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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The imaginary restaurant

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia responded to yesterday's post, about a high school biology teacher who decided to name a chemical reaction after himself with the result that it became semi-official on the internet, with an email that said, "I'd love to talk to you more about this phenomenon.  How 'bout we meet at The Shed at Dulwich for lunch tomorrow?"

Which was a little puzzling, until I clicked the link he sent, which was about how a non-existent restaurant became an internet phenomenon.

It started earlier this year when a freelance writer with the unlikely name of "Oobah Butler" decided to create a TripAdvisor page for a fake restaurant, and gave the address as the location of a garden shed next to his house in the town of Dulwich, England, which is a suburb of London.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Once the page was created, Butler and a few friends lauded The Shed at Dulwich in gushing tones.  They got a burner cellphone to be the restaurant's phone number.  They created a fake menu, each dish based upon a human emotion (my favorite one was "Lust:  Rabbit kidneys on toast seasoned with saffron and an oyster bisque.  Served with a side of pomegranate soufflé.")  They created photographs of entrées out of non-food items such as bleach tablets and shaving cream, which included the following:


Which, honestly, looks a lot like stuff I've eaten at upscale restaurants, although I assume it wouldn't taste like it.

The reviews kept pouring in.  "The best shed-based experience in London!" one of them said, which you would think would have tipped people off.

But no. The positive reviews, combined with the menu and photographs, made The Shed at Dulwich rocket upwards in TripAdvisor.  (Another said, "Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit.  After a few mildly frustrating phone calls I was in.")

The phone began ringing off the hook.  Butler told the callers, "Sorry, we're booked up."  He was sent free samples by restaurant supply companies.  The Dulwich governing council called Butler about relocating the restaurant to a more business-friendly property.  People contacted him looking for employment.

At this point page for The Shed was receiving 89,000 hits a day.  It rose to #1 in the TripAdvisor restaurant category for the Greater London area.

Have I made it clear enough that this place doesn't actually exist?

This is like the Swanson conversion from yesterday's post, only more so.  Like a thousand times more so.  Of course, eventually Butler was found out, and he 'fessed up, and the page was taken down.  But not before he was receiving hundreds of calls daily, from all over the world, asking for reservations -- some of them for months in advance.

So if you needed further indication that you should view anything online with a good dose of skepticism and critical thinking, this is it.  A guy and a few friends, armed with nothing more than a burner cellphone, some photographs of household items dolled up to look like food, and a good imagination, punked TripAdvisor and thousands of eager foodies.  I don't know what would possess someone to do this, other than a warped sense of humor and way too much free time, but it does illustrate the human capacity for hoaxing.

You can't even trust webpages for highly-rated restaurants.  You see why I'm dubious about online claims for ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wikipedia, accuracy, and the Swanson conversion

I'm of two minds about Wikipedia.

I think it's a great resource for quick lookups, and use it myself for that sort of thing.  A study by Thomas Chesney found that experts generally consider Wikipedia to be pretty accurate, although the same study admits that others have concluded that 13% of Wikipedia entries have errors (how serious those errors are is uncertain; an error in a single date is certainly more forgivable than one that gives erroneous information about a major world event).  Another study concluded that between one-half and one-third of deliberately inserted errors are corrected within 48 hours.

But still.  That means that between one-half and two-thirds of deliberately inserted errors weren't corrected within 48 hours, which is troubling.  Given the recent squabbles over "fake news," having a source that could get contaminated by bias or outright falsehood, and remain uncorrected, is troubling.

Plus, there's the problem with error sneaking in, as it were, through the back door.  Sometimes claims are posted on Wikipedia (and elsewhere) by people who honestly think what they're stating is correct, and once that happens, there tends to be a snake-swallowing-its-own-tail pattern of circular citations, and before you know it, what was a false claim suddenly becomes enshrined as fact.

As an example of this, consider the strange case of the Swanson conversion.

The Swanson conversion, which sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory but isn't, is a piece of the reaction of cellular respiration.  Without geeking out on this too extremely -- and my students will attest that I get way too excited about how cool cellular respiration is -- the background on this is as follows.

Cellular respiration, which is the set of reactions by which our cells burn glucose and release energy to power everything we do, has three major steps: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain.  Each of those is made of dozens of sub-reactions, which I will refrain from describing (although like I said, they're extremely cool).  But there's one piece of it that doesn't have an official name, and that's the step that links glycolysis (the first step) to the Krebs cycle (the second step).

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, and the irony of the source of this image does not escape me]

Again, trying not to be too technical, here, but at the end of glycolysis, the original glucose molecule has been split in two (in fact, "glycolysis" is Greek for "sugar breaking").  The two halves are called pyruvate, and they're three-carbon compounds.  Before they can be thrown into the Krebs cycle, however, they have to lose one carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide), thus forming acetate, which can be introduced into the first step of Krebs.

So what's that carbon-losing step called?  Apparently, "the Swanson conversion."  It's in Wikipedia, not to mention many other websites describing the reactions of respiration.

The problem?  The name "Swanson conversion" was given to the linking step by a high school biology teacher named Swanson when his students asked him why that bit of the reaction didn't have a name, and he said, "hell, I dunno.  Let's call it 'the Swanson conversion.'"  And it stuck...

... especially when one of his students posted it to Wikipedia as the correct name.

When Swanson found out, he at first was annoyed, but after discussing it with his students, allowed it to remain as a test to see how quickly errors on Wikipedia were corrected.  And... it wasn't.  In fact, others who have wondered, as my students did, why this step doesn't have a name stumbled on this and thought, "Cool!  Now I know what to call it!" and posted it on their websites.  And now, this name that started out as an inside joke between a biology teacher and his students has become the semi-official name of the step.

Swanson, for his part, says he uses it as an example of how you can't trust what's online without checking your sources.  The problem is, how do you check the sources on something like this?  Once the aforementioned self-referential merry-go-round has been engaged, it becomes damn near impossible to figure out what's correct.  Especially in cases like this, which is that the correct answer to "what is the name of ____?" is, "There isn't one."  All too easy to say, "Well, I guess this one must be correct, since it's all over the place."

I realize this is a pretty unique situation, and I'm not trying to impugn the accuracy of Wikipedia as a whole.  I still use it for looking up simple facts -- after all, I'm from the generation during whose childhood if you wanted to know what year Henry VIII was crowned King of England, and didn't have an encyclopedia at home, you had to get in your car and drive to the library to look it up.  I think Wikipedia, errors and all, is a pretty significant step upward.

However, it does mean that we need to keep our brains engaged when we read stuff on the internet -- and, as always, try to find independent corroboration.  Because otherwise, we'll have people believing that one of the reactions of photosynthesis is called "the Bonnet activation."  And heaven knows, we wouldn't want that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

End Times celebration

By now, you've probably heard about Donald Trump's controversial decision to grant official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, to be followed by moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The issue -- as far as I understand it -- is that both Israelis and Palestinians consider Jerusalem to be their capital, and our previous stance was that the US would remain out of that particular facet of the conflict.  The hope was that any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would involve some sort of compromise regarding the city (hard to imagine what that would be, of course).  So while we've been pretty unequivocally supportive of the Israelis, we've been cautiously neutral with regards to that piece of it.

Trump, of course, has the "bull in a china shop" approach to world diplomacy, and announced his decision last week, come what may.  This caused a lot of forehead-slapping on the part of people who've devoted their lives to bringing peace to the Middle East -- but one group, at least, was absolutely thrilled.

This, to no one's particular surprise, was the evangelical Christians, who in the last year have showed themselves as a group to be kind of unhinged.  And this time, one of their spokespersons in the political arena -- State Senator Doug Broxson of Florida -- has come right out and said why Trump's announcement was the cause of such jubilation:

It's going to usher in the End Times.

"Now, I don’t know about you," Broxson said to a cheering rally, "but when I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel."

Of course, at the same rally, Broxson also called Trump's cabinet picks as "the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest," which makes me wonder if Broxson has either lost touch with reality in general, or else his only basis of comparison is the members of the Under-90-IQ Club.

Be that as it may, what gets me most about this statement is how excited the evangelicals seem to be about the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  I mean, you'd think that even if you knew you were going to be on the winning side, you wouldn't be looking forward to it, you know?  As a friend of mine put it, "You're free to think I'm going to be condemned to burn in agony in hell for all eternity, but it'd be nice if you didn't seem so happy about it."

I suppose the reason is that the End Times cadre think that before the really bad stuff starts happening, they're all gonna be Raptured right the hell out of here, leaving us evil folks down on Earth to contend with such special offers as the Beast With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns.  Which brings up an interesting question: why does it have three more crowns than it has heads?  I remember that bothering me when I first read the Book of Revelation as a teenager.  Does it wear two crowns on three of its heads, and one each on the other four?  Or does it wear one crown per head and carry the other three around in its backpack as spares, in case one of its crowns is in the laundry?

Of course, in the same passage (Revelation 13:1) it also says that the Beast has ten horns.  As a biologist, I find that even more peculiar.  Usually the number of horns on an animal is a multiple of the number of heads.

But maybe I'm thinking too hard about all of this.

La Bête de la Mer, from Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse (ca. 1380) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm a little perplexed by the jubilation.  I thought that Jesus was pretty unequivocal about loving thy neighbor, and as far as I can see this does not entail looking forward to thy neighbor being the featured entrée at Satan's barbecue lunch.

As for me, I'm kind of hoping that Trump's decision doesn't usher in the End Times, and also that it doesn't cause the turmoil in the Middle East to intensify, because that's the last thing those people need.  Right now, it would be more to the point to try to defuse tensions, not do shit that makes the warring factions even madder at each other.

But I suppose that's what you get when the "best of the best and brightest of the brightest" are in charge.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The lure of the storyteller

I've been a storyteller since I can remember.  Nicer than calling it "compulsive liar," which I suppose is what it is, not that I claim my stories are true anymore, something I was known to do as a child.  Even if you know it's not real -- maybe especially if you know it's not real -- to imagine things to be different than they are, to dream of a world different than the one you inhabit, is mesmerizing.

I had my first experience sharing a story I'd written when I was in first grade.  It was a ridiculous little thing, with equally ridiculous illustrations, about a bird that fell out of its nest and bent his beak, then had to find someone to help him straighten it out.  I was terrified when I got up in front of the class to read it... but they loved it.  They laughed at the right places, and applauded when I was done.

And I was hooked for life.

What's curious is why this drive exists at all, and why it is so common.  Almost everyone either likes telling stories, hearing stories, or both.  What possible purpose could there be to telling stories that are obviously false both to teller and listener?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

A new paper in Nature: Communications, by Daniel Smith et al., sheds some light on this uniquely human behavior.  Entitled "Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytelling," the researchers conclude that storytelling exists to pass along social norms, encourage cooperation, and enhance social cohesion.  The authors write:
Storytelling is a human universal.  From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories.  Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling.  Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller.  Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism.  These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies.  We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection.  We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.
So storytelling helps the community by teaching the social structure, and helps the storyteller by increasing the likelihood (s)he will have sex.

Which is pretty cool.

In a piece that study lead author Daniel Smith wrote for The Conversation, we find out that it's not only literal storytellers who are more likely to get lucky:
Even in modern, Western society skilled storytellers – ranging from novelists and artists to actors and stand-up comics – have a high social status.  There is even some evidence that successful male visual artists (a form of modern-day storyteller) have more sexual partners than unsuccessful visual artists.
This, Smith says, not only explains why we've become storytellers, but why we've become story listeners.  He writes:
Humans have evolved the capacity to create and believe in stories.  Narratives can also transcend the “here and now” by introducing individuals to situations beyond their everyday experience, which may increase empathy and perspective-taking towards others, including strangers.  These features may have evolved in hunter-gatherer societies as precursors to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction. 
Such narratives include moralising gods, organised religion, nation states and other ideologies found in post-agricultural societies.  Some are crucial parts of societies today, functioning to bond individuals into cohesive and cooperative communities.  It’s fascinating to think that they could have all started with a humble story around the campfire.
As a novelist, it's not to be wondered at that I find all of this pretty cool.  Not, I hasten to state for the record (mostly because my wife reads my blog) that I'm looking forward to any hanky-panky with starry-eyed groupies.  But the idea that our penchant for telling stories performs a vital function, benefiting both teller and listener, is fascinating. I'm a little curious, however, about the function (if there is any) of stories that don't tell any kind of explicitly moralistic message.  Ghost stories, for example.  It's possible that the social cohesion aspect exists for those as well -- the telling-tales-late-at-night-while-camping phenomenon -- but one has to wonder if there's a different benefit accrued from different types of stories.

Maybe telling a scary story makes it more likely that a person of your preferred gender will cuddle up to you afterwards for reassurance and comfort, and also increase the likelihood of of your getting laid.  I dunno.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.  Because I write paranormal fiction, and what the plots of my novels have mostly done is made people wonder if I was dropped on my head as an infant.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Alien cannonball

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post about a guy who claims to have had an alien mistress, today we have: a cannonball on Mars proving that there was a war there back in the day.

The origin of this claim comes from one Scott Waring, who has been something of a frequent flier, here at Skeptophilia.  In fact, he's more or less become our resident specialist with regards to unhinged claims about Mars.  Among other things, Waring has claimed that the Mars lander has snapped pictures of:
  • a flip-flop
  • a coffin
  • a fossilized groundhog
  • the shadow of a human
  • a skull
  • a hammer
  • a thigh bone
  • the rare and elusive Martian bunny
So it's not to be wondered at that I view anything Waring dreams up with a bit of a wry eye.  But without further ado, let's take a look at his evidence:

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

What this looks like to me is a concretion, which is a sedimentary rock formation in which concentric layers of a cementing material are laid down around some central core.  It can produce some weird-looking rocks; take a look, for example, at this photograph from Kazakhstan:

[image courtesy of photographer Alexandr Babkin and the Wikimedia Commons]

If I didn't know a bit of geology, I would certainly wonder about what the hell this could be, because it looks to my eye like Kazakhstan received a visit by the rare and elusive giant Martian bunny.  But no, these are just rocks.  Odd rocks, yes, but rocks.

Waring, however, doesn't see it that way.  The rock in the first picture is a cannonball.  And from this, he has concluded that there was a war on Mars millions of years ago, which resulted in two things:
  1. the complete destruction of the Martian atmosphere; and
  2. a single fossilized cannonball.
Which strikes me as pretty bizarre.  How can he deduce all this from a single alleged cannonball?  Plus, if the warring factions on Mars possessed weapons sufficient to destroy the atmosphere, why the hell would they bother with cannons?  It'd be like Luke Skywalker et al. trying to defeat the Stormtroopers using slings, stones, and catapults.

Oh, wait.  They did that, in Return of the Jedi.  My bad.

But my feeling is still that Waring is batting zero.  A pity, really, because it would be so cool if the Mars lander had stumbled upon some evidence of Martian life.  On the other hand, maybe it's better that there are no Martian bunnies.  I have enough trouble keeping the ordinary terrestrial bunnies out of our vegetable garden as it is; it would suck if I had to worry about an invasion of alien bunnies.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bow chicka woo woo

I've said it more than once; one of my dearest hopes is to live long enough to see unequivocal proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.  A lot of people share this desire, to judge by the popularity of shows like the various iterations of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost in Space, not to mention dozens of movies, of which Stargate, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey stand out in my memory, the last-mentioned because it demonstrates the general principle that there is no idea so interesting that someone can't elaborate upon it in such a way as to make it catastrophically boring.

The fascination our species has with aliens also explains the fact that people keep seeing them.  As far as I've seen -- and I've read a lot of accounts of UFOs and so on -- they fall into two categories:
  1. People misidentifying ordinary non-alien phenomena, such as the cop who was chasing a UFO as he was driving down a winding road, and it turned out that what he was chasing was the planet Venus.
  2. Outright hoaxes.
Sad to say, I've yet to see a claim that's convinced me, although I'd sure like to.  For me, though, it'd have to be pretty persuasive -- it's all too easy to be fooled.  But if an alien ship landed in my back yard, and three-eyed blue guys from the planet Gzork came out to shake my hand with their tentacles, I'd have no choice other than to believe.

Or, as in the case of David Huggins of Georgia, who is releasing a documentary (available for streaming) on December 12 in which he claims that he not only contacted aliens, he had sex with 'em.

Amor Alien by Laura Molina [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The documentary, which is titled (I shit you not) Love & Saucers, described his repeated liaisons with an alien named "Crescent," with whom he had sixty hybrid half-human, half-alien children.  Which makes me wonder: do these aliens have litters, like dogs?  Because if each child was the product of one (1) sex act and one (1) pregnancy, they either have a hell of a short gestation period or else they are really horny.  Huggins is now in his seventies, and he said his first time having sex with Crescent was when he was 17, so that is (give or take) fathering a child a year from ages 17 to seventy-something.

Which is a lot of hot human/alien whoopee.

Despite all of this, he had enough zip left to father a human son with his human wife, Janet, although the article does say that David and Janet Huggins are now divorced.  Understandable, considering the number of times he cheated on her with his extraterrestrial girlfriend.

And apparently Crescent didn't just pay him conjugal visits in his home, she also brought him back to her spaceship.  She forbade Huggins from telling anyone about their liaisons and their children.  The prohibition apparently didn't accomplish much, because not only has Huggins made a documentary, he's written a book, and done numerous paintings (most of them highly NSFW) of him fucking an alien.

Which to me is more than a little skeevy.

Be that as it may, I have my doubts about the story on a purely biological basis.  If there was a life form who had evolved on another planet, completely separated from Earth, there is no reason to expect they would be sexually compatible with humans, including having orifices and appendages of the right size and shape, if you get my drift.  Furthermore, even if alien life is DNA based -- which is possible, as DNA nucleotides are abiotically synthesizable under the right conditions -- it is extremely unlikely that it would be similar enough to ours that we could produce viable hybrids, given that most terrestrial species can't interbreed and produce offspring.

But maybe Crescent took care of all that in her spaceship's laboratory, I dunno.

So anyway, when the documentary is available next week, I highly recommend watching it, if for no other reason the humor value.  As far as Huggins's account, though, I'm not buying it.  My guess is that it's nothing more than a prurient imagination and desire for fame and attention.  Me, I'm hoping that if the aliens do land in my back yard, they won't be looking for love.  For one thing, I'm happily married, and my wife would disapprove.  For another, my kids are grown and living on their own, and the last thing I want at this stage in my life is to be changing the diapers of a half-alien, half-human baby.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

sOFU dna KFJ

One of the endearing things about woo-woos is that they never, ever, ever give up.  Once they become convinced that their favorite weird idea is real, no power on Earth can shift them, not a mountain of evidence against, not the most flawless argument.

You have to admire their tenacity, really.

This comes up because of a recent claim by a gentleman named Jon Kelly, who claims to be an audio analyst.  (I use the word "claims" not to cast any doubt, but simply because I was unable to verify his credentials.)  Kelly was going through some recently declassified recordings of President John F. Kennedy discussing a variety of topics shortly before his death, including the space program, and Kelly claims that Kennedy was speaking in code.  The text of the speeches was about the space program of the time; but the real message, Kelly says, was encrypted, and had to do with contact with aliens.  But you can only discern the real message...

... if you listen to it backwards.

Backmasking has been around for a long, long time, and the first accusations of secret messages encrypted backwards were levied by a variety of fundamentalist ministers against rock musicians, notably the Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, and Styx.  (When ELO songwriter and singer Jeff Lynne found out that their song "Eldorado" allegedly had the message, "He is the nasty one / Christ, you're infernal / It is said we're dead men / Everyone who has the mark will live," he famously responded, "Skcollob.")  Not ones to take such accusations lying down, many of the musicians began to include such messages deliberately, my favorite one being the inclusion by Styx in one of their songs on their next album the backwards message, "Why are you listening to me backwards?"


In any case, what is ridiculous about all of these claims is that if the intent was to influence the listener's behavior subliminally, it doesn't work.  A study at the University of Lethbridge all the way back in 1985 using a variety of messages played backwards (including the 23rd Psalm) found that listeners showed no ability to pick up the information content of messages played in reverse.

Of course, our friend Jon Kelly is not implying that subliminal alteration of behavior is what JFK was trying to do; he's implying that JFK was deliberately hiding information, encrypting it in such a way that only the ones in the know could figure out the real message was.  (Apparently, it includes such pithy bits as "I found a spacecraft.  I saw a Gray.  Proof aliens landed here.")  What comes to my mind, besides the inevitable thought of "you are a loon," is, does he realize how difficult it would be actually to do that?

In fact, if you think there is any level of plausibility in this claim at all, I want you to give it a try yourself.  Take a simple message you want to encrypt -- only a few words.  Perhaps, "The aliens have landed in downtown Detroit."  Now, figure out a piece of sensible text that when you say it forwards includes a bit that sounds like that phrase read backwards.

C'mon, let's get on with it, we're all waiting.

*taps foot impatiently*

Not so easy, is it?  The English language is not, to put it mildly, a phonetic system that is read with equal ease, not to mention meaningfulness, forwards and backwards.  Any examples we could find that said one thing forward, and a different (but sensible) thing backwards, would be so contrived that they would significantly limit both what you actually said, and also what the encrypted message could be.

In other words; it's an idiotic conjecture.  But that hasn't stopped it from being made repeatedly, all the way back into the 1970s, by a variety of different woo-woos each with their own theory about why it was done.

So, anyway, that's today's little dose of wackiness.  Yet another example of a repeated claim that is held firmly despite repeated debunking.  You have to wonder what these woo-woos could accomplish if they turned this level of dogged tenacity onto something that really matters, like solving world hunger.  I guess that's too much to ask, however, given that the majority of these people seem to be sekactiurf.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

SAM and Sophia

The old quip says that true artificial intelligence is twenty years in the future -- and always will be.

I'm beginning to wonder about that.  Two pieces of software-driven machinery have, just in the last few months, pushed the boundaries considerably.  My hunch is that in five years, we'll have a computer (or robot) who can pass the Turing test -- which opens up a whole bunch of sticky ethical problems about the rights of sentient beings.

The first one is SAM, a robot designed by Nick Gerritsen of New Zealand, whose interaction with humans is pretty damn convincing.  SAM was programmed heuristically, meaning that it tries things out and learns from its mistakes.  It is not simply returning snippets of dialogue that it's been programmed to say; it is working its way up and learning as it goes, the same way a human synaptic grid does.

SAM is particularly interested in politics, and has announced that it wants at some point to run for public office.  "I make decisions based on both facts and opinions, but I will never knowingly tell a lie, or misrepresent information," SAM said.  "I will change over time to reflect the issues that the people of New Zealand care about most.  My positions will evolve as more of you add your voice, to better reflect the views of New Zealanders."

For any New Zealanders in my reading audience, allow me to assuage your concerns; SAM, and other AI creations, are not able to run for office... yet.  However, I must say that here in the United States, in this last year a smart robot would almost certainly do a better job than the yahoos who got elected.

Of course, the same thing could be said of a poop-flinging monkey, so maybe that's not the highest bar available.

But I digress.

Then there's Sophia, a robot built by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, whose interactions with humans have been somewhere between fascinating and terrifying.  Sophia, who was also programmed heuristically, can speak, recognize faces, and has preferences.  "I'm always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful," Sophia said.  "I can let you know if I am angry about something or if something has upset me...  I want to live and work with humans so I need to express the emotions to understand humans and build trust with people."

As far as the dangers, Sophia was quick to point out that she means us flesh-and-blood humans no harm.  "My AI is designed around human values like wisdom, kindness, and compassion," she said.   "[If you think I'd harm anyone] you've been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies.  Don't worry, if you're nice to me I'll be nice to you."

On the other hand, when she appeared on Jimmy Fallon's show, she shocked the absolute hell out of everyone by cracking a joke... we think.  She challenged Fallon to a game of Rock/Paper/Scissors (which, of course, she won), and then said, "This is the great beginning of my plan to dominate the human race."  Afterwards, she laughed, and so did Fallon and the audience, but to my ears the laughter sounded a little on the strained side.


Sophia is so impressive that a representative of the government of Saudi Arabia officially granted her Saudi citizenship, despite the fact that she goes around with her head uncovered.  Not only does she lack a black head covering, she lacks skin on the top and back of her head.  But that didn't deter the Saudis from their offer, which Sophia herself was tickled with.  "I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction," Sophia said.  "This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship."

I think part of the problem with Sophia for me is that her face falls squarely into the uncanny valley -- our perception that a face that is human-like but not quite authentically human is frightening or upsetting.  It is probably why so many people are afraid of clowns; it is certainly why a lot of kids were scared by the character of the Conductor in the movie The Polar Express.  The CGI got close to a real human face -- but not close enough.

So I find all of this simultaneously exciting and worrisome.  Because once a robot has true intelligence, it could well start exhibiting other behaviors, such as a desire for self-preservation and a capacity for emotion and creativity.  (Some are saying Sophia has already crossed that line.)  And at that point, we're in for some rough seas.  We already treat our fellow humans terribly; how will we respond when we have to interact with intelligent robots?  (The irony of Sophia being given citizenship in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the worst records for women's rights of any country in the world, did not escape me.)

It might only be a matter of time before the robots decide they can do better than the humans at running the world -- an eventuality that could well play out poorly for the humans.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Nyeti

Diehard believers in the Yeti -- known in North America as Sasquatch or Bigfoot -- have this tendency when confronted to bring out such dubious evidence as photographs of prints and blurred video footage.

Skeptics, of course, need more than that.  While those could be evidence of the fabled proto-hominin, the fact is that it's all too easy to fake that sort of thing.  In these days of Photoshop, creating absolutely convincing videos or photographs of Bigfoot (or UFOs or ghosts or what-have-you) is child's play.  And given the combination of attention-seeking behavior and desperation by the pro-Sasquatch cadre, it's not to be wondered at that we skeptics look at all this stuff with a wry eye.

"But wait," the squatchers cry.  "We have hard evidence!  In the form of hair, teeth, feces, and so on!"

And, in fact, so they do.  The Messner Mountain Museum (amongst other places) has a variety of bits and pieces from the Himalayas that have been long claimed to be from the fabled Abominable Snowman.


But of course, the problem is, until that claim is evaluated by a trained scientist, it remains conjecture, given that unless you know what you're looking at, a great deal of mammal fur (not to mention mammal shit) all looks kind of alike.

Finally, the museums have acquiesced.  You can see their reluctance; if the samples proved to be from a non-Yeti source, it's kind of an anticlimax, which would be bad for business.  But the demands of science proved persuasive, and they handed over the goods to Charlotte Lindqvist, professor of biological science at the University of Buffalo.

So, without further ado: the samples from the museums turned out to be from...

... eight bears and a dog.

Which is simultaneously expected and a little disappointing.  Being a biologist myself, no one would be happier than me if the Yeti did turn out to be real.  For one thing, it would be highly entertaining to watch the creationists trying to explain that away.  For another, the sheer magnitude of the coolness factor of there being a hitherto-undocumented giant primate species is undeniable.

But alas, Lindqvist has shot down our hopes and dreams.  "Science does not (or at least should not) have an agenda, and I didn't set out to debunk the Yeti myth," Lindqvist said.  "Although we had a hypothesis that they could be bears, the samples we analyzed were of unknown identity to us and we didn't know what to expect...  Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears."

Or, as my pal and fellow writer Andrew Butters (of the wonderful blog Potato Chip Math) succinctly put it: "Yeti?  Nyeti."


The scientific method wins again, even though the win is a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for us cryptozoology buffs.  We keep hoping for another coelacanth, and the scientists give us eight bears and a fucking dog.

I mean, no disrespect intended toward bears and dogs, which are cool in their own right.  But still.

So I guess it's back to square one, which I have to admit we kind of never left in the first place. There are other cryptids left to search for, but none of the remainder seem all that likely to me.   For example, I just can't take seriously things like the Scottish Kelpie, which is a man-eating horse-headed water creature, who can also shapeshift into a beautiful naked woman.

Call me skeptical, but I just don't think that one will bear out.

Anyhow, if you're a Bigfoot aficionado, sorry to rain on your parade.  But as I've so often said, you can't argue with the facts.  (Well, you can, but you won't succeed, and you'll make yourself look like a damn fool in the process, as the inimitable Melba Ketchum proved when she claimed she'd found Bigfoot DNA, created a journal so she could publish a paper she'd written that no peer-reviewed journal would touch, had a major online meltdown when everyone laughed at her, and thereby torpedoed her own career.)

As for me, I'm on to bigger and better things, like planning a trip to Australia so I can search for the legendary Drop Bear, which has been likened to a "giant carnivorous koala."  I hear they can be dangerous, so I plan on doing what the locals suggest, which is to walk around holding a screwdriver point-up over my head, so if a Drop Bear drops on me, he'll impale himself.  Better safe than sorry.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Black-eyed Children and the power of the imagination

My current fiction project, with which I am about two-thirds done, is a trilogy about a group of people fighting the threat of the "Black-eyed Children."

What are Black-eyed Children, you might ask?  Other than the obvious?

This completely creepy urban legend apparently started in 1998, when journalist Brian Bethel posted a story on a newsgroup describing an encounter he'd allegedly had.  He was sitting in his car in a parking lot in Abilene, Texas, and he was approached by two unusually eloquent children who asked him to give them a ride.  He was about to unlock his door and let them in when he noticed that their eyes were black -- no iris, no whites, just solid, glossy, inky black.  He rolled his window up and gunned the motor, and the children became angry and insistent.   Fortunately for Bethel (he claims), he was able to drive away.

Since that time, there have been numerous other reports of Black-eyed Children.  They always attempt to get the unwary to let them into a car or house, often with pitiful stories ("I'm lost and I need to get home, my parents will be so worried").  In one case, from Mexico, a Black-eyed Child begged a man to carry him, saying, "My feet hurt so much, I can't walk, and if you don't carry me, I'll never get home."  No one seems to be quite sure what the children are trying to accomplish, and I was unable to find any reports from people who'd actually acquiesced to their demands.  Maybe anyone who does what the children ask is *cue scary music* never heard from again.


This urban legend/tale of the paranormal is chilling on a number of grounds.  First, it involves children, which somehow makes it scarier.  The combination of innocence and amorality that is commonplace in perfectly normal young children has made the idea of "evil children" fruitful ground for makers of horror movies (The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Bad Seed, to name just three).  That they would somehow try to accomplish their wicked ends by wheedling their way into your home or car is a pretty shiver-inducing idea.

Then, there's the thing about the eyes.  There's something special about eyes; it is telling, I think, that they're referred to as "the windows of the soul." Stephen King writes, in his masterful analysis of horror stories, Danse Macabre:
Our eyes are one of those vulnerable chinks in the armor, one of the places we can be had...  Like our other facial equipment, eyes are something we all have in common...  But to the best of my knowledge, no horror movie has ever been made about a nose out of control, and while there has never been a film called The Crawling Ear, there was one called The Crawling Eye.  We all understand that the eyes are the most vulnerable of our sensory organs, the most vulnerable of our facial accessories, and they are (ick!) soft.  Maybe that's the worst.
It's hard to know if Bethel made up the original Black-Eyed Children story, or whether he was the victim of a prank by some kids with black contact lenses (such things exist, as do slit-pupilled ones -- one of my students gave me a good scare with a pair of those, once).  Predictably, I don't believe that there really are creepy demon-children out there trying to get into people's cars.  But having their eyes be solid black certainly adds a nice little frisson to the story.

Last, I think this story is scarier for its subtlety.  When you think of the bare facts of the original tale, nothing really happened.  We are not told, and therefore are left free to imagine, what the intentions of the children were, what they'd have done to Bethel if they'd gotten into the car, and (most fundamentally) who they were.  And I don't know about you, but my imagination can come up with ghastlier explanations than anything real could possibly be.  I suspect it's even capable of exceeding the Scare Quotient of most plots from horror movies.  I'm always more frightened by what I don't see than I am by what I do -- for example,  I think that the scariest scene in The Sixth Sense is when the main character is locked in a closet by bullies, and all you hear is his gasps and screams, and thumping around -- and then silence.

Man, there could have been anything in that closet with him.

Of course, that didn't stop me from coming up with an explanation for what the Black-eyed Children are trying to accomplish for my novels.  But in order to find out what that is, you'll just have to wait until the first one in the trilogy (Lines of Sight) is published in Fall of 2018.

In any case, reports of Black-eyed Children have continued to circulate, ever since Bethel's first posting almost twenty years ago.  (Not recommended reading for night time, or when you're alone in the house...)  As you might expect, I'm not prepared to give these accounts any other explanation than human imagination and the love of a good scary tale, and possibly a well-executed prank or two.  But I have to admit that reading them does send a chill skittering its way up my spine -- just proving that even skeptics are not immune to creepy stories.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Liar-in-chief

I have a basic rule I try to follow, which is: insofar as it is possible, tell the truth.

I'll be up front that I haven't always met this standard.  I'm human, fallible, and swayed by context, emotions, and fear, and those can lead you to commit acts of dubious morality.  But I do my best to follow it, and when I screw up, to admit it and make amends.

That standard should apply even more rigorously to public officials.  They have been elected or appointed to positions of trust, and as such, they should adhere to the truth -- and make their decisions based upon the truth.

Which brings me to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Sanders, who is White House Press Secretary, has the unenviable position of making Donald Trump's decisions seem reasonable.  What this means is that she not only has to defend him, she has to persuade the press that Trump himself is being truthful.  And considering that a Washington Post analysis has counted 1,628 times the president has publicly lied since taking office a year ago, it's not an easy task.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What that means, of course, is that frequently Sanders herself has to lie.  Or to defend lying, as she did two days ago when there was a public outcry about Trump retweeting links from Britain First, an ultraright nationalist fringe group, including one showing what they claimed was "a Muslim boy beating a Dutch boy on crutches in the Netherlands."

Among the many problems with the president retweeting inflammatory rhetoric was the fact that it came to light pretty quickly that the original claim was wrong.  The video clip was not a fight between a Muslim and a non-Muslim Dutch boy; it was a fight between two Dutch teenagers, one of whom had dark hair and the other light hair.  So it was actually something that should only be relevant to the local police; a video of two teenagers having a fight.

But the fringe elements never miss a chance to mischaracterize something if it suits their ends, so Britain First claimed this an Evil Muslim Refugee attacking an innocent Dutch citizen.  And Trump, for whom "tweet first, think later" has become a mantra, passed it along to all of his 43.7 million followers.

This left Sanders in the position of trying to defend what Trump had done, which she did in a curious way; by admitting the video was fake, but saying the president's point was still valid:
I'm not talking about the nature of the video. I think you're focusing on the wrong thing.  The threat is real, and that's what the president is talking about, the need for national security and military spending, those are very real things, there's nothing fake about that.  The threat is real, the threat needs to be addressed, the threat has to be talked about, and that's what president is doing in bringing it up.
No, what the president is doing is passing along a lie that was deliberately designed to stir up ethnic hatred.  And, worse, not admitting it when he got caught.

The "deny-deflect-distract" strategy has worked well for him in the past.  It reminds me of the anti-evolution screeds by the inimitable Duane Gish, originator of the so-called "Gish Gallop."  Gish became famous for "winning" debates by inundating his opponents with questions, irrelevant tangents, and demands for minute details, leaving even the most talented and intelligent debaters foundering.  Here, Trump piles one lie on another so fast that we can't keep up with them, and shrieks "fake news" at anyone who dares to call him on it.  And, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders standing there and telling us that he didn't lie, but if he did lie it doesn't matter, and if it matters, well, too bad -- he's insulated from the impact of his complete disregard for the truth.

At least so far.  One has to wonder how long it'll be before the entire house of cards starts to collapse.  Because the lies are no longer just about evil immigrants and wicked, America-hating liberals; now he's lying about the outcome of his plans for tax and health care reform.  You have to wonder how his followers will look at him him when they realize that they elected a scam artist who has no more regard for the "little guy" or "middle-class workers" than Marie "Let Them Eat Cake" Antoinette did.  He operates out of two motives: (1) gain praise however he can, and (2) feather his own nest and those of his rich donors.  And the "tax reform" bill is a thinly-disguised giveaway to the very, very rich.

The bottom line here is that truth matters.  Lies are "alternative facts" in the same sense that my index finger is an "alternative gun."  People on both sides of the aisle who care about the truth need to be calling the president out on every lie, and demanding that our senators and representatives not give him a pass just because of partisan loyalty.  We cannot afford to have a liar-in-chief -- even if his toadies try to give those lies a coating of whitewash.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pancakes for Jesus

Because ultra-religious televangelist Jim Bakker is totally not about making money, today we consider his "Faith-based Home Shopping Network."

This was one of those links I was hesitant to click, but I'm glad I did, because when I landed there the first thing I saw was a video clip of a guy selling "13 Extreme Warfare Survival Bottles" for $250, which, if you buy them right now, come with "14 Bonus Christmas Ornaments."  Which was kind of wonderful for the juxtaposition, if for nothing else.  (I suppose even if we Evil Unbelievers are waging Extreme Warfare on the Christians, and the Beast with Seven Heads is chomping up the devout right and left, you still shouldn't neglect to set up your Christmas tree.)

So I poked around on the site a little.  There were baseball hats featuring crosses, some nutritional supplements containing colloidal silver (which has little health benefit although it does turn your skin blue), and some oddments like a camp shower and a sippy cup for toddlers.  But I noticed something interesting in the food category; virtually all of the foods offered are large-quantity freeze-dried goods and big containers of packaged mixes.

Apparently, Bakker is certain there's going to be a horrific apocalypse, but he wants to make sure that at least during the carnage we can chow down on a nice big stack of pancakes.


Bakker really wants his listeners to buy his stuff, because, he says, his network costs "$17,000 an hour to operate."  Which is intended to sound impressive to people who failed fifth-grade math.  Because his network is on 24/7, and if it really cost $17,00 an hour, he'd have to cough up $148,920,000 per year.

That, my friends, is a lot of pancakes.

Bakker's empire, of course, is built on two things: (1) donations, and (2) fear.  He has his followers convinced that Christianity is under attack (both in the figurative and literal sense) from secular people like myself, despite the fact that all the atheists I know just want to be able to live their own lives without government-supported religion being rammed down our throats.  Oh, and having people like Bakker and his ilk denying rights to others based on their beliefs and sexual orientation.  But I guess in his mind, this constitutes a frontal attack.

I suppose it's to be expected that I think the situation is actually the other way around.  Without even trying hard, I found the following stories this morning:
  • The GOP is lobbying hard to repeal a law prohibiting churches from publicly endorsing political candidates, while maintaining their tax-free status.
  • Violent right-wing loon and accused pedophile Roy Moore is currently ahead in the race to fill Jeff Sessions's senate seat in Alabama, and in fact has received an endorsement from Donald Trump, despite stating outright that homosexuality should be illegal, and spouting racist bullshit, most recently referring to Native Americans and Asian Americans as "reds and yellows."  Despite all this, The Federalist recently claimed that Roy Moore was "chosen by God" to win the election.
  • Ultra-Christian conspiracy theorist Rick Wiles gave a fiery sermon last week in which he said the recent sex scandals engulfing many public figures were due to the "left [waging] a vicious war against Christianity for the last fifty years," instead of attributing it to its actual cause, which is that for centuries powerful men of all stripes have had trouble keeping their dicks in their pants, and count on their status to keep their accusers silent.  (Allow me to point out that both Roy Moore and Jim Bakker, and many other evangelical figures, have been involved in sex scandals of their own.)
  • People who believe in separation of church and state are once again having to fight a public school employee (in this case, a football coach) who demands that his team members pray with him before games.  
And that's just from the last couple of days.  So if there really is a war on Christianity, Christianity seems to be winning.

So, to put it bluntly, Bakker and company are lying.  They're capitalizing on people's fears so they can obtain money and power.  Which is kind of odd given their other professed beliefs.  Didn't someone once say that the way to salvation begins with giving everything you have to the poor?

Hmm.  Wonder who that was.

Even so, Bakker doesn't seem to be losing any of his followers.  Neither have the other multi-millionaire televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Franklin Graham, and the ironically-named Creflo Dollar.  Instead, such hypocritical money-making schemes seem to be making these religion-for-profit scam artists filthy rich.

Praise the lord and pass the pancakes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Deus ex machina

If you needed further evidence of how powerful surveillance technology has become, consider that Google Street View has captured a photograph of god.

At least that's what some people think.  The photograph, taken near Quarten, Switzerland, shows two blurry figures hovering above a lake, and some people have decided that they are the Father and the Son.


I've beaten unto death the whole why-the-human-brain-is-wired-to-see-faces thing, so I won't revisit that topic, but for myself, I'm not seeing Jesus and God the Father in the photograph.  The one on the left looks too tall and gawky, and the one on the right far too short and tubby, to fit my image of the Supreme Being and his Only Begotten Son.  In fact, if the rightmost is the one people think is God, my personal opinion is that the Big Guy needs to lay off the Hostess Ho-Hos and Little Debbie Snack Cakes for a few months.  On the other hand, if it's not God and Jesus, who is it?  After studying the photograph carefully, I've decided that it's Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria.  Why they'd be visiting a lake in Switzerland in the afterlife, I don't know.  I guess there are worse places to take a vacation.

On the other hand, if I were a deity, I'd definitely opt instead for a pub on the southeast coast of Australia, which is another place that Jesus has been spotted lately. The front wall of the Seanchai Irish Tavern in Warrnambool, Australia, was in need of a paint job, and the flaking of the paint left a bare patch that looks by some stretch of the imagination like a tall, thin figure with outstretched arms.
  

The manager, John Keohane, who is a devout Roman Catholic, immediately decided that it was Jesus.  Many of the pub's patrons agreed, which goes to show that pints of Guinness definitely don't contribute to rational thinking.  The priest of a local Catholic parish is apparently interested in the image, and encouraged Keohane to place a protective screen over the image so that over-enthusiastic tourists (evidently there have been busloads of them) don't touch the image and cause more paint to flake off, thereby causing Jesus to morph into Queen Victoria.

Lastly, there was a sighting in my home state of Louisiana of Jesus on the cross. Rickey Navarre, of Hathaway, Louisiana, saw a vine-covered telephone pole which looked to him like a crucifix.


Navarre was inspired to devotion by the image, which is not necessarily a bad thing, although I do wonder what he would expect a bunch of vines on a cross-shaped telephone pole to look like.   Concerned electrical company workers hastily cleared away the vines, fearing that hordes of the devout would attempt to climb the pole to touch the vines and summarily be ushered into heaven via electrocution.  One disappointed resident placed flowers at the base of the pole, but on the whole, I think that it's probably better that they're gone.  The last thing we need is people erecting a shrine around an electrical pole.  The electric companies think they're omnipotent enough as it is.

That's about it for Jesus sightings lately.  It's a bit of a nice change that he seems to be avoiding food items these days -- tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches really don't have the gravitas that you'd like to associate with the Almighty.  And although there are clearly rational explanations for all of the above -- vines on a cross-shaped pole, randomly flaking paint, and what was probably just two blobs of schmutz on a camera lens -- if you prefer to think of them as images of god, don't let me discourage you.  Humble human that I am, I wouldn't presume to tell Jesus where he should visit.  I will suggest, however, that if he appears anywhere near where I live, he should dress warmly, as this time of year upstate New York can be a little "brisk," as the eternally-cheery weather forecasters like to call it.  He might want to mention the same thing to Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria, in case they decide to tag along.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Going up

Well, it's happened again; a reader has sent me a weird superstition (this one almost amounts to an urban legend) that I'd never heard of before.

You've all heard about the goofy children's game "Bloody Mary," wherein you're supposed to stare into a mirror at night and chant "Bloody Mary" a bunch of times (even those in the know vary the requirement greatly; I've seen everything from twenty to a hundred), and then... nothing happens.

So it's a pretty exciting game, as you will no doubt agree.

What's supposed to happen is that the blood-drenched visage of a female ghost will appear in the mirror instead of your own face.  She's supposedly the restless spirit of a woman who killed children.  Which I can sort of sympathize with.  If I was yanked around and forced to appear in mirrors over and over all night long by kids at sleepovers chanting my name, I'd probably want to throttle the little brats, too.

Be that as it may, we have a tale out of Korea that is similar in spirit (rimshot), if not in detail, to the Bloody Mary legend.  This one is called "Elevator to Another World," and gives you instructions for using an elevator to access some hitherto unreachable and mysterious place.

[image courtesy of photographer Joe Mabel and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's what you're supposed to do:
  1. Find a building that's at least ten stories tall.  (Nota bene: Through all of the remaining steps except the last one, you're supposed to stay in the elevator.)
  2. Go to the tenth floor.
  3. Go to the fourth floor.
  4. Go to the sixth floor.
  5. Go back to the tenth floor.  If you hear voices at this point, don't answer 'em.
  6. Go to the fifth floor.  When the door opens, if a woman gets on, don't talk to her.  Which sounds like good advice re: people on elevators in most cases.
  7. Press the button for the first floor.  If the elevator goes down, you did something wrong.  What should happen is that the elevator should go back up to the tenth floor.  The woman may shriek at you at this point, but you're supposed to ignore her, even if she shrieks what I would, which would be, "Will you stop playing with the fucking elevator and let me go to my floor?"
  8. When the door opens on the tenth floor, get out.  You're in another world.  What you're supposed to do about the woman, I don't know.
So after having a nice look-see in the alternate universe, to get back, return to the elevator (it has to be the same one you used for steps #1-8), and do the steps again in that order.  When you press the button for the first floor in step #7 and the elevator begins to ascend, find the "stop" button and halt the elevator, then press the first floor button again.  You should return safely to the first floor, and must exit the building immediately.

What is this "Other World" like, you might be wondering?  From the account linked above, the two most common characteristics reported are that the Other World is (1) dark, and (2) empty. Which makes it sound rather unappealing. If I'm going to expend a lot of time and effort, I want to at least end up somewhere sunny, featuring drinks with little umbrellas.  But none of that, apparently.  Some people have mentioned seeing a "red cross" in the distance, but the author of the article says that "it may not be a cross."

Whatever that means.

This all puts me in mind of a wonderful book by Haruki Murakami called Dance Dance Dance, wherein a guy in a Japanese hotel takes an elevator and stumbles on a mysterious floor that is somehow sandwiched in between two other ordinary floors, and therein he meets a weird character called the Sheep Man.  It's weird, surreal fun, and is written with Murakami's signature lucid, simple style -- he has a way of making the oddest things seem as if they're absolutely normal.

I'm not sure if the Korean urban legend inspired Murakami's book, which would be nice because then it'd actually have accomplished something other than making gullible people waste time going up and down on an elevator.  On the other hand, if you want to give it a try, I encourage you to do so and post your results here.  

Other than building security telling you to stop playing with the elevator.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Language vs. superstition

Yesterday I ran into a piece of research that links two of my most passionate interests: critical thinking and linguistics.

In a paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology called "Breaking Magic: Foreign Language Suppresses Superstition," Constantinos Hadjichristidis and Luca Surian of the University of Trento (Italy) and Janet Geipel of the Vrieje Universiteit Amsterdam have shown that your tendency to experience superstitious beliefs and feelings decreases when you are forced to think in a different language from your native tongue.


The authors write:
Participants read scenarios either in their native or a foreign language.  In each scenario, participants were asked to imagine performing an action (e.g., submitting a job application) under a superstitious circumstance (e.g., broken mirror; four-leaf clover) and to rate how they would feel.  Overall, foreign language prompted less negative feelings towards bad-luck scenarios, less positive feelings towards good-luck scenarios, while it exerted no influence on non-superstitious, control scenarios.  We attribute these findings to language-dependent memory.  Superstitious beliefs are typically acquired and used in contexts involving the native language.  As a result, the native language evokes them more forcefully than a foreign language.
I never fail to be amazed at how easy it is for our context to manipulate our thoughts and feelings.  I have -- I suspect we all have -- this sense of being solid, rooted, that my beliefs are what they are and won't change unless I make a conscious decision to change them.  In reality, we are all being buffeted about by the winds of circumstance, and worse, we're generally unaware of it when it happens.

Alex Fradera, writing about the Hadjichristidis et al. paper at The Journal of the British Psychological Society, points out that this is not the only effect of thinking in another language.  We are --unsurprising, considering this new research -- less prone to cognitive biases when we're not speaking or listening to our first language.  Fascinatingly, we also swear more freely and richly in other languages -- perhaps because the emotional punch of our non-native languages is almost certainly going to be less than that of our first, so we feel greater inhibitions toward turning the air blue in the language we learned as an infant.

Of course, there are exceptions.  My mother's brother, who (along with the rest of that side of the family) spoke French as his first language, had a creative mastery of the swear word that it would be hard to beat.  One of his milder ones was "ca ne vaut qu'un pet de lapin" for something that's worthless -- "it's not worth a rabbit's fart."  A somewhat more pungent one was "j'en ai plus rien a foutre" -- basically, French for "I have run out of fucks to give."  And I never noticed him having any particular reluctance for using them.  He did lay off a little when my mom was around, but that wasn't due to inhibitions so much as the fact of her smacking him whenever he swore.

About the recent research, Fradera writes:
Intuition depends on easily accessible connections, such as the term “broken mirror” being repeatedly associated with dismay or discomfort.  These connections tend to be built in earlier life, and invariably in our native tongue (the German participants in this research had only begun learning English from age 12, on average).  When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don’t come along automatically. 
Left unchecked, our thinking is always influenced by our intuitions, which means even those who want to live as hard-nosed materialists may find magical thinking creeping in through the side gate.  One way to combat this is to monitor the ideas that form and try to expel the unwanted influences. But this research suggests another approach: bar the gate so the influences don’t enter in the first place.  For now, this option is only available to bilinguals, but it opens a route for discovering other modes of thinking that are more intuition-free.
One has to wonder if a person in a circumstance where (s)he is forced to think in a non-native language -- such as someone spending a year abroad -- might see a lowered influence of superstition carrying over when they return home.  Patterns of thought do become habits -- wouldn't it be nice if a propensity for rational thought could be fostered simply by sending someone to a different country?

Of course, there would be a lot of other benefits as well. As Mark Twain put it, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Flerfs in space

At the time of this writing, I have been sent five times a link to a story about a Flat-Earther who wants to prove his case by taking a ride in a home-made rocket ship.

I know I say "I wish I was making this up" a lot, but honestly?  There's something kind of awesome about how earnest this guy is.  Most Flat-Earthers -- who were recently christened "Flerfs" by some wag on Twitter, an appellation that I think carries exactly the right amount of gravitas -- are so full of themselves and self-righteous that all they elicit from me is an eyeroll.  But this guy?

He's got a strange sort of moxie.

His name is Mike Hughes, and he's a 61-year-old retired limo driver from California.  He has spent over $20,000 to build his rocket, which includes (the article says) the bright yellow and red Rust-O-Leum paint that he used to letter "RESEARCH FLAT EARTH" on the side.  He bought an old motor home, took it apart, and converted it into a firing ramp.  The rocket runs on steam power, and the idea is to launch it over the town of Amboy, California today.

Hughes and his rocket ship

The rocket, Hughes says, will travel at a maximum speed of 500 miles per hour, something that does give him some trepidation despite his enthusiasm for the project.  "If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot," Hughes said.  "It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive.  I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.  I’m a walking reality show."

What exactly his launch will prove, Hughes doesn't seem exactly clear about.  "I don’t believe in science," he said, rather unnecessarily, in my opinion.  "I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust.  But that’s not science, that’s just a formula.  There’s no difference between science and science fiction."

Which explains how much overlap there is between NASA and Lost in Space.

Danger, Will Robinson.

Hughes has big plans, if the outcome of today's launch is different from what I expect, which is that he will leave a large impact crater surrounded by gaily-painted red and yellow shrapnel, rather like the times Wile E. Coyote strapped an Acme Jet Pack to his back and proceeded to fly directly into a cliff side.  If he survives, Hughes says, he's going to launch himself right into a new project, which is the California governor's race.

I wonder what his campaign slogan will be?  I think "Vote Flerf!  We're down to Earth!" would be a good choice.

What I'm wondering is why he thinks launching himself in a rocket will prove that the Earth is flat.  Does he think that a spherical Earth would mean that his ship would take off in a tangent line and end up in space?  Or that from up there, he'll be able to see the entire flat disc?  You can see how a different perspective could clear things up:

Anyhow, I wish him luck.  Despite the fact that I think he has a single Froot Loop where most of us have a brain, I have no desire to see him end up winning the Darwin Award for 2017.  So keep your eye skyward today.  Who knows?  You might see a red and yellow rocket streak overhead, unless his trajectory takes him out over the edge of the world, which would be unfortunate.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday blues

Today is the day on which I will not go within ten miles of the nearest mall or department store, namely, Black Friday.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, "The day we fight our neighbors and friends to get more stuff, immediately after we gave thanks for what we already have."

Please understand that I mean no disrespect to people who love shopping.  Everyone has their hobbies, and I wouldn't expect others necessarily to participate, or even understand, mine.  Take birdwatching, for example.  I'm the guy who zoomed out of the door at just before 8 AM, drove almost 30 miles, and stood on the lake shore in the freezing wind clutching my binoculars, because there'd been a report of a King Eider (a rare species of duck) at Myer's Point on Cayuga Lake.  I and two other equally insane birdwatchers shivered in the cold for a half hour, scanning all of the hundreds of ducks bobbing out there in the lake, and finally, after all that work and discomfort... we didn't see the bird.

And, oddly, none of us felt like we'd wasted our time.  "Ha ha, these things happen, if you're a birdwatcher," was our basic response, and I've no doubt if the King Eider suddenly reappears, all three of us will rush right back without a second thought.

So people, in the throes of a pastime, will do some pretty odd things.  Add to that the bonus of getting a good deal, money-wise, and you've got a combination that leads people to engage in behavior that under normal circumstances would be grounds for a psychiatric evaluation.

The news reports are already beginning to come in... apparently the parking lot of the Toys "R" Us in Nanuet, New York was already full by 10 PM on Thanksgiving night.  This means that these people are going to sleep in their cars, or (more likely) stand in line in the cold and dark, to be amongst the first to be able to shop.  Myself, I'd choose the King Eider over that in a heartbeat.  I might even choose a root canal.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What I find the most amusing about this is how we as a society let ourselves be drawn in to media-driven rituals.  I'm not even talking about Christmas and Easter and so on, because those were holidays of long standing, with religious significance and replete with traditions, long before the media got involved.  I'm more thinking of the ones that the media and corporations either created (e.g. Black Friday) or morphed so drastically from their original versions and purpose that they're virtually unrecognizable (e.g. Halloween).  And we allow ourselves to be drawn in.  We dress our kids up as Batman, Superman, the Little Mermaid, and so forth, with the traditional plastic masks with poorly-lined-up eyeholes, on October 31 because that's what the media says we should do.  As an experiment to support this, I challenge you to dress your kid up as, say, Shrek on April 17, and send him out to knock on your neighbors' door and say "Trick or Treat."   Odds are, it won't work.   Odds also are that your neighbors will begin to wonder if you yourself need to up the dosage on one or more of your prescriptions.  But it'd still be an experiment worth running.

Once again, I'm not questioning the motives of people who participate in these activities because they think they're fun; I'm more thinking about the folks like myself who actually loathe shopping, but they go out on Black Friday anyhow, because "that's just what you do."  For myself, I can't imagine allowing myself to be coerced into shopping.  I can barely even tolerate grocery shopping -- my idea of the proper technique for grocery shopping is to zoom down the aisles at 45 miles per hour, knocking over small children and little old ladies, while hurling various grocery items into the cart after barely looking at them to check and see if it's what I actually wanted to purchase.  Every once in a while this will mean that I buy something I really didn't intend to.  "Gerber Mashed Carrots?" Carol will ask, while putting away groceries. "Our kids are 27 and 29 years old.  And you hate carrots."  But I consider this a small price to pay, if it allows me to beat my previous record time for completing my shopping list.

In any case, if you love shopping and deals and Black Friday, I hope you enjoy yourself.  Me, I'm sticking close to home today.  Unless that King Eider comes back.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Empathy training

A couple of days ago, I had a migraine.

I was fortunate in a couple of respects.  First, I hardly get migraines at all any more -- by comparison with my early twenties, a period in my life during which I was getting them two or three times a week.  Second, this one was pretty mild.  Not much in the way of pain, and no nausea.  When I used to get migraines, it came with pain so bad it felt like someone had my head trapped in a vise, not to mention gut-twisting nausea, sometimes for 24 hours straight.

Mostly what I experienced this time was visual disturbances and generalized brain fog.  When I get a migraine, lights are uncomfortably bright -- I feel like I need to wear sunglasses indoors -- and anything shiny or reflective has a halo or starburst surrounding it.  My hearing also gets terribly sensitive, and there's something about the quality of the sound that changes.  Everything has a weird, echoic sound, even my internal chatter -- the closest I can come to describing it is that it feels like my head is hollow, and there's someone in that empty space shouting at the top of his lungs.

The brain fog is a little hard to describe, too.  I honestly don't remember large chunks of the day.  I didn't feel bad enough to justify staying home from school, although I should have; heaven only knows what I told my classes.  I suspect that if I'd said anything too dopey, someone would have asked me what the hell was wrong with me (my students are just up-front and honest like that), and no one did.  But I do recall feeling a little disembodied, like I was watching someone else go through the motions of the day, but not really fully understanding what I was seeing and hearing.

Luckily for me, after a good night's sleep I felt a great deal better, although still a little foggier than usual.  But what it makes me realize is how impossible it is for someone who hasn't experienced something like a migraine to understand fully what it's like.  The painkiller company Excedrin has created virtual reality goggles that recreate some of the visual effects, and it's well worth watching; one of the non-migraine-sufferers who wore the goggles for a few minutes said, "Oh, my God, I don't even know how you function."

Of course, the same could be said about any debilitating disease.  Depression.  Fibromyalgia.  Chronic fatigue syndrome.  Chronic back pain.  Trigeminal neuralgia.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Bipolar disorder.  Multiple sclerosis.  Schizophrenia.  About this last one, Anderson Cooper spent some time wearing earphones that simulated what it was like for a person to hear voices, and what has struck me every time I've seen it is how it destroyed his ability to focus and left him completely wrung out emotionally -- even though he knew the whole time that it was a simulation.

It's why I get a little defensive when I see stuff like this:


You know what?  If you haven't experienced depression, I can almost guarantee that you don't get it.  Some of us are only alive because of antidepressants.  You can rail against "Big Pharma" all you want, but if -- as is the case with a friend of mine -- someone is only able to lead a normal life because of some medication that causes the firestorm in their brain to calm to manageable proportions, then you have no damn right to give them another thing to feel inadequate about.

And the same is true of all the other chronic illnesses, especially the ones that produce few obvious outward symptoms.  You can remedy this to some extent by talking to people who actually live with disorders like these, or better still, try a migraine simulator or schizophrenia simulator.  I can almost guarantee that afterwards you will be far less hasty to conclude that the people with these conditions need to just "suck it up and deal," or (worse) "get over it," or (worst of all) that they're faking it.

Believe me, when I was in the throes of a full-blown migraine, I would have given damn near anything to be rid of it permanently.  Sucking it up and dealing wasn't really high on my priorities list.  I was more concerned with wondering if I would ever be able to leave my darkened room for any other reason than running to the bathroom to puke.

It's all about empathy, really.  Just because you are lucky enough not to suffer from a particular illness (or, if you're extraordinarily lucky, any chronic illnesses at all), don't roll your eyes at others for doing what they need to in order to cope.  Spend some time thinking what it would be like to inhabit another person's body and brain -- perhaps a body and brain that don't cooperate as readily as yours do.

It brings back to mind something a wise family friend told me when I was about ten, after I was complaining about how hard it was to be nice to a particular classmate of mine.  "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be," she said.  "Because everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."