Recently in Ideas and Science Category

Tsunami video

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In case you missed my brief mention a few weeks ago, and its original posting back in 2008, here is a video that three Vancouver Film School students made explaining tsunamis (like the recent one in Japan) in a couple of minutes:

It's based on my 2005 article on the topic.

Worse and better in Japan

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West Moat (Explored)  6,000 visits to this photo. Thank you.When I wrote about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami the day they happened, my post was optimistic, despite the obvious catastrophe. In many ways, things have turned out worse than they first seemed. Surely the situation in Indonesia and around the Indian Ocean was similarly awful at the end of 2004—and took many more lives—but we didn't have access to horrifying footage like this (watch the whole thing) to reinforce the point.

The argument I made, that Japan's position as a modern country with a robust infrastructure and vibrant economy, remains: unlike Haiti especially, Japan will bounce back quickly. Fewer people died or were injured than would have been in poorer and less-prepared nations from a magnitude-9.0 quake and massive sea wave. Those who are homeless and displaced will find safe places to live, and food, and comfort faster than in many parts of the world.

But the dead, officially more than 10,000 people now, are still dead. More than half that number again, over 17,000 people, are missing. Villages, towns, and cities are destroyed, some utterly annihilated.

Distracted from a disaster by a crisis

That enormity should remain our focus, but it is not. Because the cleanup and recovery in Northeast Japan is now an aftermath. And there is an ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since it is right on the ocean near the earthquake zone, I remain amazed that it survived the original quake and tsunami as well as it did, but ever since then, it's been hard to figure out what's going on at the facility: initially the situation seemed under control, then not. There were explosions. Things were going well, then poorly, radiation up, then down, in the soil, in the water, in food. Workers evacuated, then returned.

It's unclear to me how much of what has happened at the plant is an inevitable cascading consequence of the initial disaster, and how much has been made worse by insufficient information, poor analysis, bad decision-making, and incompetence. It is clear that news coverage of the nuclear accident, especially here in North America, has been remarkably poor, stoking worries while ignoring facts, and even confusing such basic distinctions as those between radiation and radioactive substances; between different types of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma); or between dosages and exposure rates (which is like forgetting the difference between miles and miles per hour).

Here are a three quick resources that I've found helpful:

  1. XKCD's radiation dose chart and accompanying blog post gives you a sense of the scales of different exposures to radiation. It has some problems, but as a heavily simplified go-to guide, it will help you get your bearings.
  2. Well-known blogger Anil Dash's father-in-law is a health physicist specializing in human radiation exposure, so Anil's post on the topic, while brief, provides some additional sane background on which to base your thinking.
  3. The Christian Science Monitor (always a surprisingly good newspaper, despite how it was founded) has a good article on lessons from Fukushima about nuclear safety more generally.

It's about Japan, not about us

I'd also like to point out a few things for people here on North America's West Coast who are worried about radioisotopes carried here on the wind. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Those were open-air nuclear detonations in Japan, and didn't affect people here. There were dozens and dozens of atomic-bomb tests in Nevada (many also open-air), practically in our back yards, and while some radiation levels were elevated, the health consequences have been immeasurable. The Hanford Site in Washington isn't even 300 km from my house, and is the most contaminated nuclear waste site in North America.

CT scans, flying in aircraft, and even living at elevation in Colorado yield higher long-term radiation exposure than any of these other things, especially on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Oh, and no matter what, taking iodine is of no help whatsoever: the radioactive varieties coming from Fukushima have half-lives so short they decay away (in addition to being dispersed) before even getting this far. Want protection from danger? Get a flu shot next year.

I'm neither an advocate for nor an activist against nuclear power. My main concern has always been that we really don't know what to do with spent fuel and other radioactive waste from the process (just as with nuclear weapons production), and we never have. "Just bury it" seems a paltry approach when we're talking about substances that could be dangerous for tens of thousands of years. We're still doing a poor job of burying the waste of just 65 years of nuclear production.

But we have an industry here and now, and it has its consequences. Let's at least try to understand and handle those rationally, and help Japan work with them, because hysteria won't make it any easier.

And remember the quake and the tsunami, and the 27,000 dead or still missing.

Orca, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia CanadaCatching up on some Quirks and Quarks podcasts last night, I came across an amazing discovery about orcas (a.k.a. killer whales). Scroll down to "A Killer Diet" on this page to listen.

Here's the research paper and a summary from the Vancouver Aquarium. Essentially, a group of transient orcas near Unimak Island in the Aleutians hunt gray whales each spring, usually separating a juvenile gray whale from its mother, then killing and eating it.

For killer whales, that's not especially unusual: many of their populations around the world hunt other whales much larger than they are (even blue whales), using clever pack behaviour, often in the open ocean. But the problem is that most whale carcasses sink after they die, so the orcas can only get to some of the blubbery whale goodness before it disappears into the abyssal depths. (Interesting stuff can happen after that too, but we're on a different story.)

The Unimak orcas have taken advantage of gray whales' defensive behaviour, which is to retreat to shallow water. Separating the juvenile prey from its adult defenders in the relative shallows (10 to 20 m) has allowed the orcas to invent a refrigerator for themselves. Because even a juvenile grey whale provides too much meat for a pack of killer whales to eat all at once.

So the orcas eat, then let their prey sink. But the rocky bottom is right there, and a day or so later, they come back to dive down for leftovers. And again, and again, for nearly a week—like a human fridge after Thanksgiving. (It's Alaska just after winter, so the water is nice and cold too.) In the meantime, other sea creatures—including sharks, as well as invertebrates—chomp and grind away at the remains. Even local bears get in on the action, salvaging bits that float ashore.

This all shows why killer whales are among the most flexible, ingenious, and successful large predators in the world. While they're most common in temperate oceans near shore, orcas range throughout the world's marine surface ecosystems, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the Mediterranean to tropical seas. They are the top predator in all those places: nothing else eats them. In those different habitats, they often have specialized diets, hunted with customized techniques learned, and then passed from generation to generation.

We have the Unimak gray whale fridge. Resident populations near my home in British Columbia eat salmon; some people think the whales stun the fish by focusing their vocalizations through the melons at the fronts of their heads. Transient pods here eat marine mammals instead, mostly seals and sea lions, sometimes tossing them in the air during pursuit. But in one spot in South America, the killer whales ride the surf, emerging from the foam to snatch sea lions right off the beach. Off Norway, orcas trap schools of herring in rings of bubbles. Near San Francisco, scientists recorded orcas hunting a great white shark by flipping it on its back, which immobilized the fish and eventually killed it.

I suspect that no other type of carnivore has such a diversity of hunting behaviour. That's probably because they are mammals (the largest variety of dolphin) like us, with big brains—which they obviously use very effectively. Most predator species, whether on land or in the ocean, have common hunting behaviours, and often highly specialized bodies to accommodate them. But killer whales have evolved—as a species—to be generalists. They are smart, they can improvise, they can plan, and they learn. They teach each other what works and how to do it, and pass the knowledge down through families. You might even say they have culture.

Tsunami comes inRight after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami at the end of 2004, I wrote what turned into a long article about it, and about tsunamis more generally. People found the piece useful, so following today's devastating 8.9-magnitude quake and tsunamis in Japan, I thought I'd point it out again, particularly my general introduction and the Q&A section later on.

Today's situation is different, of course. Damaging tsunamis seem to have been largely restricted to the coastline of Japan itself; Hawaii and the rest of us around the Pacific Rim saw comparatively minimal effects (the wide-open coasts of southern Oregon and northern California seemed to get the worst of it), if any. And Japan has probably the world's most sophisticated earthquake and tsunami response system, as well as the most stringent seismic building codes. Many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people died in Japan today, and there will be vast costs in rebuilding—but in 2004 the death toll around the Indian Ocean was over 230,000. Last year's Haiti quake, of far lower magnitude, killed hundreds of thousands too.

As a measure of how much modernization has changed things, as recently as 1923 over 100,000 died in the Kanto quake, which was not nearly as strong, but also generated tsunamis. Remember that when people (as they inevitably will) start talking about the relatively low death toll from today's events as "a miracle": it was only a miracle comprising knowledge, understanding of history and plate tectonics, planning, engineering, construction, communications, discipline, and other sorts of hard human work.

The low cost in lives and injuries does not, however, diminish the pain and suffering encompassed in each of those lives. It does not make it easier to witness one's house or office destroyed. It does not clean debris from a formerly vibrant seashore, or put out a raging fire, or comfort an orphan.

It does tell us one thing. We have another reason, among many, to diminish poverty in the world. Because when a natural disaster strikes—indifferent, in itself, to the wealth of its victims—those who are poor are least prepared to face it, and more likely to find themselves under the rubble than figuring out what to do once it's cleared away.


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All I can say is wow. And no, it's not Photoshopped:

Star trails and bioluminescence by Phil Hart, Australia

The light in the water is bioluminescence.

Space doesn't look like that

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Remember the end of The Empire Strikes Back, where Leia and Luke, convalescing from surgery to replace his severed hand, gaze out of the window of a Rebel spaceship at the departing Millennium Falcon, with the Galaxy (the far, far away one) spinning slowly in the background? It looked something like this:

NASA's Hubble Sees A Majestic Disk of Stars

That's a real galaxy, though, called NGC 2841, about 45 million light years away from our own. And neither it nor its Star Wars companion would look anything like that if we were seeing them with our own eyes.

First of all, forget the spinning: it takes our solar system about 225 million years to make one rotation around the core of the Milky Way, so even if you were able to see the whole disk, it would take many human lifetimes to perceive any motion at all. Put another way, the last time we were at this spot in our rotation, Earth was in the middle of the Triassic period, the time of the earliest dinosaurs.

Maybe more importantly, I don't think we could see a galaxy in all its beauty that way at all, because it would probably be too dim for our eyes. Consider that all photos of other galaxies require pretty long exposures, even for sensitive equipment. The Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see in a dark sky with your naked eye as a faint smudge, doesn't show its full shape in a telescope until you collect light for at least a few minutes.

Consider the fact that we're right inside a galaxy, and for most of us living in cities, the Milky Way, which is the view through the thickness of our closest spiral arm, is entirely washed out by light pollution. I don't think my daughters have ever seen it, in fact. You need a pretty dark sky, preferably on a moonless night, to see it properly.

If you were far enough away from a galaxy to see the whole thing, it would be even dimmer, so no matter how dark the sky, to your naked eye it would be much more a large, galaxy-shaped smudge of light (an impressive smudge indeed, but still smudgy) than the crisp, defined, and detailed colourful disks we see in photos. You might be able to determine its shape, and see the core, but it wouldn't be what Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO were gazing at.

People are sometimes disappointed when they look through a telescope at celestial objects. Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun are certainly impressive, but nebulae lack the fantastic colours and flaming tendrils we've come to expect after decades of Hubble Space Telescope images. But those pictures are long exposures, often with artificial colours displaying wavelengths humans can't even see. While those images are real, they're not what our eyes see when we look at the light directly.

Still, think about how amazing it is to do anyway: away from city lights, on a dark clear night, preferably at high altitude, you can peer up near the constellations Pegasus and Casseopeia to find the Andromeda Galaxy, no binoculars or telescope necessary (though they'll make it yet a better experience). When you see it, you know that the light hitting your eyes started its journey two million years ago, before modern humans evolved.

Darwin Day 2011

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EVOL-ution - by KrieBeLToday, February 12, 2011, is Darwin Day. It would have been Charles Darwin's 202nd birthday. (Of course, even if he'd been a tortoise, he wouldn't have lived that long—maybe if he'd been a koi fish.) Over the past couple of years, to commemorate his 200th, and the 150th anniversary of his most famous book, I wrote some posts. They were:

Never mind what I've written here recently. These three pieces are far more fascinating, so read them first:

  • Neal Stephenson (via Kottke) reveals why we're still using rockets to send things into space, when more efficient ways could be developed. (Quick summary: blame Hitler.)

  • John Baez (also via Kottke) discusses four great and important catastrophes in the history of the Earth: the formation of the Moon by a collision with another planet 4.53 billion years ago; the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth's surface, probably because of gravitational interactions between Jupiter and Saturn between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago; the poisoning of our atmosphere by oxygen after plants evolved photosynthesis 2.5 billion years ago; and the "snowball Earth" global glaciation 850 million years ago.

  • Pioneering podcaster Doug Kaye visited Egypt as a tourist and just got back: somehow he and his wife just threaded the needle of having a completely uneventful Egyptian vacation and being embroiled in the current political turmoil. They witnessed quite a bit, without being in danger themselves. It's quite a story.

There has been lots of excellent heavy thinking at Eric MacDonald's (Canadian!) Choice in Dying blog, which he started in December, and which is not confined to his central goal of making it easier for people to die the way we want to. I particularly like his piece today, which makes a point I think often gets missed about the current New Atheism:

New Atheists [...] are really not sceptical about the existence of a god or gods. We have no question about it at all, and this, not because of unwarranted certainty, but because we have no idea what a god is, and we don't think that religious believers know either.

There are many mysteries in our universe, and always will be. Atheists like me, however, have no reason to think that religion or theology explain or solve any of those mysteries. MacDonald (who is apparently a former Anglican priest) again:

Of course, like real disciplines of knowledge they engage in rational discussions, but at the basis of those discussions lie propositions which are not based on any evidence.

They are based on scripture and revelation, but, in examining the origins of those—whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, or otherwise...

...We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Yet theology is founded upon them. Theologians are governed by them. So are whole societies! Not only that, but they can neither be added to nor subtracted from. These are the very words of God—whatever that is assumed to mean within the structure of various theologies.

Here's what's so puzzling to me, who has never been religious (as opposed, perhaps, to those who have "de-converted"): in the absence of evidence-based knowledge or understanding about something, it wouldn't be my choice to make up an answer instead, or to rely on an explanation someone else made up a few hundred or a few thousand years ago.

Yes, I would prefer a good explanation, a truthful one with good evidence behind it. But I would prefer to say "I don't know"—to accept that we are ignorant about many things, and that chaos is out there—than to accept a poor answer without evidence, just to have some answer at all. At their core, at their foundations, religious and theological "explanations" are based on ideas somebody made up, usually with what would now be considered a very superficial, misguided, and simply incorrect understanding of how the world works.

No one knows (yet) what dark matter and dark energy are. No one knows (yet) how life started on Earth. No one knows (yet) why elementary particles are limited to having quantum spin only of certain values.

These are fundamental and important questions. Maybe we will know the answers someday. Researchers have ideas, but those ideas need to be tested against reality before we know if they're right. Not knowing is uncomfortable for me, but as I've written before, "there's no rule that reality has to be comfortable."

Our most peculiar icicle

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Everyday items can defy common sense. Take this icicle that formed on the banister of our back steps just after the new year:

Weird icicle 1

In advance, I would have guessed that water dripping off the end of the railing would have fallen downwards—you know, gravity and all—and formed a vertically-hanging icicle like every other one I've seen in my life. Yet the surface tension of the water presumably let each melted drop slide over the previous one, and the temperature was just right to freeze it before it dripped off the end. The result: an icicle matching the angle of the banister.

Even more bizarre, the tip curled up slightly. The whole thing was about 10 cm long. I wanted to see how much further it would grow, but the weather conditions changed; by the next morning, it was gone.

New rule for science journalism
Argh. Once again, the biggest science story of the week is a bit of a mess. NASA didn't help by teasing everyone with its advance press release/PR stunt about an "astrobiology discovery." The news was nothing of the sort. Rather, scientists have found some very weird life—on Earth.

The real story is fascinating, if you're into biology. Bacteria that appear to be able to substitute arsenic in place of phosphorus in the very structure of their DNA (and other bioactive molecules)—that's extremely cool. It shows how innovative natural selection can be, because as PZ Myers points out, the reason arsenic is usually lethal to living things is precisely because it's chemically so similar to phosphorus (and nitrogen). Usually, however, it screws up biochemical processes that it gets mixed into. These newly-discovered bacteria from salty, alkaline Mono Lake in California have managed to co-opt arsenic instead of being killed by it.

UPDATE December 7, 2010: Actually, maybe they haven't done so after all, and this whole ruckus has been a complete waste of time. Here, read some more.

But the publicity and news coverage remind me of the hoopla over Ida and Ardi, the fossil primate discoveries touted last year. Again, cool science, but woefully misrepresented to the public in its importance and meaning. The connection between the GFAJ-1 bacteria from Mono Lake and potential extraterrestrial life (which, I remind you, no one has yet found any evidence of) is so tenuous it's almost nonexistent: these critters tell us that it's possible for life to use a slightly different chemistry.

But we're not talking about life based on silicon instead of carbon. This is a less fundamental difference. The bacteria in question still use DNA. In the wild, in Mono Lake, they still use phosphorus, and indeed they're healthiest when they do. But in the lab, they can be coaxed into using arsenic instead, rather than simply dying in messy heaps like the rest of us earth beings would. Those are the basics.

I guess it makes sense, in a way, for NASA to hype up the story. A press release titled "Biologists discover life can use slightly different chemistry" wouldn't bring out CNN, but hype also has its risks:

Arsenic-based life

The problem is that hype can lull us into a cry-wolf syndrome. If people hear about an amazing set of "missing links!!!" (but oh, they aren't) and "signs of extraterrestrial life!!!" (but oh, they're terrestrial), are we going to take it seriously when scientists say, for instance, "Hey, global climate change looks like it's going to be a big problem"?

Many policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already too ignorant about important scientific issues today, even about such essential ideas as how petroleum forms, the reality of evolution, or the usefulness of paying for basic research. Bait-and-switch tactics with scientific announcements surely don't help.

Why not save a step?

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Today would have been Carl Sagan's 76th birthday, though he died at 62, in 1996, of pneumonia brought on by a bone marrow disorder. He was a big influence on me, in his many publications, and particularly in his PBS TV series Cosmos and its accompanying book.

Although I watched the whole series, and brought the book to school with me often enough that the librarian gave me one of those industrial-strength plastic covers to protect the dust jacket, the first minute of this segment, from Episode 10, "The Edge of Forever," still stands out in my mind.

It was originally broadcast almost exactly 30 years ago, in November 1980, when I was 11. Sagan knew he was treading on dangerous ground, especially in his native America, so he must have chosen his words very carefully:

"If we wish to pursue this question courageously," he says about a godly origin to the Universe, "we must of course ask the next question: where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step, and conclude that the origin of the Universe is an unanswerable question? Or if we say God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the Universe always existed?"

I had been thinking along these lines myself already. However, perhaps it was the budding writer in me, but I appreciated Sagan's thrift in that statement. It's Occam's Razor at its most efficient: "Why not save a step?" (And in the process, supersede all religions and theologies, incidentally.)

If we can explain the workings of the Universe without the supernatural, he was saying, we should do so. That is both to avoid unnecessary complexity in our explanations, and because it's the basis of science, which has taught us more about our world in the past few hundred years (especially in the last century) than we learned in all the millennia before.

But perhaps more importantly, Sagan suggested, if we cannot explain the workings of the Universe, or the Universe's very existence—at least not yet—then supernatural answers don't magically fill the void. Postulating an incomprehensible deity doesn't make the answers clearer, but murkier. It pushes them another unneeded step away.

That's how we treat things in the rest of life. Take one of my other favourite quotes, from William Strunk, about writing:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

By the same reasoning, a cosmology should contain no unnecessary gods. That made sense to me at 11, and it still does. Thanks Carl.

Blown away by the grainy red Sun

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Sunset in H-Alpha-LightMy dad has been an amateur astronomer since his childhood. The way my daughters have grown up around computers and cameras and musical instruments, I grew up around telescopes. And while most astronomical observing is of objects in the night sky, you can see some pretty fascinating things during the day too—especially if you want to examine our nearest star, the Sun.

To that end, a few months ago my dad ordered an obscure piece of gear, something I'd never heard of before: a custom-built personal solar telescope with a built-in hydrogen-alpha light filter. It just arrived, and he had a chance to try it today. Compared to his other optical equipment, it looks small and unassuming, almost like a large spotting 'scope. But there's a lot more going on inside.

I've been looking through his traditional telescopes with regular solar filters on them for decades. What you see there is a yellow-orange disc. Sunspots are easy to identify, but much of the rest of the Sun's surface is pretty nondescript in that view, much like what you can see through clouds or smoky air.

What I saw when I peeked through his new solar telescope, though, was astonishing. Instead of yellowish-orange, the Sun was deep red. Sunspots, rather than simple blots, had complex edges. I could see the granules that make up the solar surface, and at the Sun's edge, numerous spouting, filigreed prominences jetting off into space. Over time, those prominences changed shape, the way clouds morph in the sky. And this was not some digitally enhanced space-telescope image: I was looking at this stuff with my own eye, from the back porch.

The reason the solar telescope provides such a different view through the eyepiece is that hydrogen-alpha filter. While a traditional solar filter acts like a really opaque set of sunglasses, drastically reducing the intensity of all visible wavelengths of light so you can look at the Sun through a telescope without frying your eyeballs in their sockets, an H-alpha filter does so extremely selectively. Using some clever optical tricks, it lets through only a tiny range of colours, in a narrow band of red wavelengths surrounding 656 nanometres.

Those particular wavelengths are important because the Sun is a giant roiling ball of nuclear fusion, turning hydrogen into helium, and the 656 nm wavelength (more precisely, 6562.8 Ångstroms) is the primary spectral emission wavelength of hydrogen. That means that a lot of the interesting stuff that the Sun is doing (especially in its chromosphere) is visible at that wavelength, but normally it's hard to see because it's overwhelmed by the other light blasting out at all the other wavelengths, in the visible spectrum and beyond.

So what I saw through my father's small H-alpha solar telescope was a more active, detailed, seething star than I'd ever witnessed with my own eyes. The Sun is, of course, the source of all the non-geothermal energy here on Earth, the thing that keeps us and everything else alive. Watching it seethe in real time gave me new respect for that.

Big Bang's blog

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Magellanic Clouds and Gum Nebula with Zeiss Distagon 21mmF2.8 May 2010 Light VersionIf you like the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, you might wonder how much of the science referred to on the show is realistic. David Saltzberg is the program's science advisor, and he has a blog about that very subject, called The Big Blog Theory.

Saltzberg consulted Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, about the latest post, listing the nearest stars to our solar system. Since I met Phil a couple of summers ago, I guess I'm only a couple of degrees of separation from the cast of the show (and the MythBusters too!).

San Jose mine to scale, from via j-walkblog.comLast Rescuers by Rescate Mineros on Flickr
Photo: Hugo Infante/Government of Chile, October 14, 2010

I'm no cynic. Yesterday, as each of 33 trapped miners emerged from the Fenix rescue capsule, out of the dusty ground in the mountains of Chile, then hugged his wife or girlfriend or child or brother or other relative, I cried. Sometimes I wept openly in front of the TV, or in the car as I listened to the radio. These were men who could easily have been dead for months, but who are still alive, and healthy, and now back with the rest of us.

But so many people, from miners and rescuers and their families, to politicians and media correspondents, called it a miracle, and that bothered me. This rescue was no miracle. It was a remarkable, difficult, challenging, and happy human achievement. I posted on Twitter and Facebook that calling the rescue a miracle belittles the amazing human work done by the rescuers, the teams of engineers and others who planned and executed it, and the miners themselves.

There was a lot of praying and thanking God from the miners, their relatives, the politicians, workers and others onsite at the San José Mine. Which is fine—they are entitled to believe what they want, and to draw comfort and inspiration however they can—but no god dug that amazing rescue shaft.

Sadly, now representatives of different churches are trying to claim that their particular prayers were the ones that helped save the miners. Yet, or course, none are vying for their version of God to take the blame for the initial disaster in the mine two and half months ago—or for the deaths of dozens of other miners in Chile this year for whom there were no miracles. (UPDATE: For further context, in China, there were over 2600 mine deaths last year, and more than 1250 so far this year.)

Miracle does have a secular meaning, but from the President of Chile on down, in this context people seemed to be using its most direct definition: "godly intervention." Yet a real miracle would be if the miners had just been magically teleported to the surface when the collapse began, or if it hadn't happened in the first place. But people had to dig the rescue shaft, and that is the wonderful achievement.

I looked out my front windows yesterday and realized that what the rescue did was pull each man on a thin strand through a drill hole 2000 feet deep, like bringing them up from the very heart of one of the North Shore mountains to the top, on a wire:

First big snows on the Lions

Here's a visualization to scale of the distance (via J-Walk), which you can also see along the right edge of this blog entry.

Doing that took skill, talent, knowledge, ingenuity, determination, science, and meticulous planning. It was tremendous good luck (and at least some credit in mine safety design—however flawed—plus training and discipline) that the miners all survived the initial collapse back in August, and the 17 days before anyone was able to contact them. But from then on, the rescue effort was pure hard work.

However inspiring it is to some that people around the world were thinking of and praying for the miners while they remained trapped in their tiny, hot, humid rock chamber for months on end, it was not the abstract thoughts and prayers that pulled them out. It was the thinking and planning, drawing and building, drilling and feeding, testing and re-testing—it was the doing that brought them to the surface yesterday.

I celebrate that.

I've often written on my blog about how poorly the human brain intuitively understands probability. My very basic understanding from statistics courses (and a vague interest) is the reason I don't buy lottery tickets. Yes, your chances of winning a jackpot if you don't play are zero, but your chances of winning if you do play are so close to zero it makes no difference. I might do better wandering around town hoping to find a few million dollars lost in a bag on the street (which has happened, here in Vancouver).

People who know me are tired of my saying that if I ever do buy a lottery ticket, my numbers will be consecutive: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 for the Lotto 6/49, for example. Those are just as likely to be a winning combination as anything else. Here's proof: not just one, but four people in New South Wales, Australia just won a jackpot using the numbers 1 through 10 as their picks, getting more than $2 million Australian each.

I think it was my friend Karen who pointed out that choosing consecutive numbers (or any other set that might be easy to think of, or might have some meaning to people) isn't the smartest strategy. Why? Because, as for those Australians, it's more likely that several players will choose them, and that you'll have to split any winnings you do get. That's because, unlike the numbers that win, many numbers that players pick are non-random. Going with a random set of numbers (the same ones or different ones, whatever) each draw would bring the best likelihood—still trivially small—of keeping it all yourself, or splitting with fewer co-winners. Nevertheless, I'd take $2 million and the good story.

But if I have a few bucks to spend, I'll probably still get myself a burger.

I don't listen to as many podcasts as I used to, even though I am the co-host of a reasonably popular one, and also have an occasionally-updated largely musical one of my own. From 2005 through 2007 in particular, I devoured podcasts, listening in the morning while getting the kids ready for school, on the commute to and from work, sometimes at work, while driving in the car or shopping or waiting in line, while falling asleep at night, and even in hospital when I was recovering from surgery.

There are many reasons my listening habits have changed. Since I've been on medical leave for cancer treatment, I'm not commuting, and I'm also not often working on non-language right-brain stuff (such as editing images) that doesn't interfere with spoken-word podcasts. Now that I have an iPhone and an iPad, when I have time to kill either at home or out running errands, I'm more likely to fire up Twitter or a web browser or a game than to listen to a podcast.

And, because of my newfound cancer-driven appreciation for the little things in everyday life, when I go for a walk around the neighbourhood (often with the dog), I usually leave the earphones at home, and simply listen to the sounds around me.

Making a show un-missable

So while I still have quite a few podcasts in my iTunes subscription list, I miss a lot of episodes and delete many of them unheard. There are two shows I never miss, though: National Public Radio's Planet Money, and the indie show Reasonable Doubts. (Though I don't catch every episode, I also listen to almost every release—ahem—of Savage Love, after a recommendation a couple of years ago from my wife, and CBC's Spark is a regular too.)

Here's why I find both Planet Money and Reasonable Doubts un-missable: They're about the right length and frequency—around 20 minutes several times a week for Planet Money, less than an hour every week or two for Reasonable Doubts—that I can stay caught up without being overwhelmed (a problem for Leo Laporte's ever-increasing and ever-lengthening stable of shows on his TWiT network).

Both of my favourite podcasts are well-structured and excellently produced, telling compelling stories in an interesting format. Most importantly, I learn a lot about subjects that previously didn't interest me much at all: business and religion.

Clarity and economics? Really?

Before Planet Money came along, I found most business journalism about as interesting as a fishing show, or the farm report that used to come on TV before cartoons in the early mornings when I was kid: in other words, so dull it was physically painful. But when the team that would later create the standalone Planet Money podcast produced the "Giant Pool of Money" episode for This American Life in 2008, I was hooked. A single show somehow managed to explain the global economic crisis of that year, and the American housing-market meltdown that triggered it, clearly and concisely, without dumbing the subject down.

Planet Money takes a similar approach to all sorts of topics in economics, global finance, and other business subjects that I'd never normally want to delve into. Yet it fascinates me every time. This week, for instance, I learned about how Brazil changed its currency to stave off runaway inflation in 1994. Yawn, right? Not when the show has a title like "How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil."

Religions explained and criticized

Reasonable Doubts doesn't emerge from a professional radio network like NPR. It's a labour-of-love amateur effort by three academics in Grand Rapids, Michigan (or "the clasp on America's Bible Bra," as they like to call it): philosophy professor Jeremy Beahan, psychologist Luke Galen, and English and mythology teacher David Fletcher. All three were raised as fundamentalist Christians, but found themselves "de-converting" in adulthood. So they bring a particularly well-informed approach to talking about, explaining, and in the end debunking the tenets of various religious traditions.

There are plenty of podcasts about rationalism, skepticism, atheism, humanism, critical thinking, and similar stuff, but many of them spend a lot of time taking apart conspiracy theories, UFOs, New Age woo, ghosts, psychics, and pseudo-medical quackery. Those are all fine, but as an atheist myself since childhood, I find that I don't know much about the religions that influence most people around the world. And the Reasonable Doubts team talks about them: Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox), Islam (Shiite, Sunni, and other sects), Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and more.

It's not just cheap chat and atheist dismissal, either. I've learned about Christian dispensationalism, Buddhist dukkha, and the philosophical debates around determinism and free will, for instance. The hosts are careful to explain the subjects they address as carefully and completely as possible, so that their analysis and criticism make sense. And they're pretty funny in a nerdy white-guy way that appeals to me.

Keep learning

I like these shows for the same reasons I enjoy the science essays and books of Stephen Jay Gould, the TV series of James Burke, or radio programs like "Quirks and Quarks." They teach me things I didn't know before, and point me in interesting directions to learn even more.

In the modern world, we're always encouraged to keep learning for a lifetime. My favourite podcasts make that easy. I'd encourage you to give them a listen too.

Blasphemy Day 2010

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Today was International Blasphemy Rights Day, the second annual one, but it didn't get as much publicity as last year. I totally forgot about it until now, god damn it.

There, that's better.

Links of interest (2010-09-28)

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Yesterday was another side effect hell, but I managed to visit a few websites in bed between trips to the bathroom:

  • "Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey [of knowledge about world religions]." (I managed 14 out of 15.)

  • The Prime Meridian line at the Royal Naval Observatory in Greenwich, U.K., actually is red, like on maps.

  • "But given the current arrangements, I'm being charged just a little bit less than I pay for paper and getting a whole lot less, and it just doesn't feel like a good deal. Of course, a setup like I'm proposing would leave the publishing industry as we know it in ruins. Which wouldn't bother me in the slightest as long as the authors and editors can still get paid."

  • "Maybe death is a good time to go offline."

  • "But recent budgets have shown a carbon tax deficit: tax cuts have completely swamped carbon tax revenues. While some were concerned that the carbon tax would be a 'tax grab', instead we [have] a carbon tax is that is revenue negative not revenue neutral."

  • "Perhaps 25,000 years ago, a child visited the cave and left a footprint, the oldest human footprint that can be accurately dated."

  • "See, aspiring thief, you just never know what you're stepping into when you hit up a random car on a random street. However badass you think you may be, there is someone on the other side of the robbery. And in this particular case it was someone who escaped the Iranian Revolution as a child; who roamed the world alone for five years because her parents couldn't get out; who watched from a dozen blocks away as the twin towers crumbled; who had just barely clawed her way out of that concentration camp known as late-stage cancer, if only because she was intent on raising her babies, come hell or high water. And all of this before she even turned 40. Can you see how that someone might be way more twisted than you?"

  • I don't buy lottery tickets. Why? Here's a simple lottery simulator, using the U.S. Mega Millions Lottery scheme—but many others, like our Lotto 6/49, are similar. I simulated playing the same numbers twice a week for 10 years. I "won" a total of $50 in that time, "spending" $1040, for a net loss of $990.

  • Worst oil company print ads ever?

  • Charlie Brooker's How to Report the News (video) and Martin Robbins's This is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper. Those cheeky Brits. And damn if they aren't completely right.

  • "At its best, science fiction can help people better understand science, explaining new ideas and theories in the context of a thrilling, gripping story. And then there are these 10 utterly ridiculous stories about evolution."

  • "To accept something like residential cancer clusters are often just coincidence is deeply unsatisfying. The powerlessness, the feeling you are defenseless to the whims of chance, can be assuaged by singling out an antagonist. Sometimes you need a bad guy, and The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is one way you can create one."

When taking offence is a weakness

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What dismays me most about the circus show of news in the U.S. these past couple of weeks, with the Beckapalooza and the hoo-ha over the Manhattan Islamic Center/"Ground Zero Mosque" and the planned Burning of the Qu'ran, is how little the various parties involved seem to think of their belief systems.

Is Christianity really under any serious (or even non-serious) threat in the U.S.A., especially from a moderate-minded president who just managed to pass a watered-down health-care bill? Are American ideals and patriotism so fragile that they cannot withstand someone constructing a building a few minutes' walk from where the Twin Towers used to stand? Is the supposed creator of the Universe so thin-skinned that it can't handle a nutbar pastor/furniture salesman destroying copies of its book?

Strong philosophies would respond to these "affronts" with minimal, if any, concern. The religious and moral landscape of the U.S. has changed often, and sometimes radically, in that country's 234 years. But its bold experiment in building a free and diverse society has survived, and flourished. Neither the Manhattan attack of 9/11 nor the building of Cordoba House near where it happened should be able to usurp that. And would Islam not be a strong and durable religion if its adherents were easily able to brush off a silly stunt in Florida by saying, "Allah is too great to be bothered with that"?

(Okay, maybe the Tea Partiers do have something to worry about, but I don't think that the country their Founding Fathers envisaged is what's endangered.)

On the other hand, if a religion or a socio-political structure can't stand up to contrary ideas or blasphemies from non-adherents, I can't see how it should demand any respect at all.