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Carnival 2014 and A New Responsive Blog Theme post image

My Carnival 2014 roundup post is up over at a newly revitalized MaitriLAB. Check it out!

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On a programmatic note, both VatulBlog and MaitriLAB are now powered by the Pearsonified skin released recently by DIYThemes. Some of you ask me about the point of paying for a WordPress blog theme, when there are so many great free ones to choose from. As internet browsing shifts to mobile devices more and more each day, I desire a theme/skin that is truly responsive and looks good across all devices from a large monitor to the smallest smartphone. There is nothing more frustrating internet-wise than starting to read something on your phone only to find half the content obscured or chopped off completely. The investment truly paid off, however, over the last couple of nights when DIYThemes tech support came through on some issues immediately, both via Twitter and email. While I believe that free services should not mean mediocre services (talking to you, Google), I’d rather pay someone even the tiniest bit of money to provide the service of fixing a problem in a relatively quick and painless manner.

Spring has sprung! Well, at least on my blogs.

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Google Minus

Google Minus post image

I’m deleting my Google+ account. It was a great experiment in “Facebook for serious scientific conversation/socialization” but nothing really happened there when I did post, I get plenty of scientific and tech interaction on Twitter and physically having to block spammers and fake users every single day to keep from being in their circles is a waste of my time. Another big reason for nuking my account is this:

NYT: The Plus in Google Plus? It’s Mostly for Google

Google Plus may not be much of a competitor to Facebook as a social network, but it is central to Google’s future — a lens that allows the company to peer more broadly into people’s digital life, and to gather an ever-richer trove of the personal information that advertisers covet.

… The reason is that once you sign up for Plus, it becomes your account for all Google products, from Gmail to YouTube to maps, so Google sees who you are and what you do across its services, even if you never once return to the social network itself.

Before Google released Plus, the company might not have known that you were the same person when you searched, watched videos and used maps. With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.

I have no idea if posts by friends who use only Google+ will be viewable any longer, but as previously stated, the low signal-to-noise ratio is not worth it.

The following are memorable links I shared there over the past 2.5 years and my comments on them, if any.

AGU Blogs: The Fundamentals Of Science That American Students Are Not Learning

AAPG Explorer: Work Force Shifts Create Manpower Needs  The folly of using field work as a lure for students today becomes even more apparent when considering the bulk of the professional jobs they ultimately will take on, for the most part, require staying indoors in front of a computer. “We need to encourage the students who are good in math and other core sciences by showing them the technical aspect of [geology],” [Sharon Mosher] said, “and how these subjects are used to solve real world problems.”

BoingBoing: Meritocracies become oligarchies  THIS – the hope that a civilized “society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward” – is why I became an American and now watch the USA turn into India and Kuwait, with their shameful caste systems and all. The best thing you can do for society is to give your kids a great education but let them come up on their own after that.

The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”  “This is where Gervais has broken new ground, primarily because as an artist, he is interested in the subjective experience of being clueless. For your everyday sociopath, it is sufficient to label someone clueless and work around them. What Gervais managed to create is a very compelling portrait of the clueless, a work of art with real business value.”

Infrasound Huntress: What is infrasound?

PLOS Blogs: Crap futurism, cruftiness, and walled gardens: A Download the Universe roundtable on e-reading  “My choices are now to bow down to the power of Amazon and work directly with them, on their terms, or to enter that DRM-free wilderness where Doctorow has wandered for years.”

NASA’s Eyes on the Earth  It’s Java-based, but very nice on the eyes.

sci-ence: This Is My Prayer Bump  Just discovered my gamer/interpretation mark because I never thought to look. Completely taken with it.

Judaism without God? Yes, say American atheists  Can Judaism survive without God? I like to think it’s how Hinduism survived five millennia, with good traditions & God ultimately meaning understanding yourself.

The Agile Geoscience toolbox  In the process of making a “colophon” like this for my own vast media empire.

Spatially Adjusted: My Personal GIS Stack  One more for the production notes.

slight paranoia: Two honest Google employees: our products don’t protect your privacy  From November 3rd, 2011!

The Atlantic: Why Facebook and Google’s Concept of ‘Real Names’ Is Revolutionary  “Let’s not pretend that what Google and Facebook are doing has long-established precedents and therefore these companies are only doing what they’re doing to mimic real life. They are creating tighter links between people’s behavior and their identities than has previously existed in the modern world.” Tempted to create a G+ account with the name Bhel Puri, Sambar Shaadham, Braun Schweiger or Mirliton Bisque to see if they catch on.

Slashdot: MS-DOS Is 30 Years Old Today  Which would have made me 6 when I started playing with Professor DOS.

Mashable: How Much Do Artists Earn Online?  A few observations: 1) Self-pressed CDs is the way to go, apparently, but welcome to the streaming internet. 2) Wow, iTunes and Napster gouge the artist a lot more than a royalty deal with a label does. 3) You need 4.6 million plays per month on Spotify vs. 1.5 million plays on last.fm to earn the same amount?

Weebl’s Stuff: DJ Pie Safety  This is relevant to my interests.

JMLA: The impact of free access to the scientific literature: a review of recent research [Warning: I'm a bit pissy about access today following the whole Swartz-MIT thing.] So, let me get this straight. Researchers in the sciences do not see THEIR access to scientific literature as an especially important problem. But more research needs to be done to see if there is enough access by non-scientists (who probably made a large part of this research possible through their tax dollars) and if people are talking about material in scientific literature outside the ivory lab enough to warrant a crisis. [Also, isn't the JSTOR download kerfuffle a counter-example?]

CNN Religion Blogs: In Texas, young Hindus want to Americanize ancient faith I get this and I don’t. On the one hand, Hindu-Americans as a demographic are way past arriving, Hinduism is understood in the west mostly as a hippy chew toy and many who were raised in Hindu families here find the religion obtuse and irrelevant. And, on the other, there is the American Judeo-Christianization and viral marketing of a decidely non-Abrahamic philosophy. What ever happened to creation is illusion, i.e. the crux of Hinduism, and all that? Not that this is what is happening here (this is more a linearization than extremism), but the fundamentalization of religions across the world relies on a singular and major failing of most religious people: their sheer inability to question and research the things they have been told they should believe in order to be considered a good Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. Because of this, religion evolves to fit the needs of those in or seeking power at any given time and is never the static reference we think it is. Another thing: There’s a fine line between questioning and even parodying religion and gratuitously bashing people who are religious. If you’re going to play this game, be very aware of which side of it you are on.

Charlie’s Diary: Three arguments against the singularity Weeks later, I continue to re-read this Charlie Stross essay. It is the finest analysis on super-intelligent AI I’ve come across in a while and addresses many of the arguments D and I had while watching Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

What I said right after activating my Google+ account: Different modes of conversation are good; not everyone communicates the same way online or in real life. There doesn’t need to be and should not be one social media outlet to rule them all. It then just becomes a matter of how many different places you and the people you communicate with are willing to log in to, and how much of the provider’s bullshit and your own faffing about you can tolerate.

Yup. See ya, Google+.

Update: Of course, the day I cancelled the G+ account I needed it for my first Hangout ever. Hangout is much better than Skype, but again, not worth it for occasional use.

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Image ganked from Thomas Geraghty’s blog.

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Friday Rocks – “The Largest Animal Ever To Take To The Skies, But Mardi Gras” Edition post image

Houston decided to shut down for an Ice Day a couple of weeks back. It was kinda like a Snow Day, but without the snow and not even really any ice, just a lot of end-times shopping at the supermarket, some frozen bridges and overpasses, and southerners in parkas. Naturally, the Wisconsin WonderTwins here took the practically-a-ghost-town opportunity to finally visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Now to answer the question burning in your minds (other than “It took you guys this long to get to HMNS? What sort of science nerds are you?” That’s two questions. And, look, they close at 5pm everyday and we like to have more than 4 hours and 4000 less kids after that last Saturday brunch mimosa wears off to look around a museum. What about Sunday? You ask too many questions.): What you see above is the fossil skull of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a late Mesozoic pterosaur. In English, a horned carnivorous crane with bat wings that was as big as a two-storey house, lived at the same time as terrestrial dinosaurs and swooped down to carry those dinosaurs off like they were an adorable bunny you once left on the front lawn to run off and watch cartoons. That is, if Quetzalcoatlus flew. *shudder*

So I stood right under this beak and wondered what it would be like to live in the Late Cretaceous and look up one day to see it coming at me. (Not a completely unreasonable scenario in space, if not in time, given that the first Quetzal remains were discovered in Big Bend National Park.) Then I realized the metal wire holding the whole fossil up could snap and the beak could come at and gore me, resulting in a 65-million-year-old irony. Shuffling away from Calculated Point Of Impact, I noticed that eyeless crane-bat-unicorn had a friend. Swell.

Quetzalcoatlus coming to getchu

This is exactly what-how I think of the “debate” between evolution and creationism. That (even our tiny patch of) the universe is simultaneously mind-blowing and pregnant and hilarious and not amazing at all and pointless and wholly unfunny (I mean, gigantic birds of prey that were rendered extinct and humans that then evolved to dig up their bones and hang them up like chandeliers that can fall and kill you), but no matter how many facts and myths you know, memorize or are told, you have to think about them by yourself, for yourself. Forget punctuated equilibrium and intelligent design and who said what. Wonder.

While on the topic of irreducible chaos, Carnival is here and parades are coming! I have five dances, two costume pieces and one mask under my belt. Also, if you had wagered that I’d once again wait until the week of Krewe du Vieux to work on my costume, you’d be rich, rich, rich. In doubloons.

This mask was so easy to make, I now cast aspersions on its integrity in Mardi Gras Day battle. Meh, that’s what superglue is for. Go ahead and note the first use of purple in a House Of Maitri mask since, um, never?

Mardi Gras Day 2014 Mask

Reading:

Phil Plait’s Answers for Creationists. A thoughtful and respectful read. “There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

Inaugural open-access column in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) journal (by who else but Matt Hall?): Smoothing surfaces and attributes (a tutorial)

From Erik Klemetti: “Did you just read an internet rumor of a Yellowstone eruption? Four easy steps so you don’t fall for it.”

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Opinion, Fact, Knowledge, Bias post image

Inside the bubble where chiropractors without medical degrees and Jenny McCarthy are fact-armed experts on toxins and vaccines, but medical doctors and scientists produce unresearched opinion.

The summer of 1995: South India with my parents and cousin. A few weeks into the trip, I developed a skin condition which caused the melanin in my face and forearms to disappear in small blotches. Alarmed and on the recommendation of a friend, my very-medically-proficient folks unwittingly rushed me to some quack. Not-A-Dermatologist took his own sweet time showing up, flicked my forehead, cheeks and forearms really hard with his dry, knobby fingers (for which I would have flicked him right back, if not for Mom), took no scrapings for microscopic analysis, diagnosed a skin infection, did not refer me to a dermatologist, took an exorbitant amount of money and showed us the door with a prescription for antibiotics. Nothing happened other than hits to my immune system and intestinal flora from ingesting unnecessary anti-bacterial drugs for a non-infection. A month later, in the heart of Tamil Nadu, a village homeopathist offered to see me and swore just from looking into my eyes that my blood “was spoiled and could be purified” and proceeded to give me a paste with MERCURY in it (that I refused to ingest).

Back in Chennai at the end of the summer, Dad’s pathologist sister came to visit and, on seeing my condition only worsen, took me to see her actually-board-certified dermatologist friend who examined my skin thoroughly and then said, “You live in America, right? Don’t you have access to some of the best sun-blocking creams?” Black does crack, it turns out. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am probably the only dark-skinned person you know who burns and loses melanin in the sun, which leaves inverse freckles and blotches. One week and half a tube of 30+ SPF gunk later, my skin cleared up.

In a recent group conversation about eating well for good health, a friend of a friend brought up eating only organic foods to flush the body of Toxins that cause cancer and other ailments. If you want to know how I feel about Toxins Dun Dun Duuuuuun as an amorphous, anti-drug, anti-chemical catch-all term, read this and this. The former is a thoughtful history and explanation of the modern American obsession with Human Toxicity by a surgical oncologist and the latter a piece by a young scientist on why commercial detoxification therapies are bunk. Both explain clearly what toxins are and aren’t, and how bacteria and viruses cause more diseases than anything else. When I presented both articles for friend’s friend’s consideration, I was told that they were “unresearched opinion” and to educate myself because, get this, “knowledge is power.”

I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.
I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.
I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.

Towards the end of our chat, I almost sent the link to Facts About Dihydrogen Monoxide, but what would have been the point? The bubble explodes and causes a huge mess?

You may ask why I engage such people, but a) you don’t know they are “such people” until the Impasse of Irrationality and b) it’s my responsibility as a scientist, friend and concerned human being to inject reason and facts where they aren’t, especially when lives and health are at stake. These are folks who refuse to vaccinate their children and would rather feed their family and themselves truly harmful heavy-metal-laced concoctions, unnecessary minerals, antibiotics and “organic” foods, all in the name of removing bullshit toxins from the body. Not all foods labeled “organic” are indeed free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and eating unwashed organic fruits and vegetables is probably more harmful to you than processed foods. Granted, I stay away from fast food, except when on a long road trip, but calorie intake and trans fats are my motivators, not mythical cancer-causing Toxins which can be Leached Out with juices, oils, footpads and Anions for energy boosts. Eat everything in moderation, drink lots of water, get a good night’s sleep, exercise, use your brain and get an annual checkup if you can.

Another thing: I have nothing against licensed chiropractors, but I don’t want a gastroenterologist cracking my back, if you catch my meaning.

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Opinions are not facts. Facts are not opinions.

They are not the same and do not constitute opposing viewpoints of equal merit.

Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed?

The public should be able to get information on all sides of an issue — but that doesn’t mean that all sides of the issue deserve equal weight. Science works by carefully examining the evidence supporting different hypotheses and building on those that have the most support. Journalism and policies that falsely grant all viewpoints the same scientific legitimacy effectively undo one of the main aims of science: to weigh the evidence.

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Another kind of bias is bias perpetuated by its purported removal.

Be it in the corporate or academic world, I am increasingly tired of men in power smugly saying, “We don’t see gender, just the quality of your work.” That statement rings completely hollow to me, because it implies that women inherently produce work of lesser quality and is a cop-out not to address an unwritten policy of sexism. If the business is truly gender-unbiased, why are more men groomed and promoted from a pool of men and women? Unless no man or a complete dud applies for a position, why is a man always offered it over an equally-qualified woman? Perhaps if management were to look at the abilities and track records of ALL candidates more closely, truly without a focus on gender, more women will be seen climbing the ranks.

I present the essays of three scientists that address this inherent blindness that masquerades as impartiality. Thanks to the latest sexist brouhaha, this time associated with Nature magazine.

Kelly Hills: How Many Times Does “Don’t Promote Misogyny” Need to Be Discussed?  “If they had a lot of Flat-Earth letters, would they feel compelled to publish one? If so, they might want to rethink their editorial judgement.”

Anne Jefferson: Megaphones, broken records and the problem with institutional amplification of sexism and racism “To my read, it appears that implicit or explicit biases are reducing the number of African-American applications that get scores that make the discussion cutoff, but that once an application is discussed it has equal likelihood of getting funded regardless of the color of the applicant’s skin.”

Kate Clancy: The Way We Produce and Advance Science “I know many of us operate on fear—fear of being scooped, fear of not getting tenure, fear of not having enough funding to do our work, fear even of being exploited ourselves. But we cannot let fear motivate a scheme that crushes potential bright future scientists. The criteria for scholarly excellence should not be based on who survives or evades poor treatment but who has the intellectual chops to make the most meaningful contributions.”

It is 2014, as Anne reminds us, and all I want is to live in a world a society that shows physical and intellectual progress, not the return of previously-dead diseases and the extension of the notion of white/male superiority for absolutely no valid reasons. If we fight irrationality, blind faith and brute force abroad, we have to fight for reason here, or else what are we trying to protect?

And, if you take anything at all away from this post, it is this: There is nothing wrong with not having thought through, but with refusing to think through.

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Credits: “Anions are molecules” photo by @thisischristina

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A Suitable Replacement For Google Reader post image

At long last, I’ve added a new sidebar widget (look there –>) that once again allows me to share interesting articles from my feedreader in the form of a list. Ever since Google shelved Reader earlier this year, I went through Feedly, Flipboard, Fzzzt, Furwhumpl, Fediddr and finally found and settled on TheOldReader. It’s the closest thing to, well, the old Reader with a simple user interface, minimalist display and, most importantly, the ability to mark and share (even if it does take up to a day to show up in the sidebar here). From chatting with support staff on Twitter, it looks like they’re still ironing out glitches, but are very responsive and encourage users to suggest features that are then prioritized and released in pretty short order. For instance, I requested a browser bookmarklet to share any article I come across online, not just ones from feeds to which I’m subscribed, and am told it’s on its way.

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Crows are in the news again, pesky yet awesome creatures that they are. From my feedreader, how a corvid brain works and a really cool video of a crow that uses a jar lid to go snowboarding. It’s my seasonal gift to you. Also, thanks, Baltimore! That was one hell of a field goal.

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