Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fleeing Blogspot?

I received some advise about moving my blog to WordPress, and so far I am liking it. Will play around with it and post both there and here, but let me direct any readers to the new place:

I exported all the posts from here to there, so nothing should be missed. I'm also running a poll to see what people prefer. Make your vote count. And your vote this November counts too!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gender Bias in the Sciences & Skepticism

Every year various groups try to have promotional events to get more women involved, and the sciences do this a good amount. There are groups even for women, or a particular day is set to inspire women to get involved. CERN has done this, and I did a little bit to promote it.

But it looks like it will take a lot more than that to fix the big problems seen in STEM today: women still make up a smaller fraction of scientists, engineers and mathematicians than their percentage of the population. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a new paper out: "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students." The double-blinded study sent out applications for positions at universities which had equal qualifications, but the only difference was the gender of the names (a similar study had been done with using traditional vs. African names in the US and how that affected call-backs for job interviews). And the study found a significant bias against women. Moreover, the study asked the reviewers of the applications to rank the persons whose applications they examined, and it was clearly in favor of men.

There are some things that make this even more stark to me. For one, this bias existed not only for males that reviewed the applications, but women too! So, it seems the title of this article is correct, that the bias is subtle, though the effect is not. Apparently there is some level of unconscious bias against women, perhaps due to stereotypes in the culture, and it will affect decisions no matter the gender of the person. This also means that a woman saying there is no gender bias cannot be given greater credibility than a man as she is just a likely to be "infected" as anyone else. 

On the blog for Scientific American, several other good points are made, including how none of the people that gave women a lower score used sexist language. The bias was couched in reasonable (perhaps rationalized?) terms. Perhaps this should be obvious; almost no one wants to be called racist or sexist, so those people will not use racist or sexist language. Nonetheless, the deeds speak for themselves. This will also means it will be very hard to fix the problem as most won't realize there is one.

This is something I have been seeing in other groups, and it has been blowing up in the atheist community recently. There have been abject denials of a sexist problem at atheist conventions and the like, and even some claiming the need to defend the rights of men (boy, those words of privilege ring hollow for me). All the worse that when there is sexual harassment, it is the victim that gets much or all the blame. Almost a year ago I wrote in support of Rebecca Watson and the abuse she had received for her rather mild statement about how it is not in good form to make a pass on someone in a confined space at 4 in the morning after being silently in the background much of the night. But perhaps worse has been the back-lash about the lack of a sexual harassment policy at The Amazing Meeting (TAM), and the denial that there ever was a case of such harassment (the story of how this came to be known is detailed here.) The denial also came from D.J. Grothe, a great figure in the skeptic and atheist movement (current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation) and a gay man. So much how women can have circumspect reasons for seeing women as less qualified, even progressive men like D.J. can be in denial of the problems in his own movement.

The response in general has also been disheartening. The comments on blogs have been vicious, emails even more-so, and it has burned out many a good blogger. Natalie Reed, who talked mostly on transgender issues, basically discontinued to get involved in atheist topics because of the response she had gotten. Jen McCreight, a biologist with a PhD in genomics, also has been burned out from the comments and emails over months. Greta Christina also had been trying to get over the negativity, and Rebecca Watson must have some amazing stamina to continue what she does.

This is a problem that isn't going to go away by ignoring it, and it may get worse before it gets better, though Greta has been rather optimistic about this conversation even with its horrendous tone. The reddit universe is also going to be a hotbed of misogyny as seen in this example. And while the Atheism+ movement wants to fix this, there has been a major push-back in calling what they do "divisive." Such talk has caused many to fight against being a part of Atheism+, including Ronald Lindsay and John Loftus. But if saying we have a problem with sexism in the movement, shouldn't part of the solution be to make those that cause the problem aware and have them feel shame for being irrationally sexist? Do we really want to have such people in the movement just because they agree with us on atheism but otherwise they are misogynistic pigs? (Richard Carrier has interesting points here about the use of insult, and here about being for or against Atheism+.)

The SSA group I am in will actually talk about women and secularism tomorrow at our meeting. We may not figure everything out, but hopefully we can at least gets the facts out there and discuss them the best we can. In the mean time, what are your thoughts?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reexamining the Outer Limits and Alien Abductions

You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits.
Last week I had posted a video that looked at extraterrestrial visitations over several decades of the 20th century (see this graphic) and the famous Barney and Betty Hill abduction in the 1960s, comparing their creature to that from an episode of The Outer Limits, the competitor with The Twilight Zone during the mid-1960s (and can be watched on Hulu as of the time of composition).

The Bifrost alien from
"The Bellero Shield"
After I posted that video, I had shared it with one of the best ancient astronaut/Atlantis theory skeptics, Jason Colavito, who is the author of the book The Cult of the Alien Gods. Apparently the argument that the alien creature from the episode "The Bellero Shield" (Season 1, Episode 20, which shows significant influence from Macbeth) was not the best fit, and the person that originally argued for the connection was working from memory rather than going back to the primary sources, namely watching the episode again along with others. That I did not check this and relied on a line of argument as such was not in best form, though the argument still had some weight because of the picture of the alien.

Drawing of a being that allegedly
abducted Barney and Betty Hill in 1961.
As can be seen, this creature had a bulbous head, wraparound eyes, and a lack of a nose, hair, and ears, much like the creatures described by Barney Hill when under hypnosis as well as the aliens commonly now called "the greys." So the estimation originally proposed from memory by Martin Kottmeyer in 1990 wasn't a bad one.

However, there are some disconnects between the bifrost alien (the shows uses the term to parallel the rainbow bridge of Norse myth and the laser the alien travels down to get to Earth) and the grey recounted by the Hills, and that makes Colavito's reexamination of the evidence very informative. Not only did he watch the episode of The Outer Limits again, but also other episodes close to the time when Barney Hill was to give his hypnotized testimony.

So let's compare the original proposal as well as that of Colavito's and see if we can explain the imagery the Hills claimed to have had when they were "taken" without the need to invoke something out of this world.

So, we first need to start at Barney Hill's testimony, as that is the closest we can get to the event, aliens or no. The transcript of his hypnosis therapy sessions are provided in John G. Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey (1966). On page 87 and later, we get some details of the physical characteristics of the creatures that abducted the Hills. For one, the head is round. The eyes are also slanted, though not the same as people from the Far East. The eyes in particular left a significant impression on Mr. Hill and he continuously mentions them, coming close to him, sometimes unconnected to any body at all. Mr. Hill also compared the alien to a German Nazi, and after the doctors asked we are told it had a uniform with a black scarf over its left shoulder; at least the leader is described so. The alien was also said to wear a black and shiny jacket and scarf. We get no description of hair, nose, or ears, and the drawing makes clear why.

One other details about the aliens to consider is how they communicate. According to the Hills, the creatures would talk to them using some sort of telepathy. Well, Barney said they communicated with him by telepathy, while Betty said they spoke English. But it was Barney that gave us the physical descriptions of note, so let's consider his testimony alone; otherwise with their stories at odds we have too much reason to discount it, and we wouldn't want to do that. ;)

Now, the bifrost creature from the episode "The Bellero Shield" does have a good number of the descriptive features of Barney's alien, but not all. The suit of the bifrost alien is more the space-man type, shiny silver more than black, and it speaks English (it even specifies it cannot read minds). There is also nothing menacing about it, and instead it is defensive and at the end altruistic. That seems to clash with the more insidious beings that the Hills described. And there isn't any abduction in the Outer Limits story here. So these are some significant differences.

However, this episode was transmitted 12 days before Mr. Hill gave his testimony, perhaps enough time to get lost in the details, especially in a hypnotic state? We still have the features of the head of the creature, unlike that seen in stories beforehand, so perhaps a little bit of strangeness in memory can account for what we have?

Instead of supposing peculiarities of human memory in an odd state, let's now look at what Colavito noted when he compared Mr. Hill's alien to that of another episode of The Outer Limits, this one from the very next episode "The Children of Spider County" (Season 1, Episode 21, aired 5 days before Barney Hill's testimony). The first thing that struck me is the first encounter with the alien in this show was a car driving down a country road. That already seems reminiscent of the Hill's abduction experience. There are also UFOs as lights in the sky, something like a bright planet. Again, that adds to the familiarity since the Hills likely misidentified the planet Jupiter or some other optical illusion (see Report 100-1-61, Air Intelligence Information Record).

But the monster itself needs to be examined.

First we notice the eyes. They wrap around in a very peculiar way, even more closely to the way drawn by Mr. Hill that the bifrost alien from before. And they on occasion glow, making them even more imposing. Additionally, there are prominent pupils, not apparent in the bifrost alien's eyes but notable in Barney's drawing and description. The alien also wears a black suit and tie, and this is closer to the description of the suit-wearing Nazi Barney spoke of, and again superior in connection to the bifrost alien. Barney Hill described a scarf or sash over the shoulder rather than a neck tie, and he spoke of black headgear, so the uniform isn't a perfect match. The creature has a fairly bulbous head, no hair, and an almost non-existent nose, more closely matching what Barney had drawn.

Another facet of the creature from this episode was that it would transform back and forth from a human form and the alien form. This also fits with the story told by Mr. Hill, for example when he says the eyes would go back and forth between round and slanted/wraparound. 

The creature in the episode also wants to take away the main character, take him to another planet, and the alien has already captured four other men to take back to outer space. This is far more an abduction story than the previous episode. And while the alien usually talks by spoken word, he apparently can commune with others via thought transference (to use the language from the Hill transcripts). Also, when the alien talks as a creature the mouth doesn't open-and-close, so a blurry TV signal could make the speech seem telepathic even in these cases (I actually wasn't sure when I watched, and I could see things with high quality.) The creature also had the power to control other's minds, suggesting the strength of its telepathic abilities. 

One feature that stands out that undercuts the connection is the ears, which are pointy or Spockish (the episode came out 2 years before the first episode of Star Trek) rather than non-existent. The monster also has something like insect pinchers at its mouth, something that Barney does not mention. So it's not a perfect match. However, we should consider what sorts of things humans first notice when it comes to individuals. We have a lot of wiring in our brains to notice and remember faces, and we do it in pieces. First, we note the general form with eyes, nose, and mouth, then we go into details. (This is described to some degree by V.S. Ramachandran in The Tell-Tale Brain.) The mouth also doesn't operate like our own as it does not open and close for talking, and it would open horizontally rather than vertically as human mouths are; that sort of alien feature would be harder to burn into the memory compared to the large, glowing eyes. And in this episode, we don't have clear framing of the mouth features or the ears. The first and second images of the creature provided have the ears barely noticeable, and the details of the mouth are also hard to pick up; in the 1960s, a TV would have been fuzzier, and all the more-so if the terrestrial signal wasn't great. In addition, when the alien is in creature-form, a foggy filter or layer is added, further obscuring the entity, so that the only prominent feature left are the eyes, something that is zoomed into for many of the shots, especially at the climax. At the moment of highest tension, when the alien's eyes glow and about the kill the main character, the camera is zoomed in and the mouth of the alien is blurred by the filter. That makes these auxiliary features not a kill-joy against the connection between the alien in this episode and the creature from Mr. Hill's hypnotic account.

But there is one other detail that Colavito points to that makes the connection particular interesting. Part of the story in "The Children of Spider County" is that there are several young men who are the product of intercourse between humans and the aliens from the planet Eros. (Sexy time!) But why should interstellar and inter-specie courtship matter? Well, Barney and Betty were an interracial couple, and at a time when this was not widely accepted in society (there were laws on the books in several states banning the practice, much like the laws against gay marriage today). The conclusion of the story has a half-human/half-Eros male stay with his white, female love interest, which could have had an emotional draw for Barney Hill, a black man married to a white woman. Colavito admits that he ought not read too much into a psychoanalysis of a person dead since 1969, but this does add some interesting circumstantial evidence.

There does exist one kill-joy worth considering, and that is the testimony of Betty Hill at a later date. She was asked about the show, and she claimed they had never even hear of The Outer Limits (see Jerome Clark, The UFO Book, p. 291). Then again, this was being asked of her about 30 years after the fact and after Barney had died, so this isn't particularly strong. Colavito considers the possibility of the teaser trailers for the show to be enough to connect the image of the alien to the abduction experience, but that probably won't work; doing that means we lose a lot of connecting details, including the interracial connection, the telepathy, etc.

So, the hypothesis has one weak link: did Barney Hill watch the show? Considering this to be significantly more likely than alien abductions that happen to resemble an episode of fiction a mere 5 days before testifying to it, probability swings one way very prominently.

One other interesting thing Colavito considered was another episode of The Outer Limits, this one a bit earlier than the other two mentioned. There are some points of the scientific tests done on the Hills, along with other background details, that seem to correlate between the episode "The Invisibles" (Season 1, Episode 19), which was also close in time to Barney Hill's date of testimony. This makes it appear even more-so that his account conflates several episodes of a show at the time (broadcast on ABC at 7:30 on Monday nights during the first season), all airing within weeks of when he testified. If these correlations be not imaginary, then Barney must have watched a fair bit of this show. It can't be proven, but it seems probable at this point.

So, on analysis, it seems Jason Colavito's hypothesis is significantly superior to the previous Outer Limits connection first noted in 1990. And his methods are better, going back to the primary sources to compare and contrast. I have added some other details to consider, and I think it makes the case strong enough to conclude that he is closest to the right answer of what likely influenced the Hill's testimony, at least detailing what Barney Hill said. However, it seems some of the features of the bifrost alien are an influence as well. The head of that alien is more bulbous, and later sketches done with Mr. Hill (drawn by David Baker) fit that alien rather well, especially the mouth and nose as well as the elongated head.

So, I suspect that Barney had several alien heads in mind with their most similar features all together and the others becoming more or less prominent based on his memory and what features stood out most in the episodes. The bulbous head and basic facial features of the bifrost alien stand out the most in "The Bellero Shield", while the eyes, clothing, telepathic powers, and emotional baggage of the creature in "The Children of Spider County" would leave a significant mental residue. The details from "The Invisibles" should also be added. Thus, the best explanation that fits the most data, fits with how memory works (adding together the most memorable features onto a generalized form), and with just one assumption (Barney Hill watching the show, and if he watched one episode, he probably watched several), this seems to be the best. That along with other influences, including conversations with his wife beforehand.

When we consider the lack of physical evidence, the contradictions in the Hill's stories, and their similarities explainable by the couple talking to each other for months or years before hypnotherapy, and putting it into the context of how different encounter stories were at that time, and we have strong reason to conclude that the Hills did not have an encounter with and ET.

I want to thank Jason again for letting me know about his reexamination of the case, and I would bet with my contribution things are perhaps a smigin closer to the right answer.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Billy Nye, Ken Ham, and the Living Dinosaur

In a prior blog post, I considered if creationist proponents were sometimes or often liars for their cause. But an interesting example of what appears to be significant dishonesty has come through the response to Bill Nye.

About a month ago, Bill Nye The Science Guy posted this video on Big Think:

And with that (and at this time 4.5+ million views), the creationists were in an uproar. Having one of the best known science educators in the US calling your entire educational program bad for children obviously isn't going to sit well. But the more prominent response came from the people at Answers in Genesis, run by Ken Ham.

Making their own videos in a similar style to the Big Think, they tried to say Nye didn't understand science, didn't want children to think critically, that creationists didn't fear evolution and teach it correctly, that evolution has nothing to do with engineering, and so on. All of which is laughably wrong, including the last statement.

And there is some joy in this video response to Ken Ham (though probably NSFW due to language and some female images).

I'm copying here the description in the video, in case it goes down and the good links and references get lost (as well as providing a buffer space to the video if you are at work).

Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn't have addressed a video like this because it's a little light on science, but since it was by one of the world's top-tier fucktards who happened to be rubbishing one of the most beloved educators in the country I decided that it was a golden opportunity to give the Reverend Ham the verbal drubbing he's been asking for for decades.
As I said, a little light on science for a regular HH, but nevertheless also a good opportunity to address some of the filthy creationist political propaganda that Mr. Ham was projectile spewing in his surpisingly amateurish video. Not sure whether there will be a censoring reaction to this, so please do what you can to help forestall, or failing that ameliorate, that eventuality as it's not clear to me as yet that creationists are smart enough to have realized that censorship only results in the object of their ire being exposed to a vastly larger audience than it would have been had they acted like decent human beings.
For those who don't know how, the video can be downloaded by pasting the URL into the box at
If you feel the need to hear Ken Ham vomiting up his worthless opinions you can do so here:
If you want to see the Reverend Ham lying to children about biblical glasses you can do so here:
And if you want to have a laugh at Ken's monkeys, whom I mention in the video, you can find them in their enclosure here:
Bill Nye's Big Think video can be enjoyed here:
KnownNoMore's channel is here (please watch and sub -- he's *excellent*):
Wisdominnature7's channel (see note above regarding KnownNoMore -- the same applies):
Scripts to this and all my other videos can be found here:
Intro by the one-and-only ONESPECIES (check him out too!):
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 9 in C major (K 73)
Arias-MontaƱo , A. (2011). Evolutionary Algorithms Applied to Multi-Objective Aerodynamic Shape Optimization. Studies in Computational Intelligence 356: 211-240.
Asoutia , V.G. and Giannakogloua, K.C. (2009). Aerodynamic optimization using a parallel asynchronous evolutionary algorithm controlled by strongly interacting demes. Engineering Optimization 41: 241-257.
Berard, Y. (2003). Experiments with Hybridized Genetic Algorithms in Aerodynamics. EUROGEN 2003 International Congress on Evolutionary Methods for Design, Optimization and Control with Applications to Industrial Problems. pp 1-12.
Giannakoglou ,K.C. et al. (2006). Aerodynamic shape design using evolutionaryalgorithms and new gradient-assisted metamodels. Computer Methods in Applied Mechanics and Engineering 195: 6312--6329.
Jones, B.R. et al. (2000). Aerodynamic and Aeroacoustic Optimization of Rotorcraft Airfoils via a Parallel Genetic Algorithm. Journal of Aircraft 37: 1088-1096.
Obayashi, S. and Guruswamy, G.P., (1995). Convergence Acceleration of an Aeroelastic Navier-Stokes Solver. AIAA Journal 33: 1134-1141.
Obayashi, S. et al. (2000). Transonic Wing Shape Optimization Based on Evolutionary Algorithms. ISHPC '00 Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on High Performance Computing. PP Pages 172--181.
Ong, Y.S. (2003). Global convergence of unconstrained and bound constrained surrogate-assisted evolutionary search in aerodynamic shape design. CEC '03 The 2003 Congress on Evolutionary Computation. pp 1856-1863.
Oyama, A. et al. (1999). Fractional Factorial Design of Genetic Coding for Aerodynamic Optimization. AIAA Paper 99-3298.
Oyama, A et al. (2000). Aerodynamic Wing Optimization via Evolutionary Algorithms Based on Structured coding. CFD Journal 8: 570-577.
Sasaki, D. (2001). Aerodynamic Shape Optimization of Supersonic Wings by Adaptive Range Multiobjective Genetic Algorithms. EMO '01 Proceedings of the First International Conference on Evolutionary Multi-Criterion Optimization. pp 639-652.
Tubbs, A.D. and Wolfe, A.M. (1980). Evidence for Large Scale Uniformity of Physical Laws. Astrophy. J. 236: L105-L108.
Webb, J. (2003). Are the laws of nature changing with time? Physics World 16(4): 33-38.

Wedding Readings -- Bible or Odyssey?

Today I was back in my home town for the wedding of one of my friends (and it was a great ceremony with a happy couple. Beautiful catholic church, and the usual formalities for such a case. There was the traditional reading of certain passages from the Bible for how marriages are supposed to be, or the nature of love, but there was a reading I hadn't heard before, from the Book of Tobit.

Tobit isn't in most Bibles and considered part of the apocrypha, though it is in Catholic and Orthodox canons. The reading was Tobit 8:4-9.

But this had me thinking about how Tobit is a book with much taken from the works of Homer, namely the Odyssey, as scholars such a Dennis MacDonald has have argued. And this had me think: there is a significant love story in the Odyssey between Odysseus and Persephone. Even after 20 years apart, they want to be together; Odysseus had gone to fight in the 10-year Trojan War and took another 10 years to return do to make a happenstance along the way. Yet Penelope remained loyal even with suitors living in the palace of Ithaca for all that time. (Odysseus also loved Penelope, but apparently he was not grieved with the guilt of other other ladies he bedded along the way home; he's not perfect by our standards, but apparently this was OK on ancient Greek morality.)

So perhaps there are some lines that would be good for a wedding occasion? I'm looking online for some examples, but I haven't seen so much there that I like. Hardly a rush to find something, but my own long-distance relationship can find some correlation with the Homeric epic. Any suggestions? Maybe the Aeneid will have something better?

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Aliens at Skeptic Blogs

I'm happy that I was featured in another blog post by Jonathan Pearce at Skeptic Blogs (his blog there is The Tippling Philosopher). I made some intro and summary to the videos I recently made about ancient aliens and more recent abductions.

In case you are curious, the content not only examines the claims of Ufologists and ancient astronaut folks but there is some religious criticism in there as well (namely the contents of the Bible). Plenty of things to chew on.

Make sure to check it out!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Homer Simpson Votes Again!

I heard The Simpsons weren't so funny recently. Well, this doesn't seem too bad to me.