Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bigfoot Hoax Turns to Tragedy

I am very sorry, but it is hard for me to feel too badly about Randy Lee Tenley getting killed on Highway 93 on Sunday night in Montana. I do, however, feel badly for his family (if he has one) and for the two teenagers who hit him with their cars. A 15 year old driving down the highway at night hit him first, which caused some swerving around of various vehicles, and that’s when a car driven by a 17 year old ran him clean over.

Randy Lee Tenley had dressed himself up in a “Ghillie Suit” which is a form of camouflage used by snipers and other soliders so that they look like a bush. Standing up and walking around in such a thing makes you look like bigfoot. But, the point of a Ghillie Suit is to disuse the visibility of the lines you would normal make (our eyes are good at following lines) so that you blend in, or, essentially, disappear. So, when you walk out into traffic in the middle of the night wearing a Ghillie Suit, you look like nothing and some kids driving down the road who did not need to have killing someone be part of their lives forever run your sorry ass right over.

The story is here.

A Ghilie Suit being properly used. Photo by Flickr user vuokrakamera (

WTF Isaac?

Isaac is still not a hurricane. It will be one within 24 hours. Right? Right?

Either way, Isaac is big, wet, and windy and long before it makes landfall it will start to cause flooding and wind damage ashore, within the next 24 hours or so. There is a pretty good chance that the storm will be upgraded to hurricane status just before that. Maybe. Well, frankly, I no longer trust Isaac so I’m not making any commitments. I’m tired of these relationships when the other person storm never does what they are expected to do.

Lately the problem has been dry air intruding into the storm, which interferes with the process of getting all round and organized and stuff.

The track has been adjusted slightly to the west. At this point, details matter a great deal. If the center of the storm shifts far enough to the west, a severe storm surge may be avoided for Lake Pontchartrain. Yesterday, the predicted track (and this is just an estimate) went right through NOLA, now it goes just to the west. The big lake is to the east.

OK, Now they’re just playing around with the hardware…

Today, NASA did something never before done, and well, not all that impressive.

Charles Bolden of NASA spoke some words into a microscope, and this voice stream was sent to the Curiosity Rover on Mars, which then sent it back. Hey, I just spent the last 15 minutes swapping monitors around on my computers, and those monitors had cables that had been secured with cable ties and that ran through conduits and stuff. I’m thinking what I did was harder.

According to NASA, Bolden said:

The knowledge we hope to gain from our observation and analysis of Gale Crater will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars as well as the past and future possibilities for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future.

Later, some other guy said, on Earth and to other Earthlings:

“With this voice, another small step is taken in extending human presence beyond Earth, and the experience of exploring remote worlds is brought a little closer to us all,” said Dave Lavery, NASA Curiosity program executive. “As Curiosity continues its mission, we hope these words will be an inspiration to someone alive today who will become the first to stand upon the surface of Mars. And like the great Neil Armstrong, they will speak aloud of that next giant leap in human exploration.”

The pingback from Bolden was played at a press conference (“live”) while neat pictures from Mars were shown.

The telephoto images beamed back to Earth show a scene of eroded knobs and gulches on a mountainside, with geological layering clearly exposed. The new views were taken by the 100-millimeter telephoto lens and the 34-milllimeter wide angle lens of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument. Mastcam has photographed the lower slope of the nearby mountain called Mount Sharp.

A little Skype, a little Webcam…

Onto more serious matters, some actual science was reported at the press conference.

…the rover team reported the results of a test on Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which can measure the composition of samples of atmosphere, powdered rock or soil. The amount of air from Earth’s atmosphere remaining in the instrument after Curiosity’s launch was more than expected, so a difference in pressure on either side of tiny pumps led SAM operators to stop pumping out the remaining Earth air as a precaution. The pumps subsequently worked, and a chemical analysis was completed on a sample of Earth air.

“As a test of the instrument, the results are beautiful confirmation of the sensitivities for identifying the gases present,” said SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We’re happy with this test and we’re looking forward to the next run in a few days when we can get Mars data.”

Here’s a video of the Voice from Outer Space and the pictures they showed:

And, as long as we are showing videos, here are Bolden’s remarks regarding the passing of Neil Armstrong.

Isaac will be a hurricane by the time you read this….

…. prolly. At the moment, Isaac has all the pieces in place; winds are high enough, pressure at the center is low enough, and all that. But, the storm is not organized with an eye and nicely formed bands. I imagine that the folks in the Hurricane Prediction Center are annoyed. I suspect they will declare Isaac a Hurricane within a few hours.

There are two big news items to know about. First, Isaac is physically large and wet, and will cause many inches of rain to fall on places that will then flood severely. Second, the center line of the hurricane’s track may go right over New Orleans, which means that the “right punch” of the storm will pass over Lake Pontchatrain. This significantly increases the potential severity of flooding.

New Orleans is shutting down. Fights are now being cancelled at the airport, evacuations have been going on for a while, the flood gates at various levies are being shut as I write this. City and state officials are confident that the levy system is up to snuff and there will be no breaking or breaching of these flood-stopping structures.

Just because Isaac’s center seems to be bearing down on NOLA does not mean that other places are not in trouble. If I was Mississippi, I’d be worried.

So far I’ve not seen any reporters falling into the Landfall Fallacy, but on the other hand, I’ve not been watching the news much. Huxley and I have been busy with other things. Let me know if you see any examples!

New Creation Science Attraction, and I say, "go for it!"

I am looking forward to the construction of the meatspace version of the currently on-line only “Creation Science Hall of Fame” on vacant land on Interstate 75 between the Creation Museum and the Ark Park.

Someday this section of Northern Kentucky will be a veritable Miracle Mile of Creationism Related Facilities. It is about this time this industry got some competition. We know that the Invisible Hand of the Free Market is like god and makes everything better. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s the story from the Courier-Journal

Hat Tip: Joe

Isaac: Good news and bad news

The good news, if you see Hurricanes as bad, is that Isaac did not turn into a hurricane over night and is having trouble getting its act together. This has caused estimates of the hurricane’s maximum strength at the time of land fall to be reduced. Isaac will be a serious storm when it plows into the southern US coast but it will not be an Ivan, Katrina or Andrew.

The bad news is that the predicted track has moved even farther west, so the forward right quadrant, the “Right Punch” of the hurricane, may very well hit New Orleans at a very bad angle and position.

Hurricane Landfall: What is it and don't be stupid about it.

It is time to discuss, once again, the falsehood known as “Hurricane Landfall.”

A hurricane is a whopping big thing. A hurricane can be bigger than some states. The physical region across which a hurricane is potentially deadly and damaging is very large, many tens of miles across, sometimes a couple of hundred miles across. The danger zones are often organized like this:

The central storm surge. A central region may have a strong storm surge caused by the low pressure of the storm. This may be dozens of miles wide, but the area of effect is determined as much by the shape of the coastline the hurricane is landing on as by the hurricane itself.

The Right Punch. To the right of the central storm surge area is a region where the counter-clockwise rotating storm bearing down on the coast and hinterland will have very strong winds combined with very low pressure to increase the storm surge even more.

The storm surge caused by the low pressure system and the right punch can be a very wide area, and it can affect a coastal region for a long period of time, as the “surge” itself maybe several miles “deep.” If a hurricane is moving slowly, if the winds are strong and the pressure low, and if tides are already high and coastal flooding is already underway because of hurricane caused rain that came through for several hours before the surge arrives, this flooding can be extensive.

Check out: The IKONOKAST Science Podcast. Excellent interviews with top scientists.


In some cases, the initial flooding may be very bad but the secondary flow of flood waters can be worse. If a hurricane storm surge and rain-related floods fill up the lagoons behind barrier islands, and at the same time the outlets get clogged by debris pushed up by high waves, that flooding can break open the barrier beaches in new locations, which may or my not be underneath settlements, major roads, etc. (This was, by the way, the theme of the famous book “Condominium” by John D. MacDonald which had a lot of inaccurate or outdated science but still stands as a classic “Disaster” book.)

So to review so far, around the middle of the hurricane is very low pressure, and to the right of this middle are very strong winds (and low pressure) that can cause a big flood that can first run over the land and flood stuff, then run back to the ocean and do even worse damage. Well within this area is the “eye” of the storm. The area of storm surge is much, much larger than the eye.

Spin-off Tornadoes. The big giant hurricane may cause the formation of many small tornadoes which will essentially act as very intense ambassadors of the passing cyclone. The tornadoes actually form as a function off the weakening, or generally messing up, of the organized cyclonic hurricane. They tend to form in advance of “Landfall” by as much as two days, but are most common as the hurricane’s right front quadrant is over land, and occur over a very large area. (They can also occur long after the Hurricane is downgraded to a tropical storm and is mostly on land, days after “landfall.”)

Hurricane Winds. Around this area of storm surge is a region of hurricane- or near hurricane-force winds which, especially if the hurricane is moving slowly, can buffet an area for hours and hours of time. This is like one of those nasty thunderstorms with the ‘straight line winds” coming through and knocking down a couple of trees, but for several hours. The area of these winds is typically measurable in the hundreds of miles in all directions.

Flooding Rains. Usually, over a larger area than this wind zone there will be bands of rain falling. The region over which sufficient rain to cause flooding may fall is hundreds of miles in any one direction. Flooding may start long before the hurricane force winds reach the coast. After the hurricane is way inland and is no longer called a hurricane, it can still cause major flooding. If you live, say, in Virginia or Connecticut, don’t think the hurricane has missed you just because it hits the Gulf Coast. You may be in for some major flooding in a week or so.

The Landfall Fallacy. Now, there is this thing about scientists, even meteorologists. When dealing with time-based phenomena, they need to know when something starts and when it ends, so they can do things like measure when on average certain things start, how long on average they last, etc. Therefore, there has to be an agreed upon point in time when a hurricane starts to exist (this is when the winds reach a certain strength and the cyclonic storm reaches a certain degree of organization, all of which is actually kinda hard to measure but they do it anyway). There is also an agreed upon point at which the hurricane “hits land” … known as landfall. This is when the eye of the hurricane, which is usually still visible on satellite views, on radar, as well as on the ground, crosses the shoreline. That is the arbitrarily decided on moment when scientists say the hurricane is at a certain point in its life cycle.

This does not. Repeat, not. NOT. mean that a hurricane “hits land” or “arrives” or “becomes a problem” or “starts to do damage” on “landfall.” No. The hurricane arrived hours before landfall! The outer bands that brought the beginnings of flooding rain came way before. The occasional tornado spun off by a hurricane may have already done in a neighborhood hours before. The highly damaging winds arrived long ago. The storm surge may have even started to chew up cities, towns, and industrial areas along the coast before the eye wall crosses landward, depending on all sorts of different factors. Hell, it is actually possible for a hurricane to totally mess up a coastal region then move back out to sea with the eye never crossing the coast. No landfall, but big problems. Landfall is not arrival.

The reason I mention this is that the “landfall fallacy” was one of the two Great Stupidosities that happened in relation to Hurricane Katrina, the anniversary of which is coming soon, and I fear that this fallacy remains in place (or has made a comeback) as we approach the visitation of Hurricane Isaac, now entering the Gulf of Mexico. (The other fallacy is that Katrina did not breach the dikes in NOLA, that they were breached by a flood. Which must have happened at the same time as the hurricane. But really was the hurricane… yes, you can imagine that these two Stupidosities, both perpetuated by a combination of ill intentioned politicians and not very well trained weather reporters and other journalists, are related.)

In a way, Hurricane Isaac is already affecting the Gulf coast because people are reacting to it! But really, it may be hours before “landfall” when we see our first serious flooding, wind damage, tornadoes, and all that, wherever Isaac ends up going. The area across which it will affect things will be much, much broader than the spot it makes landfall. When Katrina hit, Mississippi really took it in the neck. Huge areas of coastal Mississippi were wiped out. But, since “landfall” was in New Orleans, it didn’t make a lot of sense to report much of that in the early days of that disaster.

The hurricane hits where it hits, and it is a Big Giant Thing. Isaac may very well hit BOTH Mississippi and New Orleans, and a bit of Florida, just like Katrina did.

Do not fetishize the landfall, grasshopper.

So…there really is a god!

For the second time in a row, storms have interfered with the Republican National Convention. The political party that denies science, and in particular, denies climate change, that thinks NOAA built an Ark and that has no interest in the kind of regulation that saves Libertarians from themselves when Hurricanes hit settled communities, is being messed with by Big Weather.

Which brings us to our discussion of Isaac.

Isaac is still a tropical storm, and he is getting better organized, though slowly. The beginnings of an eye are becoming visible. It is expected that Isaac will become a hurricane by tomorrow morning, and to be over land and breaking down into a big wet non-hurricanal mess in three days. Between now and then, there is some uncertainty.

Isaac is currently just north of Cuba and bearing down on the Florid Keys, over which it will increase to hurricane strength during the night. But then he will likely head out over the gulf and strengthen quite a bit hitting Mississippi plus or minus one Louisiana/Alabama just after turning into a category 2 hurricane. The amount of uncertainty regarding Isaac’s landfall is greater than usual for a hurricane at this time in its development. UPDATE: As of a 5PM Eastern, the Hurricane Prediction Center has moved the likely track of Isaac to the west, so the center of the track is much closer to New Orleans. However, the Hurricane Prediction Center is still saying that there is a great deal of uncertainty.

Having said that, it there is about a 10% chance that a category 3 hurricane will hit New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina. More likely, it will be a Category 2 and to the east of New Orleans. In any event, this is a serious hurricane.

In the meantime, the GOP is running scared:

Tropical Storm Isaac has been difficult to track, but its potential to affect Florida has caused the Republican National Convention to change its plans. Events for Monday have been canceled, though the committee will convene briefly. As Alan Greenblatt reported for It’s All Politics, this is now the second-consecutive Republican National Convention to be delayed by a storm.

Two interviews with NCSE's Eugenie Scott

In Defense of Science: An Interview with NCSE’s Eugenie Scott

A few weeks ago I wrote about what happens when people respond to well-established science with disbelief or mistrust. As I noted, this is an occupational risk for researchers who work on vaccines (and journalists who write about them), which is why I told a cautionary tale about rejecting science in the face of super-bugs. The piece resonated with readers, but not in the way I’d hoped. Of nearly 220 comments, the vast majority opposed vaccination, for various reasons, rejecting the science.
As I considered how to respond, I wondered how science educators might deal with the chasm between scientific facts and public opinion. Then it struck me: who better to consider rebukes of mainstream science than the Bay Area’s own Eugenie Scott?

Read the rest here

Eugenie Scott on the Stealth of Science Denialism

This October, Dr. Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, will speak at the much-anticipated CSICon 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. She’ll be focusing on the anti-science initiatives now rampaging their way into Tennessee schools, and I wanted to get some perspective from her about where all this troubling activity is leading, and what’s behind it all. She was kind enough to take the time to have the following exchange with me.

Read the interview here

The NCSE is Here.

World Wide Mind (and Culture)

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet is a new book by Michael Chorost. I’ve not thoroughly read it yet but I’ve looked through it and I’ve listened to an interview with Chorost. Here’s the book description from Amazon to give you an idea what it is about:

What if digital communication felt as real as being touched?

This question led Michael Chorost to explore profound new ideas triggered by lab research around the world, and the result is the book you now hold. Marvelous and momentous, World Wide Mind takes mind-to-mind communication out of the realm of science fiction and reveals how we are on the verge of a radical new understanding of human interaction.

Chorost himself has computers in his head that enable him to hear: two cochlear implants. Drawing on that experience, he proposes that our Paleolithic bodies and our Pentium chips could be physically merged, and he explores the technologies that could do it.

He visits engineers building wearable computers that allow people to be online every waking moment, and scientists working on implanted chips that would let paralysis victims communicate. Entirely new neural interfaces are being developed that let computers read and alter neural activity in unprecedented detail.

But we all know how addictive the Internet is. Chorost explains the addiction: he details the biochemistry of what makes you hunger to touch your iPhone and check your email. He proposes how we could design a mind-to-mind technology that would let us reconnect with our bodies and enhance our relationships. With such technologies, we could achieve a collective consciousness – a World Wide Mind. And it would be humankind’s next evolutionary step.

With daring and sensitivity, Chorost writes about how he learned how to enhance his relationships by attending workshops teaching the power of touch. He learned how to bring technology and communication together to find true love, and his story shows how we can master technology to make ourselves more human rather than less.

World Wide Mind offers a new understanding of how we communicate, what we need to connect fully with one another, and how our addiction to email and texting can be countered with technologies that put us – literally – in each other’s minds.

My first thought in considering this set of ideas was the writing of Howard Bloom (Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century) but Chorost is really talking about something different. The second thing I thought about was the idea of adding, as the very first project, a tactile connectivity that allowed for a slap upside the head. When I look at the behavior of a lot of people on line, such as the global warming denialists who send me death threats or the misogynist creeps who stalk Rebecca Watson or Surly Amy, it is clear to me that those people would probably not act as they do if a) everybody knew who they were (though certain people seem to not care about that) and/or b) if their behavior was being carried out face to face with other people. And, more importantly, within reach.

This is not to say that there should be or would be actual slaps upside the head necessarily. What we’re talking about here is Mutually Assured Slap Upside The Head (MASUTH). In a world where this is the prevailing situation, like the world of the forager, whence we came culturally and psychologically, there is MASUTH. And, less. asshattitude.

Listening to the Chorost interview, by Desiree Schell, also brought up some other questions, by Desiree herself, which she called me up to discuss, and that discussion has been transformed by the Magic Hand of KO Myers into a segment produced along the interview, which you can download HERE.

And there is yet another idea that I had in mind that I’ll expand on in another post. It is not true that every culture has a flood myth, or even a form of fried bread (see this for a detailed discussion) and generally you should be wary of any statement that starts out with “every culture has a…” But, I suspect that many cultures have a Lorem Ipsum. I’ll explain later.


This week on Skeptically Speaking:

This week, we’re discussing some fascinating science focused on the liquid portions of our big blue planet. We’re joined by graduate researcher Andrew David Thaler, founder of Southern Fried Science, to talk about the weird and wonderful networks of life that exist in the Deep Sea. And on the podcast, University of Alberta researcher David Schindler joins us to talk about the work, and the uncertain future, of Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area and its freshwater ecosystem research.

We record live with Andrew David Thaler on Sunday, August 26 at 6 pm MT. The podcast will be available to download at 9 pm MT on Friday, August 31

Click here for details and links.