Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

SkullBoy and ScalpWeasel

Recently, I seem to have run into a number of examples of the phenomenon of people hanging on like grim death to cherished ideas for which the evidence against is far stronger than the evidence for.

I suppose it's a natural enough tendency; no one likes to be wrong.  Plus, if you've invested a lot of time, effort, and emotional energy into a theory, acknowledging that your logic had gone off the rails would be humiliating at best.

I was chatting with a student yesterday, and the subject of Crystal Skulls came up.  For those of you who don't know about these, they are skulls made of crystal (duh) that are said to have been made in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  Aficionados of woo-woo imbue these artifacts with a variety of mystical powers, including the healing of the sick, and "focusing psychic energy" to allow the sensitive to receive premonitions of the future.  Another legend is that there are thirteen Crystal Skulls, and they will all be reunited in December of 2012 for the festivities, celebrations, and complete obliteration of the human race that is predicted for the end of the Mayan calendar cycle.  (Admit it, as soon as you saw the word "Mesoamerica" you knew that 2012 and the Mayan calendar had to be involved somehow.)

In any case, the young man with whom I was talking was relating a conversation he'd had with another student, who is apparently an ardent believer in all of this stuff.  So, the skeptical student and SkullBoy had a conversation which went something like this:

Skeptic:  You really believe all that crap about the Crystal Skulls?

SkullBoy:  Yeah!  They were made of solid crystal, before anyone had any power tools or anything, and crystal is so hard it can't be cut.  So they must have had some kind of alien technology.

Skeptic:  Or, possibly, they're fakes.

SkullBoy:  They're in museums!  They've been analyzed!

Skeptic:  ... aaaaand, they could be fakes.  And in any case, even if they are genuine, there's no way they have any psychic powers.

SkullBoy:  The ancients knew all sorts of things we didn't know.  Like the pyramids!  How could the Egyptians have built the pyramids without any sort of machinery?

Skeptic:  It's called "slave labor."  If you have millions of slaves, and a bunch of guys with whips to keep them in line, you can accomplish damn near anything.

And so on and so forth.  Needless to say, SkullBoy never was convinced; every comment that the skeptical student made was answered with a side-step, red herring, or rationalization.  (In point of fact, the most famous of the Crystal Skulls, the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, currently owned by a private collector in Indiana, has been conclusively shown to be a fake -- microanalysis of the surface shows grooves that were almost certainly cut with a rotary power tool, and there are inclusions in the quartz that match crystals only found in Madagascar -- which would have been kind of difficult to obtain in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  The artifact was almost certainly carved in the 19th century.)

The whole thing is reminiscent of the whole idiotic "birther" controversy.  The claim that President Obama was not born in the United States, which has simmered on for several years, was put to rest a few days ago when Obama released his long-form birth certificate showing that he was born in Honolulu, as he'd always claimed.  The fact is, it should have been put to rest ages ago, when newspaper announcements, eyewitnesses, and a short-form certificate were produced.  But when someone has a cherished theory, it takes more than a bunch of silly facts to convince them.  Orly Taitz, the "Birther Queen," who seems to have the IQ of rock salt, and Donald Trump, whose thought processes have probably been disrupted by the mangy weasel clinging to his scalp, have managed to keep this ridiculous claim in the news.

Of course, now that the long-form birth certificate was released, Taitz and Trump have been effectively silenced.  Taitz said, "Wow.  I have wasted so much time and money and effort on this, and I see now that I was wrong."  Trump told reporters for Fox News, "It would have been so much better had I focused on the issues rather than on such a ridiculous blind alley as questioning Obama's citizenship."  Even Trump's weasel gave a sickly little squeak of humiliation.

Ha-ha!  I just made up the entire preceding paragraph.  There is nothing on earth that will make idiots like Trump and Taitz give up.  If you invented a time machine, and took them back to Honolulu in 1961, and brought them into the hospital and had them witness Obama's mother giving birth, they would claim that they were witnessing a decoy who looked just like Mrs. Obama, rather like the Princess Amidala clones in The Phantom Menace.  Apparently now they are implying that the birth certificate is a fake, that there's some problem with the number of the certificate being higher than those for babies born after Obama, and that in 1961 they would have put down his father's race as "Negro" or "Black" and not "African." 

I would like to think that deep in their heart of hearts, Trump and Taitz know they've been proven wrong, and are just hanging on because it would be pretty embarrassing to admit it at this point.  But honestly, I think it's worse than that.  I think they're a little like SkullBoy; so invested in their belief about how the world works that they will explain away anything that contradicts it.  Of course, the difference between them and SkullBoy is that SkullBoy is not running for president, nor being given time on national television to broadcast his ideas.

I keep hoping that people will eventually get fed up enough with this anti-logical nonsense, and say to Trump, "You're fired.  Your weasel, too."  But for some reason, everything he does just seems to make him more popular.  The whole thing leaves me feeling like banging my head on the wall, but that wouldn't really accomplish anything.  I will say, though, that if Trump ends up being elected president in 2012, I will begin to believe in Mayan prophecies of the end of civilization.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Attractive paranoia

I know two people who are major conspiracy theorists.

One of them believes he's being persecuted by the folks at his place of employment, that they're getting together and deliberately making his life difficult because "they all" disagree with his political and religious beliefs.  He seriously believes that the ordinary, average folks he works with are meeting in secret to try to find new and devious ways to make him miserable.  "Why would they do that?"  I ask.  "Because of who I am," he answers, with no trace of irony.

The other one is more of a global conspiracy type -- there's this Shadow Government run by the CEOs of the Big Corporations, and they have Big Secret Plans for World Domination.  (This guy always speaks in Capital Letters.)  He's a major fan of "Zeitgeist," believes there are secret plans for a One World Government, thinks that the CIA is putting mind-control chemicals into jet fuel so we get zombified whenever there's a jet contrail, and thinks that there are Men in Black who make dissenters disappear.  Say the words "New World Order" in his presence, and he gets really serious, and looks around to see if anyone overheard.  And of course, when you point out that there's no evidence whatsoever for a Global Conspiracy, he just raises his eyebrow coyly and smiles, as if to say, "Of course there's no evidence.  You don't think they'd just leave evidence hanging around, do you?  These guys are good."

I'm willing to believe that the second guy has just watched too many episodes of The X Files, but it does make me wonder why conspiracy theories are so appealing.  As strange as it sounds, there's a certain attraction to paranoia.  People want there to be a huge master plan behind everything -- sinister or otherwise -- because, I think, it's more satisfying and reassuring that there is a plan.  It's a little disconcerting to think that the universe is just kinda random, that things happen because they happen, and most people are just helpless dorks with no more intentionality than billiard balls bouncing off each other.  I mean, I like The X Files as much as the next guy, but honestly I think the universe is much more like a cosmic Mr. Magoo episode.

Robert Heinlein said, "Never attribute to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity."  I'd add to that that most people don't have the time or interest to conspire.  Conspiracy takes so much effort.  The first guy I mentioned -- the one thinks that his coworkers are out to get him -- would probably be appalled if he knew how little time and energy his coworkers actually spend thinking about him.  Sorry, buddy, you're not the victim of a conspiracy -- "who you are" is just not that important.  Most of your coworkers spend more time daily thinking about what to have for dinner that night than they do thinking about ways to make your life miserable.

Also, there's just the practical aspect of it.  Conspiracies are hard to manage, because face it, people like to gossip.  Plus, my own version of Murphy's Law is that the overall IQ and efficiency of a group is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group.  Our government isn't so much evil as it is ridiculous -- Congress as 535 Keystone Kops running about, banging into each other, falling down, and having the occasional sex scandal, all overseen by President Magoo, whose job is to keep people believing the pleasant myth that the government has got a handle on everything.

It's not that the government, or corporations, don't do bad things.  They do -- sometimes really bad ones.  But there's nothing more behind it than simple human greed and power-hungriness and dumbassery, with the occasional plot that is usually about as successful as Watergate.  The rest of the world just keeps going on, doing what people do, and rolling our eyes at how absurd it all is.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I saw the light

We had a hellacious thunderstorm last night, the remnants of which are still growling their way to the east of us, which is probably why I was thinking this morning about the subject of Lights in the Sky.

The topic had also come up a few days ago in a conversation with a student, a young man who shares my skeptical outlook.  He showed me a video montage he'd found on YouTube of recent UFO sightings, and laughingly described a conversation he'd had with a friend who evidently liked the "alien spacecraft" hypothesis so much that he needed some reminding of what the "U" in "UFO" stands for.  In any case, I decided to do a little research regarding mysterious lights.

Now, allow me to state up front that although several of these are as-yet unexplained, I strongly believe that they all have perfectly natural explanations.  The rush to attribute any odd phenomenon to the paranormal is a tendency I've blogged about before, and I wouldn't want anyone to interpret my love of a mystery as an unwarranted attribution of these occurrences to ghosts, demons, or Little Green Men.

That disclaimer made, here are a few examples of odd light phenomena that I found out about.  I've included links for each of them that you should peruse if you want more information.

The Hessdalen Light has been seen since the 1940s in the valley of Hessdalen in Norway.  It's a stationary, bright white or yellow light, floating above the ground, sometimes remaining visible for over an hour.  With such a cooperative phenomenon, you would think it would be easily explained; but despite the efforts of scientists, who have been studying the Hessdalen Light for decades, there is yet to be a convincing explanation.  Hypotheses abound: that it is the combustion of dust from the valley floor; that it is a stable plasma, ionized by the decay of radon from minerals in the valley; or even that it is an electrical discharge from piezoelectric compression of quartz crystals in the underlying rock.  None of these is completely convincing, and the Hessdalen Light remains one of the most puzzling natural phenomena I know of.

Similarly peculiar are the Brown Mountain Lights, near Brown Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.  These brightly-colored lights have been seen since the early 20th century, usually hovering near the horizon, and skeptics have claimed that they are the headlights of a train or automobiles, as there is a highway and a train track fairly near to the site where the lights are most often seen.  However, when a flood washed out the train overpass and rendered the highway impassable, the lights continued to be seen.  They're still seen today, apparently most commonly between September and November.

Likely to be a combination of lights from a highway and an atmospheric condition are the Paulding Lights, of Paulding, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This phenomenon is the subject of a variety of YouTube videos (search for "Paulding Lights" and you'll find a bunch), and in fact became the topic of an episode of Fact or Faked: The Paranormal Files on the Syfy Channel.  The FOF people, as you might predict, concluded that it was "unexplained."  However, after doing some digging myself, I found that researchers had concluded that the mysterious lights seen near Paulding were due to automobile headlights refracting through an inversion layer -- a layer of cool air near the ground bounded by warmer air above.  So I will respectfully disagree with the investigators on FOF and place this one in the file labeled "Probably Solved."

The Gurdon Light, of Gurdon, Arkansas, is one that has a lot of supernatural folklore attached to it.  It's a bobbing light seen in a wooded area near railroad tracks, and the legend is that it is a lantern held by a ghostly man who had been killed by a train.  Needless to say, I'm not buying that, and the information I found indicates that this one is fairly poorly documented -- leading me to surmise that it can be explained by nothing more than the overactive imagination of the superstitious.  Nonetheless, Gurdon remains a popular destination -- on Halloween.

Lastly, we return to Norway for what is in my opinion the best documented of these occurrences -- the Norwegian Spiral Anomaly of 2009.  (Do check out this link, which has excellent photographs and video of this strange and beautiful phenomenon.)  On the 9th of December in 2009, thousands of people all over central Norway took photographs and video footage of a spiral light in the sky, with a blue-green filament coming from its center, that opened out into a black hole.  Naturally, there was a rush to explain it as visitation by aliens, or as a physics experiment gone very wrong that had resulted in the formation of an actual black hole. A more conventional explanation -- that it was a spiral vapor trail left by a failed flight of a Russian Bulava missile -- is only partially convincing; there was a missile test that day, and simulations of the pattern made by the ignited fuel from a spinning missile did form a spiral pattern, but the Spiral Anomaly looked essentially the same from all observation points, and this would not be true if it had been a missile vapor trail (some people would have seen it center-on, others from the side, etc.).  In my mind, it's still a mystery, and remains one of the most recorded, and most perplexing, light phenomena I've ever heard of.

So, there you have it; some reasons to keep your eye on the sky.  And even if I'm in no rush to attribute any of these to spirits or alien spacecraft, I have to admit that they are intriguing.  And there's something in all of us that loves a good mystery, isn't there?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oh, look, it's Kate. "Squee."

I am puzzled by people who are attracted by celebrities.  Now, don't get me wrong; I can appreciate a fine singer or actor, and enjoy his or her work greatly, but I can't really imagine jumping up and down and saying "squee" if (s)he walked into the room.  (Those of my readers who know me well would, I suspect, have a hard time imagining my saying "squee" about anything.)

And yet, this seems to be a common reaction.  Witness the current furor over the marriage of Prince William of England and Kate Middleton, an event about which I frankly don't give a flying... um, well, let's just leave it at "I don't care much."  And yet, every time some earthshattering news release comes from the happy couple ("Kate reveals that on the morning of the wedding, she will breakfast on a cheese-and-onion omelet") it results in multiple orgasms among the members of the press.  And before you say "well, that's just because the press is made up of a bunch of sensation-seeking paparazzi," remember that someone's got to be reading this stuff.  If no one had an appetite for what the press was serving, they'd pretty quickly find something else to serve.

Then, just yesterday, we get the announcement that Levi Johnston has written a tell-all book about his relationship with his erstwhile future mother-in-law Sarah Palin, called A Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin's Crosshairs.  Well, "written" may be inaccurate -- I suspect this one will have a cover that will say,

BY LEVI JOHNSTON with a little bit of help from Reginald Hockinblatt

Levi Johnston, you will recall, is the young man who knocked up Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, and then became even more notorious when he displayed the equipment he'd used in the escapade in Playgirl magazine.   Now, he has announced that he is publishing this book to tell the true story of his dealings with the Palin family, and that he is doing it for "his son... and his country."

This claim is, of course, absurd.  Levi's son (whose name is Tripp, following the naming tradition for boys in the Palin family of starting with "t" and having one syllable; the others are Track, Trig, Tink, Toot, and Thud) is still a baby, and presumably cares even less than I do about his father's exposĂ©.  As far as his doing it for his country, I suppose that this is partially true; he's doing it so that his country will buy the book and give him money.

Once again, I'm not faulting Levi, nor even the press, for this; I more wonder who on earth will be willing to spend twenty bucks to buy this book.  Our appetite for celebrities, even when the celebrity appears (as is the case with Levi Johnston) to have no particular skill at anything, is boundless, and to me, boundlessly perplexing.

Whatever drives this desire, it seems to be very strong in many people.  As far as why the fixation on celebrities exists in the first place, I can only speculate that it may have something to do with our need to have heroes.  I don't mean this in the all-powerful superhero sense; more, people who are somehow larger than life, who make us yearn for more than we have (even if that "something more" is merely money or fame).  People care about what happens to famous figures because they represent our aspirations, our failed dreams about what we could have accomplished if we'd only had that big break.

I think it's only been in the past fifty years or so that the concept of "hero" has coalesced with the concept of "celebrity."  Before the Age of Television, I think most people who had heroes looked up to someone smart, strong, courageous -- a leader, a historical or religious figure who inspired.  Some people still have heroes of the older type, but many more people today look up to famous actors, musicians, or sports stars.  And when they fall from grace -- witness the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is Charlie Sheen -- people are dismayed, as if somehow being an actor also by necessity came along with being a decent person.

I've never been much of a hero worshiper.  My heroes, such as they are, are people of simple and straightforward intellectual courage -- people like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins.  But even with the people I admire, I have never expected them to be perfect.  As an example, Sagan was a brilliant exponent of the importance of making science attractive to non-scientists, but by all accounts was personally an arrogant and aloof man.  Why is this surprising?  Aren't all people combinations of positive and negative personality traits?  Does his arrogance devalue his contributions in other regards?  Why would I even need him to be some kind of superhuman?

There is a deep human need -- stronger in some people than in others -- to have larger-than-life figures to follow.  If they're rich, famous, and handsome or beautiful, then so much the better.  We need them to be what we're not, I suppose.  We're distressed when it comes out that they have faults,  but no worries -- the media will provide others, hundreds of others, for us to read about and dream about and lust after.  And if today we find out that Kate has decided that the Wedding Day Breakfast will include grapefruit juice, it will be sure to make a great many people say "squee."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The "Don't Say Gay" bill

New from the "Let's Ignore Reality, Maybe It Will Go Away" department, Republicans in Tennessee are backing a bill that would prevent teachers up through ninth grade from mentioning homosexuality.

Because, after all, that's how that works, right?  A kid in third grade hears someone say the word "gay."  He says, "What's that mean?"  A teacher says, "It's when a man is attracted to another man."  Fast forward to eighth grade, and the kid is going through puberty, and suddenly remembers what the teacher said, and thinks, "Wow!  Gay!  I remember that!  I think I'll be attracted to guys!"  And suddenly, there he is, a flaming homosexual because of what a teacher said.

I am frequently appalled at how politics has become a fact-free zone.  Let's look at the facts, okay?  If the tacit assumption behind this bill is correct -- that kids exposed to information about homosexuals are more likely to be homosexuals themselves -- then you'd think that children raised by gay or lesbian parents would be the most likely to be homosexual, because not only do they know about it, they live with a couple who is openly expressing that orientation.  And you know what, Bigoted Morons Of Tennessee United?  That turns out to be untrue.  Children of gay or lesbian parents have exactly the same likelihood of being gay or lesbian themselves as the background population.

But you don't really care, do you?  Because that's not really what this is about.  This is about marginalizing and dehumanizing a group that you really detest.  The facts don't matter; this is the political version of "la-la-la-la, not listening."  If you were forced to reconsider your basic assumption -- that homosexuality is no more a choice than heterosexuality is -- then you would kind of have to revamp your whole position, wouldn't you?  And there's no way you'll do that.

And they can't really come out and call it "The Marginalization of Homosexuality Bill."  So it's been given a sanitized name; the "Family Life Curriculum Bill."  Which is worse on a number of levels, because it implies that gays and lesbians can't be a family.  It's like the "Defense of Marriage" Bills that continue to cause rancor in a number of states -- the implication is that we have to Defend Marriage, because if we allow homosexuals to marry, the entire institution will crumble, and pretty soon straight men will be rushing out, zombie-like, to marry other men, and eventually you'd have people tying the knot with various species of marine invertebrates.

Where does all of this anti-gay rhetoric come from?  The bottom line for most of these folks is the biblical prohibition of a "man lying with another man," from Leviticus.  Well, you know what?  If you are getting your morality from the bible, you'd better read more carefully.   How about the following examples of high-flung morality?  Genocide, including the killing of children, pregnant women, and the elderly, as commanded by god (Joshua 6:21 is only one of a number of examples).   A deity whose representative on earth, the "holy man" Elisha, summoned two bears to kill forty-two children who had teased him about being bald (2 Kings 2:23-24).  A law commanding a woman who had been raped to marry the rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).  A direct statement that women should not teach, nor have any authority over men, and in fact should be silent (1 Timothy 2:11-14).  And so on and on.

So, to put it succinctly; what we have here is people using a document that, if it were actually followed to the letter, would sanction slavery, rape, genocide, and subjugation of women, being used as the justification for ignoring a group of people into nonexistence because of something that is entirely outside of their control.  The people who use the bible to defend a political stance can't be consistent; when it comes to biblical laws that would allow the mistreatment of their own wives and daughters, when it comes to god sanctioning the cold-blooded murder of children, they just close their eyes to most of the uncomfortable passages.  But the stuff about homosexuality?  Gays and lesbians are already a minority, a group that is marginalized in many ways, so they make an easy target, and give the holier-than-thou crowd a way to indulge their bigotry while claiming that all they're doing is following god's word.

The elaborate game of Let's Pretend currently going on in Tennessee will have only one effect that I can see; further relegating gay and lesbian teens to the fringe.  And speaking of ignorance of the facts; homosexual young adults have one of the highest risks of suicide of any demographic.  If they are now to be subjected to the additional indignity of nine years of "You Don't Exist," I can't imagine that number will do anything but increase.

And the kicker?  The whole thing is being cast as being about "moral behavior."  All I can say is that if you think this legislation is moral, you have a far different definition of the word than I do.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Good vibrations

My stance as a skeptic sometimes makes me something of a magnet for wackos.  There are the earnest types who are driven nuts by the fact that I scoff at their favorite brand of nonsense (homeopathy, ghosts, and conspiracy theories seem to be favorites).  And then there are the ones who find my blog because Google keyword searches seem to pick up on words like "psychic" and "haunting" and miss important words like "ridiculous" and "bullshit."

As an example of the latter, my blog was linked yesterday by Christie Marie Sheldon, who has a website called "Love or Above."  With some trepidation I will include a link to her site (here), but for those of you who would prefer not to look at it and thereby murder scores of valuable brain cells, I will include a summary of its main points.

The headline says, "Are your vibrations helping or hurting you?"  This is followed up by: "Your personal vibration frequency could be the ONE thing holding you back from abundance,  happiness, and success.  Discover how to raise it, so you can finally start living from the vibration of Love or Above."

Allow me to interject that in the interest of keeping this PG-13 rated, I will consider the obvious joke about "Personal Love Vibrations" to be already made, and we will move on.

Christie's website then goes on to say, "Ever notice how some uncannily lucky people can almost effortlessly attract good things into their lives?"  These people, she claims, are leaders, have opportunities at work, good relationships, and a healthy attitude toward money.  Myself, I just figured that people like this were smart and well-adjusted, but no:  it's because they have a personal energy vibration score, not to mention probably a credit rating, of over 700.

All emotions, Christie explains, vibrate at a particular frequency.  Shame, for example, vibrates at a frequency of 20.  (At this point, I was shouting at the computer screen, "20 what?  Hertz?  Megahertz?  Pounds per square inch?  Fluid ounces?  Fathoms per decade?  Where are the damn units?"  This caused my border collie, Doolin, who has the impression that she is personally responsible for the entire household, to slink around looking highly ashamed herself, and presumably "vibrating at a frequency of 20.")  Apathy vibrates at 50, Desire at 125, Anger at 150.  Then we move on to more positive emotions; Willingness is 310, Acceptance is 350, and so on.  She says, if you vibrate at 1000, you are an "Enlightened Master."  I guess that at that point, you're vibrating as fast as you possibly could.  Any faster and you might just vanish in a flash of Psychic Aura Energy, or something.

She goes on to explain that the vibrational energy of the Earth, at the moment, registers at 207 on her Cosmic Vibration-o-Meter.  This is somewhere between "Courage" and "Neutrality."  So, basically, most people average out at somewhere between "Yes, I can!" and "Meh."  Which seems about right, frankly.  But then she says that we should all be vibrating at 500 or above, because 500 is the frequency of "Vibrations of Love." 

As proof of how personal love vibrations work, she presents two experiments done by people we should automatically believe because they have "Dr." in front of their names.  Dr. William Braud, of the "Mind-Science Foundation" in San Antonio, Texas, found that he could extend the life spans of red blood cells by having the owners of these red blood cells "think positive thoughts about them."  And Dr. Masaru Emoto did an experiment in which he sent a variety of positive or negative emotional thoughts into glasses of water, and then froze the water, and he found that the happy water made pretty, symmetrical crystals, and the unhappy water made disorganized, ugly crystals.  Christie then asks us a poignant question:  since our body is full of red blood cells and water, what kind of damage could we be doing to ourselves with negative thoughts?  The implications are staggering.  I don't know about you, but if I ever froze to death, I would definitely want the water in my body to form attractive-looking crystals.  Think of the humiliation if at my funeral, my friends and family said, "I guess it's just as well he died.  Did you see those butt-ugly ice crystals?  He must have been vibrating at 180 or lower."

She ends, of course, with a sales pitch for her program, the "Love or Above Energetic Breakthrough Kit."  To show how awesome it is, she displays a photograph of herself at an event that I swear I am not making up:  The Awesomeness Fest 2010.  There are further details, including descriptions of a technique called "Space Cleansing," but at that point my remaining brain cells were crying for mercy so I had to stop looking at the website.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard, being a skeptic, that people want to convince you.  After all, the word "skeptic" implies that there's a chance you might be swayed.  This is, in fact, true; but the difficulty, of course, is that what sways a skeptic is empirical evidence, or failing that, at least a logical argument.  When you have neither, all you have is a severe case of Doubt, which vibrates at a frequency of around 110.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Who you gonna call?

One of my (many) pet peeves is people claiming a scientific basis for something, and then their explanation indicates that they really have no understanding of the science they're citing.

An oft-quoted example is the way purveyors of the woo-woo liberally drizzle words like "quantum" all over everything.  I've seen ads for "quantum-activated bracelets," whatever the hell that means.  They often follow it up with ridiculous pseudo-explanations about how quantum physics teaches us that nothing is certain, that anything is possible, and that energy fields exist, and therefore if you buy our bracelet ($39.99 US, plus shipping and handling), you can harness quantum energy fields to realize your true possibilities.

The problem is, if you don't have much scientific training, which unfortunately a great many Americans don't, you might actually be suckered in by something like this.  Funny how people will spend their hard-earned cash to buy a useless item because of an advertisement that sounds "scientific," but when actual scientists present their actual conclusions based on actual logic and actual hard evidence, such as with evolution and climate change, many people just go, "Damn pointy-headed, pocket-protector-wearing nerds.  Whadda they know?"  And then they go back to watching advertisements for "quantum-activated bracelets" on the Shopping Channel.

I bring all of this up because of a recent feature article in our local newspaper, The Ithaca Journal.  The article was written by Steven Brewer, founding member of Paranormal Investigators of Central New York, and was a thinly-disguised attempt to drum up business from the credulous.  PICNY (visit their website here), based in Auburn, has as its mission "to help the people being effected [sic] by (a) haunting better understand what is happening to them and help them address it."  Most of the article was what you'd expect -- anecdotal reports of lights being found on when the people in question "knew they'd been turned off," fuzzy voices on a recording made in an empty house, a ball rolling across a table "when no one had pushed it."  (This last one happens to my wife and I all the time, but it's because our house was built in such a way that there is not a single straight line, level surface, or right angle anywhere.  The words "square" and "plumb" were not in the vocabulary of the builders of this house.)

In any case, Brewer goes on to explain how scientific his operation is:  "PICNY does approach the paranormal with a scientific mindset and we go into every investigation trying to debunk any claims of activity, we even try to debunk our own experiences inside the location. We do this mostly because there are many things that are believed to be paranormal in nature but are in fact natural such as the feeling of being watched. This is caused by EMF or Electro-Magnetic Fields which are given off by the Earth as well as old or improperly wired electronics. The claims and experiences that we cannot reasonably debunk are classified as being paranormal in nature."

It's a wonder he didn't throw in the word "quantum."  Yes, the Earth has an electromagnetic field.  Quite a large one, in fact.  Without it, it would be damned hard to get a compass to work.  Yes, electronic equipment generates an electromagnetic field.  That's how they work; note the use of the word "electronic" in "electronic equipment."   And from this he accounts for our "feeling of being watched?"  If this explanation was correct, we'd constantly feel like we were being watched, because we're constantly immersed in the Earth's electromagnetic field, and most of us are around electrical equipment all the time.  In fact, rather few of us feel watched all the time, and those few are generally referred to as "paranoid" and are referred for psychiatric evaluation.

You'd think that, given that the previous paragraph requires an understanding of physics equal to that of your average 7th grader, people would immediately frown upon reading these claims and say, "Well, these guys certainly sound like a bunch of nimrods."  Sadly, that is not the case.  I just looked at PICNY's Facebook page (of course they have a Facebook page) and since the article came out, it's been "liked" 214 times.  I saw, in fact, a post on their page that said, "I just read the article about what you're doing, and I wanted to let you know that I'm a reporter who tags along on paranormal investigations for the field experience, contact me if you'd like to connect."  There you have it, folks -- the true purpose of social media: to bring together wackos.

I would be remiss in not pointing out another, and subtler, problem with the paragraph I quoted above; and that's in the last sentence, where they state that anything they cannot "reasonably debunk" is classified as being paranormal.  Now, the difficulty with an investigation like this is how prone it is to confirmation bias.  Investigators who come in, billing themselves as "paranormal researchers," who clearly believe in the supernatural, and whose reputations rely on successfully finding ghosts and hauntings and so on, are going to have a clear bias toward interpreting whatever they see or hear as evidence of the paranormal.  Anything that happens -- a noise, a movement of air, a "feeling of being watched" -- is very likely to be unquestioningly accepted as having a supernatural cause.

The whole idea of "if we can't explain it, it must be paranormal" is contrary to the scientific way of thinking right from the get-go, and yet it's a fairly common theme you hear from people who accept the supernatural.  It is especially pervasive amongst the religious; Richard Dawkins calls it the "god of the gaps" approach.  "If we can't explain it, then god must have done it."  A scientist does not need to label the parts of nature (s)he hasn't yet explained as either "paranormal" or "spiritual."   Science's approach is, "if we can't explain it, we can't explain it -- yet."  You gain nothing in understanding by labeling everything we have yet to comprehend fully as supernatural.

And, for crying out loud, if you're going to try to use science to support your position, get the freakin' science right.  If you get the science wrong, all you do is make yourself look like a dunderhead, even if you do manage to convince a few other dunderheads along the way.  To once again quote Dawkins: "Ignorance of facts is not evidence of fiction."

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Reports are coming in from Steytlerville, a small town in the Karoo District of South Africa, of a shapeshifting monster terrorizing residents.

Local warrant officer Zandisile Nelani said, "The community says that the monster changes shape while you are looking at it."  He went on to say that the monster had started out as a man in a suit, but had changed to a pig and then to a bat.  He hastened to add that although the creature had scared a number of residents, no people or livestock had been harmed by it.

Besides being reminded, against my will, of the "ManBearPig" episode of South Park, of course I started looking through my top-secret Cryptozoology Files to see if there's anything that could explain it other than (1) someone playing an elaborate prank, (2) the eyewitnesses having consumed large quantities of booze, or (3) both.  And, lo and behold, there is.

There is a long-standing South African tradition of a creature called the Thokolozi (or Tokoloshe) which matches the description of our mysterious ManBatPig.  On the surface, the resemblance seems slim, as the Thokolozi most often appears as a brown-skinned man, hairy all over, with only one buttock.  This last feature seems a little odd, and makes me wonder if he only has a right butt cheek, only a left one, or just one huge symmetrically-placed butt cheek, the last-mentioned option bringing up other anatomical considerations that I would prefer not to think about.  Another characteristic of the Thokolozi is that he is said to be very well-endowed in the reproductive equipment department.  Without going into graphic detail, let's just say that he is well-endowed to the point that tighty-whities would be pretty much out of the question.  Between that and having only one buttock, getting fitted at the tailor's must be a fairly humiliating experience, and possibly accounts for his legendary ill temper.

So we have here one very odd-looking dude.  But the key feature that identifies our mystery creature at Steytlerville as the Thokolozi is his shapeshifting ability.  The Thokolozi carries around with him a magic pebble that allows him to become invisible, but he is said to be able to take the shape of many different animals, and also to fly.  So I think we have a definite match.

What should the inhabitants of Steytlerville do?  One possibility is to make a Thokolozi Repellant, but the problem is that the recipe I found requires Thokolozi fat.  Obtaining that would seem to be a bit of a stumbling block, although one site I looked at said that it might be purchased from a muti, or purveyor of traditional medicine.  You can also appease the Thokolozi by putting out food for him, but you must remember not to put salt in it; he apparently shares with many European spirit creatures the characteristic of not liking salt.  Sometimes witches subdue a Thokolozi, and keep him around for their own purposes, about which I will leave you to speculate.  They do this by a combination of magic and luring him with food, and keep him docile by "trimming the hair over his eyes."

So the good news for the people of Steytlerville is that Thokolozis mostly seem fairly harmless, and just like to scare people but don't actually harm anyone.  The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be much they can do about his presence.  They only have two choices, as far as I can see:  either to put out food to appease a magical spirit with large genitals and one buttock, or to lay off the booze and then do a house-to-house search for some prankster who has a suit, a pig costume, and large fake bat wings.

I know which one I think would be more effective.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tea? Water? Blood? Ram cutlets?

Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, it's been a busy week.

First, we have news from far-off Kyrgyzstan, that their attempts to establish a parliamentary democracy have kind of gone off the rails.  The new government, elected just last October, has had some difficulty in coming to consensus.  In fact, last month a senior government official resigned temporarily in frustration, but was persuaded to return when it appeared that the government was on the verge of collapse.

So, put yourself in their shoes -- they are, for the first time in their history, conducting the noble experiment of a democratic government, and due to factionalism and sheer stubbornness, the whole thing seems to be coming unraveled.  What do you do?

What you do, of course, is slaughter some rams to banish the evil spirits.

Which is what they did.  Right on the front lawn of the parliament building.  Leaving us here at WWW kind of speechless, honestly.  My only question is, did they suddenly forget what century it was?

Then, we have news from Italy that a pair of perfume makers, Antonio Zuddas and Giovanni Castelli, are releasing a new line of perfumes that are intended to match your blood type.

"Blood Concept is just a celebration of human life through an interpretation of its evolutionary process," Zuddas said.  "To be more accurate, it's an interpretation of the evolution of our most important element, the blood in our veins."

Apparently, each scent is supposed to match the "essence" of the blood type.  So, the next time the doctor is doing blood type matching for you, to hell with those silly serum antigens and so on.  If they want to know if you're type B, they should simply titer your blood for traces of black cherry, pomegranate and patchouli.

The story, unfortunately, doesn't end there.  A fellow calling himself Merticus, who is a founding member of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (I am not making this up) says he is eager to use the perfumes, and is especially fond of type O.  He didn't say if he meant the scent, or the actual blood.

Not all vampires are so, um, sanguine, however.  Meredith Woerner, a New York City vampirologist, said, "It's cheesy.  It's chintzy.  It's not their style. I can't imagine a real vampire would be that enticed by fake blood.  In fact, if they detected the scent of it, it might make you more of a target for a mercy killing."

Which just leaves me with one question: how do you learn to become a vampirologist?  Do colleges have departments of vampirology, from which you could get a degree?  It's not like vampires actually exist, with apologies to Merticus and the other wingnuts at the Atlanta Vampire Alliance.  So could you become a unicornologist?  A centaurologist?  A dragonologist?  On the other hand, Woerner seems to take the whole thing pretty seriously, so maybe I shouldn't scoff, or make bad puns about how spending your time studying vampires would be all in vein.

Okay, right.  In other news of beverages, we have a story in from China that a tea plantation in Gushi is advertising for buxom virgins to harvest tea using only their lips.  Prospective harvesters have to have "large breasts, no sexual experience, and no visible scars or birthmarks."

You would think that any newspaper advertisement looking for women with the aforementioned characteristics wouldn't be wanting them to harvest tea.  But strangely enough, that's exactly what they are after.

Li Yong, a spokesman for the Jiuhua Tea Plantation, said: "It is much harder work than it looks.  They have to cleanse themselves completely before they start working and perform a special exercise program to build up their necks and lips."

I have to admit to some curiosity about how you do exercises to "build up your lips," but Mr. Li was not forthcoming about that aspect of the job.

The tea thus harvested, which is understandably very expensive, is supposed to invoke fairies, which rise to the sky when the tea is brewed.  (Fairyology as a career?  Nah, never mind.)  The tea is then supposed to cure diseases, including, presumably, the curse of having too much money and too little brains.

Lastly, if blood or "lip tea" don't do it for you, we are finding advertisements for a relatively new health fad, and that's drinking "ionized" or "alkalinized" water.  You buy a machine (they run upwards of $40 at most of the sites I looked at) which runs an electrical current through the water, and this is supposed to "apply electromagnetic forces" to the water molecules, "ionizing them, and activating them as a powerful antioxidant."  The sites claim that "drinking acidic water is known by medical science to cause many ailments, such as obesity, heart problems, and high blood pressure."

Funny, I thought obesity was caused by eating too much and exercising too little, but what do I know?

One of many problems with this claim is that you can't ionize pure water.  If you run a current through it, it will break down (very slowly, because pure water is a crummy conductor of electricity) into hydrogen and oxygen.  Since any pH change (alkalinity or acidity) is caused by having an imbalance of hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, you can't do it by electrolysis; you're getting rid of the oxygen and hydrogen at the same rate, so when you're done, you still have pure water (pH = 7).

Secondly, if "drinking acidic water" is dangerous to health, you have to wonder why I don't drop dead after having my morning orange juice (pH = 5 or so).  And because our stomach juices are highly acidic (pH = 1.5), we should all just immediately melt, or something.

So once again, this seems to simply be a way to relieve the gullible of their cash, which has been something of a theme in today's post.

And that's all the news here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  How fortunate for you that you have WWW's vigilant investigative staff (made up of myself and my extremely vigilant dogs, Doolin and Grendel) to ferret out breaking stories!  As always, our watchword around here is:  All The News That's Fit To Guffaw At.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's not in the cards

I own two decks of Tarot cards.

I hasten to explain, before I have to (in the words of a friend of mine) turn in my Skeptic Badge, that these cards combine being a relic of the credulousness of my Foolish and Misspent Youth with a pure love of the artistry of the cards.  They're beautiful, especially my Art Nouveau deck, whose images remind me of one of my favorite artists, Maxfield Parrish.

A Tarot deck, for those of you not acquainted with these tools for using The Psychic Interconnectedness of Being to extract money from the gullible, is comprised of 78 cards.  There 56 minor arcana, which are broken up into suits, numbers, and face cards, rather like a regular deck of playing cards, but with different suits (cups, swords, pentacles, and wands) and with an additional face card (kings, queens, knights, and pages, the last-mentioned of which corresponds to the jack of a standard card deck).  There are also 22 major arcana, each of which has a name and an image -- The Magician, The Fool, The Moon, The Sun, The Coffee Maker, etc.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But some of the other ones are just as weird.  How about "The Falling Tower?"  "The Hanged Man?"  "Judgment?"  This last one shows people crawling out of open graves.  So I'm to be excused, I think, if I prefer the image of a Coffee Maker.

Anyhow, the whole idea is, the cards are dealt out face down in a cross-shaped affair, and then turned up one at a time and interpreted.  The position of the card in the cross determines what facet of your life it applies to -- the past, the present, the future, your work life, your worries, your love life, and so on.  It matters whether the card is right side up or upside down (unlike standard playing cards, these cards are not reversible).

And of course, you can't just have any old person analyze them for you. The reader has to somehow be attuned to you psychically.  According to a website I looked at called The Tarot Explained, "As the reader lays down the cards they also receive ideas and impressions in their subconscious that helps them answer your question. They are not simply looking at the pictures and giving you the answers. It is through special combinations that they are able to give you the information you seek."

The problem is, there's our old friend the Dart-Thrower's Bias at work here; during readings, people are very much more likely to notice the hits and ignore the misses when they are given such "information," especially if the reader has an air of authority (which in this case might consist of flowing purple robes and a turban).  Interestingly, there was a study done on Tarot readings by Itai Ivtzan and Christopher French in 2004, and test subjects were unable to tell the difference between "real" Tarot readings and readings done from cards randomly selected by a computer.  Most tellingly, people who believed in Tarot divination fared worse in this test than the average background population did.

So anyhow, it looks like accuracy-wise, Tarot readings fare no better than dowsing and crystal balls and palmistry and so on.  It's a shame, because the images in some decks are really quite mysterious and beautiful.  Except for "Judgment."  Try as I might, I'm still not into the whole open grave thing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Many people" report alien sightings in Siberia!

Apparently, if you're an alien, Siberia is the place to be.  Who'da thought?  Me, if I was an alien, capable of traveling through interstellar space in my flying saucer and presumably landing wherever I wanted, I'd pick somewhere rather nicer, not to mention warmer.  Availability of margaritas would also be a consideration, as would the presence of scantily-clad women.  So I find it a bit peculiar that you never see aliens in, for example, Cozumel.

But for whatever reason, Siberia seems to be the happenin' place, for aliens.  Back in 2007, there was the discovery of some quartz rocks with "mysterious inscriptions" on them, near the site where the Tunguska meteorite hit the ground in 1908.  Now, it must be mentioned at this juncture that many people think that the Tunguska event wasn't a meteorite at all, but the explosion of an interstellar spacecraft.  (By "many people" I mean "people who have waffle batter where most of us have brains.")  The quartz rocks with the inscriptions disappeared shortly after the claim was made; and there has never been a single metal fragment recovered from the site that could be, for example, a catalytic converter from a spacecraft.  Further, there is no trace of radioactivity at Tunguska, indicating the use of some sort of nuclear propulsion device.  But this just makes our aforementioned "many people" say, "they're pretty wily, these aliens!  Even when they crash and blow up and presumably all die, they still remember to cleverly erase all the evidence!  Including suspicious quartz rocks!"

Then, last month, air traffic controllers in Siberia took a break from a highly critical nap time to log a flying craft, moving at an estimated 1000 km/hour near the city of Yakutsk.  The object changed directions several times.  When the air traffic controllers tried to contact it, all they heard was "a female voice" saying "meow meow all the time."  The object finally vanished off the radar screen.  There's a video of the event on YouTube, but to my disappointment you never get to hear the meowing.  All you hear are some people chattering in Russian, and you see some blips on a screen.  But what crossed my mind was, "Someone had a hand-held videocamera in an air traffic control tower?"  Because that is clearly what the video was made with.  It's not an official-looking video at all.  In fact, it pretty much screams "hoax" at me, but I don't have much to support that other than a hunch.  I hope I'm right, though; I have enough trouble with the cats that are already here, clawing up the sofa and jumping on the dinner table and leaving dismembered dead rodents on the carpet and so on.  The last thing we need are superpowerful alien kitties who have learned how to fly.

Last, we have a report only a couple of days ago of an alien corpse found near the village of Kamensk.  (Check out the video here).  The video captioning asks how some poor Russians could afford to fake something this convincing, which is certainly a question worth considering.  The alien is admittedly creepy looking, lying there in the snow.  One of its legs is missing, which "many people" are saying is because it died in a horrific spaceship crash.  There's only one problem with this theory, and that is that when a spaceship crashes, you'd think that somewhere nearby you'd have a crashed spaceship, but all there is is this dead naked alien lying in the snow.

And that brings up another point: why would anyone, especially a presumably intelligent alien, want to be naked in Siberia?  I'm fully supportive of wearing as little clothing as is legally permissible when the weather is warm,  but being naked in Siberia seems to be just asking for freezing off critical body parts.  Not that this alien appears to have any of the critical body parts I was thinking about, if you catch my drift.  They never do, do they?  All of the alien-dissection videos seem to show these alien bodies, stark naked, but with no reproductive organs whatsoever.  "Yes, well," respond "many people," "that's because they're so highly evolved that they reproduce a different way."  Myself, I'm kind of fond of the old way, and if that's where evolution is heading, I'll just take a pass, okay?

In any case, it turns out that this one is a fake, not that there was another option.  The guys who "found" the alien admitted under questioning that they made it out of a chicken skin and some bread.  This answers our earlier question of how poor Russians could afford to make such a fake.  I'm impressed, actually; it's pretty damn scary-looking, and I admire their artistic skill.  I know I couldn't do anything near as clever with a chicken skin and bread.

So, it looks like our Siberian alien sightings are 0 for 3.  It's just as well.  If there was really a serious claim of evidence for aliens in Siberia, I'd feel obliged to go there to investigate, and I hate the cold.  Even if I have all of my critical body parts well insulated.  So, I guess we'll just need to wait and see what happens.  If you hear any more reports coming in from "many people," do let me know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Slender Man" and the persistence of belief

A recent article by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones, which you should all read in its entirety (here), considers the mysterious phenomenon of why people believe things for which there is no factual evidence.  The most perplexing thing in Mooney's article, which he does an admirable job explaining but which I still can't quite comprehend, is the well-documented phenomenon of people's beliefs actually strengthening when they are presented with persuasive evidence contrary to their ideas.

I won't steal Mooney's thunder by repeating what he said -- he said it better than I could, in any case.  But do want to give a brief example, described more completely in Mooney's article.  He tells about a doomsday cult whose leaders were convinced that the world was going to end on December 21, 1954.  A researcher went to join the cult members on the fatal day, waiting to see what was going to happen when the clock struck midnight.  What you'd think -- that they'd all kind of blink, and look around them, and laugh and say, "Okay, I guess we were wrong.  What a bunch of goobers we are," didn't happen.  They came up with a cockamamie explanation of why the world hadn't ended -- that their faithfulness and belief had caused the alien overlords to issue Earth a reprieve.  What it didn't do, amazingly, was cause anyone to question their root assumptions.

I came across a perfect, if rather maddening, example of this phenomenon yesterday.  I'm always on the lookout for any news in the cryptozoology world, and yesterday morning I bumped into one I'd never heard of before.  Dubbed "Slender Man," it's a tall, thin humanoid, dressed in black, with no facial features -- just a shiny, smooth, white face.  Allegedly, it has been associated with a number of mysterious disappearances, often of children, and there is even a short documentary (also worth taking a look at, here) which contains video and audio footage showing appearances of Slender Man.  It's quite creepy -- not recommended for watching at night.  (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

The problem is, it's a fake.  Not just the documentary; the entire story.  A certified, up-front, yeah-okay-we-admit-that-we-made-the-whole-thing-up fake.  Back in June of 2009, there was a "paranormal photograph" contest on the Something Awful forums, a site devoted to pranks, digitally altered photographs, and hoaxes.  A fellow named Victor Surge sent in a submission, with the description of his creation, whom he dubbed "Slender Man."  The original thread on the forum is still going, and runs to 46 pages.  If you can bear to go back through it, you can read how the story developed, starting with a single digitally altered photograph, and finally blossoming into a whole cryptozoological "phenomenon," complete with a history.

The difficulty, of course, is that when you make up something convincing, people are... convinced.  Lots of people.  If you Google "Slender Man" you'll pull up hundreds of websites, and amazingly, many of them consider him a real paranormal phenomenon.  (Upon realizing what I just wrote, I had a momentary thought of, "Implying that there's a difference between real and unreal paranormal phenomena?  I'm losing my marbles."  But I hope that my readers will understand what I meant by that phrase, and not think that I've turned into some kind of Sasquatch Apologist, or anything.)

At first, I thought that the owners of these websites simply hadn't heard that it was a hoax -- or actually, not even a hoax, because Surge had never really intended for anyone to believe him.  The most astonishing thing is that a number of these websites state that they know all about Surge and the Something Awful contest -- and they believe that this story was invented, after the fact, to cover up the "research" that Surge had done on Slender Man and to keep the phenomenon a secret, to stop the public from panicking!

After reading that, and recovering from the faceplant that I experienced immediately thereafter, I thought about Mooney's article, and the desperation with which people cling to beliefs that are contrary to known fact.  Why on earth does this happen?  Aren't we logical beings, imbued with intelligence, rationality, and fully functional prefrontal cortices?

Sadly, Mooney's answer seems to be "only sometimes."  Again, I won't go into tremendous detail -- you should simply read Mooney's article.  But the basic claim is that when we've infused a belief with emotion, we meet contrary evidence with a physiological and neurological reaction that mimics our fight-or-flight response -- we either decide to fight ("what you're saying isn't true!") or we flee ("I won't listen.").  What almost none of us do is to take that evidence, think about it clearly, and revise our basic core beliefs to fit.

All of which makes it abundantly clear to me that humans are, in fact, animals, and that we often respond to new situations with no more "higher thought" than your typical fluffy woodland creature does.  It makes me wonder why we still see a fundamental divide between "human" and "animal" -- but of course, looking that assumption in the face is pretty likely to generate a fight-or-flight response, too.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Swash yer bucklers, laddie!

Last week, two students came into my classroom after school.  One of them asked me, "I'm wondering if you know what a swash is, and how you buckle it?"

It is probably not a coincidence that the student who asked the question was wearing a pirate hat at the time.

This led to a highly amusing, and as it turns out, completely irrelevant conversation about how pirates had to not only check to make sure that their flies were zipped, but that their swashes were securely buckled.

Actually, the word "swashbuckler" has been in use since the sixteenth century, and (according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology) comes from the verb "to swash," meaning "to clash together noisily," and the noun "buckler," meaning "a small round shield."  Apparently "swashbuckler" didn't begin as a noun at all, but as a verb meaning "to clash a sword noisily against your shield so as to intimidate your foe."  A highly appropriate action for a pirate to engage in, but this means that "swashbuckling" is a truly lovely example of one of my favorite linguistic phenomena -- that of back formation.

Back formation occurs when a word is treated as if it contains a common inflection -- such as the -er ending meaning "someone who does a particular action," -ing meaning "currently doing something," or -ed meaning "this action occurred in the past" -- when in fact the apparent inflection is just a coincidental part of the word itself.  Then, someone "undoes" the fake inflection, and a new word is born.  The classic example of back formation is "to burgle," which is a back formation from "burglar."  Even though the -ar ending in "burglar" sounds like the usual -er ending (as in "farmer" and "teacher") by pure coincidence only, the word was verbified in the nineteenth century by following the logical pattern:  farmers farm, teachers teach, so burglars must burgle.  Others include "to gel" (or "jell"), originally from "jelly," which is a cognate to the French word gelĂ©, meaning "frozen" or "congealed;" "to lase" (from "laser," which is an acronym having nothing to do with the -er morpheme -- it stands for Light Amplification from Stimulated Emission of Radiation); and "to loaf" (from "loafer," which comes from the German landlaufer, meaning "hobo").

A fairly obscure, but awfully funny, example of back formation is "to maffick," meaning "to cause trouble, to riot."  It originated during the Siege of Mafeking (pronounced like "maffick-ing") during the Boer War in what is now South Africa -- a siege that lasted 217 days and apparently involved large quantities of troublemaking and riot.  Someone evidently decided that Mafeking was the present participle of a verb (in fact, it's the name of a town, and is of Dutch origin), and decided that the people in Mafeking must engage in mafficking.  It prompted the British satirist Saki (H. H. Munro) to write the couplet,

Mother, may I go and maffick,
Tear around, and hinder traffic?

It seems that "swashbuckler" works the same way.  "Buckler" comes from the French boucle, meaning "shield;" so like "burglar," its ending in -er is entirely a coincidence.  In fact, as a composite, the "swash" part is the verb and the "buckler" part is the noun; so instead of "swashbuckling," it should probably be "bucklerswashing," but that sounds silly and unbefitting of a pirate.

So fear not, lads and lassies; go forth and be swashbucklers to yer hearts' content, and ye needn't worry about having to buckle yer swashes.  Ye should still probably make sure yer flies are zipped.  Arrrr.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Give Rex food. Give Sonya money.

Whenever I drive, I listen to satellite radio.  I revolve through four or five stations, mostly alternative rock, but an occasional announcement by the DJ clues me in to how much more is actually on satellite radio than I am aware of.

Which is how I came to find out that on Tuesday evenings from 6-8 PM Eastern Time, on Sirius channel 102, you can hear a call-in show with a pet psychic.

Sonya Fitzpatrick claims to be able to communicate telepathically with animals.  She states that she discovered this ability as a child, when she lost a great deal of her hearing because of an illness, but found that she could still communicate with animals.  She temporarily lost her ability due to the trauma of finding out she'd eaten a goose she'd raised for Sunday dinner, but regained it later, and for a time had a show on Animal Planet called The Pet Psychic.

Some people swear by her.  In one case, a veterinarian brought his four-year-old mutt, Ernie, to Sonya to determine why he barks continuously.  (Ernie, not the veterinarian.)  Sonya communed psychically with Ernie for a moment, then clapped her hands to her face.

"He can't open his mouth," she whispered, her voice strained with emotion. "They put something over his nose and mouth ... taped his nose up."

She then told Ernie's owner not to worry about the barking, that he was now barking "because he can" and that they were "yips of joy."

In another case, she told a dog's owner that her dog wanted to meet "a black dog," and was "worried because her owner's back hurts."

I don't know about you, but the whole thing makes me wonder a little.  First, there's the obvious problem that Sonya Fitzpatrick can say whatever she wants; it's not like with a regular psychic, where there's any fear of contradiction.  The dog isn't going to say, "Um, no, actually that's not what I was thinking."  So it's not that this is a verifiable fake; it's not even potentially verifiable at all.

Second, I've been around dogs all my life, and I'm pretty sure that what is going on in their minds most of the time is:  Not Much.  We own two dogs at the moment, and mainly what they seem to think about is the concept of "Food."  During dinner preparation, both dogs sit watching me make dinner, their eyes focused on me like two pairs of laser beams, trying to induce me, presumably through some sort of canine telekinesis, to drop the food on the floor.  If Sonya did some kind of Vulcan mind-meld with my dogs, I think she wouldn't come up with much more than "I'M HUNGRY FEED ME NOW."

And I don't even want to think about what it'd be like to try to get into psychic contact with a cat.  I strongly suspect that our cats' minds are mostly filled with evil plots involving shredding the furniture and tormenting the other pets.  I also think, given the smug way they look at me sometimes, that they frequently have sardonic thoughts about my general appearance.

"You call that a hairstyle?" they seem to say.  "You look like a wilted dandelion.  And you're not thinking of wearing that shirt, are you?  Dear god, yes, it appears that you are.  Well, at least iron it, will you?  No?  I can't bear to watch."  And then they turn away and close their eyes, every whisker radiating disapproval.

So even if Sonya could communicate with my cats, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to know what they're thinking.  But the whole thing does demand the question of what level of brain is required in the pet for Sonya to be able to get in touch.  Could she contact a hamster?  A snake?  A pet frog?  A goldfish?  One specific ant in an ant farm?  I don't know about you, but I'd certainly enjoy watching her try. 

Not that I'll ever have the chance; it's not like she makes house calls.  But she does do personal readings, on the telephone, if you're willing to wait for months (she gets hundreds of requests a day).

They cost $300.  For a thirty-minute reading.

Yes, folks.  There are thousands of people out there who are willing to spend $300 of their hard-earned cash to have a woman who claims to be a pet psychic tell them over the phone that Rex would like some extra gravy on his kibble tonight.  Which proves a variety of things, including (1) there are a great many gullible people in the world, (2) many people are more willing to spend their money on stuff like psychic readings than are willing to support a tax increase to fund frivolous things like public education, and (3) Sonya Fitzpatrick is a very smart, and very rich, businesswoman.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Elegy for a dying language

In the news last week was a story about a pair of grumpy old men, who live in the village of Ayapa in southern Mexico.  The two old men don't much like each other, and despite the fact that they only live 500 meters away from each other, they haven't spoken in years.  One, Manuel Segovia, is described as being "a little prickly;" the other, Isidro Velazquez, is said to be stoic and a bit of a recluse.

All of which would be nothing more than a comical vignette into small-town life, except for the fact that they are the last two fluent speakers of the Ayapaneco language.

Ayapaneco is one of 68 indigenous languages in Mexico.  It is from the Mixe-Zoque family of languages, which are spoken by people of Olmec descent.  It survived the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, but was finally done in by the institution of compulsory Spanish education in the 20th century and has been dwindling ever since.

My question of the day is:  should we care?

Current estimates are that there are about 6,000 languages in daily use by native speakers (which excludes languages such as Latin, that are in daily use in schools but of which no one is a native speaker).  A great many of these are in danger of extinction -- they are spoken only by a handful of people, mostly the elderly, and the children aren't being raised fluent.  It's an eye-opening fact that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the world's people, and the other 96% of the world's people speak the other 4% of the world's languages.

Run that one around in your head for a while.

On the top of the list is Mandarin, the most widely-spoken language in the world.  English, predictably, follows.  Of the people who speak neither Mandarin nor English, a substantial fraction speak Hindi, Spanish, Russian, or some dialect of Arabic.  Most of the rest of the world's languages?  Inconsequential -- at least in numbers.

Linguists, obviously, care deeply about this.  Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, has stated, "... it is catastrophic for the future of mankind.  It should be as scary as losing 90% of the biological species."

Is he right?  The argument for preserving languages is mostly derived from a cultural knowledge perspective; language is a way of encoding knowledge, and each different sort of code represents a unique body of that knowledge.  That argument has its points, but it is also specious in the sense that most languages can encode the same knowledge somehow, and therefore when the last native speaker of Ayapaneco dies, we won't have necessarily lost that culture's knowledge.  We may have lost the ability to figure out how that knowledge was encoded -- as we have with the Linear A writing of Crete -- but that's not the same as losing the knowledge itself.

The analogy to biodiversity is also a bit specious.  Languages don't form some kind of synergistic whole, as the species in an ecosystem do, where the loss of any one thread can cause the whole thing to come unraveled.  In fact, you might argue the opposite -- that having lots of unique languages in an area (such as the hundreds of mutually incomprehensible native languages in Australia) can actually prevent cultural communication and understanding.  Species loss can destroy an ecosystem -- witness what's happening in Haiti and Madagascar.  It's a little hard to imagine language loss as having those same kinds of effects on the cultural landscape of the world.

Still, I can't help wishing for the extinction to stop.  It's just sad -- the fact that the number of native speakers of the beautiful Irish Gaelic and Breton languages are steadily decreasing, that there are languages (primarily in Australia and amongst the native languages of North and South America) for whom the last native speakers will die in the next five to ten years without ever having a linguist study, or even record, what it sounded like.  I don't have a cogent argument from a utilitarian standpoint abut why this is a bad thing.  It's aesthetics, pure and simple -- languages are cool.  The idea that English and Mandarin can swamp Twi and Yanomami is probably unavoidable, and it even follows the purely Dawkinsian concept of the competition between memes.  But I don't have to like it, any more than I like the fact that my bird feeders are more often visited by starlings than by indigo buntings.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vade retro satana

The Yahoo! news yesterday ran a story about Father Jose Francisco Syquia, a Catholic priest in the Philippines, who claims he has been going around exorcising demons.  The reporter who wrote the story was shown videotapes of people thrashing about, speaking in "unearthly voices," sometimes with "inverted crosses appearing on their foreheads."  Syquia and his assistants go through a dramatic ritual, and the demons leave.

He has a 100% success rate.

Syquia, in what the reporter calls "a rare interview," states, "There is a great dramatic increase of possessions right now.  More and more the demons are gaining a foothold into this society."  He clearly wishes us to see him, and his practices, as being the spearhead of good against evil.  Pope Benedict XVI, for his part, agrees; he recently released a new set of guidelines and encouraged trained priests to perform more exorcisms.

I find this whole thing bizarre and not a little appalling.

I suspect that any of my readers who are inclined to believe in demons and exorcisms will probably accuse me of doing what I so often criticize in others, namely, declaring a belief without providing any evidence.  Nevertheless:  I simply don't believe that Syquia and his ilk are casting out demons.  No, I haven't seen the videos, which are kept under lock and key in Syquia's office in Manila.  No, I haven't talked to Syquia myself, nor to anyone he's "exorcised."  No, I have no concrete data of any kind.  By my usual standards for understanding, I should have no right to make a statement one way or the other.

But I am going to anyway.  I think Syquia is a charlatan, his claims are nonsense at best and outright fraud at worst, and the people who believe him are dupes.

The idea of demonic possession has been around for millenia, and the belief that certain people can cast those demons out isn't new, either.  Cuneiform tablets from the Sumerians record the possession of people by "gid-dim" (sickness demons).  Medieval European history is rife with accounts of demonic possessions.  The belief is still widespread in many parts of Africa and Asia, amongst both Christians and followers of traditional religions.

My reasons for disbelieving the whole thing are nebulous enough that I can't call them an argument, but I think they carry enough weight that they should be given some consideration.

First, there are legitimate psychological illnesses, especially schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder, that resemble the symptoms alleged to occur in demonic possession.  Interesting that modern medicine and therapy can identify organic causes for these disorders, and reduce or eliminate the severity of symptoms in many cases, isn't it?  You wouldn't think that a demon would be quelled by antipsychotic meds. 

Second, the force of belief is a powerful one.  You probably have heard of the placebo effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which a person who believes he is receiving an effective medicine will often show improvement even if he is given a sugar pill.  Less well-known is the nocebo effect, in which a person who believes he is being targeted for supernatural harm will actually grow ill and die.  This has been documented in cases of voodoo "curses."  How the brain actually alters to change a person's state of health in either case isn't understood, but it clearly happens -- no supernatural agent necessary.

Third, I find it curious that demonic possession doesn't seem to occur amongst atheists.  You'd think we'd be sitting ducks, wouldn't you?  All of the cases I've read about have been either amongst people who "invited possession" (i.e. worshiped Satan or the like) and had second thoughts, or amongst people who believed devoutly in demons and were terrified that they'd become victims.  In other words, belief comes first.  And again, if you have to believe in a demon to be possessed, it kind of calls into question the believers' definition of what a demon is, and what it is capable of doing.

Last, it is simply too easy to fake "evidence" these days.  Any sufficiently talented film editor could make an absolutely convincing exorcism video.  And when a person is in a position of power -- as Father Syquia is over the people he works with -- the temptation to increase that power by duping those who believe in you is all too strong.  The number of "faith healers" who have been exposed as frauds is long -- more than one has been caught "healing severely ill individuals" who later turned out to be perfectly healthy actors hired to play the part of the sick.  Faith healers are, I think, nothing more than talented magicians (of the David Copperfield variety) -- clever at misdirection and sleight of hand, but no more capable of curing disease through paranormal means than I am.  I have no reason to believe that exorcists don't fall into the same category.

It takes no presupposition of the existence of the supernatural to believe in purely human evil.  People do horrid things, sometimes.  Convenient though it might be to blame such acts on temptation (or possession) by the devil or his minions, there is usually an earthly explanation that is sufficient -- fear, psychosis, abuse during childhood, hunger for power, envy, a desire for revenge.  Taking advantage of those who believe in supernatural evil for your own ends, however, is itself evil -- and I am very much afraid that Father Syquia and his ilk are guilty of exactly that.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Friday," the JFK assassination, and ancient astronauts

I am fascinated by networks, connectivity, and information transfer.  I know that this has become a science in and of itself, with complex mathematical models and theories, almost all of which are beyond the scope of my understanding; but the whole concept still draws me.  I first ran into it years ago, when the "Six Degrees of Separation" idea first became common knowledge.  Besides the generally appealing idea that I could actually be connected with everyone on Earth within six degrees, I found especially interesting the idea that certain people could be "nodes" -- people who are multiply connected because of their belonging to several different disjoint social groups, and therefore who would act to reduce significantly the average number of links between myself and a farmer in Nepal.

Now, of course, with electronic media, people are connected far more, and across far greater distances, than ever before.  I'd suspect that most people are linked in fewer than six degrees of separation these days.  And while this has some positive features, it also (as with most things) has a downside.

Being multiply, and rapidly, connectible means that information flows faster, easier, and further than in the past, it also means that there is a much quicker conduit for bullshit than previously.  I had two interesting demonstrations of this just in the past couple of days.

Most of you by now have probably heard Rebecca Black's "song" "Friday," which catapulted to fame by virtue of being the worst song ever recorded, worse even (if you can believe this) than either "I Write the Songs" or "Copacabana."  Maybe even worse than all of Barry Manilow's repertoire put together.  Most people, after listening to about twenty seconds of this song, respond by sticking any available objects into their ears, even if the objects are steak knives.  The spread of this song, which resembles in so many ways the spread of an infectious disease, is itself an interesting example of connectivity; but even more fascinating is the spread of a meme that claims that "Friday" is about the JFK assassination.  Here is a version of this claim, copied verbatim:

"The driver of the car that JFK was assassinated in, had the name Samuel Kickin (kickin in the front seat, sitting in the back seat...).  The assassination occurred on a Friday and when was shot the Secret Service yelled at Jackie Kennedy to "get down" (got to get down on Friday).  Part about the cold war and spread of communism are also referenced [everybody rushin' (russian)] and to top it all off, in the hotel that morning JFK declined a breakfast of sausage, eggs and toast for a bowl of Bran Flakes instead (got to have my bown, got to have my cereal).  Also, the following Monday JFK was supposed to sign a bill into law requiring all public schools to provide bus transportation for their students. (got to catch my bus...).  Now obviously, "fast lanes, switching lanes" refers to the arms race between the US and the USSR. Fast productions of nuclear weapons, switching up whoever had more control, etc."

About two minutes of quick online research was enough to prove that this was virtually entirely made up.  The driver of JFK's car was William Greer, not "Samuel Kickin."  There is apparently no truth to the whole "bran flakes" claim, nor to the "bus transportation bill" claim.  But so far, so what?  This is just another of those weird things, initially probably intended to be humorous, that someone wrote.  However, the whole thing has gone viral; I've been asked at least five times in the last three days if I have "heard that 'Friday' was about the JFK assassination."

Then, two days ago, I ran across a reference to a claim that I first saw in the 1970s -- that the Dogon tribe of Africa had prior knowledge, through contact with "ancient astronauts" from another planet, that the star Sirius had a companion star that was too small to see with the naked eye.  According to this story, they even got the orbital period of this star correct.  Aficionados of UFOs and aliens and so on just love this story, because if true, it would seem to be evidence that a relatively primitive tribe had information that they could only have gotten from an advanced society.

Of course, that last statement is literally true; the advanced society they got it from is France.  The anthropologist who first made the claim of the Dogon's knowledge, Marcel Griaule, is thought to be the one who "contaminated" the Dogon with outside information in the first place.  The discovery of Sirius' companion star ("Sirius B") was all over the news in the 1920s, when Griaule was working with the Dogon, and the Dogon themselves are peculiarly fascinated with the stars.  It doesn't take much of a reach to guess that Griaule was the source of the information, especially given that subsequent researchers into the Dogon culture found that the only ones who had actually heard of "po tolo," as they called Sirius B, were the people in the village Griaule had visited.

Nonetheless, this story is still circulating.  A search for the keywords "Sirius" and "Dogon" garnered 109,000 hits, and a quick perusal of the first three pages was enough to demonstrate that almost all of them buy Griaule's idea wholesale.  And this points to another, and more depressing conclusion; skeptical thought seems to travel slower than bullshit does.  Ridiculous ideas, like Griaule's claim that ancient astronauts had visited the Dogon, have more of a panache than do prosaic statements such as "Griaule told 'em himself, and then claimed he'd discovered something amazing."  Who would be motivated to tell a friend something like the latter?  While the former... well, you can see how that story might have a little more tendency to get passed along.

The eye-opener, for me, is how easy it is now for ideas to spread.  Prior to the internet, ideas moved as fast as people did, or as fast as books could be passed along.  Now, in the blink of an eye, an idea -- good or bad -- can travel halfway around the world.  And given the tendency of most people not to question sources that give an appearance of authority, it's hardly to be wondered at that "I read it on a website," or (even better) the "my friend sent me a link," has become the mode for meme spread. 

It should also always be a red flag for skeptics.  Websites like Snopes, which vets current stories for veracity, help to some extent; but there's no substitute for critical thinking and a little bit of good research, and also for responsible people refusing to pass along links to websites that claim that listening to Rebecca Black's song "Friday" is what drove Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK, and afterwards she escaped to Mali where she lived with the Dogon, until she caught a ride on an alien spacecraft and escaped to Sirius B, where she now lives as Barry Manilow's love slave.

Although, you have to admit, that does make for a pretty plausible story.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An argument over nails

An old proverb, variously attributed to the Arabs and to the Chinese, says, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  In a striking example of this principle, in yesterday's news we find a story about religious history that has resulted in what may be a first: something that atheists and devout Christians seem to be in complete agreement on.

Simcha Jacobovici is a filmmaker.  There are sites that call him an archaeologist, but that seems to be a leap; he's done a number of film documentaries about archaeological sites in the Middle East, but as far as I can tell that's the limits of his archaeological training.  Most of his films have been fairly obscure,  but recently he has leapt into the spotlight with an interesting claim -- that he has discovered two of the nails used in Jesus' crucifixion.

Jacobovici's claim rests on the assertion that the tomb where they were found belonged to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest whom the gospels assert was the man who turned Jesus over to the Romans.  The nails, Jacobovici states in an interview, were bent in such a way as to keep a crucified man's wrist from pulling free, and that there would have been no other reason to keep the nails unless they had been important.

"Caiaphas was not a man who sent thousands to be crucified," Jacobovici said.  "He is known to have caused the crucifixion of one man and one man only, and that is Jesus."

The claim is a fairly tenuous one right from the start.  To begin with, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is doubtful that the tomb belongs to the Caiaphas of the gospels.  That assertion, and therefore the rest of Jacobovici's argument, a spokesperson stated, "has no basis in archaeological findings or research."

Even if it is Caiaphas' tomb, the rest of the argument relies on some pretty flimsy logic.  Jacobovici's statement that Caiaphas is known to have turned only one man over to the Romans is true, but the key word here is not "only" but "known."  We know next to nothing about Caiaphas' life other than the couple of lines in the gospels that mention him (there is also a brief mention of him in Acts as having been present at the trials of Peter and Paul).  In any case, there is not a shred of evidence to back up Jacobovici's claim that Caiaphas had the nails buried with him out of guilt over Jesus' death.

So, as far as I can tell, Jacobovici's argument runs something like this:  a couple of nails that look like they may have been used in a crucifixion were found in a tomb that may or may not have belonged to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest of the gospels.  We can imagine that Caiaphas might well have felt bad about sending Jesus to his death.  Conclusion: the nails were the ones used in Jesus' crucifixion, and Caiaphas commanded that he be buried with them because he felt guilty.

This claim has resulted in howls of derision from two different groups -- from serious archaeological researchers, who decry Jacobovici's methodology (to use the word fairly loosely), and from devout Christians who are understandably concerned about such claims further eroding public confidence in the evidence for the veracity of the gospels.  Both camps consider the film a cheap publicity stunt, a view I entirely share.  Jacobovici seems more concerned about turning a quick buck in such venues as The So-Called History Channel than he does about serious scholarship.

Jacobovici, of course, is defiant.  "It's easy to scoff," he said, in an interview on ABC News.  "But it's hard to do three years of investigation, which I've done. Could it be that these are the nails? You ask the question, you don't scoff."

Actually, Mr. Jacobovici, what you do is you examine the evidence with a skeptical mind; you don't make claims based on a chain of logic the consistency of taffy, and expect us to believe you've proved anything.  You don't make unverifiable assertions and then get your knickers in a twist when serious researchers criticize what you've done.

But that's not what this is about, is it?  This is about money, and you don't really care that the experts are scoffing as long as it will result in more people watching your film.  Because, as Irish poet Brendan Behan said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The natural history of the Common Yutz

As always, the Yiddish language has a word for it, and the word is "yutz."

A yutz is a person with no social graces.  As is typical with Yiddish words, however, there are layers within layers and meanings within meanings.  Implicit in this word is the connotation of someone who means no harm, who really thinks (s)he is a completely normal, well-liked person, and who is entirely unaware that people scatter like rats whenever (s)he is around.  This is a person who is capable of leaving behind a trail of frustration, irritation, and chaos, and being none the wiser.

I remember being on a weekend birdwatching trip to coastal New Jersey, and to my dismay, there was a yutz signed up to go with us.  At our first stop, I was with a small group trying to spot a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler in the treetops over head, and up comes Mrs. Yutz.

"I CAN HEAR HIM," she shouted, in a voice that probably registered on seismographs in Los Angeles.  "CAN YOU HEAR HIM?"

Several of us nodded, and a couple of us turned and glared at her.  One person said, in an exaggerated whisper, "Yes, we hear him."


Mrs. Yutz's teenage daughter, who was to regret many times coming along on this trip, said, "Mom, ssshhhhh!"


This was probably because the bird had upped stakes and flown to Atlantic City for some peace and quiet.

[image courtesy of photographer L. T. Shears and the Wikimedia Commons]

I see a lot of yutzim at the grocery store.  I find this species of yutz particularly annoying because I loathe shopping.  My usual shopping method is to run down the aisle, knocking old ladies and small children out of the way with my grocery cart, and to snatch items off the shelf and sling them into the cart without even slowing.  I don't even always look at what I'm throwing in.  I may not be the most accurate and competent shopper,  but let me tell you, I'm fast.  I once set out to one of those bulk discount stores with the instructions, "stock us up on some staples," and came back with nothing but a two-gallon jar of orange marmalade.  However, I was back home in twenty minutes flat, and that is taking Seattle traffic into account.

But I digress.

Grocery-store yutzim are people for whom shopping is apparently some kind of recreational activity.  They meander along at sloth-like speed, look at each and every item on the shelf, consider it carefully, read the label, and then put it back on the shelf.  They always have the biggest shopping carts available, which when set diagonally are capable of blocking an entire aisle.  Our local store has special carts for yutzim with children; these carts have a toy car appended to the front, so the young yutz-in-training can sit inside and pretend to drive.  These behemoths are twice as long as a regular shopping cart, and have about a two-mile turning radius.  One of them can prevent access to an entire row of grocery-store shelves.

When two grocery-store yutzim meet, it's a calamity of such magnitude that it brings all shopping in that region of the store to a halt for an hour.  They stand there, their carts aligned so as to create maximum blockage, talking and gesticulating and laughing, while other shoppers, who would like to arrive home with their groceries some time this decade, have to go from the vegetable department to the meat department via Argentina to get around the congestion.  The yutzim are always completely unaware of the problem they're causing, and if you go up to them and say, "Excuse me," they will stop their conversation, give you a momentary blank look, and then smile and say, "Oh, no problem!" in a cheerful voice.  Then they will go back to their conversation without moving either themselves or their carts.

It's not that yutzim are bad people.  I've known a few of them personally, and they are unfailingly kind, friendly, and generous.  It's just that they lack the level of awareness of their surroundings that most of us have.  I'd like to think that if I walked up to some people in a conversation, and they all simultaneously looked at their watches, announced that they had important meetings to attend, and left, I'd get the clue that it was me that was the problem.  It's like the old line that goes:  "The one common factor in all of your failed relationships, miserable jobs, and blown opportunites is:  You."

Still, you have to feel a little sorry for them.  It's pitiful to think that there are people on whom life has so little impact.  It's a shame that there's not some gentle way to clue them in, to let them know the effect they're having.  And to suggest to them that (1) most people are perfectly capable of identifying a bird's song as "cute" without assistance, and (2) if they're ever in a grocery store, and they see a tall blond guy who is clutching a large jar of marmalade and sprinting down the aisle, they'd be well-advised just to get the hell out of the way.