T minus 2 days and counting …

School here starts Wednesday, so I am in the midst of preparing for that very important first day of class. This year, for the first time, we will be teaching physics in the 9th grade as part of our new sequence of science courses (phys-chem-bio), so not only do I have to worry about the first day of school, but also the first day of high school science for a bunch of impressionable freshmen. I don’t want to blow it, in other words. So, my presence here will be limited this week. I will pop in (as I hope you will) to the now-lengthy discussion about “gravity deniers” here. We are getting into the real nitty-gritty of physics — and science in general — so take a look and comment if you have something to say. Wish me luck!

Nevada teen says she agreed to edited speech, but regretted it later 1

Brittany McComb, the Henderson, Nevada, valedictorian whose graduation address was censored by school officials, told the Los Angeles Times that she agreed to school officials’ editing of her speech only because she felt intimidated by them. She and her parents attempted to forestall the editing out of McComb’s religious references, but could not contact lawyers to seek a solution, she said. Her parents were out of town, so she gave in when a school official insisted that she not deviate from the edited speech. Instead, McComb gave her original address, resulting in school officials pulling the plug on her microphone in the middle of the valedictory. She has since filed a discrimination suit in federal districty court, alleging her rights of free speech and equal protection under the law were infringed, and asking for $1 in damages. The conservative legal organization, the Rutherford Institute, is representing McComb in her suit. In her interview with LA Times reporter Richard Abowitz, McComb comes off as an idealistic young woman who wanted to resist what she saw as censorship of her valedictory, but who lacked the resolve to stand up to school officials on her own. Yes. The actual situation was that the ...

Tangled Bank, numero cincuenta nueve

My gloss on “gravity deniers” is in the latest Tangled Bank, number 59, now available for your enjoyment at Science and Reason. There’s a lot to read there, so prolific are we science bloggists. Maybe we need to develop a Tangled-Bank-on Tape product.

Googlifying weirdness

After some tweaking of site permalink and URL settings, posting sitemaps to Google, and other such SEO tinkerings, I have managed to get my posts into Google’s search engine. Before, I had no luck finding my posts, no matter how specific I made the search terms. Strangely (or maybe not), my stats plugin reported almost simultaneously a dramatic drop in daily unique hits, from the 180s to 2. Pretty depressing, until I realized those multiple hits were probably from the googlebot trying to index the site, failing, then trying again. [UPDATE (82/06): The stats plugin was not compatible with the upgraded version of WordPress. I caught on when I saw it had clocked absolutely zero hits right after one of my posts appeared in the latest Tangled Bank. My other site counters registered dozens of visits, so I realized the WP upgrade must have broken the stats plugin. There was an update available, so the plugin (ShortStat) works now.] So, here is what I have learned. Plain text permalinks are best. Trailing slashes on site URLs are important, at least to the w3.org validator service computers. Getting a sitemap with those permalinks into Google’s hands is a good thing. Tweaking ...

Gravity deniers and the gravity of ignorance 57

Douglas Adams, in his Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, once suggested that falling was akin to an ingrained habit. If you could just forget about falling, you could defy gravity and fly. It works as a joke, but in real life gravity is pretty unforgiving. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across “gravity deniers” trolling at Tara Smith’s Aetiology blog. Tara was dumbfounded that anyone could deny the so-called “germ” theory of infectious disease, since there has been so much evidence since Louis Pasteur’s time that bacteria, viruses, and single-celled parasites cause a wide variety of illnesses. Yet, it seems, just as there are souls who deny the connection between HIV and AIDS or the validity of the theory of evolution, there are some who deny that “germs” cause disease. Woof. One of the commenters, jspreen, claimed that poverty caused disease, noting that poor people seem disproportionately more susceptible to infectious diseases than richer people. Someone else claimed that Pasteur had recanted his support of the germ theory on his deathbed. I commented that jspreen was confusing correlation with causation, and closed my comment with this snarky remark: By the way, I heard that Newton confessed ...

I can’t leave well enough alone …

After changing to a new theme, I decided to trick out my WordPress installation with some nifty mods, some of which I hope will help solve Google’s apparent inability to crawl my blog. A “related posts” plugin will display a few potentially related previous posts after each post. Honestly, the connections seem pretty tenuous at best, but at least it’s entertaining, and it might encourage visitors to read my earlier stuff. A Google analytics plugin seems to be completely invisible to Google, despite my repeated attempts to make it check out. I’m just going to leave it there and hope for the best. Google says my sitemap checks out OK, but yet its bot can’t crawl the vast majority of the site. Weird. A tagging plugin will prompt me with suggested tags for my posts, so that my Technorati association may perhaps pay off. I noticed tonight that some of my changes must have had some effect, as the number of incoming links to the site seems to have jumped dramatically. I am going to check my site traffic analysis to see what happened and when. My old theme had a bunch of addons, which I had to reinstall by ...

It was just time for a change

After spending five days working on other sites, I came back to my blog to find I was really tired of the default WordPress theme. It was too narrow, and the sidebar was hard to read. So, I spent Sunday night finding a new theme and as many hours finetuning it. The new theme is called Sharepointlike, developed by a coder in Bulgaria. The links for “Category,” “Edit this post,” and “Comment on this post” were in Bulgarian, so one of my tweaks was to change those into English for the Cyrillic-impaired. Then, I had to manually edit the index.php file for the theme to add the Amazon, PayPal and other doodads I have added during the last six months. This part was the post time-consuming, as I do the editing the old-fashioned way: change the code, upload the file, view in browser. Rinse. Repeat as necessary. Finally, I could not live without my header image, a Martian sunset transmitted to Earth by the Mars rover, Spirit, in 2005. The image is compelling. I have the same feeling looking at it as I did way back in 1976 when the Viking lander sent back the first images of the ruddy ...

Star caught in the act of sucking companion, then exploding

Hah! Got your attention that time, didn’t I? No, this blog has not devolved into discussing Paris Hilton, who actually to the best of my knowledge has not had a recent public temper tantrum. In fact, the subject of today’s post is a white dwarf star in the zodiacal constellation Ophiuchus (next to Libra). A team of astronomers has gotten lucky and been able to observe a white dwarf nearing the supernova (explosion) phase, as it sucks matter from its companion star. Usually, supernovae occur unannounced — we see them after the explosion has happened — so finding a star ready to blow up is a rare, exciting find. It will allow astronomers to gain a better understanding of the supernova process. There are two types of supernovae, imaginatively termed type 1 and type 2. Astronomers subdivide type 1’s into three subclasses, based on their spectral emissions. The star in question, RS Ophiuchi, is nearing a type 1a supernova event, astronomers believe. A white dwarf is the corpse of a medium-sized star, not unlike our Sun, that has exhausted its usable supply of nuclear “fuel.” Deprived of the outward pressure keeping its normal diameter at about 1.6 million kilometers, the ...

Tangled Bank #58 is here!

From the sunny city of Stockholm, Tangled Bank #58 has come to enlighten readers with incisive and witty science coverage. Pay it a visit. Tack så mycket!

Open source reflections 2

I’ve been spending the last couple of days maintaining and developing websites, both family- and work-related, which led to me to come to two not-so-original revelations. 1. How marvelous is it that any person with the necessary minimal skills can download free software and create a website in just a few hours? Even more amazing is that a person can have that website hosted for free, or at least darn cheap. I’m paying just $7.95 a month for this one and my computer-related site, for example. 2. Like any endeavor, developing and maintaining websites is an at times frustrating, but ultimately rewarding job. Open-source software makes step 1 possible for minimal cost, but at the expense of ease-of-use. WordPress may be an exception, but its content-management  cousins, php-nuke and Joomla can drive a person nuts. So while I tear my remaining hair out, consider with me the amazing power that open-source software and low-cost webhosting offer the average Joe or Jo.

Nevada teen sues school officials

With the conservative Rutherford Institute representing her, high school valedictorian Brittany McComb (at right) has filed suit in federal court alleging that school officials infringed on her First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Foothill High School (Henderson, Nev.) officials edited McComb’s valedictory before the June 15 graduation ceremony to eliminate what they judged to be overly religious references. McComb delivered her original speech instead, and school officials disconnected her mike just as she launched into a discussion how God and the suffering of Jesus on the cross had given meaning and focus to her life. School officials said they were acting on the advice of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, and were trying to avoid running afoul of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In her suit, filed in US District Court in Nevada, McComb names the principal, assistant principal and the school employee who allegedly pulled the plug. The suit claims her rights of free expression and equal protection under the law were violated when the mike was cut off. The suit asks that the court declare that the officials infringed on those rights. (Details here.) Don’t say I didn’t tell you a lawsuit would happen.

The latest “scientific breakthrough” scam — water gas 88

The gullibility of the scientifically challenged media and buying public never ceases to amaze. Spurred perhaps by sharply higher gasoline prices, backyard inventors and shady promoters are pushing the latest wonder technology, “HHO gas,” otherwise known as water gas, Brown’s gas or Klein’s gas. For a tidy investment of a few hundred dollars, one can adapt a car to run on HHO, or for a few thousand, one can buy a device to produce HHO at home for transportation or for welding. Cars apparently can run for miles on mere puffs of HHO, and torches can burn holes in seconds through most metals. I would encourage anyone buying such devices to first watch videos of the Graf Hindenburg accident in 1937 or the Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, to get an idea of the Promethean power of HHO gas. Wait, 1937? Isn’t HHO supposed to be a new technology? you ask. Nope. In fact, the principles behind the production of HHO have been known and used for close to 200 years. If you were lucky, you might have even made some in middle school science class. If you run electric current through water, you break water down into its constituent ...
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