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.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Family matters

New from the "You're Kidding, Right?" department, we find out that it's significant that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are distant cousins.

Genealogists have apparently figured out that Trump and Clinton both descend from English King Edward III, making them 19th cousins, give or take a once-removed.  Trump traces his descent through his mother's family (the MacLeods), and Clinton through her father's (the Rodhams).

Author A. J. Jacobs, who worked with genealogical research website to figure all this out, waxed rhapsodic about what it all meant.

"Their 18th great grandfather is King Edward III, so there is precedent for ruling a country," Jacobs said.  "It’s in their genes."

Turns out, according to the article, that not only do Clinton and Trump have British royal blood -- so does every one of the United States presidents except for Martin van Buren (mostly because van Buren was of Dutch ancestry).  All of the others, apparently, descend from King John of England, not that that's any great claim to fame, as John was so notorious for losing territory through military ineptitude that he was nicknamed John "Lackland," and has been described by historians as "petty, spiteful, and cruel."

Be that as it may, there are a couple of problems with this whole contention.

The first one is the idea that being 19th cousins would confer upon a pair of people any related traits at all.  Let's suppose that such characteristics as "fitness to rule a country" are actually inheritable -- a supposition, by the way, which is almost certainly wrong, but which for the sake of argument we'll bear with for the time being.  How many of Edward III's kingliness genes would Clinton and Trump share?

Assuming that Clinton and Trump have no other common ancestry -- another lousy assumption, as you'll see in a moment -- to figure out the proportion of their shared heritage, you'd use something like the following calculation.  Siblings have the same parents; first cousins share one set of grandparents, and therefore half of their lineage; second cousins, one set of great-grandparents, and thus a fourth of their lineage, and so on.  So the shared heritage of a set of nth-degree cousins is 1 over 2 to the nth power.  Which in the case of 19th cousins, means that...

One-524,288th of their ancestry is the same.  In other words: not much.

But what about that assumption of no other shared ancestry?  The number of ancestors in your family tree doubles every generation; so it's the inverse of the previous calculation.  If there have been 19 generations between Edward III's time and now, then Trump and Clinton would each have something over five hundred thousand ancestors.  Each.

Given that current estimates of England's population in the mid-14th century average at around four million individuals, what's the likelihood that they don't descend from damn near every medieval British person who left descendants -- kings, commoners, peasants, all of them?  Everyone with English ancestry is related, and the chances are good that they all descend from royalty.

Oh, and while we're on the subject: my wife also descends from King Edward III.  I don't seem to, although on the Scottish side of my family I descend from King Duncan (of Macbeth fame) through my ancestor Alexander Lindsay, the evil "Red Earl" who lost his soul to the devil in a dice game and now haunts Glamis Castle, swearing loudly and scaring small children.

So maybe there's something to this genetic predisposition thing, after all.

It's kind of funny that this sort of claim gets circulated at all, given the fact that with a little bit of logic and a few simple calculations, you can easily see how ridiculous it is.  Maybe it's because the whole concept of royal blood and nobility has been so drilled into our cultural consciousness by fairy tales that we think it must mean something if you can trace your ancestry back to King Angus the Demented.  Or maybe it's because a lot of people can't be bothered to question what they read.

Myself, I'm just as happy that the majority of my heritage (with the exception of the aforementioned evil Earl) is solid peasant stock.  Some of those kings and queens were loons.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Privilege blindness

It is a mystery to me why some people think that any curtailment of their choice to be as offensive as they want is an infringement of their fundamental rights.

It's this kind of attitude that led to the following, which has been widely posted (often to shouts of acclamation):

The level of "I don't get it" that is embodied in this one image is staggering, even if (as one poster said), "It's satire."  Are you really trying to equate the gay pride flag, a symbol of solidarity in the face of oppression, with the Confederate flag, which to many people represents slavery, prejudice, bigotry, and persecution?  And further, are you actually claiming that Vester Flanagan, the gay African American man who gunned down two reporters while they were on the air, was motivated to do so by his homosexuality to the same extent that Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was motivated by his race hatred and espousal of white supremacy?

Satire, my ass.  This isn't satire.  This is redneck rah-rah willful ignorance.

And need I add that every person I've seen post this is a heterosexual white man?  Nah, probably didn't need to mention it.  The enculturation of privilege has blinded these people to the possibility that not everyone has the same access to security, acceptance, and safety that they do.  So let me do a little wake-up call for y'all.

You don't know what it's like to be in danger when you walk down the street because of your gender.  You don't know what it's like to be jeered at because of your skin color, and to wonder if those jeers could progress to violence, to consider whether your decision to be in this place at this time might be the last bad decision you'll ever make.  You can hold hands with and kiss the person you love in public without having to worry that you'll (at best) be told you're going to burn for eternity, or (at worst) be the victims of assault.

You don't know what it is to be in a position of powerlessness, every day of every year, because of something you have absolutely no control over.

And if you're saying, "You don't either.  You're a heterosexual white man, too," you're absolutely right.  The difference is, I know I don't know these things.  I am aware that my privileged status in this culture has put me in the position of never being obliged to think about any of this.  You, apparently, are not.

It's the same business as the outcry against Caitlyn Jenner when she won the ESPY Courage Award.  "That's not courage!" people snarled.  "It's not courage to claim you're female when you're not!"

Really?  Are you transgender?  Have you fought with the knowledge that your biological gender, your mind, and your sexual desires simply don't line up the same way they do for the majority?  Do you have any idea what it's like to live with the social stigma of non-cisgender identification?  Have you had to deal with the repercussions from family, friends, the public?


Then shut the fuck up.

I have studiously avoided issues of race, privilege, and prejudice in this blog, for the very good reason that as a member of the most privileged class in the United States, my perspective on those issues would be worthless.  But if I am not knowledgeable about something, I stay silent on the topic, and avoid posting inflammatory rhetoric that demonstrates my ignorance and shallowness to the world.

Which is a reservation that some people evidently lack.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The illusion of causality

Fighting bad thinking is an uphill battle, sometimes.  Not only, or even primarily, because there's so much of it out there; the real problem is that our brains are hard-wired to make poor connections, and once those connections are made, to hang on to them like grim death.

A particularly difficult one to overcome is our tendency to fall for the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy -- "after this, therefore because of this."  We assume that if two events are in close proximity in time and space, the first one must have caused the second one.  Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, likes to tell a story about his wife, who is a pediatrician, preparing to give a child a vaccination.  The child had a seizure as she was drawing the vaccine into the syringe.  If the seizure had occurred only a minute later, right after the vaccine was administered, the parents would undoubtedly have thought that the vaccination caused the seizure -- and after that, no power on earth would have likely convinced them otherwise.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Why do we do this?  The most reasonable explanation is that in our evolutionary history, forming such connections had significant survival value.  Since it's usual that causes and effects are close together in time and space, wiring in a tendency to decide that all such correspondences are causal is still going to be right more often than not.  But it does lead us onto some thin ice, logic-wise.

Which is bad enough.  But now three researchers -- Ion Yarritu (Deusto University), Helena Matute (University of Bilbao), and David Luque (University of New South Wales) -- have published research that shows that our falling for what they call the "causal illusion" is so powerful that even evidence to the contrary can't fix the error.

In a paper called "The dark side of cognitive illusions: When an illusory belief interferes with the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge," published earlier this year in the British Journal of Psychology, Yarritu et al. have demonstrated that once we've decided on an explanation for something, it becomes damn near impossible to change.

Their experimental protocol was simple and elegant.  Yarritu writes:
During the first phase of the experiment, one group of participants was induced to develop a strong illusion that a placebo medicine was effective to treat a fictitious disease, whereas another group was induced to develop a weak illusion.  Then, in Phase 2, both groups observed fictitious patients who always took the bogus treatment simultaneously with a second treatment which was effective.  Our results showed that the group who developed the strong illusion about the effectiveness of the bogus treatment during Phase 1 had more difficulties in learning during Phase 2 that the added treatment was effective.
The strength of this illusion explains why bogus "alternative medicine" therapies gain such traction.  All it takes is a handful of cases where people use "deer antler spray" and find they have more energy (and no, I'm not making this up) to get the ball rolling.  Homeopathy owes a lot to this flaw in our reasoning ability; any symptom abatement that occurs after taking a homeopathic "remedy" clearly would have happened even if the patient had taken nothing -- which is, after all, what (s)he did.

And that's not even considering the placebo effect as a further complicating factor.

Helena Matute, one of the researchers in the recent study, has written extensively about the difficulty of battling causal illusions.  In an article she wrote for the online journal Mapping Ignorance, Matute writes:
Alternative medicine is often promoted on the argument that it can do no harm.  Even though its advocates are aware that its effectiveness has not been scientifically demonstrated, they do believe that it is harmless and therefore it should be used.  "If not alone, you should at least use it in combination with evidence-based treatments," they say, "just in case." 
But this strategy is not without risk... even treatments which are physically innocuous may have serious consequences in our belief system, sometimes with fatal consequences.  When people believe that a bogus treatment works, they may not be able to learn that another treatment, which is really effective, is the cause of their recovery.  This finding is important because it shows one of the mechanisms by which people might decide to quit an efficient treatment in favor of a bogus one.
I think this same effect is contributory to errors in thinking in a great many other areas.  Consider, for instance, the fact that belief in anthropogenic climate change rises in the summer and falls in the winter.  After being told that human activity is causing the global average temperature to rise, our brains are primed to look out of the window at the snow falling, and say, "Nah.  Can't be."

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  To quote Stephen Colbert, "Global warming isn't real, because I was cold today.  Also great news: world hunger is over because I just ate."

The study by Yarritu et al. highlights not only the difficulty of fighting incorrect causal connections, but why it is so essential that we do so.  The decision that two things are causally connected is powerful and difficult to reverse; so it's critical that we be aware of this bias in thinking, and watch our own tendency to leap to conclusions.  But even more critical is that we are given reliable evidence to correct our own errors in causality, and that we listen to it.  Like any cognitive bias, we can combat it -- but only if we're willing to admit that we might get it wrong sometimes.

Or as Michael Shermer put it, "Don't believe everything you think."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rules, ethics, and opting out

In the last few days, I've been prepping for the start of another school year.  My 29th, which boggles my mind a little.  And although I wouldn't turn down another three months of vacation, there's a part of me that's enjoying getting my classroom cleaned and ready, going through lessons and support materials, and wondering who's going to be in my classes this year and what joys and challenges they will bring along with them.

And as New York State teachers head toward the on-ramp, our Commissioner of Education is already beginning to polish up her own rhetoric in support of the Common Core and standardized exams, and against the opt-out movement.

This will be Commissioner MaryEllen Elia's first full school year in New York.  She comes to us from Florida, replacing Commissioner John King, who brilliantly illustrated the Peter Principle when he was promoted to the position of senior advisor to federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  King, a toe-the-line demagogue who wouldn't hear any criticism of the haphazard fashion in which the Common Core and its attendant exams were rolled out in New York, is now in the position of seeing to it that the entire nation goes the same way.

Elia, unfortunately, seems cut from the same mold.

Three days ago she launched a campaign to fight the opt-out movement, which last year saw over 1.1 million participants across the state.  But instead of admitting that if the parents of over a million children are objecting to a policy, it might be time to reconsider it, she doubled down on her own stance -- and implied that the parents in the opt-out movement were simply uninformed.

"As you get more people involved in the process, you have more people understanding what’s going on and why you have assessments," Elia said.  "There are a lot of people that don’t know what the Common Core is...  We’re trying to pull together a tool kit, if you will, to support superintendents in how we can communicate in a much more effective way to people across the state.  I want the superintendents to understand the reflections and law that they can use as an information piece when they talk to people in their community … It’s important for them to be able to say, ‘Listen, it’s the law.’"

The problem is, it's not the law.  There is no law that mandates that students take tests, standardized or otherwise.  Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a vocal opponent of the standardized test movement, made this abundantly clear last year.  "They [NYSED and school districts] should be providing parents with the truths and the facts and their rights," Tedisco said in an interview.  "And their rights are yes, they can opt out of something they haven’t opted into. They can refuse something for their kids they’ve never opted into."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as the parents who choose opt-out being uninformed, Elia may have stirred up a hornet's nest.  Jessica McNair, co-founder of the advocacy group Opt Out CNY, said, "I think she has a lot to learn about the parents in New York State.  We’re not going to back down until we see tests that are developmentally appropriate, and tests that are decoupled from the teacher evaluations."

But for the teachers who are participating in the pushback, Elia had even harsher words.  Such behavior, she said, was unethical.

"I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable," she said, at a meeting of Educators4Excellence.  "I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs, I think it’s unethical."  She has even hinted that teachers who recommend opting out to students or parents could be charged with insubordination.

It's unethical to follow the deepest core value of education -- to do what's best for children?  I have been unequivocal in my support for the opt-out movement; at this point, it's the only leverage parents and educators have against an upper administration that has a long history of being blind and deaf to the concerns of the rank-and-filers who spend nine months of every year on the front lines, and who know best the needs of their students.  They have chosen instead to take away the rights of the local districts to oversee their own assessments and teacher evaluations, and ceded that power to corporations like Pearson Education, who have over and over demonstrated that they are incapable of providing metrics that mean anything.

As Carol Corbett Burris, former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre School District and winner of the 2010 New York State Educator of the Year Award, put it:
(T)here comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply.  That time is now.  The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed.  The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes.  The time to opt out is now.
In other words, if Ms. Elia believes that such actions are unethical, then we as educators should welcome that label as a badge of honor.

If that makes us insubordinate, so be it.

And to Ms. Elia, I can only give a warning.  If you think that by demeaning teachers and parents as unethical and uninformed you can break our resolve, you have a lot to learn.  You think 1.1 million non-compliant children is a lot?

If you don't back down with the rhetoric, and look at how the system itself is failing children, you haven't seen anything yet.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Helping the hypersensitives

One thing I've never understood is the determination of some people to believe in counterfactual nonsense despite rigorous evidence to the contrary.

Let's take, for example, the news story that a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia found yesterday, wherein we learn that a couple in Worcester, Massachusetts is suing the private school their son attends because they claim that the wifi signal in the school is making him sick.

[image courtesy of photographer Marc Lostracco and the Wikimedia Commons]

The boy, they say, has "electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome," which makes him react badly to being exposed to electromagnetic fields.  He has developed headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds, they say, and the wifi is to blame.  School officials wouldn't do anything about it, so the parents sued.

There are just two problems with this claim.

Problem one is that earlier this year, possibly in an effort to forestall such nonsense, the school hired a company called Isotrope to do a complete assessment of the school with respect to the safety of its electronic equipment.  "Isotrope’s assessment was completed in January 2015 and found that the combined levels of access point emissions, broadcast radio and television signals, and other RFE emissions on campus 'were substantially less than 1/10,000th of the applicable safety limits (federal and state)," the school said in an official statement.

Problem two is more serious; that "electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome" apparently doesn't exist.

A 2006 study done by G. James Rubin et al. of King's College, London, called "Are Some People Sensitive to Mobile Phone Signals?", found that the answer is, essentially, "No."  They tested ordinary folks and "sensitives," exposing them to real and sham (i.e. non-existent) electromagnetic fields, and documented the symptoms participants had afterwards.  The results are damning:
(N)o strong evidence was found of any difference between the conditions in terms of symptom severity.  Nor did evidence of any differential effect of condition between the two groups exist.  The proportion of sensitive participants who believed a signal was present during GSM exposure (60%) was similar to the proportion who believed one was present during sham exposure (63%)... 
No evidence was found to indicate that people with self reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity.  As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.
Another study, led by Ulrich Frick of the Psychiatric University Hospital, Regensburg, Germany, found similar results:
The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response... Differences between groups were mostly due to false alarm reactions in the sham condition reported by subjectively electrosensitives (SES). We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being "electrosensitive."
Even more devastating to the claim is a study done by Lena Hillert et al. of the Environmental Illness Research Centre of Huddinge, Sweden, which found that there is a good treatment scheme for electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome... cognitive behavioral therapy:
Cognitive behavioural treatment, as part of a multidisciplinary treatment package for patients with electric sensitivity, was evaluated in a controlled trial. Ten patients who received treatment were compared to 12 controls. Outcome measures included different dimensions such as symptoms, beliefs, behaviour, and biochemical measurements of stress-related variables. All outcome measures were collected prior to the study, post-treatment, and after an additional 6-month follow-up. 
The therapy group rated their electric sensitivity as significantly lower than did the control group at the 6-month follow-up, and reduction of self-rated discomforts from triggering factors was significant in the therapy group. There were no systematic changes in the biochemical variables. The symptom indices were significantly reduced over time, and ability to work continued to be good in both groups. 
The prognosis for this syndrome is good with early intervention and cognitive therapy may further reduce the perceived hypersensitivity. This may have important implications on handling of patients with electric sensitivity.
In other words, the evidence is pretty clear that electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome is purely psychosomatic in origin, and best treated by mental health therapy.

And there certainly isn't any evidence that turning off the wifi will make a damn bit of difference.

It's to be hoped that the judge in this case, Timothy S. Hillman, will do his homework, and throw the lawsuit out.  Even more beneficial would be getting the child, and possibly the parents, some psychological counseling.

Because whatever is making this kid ill is clearly not the electromagnetic fields in the school, or anywhere else.  And if he is not suffering from some kind of psychosomatic illness, possibly engendered by the worries of the parents, then there is another organic cause for his symptoms, which should be looked into for his health's sake.

What's clear is that wasting time suing the school over an imagined risk isn't helping anyone, least of all the child.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Moral sleight of hand

Magicians excel at misdirection and sleight of hand.  They can seemingly do the impossible, when in fact their shtick is simply a combination of manual dexterity and the ability to get you to look somewhere else besides the place where the actual trickery is happening.  No criticism intended; to be an excellent magician takes years of practice.  But the whole thing boils down to drawing your attention away from where you should be looking.

There are a lot of religious leaders who excel at the same thing.

We're seeing it in bucket loads at the moment, due to the Ashley Madison hack, wherein a site dedicated to finding married people partners to cheat with was broken into, and thousands of names and addresses made public.  The ones who hit the news were, of course, the public figures, but the hypocrisy factor made the religious ones stand out even more.  To no one's particular surprise, alleged pedophile and general lowlife Josh Duggar had an Ashley Madison account, and he and his family are now scrambling to do damage control despite his having a reputation by this point that is probably past salvaging.  

But no sidestepping was quite as comical as the dance done by British Islamist leader Hamza Tzortzis, whose name was also released in the leak.  Confronted by his having a paid subscription to the infidelity site despite his constantly preaching about the evils of sexual immorality, Tzortzis had what may be the weakest defense I've ever seen.

Tzortzis was lambasted by a follower on his Facebook page who wrote, "So Hamza, you are claiming that some guy knew all of your private information and wanted to screw with you so he created a fake account on Ashley Madison.  This guy then paid hundreds of dollars to maintain the account for 9 months.  This account was then used to make transactions at locations where you were also present at the time.  Then the ultimate plan was to hack the Ashley Madison database and release 40 million users so you could be exposed.  Am I getting this right?"

And Tzortzis replied, in toto, "You’re an idiot. Read the post before you write.  The amount was 15 pounds a month, not hundreds."

So okay, maybe not all of 'em are skilled at misdirection.

But not all of the sleight of hand has to do with infidelity.  Recently Mehmet Görmez, the head of the Diyanet (the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs), called on Islamic religious authorities throughout the Middle East to unite to fight ISIS.

Such a move, of course, would be deeply controversial in a region where sect loyalty and arguments about the interpretation of religious texts routinely lead to violence.  So in response to Görmez's statement, Bilal Yorulmaz, professor of religion at Marmara University, said that what the Islamic world really needs to be worried about is...

... the Jedi.

"Jediism … is spreading today in Christian societies," Yorulmaz said.  "Around 70,000 people in Australia and 390,000 people in England currently define themselves as Jedis."

He then went on to describe how Hollywood is the real problem, presumably because the movie industry so frequently blows up priceless archeological sites and beheads researchers who are trying to protect them.

Okay, I know confronting your personal failings isn't easy, and it must be even more devastating to own up to the evils committed in the name of your deeply-held ideology.  But setting up straw men as a way of deflecting blame only makes your own culpability in things that much clearer.

You have to wonder, however, how long people will go on defending a position that is, at its basis, indefensible.  Are they hoping that sooner or later, the short attention span of their followers will kick in, and all will be forgiven and/or forgotten?  Hell, it worked for Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard --  both of whom were caught in ongoing infidelity despite their continual harping on sexual purity.  Haggard, in fact, was not only caught cheating, but caught cheating with a male prostitute.  And both are now back to preaching the gospel to standing-room-only crowds, and making money hand over fist doing it.

Funny what time and pious misdirection can do.

I've always felt that honesty and integrity were about the most important character traits out there, so the whole thing is pretty repulsive.  To be able to stand up in front of a crowd and make utterances that are deliberately designed to steer people away from your own failings, indiscretions, and immorality is as dishonest as simply lying about it.

The sad thing is that for some reason, it works.  Just like with stage magic, people get fooled, again and again.  But far from entertaining, this sleight of hand just leaves me feeling a little sick.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A matter of truth

I'm willing to believe that I take stuff too seriously sometimes.  "Lighten up" is a comment I've heard since I was about six years old, as is "You're a bit tightly wound."

So let's just take it as a given that my annoyance at the latest Facebook spam fad might be an overreaction, okay?

Anyone who participates in social media has probably already figured out that I'm talking about the "What Does My Name Mean?" site.  I enter my name, and I'm told that "Gordon" comes from the Greek words "Gor" meaning "invincible" and "Don" meaning "god."

The problem is, every single one of them is wrong.  Made up, fabricated, untrue, and whatever words you can think of to that effect up to and including "liar, liar, pants on fire."  I know this because I'm a linguistics geek, remember?  Gordon is from Gaelic, not Greek, and it doesn't mean "invincible god," it means "hill dweller."

Which is not nearly as glamorous as "invincible god," but considerably more accurate, given that the Scottish side of my family were peasants.

And it's not just my name that is incorrect.  All of them are this way.  You keep being told that your name means "glorious prince" even if you enter your name as "Bullshit" or "Buttface" or "Fuckoff."

The whole thing is clickbait, an attempt (and apparently a successful one) to get millions of people to click on a link.

So what's the harm?  As a friend of mine said, "It's just a party game.  Ignore it."  Which I could, except for two things.

One is that such clickbait sites are sometimes linked to malware and viruses.  Some computer-savvy folks have determined that this one probably isn't, but a good many of them are, including the ubiquitous "99% of people can't come up with a man's name beginning with E.  Can you?" links.  At best, these sites are equipped to do data harvesting; at worst, you could come away with a computer virus.  So showing a little caution about what you click and share is a good idea.

The other thing, though, is more philosophical.  Dammit, truth matters.  We're encouraged all the time by this culture to fool ourselves, to (on the one hand) take personality tests that show that we're Special and Gifted and Misunderstood, and (on the other) that we've got personal and physical defects that can be remedied if you'll just buy this product that is On Sale For A Limited Time Only.  We're constantly bombarded by exaggerations, fibs, and outright lies, often motivated by someone's desire for your attention, loyalty, or money.

Or all three.

You should care if you're being lied to, even if it's about something insignificant.  Why is it fun to be told that your name means "Beautiful Queen" if it doesn't?

It's all too easy to get lulled into a place where comfort matters more than truth.  What else keeps the multi-million-dollar industry of astrologers and psychics in business?  The desire for warm and fuzzy messages from the Other Realms, in the face of the hard truth that such practices are pseudoscience and their practitioners charlatans, is what keeps their victims coming back for more.

So okay.  I know this one is apparently harmless.  I can accept that because I'm a linguist, and a little too tightly wound, the whole thing is grinding my gears way more than it reasonably should.

But it still seems to me that we need to put more value on the truth, even in small matters.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it: “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie.  One word of truth outweighs the world.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The voices of the dead

This week I ran into a couple of claims of a type I'd never heard of before -- and considering how long I've been in the game of analyzing the world of woo-woo, that came as kind of a surprise, especially when I found out that this sort of thing has apparently been going on for a while.

Turns out that there are people out there who say not only that they can contact the spirits of the dead,  but that they are acting as the ghost's locum.  In other words, they are guided by the not-quite-departed spirit to perform acts that the spirit itself would have done, if only it still had a body with which to do so.

Which becomes even more extraordinary when you find out that the ghosts are those of people like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Victor Hugo.

If you're thinking, "Wait... so that means...  No, they can't really be saying that" -- yes, that's exactly what they're saying.  These "mediums" write novels, create art, write music, and then claim that the works came from the minds of the Great Masters, who were just hanging around looking for someone through which to channel talents frustrated by the inconvenience of being dead.

First we have Rosemary Brown, a British housewife who in the 1970s catapulted to fame by going public with the story that she had written music -- or more accurately, written down music -- that had been dictated to her by Debussy, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and Bach.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Some people have been impressed with her work to the extent that it was actually performed and recorded in a collection called A Musical Séance.  Pianist Elene Gusch, who wrote a biography of Brown, said, "It would have been difficult for even a very able and well-trained composer to come up with them all, especially to produce them at the speed with which they came through."

André Previn, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, was less effusive. "If the newfound compositions are genuine," he said, "they would best have been left on the shelf."

Brown died in 2001, still claiming that the pieces she wrote were actually compositions of long-dead composers.  She even described them; Debussy was a "hippie type" who "wore very bizarre clothes," Beethoven no longer had "that crabby look" because he'd regained his hearing, and Schubert tried to sing compositions to her but "he doesn't have a very good voice."

Skeptics, of course, point out that none of Brown's music goes much beyond the simpler and less technical compositions the composers created when they were alive, which is odd, especially since some of them had had hundreds of years to come up with new pieces.  But she's still considered by true believers to be one of the best pieces of spirit survival out there.

Then we've got Brazilian artist Valdelice Da Silva Dias Salum, who makes a similar claim, but about painting -- that when her hand holds the brush, she's being guided by Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Van Gogh.  She actually signs her paintings not with her own name, but with the name of the artist who (she says) was doing the actual work.

"I grew up poor and illiterate," Salum told Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, the reporter for NPR who wrote the story.  "I didn't even know who these painters were.  I had no artistic talent.  But the spirits selected me."

Garcia-Navarro included in her story a drawing of a girl that Salum signed "Renoir."  To my admittedly untrained eye, it looks a bit like the attempts high school art students make to copy the style of the grand masters; there's nothing about it that has that luminous beauty that distinguishes a genuine Renoir.

But what do I know?  Apparently when Garcia-Navarro was researching for her story, she also found a writer named Divaldo Franco who is apparently producing new works by Victor Hugo, and another named Sandra Guedes Marques Carneiro, who has sold over 250,000 copies of romances she says are dictated to her from the spirit world by love-starved dead people.

No wonder they need to get their frustrations out.  When Rosemary Brown was on Johnny Carson, she apparently revealed that according to her sources, there was no sex in heaven, which is pretty damned disappointing.

Not that I'd probably be heading there even in the best-case scenario.

My general feeling about all of this is that as evidence for life after death goes, it's pretty thin.  Once again, we have the spirits of the dead communicating to the living things that don't really reveal to us much we didn't already know.  I find Rosemary Brown the most interesting of the lot -- I have to admit that some of her compositions aren't bad.  But there's nothing about them that jumps out at me and says, "Oh, this is definitely J. S. Bach at work."

The upshot is, as a writer, I'm going to continue to work on getting everything I can written while I'm alive.  It'd be nice if after I'm dead I could continue to dream up stories and upload them to the literal Cloud.  But I'm not counting on that opportunity.

So if you'd like to read something I've written (other than Skeptophilia, obviously), there's a selection at the right to choose from, and my next novel, Lock & Key, is scheduled to be on bookshelves in November.  Because once I've gone to my eternal reward (or just deserts, as the case may be), my general impression is that will be that.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Paranoia bombshell

The Question of the Day is:  At what point does a prominent figure go so completely off the rails that people stop believing him?  Or is there no lower threshold for credibility?

Interestingly enough, I'm not talking about Alex Jones, or even Rush Limbaugh, here.  Today's contribution to the Annals of What-the-Fuck comes from Mike Adams, the "Health Ranger," owner of Natural News.

Adams has made his name touting dubious nutrition tips and scaring the absolute shit out of people over the dangers of vaccines, but now has ventured into conspiracy paranoia of every type.  And yes, I know that some of the stuff on Natural News exists purely as clickbait, to push up the site's rankings in search engines, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that Adams himself thinks what he's saying is true.

Consider, for example, his take on the horrific explosions that happened last week in Tianjin, China.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Most people believe that the blasts were caused by poorly-stored volatile chemicals, an explanation that gains credence when you realize that Tianjin is a major industrial seaport, and Chinese safety standards are lax at best.  This is not to downplay the magnitude of the disaster; over a hundred people are known dead, and the chain reaction of explosions devastated a huge area in the city.  According to a BBC article on the explosions,
Before the explosions, several firefighters were already at the scene trying to control a blaze.  There have been suggestions that water sprayed on some of the chemicals could have led to the blasts.   Calcium carbide, known to be at the site, reacts with water to create the highly explosive acetylene. 
Chemical experts suggest an acetylene blast could then have detonated the other chemicals for a much larger blast. 
The China Earthquake Networks Centre said the initial explosion, in a city with a population of around 15 million, had a power equivalent to three tonnes of TNT detonating, while the second was the equivalent of 21 tonnes. 
The second was so big that satellites orbiting Earth picked it up as well.
But such measured, thoughtful reporting isn't good enough for people like Adams.

Nope.  He has to claim that the Tianjin explosions were carried out by American "space weapons," and that China and the United States are "already at war," because of China's devaluation of the yuan:
Chinese dissidents have told Natural News they have reason to believe the attack on Tianjin is a warning shot from the United States, which is terrified that China is on the verge of announcing its own gold-backed currency while declaring a fire sale on U.S. debt holdings. 
The actions would collapse the U.S. dollar and destroy the U.S. economy, sending the United States into economic freefall. The "Rod of God" weapon deployment by the U.S. Pentagon, we're told, was America's "shot across the bow" to send a powerful warning message to China while disguising the attack as a domestic chemical explosion.
What evidence does he have?  Apparently people saw helicopters in the air immediately before the blast occurred.  Also, the Chinese government is controlling the movement of tourists, requiring them to register their passport numbers and hotel accommodations with officials.  (Didn't they already?)

'nuff said.  The only possible explanation is that the United States is blowing up Chinese seaports using space weapons.  Because that's credible.

What's next?  Claiming that there's a ground war being fought entirely between groups of crisis actors?  After all, why wage an actual war when you can just trick all the sheeple with footage of fake battles and false flags?

Okay, maybe Adams really is pulling our legs, here.  Maybe he's entirely in it for the ad revenue, and is making shit up, Weekly World News-style, just to keep us coming back.  But if you read what he writes, he sounds as if he's entirely serious.

Which brings up the troubling question of how many of his readers believe all of this stuff.  Are there really that many folks out there who think that everything in the mainstream news is false?  Because the way Natural News links get passed around on social media can't just be explained by the "Hey, you'll never guess what Mike Adams is claiming today!" phenomenon.

I dunno.  I find the whole thing troubling.  Not that it's impossible that Adams himself is paranoid; paranoia is, unfortunately, an all too real manifestation of some psychiatric disorders.  But the fact that enough readers exist to keep Natural News in business scares the hell out of me.

Because if that many people actually believe that the United States is blowing up Chinese cities with ray guns from space, I'm ready to concede defeat on the skepticism and move on to writing fiction full time.  After all, if it works for Mike Adams, it can work for me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

We're in for a spell of weather...

Why is it that some people will believe anyone's pronouncements on anything, as long as said person is not a scientist?

I and others have ranted repeatedly about a large slice the public's dismissal of climate science and evolutionary biology.  And the anti-science stance of each of those, I know, comes from a different source; the petroleum lobby's power over the political system in the first place, and religion in the second.  But this general distrust of anything scientific runs deeper than that, touching on topics where there is no obvious motive for disbelief, where people for some reason will accept folksy tale-telling over evidence-based, data-driven research.

And that makes no sense to me at all.

As an example of this, let's consider The Old Farmer's Almanac, which just came out with its predictions for the winter last week.  And based on their methodology, which as far as I can tell involves voodoo and rain dances, we're going to have a wicked snowy winter.

"The snowiest periods in the Pacific Northwest will be in mid-December, early to mid-January and mid- to late February," the Almanac says, which at least has a better chance of being correct than their predicting a blizzard in, say, July.

But the fact is, no scientist takes what the Almanac has to say seriously, because their weather forecasting isn't science. According to an article in Consumer Reports, the Almanac bases its predictions on "a secret mathematical formula using the position of the planets, tidal action of the moon and sunspots" that is kept in a black tin box in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Because that's gonna be reliable.

And how accurate is it, anyway?  Skeptical blogger Steven Novella found one place where someone actually tested the Almanac's predictions, and guess what happened?
In the October 1981 issue of Weatherwise, pages 212-215, John E. Walsh and David Allen performed a check on the accuracy of 60 monthly forecasts of temperature and precipitation from The Old Farmer’s Almanac at 32 stations in the U.S.  They found that 50.7 percent of the monthly temperature forecasts and 51.9 percent of the precipitation forecasts verified with the correct sign.  These may be compared with the 50 percent success rate expected by chance.
This is my "shocked face."

But what pissed me off the most about this year's predictions was an article from KOMO News Online called, "Who to Believe?  Snowy Farmer's Almanac?  Or NOAA's Warm El-Niñoey Blob?" written by, of all people, a trained meteorologist who therefore should know better.  And while author Seth Sistek concludes that we should probably trust NOAA, which has forecasted a warmer-than-average winter for the northern United States because of a blob of anomalously warm seawater parked off the Pacific Coast of North America, even the fact that he asks the question gives unwarranted legitimacy to what honestly is a bunch of hocus-pocus.

[image courtesy of NOAA]

"[I]n the battle between Blob and book," Sistek writes, "I'd have to lean toward the Blob in agreeing with the supercomputers that it'll be a warmer winter."

Which, as endorsements go, is not exactly knocking my socks off.  What's next?  Asking the astrologers to draw up zodiac charts to predict solar flares?

Okay, I'm coming off as pretty harsh toward The Old Farmer's Almanac, I realize.  But the problem is, there's already a tendency in this country for people to buy pseudoscience over science, to distrust researchers, to look at scientists as ivory-tower nerds who are disconnected with practical reality.  We definitely don't need anything to push us further in that direction, even if it is "all in fun." To quote Novella again:
I hear many people quoting one almanac or the other about what kind of winter we are in for. They don’t seem to realize that the almanacs are using 200 year old pseudoscientific methods that have never been validated.  Despite the coy marketing of these predictions, many people take them as legitimate... 
It seems that the public did not want the scientific information – they wanted the predictions made by mysterious methods.  I can understand, for marketing reasons, why future editors of the almanac would not consider dropping the predictions.  But here is a recommendation – why not get rid of the two century old dubious methods and replace them with the climate forecasts made by the National Weather Service?
Because, apparently, folksy prognostications still carry more weight than actual science with a large sector of the American public.

Look, I know that meteorology as a science still has a long way to go.  Weather and climate are vastly complex systems, extremely sensitive to initial conditions, and long-range forecasting is still fraught with inaccuracies.  Even the most highly-trained meteorologists, using the latest computer models and our best understanding of how the science works, still get it wrong sometimes.

But damn it all, it's still better than magic formulas in black tin boxes in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A ban on questioning

When I was sixteen years old, I signed up for a class called Modern American Literature.  I wasn't much of a reader -- English and History tended to be my worst subjects by a large margin -- but the class seemed better at least than slogs like Shakespeare and Nineteenth Century Poetry.

The teacher was a young woman named Ms. Beverly Authement, and her enthusiasm was infectious even for a mediocre student like myself.  So when it came time for us to choose books to read, I went through the list with at least a slightly better than average attitude.

The problem is, I hadn't heard of almost any of the books on the list, and wasn't sufficiently motivated to ask for suggestions, so I picked one more or less at random.  My choice was Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

And my mind hasn't been the same since.

The story is the tale of a 17th century Peruvian priest, Brother Juniper, who is trying to make sense of the deaths of six villagers in a bridge collapse.  Why would God do such a thing?  What linked the six?  There had to be a reason, after all, that he selected these six to die, and no others.  So Brother Juniper delves into their histories, finds out what circumstances led to their being on the bridge the moment it broke apart and plunged them to their deaths.

And in the end, he concludes that either there is no reason for such things, or the reason is so subtle that it is beyond the human mind to discern it.  And in the devastating last pages, Brother Juniper is found guilty of the heretical action of doubting the divine will by the Inquisition and is burned at the stake, along with all of his writings.

Heavy stuff, and not something that you'd usually think of as a page-turner for a sixteen-year-old male.  But I couldn't put it down.  And the questions it opened in my mind took me to a new place in my understanding of the world -- which is what all good books should do.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Which is why the actions of some parents and the response of the administration in Tallahassee, Florida are so completely wrongheaded.

A summer reading list for Lincoln High School included Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a novel told from the point of view of an autistic fifteen-year-old.  It has been lauded as a masterpiece, and in fact was recently turned into a Broadway play.  But the book contains swearing, and represents some adults as struggling with the truth of religion.

So a cadre of parents approached the principal asking that it be removed from the list, and the principal capitulated.

The parents are saying this isn't about censorship.  "I am not interested in having books banned,” said Sue Gee, who spearheaded the effort.  “But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain — I don’t go for that. A s a Christian, and as a female, I was offended.  Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment.  I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong."

She's "not interested in having books banned?"  Then what does she call "removing a book from a reading list because of ideological objections?"

And you know, Ms. Gee, if reading one book that asks some deep questions is enough to shake your daughter's faith, then there wasn't much there to begin with.  It's something that has struck me more than once; the tendency of the religious to represent their god as all-powerful and all-knowing and invincible, but simultaneously to feel like the whole edifice is so vulnerable and weak that it will crumble if a few people ask questions or have different viewpoints.

So what should a parent do if a child brings home a book that brings up some troubling points, or uses inappropriate language?  Discuss it with her.

After she reads it.

Because we're not talking about assigning Portnoy's Complaint to third graders, here.  These are young adults who soon will be off in college or at jobs, and will have to face a great deal more questioning of their own motives, beliefs, and attitudes than could ever come up in a single novel.  Keeping kids in some kind of protected, isolated hothouse out of fear is only going to have the effect of making it an even ruder shock when they run into the real world -- which will happen sooner or later no matter what.

Teenagers should be reading things that make them ask questions, that challenge their assumptions, that leave them changed by the last page.  If these things aren't happening, then reading turns into one of two things -- an echo chamber for what they already believed, or a set of literary drills with no purpose other than to force them to keep their eyes moving across the page.  As I tell my Critical Thinking students on the first day of class, "It is perfectly acceptable for you to leave this class in June with your beliefs unchanged.  It is not acceptable for you to leave with your beliefs unquestioned."

But such an attitude is intensely frightening to people like Gee, who apparently consider any exposure their children have to different worldviews a threat.  Worse still is the fact that the principal, Allen Burch, caved in and removed the book from the list rather than fighting the demagogues who made the demands.

And in the end -- as usual -- the students lose.  Because these sorts of acts are completely antithetical to education, a word whose etymology is from the Latin verb educare, meaning "to draw out of."  We often forget that, don't we?  Education isn't about stuffing facts into children's brains; it's about drawing out of them what they're capable of becoming.

Or as Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka put it, "Education should be a grenade we detonate beneath stagnant ways of thinking."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Overshooting towards catastrophe

Last Thursday we hit a milestone and I didn't even realize it at the time.

It's called Earth Overshoot Day, and it's nothing to celebrate.  It's the point in the year that the human population of the Earth's use of resources outstrips the total resource production for that year.  In other words, it's the point at which we go into deficit spending.

According to environmental scientists, this date has been creeping upwards ever since it was first estimated, back in the 1970s.  This year it was the earliest ever -- August 13.  Even more troubling is when you consider individual countries' overshoot points, and find out that the United States' rate of use passed its capacity for production over a month ago, on July 14.

What bothers me most about this -- besides the obvious fact that such behavior can't continue forever -- is how oblivious to it most people are.  We go on using resources as if they were infinite, wasting vast amounts of materials and energy because of careless practice or outright laziness, and still have an entitled sense that we should be able to keep doing this as long as we want, that throwing the world away after one bite is some kind of god-given right.

A lot of this here in the United States comes, I think, from living in a country that is resource-rich and still has a lot of open space.  For most of our history, we did have a vast amount of material wealth, far more (it seemed) than we could ever spend.  This attitude engendered a wildly reckless attitude that is exemplified by our treatment of the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that used to be the single most common bird species in North America -- yes, more common than starlings, robins, or crows are today.  19th century accounts describe the skies as being darkened for hours as immense flocks of a million or more birds flew over.  Yet within less than fifty years of those awe-inspiring sightings, the Passenger Pigeon was extinct.  The last member of the species, a female nicknamed Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

How could this happen?  Simple: overhunting and habitat loss.  Millions of birds could be trapped from one flock in a single day using a device called a tunnel net.  Professional hunters shot pigeons in quantities that boggle the mind; records show that at one nesting site in Petoskey, Michigan, fifty thousand birds were killed each day for over five months.  Yet it wasn't until the species had dropped below the sinister threshold called the "minimum viable population" that anyone said, "Wait a minute.  This can't continue."

Even considering this, only one of many examples of over-exploitation that resulted in a disaster, we still have the attitude that the Earth has an infinite capacity to support our every whim.  Americans get an average of 41 pounds of junk mail per person per year, 44% of which goes to landfills unopened, at a cost of millions of trees.  Simultaneously, most of us shrug off efforts to promote recycling.  Planned phase-out of incandescent light bulbs -- a device that wastes 95% of the electricity passing through it as heat -- are met with outcries against an "interference with the free market."

We have the right to use everything up, dammit.  Don't get in the way of our conspicuous consumption.  Somehow, the Earth will manage to keep up.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

After all, we can't be expected to change our habits, right?

Of course right.

This attitude of entitlement runs deep in our cultural consciousness.  It's right there in the first chapter of Genesis, isn't it?
God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."  Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so.
A pity we don't pay less attention to this mandate, and more to ones like "Love your neighbor as yourself."

At some point, however, this attitude is going to change, or circumstances will change it for us.  As our government has proven over and over, you can't engage in deficit spending without there being a bill to pay at some point.  We can either take the overshoot phenomenon seriously, now -- or we will face some seriously unpleasant consequences eventually.

But for a lot of people, "eventually" isn't sufficient motivation.  It's not enough that simple economic logic dictates that such behavior can't continue; the fact that we're not now in a worldwide disaster makes it easy to ignore the inevitable one that will follow if we don't change our ways.  All too easy to keep going with our comfortable, shop-till-you-drop lifestyle, and figure that when the time comes to pay up, we'll manage somehow.

Which explains not only our own behavior, but our continual election of leaders whose attitude is "Environmental problems?  What environmental problems?"  Which honestly could be better summed up as, "Wow, nasty leak!  I'm sure glad it's not at our end of the boat!"

Monday, August 17, 2015

A visit to the scepter'd isle

For the last couple of weeks, I was on holiday in England.  Traveling is one of my passions -- if I could make a living traveling, I'd quit my day job in a heartbeat -- and England is a lovely place to visit.  The last time I was there was twenty years ago, when I was on a solo hiking trip from Blackpool (on the Irish Sea) to Whitby (on the North Sea), a walk that I mostly remember because it rained for three weeks straight.

This time, though, we lucked out, and had stupendous weather.  We spent a good deal of our stay in the southwestern counties of Cornwall and Devon, and were treated to spectacular vistas of rocky coastlines and beautiful seaside villages.

Mevagissey Harbor, Cornwall

While in Cornwall we also experienced a wonderful tradition called a "cream tea" that involves scones, jam, and an amazing invention called "clotted cream" that Wikipedia says has "a minimum fat content of 55%" and was undoubtedly invented as a surreptitious job security strategy by the British Heart Foundation.

One thing that impressed us about England as a whole, but the southwest in particular, is that they can grow damn near anything.  At an amazing botanical garden near St. Austell in Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, we saw a collection of camellias, dahlias, hundred-year-old Nepalese tree rhododendrons, and... pineapples.  I kid you not.  The brilliant South African amaryllis relative, crocosmia, is everywhere, growing not only in gardens but along roadsides and train track embankments.

Crocosmias in Heligan

Another must-see if you ever make it to that part of the world is the Eden Project, a set of beautifully-maintained geodesic domes each devoted to different biomes -- they have a rain forest, a Mediterranean chaparral, a desert, and so on.  It was built on land reclaimed from an abandoned kaolin mine, and features (you guessed it) more spectacular gardens.

The Eden Project

I could have lived in the rain forest dome pretty much permanently.

Speaking of kaolin, as amateur potters, my wife and I had to visit Wheal Martyn, near Ruddlemoor, a porcelain clay museum and working kaolin mine.  If you own a piece of English porcelain, chances are the kaolin -- the constituent of porcelain clay that makes it white and allows it to be shaped -- came from here.

From there, we headed off to London, a city I'd never been in before (having spent my entire previous visit to England north of the city of Manchester).  Having New York City as my mental model of a large, cosmopolitan city, I was immediately impressed by how clean London is, how orderly everything (especially the Tube) is, and how polite everyone seemed to be.  I swear, Londoners use the word "Sorry" as a greeting.  More sightseeing, including Kew Gardens (we have a thing for gardens, you might have noticed), a couple of museums, and the Tower of London, and then it was off to Suffolk.

What brought us to Leiston, a little town on the Suffolk coast, was Minsmere, a phenomenal wildlife refuge.  Illustrating Dave Barry's quip that "there is a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness," the entire reason for visiting Minsmere was...

... birds.  I'm an avid birdwatcher, and if you like birds, Minsmere should be on your bucket list.  I won't bore you non-birders with the details, but let's just say that watching a Barn Owl hunt at dusk was one of the high points of my vacation.

Then we continued north to the beautiful cathedral town of Durham, which is in a region of England where they speak a variant of English composed almost entirely of consonants.  The north of England demonstrates the accuracy of Oscar Wilde's comment about England and America being two countries separated by the same language.  I had many conversations like the following:
Taxi driver:  "S'h'w l'ng y'r'n D'rh'm, eh?" 
Me:  "Only a few days, unfortunately." 
Taxi driver:  "t's l'v'ly t'wn, n't?" 
Me:  "It sure is." 
Taxi driver:  "M'n sq'd b'f'n l'rg b'lt'sqt?" 
Me:  "Oh, definitely."
The upshot of it was that most of the time, I had no idea what I was responding and/or agreeing to.  But people were very friendly, probably because at some point in the conversation I had inadvertently agreed to make them the beneficiaries of my will, or something.

While in Durham we visited Carol's ancestral castle, Hylton Castle, near Sunderland.  Her great-grandmother was a Hylton, and they descend from nobility and (ultimately) King Edward IV, a fact of which she reminds me when I start getting uppity.  In fact, she considered stopping by Buckingham Palace while we were in London to say hi to her Cousin Elizabeth, but figured that might not go over so well considering that Carol has more than once publicly mused about how many people she'd have to kill to be in succession for the English throne.  (Best estimate: 857,209,281 people are ahead of her in line.  But hope springs eternal, right?)

Practicing the "Royal Wave" in front of Hylton Castle

Then it was back to London for a day, and off home, during which the only negative thing on this entire holiday occurred -- the airline lost my suitcase, despite our flight being a single-leg non-stop.  I'm not sure how they did this, unless they opened the cargo hold and chucked it out as we flew over Greenland, or something.  They've promised it's been found and is being returned, but I haven't gotten it back yet.  I hope it's returned soon, not least because I keep having to do laundry because all but three pairs of underwear are in that suitcase.

But all in all, it was a wonderful holiday, and thank you for indulging me not only a three-week break from writing Skeptophilia, but my devoting a day's post to a mini-travelogue.  During my hiatus I was sent a number of good topics by loyal readers, because while I was gone the world apparently went on being weird, illogical, and irrational, to no one's particular surprise.  So tomorrow I'll be back at it again.

Refreshed, rejuvenated, and with luck, wearing clean underwear.