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

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Speculation, extraterrestrial life, and Kepler 452b

Dear readers,

This will be my last post for a bit, as I'm going on a short hiatus for a (hopefully) well-deserved vacation.  I'll be away for three weeks, so my next new post will be on Monday, August 17.

This is a chance for you to check out some other great blogs and webpages, so here are a few of my favorites:

The Reason Stick
James Randi Educational Foundation

So until my return, keep reading, keep thinking, and keep hoisting the banner of logic and reason... and I'll see you on the 17th!


It is one of my dearest hopes that unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life is discovered during my lifetime.

I'm buoyed by the discovery of extrasolar planets, with new ones being identified virtually every other day.  As astronomers develop better and more sensitive techniques for detection, more and more of the planets they find are turning out to be small, rocky worlds like our own, and some are in the "Goldilocks Zone" -- that region surrounding a star where the temperature would allow liquid water to exist.  Not too hot, not too cold... just right.

The effort to prove that we're not alone in the universe has just received a nice shot in the arm in the form of a project called Breakthrough, funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner and announced this week by none other than eminent physicist Stephen Hawking:
We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.  Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean.  Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence?  Either way, there is no better question.  It's time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth.  The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment.  We are alive.  We are intelligent.  We must know.
The project will survey over a million of the closest stars for any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The technology required for this is staggering; Breakthrough will be covering ten times the number of stars of any previous SETI project, and do so a hundred times faster.

"We will be examining something like 10 billion radio channels simultaneously," said University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who has been involved in previous efforts to locate extrasolar planets. "We're listening to a cosmic piano, and every time we listen with the telescopes, we'll be listening not to 88 keys, but 10 billion keys."

Couple that with this week's announcement of the discovery of the "most Earth-like extrasolar planet ever found," Kepler 452b, and it's been a pretty good week for people who, like me, think that Contact is one of the best movies ever.

Which is thrilling.  But of course, given the human tendency to take what we know and run right off the cliff with it, this week's announcement was accompanied by a couple of rather ridiculous articles from media sources that should really know better.

Artist's rendition of Kepler 452b and its parent star [image courtesy of NASA]

Starting with the article "Is There Life on Kepler 452b, the Most Earth-like Planet Ever Discovered?" from the site CosmosUp, the text of which should state, in its entirety, "WE DON'T KNOW."  But there's no reason not to spin a nearly complete lack of information into a lengthy article, right?  It's laced with quotes from actual scientists (who also should know better), such as the following baffling assessment from NASA's former chief operating officer, Carlos Gonzáles Pintado:
Mathematically speaking, there’s high possibility that could be intelligent life on Kepler-452b... We move in four dimensions and to get something extraordinary we have to find some ‘new’ dimensions.  Some theorists believe that the universe must have eleven dimensions and we are at the dawn, we ‘discovered’ just four and nothing more.  When we would find the other missing seven, maybe we’ll find something in the middle to break the barrier of speed of light.
Which gives me the impression that however Mr. Pintado may excel at being chief operating officer, he doesn't know a damn thing about physics.  Finding the "missing seven dimensions?"  Then finding something "in the middle of them?"  What the hell does that even mean?

And what is a "high possibility, mathematically speaking?"  2%?  50%?  98%?  The fact is, we know nothing about Kepler 452b except for an estimate of its size and distance from its parent star -- most importantly, we have no information about the composition of its atmosphere.  Even if it's in the Goldilocks Zone, what's to stop it from being like Venus -- a boiling hell of a planet, with an atmosphere made primarily of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide?

The fact is, Pintado is doing what members of scientific institutions shouldn't ever do, which is publicly engaging in idle speculation.  It's hard enough getting laypeople to understand how science works without this sort of thing.

Worse still, we have Jeffrey Schweitzer's piece for Huffington Post entitled "Earth 2.0: Bad News for God."  Schweitzer is a neurophysiologist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst, which didn't stop him from writing the following:
[I]t would be difficult to claim the unique position of universe center if other planets held life that was zipping around in anti-gravity cars traveling at the speed of light.  Clearly, if the ancients knew there was alien life, any form of life at all, the idea that the earth was the center of the universe would be more difficult to sustain.  Again, though, there is no mention of alien worlds or life beyond this little blue dot. 
None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period.  If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight.  So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story.  How could a convincing story of life's creation leave out life?  Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.
So the implication is that the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or (better) extraterrestrial intelligence, would be a serious blow to religion.  Schweitzer himself calls into question whether his own contention is true, however, in his last paragraph:
Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible...  They will create contorted justifications to support this view, cite a few passages of the bible that could mean anything, and declare victory.  Don't say I did not warn you.
So if you think that the religious will be able to argue away extraterrestrial intelligence as being consistent with the bible, why is the discovery of Kepler 452b "bad news for god?"  Or were you just trying to come up with an eye-catching, click-baity title?  Because let's face it; if the overwhelming mountains of evidence in favor of evolution hasn't convinced the biblical literalists that their worldview is wrong, then receiving a hearty "NuqneH!" from the Klingon home world won't make a damn bit of difference either.

Religion, after all, has nothing to do with evidence; it's all about revelation and internal experience.  So Schweitzer's suggestion that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will have any effect at all on the devout is probably as accurate as all of the other times people have declared that belief in a higher power was on its way out.

Anyhow, none of this should minimize the fact that we live in an amazing time, when we are taking steps toward solving one of the most fundamental questions we have -- whether life is common in the universe.  It'd be nice, however, if people would keep their eye on the ball, rather than zooming off on tangential speculations that really have nothing to do with the reality.  The reality, honestly, is cool enough in and of itself.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The origins of musical taste

I have been curious for a long time about what creates preferences in music.  Part of this curiosity is because of the important role music has had in my life.  When I was three years old, I apparently demanded that my mom allow me to learn how to use the record player because I wanted to be able to be in charge of what music got played.  My mom acquiesced -- odd, given both the request I'd made and my mom's character -- and I recall her saying, "And he never damaged a single record."

My own musical tastes are all over the map.  There is music I love and music I detest from almost every genre.  More interestingly, when I discover some new song or piece of music that sends me into raptures, it does so instantly, and with almost no engagement of the cognitive part of my brain.  I don't have any thoughts like, "Wow, it was really cool how that tune modulated from A major to C# minor, right there!"  In fact, there are rarely any thoughts at all.  It is a totally visceral experience, as if the music had played its own tune on my neurons, an ecstatic frisson like a glissando on some internal emotional harp strings.

And now, some researchers at the University of Cambridge have taken the first step toward understanding why people gravitate toward particular styles of music.  A team of psychologists led by Ph.D. candidate David Greenberg has shown that one pair of contrasting traits is a good predictor of what pieces of music someone will prefer.

Greenberg sorted people into "empathizers," people who respond primarily to the emotions of the people they are close to, and "systematizers," people who are more driven by understanding patterns and rules of the world around them.  And he and his team found that empathizers tended to prefer music that was mellow, music that was "unpretentious" (e.g. folk, singer/songwriter, and country), and music that was more accessible by virtue of being contemporary.  Systematizers, on the other hand, look for edgy music with elements of tension, strength, and energy, music that has surprising shifts, and music that is complex or cerebral.  The fascinating part is that the pattern even held true within genres; jazz enthusiasts who are empathizers tend to like mellow, bluesy, laid-back pieces, while systematizers prefer avant-garde, complex, driving tunes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, said, "This new study is a fascinating extension to the ‘empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences.  It took a talented PhD student and musician to even think to pose this question.  The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers."

David Rentfrow, senior author of the study, put it even more succinctly: "This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self.  Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively."

Which I find absolutely fascinating.  It certainly seems to hold true for me -- I can be empathetic, but it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that the primary driver in my personality is a desire to understand how the world works.  I love the unexpected in music, partly because it's so much fun when I figure out what's going on and how it works -- explaining, perhaps, why I flipped when I discovered Balkan music, with its crazy rhythms and lightning-fast modulations.  Here are a few examples of music from various genres that have grabbed me by the emotions and swung me around, right from the first time I've heard them:
  • Henri Litolff, "Scherzo" from Concerto Symphonique #4
  • Alt-J, "Breezeblocks"
  • Cage the Elephant, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked"
  • J. S. Bach, Fugue à la Gigue
  • Shakey Graves and Esmé Patterson, "Dearly Departed"
  • Beck, "E-Pro"
  • Blowzabella, "Falco"
  • Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Finale from Piano Concerto #1 in D Major
  • Fun, "Some Nights"
  • Green Day, "Oh Love"
  • Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata #96 in D Major, "La Chasse"
  • Michael Franti, "The Sound of Sunshine"
  • R.E.M., "Stand"
  • Dmitri Shostakovich, Waltz #2
So that's enough to go on.  I could do this all day.  Like I said, music is important to me.  But check some of these out -- most are on YouTube -- and see if they have the same effect on you.

Greenberg's study, of course, has only provided a first-order explanation.  I suspect that there's a lot more going on here than can be explained by one pair of contrasting personality traits.  There's still a great deal to be understood about why music has such a powerful effect on the emotions, and (more specifically) why a particular piece of music will grab someone, and other ones -- even music that is similar in genre and overall feeling -- will leave the same person completely cold.  

But this study still gives us an interesting lens into personality and musical taste that we didn't have before.  Think about your own favorite songs and pieces of music, and whether you are more of an empathizer or a systematizer.  Did the pattern hold true for you?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fire and ice

I am frequently confounded by the capacity for humans to be rational and irrational at the same time.

Take, for example, the Icelanders.  Iceland has a 99% adult literacy rate.  Same-sex marriage was legalized in Iceland in 2010 -- by a unanimous vote in parliament.  In polls regarding religious belief, they have one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world.  (31% of Icelanders identify as "non-religious.")  In response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Icelandic government just this month voted by an overwhelming majority to decriminalize blasphemy -- not because they (or I) think that ridiculing someone's beliefs is nice, but because protecting free speech is more important than making sure that religion has some kind of Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card with respect to criticism.

"Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy," a government spokesperson said.  "It is a fundamental point in a free society that people can express themselves without fear of punishment of any kind, whether on behalf of the authorities or others...  The Icelandic parliament has issued the important message that freedom will not bow to bloody attacks."

And yet... there are some odd things about the place.  There has been a resurgence in belief in the old Norse gods -- Odin, Thor, Njord, and the rest -- the Germanic neopagan belief system "Ásatrú" is amongst the fastest-growing religions in Iceland.  A poll, later verified by a thorough study, found that 54.4% of Icelanders believe in the huldufólk, which usually gets translated in English as "elves."  As I've mentioned before, there have been highway projects that have been stalled because someone decided that the proposed road was going to trespass on property owned by "the secret people."

But best of all, an Icelandic woman named Hallgerdur Hallgrímsdóttir has just published a book on how to have sex with elves.  And why you should want to.

Hallgrímsdóttir says her first sexual experience with an elf happened by accident.  "I was just wandering around," she says, "in Icelandic nature, alone in this beautiful situation, and he just came to me.  He whispered some things in my ear -- dirty talk, they're quite good at that, actually."

They're "tall and beautiful," she says.  "It almost looks like their skin emits light."

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1896) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as what hot elf-on-self action is like, she waxed rhapsodic.  "It's almost like they know what you want in bed.  They don't have to ask, they can read your mind, and know better what you want than you do...  They're very flexible, so they can use positions that would not be possible for humans."

She backs this up with a series of stick figure drawings that made me choke-snort an entire mouthful of coffee, especially the one of an extremely male elf with an arrow pointing to a body part labeled "geyser."

There are both male and female elves, she tells us, and they are a pretty open-minded lot.  "All elves are bisexual," Hallgrímsdóttir says, "but guys and girls not ready for some same sex action don’t worry, no elf will do anything you don’t want to."

Amongst other things that you don't have to worry about, elf-sex-wise, are STDs and pregnancy.  You can become pregnant by an elf (or make a female elf pregnant), but you both have to want to make a baby for this to happen.  Which is pretty convenient.  

Oh, and elf semen is "glittery and shimmery."  So there's that.  She includes an "artist's rendition" of the result of a male elfgasm, which is striking not only in colorfulness but in quantity, and in (as it were) a rather impressive trajectory.

There are various other details that are, shall we say, a little too salacious for me to include here, so if you're curious you'll just have to listen to the interview with her on the link I posted above.  Suffices to say that the Icelandic tourist industry might want to plan ahead for an influx of people who are, um, hopeful in the supernatural romance department.

I'm curious to know how many people actually take her seriously.  The article says that Hallgrímsdóttir gets "a lot of flack from her countrymen" for her beliefs -- but if over half of Icelanders believe that the Hidden People exist, what's stopping Legolas et al. from seeking out illicit liaisons with their human cohabitants?  Is it that the people who believe in elves aren't really all that serious about it, sort of in the way otherwise rational people will wear a lucky hat to a baseball game, or avoid walking under a ladder?  It certainly seems odd that a populace that is as literate, well educated, and generally rational as the Icelanders would subscribe to a belief that is (to put it bluntly) extremely wacky.

But maybe all humans are like that -- masses of contradictions, all thrown together under a thin veneer of logic and reason.  Maybe I am, too, for all of my talk of skepticism and science.  Go beneath the skin, and there might well be a little pagan in all of us, however we might want to consecrate it or else expunge it entirely.  As one of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman goes, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Color me blue

There's been a recent surge in popularity of questionnaire-based tests that supposedly tell you which of four "personality colors" you belong to.  (Here's a typical example.)  You're given questions like:
When facing a big project, you are...
  • deadline-driven
  • worrying
  • researching
  • making it a group effort
And after twenty or so questions of this sort, you're sorted into one of four "color groups," a little like what the Sorting Hat does at Hogwarts, only less reliable.

I throw in the "less reliable" part not only because we are being given a schema that puts every human on the Earth into one of four categories (hell, even the astrologers admit there are twelve), but because the whole thing relies on self-assessment.  When you take these tests, you're not finding out what you're really like, you're finding out what you think you're like.

Which is clearly not the same thing.  We're notoriously bad judges of our own personalities.  In their 2008 paper "Faulty Self-Assessment: Why Evaluating One’s Own Competence Is an Intrinsically Difficult Task," Cornell University psychologists Travis J. Carter and David Dunning had the following to say:
(A)lthough the exhortation to ‘know oneself’ has a long and venerable history, recent investigations in behavioral science paint a vexing and troubling portrait about people’s success at self-insight. Such research increasingly shows that people are not very good at assessing their competence and character accurately.  They often hold self-perceptions that wander a good deal away from the reality of themselves...  (T)he extant psychological literature suggests that people have some, albeit only a meager, amount of self-insight.
And they quote Ann Landers's trenchant quip, "Know yourself.  Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful."

So trying to reach self-discovery from a series of restricted-choice questions you answer about yourself has about as much likelihood of revealing some hitherto unguessed truth as those Facebook quizzes that claim to tell you what character from Game of Thrones you are.

What is more vexing is that despite the fact that these tests are only telling you what you think about yourself, the whole "color group" thing is gaining a lot of ground in the business world as a way of improving relational dynamics in the workplace.  Don't believe me?  Check out this article over at Knoji by M. J. Grueso, who tells us the following:
Most companies use a color personality test in order to better understand these personality differences and how to make it work for everyone.  Understanding the different personalities is important not just for big companies but for us as individuals as this will make it easier for us to learn how to better deal with colleagues and clients...  Experts have determined that there are four basic personality types. Yellow, Red, Blue and Green.  And it doesn't have anything to do with a person's favorite color.  As an individual, learning our color personality is also important.  First, because it helps us to better understand ourselves and why we react to certain situations a certain way.  Second, when we understand who we are, it allows us to open ourselves to at least try to understand others as well.
Which all sounds pretty nifty.  But then I started wondering, "Who are these experts?"  And I found out that the whole color-personality thing was the brainchild of one Carol Ritberger, who is the "renowned psychologist" mentioned in the link in the first paragraph of this post...

... but who actually isn't a psychologist at all.  She describes herself as an "innovative leader in the fields of personality behavioral psychology and behavioral medicine," but later goes on to say that her credentials are "a doctorate in Theology and a doctorate in Esoteric Philosophy and Hermetic Science."

Which are about as related to the science of behavioral psychology as alchemy is to chemistry.

But despite having no apparent training in medical science, she claims to have the ability to do what she calls "intuitive healing:"
Our mission is to provide programs that train participants in the science and art of intuitive diagnostics, qualified to work in concert with medical practitioners in the process of healing. 
We stand at the threshold of a time of compelling change-a positive major shift is taking place, and that shift is having a dramatic impact on our lives.  We are compelled to talk about it and to seek to understand it.  It is awakening a new energy force within each of us that is causing dynamic change to occur within the physical body and the human energy system.  We are changing to forms of light that are not as we have previously known them, and are becoming more vibrant, more radiant, and more empowered.  This new energy force is changing our way of thinking and is illuminating a whole new dimension of our persona.  It is creating the need for intense self-exploration and we are being nudged, pushed, and driven to learn more about who we really are.  It is fueling the desire to better understand ourselves-its energy is assisting us in seeking to get in touch with our very souls.  We are being guided to look beyond the obvious and that which our five senses understand.  This new energy force is sensitizing us to the need to develop our thinking while our mental processing remains the same, and the way we perceive our lives is going through a radical change.  Consciousness, as we have known it, is expanding... 
Medical intuition is both an art and a science.  It is a learnable diagnostic skill that provides insight into how the body, mind, and spirit connection interrelates with one's health and well being.
I don't know about you, but if I've got some sort of medical condition, psychological or otherwise, I'd prefer to be treated by an individual with the proper training and credentials, rather than by someone who diagnoses me through "intuition" and babbles about undefined "energy forces" that are "changing our physical bodies" and "expanding our consciousness."

So the whole what-color-are-you thing (1) doesn't tell you anything you didn't already believe, (2) is only as accurate as your own ability to self-assess, and (3) was developed by someone whose grasp of science sounds tenuous at best.

Be that as it may, you'll probably want to know that I'm a "Blue."  "Blues" are tightly-wound, orderly people with good attention to detail, but who tend to be fretful, quiet, pessimistic, and sensitive to criticism. We need to be "more open about our feelings" and "more willing to try new things."

All of which would be immediately apparent to anyone who's known me more than five minutes.  So as a step toward Socrates's ideal of "Know thyself," it doesn't really get me very far, not that I expected it to.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

May Texas be safe from tigers

Well, this is it, folks.  Jade Helm 15, the two-month United States Army training exercise in Texas and New Mexico, has begun.  The guillotining of innocent civilians should begin presently.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

At least, that's apparently what a significant percentage of Texans believe.  There are numerous conspiracy theories regarding what appears to be a completely legitimate military operation, under the supervision of senior officers who assure us that every effort will be made to prevent the exercise from interfering with the lives of ordinary citizens, to the point that an article about the various angles on the conspiracy appeared in Army Times online magazine.  The author, Kyle Jahner, outlines them thusly:
  1. FEMA-sponsored dome-shaped hurricane shelters are actually being used to imprison non-sheeple who "foment insurrection," i.e., object to Jade Helm and the declaration of martial law that is soon to follow.
  2. The dead bodies of said insurrectionists are going to be carried to their final resting place in BlueBell Ice Cream trucks.
  3. The command centers for planned takeover of Texas are some abandoned Walmart buildings that were observed to have razor wire on their roofs.  (Walmart spokespeople have said that the razor wire was to prevent break-ins.  Ha.  They would say that.)
  4. The whole martial-law thing was motivated by NASA's discovery that there's going to be a major asteroid strike in September of this year, which will result not only in a great big smoking crater, but in the southern United States turning into something that resembles Mad Max: Fury Road, only better armed.  And we can't have that.
  5. The Russians are secretly funding the secessionist movement in Texas, because they'd like to see America crumble.  So the people who are against Jade Helm are actually fighting against the evil Rooskies, or something.  (Yes, I know that makes no sense whatsoever.  Don't yell at me.  I'm not the one who believes this.)
  6. Ultimately, the whole thing will lead to Barack Obama coming out with the fact that he has never intended to step down in 2016, and his crowning as Exalted Emperor Barack I.
Far be it from Texans to take any of that lying down.  So it will probably surprise no one that a group in Texas has formed a "Counter Jade Helm" citizen surveillance group, intended to keep an eye on things and report back when decapitations start occurring in Walmarts and the headless bodies are carted away in ice cream trucks.

The whole thing is being run by a guy named Pete Lanteri, a dubiously-sane former Marine who claims he founded Counter Jade Helm in order to keep an eye on things and make sure that there was someone watching what the government was up to, but whose recent behavior makes him sound like a dangerous lunatic.  When Lanteri got trolled on Facebook -- because that never happens, right? -- he responded both on Facebook and Twitter with a string of invective that certainly doesn't help his case any.  He began by closing the Counter Jade Helm Facebook page to the public with the following friendly message:
Since the huge media attention Counter Jade Helm is receiving, the fb page is being attacked by libs, conspiracy nuts, and the other 90% of useless fucking Americans.  To fix this I am creating individual state group pages closed to the public.
When a supporter responded, "They are causeing [sic] such a division in this GREAT NATION a second REVOLUTION IS NEEDED VERY BADLY," Lanteri said that basically, he couldn't agree more.  "I can't wait to kill thousands of these fucks, man!!!" he wrote.

In other bons mots from Lanteri, we have:
Here's hoping we're in a shooting war to save this country by next Fourth of July!!!!  Semper Fi Patriots!!!! 
People you should all be making lists of commies/marxists/islamists in your neighborhoods.  All the teachers, school board members, politicians etc. who are anti US Constitution need to be identified and addresses known so when it comes time to round them up we know exactly where to start looking.  They will be arrested and tried for treason!!!! 
Why can't Geraldo Rivera, aka twatwaffle, be in a church when it gets shot up? 
More dead equals more dead dems.
About African Americans in general, he had the following to say:  "War on White People continues!!!!  [Blacks are] a Failed Race."  He even attacked Pope Francis, regarding his stance that weapons manufacturers were complicit in the escalating worldwide death rate from guns, saying, "Fuck this asshole!!!  EVERY ASPECT OF AMERICA NEEDS A FUCKING PURGE!!!!"

[N.B.:  I may have miscounted the number of exclamation points, but otherwise, these quotes are as written.  And yes, apparently he does think that Pope Francis lives in the United States.]

So here we have a man who is apparently in favor of murdering members of a political party that makes up about half of American citizens, who is apparently a vicious racist, who wants anyone who disagrees with him tried for treason, and who is hoping for a violent revolution, leading a group that is monitoring heavily-armed military men engaged in a Special Ops training exercise.

Nope, I see nothing whatsoever that could go wrong with that.

So we've got to make it till the end of August without an incident, which I hope fervently will be the case.  But you know what's craziest about all of this?  If what military leaders are saying is true -- that Jade Helm really is just a training exercise -- and nothing untoward happens, all it's going to do is reinforce Lanteri's conviction that it was their vigilance that prevented the Evil Convoy of BlueBell Ice Cream Trucks from doing their dirty work.  Because you can't win with these people, you know?  No matter what happens, they never shift their ground.

Just yesterday, in fact, I saw a post on Facebook about how during Obama's presidency, the number of gun sales has increased.  The comment was something like, "Ha!  Obummer's efforts to repeal the Second Amendment and pass laws to take away everyone's guns sure have been successful!"

Or maybe, you moron, he never intended to repeal the Second Amendment in the first place.  But of course, I'd never expect you to admit that.

It's like the old story about the guy who would show up at his friend's house for a visit, but before entering the house would fold his hands in a prayerful attitude, close his eyes, and say, "May this house be safe from tigers."  This went on for some time, and finally the friend had had enough.

"Come on," he said.  "Tigers?  This is Ohio, for pete's sake.  There's probably not a tiger within a thousand miles of here!"

And the guy gave him a contented smile and said, "It works well, doesn't it?"

Monday, July 20, 2015

Networked minds

I'm all for scientific advances, but sometimes I read things that are just plain scary.

This week's installment of "You Do See How Badly This Could Go Wrong, Don't You?" comes to us courtesy of a team led by Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscience researcher at Duke University.  Rahwan, Nicolelis, and their team have achieved something pretty spectacular -- they have hooked together the brains of four rats via a computer interface, and demonstrated that the conjoined brains could learn (quickly) how to team up and work collaboratively.

In other words, the four minds were pooling resources and working as a unit.

They did the same thing with two monkeys, linking them via a computer interface hooked to a robotic arm.  The trick was, one monkey could only move the arm vertically, and the other only horizontally, so they had to learn to work together to accomplish a task and get a reward.

"They synchronise their brains and they achieve the task by creating a superbrain – a structure that is the combination of three brains," Nicolelis said.  "We send a message to the brains, the brains incorporate that message, and we can retrieve the message later."

Nicolelis calls this linked group of brains a "brainet."

Other scientists were quick to point out that what Nicolelis and his group had accomplished was similar to parallel processing by computer systems.  "In order to synchronise, the brains are responding to each other," said Iyad Rahwan, computer scientist at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi.  "So you end up with an input, some kind of computation, and an output – what a computer does."

Andrea Stocco, researcher in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, was impressed by what Nicolelis and his team had done.  "This is incredible," Stocco said.  "We are sampling different neurons from different animals and putting them together to create a super organism....  Once brains are connected, applications become just a matter of what different animals can do.  We can expect a great deal more from human minds connected in this way...  Sometimes it’s really hard to collaborate if you are a mathematician and you’re thinking about very complex and abstract objects.  If you could collaboratively solve common problems [using a brainet], it would be a way to leverage the skills of different individuals for a common goal."

Which all sounds great, until you start considering the possible ways this could go wrong.  Maybe I'm a pessimist, but my first thought wasn't about transmitting my abstruse mathematical arguments to another person -- it was about loss of privacy, and (worse) the potential for one person to control another.  If it becomes possible to link two human minds together, what's to stop one of them from manipulating the other, unwittingly or deliberately?

My feeling is that once that link is established, the two minds thus conjoined would never be the same again -- even after the link was severed.

It's why I've always thought that of all the alleged psychic phenomena out there, telepathy has to be the scariest.  Think about it: would you really want someone to have access to your thoughts?  I'm pretty sure that the chaotic, bizarre, and sometimes not very nice thoughts that come to my mind aren't that far out of the norm, but I still would prefer to keep them to myself, thank you very much.

But what about the potential for speeding up information transfer?  I still remember when I saw the movie The Matrix the first time, how much I wanted one of those portals in the back of my skull.  You know, just stick a USB cable up there, and click "Download Japanese," and voilà, I'm fluent.  It'd sure be nice to gain knowledge that way, rather than by the hard work of memorization, study, and figuring things out, however it would put us teachers out of a job.

But once you become able to put stuff into brains -- whether downloaded from a computer, or accessed from another person's mind -- there arises the trenchant question of who gets to decide what information goes where.  How do you assure that what is being passed to you is true?  When we learn, the slow, painstaking way, each of our brains not only acts as a sponge, it acts as a filter.  We consider what we're learning, ask questions, make judgments.  If we're being fed information through a computer interface, at what point in the transfer process do we get to ask, "Does this make sense?"

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think these ethical questions should halt the research Nicolelis and his group are doing, and I don't mean to denigrate his accomplishment.  But as tempting as it is to rush headlong into linking up human minds into a "superorganism" or "brainet," I'm certainly not going to be the first one to volunteer.

Call me suspicious, but the only one I want in control of what I'm thinking is myself.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Shenanigans in space

Well, you knew it was gonna happen.  I mean, I didn't think it'd be this fast, but I figured it was gonna happen sooner or later.

People are already saying that NASA is faking the images from Pluto.

Yes, I know.  The question of "Why would they do that?" appears to be unanswerable.  But as we've seen before, there is nothing that is so completely idiotic that there won't be conspiracy theorists who think it's true.

First we've got YouTuber Crow777, who has put together a video calling NASA out on their shenanigans.  As proof, he shows a photograph of Jupiter he took from right here on Earth with his own telescope, and then a fuzzy photograph of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.  "If this is all real," he says, "why can I get a clearer image of Jupiter in my backyard at four hundred million miles than NASA can get of Pluto at nine million miles?... Now this is just an insult to your intelligence."

Let's start with the fact that (1) Jupiter is bigger, (2) Pluto is much further from the Sun and therefore reflects less light to a camera regardless where you are taking the picture from, and (3) they did get much clearer pictures than the one that Crow777 used for his comparison.  But those were all faked, too, apparently.  How do you know that?  Because they are.  Stop asking questions.

[image courtesy of NASA]

And Crow777 is not just a lone wacko.  Well, maybe that's not true; he's a lone wacko, but there are many like-minded lone wackos out there.  Twitter erupted with tweets under the hashtag #NASAHoax like the following:
Pluto? You all having fun with this fake cgi pic !!! #NASA #NASAHoax biggest lie in history!!!!! #WakeUpAmerica they lied about that to 
Lmao so their other fake as hell satellite is able to take a photo of the #pluto inbound satellite. #gullible much? #NASAHoax 
Then we have a whole different sort of crazy over at, courtesy of a poster going by the handle TruthIsNeverTooHorrible.  And Mr. Horrible has the following to say:
To get this mockery of the "space travel" simulated reality to terminate the show:
Pluto was the first celestial body created by the illuminati, decades before the creation of the space travel hoax, as exposed first by Last Prophet... 
Any celestial body that can not be observed with a telescope located ON Earth, is fake.  This one basic fact implies that for instance Pluto (the first example among millions) is an invention created by the illuminati.
And in the "Insanity Creates Odd Bedfellows" department, the Pluto Truthers here in the United States got some unexpected support... from hardline Muslims in Malaysia.  Apparently the consensus over there amongst the extremely devout is that the NASA photographs are "poyo" -- the Malay word for "stupid."  The images of Pluto, they said, were created using a green screen.  (Because green screening an image, and then replacing the green with black, makes ever so much sense.)  One poster on the Malay Daily Facebook page went on a lengthy tirade about how the Quran explains everything you need to know about space, including the fact that the sky has seven layers "guarded by angels who do not eat or sleep," thus making space travel impossible.

And also proving that it's not just here in the United States that we have people who would like to see ignorant superstition based on a holy book controlling science education.

Other pious Malaysians stated that it's impossible that the United States achieved this given that Russia and China are so much further ahead of us technologically and they haven't gone to Pluto, and that travel to Pluto is impossible anyhow because it's ten thousand light years away.

The news from Southeast Asia isn't all dismal, however.  The scientifically-minded countered with arguments demonstrating that the aforementioned loons are wrong.  Not that they'll do much good, given our track record for success in arguing with creationists over here in the States.  "This is why we can't be a developed country," lamented one Malaysian, while another put it more succinctly:  "RIP, brain."

But maybe NASA didn't invent the images of Pluto.  Maybe they're real... and they're still covering stuff up.  Like alien bases and buildings and stuff.  "We have discovered something shocking on the heart-shaped ice cap on the north of Pluto," says YouTuber UFOUnionTV.  "It looks very much like an alien base...  There is a perfectly-shaped building, and a road leading to this base...  The shadows have edges, they aren't round...  This is completely explained by this structure being artificial."

As further proof, let's go to the scientific texts written by H. P. Lovecraft about the planet Yuggoth, which supposedly orbited the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune:
Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system...  There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone...  The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light.  They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples...  The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen...
So there you are, then.

You know, I wonder if back in the day there were people who thought like this.  When the first photographs of Jupiter and Saturn and so on were taken in the late 19th century, did people say, "No, those are faked!"  I mean, you can see Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye, and see some details even with a good set of binoculars... but remember that there are people who think that the Moon is a hologram.

There probably were, but my guess is that they were laughed into oblivion.  One of the downsides of the internet is that anyone who has a computer can launch a website or a YouTube channel, and it puts everyone on an equal footing, access-wise (although hardly credibility-wise).  And given that there are folks out there for whom "I saw it on the internet" constitutes proof, it's not to be wondered at that the crazy stuff spreads a lot faster today than it did a hundred years ago.

But I live in hope that the same forces that spread bullshit like wildfire are also giving people better access to science than they've ever had before.  The availability of knowledge, free (or nearly so), to everyone -- this is also a new thing.  All we need to assure is that people have the critical thinking skills to sift the wheat from the chaff, the science from the nonsense, the Pluto from the...

... Yuggoth.