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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Misery loves creativity

I have bad news for those of you who enjoy being creative: a new study has suggested that a key ingredient in crafting timeless masterpieces is unhappiness.

As a fiction writer, I've been fascinated for years with the question of where creativity comes from.  While some of the ideas that have inspired my writing come from readily identifiable sources, a lot of my stories had their genesis in the mysterious "it just popped into my head" phenomenon.  I've talked to a lot of writers about this, and many of them have had the experience of feeling as if their inspiration came, literally, from outside of their own minds.

And like many writers (and artists and musicians) I have had serious dry spells, when the inspiration simply didn't want to come.  I keep writing through those -- I've found that the best way to push through writer's block is to throw some discipline at it -- but I won't say that what I produce during those times has much of the spark I look for when I critique my own work.  The best writing comes during times when the ideas leap into my mind unannounced, from heaven-only-knows-where.

This new study indicates that what I may be missing in my life is a good dose of plain, old-fashioned misery.

Entitled "How Are You, My Dearest Mozart?  Well-being and Creativity of Three Famous Composers Based on their Letters," the paper published this week in the Review of Economics and Statistics by economist and statistician Karol Jan Borowiecki of the University of Southern Denmark analyzes the letters and diaries of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt, and attempts to correlate the use of words indicating level of well-being with their productivity.

Not only their productivity in quantity, but in quality.  He looked at the timing of composition of works that "made a significant contribution to the classical canon," not just how many compositions they'd been able to churn out per month.  And the highest productivity, both in quality and quantity, came during the times these composers were most likely to use words like "sadness," "hurt," "grief," and "nervous."

"An increase in negative emotions by about 36.7 percent inspires one additional important composition the following year," Borowiecki writes.  "Since depression is strongly related to sadness, and is sometimes even defined as a state of chronic sadness, this result comes very close to previous claims made by psychologists that depression leads to increased creativity."

Factors that tended to decrease creative output were being in a happy marriage and finding a permanent position with its attendant job security.

Don't tell him to cheer up -- maybe he's working on a masterpiece.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I don't know about you, but I find this result kind of... depressing.  Is the reason I've had the attention span of a hyperactive fruit fly recently every time I sit down to get some writing done on my current work-in-progress simply because I'm enjoying the summer too much?  Should I tell my wife that I'm sick of her being nice to me and bringing me glasses of wine and giving me shoulder rubs, that it'd be better for my muse if she gave me the silent treatment?  Maybe even the companionship of my dog is dampening my creativity.  Maybe I should get a pet that is perfectly content viewing me with disdain, or even ignoring my existence completely.

Like a cat, or something.

As interesting as this study is, I'm not sure that's the approach, frankly.  All of us creative types see ebbs and flows of our output, and the fact that the last few weeks have been pretty serious low tide shouldn't concern me.  Nor, I think, should it make me seek out ways to be more miserable.  It might be that the dark side of human existence can generate beautiful works of art, writing, or music -- listen to the second movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata for a wonderful example of heart-wringing pathos -- but without joy as an inspiration, we'd never have had the "Bergamasca" from Ottorino Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, my vote for one of the most purely exuberant moments in all of classical music.

So it's a mixed bag, as you might expect.  The most creative minds weave the entirety of human experience into their works, and draw on all aspects of emotion to color what they create.  We may be no closer to understanding where creativity itself comes from, but if we can take our pain and sometimes distill it into something beautiful, at least it gives us something to carry us forward when we're at our lowest points.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Inaction adventure

There's a smug, snarky meme going around social media lately.  It's got a photograph of President Obama and the caption, "Faced with a terrorist crisis, Obama issued a stern statement about climate change."  The implication, of course, being that here we have this terrible crisis that is putting Americans at grave risk, and the president is dithering around talking about the weather.

Well, first, I doubt seriously whether he issued any statement about climate change in response to questions about terrorism.  But what this meme gets the most wrong is the fact that it would make sense for him to do so.

Because climate change is the single most serious threat to national security we are currently facing.

Let me make this clearer.  Terrorism in general, and Islamic terrorism in particular, gets a lot of media attention, and for good reason; ISIS and their ilk are horrible, bloodthirsty people, behaving in a fashion that defies comprehension.  They have brutalized their own people, and struck again and again in other countries with suicide bombs and guns.

But in terms of numbers at risk, there is no comparison.  According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, 3,066 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks since 9/11 (of which 2,902 occurred on 9/11).  Even if you factor in terrorist attacks worldwide, we come to a figure of an average of 20,000 deaths a year from terrorism.  Most of these occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and Egypt -- illustrating once again that the people most at risk from Islamic terrorism are other Muslims.

Contrast that with the estimate from the World Health Organization that the number of deaths from the combined effects of climate change in the coming decades is predicted to be upwards of 250,000 a year -- over ten times the number of deaths from all terrorist attacks combined.

Oh, but that's just a prediction, right?  Before you start scoffing about predictions, you might want to hear about a study by Kevin Trenberth, Lijing Cheng, and John Abraham published just this week in Ocean Sciences, which shows that the climate models of ocean warming have predicted with an accuracy within 3% of the actual measurements.

In other words, (surprise!) the scientists actually know what they're doing, and are not fudging the results because of some weird conspiracy to get funding (one of the most common jabs you hear aimed at climate scientists).  And the work of Trenberth et al. has been thoroughly vetted -- at the time of publication, its results were independently corroborated by two other teams.

[image courtesy of NOAA]

The ocean warmup is having effects here and now on the weather.  This year we've seen record highs all over the place, including a nearly unimaginable all-time record high of 129 F in Kuwait last week.  The problem is that predicting climate and predicting weather aren't the same thing; as demonstrated by the Trenberth et al. study, climate models are working brilliantly, but it still doesn't allow us to predict the day-to-day ephemeral fluctuations we call weather.  June was the 14th straight month of record heat, but here in the United States it's come with catastrophic flooding in West Virginia while only two states north, here in upstate New York, we're experiencing a record-setting drought that has completely dried up the area's famous waterfalls, and which -- if it doesn't abate soon -- will leave the city of Ithaca without drinking water and Cornell University without sufficient water for the 22,000-odd students who will be returning in the fall.

"Climate Inaction Figures."  Worth watching, even if painfully close to the truth.

So if the snarky little meme I referenced above actually was true, it would show nothing more than good sense on the part of our leaders.  But with the way the presidential race is currently shaping up, I'm not confident that addressing this catastrophic threat to the long-term habitability of our planet is going to be anywhere on the agenda.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The strange tale of the disappearing soldier

I've been interested in the paranormal for a long time.  It started with my uncle's scary stories about the feu follet and loup-garou, told in French, which were sufficient to scare myself and my cousins into the near pants-wetting stage, and yet which for some reason we demanded again and again.  Later I graduated to books with titles like Twenty Terrifying True Tales of the Supernatural, Real Ghost Stories, and Bigfoot: Legend Come to Life.  I supplemented this with my fiction reading, including Lovecraft and Poe, and watching shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  (With all of this, it's no wonder that I developed serious insomnia as a teenager, an ailment that continues to plague me today, forty-odd years later.)

Anyhow, all of this is meant to underscore the fact that I've read a lot of supposedly true paranormal stories.  So it always is with a bit of pleasant surprise that I run into one I've never heard before -- something that happened yesterday, when a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link telling the tale of Gil Pérez, the 16th century Spanish soldier who supposedly teleported from the Philippines to Mexico City.

The story goes like this.  In October of 1593, a man showed up in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, disheveled and disoriented.  He was questioned by authorities, and said that moments before, he'd been on guard duty, had felt dizzy, and leaned against a wall and closed his eyes.  He opened them to find himself in Plaza Mayor...

... but moments earlier, he'd been in Manila.

Plaza Mayor in Mexico City, where Gil Pérez appeared out of nowhere [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The authorities at the time were deeply Roman Catholic, and anything like this smacked of witchcraft, so they locked him up, charging him with desertion and consorting with the devil.  Pérez said that he had no idea how he'd gotten there, but it had nothing to do with Satan -- and as proof, he said that they had just gotten word that day of the assassination of Philippine Governor Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas by Chinese pirates, and that proved that he'd just been in Manila.

Of course, back then, there was no way to verify such information quickly, so poor Pérez was confined to the jail for two months until a group that had come from Manila showed up in Mexico City.  Sure enough, one of the people in the group not only recognized Pérez, but said his uniform was the correct one for the Philippine guard -- and Pérez had indeed been there, on duty, when Dasmariñas was murdered two months earlier, but had disappeared without a trace and had not been seen since.

At that point, the authorities let Pérez go, he joined the Philippine delegation, and eventually found his way back home.  Why the charges of black magic were dropped is unknown; after all, even if he hadn't deserted, there was still the problem that he seemed to have gone halfway around the globe in seconds.  But maybe they were just as happy to make him someone else's problem.  In any case, what happened to Pérez afterwards is not recorded.

The problem, of course, is that these sort of folk legends usually have a rather unfortunate genealogy, and that certainly is true here.  The version of the story I've related above comes from a 1908 issue of Harper's Magazine, written by American folklorist Thomas Allibone Janvier.  Janvier said he got the story from a 1900 collection of Mexican tales by Luis Gonzáles Obregón, and Obregón said that he learned of it from the 1609 writings of Philippine Governor Antonio de Morga, who said that "Dasmariñas's death was known in Mexico the day it happened," although he didn't know how that could possibly be.

Others have noticed similarities between the tale and Washington Irving's story "Governor Manco and the Soldier" which appeared in Tales of the Alhambra in 1832.  So it's entirely possible that an offhand, and unsubstantiated, comment by de Morga was picked up and elaborated by Obregón, then picked up and elaborated further by Janvier, with some help along the way from Irving's (fictional) tale.

In any case, it's an intriguing story.  I'm always more fond of these open-ended tales -- the ones where everything gets tied up neatly in the end always seem to me to be too pat even to consider accepting them as real.  But this one -- Pérez's mysterious disappearance and reappearance were never explained, he vanished into obscurity afterwards, and nothing more came of it -- those are the ones that captivate interest, because that's usually the way reality works.  It's why my all-time favorite "true tale of the supernatural," the story of Nurse Black, still gives me the shudders every time I think about it.

Not, of course, that I think that the story of Pérez is true; it's simply that the more realistic a tale is, the more likely I am to be interested in it.  And after all of these years steeped in the paranormal, to find one I'd never heard of before was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Abstinence-only failure

At what point do we admit that something is a failure, and stop supporting it with our time and money?

Because that time has come for abstinence-only sex education.  Actually, that time came and went a few years ago, when the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) published a fact sheet with the damning information that not only does it not decrease rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission, that the states that pushed abstinence-only sex education had increased rates of both.  Additionally, SIECUS stated that:
In early November 2007, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released Emerging Answers 2007, a report authored by Dr. Douglas Kirby, a leading sexual health researcher, discussing what programs work in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.  The report found strong evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do not have any impact on teen sexual behavior. 
The study found that no evidence to support the continued investment of public funds: 
“In sum, studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination…Only when strong evidence demonstrates that particular programs are effective should they be disseminated more widely.” 
The study also found that, to date, no abstinence-only-until-marriage program that is of the type to be eligible for funding by the federal government has been found in methodologically rigorous study to positively impact teen sexual behavior: 
“At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior.”
$1.5 billion later, that's pretty unequivocal.  Our determination to stick with this obvious failure has to do with two things, I think; the desperation of some people to demonize sexual behavior and therefore legislate sexual morality, and the sunk-cost fallacy -- if we've already put a lot of money into something, we have to keep forging ahead out of some crazy sense that doing so will justify the amount of money we've already spent.

In other words, continue to blow money on a losing proposition because to admit defeat and reverse course would make it obvious that we've been wrong from the outset.

[image courtesy of photographer Bruce Blaus and the Wikimedia Commons]

In any case, the word is finally getting out that the only way to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy is to have candid, fact-based sex education, and cheap, available birth control.  So what's an arbiter of morality to do?

Export the same failed plan to other countries, of course.

Starting in 2004, Congress has allocated $1.4 billion to fund abstinence-only sex education in sub-Saharan Africa, ostensibly to slow down the transmission of HIV, but driven by the same sex-equals-bad morality that generated similar programs here in the United States.  And to no one's particular surprise, methodologies that didn't work in one place don't work anywhere else.  According to a paper  by Christine Gorman published this week in Scientific American:
A rigorous comparison of national data from countries that received abstinence funding under the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) with those that got none of the funding showed no difference in the age of first sexual experience or in the number of sexual partners or teenage pregnancies—all aspects of behaviors that have been linked to a higher risk of becoming infected with HIV.
Who could have predicted that?

What the study also showed was that the single factor that correlated best with low HIV transmission rates and decreased risk of pregnancy outside of marriage was educational opportunities for women.  Give women opportunities for education and career, and they are less likely to engage in behaviors that might jeopardize their goals for a better life.

It seems like common sense to me.  Education, especially for young women.  Teach children about sexuality and responsibility and how their own bodies work.  Given that most teenagers think about sex pretty much 24/7, make sure they understand the importance of birth control and know how to use it, and make contraceptives widely available and cheap.

And fer cryin' in the sink, stop pretending that abstinence-only sex education works.  We've wasted enough money, and worse -- stood by while thousands of young women got pregnant when those pregnancies might have been prevented through sex education that is actually effective.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Get thee behind me, Rover

If you live in Japan, own a dog, and have more money than sense, I've got good news for you: you can pay ¥ 31,000 (about US $297) to have a Shinto priest perform an exorcism on your canine companion.

I'm not making this up.  According to an article by E. S. Huffman over at UpRoxx, the D+ Spa in Kagoshima Prefecture is offering a special deal wherein you can come over with Fido, and a certified Shinto priest from the nearby Shingariyu Shrine will get rid of whatever evil spirits your dog has in attendance.

"Seven-year-old, 10-year-old, and 13-year-old dogs need to be careful of their health, as it’s easier in those years for them to get diseases of aging," the D+ website explains.  After all, it couldn't be because by the time dogs get to be ten years old, they're moving into the age bracket euphemistically known as "getting up there in years."

On the other hand, if creaky joints, bad eyesight, and wrinkles are caused by evil spirits, that'd be good news for people Of A Certain Age.  Like myself.  Unfortunately, however, D+ doesn't offer exorcisms for humans yet, only dogs.  And if the whole thing brings up mental images of Linda Blair puking up pea soup all over the place, not to worry; the exorcism ritual only lasts thirty minutes, is apparently calm and peaceful, and afterwards the newly-cleansed dogs get to go for a swim in a dogs-only pool.  Then, according to the website, they "are reunited with their owners for a relaxing meal and champagne."

Me, I'm not so sure it's a good idea to give a dog champagne.  But maybe the bubbles keep the evil spirits from returning, I dunno.

Actual photo from the D+ website of a poodle, settling in for a nice post-exorcism nosh

What I wonder, besides "Are you people nuts?  Or what?", is that in my experience all dogs have weird, quirky habits, so if you're attributing canine oddities to evil spirits, then every domesticated dog I've ever met must be possessed.  In my long years of dog ownership, I've known dogs who:
  • never figured out that you can't walk through a sliding glass door
  • tried to herd our cats
  • thought a stuffed toy was a live squirrel and stared at it for hours on end waiting for it to move
  • begged for cucumbers but completely ignored us when we were cooking steak
  • had a mortal hatred of ping-pong balls
  • barked furiously at strangers -- until they walked in the front door, at which point everyone apparently becomes a friend
  • would suddenly turn vicious and block the door, growling and snarling, when visitors tried to leave
I sort of doubt that any of this could be fixed by exorcism.  Myself, I've always thought that domestication just makes animals act weird.  In order for a formerly-wild animal to cohabit successfully with humans, it must kind of screw up the mental circuitry on some level.

On the other hand, if you want my vote for a species that really could use some intervention, evil-spirit-wise, I'd suggest looking at cats.  On a recent visit to a friend's house, I met a cat whose preferred mode of affection is to jump on the top of the chair you're sitting in and bite a chunk out of your scalp.  Another friend has a cat who likes to climb into your lap, reach up with both paws, and attempt to give you a nipple piercing right through your shirt.

You have to wonder what a Shinto priest could do about that.

Anyhow, if you're ever in Japan with your dog, consider whether a family outing for a canine exorcism might be right for you.  As for me, I need to sign off here so I can go let my dog out, so she can spend the next three hours sitting completely motionless staring at a tree in the back yard, waiting for squirrels to spontaneously drop from its branches or something.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Fooling the experts

Today we consider what happens when you blend Appeal to Authority with the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Appeal to Authority, you probably know, is when someone uses credentials, titles, or educational background -- and no other evidence -- to support a claim.  Put simply, it is the idea that if Stephen Hawking said it, it must be true, regardless of whether the claim has anything to do with Hawking's particular area of expertise.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect, on the other hand, is the idea that people tend to wildly overestimate their abilities, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, which is why we all think we're above average drivers.

Well, David Dunning (of the aforementioned Dunning-Kruger Effect) has teamed up with Cornell University researchers Stav Atir and Emily Rosenzweig, and come up with the love child of Dunning-Kruger and Appeal to Authority.  And what this new phenomenon -- dubbed, predictably, the Atir-Rosenzweig-Dunning Effect -- shows us is that people who are experts in a particular field tend to think that expertise holds true even for disciplines far outside their chosen area of study.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In one experiment, the three researchers asked people to rate their own knowledge in various academic areas, then asked them to rank their level of understanding of various finance-related terms, such as "pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction and annualized credit."  The problem is, those three finance-related terms actually don't exist -- i.e., they were made up by the researchers to sound plausible.

The test subjects who had the highest confidence level in their own fields were most likely to get suckered.  Simon Oxenham, who described the experiments in Big Think, says it's only natural.  "A possible explanation for this finding," Oxenham writes, "is that the participants with a greater vocabulary in a particular domain were more prone to falsely feeling familiar with nonsense terms in that domain because of the fact that they had simply come across more similar-sounding terms in their lives, providing more material for potential confusion."

Interestingly, subsequent experiments showed that the correlation holds true even if you take away the factor of self-ranking.  Presumably, someone who is cocky and arrogant and ranks his/her ability higher than is justified in one area would be likely to do it in others.  But when they tested the subjects' knowledge of terms from their own field -- i.e., actually measured their expertise -- high scores still correlated with overestimating their knowledge in other areas.

And telling the subjects ahead of time that some of the terms might be made up didn't change the results.  "[E]ven when participants were warned that some of the statements were false, the 'experts' were just as likely as before to claim to know the nonsense statements, while most of the other participants became more likely in this scenario to admit they’d never heard of them," Oxenham writes.

I have a bit of anecdotal evidence supporting this result from my experience in the classroom.  On multiple-choice tests, I have to concoct plausible-sounding wrong answers as distractors.  Every once in a while, I run out of good wrong answers, and just make something up.  (On one AP Biology quiz on plant biochemistry, I threw in the term "photoglycolysis," which sounds pretty fancy until you realize that it doesn't exist.)  What I find was that it was the average to upper-average students who are the most likely to be taken in by the ruse.  The top students don't get fooled because they know what the correct answer is; the lowest students are equally likely to pick any of the wrong answers, because they don't understand the material well.  The mid-range students see something that sounds technical and vaguely familiar -- and figure that if they aren't sure, it must be that they missed learning that particular term.

It's also the mid-range students who are most likely to miss questions where the actual answer seems too simple.  Another botanical question I like to throw at them is "What do all non-vascular land plants have in common?"  There are three wrong answers with appropriately technical-sounding jargon.

The actual answer is, "They're small."

Interestingly, the reason non-vascular land plants are small isn't simple at all.  But the answer itself just looks too easy to merit being the correct choice on an AP Biology quiz.

So Atir, Rosenzweig, and Dunning have given us yet another mental pitfall to watch out for -- our tendency to use our knowledge in one field to overestimate our knowledge in others.  But I really should run along, and make sure that the annualized credit on my pre-rated stocks exceeds the recommended fixed-rate deduction.  I'm sure you can appreciate how important that is.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Advice from the ignorant

I have never been a police officer.  No one in my family is a police officer.  I have not studied criminal justice; most of what I know about the legal system has been gleaned from television shows like Law & Order, which, to be honest, I have watched less than a dozen times total.  I've only visited a police station a handful of times, and each time spent less than a half-hour there.

Now stand by while I tell you everything that is wrong with our justice system, and furthermore, how to fix it.

Did you wince a little?  I hope so.  But this election season has been rife with ignorant self-proclaimed experts who know exactly what to do about everything despite having neither the experience nor the facts to base their opinion on.  And for a sterling example of this, let's look at the speech given by Donald Trump, Jr., two days ago on the final night of the Republican National Convention.

Trump Jr. spent a lot of his time railing against the public school system, despite the fact that he (1) is neither a teacher nor an administrator, (2) has never studied educational policy, and (3) for fuck's sake, didn't even attend a public school.  Nevertheless, here's what he said about our national educational policy, with a few interjected comments from me:
The other party gave us public schools that far too often fail our students, especially those who have no options.
Which party is it, exactly, that has across the nation gutted the public school system by cutting funding to the bone, resulting in loss of teachers, curriculum, and services?   To take just one of many examples, consider Republican Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, who just this year signed legislation that would allow parents to divert 70% of the tax money earmarked for education into religious schools -- and this after he already cut $45 million in funding for public schools in 2015.
Growing up, my siblings and I we were truly fortunate to have choices and options that others don’t have.  We want all Americans to have those same opportunities. 
You want every American child to attend a well-funded private school?  Paid for how, exactly?
Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor.  They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students.
Bullshit.  Spend any time at all inside a typical public school and you'll find out that's wrong in under five minutes.  In fact, I'll issue an open invitation to Trump Jr., or anyone else for that matter, to spend a day in my classroom this fall.  Let's see if afterwards you think that what happens there is done for my benefit, or for the benefit of the principal and superintendent.
You know why other countries do better on K through 12?  They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. 
Is there a stronger word than bullshit?  Let's look at one example of a country often touted as achieving educational excellence: Finland.  Their success story -- student scores on standardized tests ranking 2nd in the world in science, 3rd in reading, and 6th in math, with a 93% high school graduation rate nationwide -- has zilch to do with "parental choice."  According to an article on the Finnish educational system by LynNell Hancock that appeared in Smithsonian:
There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.  There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.  Finland’s schools are publicly funded.  The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.  The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town.  The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.
But do go on, Mr. Trump Jr., as if you actually had the slightest idea what you're talking about:
That’s called competition. It’s called the free market. And it’s what the other party fears.
No, we don't fear competition, and contrary to what people like you would have the public believe, teachers like myself don't fear accountability.  What we want is fair, equitable measures of student success, both to evaluate students and to evaluate teachers.  What we don't need is a bunch of politicians making pronouncements on a subject about which they are completely ignorant.
They fear it because they’re more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.
I don't know a single teacher who is in favor of tenure protecting substandard teachers.  The tenure rules are there for a reason -- to give protection to teachers from capricious administrators, and to ensure due process.  No one in education is in favor of tenure abuses like the so called "rubber rooms" where poor teachers are corralled because they can't be fired.  But this problem can be fixed without jettisoning the entire system.
They want to run everything top-down from Washington.  They tell us they’re the experts and they know what’s best.
So instead, we're supposed to listen to you because you are an expert and you know what's best?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You want to know how to fix the system?  Adequate funding and fair fund distribution formulas.  Strong curricula that are not beholden to test-for-profit firms like Pearson Education.  Support for teachers in inner cities and other places where poverty, broken families, drugs, and gangs play a role in the failure of schools.  Powerful, dynamic teacher training programs.  Salaries and benefits that are sufficient to attract the best teachers, stopping the bleed-out of talent we're seeing across the United States because of poor working conditions and vilification of the entire profession.

Last -- the one thing you and I might agree on -- put the oversight of education into the hands of the people who know the most about it, and get the know-nothing politicians to keep their noses out of it.

But that includes you, Mr. Trump Jr.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Retreating into science

I try to keep myself informed about what's going on in the world, but lately, what's going on in the world has led me to the unfortunate conclusion that humans are, by and large, crazy.  It's not a comforting thought.  But between the shootings, terrorist attacks, civil unrest, and the Republican National Convention, I seem to have no other option.

Because the news I'm seeing out there is simply too depressing, for today's post I'm retreating to my happy place, better known as science.

Think of it as my answer to flowers, rainbows, and friendly bunnies.

So let's take a look at a few new developments in the scientific world, and take a refreshing break from the irrationality and insanity that is the main course in the media these days.

First, from field biologist Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge, we have a charming study of a partnership between humans and wild animals -- in this case, between human honey-hunters in Africa and a little brown bird called the Greater Honeyguide.

Honeyguides have been partners with humans for as far back as we have any information.  Honey-hunters in Mozambique call in the birds with a trilling sound, and the birds then lead their human pals to bees' nests.  When the nest is raided, the humans share some of the honeycomb with their guides, so it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

"Communication between domesticated species and people is well known, but the fascinating point in the case of the honeyguide is that it describes such a relationship between a wild animal and humans," said behavioral biologist Claudia Wascher of the University of Anglia Ruskin (UK), commenting on Spottiswoode's study.  "This has not been described scientifically before."

Greater Honeyguide [image courtesy of photographer Gisela Gerson Lohman-Braun and the Wikimedia Commons]

"The results show that there is communication between humans and free-living wild animals that the animals understand," Spottiswoode said.  "There is a rich cultural diversity of interaction between humans and honeyguides.  We'd love to try to understand it."

Next, we have a discovery from the world of astronomy.  Two rocky, Earthlike planets have been discovered that lie in the habitable zone -- around the same star.

The star, called TRAPPIST-1, is only 40 light years away.  While it is certain that the two planets, dubbed TRAPPIST-1-b and c, have atmospheres and are not gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, it remains to be seen whether they actually are capable of harboring life.

"Now we can say that these planets are rocky. Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?" study author Julian de Wit of MIT said.  "The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, where the atmosphere is dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere with heavy clouds, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere.  The next step is to try to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets."

However, it must be said that "only 40 light years away" is still far too distant for any conventional spacecraft to reach.  Even communicating via radio waves wouldn't be very interesting, given the forty year transit time (one way) for messages:
Earth scientist: "Hi there, alien civilization!"
*80 year wait*
Alien scientist on TRAPPIST-1-b: "Hi, Earthling! How's it hangin'?"
Earth scientist: "I'm fine, how're the wife and kids?"
*another 80 year wait*
Alien scientist on TRAPPIST-1-b: "They're doing well, and yours?"
 So it doesn't really lend itself to scintillating repartee. But it's still a tremendously exciting discovery, further indicating that habitable planets are probably common in the universe -- and that we might not be alone after all.

From geologists Guilherme Gualda (of Vanderbilt University) and Stephen Sutton (of the University of Chicago) we have a paper that indicates that supervolcanoes might only give a year's warning before a colossal eruption.  They studied the Bishop Tuff, an outcropping in California that formed 760,000 years ago during the massive Long Valley Caldera eruption, and through analysis of quartz crystals deposited there concluded that the decompression gas bubbles that initiate the explosion form really quickly.

"The evolution of a giant, super-eruption-feeding magma body is characterized by events taking place at a variety of time scales," said Gualda.  "Tens of thousands of years are needed to prime the crust to generate sufficient eruptible magma.  Once established, these melt-rich, giant magma bodies are unstable features that last for only centuries to few millennia.  Now we have shown that the onset of the process of decompression, which releases the gas bubbles that power the eruption, starts less than a year before eruption."

When people think of supervolcanoes, they usually come up with Yellowstone, but it bears mention that there are other supervolcanoes in the world -- Campi Flegrei in Italy, Oruanui in New Zealand, and Toba/Tambora in Indonesia, to name three.  So it's a good thing that the geologists are monitoring the situation, although you have to wonder what they'd do if they found that an eruption was imminent.  "Evacuate Italy" doesn't seem like a viable plan.  But because I said that this post was going to be cheerful and uplifting, perhaps I'd better move on.

Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales have just made a discovery that could help the world move to a post-fossil-fuel economy: that using a cheap catalyst and sunlight, hydrogen gas can be made from grass clippings.

The technique is called photocatalysis, and the catalyst is nickel.  (The process also works well using palladium or gold as a catalyst, but that ups the cost significantly.)  Basically, the idea is that using the catalyst and sunlight as an energy source, cellulose in plant matter can be broken down and produce hydrogen, which can then be used to power hydrogen fuel cells.

"Hydrogen is seen as an important future energy carrier as the world moves from fossil fuels to renewable feedstocks, and our research has shown that even garden grass could be a good way of getting hold of it," said Michael Bowker, who headed the study at Cardiff.  "This is significant as it avoids the need to separate and purify cellulose from a sample, which can be both arduous and costly...  Our results show that significant amounts of hydrogen can be produced using this method with the help of a bit of sunlight and a cheap catalyst."

And when you consider the amount of cellulose-rich agricultural waste that is simply discarded -- think rice husks and cornstalks -- it'd be an amazing breakthrough to be able to use it for fuel production.

So that's our brief retreat into the cheering world of scientific discovery.  It's nice to know that there are still people who are working toward understanding the universe and bettering humanity, and that they're not all crazed, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics.  It's a refreshing thought.  Maybe I should sustain the feeling by avoiding the news for a while.  I'll miss hearing the spin about Donald Trump's speech last night at the RNC, which would be an added benefit.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pokémon no

In the last few weeks, Pokémon Go has been all the rage amongst the gamer crowd, to the extent that a Massachusetts man caused a major traffic pile-up when he stopped in the middle of a busy highway to catch a "Pikachu," an Auburn (NY) man crashed his car into a tree basically trying to do the same thing, two California men who neglected to take into account the fact that Pokémon, being imaginary characters, do not have to worry about gravity, fell off a fifty-foot cliff and sustained serious injuries, and the Bosnian government has issued an official warning for players to be careful not to step on a land mine.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time that the evangelical fringe felt obliged to jump into the fun and declare that Pokémon are creations of Satan.

It will come as no shock to regular readers of this blog that the origin of this jaw-dropping revelation is none other than Skeptophilia frequent flier Rick Wiles, who also thinks that the gays are organizing into an elite band of super-soldiers, that Christians in the United States are soon to be rounded up and executed wholesale, and that President Obama murdered Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

So it's apparent at the outset that we're talking about someone here who has a fairly loose grip on reality.  But this time, what he's saying is so much further outside of the realm of the normal that I can't help but wonder if this guy needs some serious psychological help.

Here's what Wiles had to say:
These Pokémon creatures are like virtual cyber-demons.  Digital demons.  Now, this is where this starts to get weird...  So this morning Doc and Edward and I were in an editorial meeting, we're talking about the topics for today's program, and Pokémon Go was one of the topics.  This is before the police officer showed up.  We're talking about Pokémon Go!  And Edward and Doc said, "Rick, we're going to present to you a really far out idea. about Pokémon Go.  What if this technology is transferred to Islamic jihadists and Islamic jihadists have an app that shows them where Christians are located geographically?"...   
After the police officer told us that this man we saw Friday on our property, riding around our property holding his phone, a grown man, a forty-year-old man on a four-wheeler riding around our building suspiciously holding his phone up like he's photographing our building, the police officer comes back and tells us, "Look, I solved the case, he was playing Pokémon Go."  This is why in the office today we all did a triple-take looking at each other.  Because the theory that Doc and Edward presented to me today before the police officer came here was, what if we find out that the demons, the Pokémon Go demons, are being located primarily inside churches?  Well, guess what?  They downloaded the app, they stood here and downloaded the Pokémon Go app, and lo and behold, there is the TruNews office, there's the outline of our building, there you can see where the exit doors and windows are, and there inside the building is a virtual cyber-demon.  And what this man Friday was trying to find was the Pokémon demon that had been placed inside the TruNews office.   
If this technology got into the hands of the wrong people, it could target the churches, it could target the elders, the deacons, the ministers, the Sunday school teachers, the youth pastors.  You could have an app that would lead you to the homes of these strong Christian leaders.  
Then TruNews co-host Edward Szali chimed in:
We found that the churches in our area were all portals.  They were rally points where you could put down bait.  This is where you can go to find and capture these demons.
Wiles then picked up the thread again:
The enemy, Satan, is targeting churches with virtual, digital, cyber-demons.  I believe this thing is a magnet for demonic powers.  Pokémon masters may soon start telling people to kill people in those buildings so they can capture more of these cyber-demons.  They’re spawning demons inside your church.  They’re targeting your church with demonic activity.  This technology will be used by the enemies of the cross to target, locate and execute Christians.
Righty-o.  Do I need to emphasize that what they're talking about is a game wherein players capture creatures that are imaginary?  I.e., not real?

Of course, given that Satan pretty much falls into the same category, I suppose it's not to be wondered at that Wiles and Szali have some difficulty with the distinction.

Don't be misled by this cheerful smile.  He's reaching out to steal your soul.

Anyhow.  You may want to keep all of this in mind, if you are a Pokémon Go player.  Not only do you have to worry about causing a car pile-up, running your own car into a tree, falling off a cliff, or stepping on a land mine, you now have to fret about your cell phone becoming infested with cyber-demons.

Me, I think I'll stick with birdwatching, which a student of mine aptly characterized as "Pokémon for adults."  You wander around for interminable periods outdoors in all sorts of weather, become obsessed with seeing species you've never seen before, and flock to places where other players have seen something interesting or unusual.  There's still the potential of accidents, but at least you don't have to worry about birds being demons, although I have to admit I wonder sometimes about starlings.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sweet transvestite

Because the world has so much to worry about -- terrorism, climate change, governmental instability in too many countries to list -- today we're going to consider the following question:

Is London ex-Mayor Boris Johnson a time-traveling transvestite?

This is the claim of an I-hope-this-isn't-serious article in The Mirror, wherein we see the photographic evidence, to wit:

Photograph of a British man in drag, circa 1896

Here, for comparison purposes, is a photograph of Johnson, standing next to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron:

I'll admit that there is some resemblance.  But before you say, "Somebody notify Stephen Hawking!  Apparently time travel is real!" allow me to point out that the same article claims that Cameron is actually Catherine the Great of Russia:

And again, I have to say that there's a similarity.  Of course, there is good historical evidence that Catherine had several children, which kind of precludes her from being David Cameron in drag.  But someone should insist that Cameron model a low-cut dress and frizzy gray wig just to make sure.  

While I suspect that the article in The Mirror was tongue-in-cheek, it bears mention that there are people who believe stuff like this.  Regular readers may recall that I did a piece a while back about the claim that Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves are immortal, based on the discovery of a couple of historical photos and/or paintings that resemble the two actors.  And this one isn't just a for-laughs, "Hey, look how similar these two people are!" sort of thing.  These people are serious.  There are articles all over woo-woo sites about how Cage and Reeves are undead who have been around for hundreds of years, never aging, simply switching identities ever fifty years are so, and somehow still never mastering more than a single facial expression each.

The fact is, there are random similarities in the facial features between unrelated people, and it's nothing more than a coincidence.  Just last week, a woman at the writers' conference I attended grinned every time she saw me, and eventually felt obliged to explain that she wasn't flirting with me, I look exactly like her favorite nephew.  "You even dress like him," she said.  (I spent the entire week in a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals, and she said that's his summer uniform, too.)

But it's not really surprising that there's another guy out there who shares my rather unfortunate face.   There are only so many possible combinations of facial features, so somewhere there'll be someone who looks like you.  Similar, after all, doesn't mean identical.  (And my mom was adamant that I wasn't one of a pair of twins separated at birth.)  So any claim about one famous person being the same as a long-dead historical figure is kind of a non-starter.

I'm still in favor of the dress-and-wig idea for David Cameron, however.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Close encounter of the weird kind

If there's one thing I've said over and over about this presidential election, it's, "This really can't get any weirder, can it?"  (Of course, I've also said "What the fuck?" more than once, but I suspect I'm not alone in that.)  Yesterday was the first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Democratic National Convention is next week in Philadelphia.  I'm fully expecting to use both of those phrases several times over the next couple of weeks

Starting with the fact that Karl Rove was stopped while trying to board his plane to the RNC by none other than Alex Jones.  Jones is well known to those of us who like to keep our pulse on the lunatic fringe.  He runs the "news" outlet InfoWars, which mostly seems devoted to proving that President Obama is an America-hating Muslim, when it's not claiming that every damn thing that happens in the world is a "false flag."  ("False flags," you probably know, are government-staged riots and so on designed to distract us from the real news.  Given the recent spate of terrorist attacks and police shootings, we're distracted enough, okay?  You can lay the hell off.)

Rove, on the other hand, was one of President George W. Bush's chief strategists, and distinguished himself mostly on the basis of (1) looking like a huge mutant baby with an enormous forehead, and (2) somehow, inexplicably, meriting the nickname of "Turd Blossom" from the Commander in Chief himself.  Other than that, he mostly involved himself with smearing politicians he didn't like (such as his trash-talking the military service record of Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who is a triple amputee due to injuries in the line of duty).

So any meeting between these two would have to be epic.  Jones launched into some hard questions right away, such as asking if Rove was going to support Trump or if he was "siphoning money off of him to make sure Hillary wins."  Rove declined to answer, only saying that as he was now working for Fox News, he was not interested in appearing on the Alex Jones Show.

Need I mention that the whole time, one of Jones's operatives was filming the encounter?

So Rove started to get pissed off, with Jones crowing that this just proves his point.  Whatever "his point," actually was, something I've had a hard time identifying myself whenever my blood pressure is too low and I listen to his latest rant on InfoWars.  By this time Rove realized that arguing with Alex Jones is about as fruitful an occupation as discussing philosophy with a chicken, so he tried to get away to safety.  Jones, unsurprisingly, followed him, considering any kind of retreat a victory for his side.

Until, that is, it became apparent that Rove wasn't just trying to flee, he was going to a Customer Service desk to ask them to summon security.  Jones at that point decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and did what the Knights of the Round Table did when confronted with the Killer Rabbit of Caer Bannog.

I strongly encourage you to watch the entire thing, because it's hilarious in a scary sort of way.  You can watch the whole encounter on the link I posted above.

Anyhow, the next couple of weeks should be pretty interesting, if this incident is any indication.  Myself, I'm content to watch from a distance, and if I lived in Cleveland, I'd probably do whatever I could to make sure I was gone for the next week.  (Considering it's Cleveland, I'd probably do whatever I could to make sure I was gone permanently, but that's beside the point.)

So keep your eye on the news, especially given that at the RNC large numbers of the attendees are expected to be armed.  Because there's no way that that could end badly, right?

Of course right.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The ghostly hotel

I'm back home after a very productive week of writing, networking, and general schmoozing with a bunch of my fellow fiction authors at the Storytellers of America Conference in Winslow, Arkansas.  The publisher who handles my books -- Oghma Creative Media -- was well-represented, as they're headquartered in Bentonville, right nearby.

Among the writers I got to meet was another Oghma author, J. C. Crumpton, and (most fun of all) I got to hear an excerpt from his fantastic upcoming release Silence in the Garden.  Silence is about an (allegedly) true tale of the supernatural that I had never heard about -- the story of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

The Crescent bills itself as "the most haunted hotel in America," and every year has hundreds of visitors motivated to visit solely by its reputation.  To be sure, there are lots of other reasons; the Crescent is a beautiful and historically important building, has 78 luxurious rooms, and is smack-dab in the middle of the Ozarks, which (I found) is stunningly beautiful even though it's prone to thunderstorms that'd knock your socks off.

Hopefully only in a figurative sense.

The Crescent Hotel was opened in May of 1886, mostly to accommodate visitors who had come to partake in Eureka Springs' "healing waters."  This kept it going for about fifteen years, until people figured out that the "healing waters" were actually just "plain old water," and the tourists began to go elsewhere.  After that it became for a time the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women.    That, too, turned out to be a financial failure; it was abandoned for a time, had a brief return to its heyday of sham cures in the 1930s (ended when the proprietor was convicted of defrauding cancer patients and was sent to Leavenworth Prison), and returned to being a hotel in the 1950s.

The Crescent Hotel, circa 1900 [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There was a fire that caused extensive damage in 1967, but due to its historical value and beauty, it was rebuilt and is now once again the gorgeous landmark and tourist destination that it was in its early days.

A building with such a checkered past, however, is bound to have some sketchy stories attached to it, and very early on the Crescent gained a reputation for being haunted.  The oldest ghost people see is called "Michael" and is said to be the spirit of a red-haired Irish stonemason who was working on the roof shortly before its grand opening in 1886, lost his balance, and fell to his death.  From the days of its serving as a cancer hospital there are the ghosts of a nurse and several patients, all dressed in white, that have been seen on multiple occasions.

What is interesting about these accounts is that unlike most ghost stories, the specters that supposedly populate the Crescent seem pretty benign.  The dining room has been visited by an elderly gentleman in fine 19th century dress clothes, who if approached, will explain to you that he "saw the most beautiful woman here last night and is waiting for her to return."  Which, honestly, is kind of sweet.  About the only truly frightening apparition -- except insofar as any ghost would probably scare me to the pants-wetting stage, because I am, not to put too fine a point on it, a great big wuss -- is the spirit of a teenage girl who, according to the legend, lived in the hotel during its time as a Conservatory for Young Women, and fell (some say she was pushed) to her death from a balcony.  People see her falling, hear her scream -- and when they rush to the sidewalk to see who has taken such a dreadful plunge, they find... no one.

(This is, in fact, a central piece of Crumpton's novel.  Trust me, in his hands, it is way creepy, and when this book is published, you should all read it.)

I'm a little disappointed at not having had time on this trip to go see the place.  Considering my fascination with tales of the paranormal, it's frustrating to have come so close to the "most haunted hotel in America" and not allowed the ghosts a shot at convincing me of their existence.  But given that my publisher is not far away from there, I'm sure there will be other opportunities.

So many hauntings, so little time.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The bankruptcy of denialism

Dear readers:

It's time for me to take a short break from Skeptophilia.  Next week I'll be donning my other hat (fiction writer) and attending/giving a talk at the Storytellers of America conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas, so this will be my last post until I return, Monday, July 18.

During the interim, you should check out a few of my favorite skeptic/atheist sites.  Here are some suggestions:
Friendly Atheist 
Bad Astronomy 
Respectful Insolence 
Skeptical Raptor 
Or, alternatively, you could read some of my fiction, links to which have been helpfully provided at the right.  I have three novels (Kill Switch, Lock & Key, and Sephirot) out in print from Oghma Creative Media (but also available for e-readers); my short story "The Hourglass" is also available in e-reader format, for only 99 cents.

Such a deal.

In any case, have a lovely week, hoist the banner of skepticism high, and keep those cards & letters coming.  I'll be back at it when I return from Fayetteville next weekend.


I try to be open-minded and balanced about things, but there comes a point when anyone who is truly using evidence and logic as the sine qua non of understanding has to say, "Okay, the time for debate is over.  This is settled."

That time has come for the climate change deniers.

I know I've rung the changes on this topic a number of times before, but two things popped up in my newsfeed yesterday that highlighted the fact that the deniers are at this point not only without a leg to stand on, evidence-wise, but are morally bankrupt as well.

First, we had a meeting this week of Britain's Global Warming Policy Foundation, which despite the name is a pro-fossil-fuel, climate change denialist lobby that is seeing an opportunity in the recent vote by Great Britain to withdraw from the European Union.  The keynote address was given by David Campbell, professor at Lancaster University, wherein his main point was the unfairness of the Paris Accord's mandate that rich nations make carbon cuts while poor nations do not, along with a withering criticism of China's greenhouse gas policy (drafted last year) as completely unrealistic.

It was only after Campbell tried to access his link to the Paris Accord document that he realized his mistake.  The site was an "expired link" and would not load.  The reason?

The passage he quoted was from a draft that was superseded by an updated version of the Accord in which said mandate had been removed.


And about China's policy, he conveniently failed to mention a billion-dollar investment approved by the Chinese government -- in clean energy.

The audience overcame their embarrassment quickly, because there's nothing like assuming your conclusion for maintaining support of a position.  One attendee went back to the tired old denialist claim about the global warming "pause" -- neglecting the fact that 2016 has thus far been the warmest year on record, beating the previous record (2015), which beat the previous record (2014), and so on and so forth.

That's some pause, right there.

[image courtesy of NOAA]

Then, here in the States, we had a revelation (surprising no one who keeps up with such news) that one of the leading denialist groups in the US, The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, was being funded by recently-bankrupted coal giant Peabody Energy, Inc.

This, you may recall, is the group that published papers such as the never-to-be-forgotten "The Many Benefits of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Enrichment."

The head of the CSCDGC, Craig Idso, is a familiar name in the denialist world.  He has spoken at meetings of the Heartland Institute, the political lobby group driven by fossil fuel interests, and was instrumental in pushing a committee to draft policy countering the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's statement that climate change was here and now, and that mitigation was absolutely critical.

So the rallying cry of the denialist movement, "Follow the money" -- intended to imply that the scientists were in the pay of environmental lobby groups -- turns out to be a far better guide for sorting fact from fiction than the deniers ever intended.

And outside, the world continues to warm.  Here in the Northeast, we're in the middle of a sweltering drought; only a few states to the south, they're being washed away by flash floods.  The southwest has been under a "heat dome" for weeks that has brought the air temperatures up to 120 F in Phoenix, Arizona.  Hell, it was 93 F in Siberia a couple of days ago.

And we haven't even reached the hottest part of the summer yet.

So we still have room for more warming coming soon, perhaps even getting near last summer's record -- an unimaginable heat index of 165 F in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran on July 31.

"Global warming pause," my ass.

So that's the news from the climate change front.  The fossil fuel industry is still pulling the strings, and the politicians are still dancing to their tune.  How much longer that will continue probably depends on how much worse the weather gets.  Because if there's one thing that will turn things around, it's when the crazy weather starts to affect the pocketbooks of the wealthy business owners.

Then we might see some change on a political level.

But the tragic part is that by then, it might be too late to do anything about it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Ark afloat

So yesterday, Ken Ham's flagship project Ark Encounter opened with much fanfare, thus proving that it takes $102 million dollars and a crew of thousands six years to support the contention that a 500-year-old man and his three sons could do the same thing in a few weeks without power tools.

Ham, naturally, is delighted.  It hasn't been smooth sailing; he was plagued with funding problems and a lawsuit over discriminatory hiring practices when it was discovered that he was receiving tax breaks from the state of Kentucky while simultaneously requiring that anyone who worked there (including volunteers) had to be practicing Christians who believed in biblical inerrancy.  That he actually succeeded was something of -- dare I say it -- a miracle.

"Nobody’s ever attempted anything like this before," Ham said, in an interview with Forbes, "because God never has brought all of these kinds of people — literally thousands of people — together to make it happen, until now."

Not even once, four thousand years ago?  Really?  Wasn't that kind of your point?

"We are bold about the fact that we’re doing it because we’re Christians and we’re doing it for the Christian message," Ham said.  "But we’re not trying to force it on people.  What we want to do is challenge people to consider that what they’re seeing was true and feasible.  We want to get them to take the Bible seriously."

Ken Ham [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Because anyone with a shred of critical thinking ability would take seriously the conjecture that (1) there was enough rain to flood the entire Earth, followed by (2) all the water miraculously going somewhere ("away," presumably), followed by (3) all the sloths somehow ambling their way from Palestine back to the Amazon Rain Forest unaided.

And we won't even go into the mental gymnastics that it would take to believe that two of every animal species on Earth would fit on a 512-foot-long ship in the first place.

Ham is thrilled by the whole thing, as one might expect, but is not content to rest on his laurels.  He is -- according to Forbes -- planning on taking on as his next project building a full-size replica of the Tower of Babel, to commemorate another time that the God of Love decided to smite the shit out of his creations for getting uppity.  Apparently, though, Ham has to figure out how tall to build the thing, because that's never mentioned in the bible -- just that it was "tall enough to see heaven."

Which is pretty freakin' tall.  I bet he'll need an even bigger budget this time.

I'm happy to say, though, that for those of you who prefer to deal with reality, there is an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that has models of what scientists currently believe dinosaurs looked like (with no nonsense about trying to keep velociraptors on a boat for forty days and forty nights without their eating everything in sight).  And the current research is that many of them had... feathers.  Which kind of changes our perception of them, doesn't it?  No more scaly terrors, à la Jurassic Park; the current conception is more like a nightmarish cross between Godzilla and a chicken.  All of which, by the way, is borne out by the evidence, which includes fossilized feather imprints around dinosaur skeletons, not to mention actual feathers preserved in amber.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So as counterintuitive as it is, the dinosaurs actually didn't go extinct.  We still have dinosaurs -- we just call 'em "birds."  Think about that next time you're feeding the chickadees.

Anyhow, if I'm going to blow some money on admission, I think I'm heading to New York rather than Lexington.  I don't have anything against fairy tales as long as they're labeled that way, and the fact that Ham et al. are trying to fool yet another generation of children into believing that Science is Evil and the Earth is 6,000 years old just grinds my gears.  Plus, I think just reading the labels on the displays would probably send my blood pressure through the roof, and heaven knows I don't need that.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Ground state

It's been a while since we've looked at bizarre alt-med health claims, so I was excited to stumble on an article in WellnessMama called "How to Get Healthy While You Sleep: How to Use Earthing & Grounding to Boost Health."

We're put on notice right away in the first paragraph when we read the following:
I’ve been self-testing an innovative new way (inspired by a very old way) of reducing stress and improving sleep lately and I now feel like I have enough personal data to pass on my results to you.
Because if there's anything that we find out from any reputable scientist, it's that the plural of "anecdote" is "data."  But this is only the beginning of the issues with this article, so we'll let that be for the moment.

The next thing she tells us is that we would all benefit from coming into direct contact with the ground regularly, i.e., walking barefoot.  I'm certainly not opposed to that; in fact, when the weather is warm, I tend to wear the legally permissible minimum amount of clothing, and in fact have been known to enjoy a nice skinnydip in my pond at times when no one is looking.  But wait till you find out why she thinks that going barefoot is good for you:
Basically, the theory is that our bodies are meant to come into contact with the Earth (a “grounding” force) on a regular basis. Positive electrons in the form of free radicals (ever heard of those guys?) can build up in our bodies and direct contact with the ground balances this out as it is a negative grounding charge. 
Our bodies and cells have electrical energy, and especially with the high prevalence of Electromagnetic waves, Wi-Fi and mobile phone waves, many of us have a high amount of positive electrons built up in our bodies.
"Positive electrons" do exist, by the way.  They're better known to physicists as "positrons."  But there's one problem with her claim, and that is that positrons are actually antimatter.  If your body built up a "high amount of positive electrons," they would come in contact with the plain-old-garden-variety negative electrons in your body, self-annihilate, and you would explode in a flash of gamma rays.

Which honestly sounds worse than being stressed and sleepless.

[image courtesy of CERN and the Wikimedia Commons]

Oh, but it's all real, she assures us:
At first I was skeptical that something so simple could work but after researching it... it seemed at least plausible that it would work.  I also ran the idea by some electrical engineer friends and a friend who has done research in the biomedical field and they confirmed that there was some science to back it up.
So let me get this straight; you told some electrical engineers and biomedical researchers about your body building up positive electrons, and how those were the same thing as free radicals, and they said that this all made sense?

Where did your friends get their degrees, Big Bob's Discount Diploma Warehouse?

Then we hear some of her evidence that this works:
Have you ever noticed that you sleep better on a beach vacation after walking in the sand or being in the ocean?  The sand and ocean water and both naturally conductive materials and both help ground the body and remove excess positive electrons.  For the same basic reason that we ground electrical outlets to avoid the build up of excess positive charge, our bodies need the same ground effect.
No, I think I sleep better while on vacation because I don't have to spend every spare minute thinking about lesson plans and grading papers.  And we don't ground electrical outlets to "avoid the buildup of excess positive charge," it's so that if there's a short in the wiring, the current will divert harmlessly rather than electrocuting you or burning your house down.

Or did you learn about that from your electrical engineer friends, too?

Then we hear all about the things that walking barefoot can cure, which include high blood pressure, insomnia, muscle aches, headaches, jet lag, bedsores, and (I'm not making this up) snoring.

Bet you didn't know that snoring was caused by excess positrons in your nasal cavity, did you?  I sure didn't.

In any case, the reality is that even if you wear rubber-soled shoes -- hell, you could wear an entire rubber suit if you wanted -- you ground yourself every time you touch a faucet (or anything metallic that's in contact with the ground) with your bare hand.  It's the principle of the carpet shock; you do sometimes build up a static charge (it could be positive or negative) on your body, but if you brush against a grounded object, the excess electrons will jump one way or the other and you're going to become neutral with respect to that grounded object.

Because that's the way electricity works.

Then she goes into how we should not only all walk barefoot, we should buy "grounding mats" to sleep on.  At that point, my eyes were crossing and I had to stop reading.

So the upshot of it all: go barefoot if you want.  It does feel nice, although we do have shoes for a reason, which you'll discover the next time you're "grounding yourself" in your front yard and you step on a thistle.  As far as the rest of her claim, it seems to be unadulterated fiction.

Just like her "free radical positive electrons."

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Keep on truckin'

Remember last summer, when the "Jade Helm" training exercise in Texas got a whole bunch of conspiracy theorists stirred up about how the military (acting under Obama's orders, of course) was about to take out the governor of Texas and institute martial law, complete with guillotining of innocent civilians?

And most importantly, how none of that happened?

Well, here we go again.

A couple of days ago, a guy named Jeff Stern was on a highway near Lexington, Virginia, and noted the presence of several military vehicles labeled "UN" on the road with him.  He took pictures, and posted them to his Facebook page along with the caption, "Can't begin to tell you how many of these I passed today on 81 near Lexington VA.  Interesting times ahead!"

And with that, we're off to the races.

[image from a Facebook screen grab]

Posts began popping up all over with many and varied hypotheses about what was going on with the trucks.  One claimed that these were trucks containing troops intended as peacekeepers during the Republican and Democratic Conventions, scheduled for later this month; another that it was the first sign of martial law being declared; a third said that they were heading south to put down an upcoming armed insurrection that was going to declare Texas to be an independent country; a fourth, predictably, that President Obama is up to something, probably in cahoots with his Muslim buddies; and the fifth and most popular one, that this was the precursor to an invasion by a coalition from the United Nations that was so completely sneaky and top secret that they rode around on an interstate highway in trucks labeled "UN."  

So naturally, every conspiracy theory site in the entire world was buzzing with what this could all be about.  And if you ever want to truly despair of the future of the human race, go to a conspiracy theory site and read the comments.  Because remember the fundamental rule of the internet: the comments section is always weirder, stupider, and crazier than the article to which they're appended.  Here, that sets the bar pretty high.  Take, for example, the following comment on the site Hidden Americans:
Nothing should surprise you as the Obama administration has almost revoked our constitution with the help of congress and the supreme courts [sic] insane decisions.  We can't be surprised at anything that is going down.  We are not going to be surprised if somehow this election is cancelled and Obama declares marshall [sic] law.
I thought Marshall Law had something to do with rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.  But I could be remembering wrong.

Fortunately, while the conspiracy theorists were busy having multiple orgasms over the latest Black Ops, a few people with some degree of common sense did some digging and found out what was really happening.  And it turned out to be... boring.  The actual story was broken in The Blaze, because the only thing that would make this whole thing more ridiculous is having a news site run by Glenn Beck be the voice of reason and common sense:
The U.N., an international organization that does not have authorities in the United States, was simply having their trucks manufactured in Virginia at Alpine Armoring, Inc, an international supplier and manufacturer of armored vehicles. 
A representative from Alpine confirmed to The Blaze that the vehicles were, in fact, purchased by the U.N. and were being delivered to a nearby port for use outside the United States. 
When the photos first made headlines, one person who commented on a post by Facebook user Jeff Stern, who shared the images, said, “These are manufactured in Danville. Thats why you saw them in VA. They were being delivered.”
Which, of course, had exactly zero effect on the conspiracy theorists, who immediately began to leap all over the story in The Blaze, claiming that it was TOO martial law, dammit.  Here are just a few of the comments I read before my prefrontal cortex cried "uncle:"
  • ANY UN vehicle in the US is illegal AND a legitimate TARGET.  NO UN “resolution” SUPER-CEDES the US Constitution….
  • Lock and Load, this is why the 2nd amendment exist
  • the ones for our neighborhoods are unmarked.
  • Sure, they were just manufactured in the U.S. and are being sent overseas.  Yeah, that’s the ticket and if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor and Benghazi was caused by some stupid video that a Jew produced.  When the anti-Christ takes over America, it will be like taking candy from a baby.
And then, there's my favorite one:
  • Like they would tell you they are prepositioning equipment to seize control. lol They don’t even need to preposition just put in a large order and then drop the troops in them and take over.
I wonder how you "preposition equipment?"  "Of the tank, by the tank, for the tank...?"

So yeah.  I have to keep telling myself that the people who post these things are the loud, insane minority.  Because if I start focusing too hard on the fact that these people vote, I end up curled up in a fetal position under my desk for the rest of the day.

In any case, there you have it; this summer's answer to "Jade Helm."  Which will result in nothing, just as Jade Helm did -- no martial law, no executions, no overthrowing of state governments, no troops storming in and taking over small-town America.  In fact, the only thing Jade Helm seemed to accomplish was giving Alex Jones something to rant about for six months, which is probably what will happen again here.  But because the conspiracy theorists never seem to remember that they have a batting average that is so close to zero as to make no difference, the next time some odd-looking vehicle is spotted in Minnesota or somewhere, we'll start all over again from the beginning.

Because conspiracy theories are the gifts that keep on giving.