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, 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.