Monday, October 25, 2010

I love Jesus!

Yes. I said it. And, it's true (well, some Jesus. The liberal commie Jesus*). I also love Albus Dumbledore and would totally have a bromance with Batman and(or) Marcus Aurelius. How does the historicity of a character affect the emotions you have for them? If the person died before you were born, there's not much difference anyway, from a pragmatic standpoint. Oh, sure- you can say, "But he really did all these things! Isn't that dreamy?" But does that change anything? Are the struggles of Robin Hood against a corrupt government any less poignant than of George Washington risking everything to create a country dedicated to the free expression of religion? The obvious argument, "Well, Washington has a legacy. It's called America." is actually rather empty- after all, what, today, that makes up America, that directly affects your life, could honestly be attributed to him? Even the constitution has had to change a great deal in the past 200 years (17 amendments were done without any input from Washington). He's a great man, I'm told, but what if he really did pass the buck for cutting down the cherry tree? Would that make his accomplishments less? Again, I don't think so, but it's nice to believe, isn't it? That our president wouldn't lie even when he'd get in trouble for it. But does it affect our lives? I don't think it does. I don't care if Abraham Lincoln was born in a palace, a log cabin or 400 log cabins (points if you get the reference), it doesn't change how I live my life. What if it was really Garfield (James, not the fat orange tabby) that freed the slaves? Would it change your life? I might be surprised, what with the history lessons changing, but I'd still go to work the next morning, and life would continue. Slavery would not be re-established because Lincoln was discovered to have not abolished it.
Where am I going with all this? Well, to Jesus, of course. Who cares if he lived back then or not? Either He's God, and He'll make good on his word, or He won't. Regardless of your views on how inerrant the word of God is, the bible was written by men, copy-edited by men, revised and published and translated by men, each step requiring hundreds if not thousands of repeats.
To make things worse, any historical (as opposed to archaeological) evidence from that era is scarce at best- before the printing press, the written word just wasn't as common. We might think that a miracle worker would get more press, but obviously, he didn't- almost all of the evidence we have for his life comes 40 or more years after he died. The documentary "The God Who Wasn't There" lays out one side of the case very well. But there is other evidence which suggests He did exist, historically (granted, it's mostly the same evidence read in a slightly deeper voice). I personally, and most biblical scholars in general tend to find non-historic Christ a much more compelling argument- He's simply too poorly tied to any documented era- but there is plenty of legitimate, scientific wiggle room because there's not enough evidence to make a definitive call. We could get some, of course, and should always be willing to update our beliefs if more evidence comes in, but right now, I think it could still go either way.
But why does it matter? The teachings of Jesus, the life he led, the stories he told, are all good for instruction, for inspiration, even for salvation. If you really read the bible, at no point does it expect you to believe Jesus took human form- just that He was the Son of God.
What's the difference if everything recorded about Jesus came from one source or 50? Really? Despite the shame you might feel for being duped (just as I would in the case of Lincoln not presiding over the Civil War), does it change the way you're going to live your life? It's not going to change the great theologians papers. The papers of the late CS Lewis wouldn't need revision, except in one or two minor places. It would be an embarrassing blunder, but qualitatively not even a minor blow to the strength of either his arguments or his conviction. Is the story of the widow who gave her last 2 pennies any less relevant, today, because the original teller might have been some random, nameless Rabbi, perhaps inspired by god but not His son?
For more information, check out the books and documentaries by Robert Price, Richard Carrier et al.
I love Jesus. *The Jesus that believed in the redistribution of wealth, laid the groundwork for welfare, and made medical care free for everyone while still loving the essence of free market capitalism provided it was free of the stench of human greed, religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness? Yeah, that Jesus I can get behind. And for that, I don't care if he's real or not. It's more of an interesting factoid compared to the wealth of things I know about his character. Given his liberal leanings, and the Yahweh of the old testament's rather hard-line conservative ones, there's little doubt why Jesus had to die, whether it was just a story or an actual event.


I realized, shortly after posting this, that while I love the character of Jesus I should be clear that I have 6 metric craploads of 100% Grade A USDA Beef with the Bible, religion, and the more fundamentalist types of Christian. This is a science blog, and I'm not trying to jump into the atheist scene- so I'll shut up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And they thought Napster was bad.

One of the most alluring concepts to we geeks me is the idea of immortality via upload into a computer, whether it be a network, robot body, or something similar. There are many reasons for and against. I'll tackle a few, but first, a colossal caveat.
The entire concept of "the upload", and all the reasons for and against, are predicated on the assumption that it's possible- Massimo Pigliucci, a brilliant evolutionary biologist turned philosopher of science who blogs and produces a podcast in his spare time, gives an example of why it may not even be theoretically possible.
To sum up his reasoning, the idea is that while we can simulate a cell that contains chlorophyll, we couldn't get a real sugar molecule out of it by shining simulated sun on it, meaning that there would be a permanent disconnect between reality and our simulation. Because of this, it is completely possible that the idea is impossible, even in theory. I'm not entirely sold on this- I take the stance that we could simply simulate the sugar molecule and all the secondary and tertiary effects, etc., until eventually we would be able to simulate everything relevant to the human brain, but that objection is made as a layman, and possibly a complete idiot. In any case, almost everyone agrees that simulating a human brain will probably be much more complex than just simulating the structure of our neurons, and could take hundreds of years. So, here's hoping that achievement will take place within the lifetime of my readership.
In any event, even if it's completely ridiculous, it is still a good exercise in critical thinking, so let's look at the cons.
First, we have to accept that even with "immortality," we will never escape death. Eventually, the last electron will decay, leaving us without electricity. But that's 10^26 years or so away. Even if we rely on some process independent of electricity, there won't be any energy left after 10^42 years. The odds are, our servers, wherever they were located, would be consumed in some sort of cosmic accident. But that's likely hundreds or even thousands of years after the upload- and I'd take the trade-off.
Second, we would die normally anyway. We couldn't transfer our consciousness into something other than our brains- we might be able to map the entire brain down to it's essential building blocks, and make a digital copy in some way, but the original brain would still be subject to the experience of death and decay. We would ultimately experience a normal death- but there would be another copy of us with all of our memories and personality intact. Again, I'd take this risk if it meant there was another me that was capable of watching my grandchildren's grandchildren grow up (perhaps inhabiting a robot body to play with them, or at least teaching them chess over the internet).
Third, what kind of life would it be? Great, I find myself in an ill-matched computer "body" with urges that can't be directly satisfied- what if I want a sandwich, for instance? Would I be living in an eternal dream like state "inside my mind", where my brain merely simulates everything with limited input from the outside world? Or would I be in some hellish prison of my own design, unable to indulge in any of the pleasures and rituals that make me human? This is the first con to give me pause- I'd hope that my download had been thoroughly tested and we were certain that it wouldn't drive us insane before I went in. But I still think I'd go for it- for me, even an eternity in torture is a plus over nothingness. And if it got too bad, I could (hopefully) beg someone to pull the plug.
Fourth, identity theft could be literal. We would be much more subject to kidnapping, and even worse, illegal copying/hacking. This is a terrifying consideration, but hopefully, the danger could be mitigated via relatively simple and cheap protection methods. Norton Anti-Virus for the soul, as it were.
Now, the pros are pretty simple. First, virtual immortality. Not only would we (or our copies, at least) avoid the unpleasantness of dying, they would never age. We wouldn't require food, at least not in the normal sense, as olfaction would be entirely simulated and possibly quite rewarding in its own right- many people I've spoken to consider fine food a great reason to pursue the endeavor of life. Think of it, not only the wisdom of the ancients could be passed down, as it is today, the giants whose shoulders we stand upon, the Albert Einsteins of tomorrow, could themselves preserved indefinitely, keeping us in touch with history in a way impossible now.
This leads to a second pro- no overpopulation. Real estate requirements would be minimal, food requirements would be non-existent. We would require some energy, probably quite a bit, but not much more than a battery of street lamps. Assuming energy continues getting cheaper, this would become more and more negligible as the years wore on.
Third, imagine the ways we could explore the universe! Without these fleshy bodies, we could travel between the stars, no longer requiring oxygen, no longer dependent on something as fragile as the human form. We would have none of the ethical concerns of sending generations of people to explore worlds far from our own- we could simply sign up for the mission.
Obviously, there are many more pros and cons, but I think these are among the most compelling and daunting, respectively. I hope this has given you food for thought.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Metaphorical invisibility sucks. What about literal invisibility?

Twitter got me thinking. It has a terrible habit of doing that. Specifically, this time we were talking about being invisible and abusing the advantages. One of my tweeps mentioned being invisible in the Caribbean- and I began to wonder about it. I asked if tanning/skin cancer would be a concern, and she said it would be, since UV light is also invisible.
At this point, I was intrigued. Invisibility is great, but how could it work? I came up with a few scenarios.
First, UV light is the primary source of tanning. But, how do we gather heat from the sun? It has been demonstrated that the most energetic wavelengths of light, on Earth at any rate, also correspond nicely with the visible spectrum (particularly green, hence chlorophyll). The sun "just happens" to emit light most strongly in this spectrum. But what does that mean for the Invisibles? Heat is a byproduct of kinetic movement, in that molecules, and especially their electrons, get agitated to the point that they move around faster, jostling back and forth. In a normal, visible human, light rays bombard our skin and clothing and smack into millions of molecules on our skins, speeding things up and warming us.
So, would the invisibles be cold all the time, unable to draw heat from the light that was hitting them, only able to get warmth via ambient heat? Or would we be too hot, since ultraviolet rays could somehow pierce through our skin and shine directly on, well, everything inside, agitating a lot more than our surface area? Neither of these answers has implications that pass muster. Being opaque to UV radiation seems absurd if we're going to be transparent to everything else, since right now we're opaque to most everything else as well. If they were cold all the time, that makes (very slightly) more sense. X-Rays pass through us, and we don't notice any significant heat difference because they are passing through us, not colliding with our skin or, since we'd be completely transparent, organs (well, at least not colliding with us in any significant number- I'm sure the occasional atom will absorb a random photon here and there, but not on the scale that something opaque does at every minute of every day).
But then we have the problem of what would we be made out of? There are lots of reasons that we aren't invisible (for one thing, materials that are simply aren't conducive to life), but how could we be? Water makes up most of our cells, but it's not invisible, either. For something to be invisible, it would need to refract the light in precisely the same way as the ambient air. And water simply can't do that. So the rest of our materials would have to optically correct for the failure of our water. For one thing, we do tan, and melanin would have to go. Sorry, bones, calcium is no good- perhaps we can restructure the molecules so that they are largely silicon and oxygen, (out with you, calcium!) and never mind the pesky hemoglobin (a very complicated molecule in its own right) that is bright red and performs the minor task of transporting oxygen to the rest of our bodies... and I think you can see how this explanation rapidly degenerates into one more extravagant excuse than the last.
Well, maybe one way, but I don't particularly buy this one either: the Invisible Man tackled this issue by simply putting the protagonist into another dimension, at least partially, which neatly sidesteps all of the aforementioned problems (and puts the explanation, and any bothersome details, neatly out of the grasp of most non-physicists, including myself).
So, screw all that. There's no way, without some kind of cloaking device, we'd be invisible, and that's not particularly tenable either, for many of the same reasons, including one more that applies to all three.
Everything else aside, I don't buy it simply because our eyes function by capturing light, and if they can't because light goes through them, then I'm invisible(Yay!) and blind(Crap!). In the case of the alternate dimension approach, I would think that our ability to see would be based in whatever dimension our eyes were in, for the same reason. Of course, on that front, I could be completely uninformed. About all I know about multiple dimensions is that, mathematically, they have been proven to exist. And if something is mathematically proven, that's about as certain as we can be of anything at all.
In that case, though, good news. I am invisible- to anyone not in the room with me right now. At least, dimensionally distant.
Verdict? Metaphorical invisibility sucks, but at least you still have 5 senses going for you.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

To 'borg or not to 'borg?

I would love to end up as the classic old man on the mountain with a robotic body, my virtually immortal brain and a high speed connection to the internet. I doubt the technology to make that happen will be invented at any point in my life, but it does make for an interesting fantasy.
But I don't think it's impossible. In fact, I think prostheses are actually making leaps and bounds (and allowing leaps and bounds that would otherwise be impossible) in this direction- still a long way off, to be sure, but far from the stuff of science fiction one would imagine when, say, the original Terminator came out.
What brought this all on was listening to a fantastic podcast called Rationally Speaking, specifically this episode, from Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef. Unfortunately, while they are consistently able to amaze me at how much information they can put into 30 minutes of audio, they didn't discuss my particular case, but I thought I'd take a look at it from the perspectives they did and see where it led me.
First, let's look at how feasible the technologies in question are.
Let's examine the successes first- they are pretty disappointing. Really. Legs hold a larger market share, and thus get more research dollars, but there are some promising, if disorganized, lines of research. I'm not going to cut my hand off a la Luke Skywalker in hoping for an improvement any time soon, but if it did happen to me, my life wouldn't completely suck. There is technology available that would help. Ironically, we have President Bush to thank, at least indirectly; one thing driving the research are the people who need the technology are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were caught by roadside bombs. Legs, on the other hand, are actually doing very well- an Olympic runner was disqualified recently due to his artificial legs. That's actually really cool, if you think about it. People who lose the use of their legs due to something other than a spinal injury actually have a chance of having a significant advantage (at least in application in narrow fields)- and, one study at least says, the more of their legs replaced, the better! More leg lost, and thus, replaced, equals more leg function and less energy required.
Of course, none of the technology is across the line better than our mundane flesh and blood extremities. Yet. It may get there (again, probably not in our lifetimes), but there is a good chance that all we'll accomplish is making amputation somewhat less devastating. Also remember that we're only talking arms and legs here, not organs, which, at least right now, are completely useless for my old cyborg on the mountain dream (I'm just as well off hoping to become a vampire, werewolf, or swamp-thing analogue).
Organs are far more complex than arms and especially legs, and are proving much more difficult to simulate. So that doesn't look likely, at least not in the next century. A life support system for the brain? Maybe, but as Dr. Pigliucci eludes to in the podcast, the brain has this nasty happen of, well, dying really fast if you don't give it exactly what it needs. The blue screen of death would become a ghastly literal interpretation (I am experiencing joy and sadness simultaneously! SYSTEM ERROR)- life support systems would be costly, difficult to implement and incredibly dangerous. As death prone as our fleshy bodies are, at least they are relatively reliable, as long as you don't have a genetic disease that leads to an early demise, such as Tay- Sachs.
Well, since all of those are evidently quite a distance in the future, perhaps a better question is, should we try to get to the point where we can replace our squishy bits with superior, robotic replacements?
So, let's look at whether we should even consider it- e.g, is turning yourself into a cyborg a good idea? Here, a lot of the points that Dr. Pigliucci makes do apply. First, the haves and the have nots- would those with the money to afford this technology, or the insurance, turn themselves into gods, leaving the poor among us to grovel before their superior metallic forms? Personally, I doubt it. At least not when it was in the prostheses stage. I think this would be a case where a naturally growing technology eventually overtakes our natural, and hopefully the disparity, by that time, won't be quite as bad as it is now. But in terms of the life support systems? They would have to be costly. Think about it. You pay what, $100 for Windows? Let's be generous and say that works 99% of the time. If you want the server edition, you'll pay 5 times as much, but it works 99.9% of the time. If you want something better than that, such as something as reliable as a car's computer, or a commercial jet, or an F-16, you'll pay orders of magnitude more, and for diminishing returns in terms of reliability. But this is your life! It's worth it! And in this instance, at least, you will have the haves and the have-nots. Hopefully, though, the haves will be able to defeat any insurrections due to their superior mechanical forms, but even that is doubtful. Humans are notoriously tricky beasts, and we aren't improving the minds of the elite, only making them last longer and giving them more abilities. The same could be accomplished in other, more cost effective ways, but I'd be writing all night if I went into them.
Incidentally, I think this topic is probably the closest to the case of the "original" Pygmalion.
Suffice it to say, I think we're better off with minor implants that offer useful, affordable advantages (think of the Omni-tool in the Mass Effect series [Never played Mass Effect? Think of a Droid or an iPhone, only on steroids and embedded in your wrist {Like nested parenthetical statements? Me too}]) rather than full on, body replacing constructs. Perhaps, in many, many generations, our technology will get to the point where these questions, at least in this limited case of cyborg technology, are completely moot. Or not. The cool thing about the future is what we don't know. The mystery. And the hope.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 2

Continued from last time...
The idea that organisms evolve first according to their environs and second according to the competition is also what the HuffPo shockingly cried that Darwin got wrong. Of course, Darwin got plenty of stuff wrong. And yes, he did indeed "get this wrong", or at least, get the priority backwards. He was quite aware that the environment was a significant cause of selective pressures, but he mostly put it down to competition between species. That he was a brave man willing to risk everything to stand up against the status quo does not make him infallible, and certainly not a man to be worshiped (though, I suppose personal bravery is a much better qualification than political piety, and yet the Pope stands as an edifice to humans overinflated sense of importance). But besides brave, he was also tremendously careful. It was only after 20 years, vetting his ideas, researching, gathering as much evidence as he possibly could that he dared to publish. Careful, brave, and wrong? Certainly. The web of life is very complicated, and remember, this was 150 years ago: they had barely plumbed the mysteries of electricity. They had no computers, no electron microscopes. In the absence of the concept of DNA, Darwin got incredibly close in some ways, and very far off in others. The fossil record was very shallow at that time as well. A man, so concerned with self preservation that he didn't share his idea with anyone outside a circle of close confidants, with limited means and without the benefit of evidence gathered by thousands of scientists working to verify (or disprove) got some things wrong. Barely even worth commenting on, except for this bizarre tendency in the western world of assuming that smart people don't (or can't) make mistakes. What is amazing is how much he got right, without any of the advantages afforded our position. Then again, he did spend 20 years honing his theory.
The very sober abstract is specifically examining the relationship between tetrapods and their roles in nature, which is a general concept, as I detailed last time, that has been accepted for a long while, though it appears it is only recently being studied to get specific data.
The theory of evolution contained a dire warning, as well- a foreshadowing of the industrial revolution which was in full swing by the time he had published. The study of ecology led to the discovery of the peppered moth, a moth which evolved to be black simply because the trees had turned black from the soot, and it was harder to see than its white competition. This seemingly minor discovery showed that not only had humans discovered evolution, their actions would directly impact the rest of the web of life. One hundred years later, and we realize the implications of human caused global warming- and now, we find ourselves in the middle of a mass extinction. But that's another post entirely.
There was a chilling side to Darwin's discovery- specifically, the Survival of the Fittest: the weak die and the strong survive, as Bill Maher quipped (point 6 in this post). This led to the British, Americans, and finally the Germans coming up with some very disturbing ideas. The British, thankfully, didn't go too far. The Americans and Germans certainly did- for Americans, it was their Eugenics programs.
Eugenics led to travesties of human rights. Men and women were rounded up and sterilized, due to "feeble mindedness." While the thought of eliminating all the idiots might have a surface pleasure (particularly after being forced to suffer at the hands of a few), the idea of government funded practice of it is deeply disturbing. Minorities and others were taken as well, removed from their families and placed in foster homes with white people, in the hopes that they would escape the stigma of their past, and be absorbed into the "dominant culture". Evolution was used to justify terrible things. If you want to read about the Germans with their perfect Aryan race, and their breeding programs, I'm running out of room in this post. I can go into more detail if anyone's interested.
But that leads to a significant flaw in the thinking of that day. The flaw is that just because a law exists in nature that we should necessarily live our lives by it for the best. Consider gravity. The theory of gravity basically says that two objects will attract each other. Does this mean that we should go outside, find the most massive thing we can see, and rush over to it? Or simply lie on the ground, in fulfillment of some cosmic purpose? That's foolish on its face.
It is no different to assume that simply because in nature the best adapted survive, we should try to ensure this. Just as with gravity, the law will run its course in any case. It is a cruel, merciless world, run according to a law that tests every aspect of every living organism. The price for failure is death, and death for all your descendants. By the very fact that we are a part of nature we are subject to its laws- but just as we evolved to overcome the fetters of gravity to walk on the moon and explore the stars, we have matured culturally to the point where finally we might cast off the bestial chains of evolution. Evolution has also given us kindness, mercy, music, and dozens of things that make us quite capable of living our lives without ever needing to harm another. Our ability to understand evolution should encourage us to choose which traits that we, as a species, as animals, as individuals, will live by.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 1

There seems to be a great deal of evolution flavored stuff going around. In August, there was a story floating around the Huffington Post about Darwin being wrong (the horror! link to the perfectly reasonable abstract here). Some artificial life evolved a simple form of memory. Even Futurama recently did an episode with evolution vs. creationism.
On top of all that, I recently watched the three part BBC series titled Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I don't know if it was based on Dan Dennett's book of the same name (I've never had the opportunity to read it), but it was a fascinating journey through the history of the idea. It brought up some thought provoking points. First of all, a common misconception- the whole "Survival of the fittest" shtick. This actually wasn't coined by Darwin, but sums up his idea quite well. Well enough that by the third edition of Origin, it could actually be found. But there was a problem with it, too. Survival of the fittest implies, at face value, that the most fit, or strongest survive. This is wrong- the core point of natural selection is that the best adapted organism or species survive, not necessarily the strongest, or the smartest, or any other single trait. This simple misunderstanding changed the face of the world for the worse. More on that later.
First, "best adapted" begs the question, To what? Well, that very question led scientists to start examining the interactions between organisms and their environment. This led to the founding of a new school of thought- the science of ecology. Scientists shortly realized that it wasn't so much the competition between organisms that was the guiding force behind evolution, but rather that the diversity of species is a function of the myriad complexities of environment. After that is when species begin competing for dominance in whatever niche they fill. The artificial life program stumbled across the same phenomenon- only after adding incentive in the environment to do what they did before did the "Avidians" evolve the capacity to remember what they did. The environment alone pushed them to evolve. The more niches organisms can fill and thrive in, the more likely that evolution will occur.
That very fact explains the so called Cambrian explosion, and us as well. Immediately prior to the Cambrian period, there was a mass extinction. Evolution flourished- overnight, by geological standards (in other words, if night was some 100,000 years or so), life rushed to fill the gaps left by the cataclysm. And again after the dinosaurs- it was only after the meteor that the weak mammals, hiding in caves, were able to surge forth and dominate the planet- let alone birds and reptiles. If not for that meteor, evolution would have been sluggish indeed, and may never have resulted in intelligent life- at any rate, certainly not our life. I hope this helps Ann Coulter understand what I discussed in the last post(specifically point 1 which I left for later).
More next time since this post is nowhere near stopping.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why pundits should stick to politics.

I didn't think it was possible that I could lose any more respect for Ann Coulter. How does one reduce an absolute value below zero? I don't agree with her on a single thing, but now I've heard her views on evolution. Trick question. It raised, just a smidge, when she said, "Evolution is compatible with my religion." I actually thought, in my sleep deprived brain, "I might actually agree with Ann Coulter on something!" Then she said, "but it isn't true." This is an excerpt from a debate between she and Bill Maher. The quality is pretty bad, and granted, neither one is particularly qualified to debate THIS topic, but it bled over from some political things they talked about. And got my blood boiling at 3 in the morning. Then it got me thinking.
To sum up the clip (the interesting bits, [except for Ann's gaff about the earth being 500 billion years old] start around 2:15 or so and continue almost to the end), Bill Maher is grilling her on the differences between voodoo and Genesis. He mentions evolution, and after being given the go ahead by the mediator, they begin the talk. She wrote a book (Godless: The Church of Liberalism) that talked a lot about evolution, and so was glad to tackle this topic with Bill.
Here are the claims that she got wrong, in approximately the order they occurred.
1) The Cambrian period, where there are all sorts of fossils which don't seem to have good origins from before. A fair point, but see my next blog for a detailed examination of this topic.
2) She claims the fossil record disproves evolution, that paleontologists are the most vociferous opponents of 2b)what she continually refers to as "Darwinism".
3) She keeps claiming that Darwin's evolution cannot be disproved.
4) She claims that the death of one type of organism is not an example of evolution.
5) She cites Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, which refers to Irreducible Complexity.
Maher gets one wrong too, to be fair, though she did most of the talking.
6) Survival of the fittest = strong survive, weak die.
But back to Coulter,
7) Evolution is based on faith.

Fortunately, she's a very educated person, and she actually has at least a working knowledge of evolution. I'm putting her gaffs down to the point that her education is focused on art and law, and that she's probably not particularly interested in the natural sciences anyway. Medicine isn't that interesting to me, either. Bill Maher gave her an out, but she wouldn't take it, so we have to assume she has never heard of Punctuated Equilibrium. In spite of writing a book which dealt heavily with evolution, and having read at least one book about it, she is unaware of the mountain of evidence for evolution.

Points 1 and 6 will be dealt with heavily in my next blog post. There's a great deal there.
2) The fossil record was a problem, for Darwin, because there hadn't been thousands of scientists digging all over the world to find it. But now, the fossil record is actually one of the best proofs of evolution- it predicts transitional fossils, long before they were found. One of the things that makes or breaks a theory is it's predictive power- the ability to add new things to scientific knowledge. If a theory explains everything and predicts nothing, it is not a theory.
2b) This is a common claim by people trying to discredit evolution, but I wonder if it's not simply because they really think evolution hasn't changed since Darwin's day?
3)Now? Well, it seems increasingly unlikely. But, in the first 50 years or so, when lots of things were questionable? Sure. A dinosaur fossil in the Precambrian fossil record. A bat giving birth to a tomato. Poorly adapted organisms flourishing to the detriment of well adapted competing organisms. Any of these would disprove evolution, though the last would be the most shocking. As for the first, there are isolated instances where the layers of sediment may actually be jumbled up, due to some kind of cataclysm. If there were no evidence of that, just a fossil of, say, a leopluradon being eaten by trilobites, then sure. Evolution is bogus- or it has a LOT of explaining to do! The thing is, scientists flourish on disproving well established theories. The fastest way to become a rock star is publish something that flies in the face of an old theory. (2b) Because of this, evolution has already been modified, refined, and perfected over the years, as thousands of contributing scientists add to the global body of human knowledge.
4) She says that if we developed an antibiotic, that kills non-bald people, we wouldn't be evolving bald people. Obviously, a trivial and far fetched example, but lets set aside the details. No, we wouldn't. But, if we exposed this antibiotic to ALL humans, the humans who were resistant (ie., bald) would survive and reproduce. That's how evolution works, and she doesn't seem to get that. Killing a bunch of people with hair is not evolution. Killing ALL people with hair could be.
5) Irreducible complexity is, well, ignorant. It doesn't take into account how brilliant nature is at co-opting. The classic example is half an eye. Totally useless. But what about an eye that sees in black and white versus one that sees in low resolution? Or one that only detects light or darkness, without an image at all? And all of these would be preferable to no eyes at all.
7) Of course it is! In the same way that typing on a computer is based on faith, that turning on a light is based on faith, and that starting your car and hurtling down the highway at 75 mph is based on faith. In each instance, there are reinforcing experiences to give you a reason to believe that your reactions will be consistent in the future. The first time you get in a car to drive, you should probably be at least a bit nervous about getting on the highway with 2 tons of steel death surrounding you- but after practice and experience, it gets easier. If we didn't see lights come on every time we hit the switch, we probably wouldn't get annoyed when it doesn't work. If that's what she means by faith, then I agree. Of course, it isn't, and I don't. She means evolution is a religion. But at what point does it become more rational to not only believe in but expect miracles, which are, by definition, supposed to be extremely rare? It is not rational to believe that we will win the lottery if we by a single ticket. In the same way, belief in miracles can not be rational. It requires emotional support, in the lottery ticket's case, desperation. In religions case, faith. In evolution's case, neither- it is through the sweat and sacrifice of scientists, exhuming the evidence from long lost graves.
Finally, I ask you, Ann Coulter, if evolution is a religion, how is it compatible with yours?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Love You, Just Don't Hurt Me Anymore

Sorry about how long this one was in coming! There is a very good reason this blog has been neglected: Starcraft II came out. Giving credit to where it is due, this blog was inspired by Angie Jackson reading Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life".

One of the things that triggers a feeling of love in humans is utter dependence, a lack of control which we put in others hands, however correctly. Developmentally this is important. As children, we are totally dependent on our parents, and we put our lives in their hands (hopefully rightly!); this relationship builds up the deep, emotional bond that we generally share with them. Children who miss this opportunity, through neglect or abandonment, can often end up incapable of or having difficulty with forming deep bonds later in life. Of course, it's only one mechanism, there are other ways for love to emerge! But for today, for this post, it's one of the two I'm looking at.
A similar mechanism is found in victims of Stockholm Syndrome. The victims are said to love their captors after being shown token acts of kindness while under the threat of death or torture. The dependence is there, but more specifically, there is a threat. The survival instinct kicks in, encouraging the behavior. While the case giving it the name of Stockholm may be a misnomer, it has been shown to exist, albeit in less cinematic situations than a kidnapping gone wrong.
The two mechanisms combine, often with others, in emotionally and/or physically abusive relationships. While intellectually, the victim will know that the abuser is not treating them well, even that they should leave them, they often report a deep abiding love for the person (and probably an unhealthy amount of fear), and stay, to the discredit of themselves, society, and often the children in the family. The abuser will usually seek to limit emotional outreach, forcing the dependence, or simply withhold money, to foster the dependence. The cruelty comes naturally, and the token kindnesses are generally overblown by the victim's eager mind.
When the victim is confronted about this dissonance between behavior and rationality, they generally dissemble, or rationalize: consider the cliche, "I deserved it."
It's interesting that the times people are most inclined to pray when they are at their most desperate, when they are feeling completely powerless over the course of their life. It's at times like these when people say, "Let go and let God," or are on their knees at every opportunity (never mind those of us who were raised to be praying almost constantly, anyway). It's also interesting that life, will often, arbitrarily and without provocation, beat us down, crush our dreams, and generally do terrible things to us. It also does very kind things for us once in a while, and for the most part, we agree that life IS worth living, despite the setbacks. A religious person, convinced that God is in charge of their lives, would ascribe the random chances of life to the agent behind it; and there you have two mechanisms mentioned above- dependence and cruelty mixed with token kindness.
I think, for many people, religion is simply an abusive relationship with the universe.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What's the harm? This is why science is important.

This is exactly the kind of thing that depresses me about humanity. To sum up:
A COUPLE allegedly tied up and tortured a teenage employee because a Vietnamese fortune teller told them she stole from them, a Darwin court has heard.

Nhung Tri Tran and Trien Tran pleaded guilty to assaulting Leilani dos Santos on February 17, but not guilty yesterday to threatening to kill her and depriving her of her liberty.

...a Vietnamese fortune teller told the couple the person who had stolen the handbag was close to them, and was someone they loved.

Ms Tran also allegedly told Ms dos Santos they would cut off her fingers, but they loved her and would inject her with heroin, so she would not feel it.

Ms dos Santos said Mr Tran beat her in the back with a meat cleaver, threatened her with a samurai sword and burnt her arm with a cigarette.

Ms dos Santos said the couple had a Lady Gaga CD playing loudly.

There are a few things to this story, but one that jumps out at me is regardless of how much she stole, there's no justification for being subjected to loud Lady Gaga. This is exactly my problem with non-evidence based world views: it's not the everyday people that go around doing insane things, but as long as this kind of irrational, delusional belief is encouraged, we leave ourselves open to just this kind of abuse. Those in the "psychic" industry need to be more responsible (I'm looking at you, Sylvia Browne).
Granted, the egregious abuse in this story may be telling of a serious mental health issue, suffered by the Trans, or even dos Santos- that's beside my point. I'm not interested in placing guilt, or even blame- the fortune teller had a job to do, the Trans had a business to run, and the victim is right to sue for damages.
What I want to examine is the kind of person that could take something like this seriously. Why would anyone even believe in a fortune teller, for one thing? For the exact same reason one believes in magnet therapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, witches, or breaking mirrors for bad luck (or glasses for good luck). Because they've been told it's true. That's all it boils down to- and society plays it off as harmless, which it is, most of the time. Most Christians I know go to doctors, and get vaccinated (even if they refuse to accept the theory of gravity).
<> There are lists of cases as long as my arm where kids are neglected to death, or even murdered, by their parents because of their ridiculous beliefs. When people take homeopathic talismans to protect them from malaria. Men in Africa sleep with virgins to be cured of AIDS (also, see the even more depressing dissenting opinion here). Vultures are hunted to near extinction for gambling on soccer. Rhinos are killed to make ineffective potions against arthritis. Tigers are killed to make manly wards.
So yes, I get upset when otherwise intelligent people ignorantly ruin our planet, kill our innocents, or spread disease needlessly, because they want to believe in superstitious drivel.
< /Rant >
I feel that people believe this sort of nonsense because of the way we're wired. I'll use myself as an example, though according to studies of human beliefs, many people fall into these (and other) traps. 1.) I know that if someone tells me something confidently, I'll be inclined to believe them without trying to verify it. 2.) Similarly, if I hear something multiple times, or I read it in several places, I'll be inclined to believe it. 3.) I also know that if I already believe something, or am inclined to believe it, that I'll tend to remember the things that confirm belief.
I could go on, but let's stick with those three.
1.) Obviously, this is a terrible reason to believe something! And yet, most of us will, and salesmen and preachers alike take full advantage. There are two things I do to avoid this tendency toward blindly obeying. First, I avoid making decisions when caught up in the moment. I give myself a chance to cool off and think about my actions. Second, if I catch myself doing this, I do research to find out whether it's justified.
2.) Just because a billion people believe something, doesn't make it true. One thing that makes this one so dangerous is because of our tendency to gossip and spread rumors. When at all possible, I go directly to the source, if it's about someone, or I verify the story with multiple sources (as above, when I mentioned the dissenting opinion on the virgin cure of AIDS myth).
3.) This is also called confirmation bias, and this one can be tricky to countervail. To do so, I must, on a regular basis, actively seek out dissenting information and re-evaluate my beliefs on a given topic. For instance, after catching myself uncritically repeating the above AIDS myth, I've done some more research- and sadly, it holds up.
The dissenting story was saying that the infant rape in South Africa had nothing to do with the Virgin Cure myth- it still exists. People believe you can cure an STD by transferring it to a virgin. And that's the harm.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Raising Kids Without God

As a single atheistic parent in the veritable buckle on the bible belt, it can be difficult. What do I do about the god thing? Well, biologically, my kids are at the age where they should, with very little reservation, believe anything they're told by an adult. That, coupled with the fact that atheism for me is a simple extension of skepticism and rationality, makes it difficult for me. On the one hand, realizing that there was no god was an incredibly liberating experience- ironically, one of the most legitimately religious experience of my life- and I'd like my children to realize that. But, the more important issue to me is thinking for oneself. As such, just like with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, I'm keeping my mouth shut, and asking questions, and encouraging the kids to ask questions. Telling them the answer is like helping them cheat on a fundamental, and incredibly easy, test in life.
What I do do, mostly out of fun, is talk about Jesus or Muhammad(PB&J) with the same reverence I discuss Thor, Ra, Zeus, and leprechauns. And for the most part, they see them as they truly are, irrelevant to our lives. That's actually all I want- I hope the time for atheism is drawing to a close. There are so many more things of far more interest out there.
The important thing is ultimately, as a human species, we've outgrown the need for religion. It's still hanging around, and probably will, realistically, for hundreds of years more. But there are better sources, now, for anything that religion can offer. Better sources for community, for morality, for indulging our musical whims, for inspiration and guidance when we go astray, and plenty of real, tangible reasons to be good. Like Sesame Street, I don't believe there's much to be learned from religion at this stage in our development. It kept us from annihilating ourselves, but we're adults now, most of us, and quite capable of taking the next step into the future together. My fear is that those who cling so strongly to the history of our species that, in fear of venturing from their caves and finding a path in this marvelous present, they will turn the world's future into their apocalypse.
In an uncharacteristically beautiful and inspired chapter, the words of Paul the Apostle resonate with me. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1 Cor 13:11, KJV

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hepatitis C is natural.

One thing that continually bothers me are the sparkling connotations given to the word "natural." Organic too, to a lesser degree (more oriented at sales), but especially natural.
Have you ever heard someone talking about a natural birth? A water birth? Those are good, right? They must be- they're natural. They're better for the baby and the mother because they don't involve those unnatural doctors with their unnatural life-saving apparatuses (apparati?).
Death in childbirth is also death by natural causes.
Also, this definition of natural neatly sidesteps the whole problem of humans somehow being "Outside of Nature". Having a birth inside your air conditioned home, with your fluorescent lights buzzing, on a bed of polypropylene fibers, listening to an iPod playing soothing sounds of the beach on your $450 Sony Home Theatre System is about as natural as wearing clothes or cooking your food before you eat it. Of course, if you use natural to include everything we do, which it rightly should except in extreme cases, then I really don't have an argument. A human's natural environment is in the city, with ponchos and all the considerable delights of science and technology. That doesn't mean that all those delights are good for us, either- just natural.
For the rest of this post, I am going to kick humanity out of nature. I don't understand why, but generally when we say "natural" we really mean "we didn't do it."
Now, don't get me wrong- I'm a big fan of nature. I enjoy learning about minerals or metazoa or the milky way. I enjoy experiencing them, too- when I take my kids hiking or to watch the stars on a summer night. Nature is awesome- but it is something to be respected. If you've ever had the misfortune of staring into a hurricane, or lived through an earthquake, or seen a volcano erupt, it is breathtaking. Turn your attention down in scale, and you will find the world literally teeming with life- at every level!
Let me sum up with a list of things that are natural: Botulism, plague, Mt. Vesuvius, sociopaths, cancer, velociraptors, and salad. Unnatural: Pizza, refrigeration, the flush toilet, vaccines, clothing, farms, and Wall Street. The universe is truly amazing. Natural is a term that should inspire and imply awe, caution, or even fear. While nature is the mother of us all, she was also an abusive, neglectful monster by human standards. For no reason should we take comfort in the idea of some medicine or treatment being "natural."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Something from Nothing

An argument I hear a lot is that the Big Bang is the process of something coming from nothing, and therefore can't be correct. There are several problems with this view, not the least of which is exactly what the nothing actually consists of.

First of all, whatever existed "before" the first few seconds of our universe, let me warn you that prepositions don't apply. Before, after, during, below, behind, etc., because whatever it was, it didn't have space or time to describe it. To the best of my admittedly shallow knowledge on the topic, we don't know what it was. It wasn't nothing, that's fairly certain, but at the same time, nothing exists now that even comes close- everything we know exists in our universe, but we are talking about the origin of that universe. Everything that ever has or will exist, at least in a rudimentary sense, existed in the singularity*. What it exists "in" is likely unfathomable by even our greatest minds. This is because the terms we must use to describe it don't apply- it is simply our language, or our minds, failing us. How can we assign a time to a time when time was irrelevant and a location where places didn't exist?

How do we know about the big bang? Well, there's a lot to that question. One of the best forms of evidence we have is the red shift of the rest of the universe. There are literally billions of galaxies all around us- and they are all moving away from us. Think about ripples in an infinite pond- if we watch them long enough, we can deduce where the pebble initially hit. It's the same thing with galaxies- and they all point to the same place. If you want to know more about how we know this, google the Doppler Effect. I could ramble about it for hours.

Consider the degree of evidence, here- billions of galaxies to measure, and every one checked fits into a neat little one inch formula. And they all point back to a single instant in time, a single point in space, a single event in space-time.

Space-time is another fascinating topic, and important to understanding the difference between "something from nothing" and "something from nothing you can even imagine". Consider this. You and I are walking along an old train track. I see something shiny off in the grass and run off, let's say 50 meters into the grass. You're standing on the tracks waiting to see what I procure, facing me. Then something happens. Two lightning bolts strike. One strikes 25 meters behind you (A), and one strikes 25 meters between you and I (B). You see A and B, and hear them, simultaneously. But I see B as happening a fraction of a second before A. Which of us is right? Well, both.
Simultaneity, in other words, the times of events that occur relative to each other, is also relative to the observer.
Another example that may be easier to grasp is this: open a new document in a word processor. Now, copy this blog and paste it into the document. OK, consider this your singularity. Now, in MS Word**, open the find and replace dialog, type ? in the find box and in the replace box type "^&^l", without the quotes. Check use wildcards underneath and then hit replace all. This is the equivalent of typing return after every character in the document. You can keep hitting replace all, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger (after 1 time, I was up to about 70 pages- twice and it went to 200+). The striking thing about this is that the information stays the same, but space expands to match it. This is what the universe did, kick-started by dark energy. Consider the replace all button dark energy.

To quote J. B. S. Haldane,
"Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

*It's entirely possible that there wasn't so much a singularity as there was the observable portion of our universe compressed (or unexpanded) into a tiny size. We do know the universe is much larger than we can see, we just don't know how much.
**I'm sure a similar method exists in OpenOffice or Word Perfect, I just don't have them installed on my computer.
Now playing: Disturbed - "Another Way To Die" Lyric Video

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Weight Loss: What Really Works, part 2

I promise I'll get to something more interesting soon, but I told a friend I'd write about my weight loss methods. I'm not a nutritionist, and am only interested in nutrition inasmuch as I don't want to die of scurvy or some other deficiency. So without further ado:
In the last post, we discussed exercise, the oft-overlooked but crucially important method of body control. Then there's the other component: energy intake. Eating. For some reason, this is what gets all the play in the media and the ads that will no doubt riddle this blog for a few weeks. I suspect it is because eating is something you must do, where exercise is something you have to make time to do, and we're naturally lazy.
So, let's look at this handy tool on nutritionData. According to it, my daily needs are about 3000 calories per day. Now that we know that, let's revisit our equation. If I'm gaining weight, it's most likely because I'm consuming more than 3000 calories per day. So, if O is my output, approximately 3000, and I is my intake, and the difference is D, then I-O=D. D needs to be negative to lose weight. Don't focus on either I or O too much- D is the important one, and best achieved by a balance between the other two. Whether you decrease it (remember, it should be negative!) by exercising, or eating less, or a combination of the two, try to keep it to absolutely no more than 1500 calories per day. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories. This is handy, because 3500/7=500, or how many calories you need to lose per day to lose 1 pound in a week. It's a nice, round number. 1500 is actually easy to exceed if you become extremely active and crash diet. It can cause severe harm to your heart. Don't do it. The best, healthiest process is slow, steady weight loss. Lifestyle change. Start acting like someone who weighs your target weight- eat a little less, move a little more, and it'll happen. Give yourself time. Drink plenty of water, and stay away from empty calories (you know that FDA food pyramid? Actually a good idea, based on good science).
Don't do what I did- rush myself into a borderline medical condition courtesy of a fad diet. I had headaches for 3 days before almost collapsing at work one day because I wasn't getting enough. Nutrition is important. Carbohydrates are your friends- in fact, you should shoot for about 70% of your calories to come from carbs alone.
A few quick tips:
  • Drink a tall glass of water before you eat. At first, your stomach is stretched out and you'll feel hungry, even if you've eaten enough. Over a few weeks, this will fade.
  • Eat eggs or something high protein that stays with you during the day. This will help diminish hunger pangs.
  • Keep a food journal.
  • To get your fruit and vegetable servings, eat fruit and vegetables. Don't drink them unless you blend your own- you miss out on a lot of the nutrients and fiber.
  • Fruit juice, ranch dressing, or soft drinks (and yes, even alcoholic drinks) are largely empty additions to your diet that introduce a LOT of calories without making you much more full.
  • Get rid of potato chips and other junky snacks.
If you're really having trouble, consider calorie cycling. There's lots of background info there, but I like to eat, and being a compulsive calorie counter hurts that. Pick days of the week where you'll eat less, and days you'll eat more. My fat days and skinny days alternate- on my fat days, I eat around 4000 calories. On my skinny days, I only eat about 1500. Over a week with 4 fat days and 3 skinny, I consume 20,500 calories, shaving a neat 500 off of my requisite 21000. On odd weeks, I eat 18000, knocking the rest of the pound off through controlling my eating. Add to this 90 minutes of vigorous cardio per week and you'll see I can expect to lose about 4 pounds in a month. The main advantages of calorie cycling is you won't put your body into starvation mode, and you can still enjoy eating with less restraint. The major downside is that you'll probably slow your weight loss, and it is easy to get lazy in the long term.

Well, that's it. There's a wealth of information at, including blogs by actual nutritionists, and lots of tools and resources. Now let us never speak of nutrition again.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Follow this equation to lose weight. No, really.

When it comes to weight loss, there's a lot of information out there. Everything from magical rituals involving acai berry elixirs to gimmicky and suggestive full body workouts to "simple rules" to crash diets.
Unfortunately, they're almost all fluff. There's no reason, or no good reason, to spend money on any of those schemes. It's simple physics- if your energy output is greater than your energy intake, you will lose weight. Period. The relationship between these two variables determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight. In other, overly simplistic words, move more. If you want to lose weight, that's all you need to keep in mind. Park at the first parking space you see rather than getting the closer one (this one will make you popular at parties, especially when it rains). Return your cart to the actual store rather than a return bin. Eat standing up. Walk around when you're on the phone. But those are little things. And you aren't going to drop amazing amounts of weight doing them, but they will help. It's going to take focused exercise, which is usually a disclaimer on ANY diet commercial.
Ok, I should probably give some back-story, here: I wanted to join the military after being a couch potato my whole life. I weighed at least 230 pounds (I wasn't a big fan of scales at the time) when I first talked to my recruiter, and over the next several months, by following the advice in this post, with one notable exception, I dropped down to 145 pounds, though I've put some back on because I don't like looking like a zombie.
Because this is going to be a topic I'm inclined to discuss at length, I'm going to break it up over several posts. Today, I'm going to focus on exercises to increase how much energy you put out. Next time we'll talk about consumption, and tricks to reduce it without messing yourself up.
But first, let's talk calories: Another easy way of increasing our energy output is by raising your basal metabolic rate. The BMR is how much energy you'd expend if you just stayed in bed all day. This varies from person to person based on age and gender, and there's a calculator you can use to estimate it here. Now that we know that, note that one pound of fat contains 3500 calories (or kilocalories, kCals, for you non-American types)- so you can shoot for 500 calories of exercise per day to lose about a pound a week.
The single best thing I can recommend for burning calories is cardio- some kind of cardio. Any kind. If you have back problems, consider a recumbent bike or even an arm bike. Rowing is another good method, and many gyms have a row machine you can get on. Lap swimming is also good. Something to get your heart rate up and keep it up. When I was too fat to run at more than a slow jog, I trundled around the cul-de-sac, and as I got better, I increased the distance, until I was doing a half-mile or more. I didn't know how much more- I was just moving! If you can have fun while you're doing it, whether by listening to an iPod or whatever else, singing softly to yourself, squirting random passers-by with a watergun (actually, this may lead to interval training, which is great for that extra burn!), so much the better. For an idea of how many calories you'll be burning, there's a good chart here.
But there's something else that's often overlooked and just as important- weight training. Why? Because, for one thing, when you run, you burn calories, and your body will tell you you're hungrier than usual. So you'll eat more, often more than the calories you burned, and you'll be healthier, but you won't lose much weight. Remember the initial equation? A good way of increasing this is the development of new muscle tissue. Running helps there, but an even better way is weight training.
Curls, squats, and anything else to increase the density of your muscles (not necessarily mass, but that helps too), will help improve your BMR. Ideally, they should be done at a gym (or using free-weights) so you can increase resistance as your strength begins to plateau. Push-ups are great, for instance, but they only go so far- you'll eventually hit a wall and need something extra (if you can do 100, or even 50 push-ups in one sitting, doing more isn't going to do much good). There are plenty of great workouts you can do with simple free weights- my favorite is the Spartacus workout. Or go to the gym and grow your own- remember, for maximal fat loss, you want to target large muscle groups, and change up the exercises every few weeks. You can pack on 5 or 10 pounds on your quadriceps (the muscles between your knee and the pelvis on the front) with relatively little effort by doing squats- and it's great for increasing your metabolism. That said, it's slow if you're looking for quick weight loss- you'll lose weight slowly, or even gain weight, as muscle increases. Over several weeks, you can expect to see a drop in weight as your fat loss catches up to your muscle gain. Also, warm up before the exercises with light weights, and stretch afterwards. Stretching before a workout actually reduces your strength, and can improve the chance of injury.
This post is already longer than I'd hoped for- so more to come next time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Speed of light constant? Hardly.

The speed of light is about 300 million meters per second, or 186,000 miles per second. That's insanely fast, and yet the unit of measurement for our galaxy is the light year- about 6 trillion miles (yes, the light year, like the parsec, is a measure of distance, not time). Our closest star, besides the sun, is Alpha Centauri, and it's about 4 light years away from us. Potentially habitable planets may be hundreds or even thousands of light years away. Which means, if it's possible to break the speed of light, we definitely should. Unfortunately, science says right now that the speed of light is an interstellar speed limit, and if we were to break it, there would be severe fallout (like mass becoming infinite, which could instantly collapse the universe). Scientists and science fiction authors have worked on ways of subverting the rules for years, but with little hope for success. So when I heard about scientists already doing it, and ten years ago to boot, I was excited, but skeptical- this is the sort of thing that would revolutionize text books, and I hadn't heard anything about it.
Unfortunately, it's a matter of conflating two distinct but important principles in physics. The speed of light that I mentioned above is actually the speed of light in a vacuum- in other words, if there is nothing to impede lights' travel, that is how fast it will go. As soon as it hits a substance, such as our atmosphere, or water, it slows down. This is nothing new. Any kid with a clear drinking glass can demonstrate this phenomenon by sticking his finger into the water- it appears to bend in an unusual way. The light is traveling at different speeds through the different mediums.
So, what am I saying, the speed of light isn't constant? You bet. It slows down all the time. Then, what does c stand for in the famous equation E=mc^2? The speed of light in vacuum. This refers to a particular behavior of light, and while we can make objects without mass that can momentarily exceed it through quantum tunneling or particularly odd patterns of bending, c has yet to be exceeded in any meaningful way. The occasions when we have been able to get light to exceed c are either done through technicalities, such as by sending random bits of light forward and some backwards, or only occur over a few feet.
This article refers to one of these technicalities. To help get your head around exactly what's happening, consider this: two ice skaters doing laps side by side around an oval track. At the far end of the track, the inside skater grabs her team mate and pivots, flinging her partner forward much faster than either of them could do on their own. When light hits certain mediums, the waves get squished together, some will slow or even go backwards and others will be flung forward. The effect is short-lived, and doesn't hold much promise yet for any practical purposes, but who knows what the future will hold?
So the take away is this: when you refer to the speed of light, remember that you're usually referring to the speed of light in a perfect vacuum.