Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham of the Creation Museum

On February 4, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" will debate Ken Ham, Creation Museum founder and Answers In Genesis president/CEO, at The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. The event is titled "Is creation a viable model of origins?" This is gonna be good. Tickets are $25 from the Creation Museum. I hope the museum makes a full video available but I bet that will depend on how it plays out. Hopefully an audience member will record and post the whole thing online. "Bill Nye to Visit Creation Museum for Debate" (ABC News, thanks, Bob Pescovitz!)

(image: CC-licensed photo of Creation Museum exhibit by Anthony5429) Read the rest

Popular Science has an evidence-based reason for shutting down its comment section

Yesterday, the Popular Science website announced that it would no longer allow readers to comment on new stories. Why? Because science, says online editor Suzanne LeBarre, who cited research showing how a minority of uncivilized, vitriolic comments can skew readers' understanding of the content of a story and contribute to political/ideological polarizations of opinion. Mother Jones wrote about the same study more in-depth earlier this year. Read the rest

Scary science, national security, and open-source research

I've been following the story about the scientists who have been working to figure out how H5N1 bird flu might become transmissible from human to human, the controversial research they used to study that question, and the federal recommendations that are now threatening to keep that research under wraps. This is a pretty complicated issue, and I want to take a minute to help you all better understand what's going on, and what it means. It's a story that encompasses not just public health and science ethics, but also some of the debates surrounding free information and the risk/benefit ratio of open-source everything.

H5N1, the famous bird flu, is deadly to humans. Of the 566 people who have contracted this form of influenza, 332 have died. But, so far, the people who have caught bird flu don't seem to have contracted the disease from other humans, or passed it on. Instead, they got it from birds, often farm animals with whom the victims were living in close contact. H5N1 was first identified 14 years ago, and there's never been a documented case of it being passed from person to person.

But that doesn't mean such a leap is impossible.

That's because of how the influenza virus works. Influenza is made up of eight pieces of RNA, containing 10 genes, and they all replicate independently of one another and there's no system for error correction*. That means you have more opportunity for mutations to arise that change what the virus does and who it can infect. Read the rest

3 things you need to know about biofuels

Why care about liquid fuel?

There’s a reason we use different forms of energy to do different jobs, and it’s not because we’re all just that fickle. Instead, we’ve made these decisions based on some combination of what has (historically, anyway) given us the best results, what is safest, what is most efficient, and what costs us the least money.

In a nutshell, that’s why liquid fuel is so valuable. So far, it’s the clear winner when we need energy for transportation—especially air transportation and heavy, long-distance shipping—because it allows you to stuff a lot of energy into relatively small amount of storage space, and easily refill on the go. There are other options, of course, like electricity. And that can work quite well, depending on what you’re trying to do. Eventually, we may find ourselves in a world where liquid fuel is no longer the best option. But we aren’t there yet. And for those forms of transport that take us into the air or move our belongings very long distances, we aren't likely to get there for a good long time.

That's why I care about liquid fuel, and why I'm interested in the future of biofuels. Yes, biofuels do have a future. But what that future will be depends on whether we can control for some very messy variables. Here, in three points, are the big things you need to know about biofuel.

1. Corn ethanol really is flawed. But maybe not as much as you think.

Biofuel is a nice, round word encompassing a lot of tricky, little, oddly shaped dots. Read the rest

Lessig responds to ASCAP's bizarre anti-free-culture smear campaign

Larry Lessig has written an editorial in response to ASCAP's bizarre attack on organizations like Creative Commons, EFF and Public Knowledge, in which ASCAP solicited funds to fight these "anti-copyright" groups. This was just weird: Creative Commons makes copyright licenses, EFF has spent the past five years advocating for the creation of ASCAP-like organizations to collect for Internet music distribution, and Public Knowledge has an unblemished track record of fighting for balanced copyright that respects authors.
Creative Commons is a nonprofit that provides copyright licenses pro bono to artists and creators so that they can offer their creative work with the freedom they intend it to carry. (Think not "All Rights Reserved" but "Some Rights Reserved.") Using these licenses, a musician might allow his music to be used for noncommercial purposes (by kids making a video, for example, or for sharing among friends), so long as attribution to the artist is kept. Or an academic might permit her work to be shared for whatever purpose, again, so long as attribution is maintained. Or a collaborative project such as a wiki might guarantee that the collective work of the thousands who have built the wiki remains free for everyone forever. Hundreds of millions of digital objects -- from music to video to photographs to architectural designs to scientific journals to teachers lesson plans to books and to blogs -- have been licensed in this way, and by an extraordinarily diverse range of creators or rights holders -- including Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Jonathan Coulton, Kristin Hersh, and Snoop Dogg, as well as Wikipedia and the White House.
Read the rest

Copyright disputes in the 1840s

Who is Charles Dickens ranting about in this letter to Henry Austin?
"Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled, an author should be forced to appear in any form - in any vulgar dress - in any atrocious company - that he should have no choice of his audience - no controul [sic?]over his distorted text - and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course, the best men in this country who only ask to live, by writing?"
The not entirely surprising answer: American Publishers. Read more about the debate at the Literary and Debating Society at the Mechanics' Institute of Montreal (now known as the Atwater Library and Computer Centre). Read the rest