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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"The Sun Pyramid" and the invention of truth

I keep thinking that I've heard of every crackpot idea out there, that we must have reached the end of the litany of bizarre ideas the human brain is capable of devising.

I keep being wrong.

Yesterday, a student of mine asked me if I'd ever heard of the conjecture that the ancient Egyptians had built some pyramids in Bosnia.  I hadn't, and after a little research, I found that there's a whole subset of woo-woo-ism that I was unaware of.

Northwest of Sarajevo, near the town of Visoka, stands Visočica Hill.  It's clearly a pretty strange-looking hill; vaguely pyramid-shaped, with unusually flat sides and a pointed top, it certainly suggests a man-made structure.  However, a geological team, led by Dr. Sefjudin Vrabac of the University of Tuzla, concluded that it was a natural structure, composed of clastic sediments dating from the Miocene Era.  Vrabac states that however odd it appears, Visočica is not a unique geological form, and that "there are dozens of similar morphological formations in the Sarajevo-Zenica mining basin alone"

So, clearly, we are dealing here with something like the Giant's Causeway of Ireland -- a structure whose peculiar regularity suggests human construction, but which actually has a completely natural explanation.

Enter Semir Osmanagić.

Osmanagić is a Bosnian author and metalworker, and makes claim to expertise on archaeology, but I'm a tad skeptical, frankly.  Osmanagić says that Visočica Hill is a human construct, and was produced by Ancient Egyptians, who evidently didn't have enough to do with building enormous pyramids back home.  He has renamed Visočica Hill "The Pyramid of the Sun," which apparently has not caught on with the folks who live in Visoka, at the foot of Visočica.  (Nearby pyramid-shaped hills he has called "The Pyramid of the Moon," "The Pyramid of the Earth," and "The Pyramid of Love.")  He has assembled an "international team of archaeologists," who made it clear that their actual intent was not to do any real archaeology, but to reshape Visočica Hill to make it look like a Mayan step pyramid.

All of which follows a well-known principle of scientific research; if your data doesn't fit your theory, alter the data.

People like Osmanagić rarely just spout off their theories alone, though; they always try to draw others in.  An especially common technique is to claim support from legitimate researchers in the field.  Many of these researchers are quite surprised to find their names mentioned in connection with some crackpot theory or another, but that never seems to discourage the woo-woo from making the claim.  In this case, the unlucky victim was Zahi Hawass, noted Egyptologist and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs.  Osmanagić claims that Hawass supports his "theory," and in fact recommended an expert to work with Osmanagić's team, Ali Abdullah Barakat.

Poor Hawass responded by denying any involvement whatsoever, and in fact said that he'd never been contacted by Osmanagić, and in any case "Barakat knows nothing about pyramids."  But that hasn't stopped Osmanagić from repeating the claim.

Now, with all of this, you'd think people would be ignoring Osmanagić into obscurity, wouldn't you?

You'd be wrong.

Two weeks ago, Osmanagić was the keynote speaker at the International Metaphysical Conference, in Little Rock, Arkansas.  His talk was packed -- over 500 people attended his lecture on the "energy fields" and "underground labyrinth" at Visočica.  And at the end, he got a standing ovation.

I find all of this incredibly discouraging.  Don't these people ever question their assumptions, consider bias, look at evidence?  The answer, sadly, appears to be "no."  A theory that makes people say, "Wow, it would be cool if that were true," plus a charismatic speaker, plus scattered references to scientific principles and other scientists, is all it takes to convince, and after that the idea is no longer questioned.  Then, once it becomes ensconced in a critical mass of brains, it takes on a life of its own -- a Google search I did for "Bosnian pyramids" had over ten thousand hits.  It becomes some weird variant of "truth" -- an idea so widely reported, and cited, that for many people it is no longer subject to the usual standards for assessing validity.

And it all reminds me of a quote from David Babenkian:  "Trying to argue with someone who doesn't understand the principles of scientific induction is like trying to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a ukulele."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

James Tootle and the Cumbrian Cursing Stone

I find it curious how easily the human brain is lured into magical thinking.  We are wired to notice patterns, and to make inferences; and it's all too easy to forget that correlation does not imply causation.  The idea of certain items bringing good luck is a natural outcome of our desire to find root causes when we observe patterns, and even intelligent, highly educated people can fall for it.  I still remember the time I forgot to wear the red woolen hat I always wear to Cornell hockey games, during one of Cornell's winningest seasons -- and the guys lost.  And the people I sit near, in section C, blamed me.  "Wear the Big Red Hat next time, for crying out loud," one of them told me -- hopefully in jest, but I'm not really all that certain.

Of course, it isn't always good luck we're talking about.  Objects can be associated with bad luck, too.  And this brings us to James Tootle and the Cumbrian Cursing Stone (which sounds like the name of a rather demented children's book, but isn't).

James Tootle was a councillor in England, serving on the Carlisle and Cumbria County Councils.  He was serving in that capacity in 2001, when a local artist, Gordon Young, came up with the idea of memorializing a famous curse dating from the 16th century.  The curse, which at 383 words is too long to reproduce here, was aimed at the Border Reivers, a rather bloodthirsty group of highwaymen who terrorized Cumbria back in Shakespeare's time.  Young decided to engrave this bit of British history on a 14-ton granite stone, and the memorial was duly ensconced in an underpass near Carlisle Castle.

Well, Tootle didn't like it.  In fact, he blamed the stone for the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, and the massive Cumbrian floods of 2005, and petitioned to get the stone removed.  (What the stone was doing from 2002 to 2004 remains to be seen; maybe it was resting in between calamities.)  And despite the lack of further bad news in Cumbria after the flood episode, Tootle kept suggesting the stone be destroyed, and the suggestion kept being rejected.

And now, James Tootle has died.  And locals...

... are suggesting the stone did it.

Oh, come on.  You'd think if the stone was that pissed off, it'd have knocked Tootle off years ago, rather than waiting and taking the chance that the council would finally cave in to his demands and destroy it.  It took ten years for the stone to get rid of him?  I don't know about you, but that seems like the slowest-moving curse I've ever seen.  First, it precipitates two bad events, four years apart; does absolutely nothing for six years after that; and then causes one guy to kick the bucket.  As a bad luck charm, the Cumbrian Cursing Stone kind of sucks, doesn't it?

But now, of course, I've put myself in peril by criticizing it.  And look where that got James Tootle.  I might have, oh, twenty or thirty years to sit here and gloat; but then that stone will clean my clocks.  You'll see.  That'll warn people to be more cautious, when it comes to the Cumbrian Cursing Stone.  They'll probably put it on my gravestone:  "Here Lies Gordon, Who Died Of Old Age And The Aftereffects Of Ridiculing A Rock."

Monday, November 28, 2011


I recently received a link from a friend which made an alarming claim.

The link (viewable here) is an interview with an individual, of unstated credentials, in which the contention is made that the seafloor at the Gulf oil spill site is rising -- ten feet or more in places, and over an area with a diameter of ten to fifteen miles.  The interviewee went on to explain that this bubble is a rising pocket of methane gas, released from frozen methane hydrates at the drill site, and that when (not if, note) this explodes, it would create a tsunami that would dwarf the one that devastated Aceh and Sri Lanka in 2004, inundating much of the low-lying southeastern United States, Central, and South America.

At first, I was inclined to sit up and take notice.  Methane and hydrogen sulfide explosions from the deep ocean are not outside of the realm of possibility, and in fact one theory relates the Permian-Triassic extinction (the largest extinction in the world's history, dwarfing the one that did in the dinosaurs 150 million years later) to a massive methane/sulfide release, with consequent alterations to the chemistry and transparency of the atmosphere and oceans.   The result: 95% of the world's species became extinct.

The gentleman then went on to explain that BP, in cahoots with the US government, was taking pains to avoid anyone finding out about this, because of the panic that would ensue if it was made public.

So, anyhow, I was a little alarmed.  Then I noticed the name of the guy being interviewed.

Richard C. Hoagland.

I don't know if you've heard about Hoagland, but if you're a skeptic, you should remember his name.  Here are a few of Hoagland's accomplishments (for want of a better word):

1) The "Face on Mars" brouhaha. The "Face on Mars," of course, turned out to be a rock outcropping which only looked like a face when viewed in the right light (because of the way the shadows fell); at other times during the Martian day it looked like, well, a rock outcropping.  This didn't stop Hoagland et al. from getting all the woo-woos in the world stirred up that it was evidence of an ancient civilization on Mars.  It did have the effect of inspiring a nifty episode of The X Files, but other than that, it was sort of a non-starter as a scientific observation.

2) The 19.5 N and S latitude theory, which claims that on every planet in the solar system, there are naturally-occurring features containing vast amounts of energy, located at 19.5 degrees north and south of the planet's equator.  One such example, he says, is the Martian volcano Olympus Mons (which I actually looked up, and is 18.3 degrees north of the Martian equator, but that's undoubtedly within the margin of error for his prediction, so we'll let it slide).  I did a quick scan of the earth at 19.5 degrees north and south, and all I could find that seemed interesting was the East African Rift Valley (a highly geologically active area, not that those are uncommon on the earth's surface) and the Big Island of Hawaii, which has a volcano or two and the energy generated by thousands of scantily-clad sunworshippers.  Not exactly unequivocal support of his theory, but honesty forced me to mention it.

3) There are large semi-transparent structures, created by a superintelligent civilization, on the moon.  NASA's photographs of the moon have been digitally altered to erase them.

4) Speaking of NASA, it's run by the Freemasons, and has been complicit in everything from faking scientific data from space missions to assassinating JFK.  The Masons were also responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

5) On the other hand, there is a secret space agency, which is currently using antigravity technology that was reverse-engineered from artifacts left on the moon, presumably by the same superintelligent society referenced in #3.

And so on. It should be clear by now that Mr. Hoagland has been spending too much time doing sit-ups under parked cars, and that we should give his "huge gas bubble in the Gulf" claim little to no credence.  I say "little," because, as I've said before, there is geologic evidence that such massive explosions have happened in the past -- but given the source, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.  My advice -- you shouldn't cancel your Florida vacation just yet.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Report of the Gods

Just when you thought it was safe to go into Barnes & Noble, now we have news that Erich von Däniken has released a new book.

Von Däniken, you may remember, is the bestselling author of Chariots of the Gods, Gold of the Gods, Signs of the Gods, The Return of the Gods, The Arrival of the Gods, The Miracles of the Gods, Twilight of the Gods, and Home Repair Tips of the Gods.

Okay, I made the last one up.  I doubt The Gods know anything much about home repair, given that most of the ancient temples I've seen are pretty much ruins, and very few have flush toilets.  You'd think, being The Gods and all, they'd have seen fit to equip their houses with a few simple amenities, but generally, they seem to have been content with the Large Chunks Of Rock Piled Up style of architecture.

In any case, the new release by von Däniken isn't exactly new, it's a revised edition of his earlier book Odyssey of the Gods.  However, given that we're talking von Däniken here, it probably doesn't matter.  It's not like he's notorious for new ideas, or anything.  In this particular book, von Däniken argues that the Greek gods were real, and were extraterrestrials.  However, you probably remember that this was basically what he argued about Ra, Osiris, Kuan Yin, Quetzalcoatl, Thor, Shiva, and virtually every other deity that humans have ever come up with.  So my general reaction was:  *yawn*

Until, that is, I read an interview with Philip Coppens, who has himself released a new book (The Ancient Alien Question) and was interviewed by Linda Moulton Howe about his ideas, which largely were inspired by von Däniken.  The interview is itself worth reading, because it's hilarious.  For one thing, Howe's questions are PRINTED ALL IN CAPS, and Coppens' answers aren't, so it sounds like the interview went like this:

Howe (shouting at the top of her lungs): SO, PHILIP, TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK.

Coppens (meekly):  Well, Linda, it's about the idea that extraterrestrials...


Coppens: ... actually, that's what I was just about to say to you, that Erich and I...


Coppens:  ... there is considerable evidence that the deities worshiped in Ancient Greece were...


Coppens:  ... yes, those are the ones.  We believe that they may have been...


The other thing that strikes me is that Coppens goes to great lengths to state (in between Howe's screaming at him) that he doesn't believe that Plato and Aristotle and so on were extraterrestrials; no, that would be ridiculous.  He believes that Zeus and Hera and all were extraterrestrials, and they were the ancestors of the Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle.  As proof of this conjecture, he points out that the royal lineages of many of the ancient Greek kingdoms lead back to some god or another, and when you look at the ancient Egyptian lineages, they do too.  And so, in fact, do the Celtic royal genealogies, and the Japanese ones!  

Well, q.e.d., as far as I can tell.  

You might be asking yourself at this juncture, what about the fact that each of these mythologies are different, and therefore mutually contradictory, and therefore presumably couldn't all be true simultaneously?  Well, neither Coppens nor von Däniken ever answers that directly, but they are clearly pointing at the idea that ancient humans saw these extraterrestrials in their ships, and the extraterrestrials accomplished a few things, namely:  (1) building lots of big stone monuments without running water; (2) convincing the humans that they were gods; and (3) having lots of sex with human women, thereby "improving" the pathetic human gene pool and giving rise to the Golden Age of Civilization.  Then the extraterrestrials took off, and haven't been back much since, not even to pay child support.  And the humans then told stories about their noble godlike alien ancestors, and human memory being what it is, they variously misremembered what they'd seen as a half-naked guy with a trident (Poseidon), a one-eyed giant who rides an eight-legged horse (Odin), or a giant feathered snake (Quetzalcoatl).  

You can see how that confusion could occur.

And based on this, we are supposed to buy that everything the archaeologists have said is wrong.  In Coppens' words:
I think the most important thing and what Erich would like everyone to take with them is that history as we know it is wrong! We have compressed way too much into an all-too-short timeline and also we have excluded so many things from our history books because we felt they were anomalous and we assumed they were made up, science fiction.
In fact, one of von Däniken's books is called History is Wrong, which is notable not only for the immense chutzpah evidenced in the title, but also for being the only book he ever wrote whose title doesn't mention The Gods.

Anyhow, that's our book report for the day.  Myself, I think I'm going to pass on the second edition of Odyssey of the Gods.  For one thing, I'm waiting for my copy of von Däniken's 2010 release Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials, which is due out in paperback soon.  For another, I'm more concerned about the impending attack by aliens from the planet Gootan, which you can read about here.  You'd think that if Zeus was real, he'd at least give some thought to protecting his progeny from angry Gootanians.  It's the least a parent can do.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Woo-woo news updates

There has been quite a flurry of activity of late here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.

First, we have a report from Hong Kong about a growing market for haunted apartments.

Apparently, there is a widespread superstition (certainly not limited to China) about living in places where violence has occurred.  In China, buildings like this are called hongza (from the Cantonese hong, meaning "calamity," and za, meaning "residence").  The housing market in Hong Kong has cooled significantly in the last few years, leaving investors looking for any way they can to make money.  So, the idea is to purchase hongza property at a discount (up to 20% in some cases) and then rent the apartments at full price to people who don't share the superstitions -- often foreigners.

This has led to advertisements such as the following:
For sale: Yuen Long apartment building.  36-year-old female secondary school teacher faced a marriage crisis, jumped off the building after sending a text message to her husband.  Call for price range.
Apparently, the belief is that hongza only lasts so long; the bad vibes eventually wear off.  So presumably, you could buy at a discount, rent it for a while to unsuspecting foreigners who don't mind being tormented by ghosts of falling secondary school teachers, and then sell the building once the hongza has gone away.

You have to wonder how long it takes.  Five years?  Ten?  Twenty?  Do the ghosts eventually get tired and move on to greener pastures?

If so, that's more than you can say for the Irish fairies, who apparently have a shelf life of over 4,000 years.

Just ask Sean Quinn.  Quinn, a businessman who was once Ireland's wealthiest citizen (with a net worth of eight billion dollars) is down to $15,000 in his bank account.  Most folks think that Quinn's downfall was due to speculation in doomed Anglo-Irish Bank shares, but Quinn's neighbor, pub owner Toirbhealach Lyons, begs to differ.

Quinn's problems, Lyons says, began when he was expanding a quarry owned by Quinn Concrete, and applied for (and got) permission to move a Megalithic monument called the Aughrim Wedge Tomb.  The tomb was moved, stone by stone, to Quinn's Slieve Russell Hotel.  That action, Lyons said, seriously pissed off the fairies, who responded by destroying Quinn's empire.

“I’m a big supporter of Sean Quinn because of what he has done for this area but that tomb should never have been moved,” Lyons, the owner of Molly Maguire’s Pub in Ballyconnell, told the Irish Independent.

One has to wonder if Quinn agrees, or if he agrees with his more prosaic neighbor, butcher Gerard Crowe, who told the Independent that Lyons' beliefs were "a load of auld rubbish."  And it also makes me wonder if Crowe should be a little more careful about labeling himself a non-believer, given what happened to Quinn.

On the topic of labeling, we will conclude today with Georgia factory worker Billy E. Hyatt, who was fired from the Pliant Corporation plant near Dalton for refusing to wear the Mark of the Beast on his shirt.

At least, that's his side of it.  The company has a long-standing tradition of having its workers each day wear stickers proclaiming how long it's been since the factory has had a lost-time accident.  As the number of days since the last accident got into the 600s, Hyatt began to worry.

When Hyatt approached a manager, telling him he wouldn't wear a sticker saying "666" because it would mean he would go to hell, the manager said that of course he wouldn't have to.  But when the day of the Festival of Satanic Worship and Workplace Safety arrived, company officials changed their minds -- and Hyatt was given a three-day suspension.  When Hyatt objected (loudly), he was fired.

Hyatt sued, claiming his religious beliefs were not being respected.

Okay, on the one hand, I can say: it was a sticker.  What was the big deal about letting the guy not have to wear the sticker for one day?  It seems to fall clearly into the "choose your battles" department.  On the other hand, to what extent are business owners required to "respect" the wacky beliefs of their employees?  If I told my principal that I belonged to the Church of the Sacred Chicken, and every Thursday was required by my religion to walk around with a live rooster on my head, would he be violating my rights by telling me I couldn't?  We have the (true) case of the Pastafarian in Austria who petitioned for years to have his drivers' license photo taken with a spaghetti strainer on his head -- and finally won.

All of which is well and good, and I know that the Pastafarians are a parody group (devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), and he was just trying to make a point.  But really -- at what point does common sense and rationality prevail?

Evidently never.  Pliant Corporation is now in a legal battle, with a lawsuit pending that asks for damages and back pay for Hyatt, who was faced with a decision to "comply or abandon his religious beliefs."  I strongly suspect Hyatt will win.

Which leaves me with one final thought: what sort of rooster should I wear on my head?  I'm thinking Buff Orpington.  They're kind of stylish, and the tan color match my skin tone and hair color, don't you think?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Your verbal recognition system in love

Looking for a potential romantic interest, but maybe a little scared of making the wrong decision?  Have you been burned in the past by falling for someone who has turned out to be a poor match?

Fear no longer.  Science has stepped in to help.

It's been known for some time that the brain's chemistry changes profoundly when you fall in love.  Levels of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and oxytocin, make dramatic surges; the latter is sometimes called the "cuddle hormone" because it is released in large quantities when you kiss, snuggle, or have sex.  The whole thing seems to prime us for pair bonding.  But how do we know if our brain is fixating on the right person?

Allow me to introduce you to BrainDesire.  This site claims, by a simple test, to be able to tell you if the person you're considering is the right one for you.  The idea is that your brain's detection of emotional content in verbal information will change how that verbal information is perceived -- and measuring that perception can give an important clue as to how powerful the emotional content is.  In practice, what BrainDesire does is to flash the name of a potential partner at you, and then a group of letters.  Your task is to click the left arrow key if it's an English word, and the right arrow key if it's nonsense.

Intrigued, I took the test, using my wife's name.  I noticed that a lot of the words were ones associated with romance; "passion," "kiss," "love," "intimacy."  A few seemed random (like "shop" -- although that one elicits in me feelings of anxiety).  After clicking through about a hundred words and non-words, I got the following result:
At this moment in time, Carol hasn’t left a mark on your brain that is significant enough to be detected here and reported as an absolute intensity. It can however be compared with someone else’s mark on your brain, thereby offering you insight for choosing the right partner. For instance, the test could reveal that although Carol’s lasting mark on your brain is too mild for being reliably quantified yet, it is already double as intense as someone else’s mark on your brain.
So, I decided to compare my response from Carol's name to that from my ex-wife's.

Now, without going into unpleasant details that my reading public probably does not want to know in any case, my relationship with my ex-wife was not a good one.  It was, to put not too fine a point on it, sixteen years that I would be extremely reluctant to repeat.  So I did the test with the two names...

... and BrainDesire still couldn't detect a difference.

Me, I'm becoming skeptical.  Either my ability to tell the difference between English words and phonetic blobs like "psourghed" isn't what it should be, or else the test doesn't work on me.  Because if this thing can't tell the difference between two people, one of whom I am happily married to and the other of whom is a major contributory factor to my being on high blood pressure medication, then I think that the test is patent horse waste.

This, of course, is just my experience with it, and hardly qualifies as a rigorous scientific test.  And maybe I should have had a cup of coffee between trying to tell the difference between "passion" and "thnirks;" heaven knows that I need caffeine infusions to do anything even moderately useful in the morning.  But I think that if you want to figure out which of your two current romantic interests is The One, you're going to have to get the information a different way other than BrainDesire.  Given my results, it seems like tossing a coin might be an equally accurate way to proceed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do not adjust your set

One of the more interesting responses I got to yesterday's post was the following:
In arguing against Dinesh D'Souza's claims that physics suggests the existence of an afterlife, you bring up yet another thing that supports belief in God. That is the fine-tuning of the conditions of the universe to support life. You mentioned Martin Rees' book Just Six Numbers, about the way physical constants are set perfectly to make the universe hospitable.  Don't you find this at all suspicious?  To me this is one of the strongest proofs of God's existence -- that if any one of these constants was just a little different, we wouldn't be here.
I've heard this claim before.  It's called the Strong Anthropic Principle -- that the "fine-tuning" of the physical constants of the universe implies a Fine Tuner.  Far from finding this "suspicious," I simply respond that it's hardly surprising that we live in a universe that has hospitable conditions; without them we would never have come to be.  (This is called the Weak Anthropic Principle -- that human existence is contingent on benevolent values for a variety of physical constants, not the other way around.)

Think, for example, of going outside on a warm, June day, and a friend of yours asks, "Why is the weather perfectly comfortable for humans today?"  There are a variety of possible answers:

1)  Because god wants to be happy, so he made today's weather nice.
2)  Because a divine being fine-tuned the conditions on Earth to mostly create weather which humans will find congenial.
3)  Because if the conditions on Earth were outside of a reasonable range of temperatures and chemical compositions, life could never have arisen here.

These three answers correspond to the three most common responses to the same question writ large (Why does the universe have conditions that support life?):  (1) god as micromanager; (2) the Strong Anthropic Principle; and (3) the Weak Anthropic Principle.  I find it interesting that no one seems to find it very odd that the Earth has (mostly) human-friendly climates, and most people see no need to ascribe that to god's direct intervention -- while Christians with a scientific bent go gaga when they find out that if (for example) the amount of energy released by hydrogen fusion was 5% less, stars would not exist, and therefore neither would we.  The fact that there are many such initial conditions (Rees identifies six, but there are probably others) is seen as admitting only one possibility; god made the universe with us in mind.

Well, I'm not convinced.  There is no underlying reason that physicists have found for why the fine structure constant is equal to 1/137 -- yet.  The big deal Rees makes over the "six numbers" in the title is that they can't be derived from first principles; they seem arbitrary, empirically measured, to have no particular reason that they are what they are.  I wonder very much, however, if this is necessarily true.  It is entirely possible that all of the universal constants will turn out to be derivable, and therefore consistent with an overarching theory that simply hasn't been discovered yet.

However, my arguing from the standpoint of a Grand Unified Theory that may not exist is weak at best, and I'm not going to put too much weight on it.  To me, the only thing that is proven by the values of the universal constants is how dependent the universe's existence is on physical conditions I barely understand.  The Weak Anthropic Principle is fine by me; just as no one wonders why the weather is pleasanter on the Earth than on the surface of the sun, it's no great wonder why we live in a universe that has conditions congenial to the formation of matter, stars, complex compounds, and life.  If any one of those conditions didn't exist, we wouldn't be here to ask the question.

In any case, I highly recommend Rees' book.  It's well-written, and if not exactly an easy read, is at least approachable by the layperson.  And even if the deliberate fine-tuning of the Strong Anthropic Principle doesn't appeal to me, I am still in awe at the delicate sensitivity of matter and energy to the settings on dials we have just begun to understand.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dinesh vs. the Giant Weasel God

This morning I came across an article describing a book called Life After Death: The Evidence.   When I saw that, I clicked on the link with considerably more eagerness than my pre-coffee state would normally allow.

It wasn't, honestly, that I was expecting anything like a fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase) treatment of the subject.  I doubt that anyone is really completely unbiased on the topic.  However, it wasn't until the end that I realized that the article, and the book, were written by conservative author and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza, whose views certainly don't represent the skepticism I would hope to find in writing that claims in its title to be evidence-based.

The main claims of D'Souza's arguments seem to be based upon near-death experiences.  He emphasizes the commonality between different people's accounts of near-death experiences, and discounts the claims of psychologist Susan Blackmore, who first put forth the hypothesis that the similarity of NDEs (such as the well-known "tunnel of white light") come from the effects of brain shutdown as the person dies.

Now, before I proceed, let me state outright that I don't know whether there is life after death or not.  To me, the jury is still out on that one, and frankly, I expect it still to be out until the point when I take that final leap into the dark myself.  At that point I will know, or not (because there will no longer be any "me" left to know anything).  NDEs are intriguing (as are stories about ghosts and hauntings and so on), but at this point, as evidence they strike me as pretty thin.  Still, it's an interesting idea, and should good evidence come my way, I would certainly be willing to reconsider my position -- as befits the attitude of any true skeptic.

After that, however, D'Souza jumps right into the kind of pseudoscientific blather that is so often used to give apparent support to tenuous theories. To wit:
For the Christian conception of life after death to be viable, there have to be realms beyond the physical universe that are quite literally outside space and time. This is what the Christian concept of "eternity" means. God is eternal and heaven is His eternal realm. But in Newtonian physics these concepts made no sense, because time was presumed to extend indefinitely into the past and the future, and space was presumed to stretch unendingly in all directions.

Today, however, you just have to wander into an introductory college science class to see how 21st-century physics has greatly widened our horizons. Today scientists routinely speak of hidden dimensions, multiple realms, and even multiple universes. What do we know about multiple universes? Not a lot, but we know that if they do exist they would have laws radically different from those in our universe.

One of the direct implications of the Big Bang is that not only did the physical universe have a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. Space and time are properties of our universe. This means that in realms beyond our universe, if such realms exist, there might be no space and no time. Suddenly the Christian idea of eternity is rendered intelligible.
The first thing that is apparent to me from the preceding paragraphs is that D'Souza himself hasn't wandered into any introductory science classes himself lately.  To pick out only the most egregiously false statements from this passage:
  • Newtonian physics has nothing in particular to say about god one way or the other.  It doesn't claim that time or space was/is unending, it simply describes how objects in this space move and interact.
  • The "hidden dimensions" he refers to probably come from the concepts of string theory, which is based in mathematics of (at my last reading) up to eleven spatial dimensions.  Most string theorists believe that all but three of those spatial dimensions are "curled up" into a space far smaller than the volume of an atom; it's hard to see what those submicroscopic dimensions could affect on the macroscopic scale, far less what bearing they might have on life after death.
  • Ditto the "multiple universes."  Both string theory and the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics (which he seems to be referencing) are as yet unsupported by experimental evidence.  Plus, his final statement, that multiple universes, if they exist, are known to have radically different laws, is simply false.  The fact is, we neither know if multiple universes exist, nor if they exist, what kinds of physical laws they might have.  The book Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees explores the idea of what the universe would be like if the physical constants that shape it (such as the strength of gravity) were different.  But given that we don't know why the current universe has its constants set the way they are, it's hard to draw any conclusions about the likelihood of other universes having other laws.  And once again, I'm hard pressed to see what relevance it would have to an afterlife, in any case.
Last, he does a good bit of atheist-bashing, implying that atheists are either blundering about with blinders on, ignoring the "preponderance of evidence," or else are engaging in wishful thinking because they're afraid of being held accountable in the next life for their own misdeeds.  In his words:
I began by leveling the playing field between atheists and believers.  Sure, the believer hasn't been to the other side or questioned any dead people, but the atheist hasn't either.  So what information does the atheist have that the believer doesn't?  None.  The absence of proof is not proof of absence, so the atheist's denial of life after death, like the believer's affirmation of it, is ultimately a faith-based position.
Naturally, I take exception to this stance.  The only "faith-based" part of my own thinking is that I usually try to rely on hard evidence before adopting a stance one way or another; my "faith," if you can call it that, is that reasoning and evidence are the best way to understand the universe.  And while he is correct that "absence of proof is not proof of absence," that well-worn statement becomes a little specious when you apply it to particular situations. Let's try:
  • I believe that Bigfoot exists; you don't.  Because belief and disbelief are equivalent, "faith-based" positions, it's up to you to prove to me that Bigfoot doesn't exist.
  • There are thousands of first-hand accounts of UFOs, which amounts to a preponderance of evidence. If you can't prove that these people are lying, or deluded, UFOs exist.
And so on.  To me, whether belief and disbelief are equivalent depends entirely on what you're expecting me to believe in.  If you want me to believe that there is a Giant Weasel God who lives at the top of Mt. St. Helens and that He was directly responsible for the 1980 volcanic eruption, then I think that the burden of proof is on you.  On the other hand, if I disbelieve in the existence of the sun, then it's beholden upon me to find evidence to support my relatively non-intuitive viewpoint.  As always, Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.

Despite my criticisms of D'Souza's claims, no one would be more thrilled than me if there really was hard evidence of an afterlife.  I'm not really all that excited about the concept of Ceasing To Be.  However, to quote Carl Sagan, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Weekend wrap-up

Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we're keeping an eye on a trio of developing stories.

First, from Peru, we have a report that anthropologist Renato Dávila Riquelme has discovered the skeleton of a twenty-inch-tall "mysterious being" whose "odd, triangular skull is nearly as long as it is."  Here's a photograph of the skull (photo courtesy of Peruvian news agency RPP):

Dávila Riquelme isn't talking, but RPP has interviewed several anonymous Spanish and Russian scientists, who have identified the skull as having belonged to an alien:
It has a non-human appearance because the head is triangular and big, almost the same size as the body. At first we believed it to be a child's body until... doctors came and confirmed that, yes, it's an extraterrestrial being.
Because, obviously, doctors have a great deal of experience with extraterrestrials, and are qualified to identify an alien skull when they see one.

Me, I'm not so sure.  Given the range of peculiar birth defects out there, I'm banking on it belonging to a child with a severe skeletal abnormality, who died very young.  Tragic, but not evidence of spaceships.

All of which will come as a grave disappointment to a Ukranian man who appeared at city hall in Odessa, dressed up as Darth Vader and demanding a plot of land on which he could park his spaceship. 

"I am Darth Vader," he told three guards, who looked at him as if he had lost his mind, which given the circumstances was probably pretty accurate.  "I heard that land is being carved up in the city of Odessa, and that many deputies, city administration, and the mayor have joined the Dark Side.  I have come for my parcel of land for the spaceship."

Lord Vader's appearance seems to have been triggered by Odessa mayor Eduard Hurvits' controversial decision to offer plots of land in the area to citizens of Odessa for free as long as they agree to build houses.  Evidently the policy created a Strong Disturbance In The Force, and Lord Vader had no choice but to come to Earth to kick ass, requiring him to find a place to park his space shuttle.

Odessa City Hall spokesperson Anna Osipchuk was not amused.  "We are not on the Dark Side," Osipchuk said.  "There are only Princess Leias here."  Which is almost as baffling a statement as Lord Vader's was.  Maybe she was referring to the peculiar hairstyles favored by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko:

Which, to my eye, is still better than the Earmuff Braids worn by Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie.

Our last story will undoubtedly cheer up Lord Vader after his being rebuffed in the Ukraine.  Scientists at CERN have reaffirmed the findings from earlier this year, that neutrinos appear to be capable of traveling faster than the speed of light.  Scientists are still being cautious, however, as well they should be.  Fernando Ferroni, president of the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics, said:
A measurement so delicate and carrying a profound implication [for] physics requires an extraordinary level of scrutiny.  The experiment OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion Tracking Apparatus), thanks to a specially adapted CERN beam, has made an important test of consistency of its result. The positive outcome of the test makes us more confident in the result, although the final word can only be said by analogous measurements performed elsewhere in the world.
At this point, I'm sure you have the same question I do, namely: why is it "OPERA" and not "OPETA?"  It turns out that every time I've seen this experiment written, they write it as Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus, which puts me in mind of Calvin & Hobbes' anti-girl club GROSS (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS).  Be that as it may, this reconfirmation of the earlier measurements came as a surprise to me -- as soon as I heard about how this finding was going to demolish relativity, my immediate reaction was, "I doubt it."  But physicists are doing exactly what they should do -- carefully reexamining the experiment and its findings -- and so far, OPERA (or OPETA) has held up to scrutiny.

This, hopefully, should give some much-needed encouragement to Darth Vader, and reassure him that his spaceship can, in fact, achieve hyperdrive when he returns to the Death Star.  And when he goes, I'd like him to take that alien baby skull along with him, because that thing is creeping me out.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An anthrope considers the strange case of couth and ruth

I noticed last week that the spine was torn on my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.  It's a case of simple overuse.  Some people will wear out a beloved book from childhood; others will love to death a cherished novel, or memoir, or the bible.  Me, I wear out the ODEE.  It's kind of pathetic, really.

What led me to this unfortunate discovery was a student, predictably, who had asked me why "ruthless" was a word but there was no word for its opposite condition ("ruthful," presumably?).  I didn't know, but it did put me in mind of the following couplet:
We rode in my convertible, my girlfriend Ruth and me,
I hit a bump doing 95, and I went on, ruthlessly. 
 So I went to look it up.  It turns out that the "ruth" in "ruthless" is a cognate of "to rue," meaning "to afflict with contrition or sorrow."  So "ruthless" originally meant "lacking contrition."  The word "rue" only remains in English in the construct "to rue the day," as in, "you'll rue the day you ever double-crossed me, you dastardly and uncouth villain!"

Which brings us to "uncouth."  There's no such word as "couth," however people joke about it.  The current meaning of "uncouth" as "wild-looking, dirty, scary," is because the last part of the word comes from the Indo-European root "kynths," meaning "known."  So "uncouth" really means -- and is a cognate to -- "unknown," not "unkempt" (whose meaning it resembles more closely today).  And, by the way, the "kempt" part of "unkempt" comes from Old Norse, "kembr," meaning "combed."  So as that goes, "unkempt" and "dishevelled" were cousins a millenium ago, and still are; "shevelled" comes from Old French "chevel," meaning "hair."  Both, essentially, meant "having a bad hair day," a narrower meaning than today, when both of them usually simply mean "untidy, rumpled-looking."  (And in case you are wondering, I am both kempt and shevelled today, not to mention highly couth.)

"Disgruntled" is kind of a funny one, because here "dis" is not used in its most common meaning of a negative, but in its far less frequent role of an intensifier -- the only other example I could find was the obscure "disannul."  The "gruntled" part is a cognate of "to grunt" in its old sense of "to complain."  So really, it means "feeling like complaining really loudly."  But it's a pity that it's not one of the opposite-words, like the previous examples.  I think that having "gruntled" mean "cheerful" would just be wonderful.

"Nonchalant," and its noun form "nonchalance," are predictably from French, and were only adopted into English in the 18th century.  The last part of the words comes from "chaloir," meaning "to worry, to be concerned with," so "nonchalant" hasn't changed much in meaning since that time.  Still, you have to wonder why we can't be "chalant."  I certainly am, sometimes.

A lot of "mis" words have no opposites.  You can be a misanthrope, but not an anthrope; a miscreant but not a creant; you can commit a misdemeanor, but not a demeanor.  A mishap occurs when you are unlucky, but only the hapless among us would describe winning the lottery as a "hap."

So anyway, you get the picture.  As usual, the answer to my student's question about why such things happen in languages was "damned if I know."  I doubt much of this was new to you -- probably most of these examples were both toward and heard-of -- but perhaps you had never really stopped to think about the question before, so I hope this post was called-for, and that you were able to make both heads and tails out of it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

PETA, Mario, and El Chupacabra

It is a particularly vexing problem to try to determine my attitude toward a group whose goals I basically agree with, but whose tactics are so bizarre and repellent that I don't even want to have my name associated with them.

I'm referring in this case to PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  I think their aims are laudable -- improving conditions for animals, from pets to farm animals to animals in research to wild animals.  I find their approach hard to fathom, however, especially their deliberate use of shocking imagery, their breaking in to research facilities and releasing caged animals (most of whom probably die in the first days after release), and their treating of all animal deaths as equivalent (remember when they condemned President Obama for swatting a fly?).

They also don't understand the principle of "choose your battles."  Nor, apparently, do they have any sense as to when an extreme stance will cause far more people to laugh at you than to support you.  Because their latest campaign is against...

... Mario.

Yup.  The little Nintendo cartoon guy.  Why?  Because in his latest incarnation, in Super Mario 3D Land, he's wearing a magic fur coat that allows him to jump higher.

Further, they claim that because Mario's fur coat is modeled after the fur of the Japanese raccoon dog (tanuki), that he is directly responsible for the death of tanukis raised for fur in Japan.  So they decided to make their own game, in which a bloody, hairless tanuki is chasing Mario around trying to get his fur back.  And on their website, they have a picture of a crazed Mario holding up a severed tanuki head.

And I'm thinking, "Really?  They're going after a video game character?  Don't they have anything better to do with their time and resources?  Or are they just trying to lose what little credibility they have left?"

Don't get me wrong; I'm a strong advocate of treating animals with respect and kindness, and I think much of the treatment of animals in industry is reprehensible.  But... a video game character?  Wearing a fur suit that isn't real?  It reminds me of what my dad once said to a salesman in a furniture store, when he was being shown a chair upholstered in Naugahyde:  "Aren't you afraid that sooner or later, you'll run out of Naugas?"

On the other hand, the whole ridiculous incident may explain recent happenings in Oklahoma, in which a teenager shot an animal that he thought was El Chupacabra.  On further analysis, it turned out that the dead animal was actually a hairless raccoon.

Maybe the whole El Chupacabra phenomenon can be laid at Mario's feet, you know?  Maybe they're going on the rampage because they're trying to get their fur back, and prevent Mario from getting all those little gold coins, and jumping on the magic boxes, and so on.  We probably shouldn't tell PETA this, however, or they will swarm en masse to the Southwest and begin a "Save the Chupacabra" campaign.

On the other hand, maybe it will give them something to do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tea. Panda poo. Hot.

You may have heard about Luwak Coffee, the "most expensive brew on Earth," which is made from coffee beans that were pooped out by an Indonesian species of weasel called a luwak.  Supposedly the beans ferment in the luwak's digestive tract, and this gives the coffee a "distinctive aroma."  (I'll just bet it does.)  To experience this... um... delicacy, you have to be willing to pay $600 a pound.

Now a Chinese tea manufacturer is trying to top this by producing the most expensive tea on Earth.  Inspired by the hard-to-fathom success of Luwak Coffee, An Yanshi has created a tea for which he is charging £ 50,000 per kilo (about $36,000 a pound).

Made from panda poo.

I wish I was making this up, but if you don't believe me, here's the source

"Pandas have a very poor digestive system and only absorb about 30 per cent of everything they eat. That means their excrement is rich in fibres and nutrients," An explained.  "It has a mature, nutty taste and a very distinctive aroma while it's brewing."

(I'll just bet it does.)

So, I'm sure that given the price, it will become a delicacy.  What is it with the word "delicacy," anyway?  The dictionary definition is that a delicacy is something "pleasing to eat that is a rarity or luxury."  My feeling is that this definition is incorrect; it should be, "something that you should only consume if it is because you stand to win a great deal of money from your buddies for swallowing it."  Examples include the durian fruit of Southeast Asia (which smells so disgusting that it is a crime to cut one open in a hotel room) and hakarl (Icelandic fermented shark meat, which informed sources tell me "has a pungent ammonia smell").

So if you're thinking of going all-out in the delicacy department, you could have some hakarl, follow it up with a bowl of durian, and wash it all down with panda-crap tea.  That would certainly be a "distinctive" meal!  Mmm-mmm!

Myself, I wonder if this will catch on.  $36,000 per pound seems a little steep to have the privilege of drinking stewed panda poop, and I'm not sure how many people out there are both (1) seriously rich, and (2) insane.  But you never know; I thought the same thing about the much-cheaper Luwak Coffee when it came on the market about ten years ago, and there it is, still selling like crazy.  It could be that there are even crazier people with even larger amounts of money who will be willing to buy An Yanshi's poolong tea.

If it does sell, I will find that to be a little discouraging, considering what good things could be done with $36,000.  You could buy a nice car, take a grand vacation, or even just pay down your mortgage -- and instead, there the money goes, for a pound of panda poop.  But to each his own, and a fool and his money are soon parted, and all that sort of stuff.

But for An Yanshi's sake, I hope some of it does sell, because five tons of panda poop is an awful lot to be stuck with.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hey, you, get offa my cloud

Along Cayuga Lake, near where I live, is Milliken Station Power Plant.  On cool days its smokestack can be seen topped with a plume of steam.  Nearby is Portland Point, a renowned Devonian fossil-collecting site.

It was the fossils that brought a ninth-grade Earth Science class there, some years ago, which I had been asked to help chaperone.  The kids were all happily mucking around in the shale, looking for fossils, when one young lady -- who was known not to be overendowed with brains -- looked over at the nearby power plant smokestack, and said, wonder in her voice, "So that's where clouds come from!"

There are times when my natural compassion and my tendency to guffaw at people who say stupid things do war with each other.  I think I didn't laugh at her, but it was an effort.

But lest you think that this lack of understanding about concepts like "water vapor" and "condensation" is limited to this long-ago student, allow me to introduce you to Diane Tessman.  Now, Diane doesn't think, as our student did, that clouds are manufactured in Ithaca, New York and then exported all over the world.  No, that would be ridiculous.

Diane Tessman believes clouds are manufactured by UFOs as camouflage.

At first, I thought her claims were a joke, intended to make fun of the whole UFO/alien coverup crowd.  Sadly, it is not.  She has written an article (here) in which she describes how alien spacecraft produce clouds to hide within or behind.  These are not oddly-shaped clouds, Ms. Tessman says; no, they are ordinary, puffy white cumulus clouds, because hiding behind an oddly-shaped cloud would call attention to the UFO instead of hiding it.

By this point, you're probably asking yourself: if they don't look any different, how can I tell a UFO cloud from a regular cloud?  Answer:  you can't.  You just have to watch a bunch of clouds, and wait until the camouflage slips and you see a UFO.

It's kind of an odd camouflage, when you think about it.  Picture yourself as the alien captain, on a vital mission to Earth, and there you are, sitting inside a cloud, just drifting along with the other,  non-UFO-generated clouds.  You can't change direction or speed, because it's not like the cloud is going to come along with you.  It means that whatever your mission was intended to accomplish, you'd better hope that it was downwind of your current position, and not needing attention any time soon.

Of course, Ms. Tessman says, we also have to consider the possibility that clouds may not just be camouflage; it's possible that clouds are naturally generated by "dimensional travel."

Whatever that means.

The whole thing is kind of spooky, isn't it?  How many times have we had nice picnics on beautiful summer days, and lain on blankets looking up at the peaceful white clouds sailing by?  Now, you have to wonder how many of those clouds hid evil aliens, spying on us, waiting until we fall asleep so they can steal the oatmeal-raisin cookies we brought for dessert.

At this point, some of you may be questioning Ms. Tessman's credentials.  If so, they're provided at the end of the article.  She states that she is a former public school teacher; one can only hope that her subject wasn't physics.  She participated in many projects with MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), and after many years discovered that she had a personal reason for her interest; while under hypnosis, she discovered that as a child she had been visited by, and had "shared consciousness with," an alien being called "Tibus."  Tibus has apparently provided her with such vital information as the fact that hurricanes are dangerous and it's a problem when a nuclear power plant explodes.  And now that we've had Katrina and the meltdown at Fukushima, we can definitely all agree that Tibus knows what he's talking about.

But mainly, I'm glad that we now have an explanation for clouds other than Milliken Station Power Plant.  Because frankly, given the demand for clouds in places like the Amazon Rain Forest, it's been hard for Milliken Station to keep up with production quotas.  It's a relief to know that all we have to do is to send some UFOs down there to do "dimensional travel," and there will be clouds aplenty.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Out of line

The latest conspiracy theory, as if we needed another one, is that the Chinese are up to something out in the Kumtag Desert.

An article at Gizmodo (you can read the whole thing, and see photographs, here) shows a screen capture of a Google Earth view, with the arid expanses of eastern China overlaid with a strange pattern of white lines.  The photograph is captioned, "What the hell, China?", presumably because asking China "What the hell?" has resulted in their immediate cooperation in the past.

The author of the article, and some of the people who posted comments afterwards, speculate that the lines might be:
  • top secret military bases;
  • an evil new weather-control station along the lines of HAARP;
  • landing sites for aliens;
  • a mock-up of the streets in a major US city, to be used as target practice; or
  • magical patterns involving pentagrams and Masonic symbols.
Or maybe all of the above.  They conveniently leave out my own personal favorite explanation, which is that it is:
  • Photoshopped.
But of course, I have no proof of that, and even mentioning it would probably make the conspiracy theorists decide that I am part of the conspiracy, and maybe even that I am secretly Chinese despite the fact that I am a blue-eyed blond.  (Maybe I was genetically altered, who knows?)

In any case, I find the whole thing screamingly funny, especially the part about pentagrams and Masons, because we all know how many Satan-worshiping Chinese Masons there are.  The part about the city street maps is also kind of funny, especially given the map that was posted, overlaying the Chinese line pattern with a map of Washington, DC:

The map is followed by the comment that the grid pattern "does sort of resemble the configuration of streets near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."  *one eyebrow raised in a significant fashion*

To which I reply: well, not really all that much.  You'd think that if the Chinese were trying to create a mock-up of the streets of DC in order to "calibrate their optical targeting systems," it would conform perfectly, not just "sort of."  On the one hand, the writer seems to think that the Chinese are up to something super-technological and amazingly top secret, and in the same breath that they can't draw a straight line.  C'mon, you can't have it both ways.  If they were trying to target DC, it'd be kind of important to get the map correct, don't you think?  It'd also be pretty easy, given that accurate street maps of major US cities have been available online for years.

Of course, the problem is the usual one; if you're allowed to rotate, shrink, or enlarge a random pattern of lines, you can always make it align to another such random pattern -- as long as you're content with a "sort of" fit.  I'd bet that I could take the Chinese line pattern and make it align to the streets of Ithaca, New York, if I wanted to, and also if I had technological skills higher than that of a typical kindergartner, which I don't.  It's like my previous post about ley lines; if you can manipulate the data, and you're okay with an approximate match, you can always find a pattern.

So, what are the Chinese really doing out there?  Assuming, of course, that the pattern wasn't Photoshopped in by some hoaxer?  The answer: I have no idea.  But I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and state for the record that I'll bet it has nothing to do with alien landing sites, optical targeting systems, evil weather-control apparatus, or the Masons.  On the other hand, if today an alien spacecraft adorned with Masonic symbols lands in the middle of downtown Ithaca during a freak tornado, I will consider myself as standing corrected.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Herman Cain and the voice of god

Why is politics the only field in which you can admit to hearing voices and people don't immediately assume you've lost your mind?

Thus far, we've had Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann who've told cheering crowds that god wanted them to pursue the presidency.  The latest presumptive Joan of Arc is Herman Cain, who told a meeting of Young Republicans in Atlanta yesterday that god had told him personally to run for president, and in fact had compared him to Moses.

"That's when I prayed and prayed and prayed," Cain told the assembled crowd.  "I'm a man of faith — I had to do a lot of praying for this one, more praying than I've ever done before in my life.  And when I finally realized that it was God saying that this is what I needed to do, I was like Moses.  'You've got the wrong man, Lord.  Are you sure?'"

And instead of backing away slowly, keeping their eyes on Cain the entire time, which is what I would have done, the Young Republicans ate it up.  Apparently the comment got a wild round of applause.

Myself, I think that whether or not you believe in god, you should always be suspicious of people who claim that god is speaking to them.  For one thing, I'm hard pressed to see how you'd figure out if it was really god, or if you were just having a psychotic break.  For another, don't you find it a little curious that god has given his personal stamp of approval to Perry, Bachmann, and Cain?  Is god having a hard time making up his mind?  Or does he just like tight races?

And, of course, you have the broader problem that the cheering Christians who are thrilled to find out that god is involved in the 2012 presidential election are the same ones who are shocked and horrified to hear that many Muslim terrorists do what they do because they claim that "Allah told them to."  Ridiculous, they say.  There is no Allah, you people are loons.  On the other hand, when Oral Roberts said in 1987 that god had told him that if he didn't raise eight million dollars in three months, god would "call him home," the money poured in.

He raised nine million dollars in three months.  And didn't die.  Hallelujah!

I find the whole thing baffling and not a little troubling.  Being an atheist, I would, of course.  But even if you're religious, isn't it a little worrisome?  I would think that the long, nasty history of people doing horrible things while claiming that god had directed their actions would scare even the most devout.  Then, how do you know which, if any, of the three current candidates are telling the truth, so you know which one god wants you to vote for?  In the end, most people probably will do their own version of asking what god wants them to do, and cast their votes for the one whose politics most closely align with their own -- resulting in the rather amusing conjecture that god has an opinion on whether we should dismantle the Department of Education, Department of Commerce, and one other department that will come to me in a minute.

So, anyway, that's the news from the American political scene, which once again is providing ample fodder for eye-rolling.  But I think I'll wrap this up, because I think god is telling me that the coffee is ready.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Allahu akbar! Or maybe not.

Once again, the fervently religious of our world have shown themselves capable of following the Red Queen's dictum of holding several contradictory thoughts in their heads at once.  In this case, it's Egyptian Muslims, who have sentenced a man to three years in jail at hard labor for "criticizing Islam."  (See the news story if you're interested in reading more about this travesty.)

The radical Muslim element in Egypt has been quick to speak out against the sentence.  It was too lenient, they say -- the man should have been executed.

It's a little perplexing how these folks, and their spiritual brethren the Fundamentalist Christians, can't see the contradiction implicit in their stance.  On the one hand, they are continuously chanting, singing, and shouting from the rooftops about how God is Great and All-Powerful and Omnipotent and Omniscient and Omnipresent and Omni-Various-Other-Stuff, and on the other hand they are so terrified that a brief passage written by a guy on Facebook will destroy Allah's kingdom on earth that they are ready to hang him from the nearest flagpole.

The same was true of the witch-hunters in the 17th century, who seemed to believe that the unshakable, self-evident, rock-solid truth of god's word was under serious threat from illiterate, eccentric little old ladies.

Come on, people.  You can't have it both ways.  Either god is powerful, or he's not.  If he's powerful, you have no reason to persecute people for bad-mouthing him; presumably god is capable of handling his own battles, and doesn't need patriarchal, humorless, puritanical bastards like the Shari'a courts to deal with his enemies.  If he's not so powerful -- if, in fact, his revealed truth could be demolished by a couple of paragraphs of mild criticism -- then I have to wonder why you think he's worthy of worship.  Either way, both can't be true simultaneously.

Oh, wait, perhaps there's a third option?  Maybe all of this stuff was made up by power-hungry patriarchs to keep the power structure intact, the money flowing in, and the women in line, and in actuality there is no god!  Gotta wonder.

In any case, you also have to wonder why so few people are willing to stand up and say this.  Lots of folks are willing to address the human rights aspects (torturing and executing people isn't nice) but very few people are willing to deal with the larger issue, which is that these people are morally bankrupt.  A religion, or a system of ethics (so to speak), which is based upon coercion (mental or physical), is simply an excuse for the powerful to remain powerful.  It isn't true, it isn't worthy of respect, and it isn't a reflection of the divine.  It is simply an embodiment of all that is bad about human nature -- the desire to dominate solely because we're in a position where we can.

It's the same with a lot of the issues between the Christians and politicians these days, isn't it?  You hear that heterosexual marriage is "under attack" by people who are in favor of legalizing gay marriage.  The ranting you hear from the pulpits seems to claim that if gay marriage is legalized, then all of these straight people will suddenly run right out and tie the knot with someone of the same sex, and will open the door for heaven knows what.  In a year or two you'd probably have people marrying various marine invertebrates.  You know, if you think that sexual preference is really that fluid, you have to question why your god would have made it that way.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that if your worldview is based upon fear, then any amount of rationality won't get in the way of your adopting moronic stances to shore up your beliefs.

Of course, some people believe that there's god's evil twin, Satan or Lucifer or whatever, who is actively trying to corrupt people by using others to spread wrong belief.  Even if you think that's true, however, isn't it still supposedly the case that god is stronger than Satan, and correct beliefs are inherently more attractive and virtuous than incorrect ones?  If so, then once again, what the hell are you so worried about?

So once more, we have the devoutly religious of the world adopting a stance which is so patently ridiculous that if it were fiction, no one would believe it was plausible; and most of the world's political leaders doing nothing but tsk-tsking in their direction for "not being nice."  It would be wonderful if one, just one, of them would stand up and say, "You know what, Egyptian leaders?  We are no longer in the Middle Ages.  We stopped burning witches three hundred years ago.  That's because doing that sort of thing was based upon stupid, backward superstition.  Grow up, you idiotic bastards, and join the 21st century.  If criticism is really such a threat to your beliefs, it probably means that your beliefs are simply wrong."

But no one will, of course.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The dial goes all the way to eleven

Well, it's finally 11/11.  Happy Veterans' Day to all of you who have served your country, which I think is a much better way to mark the day than to succumb to all of the numerological hoopla that is happening regarding the confluence of ones in today's date.

I just read, for example, that the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities is closing the Pyramids today, ostensibly because of a need for "maintenance following a busy period during Muslim holidays."  The real reason, as confirmed by Atef Abu Zahab, the director of the Department of Pharaonic Archeology and a member of the Council, was that they wanted to avoid any "strange rituals that were going to be held within the walls of the pyramid on November 11, 2011."

Apparently, the internet has been full of people making plans to hold ceremonial dances, meditation sessions, and ritual casting of magic spells in a variety of so-called sacred places, such as the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Glastonbury Tor, and so on.  Egypt, being a country not known for its quick acceptance of alternative belief systems, basically said, "Not on our watch, buddy."  But if you happens to live near a site that has any woo-woo significance, you might want to keep an eye out today -- especially as the clock approaches 11:11 AM.

I've never understood why people go for numerology.  Whenever there's any unusual confluence of numbers in (for example) a date, there are news articles that babble about how amazing it is, and how long it's been since a similar arrangement has happened, and so on, conveniently neglecting the fact that my last birthday (10/26/2011) is also a completely unique number string -- that particular set of numbers will never occur in that order in a date again!  To which most people, understandably, respond, *yawn*.

But when there's some kind of apparent pattern, it makes everyone think that there's some sort of significance.  Of course, this conveniently ignores that the calendar is a human construct, and quite arbitrary in many ways.   For example, November 2, 2011 was a palindromic date (11/02/2011) - but only if you live in the US.  Other countries, which put the day first and the month second, already had their Palindrome Day on February 11.  Does the universe take that sort of thing into account when it schedules its Cosmic Convergences?  As far as 11/11/11 at 11:11 AM, we have to ask: what time zone?  Will the amazing events that are supposed to be in the offing going to be operating on Eastern Standard Time?  I hope so, because if it's Greenwich Mean Time, 11:11 already passed, and as far as I can tell nothing interesting happened.

So, anyway, my general thought is that playing these kind of number games is a little silly, even if unsurprising.  Human brains are wired to detect patterns; and the result is that sometimes we will attribute meaning to patterns that are actually meaningless coincidences.  Harmless, actually, unless you were planning on visiting the Pyramids today.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tut tut

Most of you are probably familiar with the famous "King Tut's Curse."

The story goes that when British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the hitherto undisturbed tomb of King Tutankhamen, the "Boy King" of Egypt during the 18th dynasty, it unleashed a curse on the men who had desecrated it -- resulting in the deaths of (by some claims) twenty of the expedition members.

Tutankhamen was the son of the famous "Heretic King" Akhenaten, and died at the age of eighteen in 1341 BCE.  Some archaeologist speculate that he was murdered, but current forensic anthropology seems to indicate that he died of a combination of malaria and complications from a badly broken leg.

Be that as it may, shortly after Tut's tomb was opened, people associated with the expedition began to die.  The first was Lord Carnarvon, who had funded Carter's expedition, who cut himself badly while shaving and died shortly thereafter of sepsis from an infection.  While it's easy enough to explain a death from infection in Egypt prior to the advent of modern antibiotics, the deaths continued after the members of the expedition returned to London:
  • Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, was found smothered in a Mayfair club.
  • Bethell's father, Lord Westbury, fell to his death from his seventh-floor flat -- where he had kept artifacts from the tomb his son had given him.
  • Aubrey Herbert, half-brother of the first victim Lord Carnarvon, died in a London hospital "of mysterious symptoms."
  • Ernest Wallis Budge, of the British Museum, was found dead in his home shortly after arranging for the first public show of King Tut's sarcophagus.
And so on.  All in all, twenty people associated with the expedition died within the first few years after returning to England.  (It must be said that Howard Carter, who led the expedition, lived for another sixteen years; and you'd think that if King Tut would have wanted to smite anyone, it would have been Carter.  And actually, a statistical study done of Egyptologists who had entered pharaohs' tombs found that their average age at death was no lower than that of the background population.)

Still, that leaves some decidedly odd deaths to explain.  And now historian Mark Benyon thinks he's figured out how to explain them.

In his soon-to-be-released book, London's Curse: Murder Black Magic, and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End (available for pre-order here), Benyon lays the deaths of Carter's associates in London -- especially Bethell, Westbury, Herbert, and Budge, all of which were deaths by foul play -- at the feet of none other than Aleister Crowley.

Crowley, the self-proclaimed "Wickedest Man on Earth," was a sex-obsessed heroin addict who had founded a society called "Thelema."  Thelema's motto was "Do what thou wilt," which narrowly edged out Crowley's second favorite, which was "Screw anything or anyone that will hold still long enough."  His rituals were notorious all over London for drunken debauchery, and few doubted then (and fewer doubt now) that there was any activity so depraved that Crowley wouldn't happily indulge in it.

One of Crowley's obsessions was Jack the Ripper.  He believed that the Ripper murders had been accomplished through occult means, and frequently was heard to speak of Jack the Ripper with reverence.  Benyon believes that when Crowley heard about Howard Carter's discoveries, he was outraged -- many of Thelema's rituals and beliefs were derived from Egyptian mythology -- and he came up with the idea of a series of copycat murders to get even with the men who had (in his mind) desecrated Tutankhamen's tomb.

It's an interesting hypothesis.  Surely all of the expedition members knew of Crowley -- almost everyone in London at the time did -- and at least one (Budge) was an occultist who ran in the same circles as Crowley.  That Crowley was capable of such a thing is hardly to be questioned.  Whether Benyon has proved the case or not remains to be seen, but even at first glance it certainly makes better sense than the Pharaoh's Curse malarkey.  I will definitely read Benyon's book with interest when it comes out, and may have more to say about it after that -- and until then, we'll just file this under "Another woo-woo claim plausibly explained by logic and rationality."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Coming soon to a catastrophe near you

As part of my ongoing inquiry into Reasons To Spend Your Life Quivering In Mortal Fear, today's topic is: Death Meteorites.

Astronomers have recently generated some serious buzz on this topic by reporting that the euphoniously-named asteroid 2005YU55 was going to be making a near pass, which it did without incident last night.  At its closest approach, the 400-meter-wide block of rock was 324,600 km from Earth, and traveling at 29,000 mph -- which is pretty impressive.  And even if 324,600 km seems like a long way away, in astronomical terms it's a close enough shave that there have been several fairly hysterical articles recently describing the havoc that could ensue if one of these things hit the earth.

To be sure, the Earth does get hit regularly.  On June 30, 1908, a stony meteorite estimated to be only 50 meters in diameter hit the earth in the Tunguska region of Siberia, creating a tremendous fireball and radially flattening trees for miles around the impact site; it registered on seismographs in London.  Artist's renditions of the event, reconstructed from eyewitness accounts, show a brilliant streak across the sky ending in an enormous explosion that for a moment outshone the sun.  It was fortunate that it landed in a fairly unpopulated area, and not in a city or even in the ocean, where it would have raised a tsunami that would have dwarfed the December 2007 Indonesian catastrophe.

A 1.2 kilometer wide rock slammed into the earth around 15,000 years ago, leaving a large pockmark in the Arizona desert aptly named Meteor Crater.  Given that this is already high desert, it's a little hard to imagine how the area could be any more desolate than it already is, but a collision of this scale must have devastated thousands of square miles.

This, of course, is nowhere near the 10 to 20 kilometer wide meteor that left Chicxulub Crater north of the Yucatan, ending the Cretaceous Era with a (literal) bang and leaving a layer of dust to mark the event in sedimentary rocks worldwide.  The devastation that caused is of an unimaginable scale, to me at least, but once again artists have attempted to paint the event as it might have appeared (from a safe distance).  This seems to have been the final death knell of the majority of dinosaur clades, with the exception of the one that includes birds.  (Yes, birds are dinosaurs. That point is literally beyond question now, since proteins from Tyrannosaurus rex fossils have been successfully sequenced and shown to be unequivocally related to bird proteins.  Whether they tasted like chicken remains to be seen, but evidence from bone homology has pointed toward a relationship between birds and deinonychid dinosaurs for years; this is just the final nail.  Give that some thought next time you're feeding the chickadees.)

Anyhow, the open question is how soon will another collision will occur, and how big the collision will be.  One the size of Tunguska apparently strikes once every century or so.  Meteor Crater sized rocks are less frequent, on the order of one every 10,000 years (meaning that we're overdue, not that these events work on any sort of predictable timetable).  Era-ending rocks the size of the one that created Chicxulub strike only once every 100 million years.

All of this, however, is only talking about average strike intervals, and you know the problem with averages; if you have one foot in a pot of boiling water and the other encased in ice, on the average you're comfortable.  Averages really tell you nothing about actualities, and the reality is that a meteor could strike downtown Detroit tomorrow (undoubtedly doing millions of dollars' worth of improvements), or we might not have one strike for another million years.  No way to tell.  How's that for a cheery thought?

And to make your day even happier, two questions remain: (1) Will we see a potentially devastating meteor coming? and (2) if we do see it, will we be able to do anything to deflect or destroy it?  The answer seems to be no to both.  Given that the asteroid that played chicken with the Earth last night is 400 meters wide, and the one that struck Tunguska was only 50 meters wide, you can see that it doesn't take a particularly huge piece of rock to wreak havoc.  It's entirely possible that a Tunguska-sized meteor would be missed until it was only days away from striking, and maybe not even then.  Given that kind of lead time, there's no way we could send any kind of rocket up to meet it, deflect it, blow it up, whatever.  With a bigger rock, we'd see it sooner, and might have more time to react, but the problem is that in that case it's... a bigger rock.  Even if we successfully shattered it, the fragments would still pose a hazard, and they would continue on largely the same course as the original rock had (Newton's First Law being strictly enforced in most jurisdictions).  Deflecting it using a retrorocket-like device is at least a possibility, but I wonder if we're technologically capable of doing such a thing.

In any case, it's not likely, certainly not soon.  Astronomers have most of the near-earth asteroids of any size catalogued, their trajectories predicted for several centuries hence, and they have assured us that no collisions are imminent.  There's really no reason to lose any sleep over the fact that there might well be a Cosmic Death Asteroid Hurtling Toward Your Village, and There's Nothing You Or Anyone Else Can Do To Stop It.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Full disclosure

So now, a bunch of conspiracy theorists calling themselves the Paradigm Research Group have presented the White House with a petition containing 17,000 signatures demanding that the USA come clean about its knowledge of aliens.

The petition said that its signatories were asking that the government "formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race and immediately release into the public domain all files from all agencies and military services relevant to this phenomenon."

Well, if I were a government official, and I received such a petition, I can tell you that my immediate response would have been:  ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  I almost always have that reaction to people who think that X-Files: The Movie was a historical documentary.  It doesn't help that the name of their organization includes the word "paradigm," which I've found almost always indicates that the people involved either (1) have a tenuous grasp on reality, or (2) are involved in educational research, which frequently (3) go together.

But I digress.

What's interesting is that the petition garnered 17,000 signatures.  On their website, the PRG seems to feel that this is some kind of point in their favor, following the truth-by-consensus model - that the more people that believe something, the more likely it is to be correct.  You'll hear creationists using the same sort of argument, as if the fact that they have successfully convinced a significant percentage of Americans with their specious fairy tales means anything other than that people can be awfully gullible at times.  The PRG goes on and on about how the American people are demanding "full disclosure" -- in fact, there is a ticker on their homepage that says how long President Obama has gone without disclosing our contact with extraterrestrials.

And now the White House has responded.

Phil Larson, senior space policy and communications advisor to the president, sent the PRG a reply considerably more courteous than mine would have been:
The US government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race.  In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye.

Many scientists and mathematicians have ... come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life.  Many have also noted, however, that the odds of us making contact with any of them -- especially any intelligent ones -- are extremely small, given the distances involved.

But that's all statistics and speculation. The fact is we have no credible evidence of extraterrestrial presence here on Earth.
An AFP reporter who commented upon Larson's response wrote that this was a "blow to conspiracy theorists everywhere."  My feeling is: not really.  It's not like the "full disclosure" people are going to read this and go, "Oh.  Okay, then," and find another hobby.  That's not how conspiracy theorists operate.  Denial by the government is what they expected.  That a senior space advisor would respond at all means that he's hiding something.  And of course, there's always the tactic of picking apart what he said, looking for hidden information:  how do we know the distances involved, if we haven't been contacted?  If there's no "credible evidence," might there not be incredible evidence?  Ha!  We knew something was going on!

If I'd been the president, I'd have just told my senior space advisor to ignore the petition and advise me about something else, such as reassuring me that the asteroid that's making a near pass of the Earth today is not, in fact, going to play a cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole with Baltimore.  And then I'd tell him to pop the movie Contact in the DVD player, and get me a beer.  That's the kind of space advisor I'd hire, if I was president. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

For sale: One haunted lighthouse

Looking for a great property to purchase?  Strutt & Parker, LLP, of London, has the place for you.


(1) Awesome ocean view.
(2) Two acres of private beach.
(3) Picturesque.
(4) Ready to occupy immediately.


(1) It's a lighthouse.
(2) It's haunted.

Of course, (2) under the "downsides" might actually deserve to be (5) under the "upsides," depending on your attitude toward ghosts.  Me, I think that'd be a selling point.  I've always wanted to live in a haunted house, or at least stay in one for a while.  For one thing, it would allow me finally to check out the whole phenomenon first-hand, without having to rely on evidence of such dubious provenance as "My Uncle Fred's ex-wife saw a ghost in this room!"  Of course, being (to put not too fine a point on it) a wuss, if a ghost really did appear to me, I'd probably wet my pants and then have a stroke.  Especially if it was of the gruesome, blood-streaked kind, the sort made popular by movies like The Sixth Sense.  Just watching that movie made me want to hide under the bed, except that's where the little girl that her stepmom poisoned was hanging out, and she's not exactly the sort of company you want in those circumstances.

But I digress.

The property in question is the Point of Ayr Lighthouse in Wales, and looks like a pretty cool place.  (See a photograph here.)  It has that lonely, windswept ambiance that definitely lends itself to ghostly occupation, and is a steal at £ 100,000.  However, you might want to hear something about your potential roommate before you lock in a downpayment.

The ghost in question has been seen on the balcony and also on the lower floors, and is usually dressed in work clothes.  There have been voices heard, calling out someone's name, and more than one instance of "spectral laughter."  Dogs apparently routinely refuse to go into the lighthouse.  One witness, Adam Corkill of Stockport, reports seeing a man up on the top of the tower who "appeared to be fixing equipment," but upon investigation the place was locked and empty.

I don't know about you, but having someone fix stuff in my house for free would be welcome, even if he was a ghost.  And that goes double if he's willing to mow the lawn.

However, before you jump you might want to consider the testimony of one Neil Hayden, of Birkenhead:
When I was 16 me and my best mate used to go and visit a relative of his in Talacre.

The occasion that sticks out is one day while on the beach, we saw what we can only describe as one massive footprint, like nothing human size.  The footprint was pointing towards the lighthouse, and as we stared at each other and panicked, there was an almighty bang on the inside of the lighthouse door, we ran back towards the dunes, and turned round to see someone shining a torch at us, this was about eight o’clock at night, just going dusk. 

Not only did the torch business frighten us but the footprint too, which believe it or not disappeared within the 15 minutes it took us to go get a witness.  No high tide, no one on the beach and no sign of the footprint being rubbed out.
So, I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty creepy.  Fixing the equipment and hanging around in jeans and blue chambray work shirts is one thing; making gigantic mysterious disappearing footprints and larking around with flashlights is another one entirely.

So, on the whole, it seems like a mixed bag.  Unfortunately for a variety of reasons, I don't have £ 100,000 just hanging around, or I'd consider it.  It'd be nice to have a vacation property in Wales, which is a lovely place, and I like being near the ocean.  I'd also like to have a chance to see if someone who is as generally skeptical as I am would have any sorts of paranormal experiences there, and also to see if my dogs would "refuse to enter."  I happen to know that one of my dogs, whose name (Grendel) and junkyard dog appearance mask a personality that is best described as "Cream Puff," is a bigger wuss than I am, and if he sensed anything weird about the place we'd have to drag him inside bodily.  So he'd be a pretty good gauge of the general atmosphere.

On the other hand, it's not the most practical of properties.  For one thing, it very much gives the impression of not having central heating, which would be a serious disadvantage in a climate such as that of coastal Wales.  For another, I'm not sure we're ready for the upkeep, even with a ghostly workman assisting us.  We have enough trouble with light housekeeping -- I don't think we're ready for lighthouse keeping.