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Well it seems as though we all made it through the first firing the of the Large Hadron Collider.  But before we get complacent, we still have one more hurdle.  They still haven’t actually done any colliding yet.   The beams circulating through the LHC today were only going in one direction, meaning no chance of a collision.   While this isn’t a particularly important point to most people, it is for those who afraid of CERN’s new particle accelerator.   I’ve read estimates on CERN’s site that the first collision may be as early as October.  But who knows.

Looks like we have months more to wait before the “real” threat of the LHC occurs.  One can only wonder how long before we hear forecasts of death by mini-black hole, and it will occur.   As with any of these theories, the proponents never seem to go away, at least in my opinion.   So we will probably be hearing from them up to, and even after, the first collisions. The beauty of the situation is that even if nothing happened last time, there’s always the chance that things may be different. Irrational fear is just that, why would reason change anything? On a side note, it’s all well and good to joke, but the “threat” of simply turning on the LHC elicited death threats. One can’t help but wonder, perhaps somewhat morbidly, what the knowledge that CERN is actually going to do something unique with their new toy will cause.

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The end of the world is nigh, or so they say. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Large Hadron Collider’s career and, more specifically, it’s search for the oft mentioned Higgs boson, a particle so stupendously amazing that some jerk called it the “god particle”. The Large Hadron Collider, LHC, is a particle accelerator, the biggest yet created. It spans the border between France and Switzerland and features a circular tunnel with a circumference of 27km buried at depths ranging between 50 and 175m. The LHC is unique from the other existing particle accelerators in it’s power. Scientific American puts the LHC into perspective by describing just how much of a, if you’ll pardon me, quantum leap this accelerator is when compared with even the most powerful accelerator to date.

Outline of the Large Hadron Collider, via flickr

Outline of the Large Hadron Collider, via flickr

“It starts by producing proton beams of far higher energies than ever before. Its nearly 7,000 magnets, chilled by liquid helium to less than two kelvins to make them superconducting, will steer and focus two beams of protons traveling within a millionth of a percent of the speed of light. Each proton will have about 7 TeV of energy—7,000 times as much energy as a proton at rest has embodied in its mass, courtesy of Einstein’s E = mc2. That is about seven times the energy of the reigning record holder, the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Equally important, the machine is designed to produce beams with 40 times the intensity, or luminosity, of the Tevatron’s beams. When it is fully loaded and at maximum energy, all the circulating particles will carry energy roughly equal to the kinetic energy of about 900 cars traveling at 100 kilometers per hour, or enough to heat the water for nearly 2,000 liters of coffee.”

But while the LHC is easily in a league of it’s own in terms of it’s power, it is also unique for it’s delays, as well as the fear it has created in the minds of some people. A small group of people have been railing against the LHC, due to the belief that it will cause the end of the universe. The folks over at CERN, the organization in charge of the LHC, have attempted to allay those fears along with the rest of the scientific community. Unfortunately, as a result of the LHC approaching it’s start, some researchers have found themselves the targets of death threats.

Considering all of the hype, and fear, produced by the LHC it is only natural to ask what the potential payoff is. After all, it’s all well and good to parrot lines about the Higgs boson, but what does it really mean. In the end, the LHC offers us a unique opportunity to understand how our universe works at the most fundamental level we know. The true answer is that there is no clear idea of what will be found once the LHC is up, and running at full capacity. The clearest target is, of course, the Higgs boson, but other targets include gravity, and even dark matter. Most important of all, however, is the effect that the LHC might have upon the Standard Model of particle physics.

Atlas particle detector, via flickr

Atlas particle detector, via flickr

Any of the above findings would be enormous in confirming more of the Standard Model, especially finding the Higgs particle. Yet, one can’t help but consider what the lack of such a discovery might mean. If the Higgs particle isn’t found, there is the potential to overturn the Standard Model of particle physics. As Stephen Hawkins pointed out, “I think it will be much more exciting if we don’t find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again.” It is those moments when things fail that are the most exciting. Failure indicates a deeper truth to be found and more to learn.

No matter how exciting it is to contemplate the potential advances which may come about from the Large Hadron Collider, it’s always useful to remember that science is slow. Tomorrow’s start up merely marks the very beginning. The LHC will only be testing out it’s equipment, merely calibrating. Even if things go well, results most likely won’t be out for a while, up to several months if equipment must be repaired. It’s only the beginning, but who can’t help but be excited at the prospect’s ahead for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider?

Oh, and just in case you’re worried you can always check to make sure you’re alright.

Scientific American, “Large Hadron Collider: The Discovery Machine”

Physorg.com, “Hawkings bets CERN mega-machine won’t find God particle”

Large Hadron Collider, http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/

Greats news from the EFF today!   They’ve succeeded in lifting the gag order on the group of MIT security researchers and their MBTA/Charlie Card vulnerability research.   The students were originally scheduled to debut their report during the security conference DEFCON.   However, the MBTA sued the students, claiming that their report, which would have excluded details needed to pull off the attack, violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(a law passed primarily to prevent fraud using computers).   As part of the lawsuit, the students had a gag order placed on them.   While this is certainly great news for the MIT students, and security researchers in general, the lawsuit still stands.

The case was interesting in the choice of the CFAA as a tool to prevent academic researchers from exposing gaping security holes in public infrastructure.   The MBTA claimed that the students were going to be aiding others in defrauding the MBTA.  The only problem with the claim is that the students gave the MBTA advance noticed and told them that they would withold details in order to prevent people from easily exploiting the problems.   In the end it’s difficult to wonder how much better this whole experience would have gone if the MBTA had embraced their responsibility, taken the vulnerability serious, and worked with the students, rather than abusing the CFAA in order to protect their butts.   With that in mind, I’m going to end with a short quotation from the EFF press release(link below).

“The students have already voluntarily provided a 30-page security analysis to the MBTA and have offered to meet with the MBTA and walk the transit agency through the security vulnerability and the students’ suggestions for improvement.

“The only thing keeping the students and the MBTA from working together cooperatively to resolve the fare payment card security issues is the lawsuit itself,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “The MBTA would be far better off focusing on improving the MBTA’s fare payment security instead of pursuing needless litigation.””

EFF: “Judge Lifts Unconstitutional Gag Order Against MIT Students

It’s a rare incident for me to find a weapon where it’s very concept scares me.   Straight from the fine folks at Gizmodo(via Technabob, via UK Daily Mail) we have the WASP knife.   Apparently the WASP knife is a hunting knife.  But unlike most other knives, it features a special little secret.   It features a can of compressed air, which sounds like an odd thing for a knife to have.   That is until you realize it injects the compressed air into the victim, at which point the air expands rapidly displacing internal organs.   If that’s not scary enough, the compressed air also freezes the skin and organs near the entry point.   Oh and the best part is that it’s just as effective underwater as on dry land and the WASP site lists it’s price as a measly $379.95.  WHAT A STEAL!

waspcase

For those interested in seeing this knife’s potential utility against watermelon enemies, check out the video from the WASP knife website.  This knife has to be the best combination of wickedly awesome gadgetry and terrifyingly deadly weaponry.  As if getting stabbed wasn’t bad enough…

What does it take to get a pc with xp

really?

REALLY?

Apparently so.  PC World, via Slashdot, features an article purporting to advise consumers about how they can purchase a new computer with an old operating system.   This would be interesting…well no it wouldn’t be interesting.  There are two major flaws with even the ideas presented by this article.  First, simply looking at the websites for major vendors reveals that some systems offer windows XP as a choice.  It’s rare, and every vendor doesn’t offer it, but there are some.  Second, anyone who purchases a copy of windows vista has the ability to “roll back” the operating system to either Windows XP or Windows 2000.   Special thanks to Paul Thurrott for pointing this out.   As Thurrott points out, this ability has been a long standing feature of Windows operating systems.   When you consider this, several thoughts naturally arise.   Did this writer do any research?  You would think he would have mentioned the specific ability for any consumer to roll back to XP or 2000 if he had.   Why even write an article about getting an out of date operating system for a new computer?

After considering such thoughts, one might be lead to suspect that this is the tech journalists version of a fluff piece.  He calls up a couple companies about getting xp on a new computer and boom he has an article.   Let’s take apart some quotes shall we?

“I won’t waste time rehashing the argument over whether Windows Vista is any good. The fact remains that lots of people prefer Windows XP, and they’ll go to great lengths to get it.”

Perhaps a better way to write this would be, “I know there’s no good reason to write an article about how to get an old operating system on a new computer, but I can justify it by harping on the “popular” demand.  In fact it’s so popular that, as Thurrott pointed out in the same article above, “BTW: 210,000 signatures represents about 0.03 percent (three tenths of one percent) of all XP users, assuming there are 700 million XP users worldwide. It could actually be higher.” Oh and while we’re at it, since “lots of people” would like to get linux on their new computer, perhaps I should await this guy’s, “Guide to getting gentoo on a new pc.”  NEXT QUOTE!

“To find out how difficult it is to get a new XP machine these days, I asked the nine largest PC vendors in the United States–Dell, HP, Gateway, Toshiba, Acer, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Sony, and Asus–about the specifics of their downgrade policies. Then, to see how closely the official story synced up with the reality in the marketplace, I called sales representatives for each company and asked them whether I could purchase a new laptop equipped with XP from them.”

Investigative journalism at it’s best people!  So he called a bunch of corporate headquarters, then he called and pretended to order a pc.  Too bad he didn’t, say, call Microsoft.  He could have saved 18 calls with one, since Microsoft readily explains that their operating system features a rollback feature.

“The verdict?”

Guilty by reason of inanity?

“Downgrade policies are all over the map, and more than a few rank-and-file sales reps have a sketchy understanding of those policies.”

So let me get this straight.  You called corporate headquarters and then sales and you found out that employees don’t always strictly follow the official policies and procedures of a company.  Wow.  Just.  I’m speechless.  So what?  You’ve described the situation at every single large corporation.

The writer proceeds to explain what he encountered but we can stop right here because of all this is meaningless because you can get either Vista, Xp, or 2000 simply by buying a copy of Vista or getting a copy of Vista with your new computer.  Also, Vista is a more secure, stable operating system, with more conveniences and features.  If you are buying a new computer, please don’t try to buy a system with XP, especially if you’re doing so because of all of the “problems” you heard about.  Vista had, repeat had, a problem with drivers, a problem caused by hardware vendors.   There is no problem with drivers now.  If you buy a new computer it will run with vista just fine, just make sure you have ~2 GB of Ram and at least 126-256mb of video ram to ensure you can utilize the aero glass feature and that you can multi task with no slow down.

Carl Sagan was likely more responsible for the popularization of science than any other scientist in recent memory.   His series Cosmos, in spite of it’s now dated graphics, still has the capacity to draw in it’s viewers.   What I am not certain about is how many are aware of Carl Sagan’s position within the modern skeptical movement.   I personally feel that Carl Sagan, as a popularizer of science, was also one of the most important figures in modern skepticism.   His book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark”, reads as a manifesto of the skeptical movement.   I recently had the pleasure of reading through it and besides his arguments for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking in the modern world, I found one good point about the skeptical movement itself.

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs Them – the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption.   This is unconstructive.  It does not get the message across.  It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.

If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.  And such compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest also works to make science and the scientific method less off-putting, especially to the young.”

When dealing with pseudo-science and supersititious beliefs it’s easy for us as skeptics to become frustrated.   But the point of skepticism isn’t to teach what’s “true” or “correct”.  Skepticism isn’t a belief system, so much as a way to understand the world around us, and come to provisional beliefs.   As Sagan pointed out, we all use skepticism in our lives.  If we buy a used car, we certainly don’t accept whatever the seller tells us.  We examine the car, test drive it, and maybe even take it in for an inspection.   That is skepticism.  If we would do this when you buy a car, why not use this when looking for a source for medical treatment, or when you see that ad for an all new, all natural cure?   The goal of the skeptical movement ought to be the elimination of the skeptical movement.

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I had the distinct pleasure of watching M. Night Shyamalan’s newest picture, the enigmatically titled “The Happening”, last evening. Flashes of 50’s party scenes and leather jacketed greasers aside, the new flick’s plot centers around high school science teacher Elliot, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. One by one, cities and towns are being attacked by an unknown chemical which cause the person to stop whatever they’re doing, and then promptly kill themselves. The Happening begins with alternating scenes of death and panic. We initially begin with the first “attack” which takes place in New York’s Central Park. Construction workers jump off of buildings, a girl impales her neck with a chop stick. It’s compelling stuff, if you like that kind of thing. I happen to enjoy gore, individual mileage may vary. We are then transported into a high school science class being taught by Elliot. He brings up the mysterious disappearance of bees, prompting his class for possible answers. The students suggest several different causes including a virus and global warming. I personally found that the best answer was the last answer. A kid, after being egged on by the teacher, suggests that the disappearance was a force of nature which we would never be able to understand. Elliot responds to that drivel, not by pointing out the intellectual laziness of it, but rather by applauding him. He goes on to say that defining certain phenomena as unknowable as a good scientific belief. He apparently defines science as giving up when it’s difficult to explain things. From that point onward the movie descended into depths of weirdness unheard of. Plants attack people, lots of people act like their drugged up, some guy claims to be able to calculate a time table for an event which he doesn’t know anything about, and Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie eventually decides on a cause as well as a potential meaning for the strange events. About halfway through the movie, we are told, through Elliot, that the strange events must be caused by plants. He justifies it with a couple points. Plants are able to release toxins when “threatened” or attacked. The “neurotoxin” responsible for the symptoms is described as a natural, airborne compound. (Though there is a perfunctory “government did it” theory) The coup de grace, though, is that the attacks first took place in…of all places…a park! Astounding. Luckily this is where the comedy part of the movie picks up, since a man can only live on so much gore before he yearns for something new.

The plants deliver their neurotoxin through the air. Which plants are responsible is never specifically stated. An astute reader would have figured a problem with this. How do they attack with the neurotoxin when they are dependent upon the movement of the wind? It wouldn’t be a very scary movie if all you had to do was stay upwind. Well here’s the rub. While this is never explained, it appears that the plants are capable of invoking wind at will. I know. This is a strange theory, but it is the only one which matches the evidence. In each case, the wind appears, seemingly at the beck and call of the plants, right at the moment when the plants are attacking! Scary stuff. Luckily when confronted with such a heinous threat, one can always run away. Yes. That’s right. They run away from the wind. There is a scene where Elliot and his group are running towards the camera while the wind “chases” them through a field of grass. It was at this point that I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. It was also at that point which I realized that “The Happening” was a comedy. I beliefe Mr. Shyamalan has been stealing, err, studying from South Park, as their global warming episode featured a crowd running from “global warming”. Beyond running from wind, one can, according to this movie, simply close doors and windows in order to prevent an airborne neurotoxin from entering the house. Indeed, it is little known fact that houses, no matter how old or well maintained, are absolutely air tight as long as their doors and windows are closed. It was this little known fact allowed both Elliot, Alma, and Elliot’s friend’s daughter to survive the attack.

In the end, the movie explains the whole…well…happening as a “warning” to humans to stop messing up the environment. Leaving aside the fact that the movie attributes both supernatural abilities and a consciousness to plants, it seems ironic to me that the final plot point simply parrots the moral endings of the alien movies of the 60’s. Luckily though we have a token skeptic to bring us home. He doubts the nice “scientist”(an old guy who is really tightly wound is a scientist?) and his explanation. What happens? He’s shown to be the dirty skeptic which he is. The final scene brings the whole movie back round as a new attack takes place in France. See!!! You dirty skeptics!!!! WE TRIED TO TELL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh. Sorry.

I must be honest that while I try to use critical thinking and skepticism I am always willing to temporarily accept wacky things during movies. The point of movies is ostensibly to entertain. If critical thinking must be left at the door when watching, well that’s the price of telling an interesting story. So, I have nothing against “The Happening” being totally unrealistic. I have a problem with the movie being completely ridiculous. The problem was that the plot and the basic ideas underlying the movie were ridiculous. “The Happening” is a decent movie but it suffers from the same flaw that all of M. Night Shayamalan’s films have suffered. Whether the movie’s about ghosts, or aliens, or a haunted village, or evil trees, they begin with an interesting, promising premise and end with a flawed execution. If you don’t mind goofy premises, the movie is watchable. Otherwise the movie is rather forgettable.

Recently there has been a lot of noise about law enforcement and/or security guards harassing photographers in the US and England over taking pictures of just about anything.   Bruce Schneier, of computer security fame, made a great list in his newest cryptogram newsletter.  It can be found here, and is completely free, so check it out.   With that in mind, here comes the ever helpful “How to Shoot (Photographs) Like A Terrorist”. The whole row over photographing public buildings, especially around here at the Union Station are disappointing from a stand point of security and personal rights.

There is nothing wrong or illegal about taking pictures of public buildings.   But more importantly, there is nothing about preventing people from taking pictures which makes us safer.   As Mr. Schneier succinctly pointed out, no terrorists ever used photography as a way to prepare for an attack.   Even if they were to decide to somehow use photography in their plans, it would be nearly impossible to stop all photographers, and in the end they could always simple visit the area themselves rather than take those pictures.  Trying to stop terrorism by stopping photography is like trying to stop wars by banning maps.   In my mind, there’s only one good answer to all of this.  Stop.  Or, on our part, take more pictures and stand up against what has seemed to be primarily based around intimidation.

I know it’s not my usual fare, but I’ve been reading through these stories and thought it a good topic to mention.

For those not aware of it, yesterday was “Download day” for the newest version of firefox, firefox 3.0.   The goal of download day was the break the Guiness World Record for most downloads in a single day.   While I can’t find the official number, the attempt is still ongoing at this moment.   They currently have had over 7 million, one hundred and thirty seven thousand downloads of firefox 3.   If you haven’t tried firefox, now’s you chance, and if you haven’t downloaded a version already, then get to it!

A little bit of news round up is in order.  Two major news items caught my attention during my perusal of the various news items.   First up, Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference started this monday and featured CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote speech.   As per usual with Apple conferences, the internet was abuz with rumors and hype surrounding the potential new porducts that might be unveiled.   Despite my complete lack of a mac, and perhaps due to my current interest in a macbook pro, I sat in on the Gizmodo and Engadget live coverage of the keynote speech.   What ensued can only be described as a string of completely uninteresting revelations.  There’s going to be a new version of OS X eventually?  Well duh…   And it’s going to be called Snow Leoperd?   Ok.   Look! Iphone games, medical apps, et cetera.  Perhaps the strangest app of all though was an ebay app(are you too impatient to just log in to the web based ebay?).   The mobileme(.mac 2.0) seemed vaguely interesting, though it would seem to make more sense to see what free cloud based apps show up to compete with it.   I’ve personally voiced my own apathy towards cloud based solutions, but I must admit I can see benefits to the use of some of the apps shown off in mobile me…though I can’t help but ask if Google couldn’t do the same thing minus the cost.   Finally, there was the big announcement of the day, a 3G or HSDPA, based iphone.   I’m sure this, along with the announced price cut for the iphone, excited quite a few.  But I must ask…so what?   The iphone is still locked to AT&T, which requires any non AT&T customer to pay several hundred to just get out of their old contract.  Going along with that complaint, I wonder why would you buy an iphone if you could get, for example, a new Blackberry Bold, HTC Touch Pro, or any number of other smartphones without having to replace your current provider, especially if that provider offer you good reception?   In the end, the keynote speech for WWDC fell flat.  I think Paul Thurrot put it best when he described the speech as “Microsoftesque”.

Going from the boring to the inane, we have the “Green our Vaccine” rally.   One of the organizers, the strangely labeled TACA or Talk About Curing Autism, (Haven’t we been doing that?) features a recap of the rally which took place June 4th in Washington D.C.   The anti-vaccine, or anti-toxin, movement is certainly nothing new, but it has certainly been aided by the influx of celebrity support. The rally itself featured such notables as Jim Carey, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy.   The movement has traditionally consisted of attacks against vaccines for ingredients, such as thiomersal which is a preservative which contained mercury, which they claimed to have caused autism in their child.   All of this sounds very scary especially when you mention chemicals like mercury being in vaccines.  The cold blast of reality is that there is no evidence that these chemicals cause autism.

In general, the movement tends to describe itself as being against any “toxins” being in vaccines.  I would ask, facetiously, who is FOR placing toxins in vaccines?   But that point being put aside, I imagine these people are well meaning but mistaken in their beliefs.  What’s more troubling is how the movement seems to be more interested in eliminating vaccines in general, rather than concerned with certain non-essential ingredients.

David Gorski of the Science-based Medicine Blog has a great write up about the event, the “controversy” and the truth about vaccine safety.   What’s interesting about this rally is how it shows the evolution away from the failing argument that mercury causes autism towards the more general anti-toxins argument.   I don’t think this is all that surprising.  The use of the anti-toxins argument is used throughout the pseudo-sciences.   The argument often that we’re ingesting too many toxins and we need to get rid of them in order to allow our bodies to heal naturally.   As if that wasn’t bad enough though, they’re combining the anti-toxin message with a “green” or all-natural message in some cases.  Consider a quote from a mother of two autistic children featured in an article via the science-based medicine blog found here.   “But Mason, who has two autistic children, warns that autism is on the rise, and that something has to change. ‘ideally the legislators would enact legislation that would force companies to use natural ingredients‘, she argues. ‘Not what they’re using now.'”   What is this ideal world which she is positing?   While I obviously feel for her and understand that she’s sincere in her beliefs and desires, I can’t help but point out that ingredients being natural doesn’t make them better.  After all consider that mercury and lead are natural but are in fact toxic to humans.

In the end it’s hard to not feel for the troubles which a lot of these mothers have faced, including the heart rending feeling that they might have been directly responsible for their child’s autism.   However we shouldn’t ignore that there are people trying to eliminate childhood vaccines, which are responsible for saving many lives from diseases, with a campaign which is thoroughly lacking in any real scientific evidence.  The best scientific argument they had was that mercury caused autism and that has been investigated and shown to lack any evidence.   After that, all that is left is faux green, faux consumer choice, and faux science.

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Image borrowed from Science-based Medicine Blog

On a lighter note I’d like to submit Jim Carey’s analogy.  When I read this, it simply floored me.  I have a degree in literature and, really, this is probably one of the best analogies ever.   “If on the way to a burning building a fire engine ran people over, we wouldn’t stop using fire engines. We would just ask them to slow down a bit. Well it’s time to tell the CDC and the AAP that it’s time to slow the fire engine down. People are getting hurt on the way to the fire.”   Truer words have n’er been spoke.   Oh.  And I’m being sarcastic.