s a much deeper problem with our education, one that can’t easily be fixed.

 

Let’s back up a little. A few decades ago, kids were still beaten. Kids were scared to go to school, but they went anyway. Kids had suffered through a damn lot.

And yet, they got good grades, learned a lot and essentially built what we have today: A (more or less) functional society with (more or less) good morals and a (more or less) slowly closing gender gap, with (more or less) little discrimination against people due to whatever reason… All in all it’s a good society, though of course there are still things we can improve.

However, kids were more polite, though that is of course not due to any innate quality of generations past, but rather because they feared the rod. In any case, teachers in those days had it much easier but used inadequate methods to teach.

Nowadays, we have the exact opposite. Teachers have the benefit of smartboards, neuroscience, excellent teacher training, readily available teaching materials and so on and so forth.

And yet, teaching is more difficult than ever. You have to make your subject not only more interesting than the other subjects, but you actually have to compete with video games, movies, taking drugs, drinking and even sex. Try doing that, making your subject more interesting than sex: Good fucking luck.

 

If that were the only problem, we’d be in trouble, but we would be able to fix it: Appeal to the parents, make them work a bit.

Here’s the real problem: Many parents, at least in Austria, think they know better than the teachers. I’ll give you an example. Last week, we talked about “animals” in class: Basic vocabulary, talking about them, etc. Possibly the easiest animal for a German kid to remember is “rat”. So I was surprised to see that a boy had written “ret”. While my colleague was teaching, I went up to him and asked him about that. Here’s the short discussion that ensued:

Kid: “My mom told me you spell it like that.”

Me: “Well that’s a problem then because that’s not the way it’s spelled. I studied English for a reason, did your mom? Look, here’s the book spelling it “rat”, here’s the dictionary, here’s…”

Kid: “I don’t care. My mom told me you guys suck anyway, so I don’t have to listen to you.”

Now this might be an isolated incident, but it’s still representative of the mentality many parents hold: Teachers are lazy, get paid too much and they know absolutely nothing. Here’s another example. We’re currently re-structuring the curricula at my teachers university college (PH Wien) and I volunteered to help. Needless to say we have no power to do anything at all, but we still meet regularly. During the first meeting, one of the participants (parents association representative) asked, and I paraphrase his long question: “How come, after all this training, there are still bad teachers?”

Now this, of course, betrays a wild ignorance of Gaussian distribution: Some people are very good, a lot are medium and some are very bad. Teachers training doesn’t get rid of the bottom percent, it just moves the whole curve a bit to the right, aka. towards the “better” part of the curve. However, there is a deeper message: Teachers need to be controlled, they need to be supervised, they need to be watched over.

On the whole, of course, I agree: Teachers should do their absolute best, just as doctors and firefighters and … should do their absolute best. No questions asked. However, that’s not possible without public support (aka money) and public support (aka supporting parents and society).

 

The third problem, and I’ll be sure to confuse you with this sentence, is migration.

“Wahhh, right wing scum.”

No, don’t get me wrong. The problem isn’t with migrants, it’s with how we accept migrants. This may be different in other countries, but migrants in generally aren’t welcomed in Austria: There’s a strong anti-immigration strain-of-thought, especially in large cities. If the only thing you tell migrants is that they’re lazy and that their language isn’t worth a damn, then we’ll have a society of people who think just that. If we tell people that only our language is important, then not only will migrant children lose their identity, but we’ll lose the ability (or willingness) to adapt to new cultures.

This may have something to do with our history: We’ve had a long-standing feud with the Ottoman Empire (aka the Turks) and we’ve been invaded more often than possibly any country on earth. (This may or may not be a slight exaggeration) We were once a mighty empire with loads of cultures where we didn’t have to fear diversity, now we’re a tiny country with no say in any matter. However, fear of diversity will kill this small country: Only through increased diversity and increased acceptance of it will we be able to hold our place.

Finally, it is exactly the wrong approach to tell children that their language isn’t worth anything: We must encourage them to learn their mother tongue, if only because mastery of one language will make mastery of a second language more probable. The earlier, the better; the more, the better. In short: If, as a foreigner, you want your kid to learn English, teach it your mother tongue first.

 

Jumping back to the beginning, I think I’ve identified a few problems with schools as they’re currently run:

1) School needs to be exciting, but schools nowadays are boring.

2) Society neither trusts teachers, nor are they seen as authority figures. Where respect and mutual aid used to be the norm, distrust and low-profile conflict are now much more common. Parents tell their kids not to trust their teachers because “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. Parents think they’re experts in education, simply because they have a kid and have read a few books on the subject.

3) Education isn’t as “interesting” a political topic any more. Screw what they said in “House of Cards”: Education isn’t anything that will capture votes. Or maybe it will, but after that we won’t do anything useful. I’ll have an entire post about that soon. *

4) Cultural identity and the benefits from it aren’t recognised as worth protecting, instead we want people to assimilate in a way that’s comfortable for us. Never mind what’s best for the kid, let’s think about what’s best for me.

These are just a few of the problems teachers in Austria (and probably also in other countries) face. I’m not saying that teachers are saints, of course not. Neither am I saying that they’re purely victims. I’m saying that we should be realistic about the challenges of teaching, that parents should support a child’s learning and that schools can’t work miracles. When in doubt, talk to your child’s teacher once in a while and formulate a plan how you can best support your child.

*There are many things I could talk about, but I think this will be the most interesting. I’ll be talking about current problems in schools (due to the system), current scientific investigations into the topics including possible solutions, and I’ll talk about how the state is trying to fix it: By doing the opposite of what experts are telling them, I might add.

If you have any questions regarding schools, school reforms, teaching practices, etc. I’ll be happy to answer.

Global Warming – Is there a solution?

Inferno
Inferno
Mon Feb 17, 2014 1:52 pm by Inferno

I spend way too much on my newspaper. 200€ a year, just to get a weekly paper. Granted, it’s about 10m² just on one page and it’s as thick as your average Bible, but still… For those of you who don’t know it, I’m talking about the German newspaper “Zeit”. It really is excellent, I just don’t have the time to read it every week. Not even close. So mostly, I just pluck out the articles that really interest me and go through those.

I won’t bore you with the article in “Zeit”, instead I’ll link to the article it references:

Rollin Stones: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Short version: We’re pumping out much more CO² than we should. In fact, if we keep going at this rate then we’ll reach the red line (about 565 Gigatons until 2050, counting from today) in just over 18 years. (Today’s output ~31Gt/y, and 565/31=18.2) The problem: We’ve got about 2700Gt of CO² sleeping under ground in the form of coal, gas and oil.

So what are our choices? Depending on which side you listen to, there’s different solutions and different non-solutions. If you listen to the deniers then obviously there’s no need for a solution, the greens (note: NO capital G) say that solar/wind/bio-fuel and cutting carbon emissions (either through fuel economy or reducing the economy) are solutions but that nuclear power is a big no-no. The nuclear industry says that nuclear energy is the only solution.

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in what I think and say. Only to thrash it in the comments.

I will try to base my arguments on as much science as I can, though I warn you up-front: Not all here is hard science, some of it is soft science aka. humanities. In those cases, I present arguments and hope that they’re good enough.

A paper in 2004 (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) offers 15 solutions. (page 3 in the PDF, page 970 on paper) They can be categorized into two (or three) sections:

1) Improve efficiency

2) Use renewable energy sources or those of low CO² output

2.1) Use carbon sinks for fossil fuels

All of these 15 solutions are good and I can think of a few others, though they would be costly and possibly not as effective. So let’s focus on these 15. We’ll agree that 1 and 2.1 are all good, skip forestry (I’m very happy to see that on the list and it’s something that will take a lot of effort, sadly) and we’ll move to #2. Here we have five possible solutions: Biofuels, Photovoltaic, Hydrogen, Wind and Nuclear. I’ll try to very briefly deal with all of them, but I will completely skip Hydrogen because I know exactly nothing about its use as a fuel. If anyone could enlighten me in the comments, that would be much appreciated. It’s also noteworthy that both Hydro-electric power and tidal power have been skipped. The solution: There’s just so damn few of them, they make no global impact whatsoever. (Combined, they could potentially make up 1/4th of the power needed today, but that’s potential (i.e. sometimes not accessible and/or in natural reserves) and there’s huge costs involved.)

Potential energy available

So let’s quickly look at those four remaining sources of fuel. I’ll start with Wind.

There are two ways of harnessing the power of the wind: Offshore wind farms and Onshore wind farms. Theoretically, wind power could give us more than enough energy. (see graphic 1) For the following figures, I will rely on this 2010 UK report as shown over at Wikipedia.
We can easily see that there is a huge difference in cost between onshore and offshore wind power: Offshore costs nearly twice as much. That’s also the reason why many companies are reducing their offshore wind power spending and are focusing on other means. For example, to achieve Britain’s goal of 15GW, this article suggests that you’ll need about 60$ billion. I don’t have that kind of money and neither do they, it seems.
The second way, onshore wind power, suffers problems of its own. Turbines don’t look good, they kill birds (though not nearly as many as people might want you to think), they’re unsafe… None of these are real problems, so we’ll skip those and get onto real ones. For this, I have absolutely no concrete number and must rely on what I was told by a high-ranking member in the Austrian ministry for agriculture. (includes renewable energy) If his numbers are correct, then onshore wind installations are pretty much used up. Austria produces about 1400MW from Wind Energy, or about 4% of our national consumption. Most countries produce between 1-7% of their energy from wind energy, in fact the EU average is 7%. Only countries with access to the ocean or with huge parts of unused land produce more than that. If I am to trust said person above, the EU average can rise to 10%, maybe 12%. It’s doubtful if more can be produced, simply because the turbines take so much space.
In short, Wind power can only do so much to curb carbon emissions. We must look further.
Having dismissed wind power as a viable alternative, we move on to biofuels. Contrary to common belief, not all of biofuels are generated by sugar cane or maize. This pop-sci article discusses the worth of forestry-related biofuels. Other researchers are looking into algae, fungi and other alternative biofuel sources.
Apart from the obvious problems with biofuels, like “food vs. fuel”, soil erosion, deforestation, impact on water, etc., there’s another huge problem: ERO(E)I or Energy Return On (Energy) Investment. Basically it means that you put in X amounts of energy and you get Y back. If Y>X, then you have a net gain. An EROEI of 1 means that you just break even: You get back what you put in, so there’s no gain. An EROEI of anything lower than 1 means you lose energy. Fusion, to take but one example, has an EROEI lower than 1.
OK, I see what you’re getting at. What’s the EROEI of bio-fuels? Murphy and Hall (2010) calculated three different EROEI’s:
1) Biodiesel with 1.3
2) Corn-based Ethanol with 0.8-1.6
3) Ethanol (Sugarcane) with 0.8-10
Most biofuels are simply too inefficient to make a big impact. We’d have to use vast swathes of land to achieve this. As Pacala and Socolow (2004) state:

Option 13: Biofuels. Fossil-carbon fuels can also be replaced by biofuels such as ethanol. A wedge of biofuel would be achieved by the production of about 34 million barrels per day of ethanol in 2054 that could displace gasoline, provided the ethanol itself were fossil-carbon free. This ethanol production rate would be about 50 times larger than today’s global pro- duction rate, almost all of which can be attrib- uted to Brazilian sugarcane and United States corn. An ethanol wedge would require 250 million hectares committed to high-yield (15 dry tons/hectare) plantations by 2054, an area equal to about one-sixth of the world’s crop- land. An even larger area would be required to the extent that the biofuels require fossil-carbon inputs. Because land suitable for annually harvested biofuels crops is also often suitable for conventional agriculture, biofuels production could compromise agricultural productivity.

Now I suggest, and you may or may not agree with that assessment, that this is simply unacceptable. We can not, nor should we, use biofuels to replace fossil-carbon fuels. Our greatest hope lies in electric motors. Biofuels can substitute a small sliver of current use, but if I were to make decisions I’d ban them outright.

This leaves us with the photovoltaic and nuclear options. To achieve 1/15th of today’s energy consumption, we’d need an area the size of Israel. (2mio ha = 20,000km² ~Israel or Slovenia) This wouldn’t be a problem if we could just plant them wherever we want, but we have to factor in watts per m² (Graphic 2), distance to destination, etc.

Watts per m²

There is the added problem that photovoltaic costs quite a bit (see UK 2010) and again uses up large tracts of land. However, some people suggest it could make up 3-4 wedges (of 14-16 wedges needed) in this battle. I’m not so optimistic, at least not with the current state of technology. I’m all for using photovoltaic, don’t get me wrong. We’ve got some panels installed ourselves, as much as we could fit on the roof. However, they’re still not at a point where they’re effective enough to really take over. Currently, the most effective (and expensive?) cells have an efficiency of 44%. The average is far below that.
My conclusion: Solar power is by far the most promising of the above four mentioned, but we shouldn’t slack off on innovating them.

Last but not least, I want to turn  to nuclear power. I have previously already talked about how nuclear power is actually an incredibly safe alternative, the problem is just that people don’t know about that. I won’t go into that here. The above mentioned UK estimate (2010) calculates nuclear cost as being lower than tidal, offshore wind and solar power, and as being in the vicinity of other forms of energy. (onshore, coal, gas, biomass, etc.) By “in the vicinity” I mean that they overlap a huge amount, because of course there is some error margin. Nuclear’s EROEI is, depending on what kind of reactor you run, either lower than wind’s (10 vs 18) or much higher than wind (50 vs 18), but no matter what it’s far higher than either biofuels or photovoltaic (1.3 and 6.8 respectively).
There is then, only one real problem: Nuclear energy is a good way of battling CO² output, but on its own it’s not sufficient.

Nuclear alone may just not suffice

I will reserve a political discussion of these issues for a later time. I hope that I’ve made a few points clear:

  • Some suggested solutions (biofuels, wind) may just be far less viable than advertised. These “solutions” should be avoided if at all possible or at least only implemented to a certain degree.
  • Other solutions are difficult to talk about due to a lack of information (wind) or due to public opposition (nuclear), though that wasn’t mentioned now.
  • Various solutions are needed to solve this problem. No one solution can fix this problem on its own. (Well, returning to our hunter/gatherer days might…) Greens are harming the cause (of reducing CO²) by not allowing nuclear energy to be part of the solution.
  • I personally would go further and postulate that avoiding the oncoming crisis is ONLY possible if we use nuclear energy. I’d suggest going for 3-4 wedges instead of the 1 wedge suggested, if only to have a safety net. As soon as solar energy comes to the point where it can actively take over, we can turn off the reactors and lean back in contentment. But until then, nuclear energy is a vital part of the solution.

Science writing: Tools

Inferno
Inferno
Tue Jan 14, 2014 12:24 am by Inferno

I’ve not given up on my other posts, I’m just not in the mood for them at the moment. Politics is generally pissing me off because we have such a shitty government and I don’t want to write about schools at the moment, just because. 😉

OK, now on to what’s currently happening. I’m in the middle of writing a paper for a journal, I’m writing a mock-paper for a seminar and I’m writing my Bachelor’s Thesis. Naturally, my mind is preoccupied with academic writing.

I’ve found a few wonderful papers on how to read a paper (Inception, isn’t it?) and I will try to put a list together soon. (So anywhere between 6 and 12 years.) For the moment however, I want to focus on a few tools I use to organize my papers, find sources, put everything together and just generally make my academic life easier.

 

First up, my computer. I own a crappy, 4-year old laptop. It’s loud, it’s slow and dang, does it heat up. So for those times I want to read/write in my bed, I bought a cooling pad. You can have them for 5$ a piece, I bought mine in Sweden and it’s of slightly superior quality so I had to put down 30$.

The laptop itself has 4Gig Ram, 2.1GH and a Radeon HD 5145. That means I can use most graphics programs out there, including Adobe Photoshop and Video programs. I don’t need those, but I do occasionally put together pictures/graphics, for that I use photoshop.

Another thing you absolutely need is an external hard drive. I got my 500GB (more than enough for working purposes) for a little under 80$ and that was ages ago. You can now get 1TB for the same price. (Don’t forget the 1. If you just get TB, that’s money badly spent!) On that HDD, you want to store your papers and make backups of your computer. I’ve had a colleague in who lost his BA’s Thesis and damn, was he fucked.

Also essential: A few (2-3 minimum) USB-drives. I’ve got one with 2GB, 4GB and 8GB each, plus a few others. One of them is a second backup for my library, the others I use for current writing. Also essential: Create a dropbox or mediafire account and upload your work. My complete library of papers, books and University-related stuff currently runs at just over 2GB, plus another 1GB of video-lectures. Mediafire gives you 50GB, Dropbox 5GB, so that’ll easily fit.

 

Now that you’ve got the potential of storing your files, you need some stuff to organize them, find files and write them.

Most importantly: A browser.
I personally use Chrome, but have used Firefox before. Both are good, depending on what you need. I prefer Chrome because of the layout and usability, but again I wouldn’t mind using Firefox. I haven’t used Mobile, I would discourage you from using Safari and IE and I’d probably not use Opera, though I have in the past.

 

So assuming you’re running Chrome, I’ll run you through my extensions. Because I’m a cruel computer user and leave about 10-15 tabs open at any given time, I use Xmarks to synchronize my tabs and bookmarks. If ever I lose them or my browser crashes and Chrome’s inbuilt safe-system fails, I just click on Xmarks and re-open my tabs. Handy, but not essential.

Next up, Lazarus Form Recovery. Have you ever written a perfect post, your browser died and your post was gone? Well, Lazarus has (so far) saved me from re-writing about 10k words. That’s quite a bit.

I’ve already written about Unsourced and Rebutr before, so I’m not going to repeat myself. Problematic: I’m not using them any more, they’re just not updated quickly enough.

Now for the jewels in my collection. First up, I own a Kindle as of last week. It’s not only 40$ and it really makes your life easier, so don’t be a snob, buy one. Install sendtoKindle and it will give you an excellent little extension on your browser. You see a document you might want to read, you click on the extension and send it to your Kindle. The size is adapted so you can easily read it and the format is great. With this extension, I’ve already sent about 20 science-y articles to my Kindle, so now I can ride the metro and catch up on my reading. (My only problem: PDFs are huge! My Kindle should be able to fit 1400 books, but after about 50 PDFs it’s about halfway full.)

The second extension may be even better: Evernote Web Clipper, in addition to the Desktop-version of Evernote. With it, you can save articles (or pictures) from the web. Just search them in your browser, click the extension and save the article, save it as a PDF, take a screenshot… etc. In the desktop-version, they synchronize automatically, you can then organize them using folders or tags, depending on what you like. It saves the URL, you can read the complete article (depending on how you saved it without comments (eg. blogs) and without ads) and you can write in the article. Holy shit this thing is awesome! You can also export them as PDFs (for use on your Kindle) and you can sync it with your smartphone.
Obviously you can also use it the way it was intended to: As a digital scrap book.
Additionally, you can network with people. I’m currently exchanging information with my Professors at University. Any article they deem worthy of my interest, they send me with one click. And vice versa. Networking bitches, it’s fun!

 

Furthermore, I run a few programs on my computer that are not attached to my browser. I’ve got the usual anti-spyware/anti-virus software (AVG in my case), I’ve got some pc-performance programs (DLL-Files Fixer at 15$ and TuneUp Utilities 2014 for 25$) and a few programs for keeping in touch. (E-Mail organizers for my 3 different E-Mail accounts, Skype, Teamspeak, etc.)

One of the programs I use is Light Image Resizer. Sometimes I need to send in a JPG in a different format, make it smaller, make it bigger, etc. I’m sure there are better programs out there but this one does the trick for me.

I use Audacity to analyse any interviews I did and I use Pamela to record Skype calls.

 

And now come the great heroes of my desktop. I am now going to reward you for reading through this post.

One of my most important and most used tools: Clipmate. Anything you Ctrl+C, you can find again in Clipmate. You can also take screenshots of exactly the area you want, no fudging around with Windows screenshot and then manipulating it in paint.

My newest addition and already one of my most important ones: Mendeley. It has three main uses:

1) Organizing a library of any papers you have digitally stored. I download masses of papers as PDF files and they all get weird names when you DL them. For example, I downloaded an article from the journal “Advances in Teacher Education” and got a PDF called “01626620%2E2013%2E846148″. That’s not really helpful if you’re trying to find it on your PC. You could of course rename it to “Author (Year) Paper Name” but let’s be honest, you’re not. With the roughly 600 papers I have on my PC, it’d take me a month just to get through them.

So what do you do? You drag them into Mendeley and hey, presto! all your articles (well, most, some bugs apply) are organized by Author/Year/Paper name/etc. All relevant info is extracted and now you can easily browse them.

2) Finding papers. On the Mendeley website, you’re able to browse citations, take a look at what your colleagues are browsing and so on. Searching for the most popular article in earth science? Click! Searching for most viewed article last month? Click. Really easy.

3) Networking. There are loads of groups, thousands of people are using Mendeley, most of them researchers. Add contacts, add groups, share documents.

Finally, my two smaller programs. I use PDF Architect and PDF Creator in tandem. Both have their down- and upsides. You just need some kind of PDF manipulating program.

Also, I don’t present on PPT any more, I only use Prezi. Interestingly, not many people know about it so they’ll be totally freaked by your rotating presentations. Just make sure you don’t make it too flashy, otherwise content gets lost.

 

So there, those are my programs and extensions. I use a few other programs for my teacher-related work (like HotPotatoes to create worksheets), but those are my main working programs. If you’ve got any other splendid programs/extensions for making life easier, do share them. Also, I’m getting my first smartphone in the summer (yes, I still have a phone that doesn’t have a camera), so I’d also be glad if people shared apps. I know of only two: Macmillan’s phonetic transcription app and dict.cc’s downloadable dictionary. (Satisfactory for classroom work, but not for anything else.)

Austria – A period of doom or boon?

Inferno
Inferno
Sun Dec 15, 2013 10:05 pm by Inferno

It’s been quite some time since Austria’s general elections. In fact, it’s been so long that we’re almost decided on a new government.

 

You see, when I last talked about Austrian politics, we weren’t sure who would win. Now we know: The moderate left party (SPÖ) won, the ÖVP came second.

 

Since then, I’ve had headaches every day.

First of all, the right wing party gained 3%, putting them in third place. It was really close, they already had 22.5% and only the mail votes (basically you vote by mail, preferred by Greens and ÖVP) put them down. In a surprising turn of events, the public realized that the NEOS are a viable alternative and that FRANK is full of shit.

Be that as it may, the two largest parties gained a majority vote, so they can form a coalition without any problems. Well, if they’d agree on anything, that is. Sadly, they’ve been bickering since the elections took place (late September) and haven’t really made up their mind on anything.

That is, until now. Just yesterday (12.12.2013) it was announced that all talks had succeeded and that a new government would be formed. I’ll come back to that in just a second, but I need to deal with something first.

This SPÖVP coalition (SPÖ + ÖVP, but we simply can’t think of them as separate. They’re like an old, married couple) tried to get one particular law through since 2001: A new public service law (I think that’s what they’re called?) for teachers. It’s all about how much money we’d make and how much we’d work, that sort of thing.

Now you might think that’s an easy thing to do. But then you read “trying since 2001″ and you realize: Something’s not right.
Congratulations, you’ve just taken your first step to understanding Austrian politics: If something can easily be done, Austrian politicians will choose the hard and completely crazy way.

In this case, the Teacher’s Union rebelled against the law, complaining that we’d get more work for less pay. You know, work 50 hours instead of 40, yet lose about 200k€ over a lifespan. I’m not joking, those are the official figures.

So yeah, no service law change in the last 12 years. Now this new government absolutely has to pass this law, a law I’ve been rebelling against for the past few months, if they’re to be taken seriously. (Well, nobody takes them seriously any more, if there were to be a new vote, they’d lose by a landslide.)

Now in the past few months, I’ve been politically active (the first time in my life) in trying to stop this new law dead in its tracks and instead get an expert commission on the case. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into this and the final vote passes on Tuesday (17.12.2013), so I’m extra busy in organizing a demonstration (protest) and generally getting the info out there.

At our last protest, we were able to gather about 450 of us, on Monday we’re expecting a bit over 1.000 with about 20.000 protesting in all of Austria. We weren’t able in mobilizing the masses of Teachers because our Union did not approve.

In any case, that’s what I’m currently involved with.

 

 

Now, I said that I’d talk about this formation of government thing. Basically, they’re supposed to cut spending, increase revenues, the usual. One way to cut spending inside the government was to get rid of ministries. The two parties decided on two ministries.

If, by now, you know anything about Austria, you’ll know that they didn’t uphold the deal. All ministries will remain. Well, that’s not exactly true: They will change, but they will still be there. For example, a new ministry for “Youth and Family” will be created, but to keep the balance, another one has to be integrated into an existing ministry.

It makes absolute sense to merge the ministry for education (BM:UKK) with the ministry for science (BM:WF) (in charge of Universities). The BM:WF creates teachers training and generally handles tertiary education, the BM:UKK deals with pre-tertiary education. The two fit perfectly.

If you vote “answer two, they did not do that” then you receive 100 internets. Of course, the simple, logical solution did not sit well with Austrian politicians, so they decided to merge the BM:WF with a different ministry and they kicked out the minister (currently the most liked minister we have) as they did so.

Now here’s the question: Which ministry would they merge the BM:WF with? Possibly the ministry for transport, innovation and technology (BM:VIT). Then again, that would be too obvious. It could be merged with the ministry for health (BM:G), responsible for hospitals and doctors training. No, still too obvious. It could be merged with the ministry for agriculture, forests, ecology and water management (BM:LFUW), but even that is too logical still.

Instead, it will be merged with the ministry for economy, formerly (formerly as of yesterday) the ministry for economy, family and youth (BM:WFJ). (Remember that the latter two are being split off to form their own ministry… Why? No idea. Because, change.)

This obviously makes no sense, if only because it will lead to further marginalization of universities and will probably lead to increased economic incentives to join a university.

 

So there you have it, folks: My current life laid out in front of you, with all the political ups and downs we’re currently experiencing in Austria. With any luck, we’ll successfully thwart the new law, but we’re most assuredly entering a period of troubles in Austria.

Or is this really just a ploy by the government? They want us to think we’re going down the drain so they can then jump out as our saviours. I wouldn’t put it past them, but I doubt they’re intelligent enough to pull off such a scheme.

Creationism – Cargo Cult Science

Inferno
Inferno
Thu Aug 22, 2013 4:23 pm by Inferno

In a Caltech-address given in 1974, Richard Feynman coined the term “Cargo Cult Science” to describe any group of scientists who follow the external traits of being a scientist (like wearing lab coats and saying “Deoxyribonucleic acid”) but who don’t follow the rigorous scientific method (like trying not to fool yourself and publishing in the peer-reviewed literature).

There are quite a few stories about how creationism is cargo cult science. For example, the story about the Discovery Institute using a stock photo of a lab to gain scientific credibility. Or take the Creation Science Museum. Those are all good examples of cargo cult science. They follow some external traits (having a laboratory, having a museum) but none of the rigorous scientific method.

I’ll introduce you to another aspect: Peer review. A few of you will be familiar with the Discovery Institute’s list of ID peer reviewed articles. They count 50 articles in seven years (2004-2011) a lot, a “boom” even. Wow, impressive.

Some of you will know the Answers in Genesis research journal. I wrote about an article of theirs a while back, calling their article one of the “most dishonest creationist “research paper”“. They’ve got another article up, one I’ll look at in due time.

A third attempt by creationists to get peer reviewed is CreationWiki’s attempt at peer review. “No articles submitted” should tell you something. Why hilarious? Because of this quote by Chris Ashcraft: “That is the goal of peer reviews in general – to uphold the consensus position. Peer reviews are just what the phrase describes – reviews by peers. Atheists and creationists are not peers regarding theories formed from these worldviews. Only creationists can provide peer reviews of creationist views.”

There are also several others out there attempting to do the same, but we shan’t worry about them for the time being. (Nor ever, as far as I’m concerned.)

Why is peer review so important for creationists? Well, proponents of evolution (hereafter called “scientists”) have often told creationists to “put up or shut up“: Either produce peer-reviewed evidence positively indicative of magical creation or get out of our schools.

Creationists now had two options: To either try and get their articles passed through proper channels or create their own journals. The first option failed horribly so they went for number two.

In very clear terms: If creationists are unable to produce peer-reviewed articles, they will not be regarded as science. Or so they think. The problem, of course, lies not with the publications, that is to say whether there are any published or not. Nor, as Casey Luskin claims, with the quantity of the research. It lies solely with the truth and evidence of the publications. Creationists could have published only a single article and, if it were correct, that would sufficiently throw any theory into doubt. Yet creationists don’t have that silver bullet, nor do they have anything else of value. They could have millions of articles out there and still not convince anyone, simply because their articles (as I showed) are full of crap.

Creationists don’t agree, of course, and rectified their problem (not getting published enough) by simply making up their own journals. Pretty awesome logic, right? Read the link, it’s rife with hilarity. First the author suggests that peer review is ineffective anyway, then he goes on to casually mention “therefore we’ve got our own journals”. Yeah, good on ya.

Anyway, back on topic. What makes this “cargo cult science”? Well, look again at the AiG journal. Doesn’t it remind you of some other journal? I think it looks a lot like a mix between the design from Nature and Science. (I seem to remember there’s another journal that looks even more like AiG’s but I can neither find it nor claim with certainty that I’m correct on that one.) That could be a coincidence, right?

Well, consider the fact that trueorigins looks identical to talkorigins and you might not feel like it’s that much of a coincidence any more.

In conclusion:
Creationists and ID-folk alike use fancy look-alike pages to make their audience think they’re real scientists. They use “big words” (Beta-Globin Pseudogene yadda yadda) and write articles hat look like real scientific articles, so much even that one of their articles slipped into a journal some years ago. They have editors, rules for submission, peer reviewers… everything a real journal has. Except for one thing: Evidence-based articles.

/a

Cotyledion and creationists

Inferno
Inferno
Mon Jul 22, 2013 11:32 am by Inferno

I often search creationist websites for new arguments, but they’re usually the same: “Evolution is wrong because of X, therefore creation”. In addition to that, they haven’t really found new examples for the last five or so years. Since Kitzmiller vs. Dover, there has been surprisingly little from creationists. Even finding a new organism to criticize is a relative novelty for creationists.

So I was surprised to find that the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) had an article up (this was about mid January) criticizing the evolutionary history of Cotyledion tylodes. Now even though this article appears under my name, this is a joint project between Isotelus and me. I wrote it and she heavily criticized and improved it. So, let’s take a look at the ICR article.

Another Cambrian Discovery Discredits Evolution

A fossil creature from the phylum Entoprocta (invertebrate animals that have tentacles and lacking a mineralized skeleton) was found in marked abundance (over 400 individuals) in Burgess Shale. The Burgess is a sedimentary layer that’s purportedly part of the Cambrian period about a half-billion years ago, according to evolutionists.1 The problem for paleontologists is that the supposedly 520 million year old creature looks exactly like its living counterparts, only up to 8 eight times larger.

First, let’s quickly explain what Entoprocta is and where it fits in. They are animals in the superphylum “Lophotrochozoa“, just like we are in the superphylum “Deuterostopmia“. Lophotrochozoa includes Molluscs, Annelids and of course Entoprocta.

Entoprocta differs from the largely similar Bryozoa (or Ectoprocta, archaic) in one major aspect: All Bryozoa have the anus on the outside, while Entoprocta have the anus on the inside. Entoprocta range from the early Cambrian until today, with a fair number of living relatives still around. (Examples include LoxosomatidaeBarentsiidaePedicellinidae and Loxokalypodidae) These represent four families with around 150 species.

One thing to note is that I couldn’t trace C. tylodes to the Burgess Shale (Canada), but rather to Chengjiang in China. Now that’s not a huge problem since both “lagerstätten” are roughly of the same time period. (505mya and 520mya respectively) However, the fossils are significantly closer to the Cambrian Explosion (~550mya) I could also be missing something and this fossil was actually found in the Burgess Shale, but there’s no indication for that. Indeed, Zhang et al. (2013) and Luo et al. (1999, original find) both mention the Chengjiang Konservat-Lagerstätte.

This is another testament to the stunningly thorough research abilities of creationists: The Burgess shale fossil they’re confusing C. tylodes with is Dinomischus, which has an unknown affinity.

But let’s now look at the anatomy. Sadly, the picture provided by LiveScience is incorrectly labelled (Isophagus instead of Esophagus), the original one can be found in Zhang et al. (2013), Figure 1.

Here’s the incorrectly labelled version for better viewing pleasure, the original is too small:

Figure 1.: Extinct Entoprocta, C. tylodes, interpretative drawing

The creationist contention is that C. tylodes look the same as their living relatives. Now I already pointed to the four families above, so we’ll look at a few species. Loxosomella vivipara (apparently now called Loxocalyx raja?), Loxomitra kefersteiniiLoxosomella crassicauda They all look fairly different from C. tylodes, though of course the main structure remains.

A quote from this article is spot on:

Indeed, researchers are coming to realize that the term “living fossil” is a misnomer. One by one, the classic examples—horseshoe crabs, coelacanths, cycads, and more—have turned out to be very different from the fossils that they apparently resemble, either at a genetic level or through subtle physical changes. Their recognizable nature is a red herring—these creatures simply did not exist in their current form millions of years ago.

Let’s recap those last two points: Contrary to the creationists statements, extinct Entoprocta look different than their extant counterparts. But even if they did not change much morphologically, it’s certain that they would have changed genetically.

Now we already know that size isn’t at all relevant when it comes to animals’ and plants’ evolutionary status, but what if C. tylodes really was more complex than his ancestors? That would be a completely different discussion. Now to check that, the only resources available to us are the pictures I provided above and peer-reviewed articles talking about their structures/anatomy/etc.

The pictures already showed some differences, but that doesn’t solve the question of complexity. In the case of C. tylodes, the creationists were very specific in their criticism:

Interestingly, the fossils of C. tylodes also appear to have somewhat more complex features than modern entoprocts. Unlike living entoprocts, the stem and flowerlike feeding cup of the “ancient” version was covered by tiny hardened protuberances (sclerites), and the creatures were much larger.

Now there’s absolutely no denying that the average C. tylodes was much larger than modern Entoprocta, extant ones being between 0.1mm and 7mm, extinct ones between 8mm and 56mm long. I already explained that size really doesn’t matter, so we can safely skip over that point.

So on to the next point: tiny scelerites. This too is true, in fact the 2013 paper (Zhang et al.) is actually called “A scelerite-bearing stem group…” But is that really a sign of complexity? Let’s look at the rest.

Figure 2.: Extant Entoprocta anatomy

This picture shows what extant Entoprocta look like. Well, it’s of course either a general form or one specific species, I couldn’t determine that. (Note: Isotelus suggests it’s most likely a general form.) Notice the tentacles on the left (extended) and on the right (retracted). This is actually a very important quality in this Phylum, because they feed by putting stuff into their mouths with their tentacles. In Zhang et al., they specifically state that C. tylodes was able to retract the tentacles a bit, but not as much as extant Entoprocta.

In addition, there is some evidence that the tentacles may have been contractible and could have been retracted into the membranous band where they originate from (Fig. S4a–c), suggesting some degree of retractability of the tentacles that corresponds functionally and structurally to that seen in those of the extant entoprocts [1].

So C. tylodes was well on its way to retracting them fully, but they don’t seem to have been as mobile as their contemporary counterparts. This may be due to the fossils we found, since none of them exhibit the degree of curling that modern examples do. So on this, the jury is still out. The scelerites mentioned may also be the reason why the tentacles are so well-preserved. Which isn’t at all unexpected, given how well preserved other fossils from that location are.

However, Zhang et al. also note other differences to extant Entoprocta.

In addition, recent entoprocts are pseudocoelomate, with the cavity surrounding the calycal (aka. calyx, see Fig. 2) organs and extending into the stalk in-filled by a hydrostatic skeleton of loose mesenchyme cell or narrow primary body cavity [1].

So there we have it, folks: Extinct Entoprocta were different from their extant descendants and they were almost certainly not as complex. (Whatever creationists mean by that.)

Resources/References:

Clausen, S. B.; Hou, X. G.; Bergström, J.; Franzén, C. (2010). “The absence of echinoderms from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna of China: Palaeoecological and palaeogeographical implications”. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 294 (3–4): 133.

Iseta, Tohru. (2002) Loxocorone, a New Genus of the Family Loxosomatidae (Entoprocta: Solitaria), with Descriptions of Two New Loxomitra (sensu stricto) and a New Loxocorone from Okinawa, the Ryukyu Archipelago, Japan Toological Science 19: 359–367 (2002)

Luo, Huilin, Hu, Shixue, Chen, Laingzhong, (1999). “Early Cambrian Chengjiang Fauna from Kunming Region, China. Yunnan Science and Technology press, Kunming China. (<–Only in Chinese, if you really want to read it…)

Zhang, Z.; Holmer, L. E.; Skovsted, C. B.; Brock, G. A.; Budd, G. E.; Fu, D.; Zhang, X.; Shu, D. et al. (2013). “A sclerite-bearing stem group entoproct from the early Cambrian and its implications”. Scientific Reports 3

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