Thursday, December 17, 2009

Billboard in New Zealand Pisses off Christians

Seems a church in New Zealand (yes...this isn't an anti-church thing) has put up a billboard "challenging stereotypes" of the Christ conception story, that I (admittedly as a non-Christian) find hilarious, however some Christians are finding offensive. Here's the billboard:

And you can read more about the controversy at BBC News. Meanwhile, the whole thing reminds me of a friend I had in college who told me about his very devout Catholic grandmother who once expressed that though she believes in the absolute word of the bible, she has some SERIOUS doubts about this whole virgin birth thing.

The Science of Violence

An amazing study just came out in the journal Nature where people studied violent conflicts statistically and found that such conflicts all follow very similar patterns. And those patterns are very similar to how financial markets (also based on human behavior) function. Here is the abstract of the article:

Many collective human activities, including violence, have been shown to exhibit universal patterns. The size distributions of casualties both in whole wars from 1816 to 1980 and terrorist attacks have separately been shown to follow approximate power-law distributions. However, the possibility of universal patterns ranging across wars in the size distribution or timing of within-conflict events has barely been explored. Here we show that the sizes and timing of violent events within different insurgent conflicts exhibit remarkable similarities. We propose a unified model of human insurgency that reproduces these commonalities, and explains conflict-specific variations quantitatively in terms of underlying rules of engagement. Our model treats each insurgent population as an ecology of dynamically evolving, self-organized groups following common decision-making processes. Our model is consistent with several recent hypotheses about modern insurgency18, 19, 20, is robust to many generalizations, and establishes a quantitative connection between human insurgency, global terrorism and ecology. Its similarity to financial market models provides a surprising link between violent and non-violent forms of human behaviour

What is most striking is just how similar the patterns are whether you look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Peru or Colombia. They analyze both the size and timing of events and show that they fall on a very well-defined straight line on a log-log graph. Thus small scale attacks of violence occur more frequently and large-scale events far more rarely, though such large scale attacks are NOT isolated, unique events but rather simply one extreme of the normal dynamics of a conflict. The authors use these similarities across conflicts to formulate a model of insurgency by "treating the insurgent population as an ecology of dynamically evolving, decision-making groups..."

This model cannot be used to predict specific attacks any more than financial modeling can predict specific ups and downs of the markets or climate models can predict specific hurricanes or El Nino years. But, as with these other fields, this study can be used to analyze the overall dynamics of conflicts and could be used for emergency planning as well as for the timing and nature of interventions and diplomacy. Cool stuff and it shows that violent conflicts are far more orderly than I would have predicted.

You can see an article about this study on BBC News.

Earth-like, Watery World Discovered

In the recent issue of Nature is an article reporting the most earth-like planet yet discovered outside our solar system and, importantly, one that is very likely to be watery...perhaps as much as 50% water.

From the News and Views in this week's Nature:

The hunt for Earth-like worlds has taken a major step forward with the discovery of a planet only 2.7 times larger than Earth. Its mass and size are just as theorists would expect for a water-rich super-Earth...

Charbonneau's team1 has found that the small, faint star GJ 1214 undergoes repeated dimming of 1.3% for 52 minutes every 1.6 days. The only plausible interpretation is that a planet orbits the star with an orbital period of 1.6 days and that it has a radius that is 12% that of the star. Good estimates of the star's radius (21% that of the Sun) put the planet's radius at only 2.7 Earth radii. Such a small planet orbiting a star other than the Sun is an extraordinary find. With the tools currently available, only one other extrasolar planet has been reported that is thought to be close in size to Earth, namely CoRoT-7b, at 1.7 Earth radii. The new planet, which is only about 13 parsecs away, is named GJ 1214b. Importantly, it pulls gravitationally on its host star, causing the star to move with a speed of 12 m s−1, which the team has detected through measurements of wavelength shifts in the star's light (the Doppler effect). The planet's inferred mass is a mere 6.6 Earth masses, which, when combined with its radius, leads to a density of 1.9 g cm−3. By contrast, Earth's average density is much higher, at 5.5 g cm−3. Because water has a low density of about 1 g cm−3, the chemical composition of the new planet is probably some admixture of rock and water, with perhaps a small atmosphere of hydrogen and helium...

That solid material forms the building blocks of large planets such as Saturn and Neptune, and perhaps smaller planets as well, such as the new one1. But the density of 1.9 g cm−3 for this new planet imposes a constraint on the relative amounts of each constituent. To keep the planet's density that low requires that it contains large amounts of water. If the planet were pure Fe and silicates, its density would be similar to Earth's. It must contain a huge amount of water, roughly 50% by mass.

The actual article can be found here.

This planet would NOT be just like earth. The atmosphere is likely to be very different and it is not clear whether there could be solid continents to support terrestrial life. However, I am of the opinion that anywhere you find liquid water, there is a good shot of at least simple (bacteria-like) life if not more complex life.

GJ 1214b as it is now called is quite a landmark discovery. It is hard to see it that way now, since it is unlikely that any kind of exploratory mission can be launched any time soon, so we have to rely on indirect methods of studying it. But I suspect a lot of smart people are thinking right now of how we can get a good look at what seems like a big, very watery, possibly (probably?) life-bearing world in our general galactic neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New York Focus: The Ongoing Working Families Party Scandal

I got a fair amount of crap from people about my coverage of the Working Families Party scandal, wherein WFP was caught red handed violating campaign finance laws. Several people told me to lay off them because they are progressives. To me, though, corruption by people I agree with on policy is worse than corruption by Republicans, who I expect it from. So I covered the WFP scandal despite attacks from fellow progressives.

Well, now WFP and one of their star candidates, Developer Shill Bill de Blasio, have been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office. So folks, it isn't just me who thinks WFP, Developer Money, and Bill de Blasio are rotten to the core despite their progressive rhetoric. From the New York Observer:

The Working Families Party has received a subpoena from the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District seeking information in connection with its efforts in the 2009 elections, a spokesman for the labor-backed party confirmed...

The party is being sued for its work on Staten Island Councilwoman-elect Debi Rose's campaign. A judge ruled last week that the trial can go forward.

It was also the subject of at least one complaint filed with the CFB.

Three days after the Nov. 3 elections, the party announced it had hired Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom to conduct a thorough review of the structure and relationship between the WFP and its for-profit arm, Data & Field Services. The review is being led by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye...

It's hard to overstate how bad this could be for the WFP.

I personally think that WFP skirted the edge of legality close enough that in the end there will be little actual punishment for their actions. But in my mind they have finally abandoned all pretense of being a reform organization. They have shown a complete willingness to bend and break laws and cooperate with corrupt political machines like the Vito Lopez machine in Brooklyn. WFP may well survive this scandal, but it is a real scandal nonetheless and one that finally shows their true colors: they are nothing more than another corrupt machine interested in their own power more than in actual governance. In this sense they are the same as the Vito Lopez or Clarence Norman machine which had perfectly respectable policy stands in most cases, but were corrupt as can be. I have high expectations of my fellow progressives. I don't accept corruption just because they have good rhetoric on policy. I find the corruption of Brooklyn's Democratic machine embarrassing as hell, and the corruption of the WFP is just as bad if not worse.

For a LOT more on the WFP scandal (I haven't covered it much recently due to taking some time off from blogging) please see the excellent coverage by the City Hall News here, here, here and here. And that's just the stuff published since I took a break from blogging.

(P.S. I know some of you out there are going to complain about this article, but how the hell can I speak out against Republican corruption if I don't speak out against this crap?)32