Archive for July, 2012

The Doctor Who Challenge: Days 1-3

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Apparently, there’s a tumblr going around for a 30 day Doctor Who challenge, a bit of summer fun to bridge the way-too-long gap between Series 6 and 7. There seems to have been no starting date. Everyone is proceeding at various paces as the meme goes viral.

You know me: I can’t resist a list and especially not a list on my favorite subject. So I’ll bite. I’ll concatenate a few just so the blog doesn’t get swamped with Doctor Who posts. This post will be longer than most because I had already written and shelved a long pointless post on my favorite Doctors.

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Gender Skew in Olympic Coverge

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

See, this is why I point and laugh at sociologists:

[N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Notice anything they have in common? The researchers did. “It is now customary for the participants in all of these events … to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit,” they note in their analysis, which appears in the journal Electronic News.

Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.

First of all, it’s common to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit in almost every Olympic event. They cherry-picked this study to 14 events, leaving out things like Tennis, Sailing, Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics that might dispute their theory. They also made the odd choice of putting cycling in the “non-sexy” category despite the skin-tight outfits that are worn. I’m sure if cycling got more coverage, they’d flip it back into the sexy category.

Second, they ignored that Americans prefer to watch events where they are likely to medal and the events they list are where we tend to clean up. We don’t win a lot of medals in rowing, cycling or fencing. Softball and soccer get lots of medals and little coverage, true. On the other hand, there have been numerous complaints from the public about the lack of coverage and they only recently became medal events (1996 for both).

Third, if you look at the study’s graphs, you’ll see that men’s coverage is equally skewed, with almost all the coverage going toward … beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, track and volleyball. In short, no one wants to watch fencing. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women doing it. I don’t want to watch fencing and I used to fence! Maybe if the US started dominating those events, they would be watched.

Fourth, notice the catch-22 underlying the study. If we aren’t watching women’s events, it’s because of sexism. But when do watch them, the most popular event, by far, is women’s gymnastics. But this just proves our sexism because they’re in leotards!

Fifth, notice that exceptions to their theory — Lindsey Vonn, Picabo Street, Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner Kersey, Wilma Rudolph, etc. — are just ignored. Their theory is deliberately made plastic enough — defining “socially acceptable” sports arbitrarily — that they can sneak any damn conclusion they want into it. I skimmed through the study and found numerous references to track and field being socially unacceptable for women — these studies published at a time when Marion Jones, Flo-Jo and Jackie Joyner Kersey were some of the most popular and recognizable women in the games. I was personally at the 1996 women’s 100m final when Gail Dever and Gwen Torrence finished 1-3. The build-up was huge; the coverage extensive and the stadium exploded when they won.

What the fuck are these people talking about?

Now I will let on about one thing. People tend to pay less attention to women when they play sports that were designed by men and emphasize masculine traits like strength. They pay more attention when women play sports designed with women in mind that emphasize feminine traits like grace, coordination and beauty. Gymnastics is popular precisely because the people who designed the sport understand this. The events are very different for the two genders. The men’s events emphasize strength and endurance; the women’s coordination and grace. Both are entertaining, grueling and incredible displays of athleticism; but they are also expertly tailored to the sexes.

Really, the more I look at this, the more it sounds like someone started out with their conclusion and trolled the data to support it. This is what passes for research in sociology.

Update: One last point. They complain that women only get 48% of media coverage despite winning 50% of the medals. That … doesn’t really cross me as significant. And breaking the coverage down by athlete is ridiculous. The media’s coverage of the Darling of the Games is notoriously fickle.

Happiness

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

I’ve been saving this link, with 15 videos of people being very happy, for when I needed it. After a week like this, I needed it. A good bookmark for when I or anyone needs it in the future.

Olympic Records

Friday, July 27th, 2012

This interactive graphic, showing how world records in olympic events have changed over time, is pretty damn cool. The improvement in the discus is particularly stunning.

While part of this has to do with improved training and technology, these are just part of a larger trend of tapping deeper into the human potential. The people we were a century ago were a shadow of what we are now — well-fed people with all our teeth, marbles and bones who can live functionally into our 80′s. Vaccines and the reduction of childhood disease, in particular, have created an explosion in human healthy, lifetime and potential.

I do think we are reaching the limits this side of genetic engineering. Watch how the records asymptote. I just hope the same isn’t true of our progress in science and technology.

One Way Ticket

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

I’ve actually thought for some time that the only way to colonize Mars would be to send people there on a one-way trip. Of course, you have to face the brutal reality that those who go are very likely to die in the attempt. Mars is not where we evolved and its environment is almost certain to have unknown hazards. But the back-and-forth business is simply not going to work.

In the end, I think Heinlein was right: space will be colonized by people we decide we’d rather dump off on another planet and let survive on their own. That’s how the Western World colonized the Americas and Australia. You combine some eccentric billionaires and an opportunity to get rid of political/racial/religious undesirables and we’ll spread through the Solar System in no time.

30 Years, Five Guys

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

I love love love photo series like this one, in which five men photographed themselves for thirty years. It’s time-lapse photography on an epic scale, showing just how fast we age and die. WHen my daughter was born, we used to photograph her in the same place every week but unfortunately fell out of practice.

Such projects are not just artistic: I believe they have enormous scientific potential for learning how people grow and age. Given the explosion of digital photography, it’s only a matter of time before someone mines the massive public data set for scientific insight. That is, if they’re not already doing it.

The Need To Explore

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Via the Bad Astronomer, I found this video talking about the ALMA array and the need for exploration that drives my profession.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It’s worth watching, especially because it interviews scientists from one of best institutions of higher learning in the known universe: Mr. Jefferson’s. (Of which I might happen to be a graduate). Funny thing: I started out my career in radio astronomy and intended to pursue a career in it. Now I work in the gamma-ray regime, about as far away from radio as you can get and still be on the electromagnetic spectrum. But I still love the epic scale of radio telescopes. I’ve been to Arecibo. I would dearly love to see ALMA some day.

Firewalking

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

I don’t know what annoys me more: that 21 people were burned fire walking in some confidence building bullshit; or that the organizers are blaming the burns on a lack of faith and concentration rather than a failure to either properly set or properly supervise this parlor trick.

More from Penn and Teller here.

The Dry Future

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

The WaPo has an article Looking at the current drought and wondering/speculating what will happen if and when such droughts become more common due to global warming.

A lot of the hype for this is keying off a study that claims Texas’ 2011 drought was twenty times more likely because of global warming. This study has been loudly trumpeted around the punditsphere but needs to be taken with several helpings of salt water. The analysis is based on climactic modeling, a notoriously tricky discipline. It wouldn’t take much to make the 20 times go down a lot. Second, the 2011 Texas drought was an extreme event, on the tail of the probability distribution. If you shift the probability distribution just a little bit, the probability of an unlikely even shoots up dramatically. For example, if the likelihood of an event happening was one in a million and your analysis made it one in fifty thousand, that would be “20 times more likely”. But it is still an unlikely event and still at point where small assumptions can dramatically alter the results. Looking at their plots, 2011 was still an outlier. While there’s a great deal of research supporting the idea that global warming will produce a drier world (or at leas a drier USA), it’s sketchy to build policy on it.

More importantly, the warming is inevitable. Even if we accept the current models; even we stopped all greenhouse gas emission today; the planet would continue to warm for another half century. We are long past the point of prevention; we are now at the point of adaptation, something the WaPo article only brushes against.

There is hope in adaptation. The current drought has been more extensive than past droughts that caused food shortages and famine. But drought-resistant crops and better land management have prevented the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. We have not even begun to tap the potential for adaptation. And it’s a potential we’re going to have to tap if the next century is to be as plentiful as the last.

Breasts

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

For some reason, breasts have been in the news lately. Not one but two scholarly works are out, one of which is nicely skeptical about all the received wisdom about their form, function etc.

Apart from my Y-chromosome issues, I find this subject interesting because of the discussions about precisely why men are attracted to women with large breasts. It’s simply amazing to read all the debates in evolutionary psychology which pass themselves off as science but are often little more than speculation (check out this baby for an example). I’ve heard all the “theories”, few of which are actually falsifiable. And all of them sound like rubbish to me.

  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they want their young to be well-fed. This is likely to be garbage as there is little, if any, correlation between breast size and the ability to nurse.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because it indicates higher body fat and better nursing of children. See my response to the first explanation. I’d also note that breast size and body fat are not perfectly correlated. The most common body types are the “banana” and “pear” shapes.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they resemble women’s buttocks. This is a popular explanation but it also sounds like rubbish. First of all, it only deflects the question: “OK, wise guy: why are men attracted to women’s butts?” Second, this was clearly derived by people who have no idea what breasts looks like in the wild. Corsets and bras have only existed for the last half a millenium.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they swell during ovulation, signaling fertility. This swelling is subtle to anyone who is not experiencing it; far more subtle than the breast fetish tends to be. Moreover, many women do not experience breast swell during ovulation. And breast swell is far greater during pregnancy, when a woman, by definition, is not fertile. For our primate ancestors, it’s likely the very presence of breasts indicated a female was pregnant or nursing.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because of socialization. Now this one really annoys me. Socialization doesn’t just happen on its own. Breast fetishism had to come from somewhere. It’s not like someone woke up one day and decided to tell all the men to eroticize boobs for some sort of oppressive reason. Breast attraction must have a long and deep history in our species to have affected our very evolution (humans females are the only mammals to have large breasts when they aren’t lactating).
  • To be honest, this debate tends to fill me with anger. All of these theories are presented with an incredible certainty, as though something had been proven. But none are supported by scientific evidence. They are mere conjecture and bad conjecture at that. Among other things, none allow for the fact that some men are not attracted to busty women. In fact, some men have a particular preference for women with small chests. Many cultures have a far less intense breast fetish than our own. And some men — like me — are attracted to a variety of physical types. So these explanation that big boobs appeal to something deep in our psyches or our genes leave me a little cold.

    These theories also ignore something very important: there may not be a reason. One of the things we’ve learned from evolutionary science is that we are not perfect creatures. We have many flaws which have been genetically selected over the generations. The reason we have these flaws is that they came along with something so useful that, on balance, we were better off. So intelligence may have come with bad eyesight. We are, and always have been, patchwork creatures. And the idea that evolution is a uniform process producing predictable results and that every aspect of our existence has some survival benefit is inconsistent with the known facts.

    In sum, men may be attracted to big boobs because of some random bit of programming that came along for the ride with something else. Or it may be an unusual manifestation of something that is useful. Looking for a definitive explanation is, in my view, dangerous because it implies that all our traits, all our behavior, have to have an explanation. They don’t.

    That having been said, I recently encountered a theory that makes some sense to me.

    I recently heard an interview with one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which applied the first objective analysis not to what people claim to consume on the internet, but to what they actually do. For example, far more men are attracted to women who are overweight than women who are anorexic. While the authors go too far in some of their conclusions, the interview did have one idea that resonated. The author was talking about why men fetishize things like dainty feet. He said, quite simply, that these are signs of femininity. They are things male brains — because of evolution, socialization or hormones — recognize as “this is a female; I can mate with her.” It is sexual signaling, no different from the bright feathers on a bird or the pheromones of an insect.

    This is probably the most sensible explanation for the breast fetish I’ve heard. It’s straight-forward and explains much of what the other theories don’t. Under this paradigm, men are attracted to anything their brains have decided is feminine. And breasts are just one of the easiest things to fetishize because they are such an obvious secondary sex characteristic; something women have that men don’t. A man can see a busty women from far away and recognize that it’s a woman. There doesn’t have to be a rationality behind it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about her ability to lactate or anything. It’s just something that his brain has latched on to.

    The real beauty of this theory, however, is that it does not have to be true of all men. If a man associates femininity with being small and petite, or having long hair and soft skin, or having a high-pitched voice — that’s what he finds attractive. He can be completely indifferent to mammary glands simply because his brain does not process that as a particularly feminine trait. Breast fetishism would simply be part of the larger paradigm that encloses all fetishes. Call it the General Theory of Ogling.

    (I should note that women are not immune from this sexual signaling, hence the preferences for broad shoulders, deep voices, etc. However, women tend to be less visual and their sexuality is more oriented around mate selection than mate identification. So if wealth or self-confidence or humor or whatever is what they regard as a signal of masculinity, that’s what they find attractive. This may also explain why women are often attracted to men who are obnoxious or even violent, since these can be masculine characteristics.

    I’ve often felt that natural selection, at least in humans, is something that women play a much larger role in than men. Men try to have sex with everything, superior or inferior. Women are the ones who are selective.)

    Of course, I would be remiss if not noting that this conjecture makes me feel better about myself. While I have always been very physically attracted to women, I don’t really have a “type”. My wife is blonde and curvy. My previous girlfriend is tall, brunette and slender. Before that was short and petite. Before that was short and absurdly busty (and possible artificial). And so on. I’ve been attracted to blondes, brunette and redheads; to tall and short; to slender and curvy. But I would define all of them as physically attractive in some way. In fact, I would say that I find most women attractive in some way. But if you narrowed it down just to the women to whom I have felt a strong physical attraction, you would still find a wide physical variety.

    That I am physically attracted to women of a wide variety of appearances used to bother me. But now it just means that my brain, for some reason, defines a broad spectrum of physical characteristics as female. Maybe it’s some subconscious “with your luck, you can’t be too picky” thought stream. But I suspect it’s just the way my brain works. I have broad interests in everything, hence the blog, hence the career in a massively interdisciplinary profession, hence the liberal arts education, hence the huge library. My interests tend to wander. And so does my eye.

    We are animals. And we are fools when we forget this. We are double fools when we have degrees in scientific disciplines and deliberately forget this. Our rational thinking selves are just the placid surface of a broiling animalistic mix of desires, passions and fears. We can’t pretend that every aspect of our lives — and especially the most basic aspect of our lives: our need to reproduce — are the product of reason and rationality. Nietzsche said that the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. Our spirits are animals. And our attractions are no different than an animal’s attraction to a set of big antlers or a particularly shimmery coating of scales.

    Copying is Theft

    Friday, July 13th, 2012

    You know, I really despise the argument used in this video that “copying isn’t theft”. As someone who has had work copied and plagiarized, I can tell you that it absolutely is. A book, a movie, a song — this is something someone worked on, invested their time, tears and often money in. It didn’t just fall from the sky. Intellectual property rights have gone too far, I agree. But let’s not pretend that copying someone’s work without their permission isn’t a violation.

    Note the deformed logic of the video. The portray people sharing with each other. But file sharers don’t share shit. They’re not putting their hard work up for free. They’re simply taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s a sharing caring rainbows and ponies lovefest. That’s garbage. That’s a thief claiming to be a secret socialist.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
  • Starry Night … in dominoes.
  • A great interview with the Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • The DEA can’t justify it’s own War on Drugs.
  • This post, on whether kids should hate their parents, deserves a feature-length post from me. Suffice it to say that I, uh, split he baby on this one. I’m my daughter’s friend when I can be but if she doesn’t hate me once a week, I’m not doing my job.
  • 50 Years of Starfish

    Monday, July 9th, 2012

    This post, from Phil Plait, is a must-read on the history of one of the most dangerous nuclear tests in history. I do have on quibble however, with the opening paragraph:

    In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

    That’s a generous reading of the history. It could be argued, as Robert Heinlein said at the time, that the history was more like this: In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric test of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Of course, they had a massive country with closed borders where they could test weapons on the sly. The US eventually caved into to Soviet bullying and internal Communist sympathizers to join the ban. However, as Heinlein predicted, Khruschev later resumed testing when it suited him.