Archive for July, 2011

July 24, 2011

Dangerous and Scary Stuff

by Lucas Wilkins

I haven’t managed to read the entire 1500 page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, I’m not sure I want to either, but I have read a chunk of it, more than enough!

The thing that makes the events in Norway different to other crazed rampages, is that it is a means to an end. Within the first few pages of the manifesto you get to this:

Sacrifices made when creating the compendium
I’ve spent a total of 9 years of my life working on this project. The first five years were
spent studying and creating a financial base, and the last three years was spent working
full time with research, compilation and writing. Creating this compendium has personally
cost me a total of 317 000 Euros (130 000 Euros spent from my own pocket and 187 500
Euros for loss of income during three years). All that, however, is barely noticeable
compared to the sacrifices made in relation to the distribution of this book, the actual
marketing operation ;)

At this point I felt physically sick as I realized that by reading it I was fulfilling the goal of coldblooded slaughter of innocent children. I couldn’t help but feel party to it. Truly disturbing and to be honest, I haven’t quite recovered. It’s powerful stuff – and he knew it too. The winking smiley is terrifying.

For this reason, I will not quote a further word. But I feel that as someone who has read some of it, I should point out why it is so dangerous. Which will be the subject of the rest of this post.

July 18, 2011

What is life? (and why the answer doesn’t matter)

by Nathaniel Virgo

What is life?  Some people will say it’s obvious: life is reproduction.  But I may never choose to reproduce, and a worker ant couldn’t if it wanted to – does that make us dead?

Others will say life is evolution.  But on closer inspection, that doesn’t really stand up either.  Evolution is easy enough to implement on a computer.  You just store a bunch of random bit strings in memory, evaluate them according to some “fitness function”, and then “mutate” and “recombine” the best ones to produce a new generation.  By iterating this process you get what’s called a “genetic algorithm”, and this can be used to design robot controllers and all sorts of other things.  These things evolve, but are they alive?  Some might say yes, but anyone with any experience in genetic algorithms will say no.

July 17, 2011

Reification: just because a thing has a name, doesn’t mean it is a thing

by James Thorniley

Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased “automatons.” Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator’s admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results.

So says a paper by J. E. Lewis et al in which they claim Steven Jay Gould was wrong when he said early 19th century craniometrist Samuel George Morton “finagled” his data to match his own racist preconceptions. They had another look at the data, and actually remeasured some of Morton’s skulls, and claim that Morton’s reported results actually fit his racial bias less than a fully accurate study would have.

Depressingly a number of modern day internet racists seem picked up on the headline message “Gould was wrong” and assumed that means the paper supports racial theories about intelligence or other differences. The paper doesn’t support any such ideas, and that’s not the subject of this post. It’s just worth pointing that out.

What this paper is about is whether scientists’ personal biases influence the results they get. This isn’t about whether Morton was “right” in a scientific sense, because everyone agrees he wasn’t. It’s about whether he made the right conclusions based on the evidence available to him. It’s a historical question – modern anthropology has essentially nothing to do with this.

July 10, 2011

Soap (and some other things one cannot easily make explosives out of)

by Lucas Wilkins

Following in the footsteps of the first post on this blog, I though I would point out another popular misconception: You cannot make explosives out of soap – despite this process being crucial to the plot of “The Legend of Zoro”. I’ve heard this myth in various forms over the past year, usually it is soap, but I have also heard that one can make explosives from biofuel. It is essentially the same issue in both cases. I guess this myth irks me in particular because it is a misunderstanding of one of the most simple and widespread chemical reactions there is.

So, making soap is pretty easy, it is the same principle as an acid/base reaction. Just mix some fat and some inorganic base (say sodium or potassium hydroxide) and the metal ions displace the glycerol in the fat giving soap and glycerol (glycerin).

How to make soap. From Wikipedia: Saponification - Fat (left), Base (on arrow), Soap (inner right), Glycerol (far right)

Some more detail…

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