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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Curious goings-on in Coventry

Most believers in an afterlife think that after death, righteous souls end up in heaven and unrighteous ones in hell, which seems straightforward enough.  However, there are apparently people who believe there's a third option:  if you're consigned neither to heaven nor hell, you can stick around and drive the living up a tree.

At least that's the contention of a couple who live in a rented house in Coventry, England.  They claim that their house is haunted by an annoying ghost who has broken crockery, thrown about silverware, moved blinds up and down, switched lights on and off, and, on one occasion, jammed a door, trapping the couple in the house and necessitating their escape through a window.  They even suspect the ghost had a role in the death of their dog, who died of injuries from falling down the stairs.

A priest who visited the house allegedly advised the couple not to stay, but blessed the house and gave the couple each a crucifix to wear.  And I thought:  That's the best he can do?  Say a quick prayer, hand out a crucifix, and hit the road?  The priest in The Exorcist stuck around even while the little girl was puking up pea soup all over the place, which I thought was pretty brave of him.  In his place, I think I'd have called it quits at that point.  I have a strong stomach -- I can dissect a fetal pig with one hand and eat a ham sandwich with the other, and I have no squeamishness about blood -- but when someone throws up, I generally join them.

More interesting still, a medium, called in to investigate, said the house was a portal.  "It's a bus stop for spirits," she said, after touring the house.  Evidently the house acts like a gateway for ghosts to get into the world of the living. This brings up a question:  if ghosts can get into our world through this house, could you contact any spirit you want just by making a trip to Coventry?  If so, I'd like to go there and ask my mom for some advice about making pie crust.  Hers were always awesome, and mine turn out like cardboard, and I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong.

Anyhow, the couple aren't particularly excited about living in a haunted house.  Me, I'd be elated.  I've always wanted to go spend the night in a house that was claimed to have a ghost.  You hear all these anecdotal reports, and people say things like, "When I was little we lived in this house where weird stuff kept happening!  We heard noises!  And cabinet doors we remembered shutting would be found open the next morning!  And socks would disappear in the laundry!  It must have been a ghost."  Well, okay, that's one possibility.  Me, I'd like to see for myself, and rule out more prosaic causes, like mice in the walls, people forgetting to shut cabinet doors, and Magical Sock Gnomes, which are definitely responsible for the sock losses amongst the members of our family.

I don't think the Coventry couple is taking in guests, however, which is kind of a shame.  On the other hand, they say they have the next best thing to direct evidence: they have produced a video clip of the tricksy phantom doing his thing.  The video clip, available here, shows a door swinging open, and a pink rolling chair sliding across the room.  Firm proof, they claim, that the house is haunted.

Predictably, I'm skeptical.  I see nothing in this clip that couldn't be done with fishing line.  In fact, the chair moves more like someone pulling it with a string than it does like someone (or something) pushing it.  Plus, in the clip you can distinctly hear someone clearing his throat, and I'm doubtful that ghosts would have any particular need for throat-clearing.

The whole thing, in fact, screams "hoax" to me, and my personal opinion is that the couple in the house are simply after their fifteen minutes of fame.  Sad to say, but for those who believe in ghosts and were hoping for proof -- this ain't it.  Aficionados of the afterlife will just have to keep looking.  And I'll keep trying to get a photo of the Magical Sock Gnomes, because those things are freakin' annoying.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The North Carolina billboard campaign

My question of the day is:  When it comes to discussions of religion (or lack thereof), should we be obliged to refrain from criticizing other belief systems?  Is criticizing another person's religion always off limits?

The whole topic comes up because of an advertising campaign by the Triangle Freethought Society and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has put up a dozen billboards in Raleigh, North Carolina.  These billboards have images of smiling individuals, with captions like, "I'm saved... from religion!  -- Curtis Clayton, Raleigh, Truck Driver... Atheist."  Another says, "Free thinking moves America forward! -- Robin, Parent... Nontheist."  One with the face of Chris, a Raleigh artist:  "Your faith feel wrong?  It's OK to leave!"  And Dale, a writer and agnostic:  "I write fiction.  I don't believe it."

For many people, criticizing another person's religion is verboten.  You can tell someone her political beliefs are wrong; you can say a guy's way of running his business sucks; you can even tell someone he dresses funny.  All are, depending on how they're phrased, considered acceptable behavior.  But religion, somehow, is considered outside of the realm of criticism.

Well, sometimes.  It seems like Muslims these days are fair targets for a lot of folks, and there are frequent posts detailing the bloodthirstier passages in the Quran (often authored by people who conveniently forget the equally bloodthirsty passages in the Old Testament).  But other than that... it seems like you can say, do, or believe almost anything, and if you say, "It's my religion," you have an automatic Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Interesting, though, that lack of religion is not accorded the same respect.  Although I have many times passed billboards with religious slogans (including some fairly threatening ones, of the "The Wages Of Sin Are Death!" variety), even fairly low-key atheist billboards have resulted in a whirlwind of angry response by believers.  The billboard that showed up in New Jersey last December that said, "You know it's a myth.  This season, celebrate reason" was greeted by howls of anger. 

Atheism, it seems, is considered critical of religion by default; which, I suppose, it is.  As such, it is automatically relegated to being offensive simply by virtue of its existence.  In polls, atheists rank consistently lower than other groups often targeted by discrimination -- gays, Muslims, minorities -- and in fact, in one particularly telling poll, responders said they'd vote for a convicted felon for public office before they'd vote for an atheist.

In response, most atheists are pretty quiet about it.  There are exceptions -- Dawkins and Hitchens inevitably come to mind -- but most of us try to fly under the radar.  I'm of the medium-loud variety -- I don't go to especial pains to hide my views, but I see no particular need to flaunt them, either.  Being that I live in a small village, I expect most people figure out what I think eventually.

Some take a while, though.  I was once asked, in my Critical Thinking class, what my religious views were.  This was fairly late in the semester, and although I was a little surprised that my reputation hadn't preceded me, I was delighted that some of the students still hadn't figured out where I stand.  My goal, in that class especially, is for students to leave without really being sure what my political and religious beliefs are, with the feeling that I prodded and questioned and needled everyone to refine their thinking.

My first question was, "Why is that relevant?"  The student responded that she was simply curious and interested.  I said, "I'm an atheist."  And another student said, "Are you allowed to say that in school?"

At first, I though he was somehow under the impression that because we're not allowed to preach to students, or try to convert them, that we couldn't mention religion at all.  But no, upon being asked to clarify, he meant atheism in particular.  "Isn't that saying that other religions are wrong?" he asked.

"If you don't mind my asking," I responded to him, "what are your religious views?  You don't have to answer if you would prefer not to."

He shrugged and said, "I don't mind.  I'm a Methodist."

I said, "Isn't that saying that other religions are wrong?"

Then he got it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Threatening skeptics with crystal vibrational energy

As a further exploration of yesterday's topic (hell), I'd like to ask a question.

Let's say you have two people arguing.  One (let's call him Sam) believes in god, divine retribution, the devil, angels, and the whole shebang.  The other (Joe) believes in none of the above.  In the course of the argument, Sam gets frustrated with Joe's lack of piety and tells him, "You are so going to hell.  Satan has a whole room full of Inquisition-style torture equipment ready, with your name on it."

My question is:  why would Sam think this is an effective means of persuasion?

Threatening Joe with a retribution by Satan in the afterlife, when Joe himself believes in neither, kind of sucks as a strategy.  That notwithstanding, it seems like the most common approach.  And the whole thing isn't limited to members of traditional religions.

In fact, the subject comes up because of last weekend's New Age Expo, "Body, Soul, and Spirit," which was held in Toronto.  Amongst the workshop offerings were ones on "Crystal Healing," "Raising Your Vibration for Improved Health," a workshop whose description implies that quantum physics proves the oneness of the body and mind, and a "demonstration of mediumship" in which a gent named Vincent Pace "will connect to loved ones, guides, or Angels from the Spirit world, & deliver their message for audience members randomly!"

Those of you who know me well can just imagine how much I'd enjoy attending such an event.  And evidently some other skeptics felt the same way, because some members of the Canadian group Centre for Inquiry (whose website is a must-see) approached the leaders of the Expo, described their stance on the whole thing, and asked to be admitted as unbiased observers.

I have to admit, it was mighty sporting of the Centre for Inquiry folks to clue the Expo leaders in on their intentions, but they must have realized that it was unlikely that they'd be welcomed with open arms.  In fact, they were categorically denied entrance to the Expo.  The take-home lesson, here, is that believers don't like skeptics, so the direct frontal approach in such situations is unlikely to succeed.

Myself, I'd have used the stealth approach.  I'd have been the Ninja Warrior of Skeptics, dressed all in black, scaling the wall and slipping undetected into the workshops, and recording the whole thing on my tiny digital recording device.  Then I'd vanish like the wind and return to my secret headquarters.  They'd never know I was there, until a scathing exposé hit Skeptophilia the following day, and then they would retreat in complete disarray.

Okay, I have to admit, that's probably not what would have happened.  Scaling walls is kind of out of the question for me lately.  Some days, walking is almost out of the question.  What I'd probably really have done is that I'd have simply bought a ticket, and probably would have ultimately been escorted out by the police after guffawing directly in the so-called medium's face.  And since I doubt anyone who would attend a "Body, Soul and Spirit" convention reads Skeptophilia, "retreating in complete disarray" might be a bit of an overstatement.

But I digress.

So anyway, the Centre folks were denied entrance.  What is even more interesting, however, is that the Expo leaders threatened the skeptics... with "bad karma."  The response said, in part:  "If you were really sincere, your company would focus on exposing the corruption in government, banking, medical, etc.  So get honest with yourself or karma will teach you in ways your ego would not like."

Whoooo.  That is one scary threat, there.  Doesn't it occur to them that, just like the fictional Sam and Joe from the earlier example, you can't effectively threaten someone with something that they believe is nonexistent?  I've never been told I'm going to have bad karma, although I have been told I'm headed for hell more than once; but it's hard to see how either one would change my behavior.  You have to believe in something before it has any emotional pull on you.

Now, if the Expo leaders had said, "If you people show up here, we're getting out the baseball bats," that would be a threat I could respect.  I believe in baseball bats.  They do damage that even crystal vibration healing would have a hard time dealing with.  But maybe the Expo leaders think that that hitting skeptics with baseball bats would be bad for their own karma.  I dunno.

So, anyway, the skeptics didn't get to go to the Body, Soul, and Spirit Expo, which is kind of a disappointment.  Next time, they should take my suggestion and try the stealth approach.  I'm happy to come along.  I've got my black Skeptical Ninja-suit all laid out.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What the hell?

Apparently, there is a new controversy brewing amongst traditional Christians, centering around a new book by evangelical pastor Rob Bell called Love Wins, in which he describes what hell is like.

Me, I'd think it'd be the world's shortest book.  Page one:  "Beats the hell out of me.  The End."  You'd think that the thesis, and the resulting argument, both being based upon no hard facts whatsoever, would devolve into a lot of shrugging of shoulders and moving on to other, more pressing issues.

You'd be wrong.

Apparently his contentions have ignited a firestorm of controversy.  Bell has been labeled a heretic; one prominent pastor commented, "Satan is having a field day with this."  Another pastor, who espoused Bell's ideas, has been fired.  The whole thing is still being hotly debated, and probably will continue to be for some time to come.

Bell's central point is that god's love can triumph even over sins that many think would doom a person to hell, and that therefore saying that this or that act is certain to condemn someone is wrong.  Of course, a lot of people don't like that idea.  From the touchy-feely end of the spectrum, you have the people who don't like the idea of hell in the first place, and are uncomfortable that there might be a final judgment; for them, Bell's book is too harsh.  On the other end, there are the folks who really love the ideas of the unbelievers cooking eternally on Satan's George Foreman Grill, and for them, Bell is too easygoing, too admitting of wiggle-room.

I remember a girl I knew in college, who was honestly upset that I wasn't "saved," because she thought I was nice and didn't want me to spend eternity getting tortured.  Which was kind enough of her, I suppose.  But I recall her saying, "Being saved from hell isn't about being nice. Being saved from hell is about accepting Jesus.  You can be all the nice you want, but if you haven't accepted Jesus, you're going to hell for all eternity."

A lot of the more liberal Christians have a kneejerk reaction against this -- it just seems unfair, somehow.  What about observant Jews?  Or Hindus?  Or Muslims?  Or Buddhists?  Or all the millions of people who lived and died and never even heard about Christianity?  It brings to mind the thing that went around the email circles a while back -- you may have seen it.  "Q:  What do Socrates, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Anne Frank, Lao Tse, and Chief Joseph all have in common?  A:  According to the fundamentalists, they're all in hell."

What's interesting is that even the bible itself isn't consistent in what it says.  The Old Testament instances of the word that is often translated as "hell" is the Hebrew word sheol, which as far as I can understand from my Jewish friends, just kind of means a dreary, depressing place where everyone ultimately goes, a "place of nothingness."  Sort of a New Jersey for the Spirit World.  The concept of a place of torment seems limited to the New Testament, the "fiery furnace" where there'll be "weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth."  In fact, several instances of that concept correspond to the New Testament writers' use of the Greek word tartaros, which makes me wonder if they borrowed the whole thing from Greek mythology.  (You remember, Sisyphus and the Rock, Tantalus and the Water, etc.)

Anyhow, the whole thing comes across as rather silly to me -- to argue vehemently about the characteristics of a place that no one has any direct information about, and about which even the one source they're accepting isn't clear.  Of course, it isn't the first time I've been mystified by the behavior of religious folks, and probably won't be the last; but to be fair, they probably find my lack of belief equally mystifying.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fact check

I wasn't going to write a post about Michele Bachmann.  I told myself, "stay out of politics.  Blog on something safe and non-controversial, like evolution."  And I thought, "You're not going to convince anyone who isn't already convinced, so what's the point?"

Then, this morning, while perusing the news, I happened upon a story about Michele Bachmann's recent gaffe in which she identified Lexington and Concord and "The Shot Heard Around the World" as being in New Hampshire, and one of the comments posted after the story was the following:

"Sure, Bachmann has had here [sic] gaffes, like anyone that appears regularly on TV, radio, etc. But she's on the right side of the issues which, last I checked, is a great deal of what matters."

No, I'm sorry.  You're wrong.  Facts matter.

Bachmann, the oft-proclaimed "darling of the Tea Party," is becoming notorious for misspeaking.  She called the Smoot-Hawley Act the "Hoot-Smawley Act," and said it was signed into law by a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is therefore directly responsible for the Great Depression.  (It was signed by Herbert Hoover, a Republican, in 1930, three years before FDR was inaugurated, and may have contributed to the Depression, but was hardly its cause as most historians date the Depression as beginning in 1929.)  She even seems to think that epidemics are the Democrats' fault, as she blamed the 1976 swine flu outbreak on Jimmy Carter, even though Gerald Ford was president at the time.

This woman makes so many mistakes that you have to wonder if the Republicans have hired her to make Sarah Palin look intelligent by comparison.

Facts matter.  Yes, anyone who is a public speaker can misspeak; as a teacher, I've done it, more than once.  But you have to be careful -- one slip, or even two, can be laughed off as simply being a fallible human being, making a faux pas when under pressure.  At some point, however, you cross the line, and people start thinking, "what a moron."  And they stop giving what you say any credence.

Well, sometimes.  It appears that with Palin and Bachmann, all it's done is made their defenders more defensive, and propelled them even further into the spotlight.  Every day, I expect to hear that the Republicans have finally said, as a party, "these two have the IQ of road salt," and to see Palin and Bachmann dwindling back into well-deserved obscurity.  But somehow, their ineptness, their seeming inability to hire a fact-checker before they speak, makes them seem all the more "folksy" and like "regular people," and does nothing but increase their appeal.

Why is it that people want a leader who is "just one of us folks?"  Me, I want a president who is smarter than I am.  Way smarter.  I know I'm not intelligent enough for that job, not by a longshot.  But somehow, candidates who can tap into the image of being "average" have a strong appeal.  Is it because we are trying desperately to hang on to the myth that "anyone can become president?"  Are we falling for that perversion of the democratic ideal that because we all should have equal rights, somehow we all should be treated as if we have equal abilities?  Is it that we distrust the intelligentsia because of the negative portrayal of smart people in the media?

Or are the majority of Americans simply nitwits themselves?

And since I've probably already pasted a target on my own chest by publicly posting the foregoing, I may as well cock the pistol by adding that the whole belief that "facts matter less than opinions" is why 40% of Americans are still young-earth creationists.

The whole thing is exasperating.  At a time when we're in deep economic distress, and the world is facing uprisings, rebellions, and terrorism, we need a leader who has both breadth and depth of knowledge, and an ability to think critically about the problems we face.  What we don't need is someone who talks, and apparently thinks, in folksy sound-bites, and can't even get things straight in those. 

Simply put, whatever his/her stance is on the issues, I don't trust any candidate for president who apparently has a poorer knowledge of American history than my 11th grade students.  But I fear that I am in the minority.  And I think the specter of a Palin/Bachmann GOP ticket is all too possible.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Open season on Snorky

I know that there are many important things in the world I could be blogging about today.  I could be devoting my writing to the relief effort in Japan.  I could be posting about the current military operation in Libya, Operation Odyssey Dawn (the name of which made me wonder if the powers-that-be have actually read The Odyssey -- naming our actions in Libya after a book in which the hero wanders around the Mediterranean for ten years looking for friends, and all of the soldiers he brought along with him end up dying, seems like asking for trouble). 

But no.  My topic for the day is:  why the hell do I have the theme song from The Banana Splits stuck in my head?

For those of you who are too young to remember the 60s, or who were, shall we say, otherwise occupied at the time, The Banana Splits was a short-lived and rather ill-conceived Saturday morning cartoon.  It ran, insofar as I can remember, on the variety-show model, with a number of short clips (both animated and live-action), music, and so forth.  It was hosted by a foursome of actors in animal suits (the eponymous "Banana Splits") -- Fleegle the dog, Snorky the elephant, Bingo the gorilla, and Drooper the lion.  It was, in a word, weird.  It is second only to "H. R. Pufnstuf" as being the trippiest Saturday morning cartoon ever aired.  (And for those of you who haven't heard of this amazingly freaky cartoon, the only way I can give you a flavor for it is to imagine what would happen if J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a script for an episode of Barney and Friends while on LSD.  You think I'm kidding?  Ask anyone over 50.  Or check out the Wikipedia entry, which gives an interesting take on the series, as well as many links to related sites.)

But I digress.

Anyhow, the theme song of The Banana Splits -- whose lyrics I kindly won't share, partly out of consideration for my readers and partly because the bit of it that is currently whirling around in my brain consists mostly of "la la la" -- is one of the worst earworms in the world.  An earworm, as defined by psychologist James Kellaris, is a song, jingle, or fragment thereof, which gets lodged inside your skull and will never ever ever leave, even if you try to remove it using an electric drill and a shop-vac, until finally you go completely and totally MAD AND BEGIN TO FROTH AT THE MOUTH AND START CALLING ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS WHO ARE HUNTERS AND ASKING THEM IF THEY WOULD HAVE AN ETHICAL PROBLEM WITH KILLING AN ELEPHANT NAMED "SNORKY" EVEN THOUGH ELEPHANTS ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.

Whoa, sorry, got a little carried away, there.  And perhaps I exaggerate a tad.  Even the most annoying earworm will eventually leave, but often only because it's been supplanted by an even worse one.  So once I have the theme song from The Banana Splits out of my head, who knows what musical adventures I have to look forward to?  Maybe "Copacabana."  Or "Benny and the Jets."  Or the "Kit-Kat" jingle ("Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar.")  There are so many my brain can choose from!  I can hardly wait!

The worst of it is considering what a waste of mental energy this must be.  When I think of the amount of brain space I'm currently devoting to keeping "la la la, la-la la la, la la la, la-la la la" ricocheting off the inside of my skull, it just makes me depressed.  I could be writing a symphony, coming up with a Grand Unified Field Theory, solving world hunger, or figuring out why President Obama has suddenly turned into Dubya Lite.  But no.  I'm sitting here, going "la la la."  And worse yet, writing about it.

Good lord, I just realized something.  Now I've infected all of you.  I'm really sorry about that, truly I am.  And if all of you go out and infect others, it'll be... it'll be.. a pandemic!  Bananasplitsitis!  US productivity will grind to a halt!  (The Russians and Chinese are immune, because during the 60s they were too busy having Cultural Revolutions and Great Leaps Forward and Sputniks and Missile Crises to come up with pointless, psychedelic cartoons.)  World markets will collapse.  Pandemonium will ensue.  And it will all be my fault.

Wow.  I feel just awful about this.  I think I need to lay low this morning, just to recover from the guilt feelings.  Find something to take my mind off all the trouble I've caused.  Maybe relax, daydream a little.  Daydream about... about a magic land... where everything is alive!  Filled with whimsy and weirdness!  Where the mayor is a brightly-colored dinosaur!

Ahem... "H. R. Pufnstuf, where'd'ya go when things get rough, H. R. Pufnstuf, you can't do a little 'cause you can't do enough..."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's just a sad song that pulls you along...

A student who took my Brain & Senses class last year just sent me a link to a Tufts University study, with the note, "I think you'll find this interesting."  I'd say that was an understatement.  But before I tell you about the study, a brief bit of background.

I have been fascinated ever since I can remember with music's capacity for evoking emotion, and in particular, the universality of the phenomenon.  What is it about minor keys that conveys sadness, and major keys that conveys happiness?  It's a consistent pattern throughout western cultures and genres.  If you really want to make people reach for the kleenex box, whether you're writing rock, country, Celtic, French lounge music, or Bulgarian love songs, put your music in a minor key.

This has a huge effect on choices in background music in movies and television.  Two students from my AP Biology class two years ago used this as the inspiration for their final lab project.  They took the same video clip -- some guys crawling across a field on their hands and knees -- and showed it to three groups of students.  In the first group, the clip had no background music.  In the second, the music was dark, minor key.  In the third, it was upbeat, bouncy, and major key.  They then asked the students questions such as, "why were the guys in the clip crawling in the field?", "who were the guys?", and "what emotion was evoked by the clip?"  They were also asked to note anything else about the clip they noticed.

The results were fascinating, if not surprising.  In the first group, the students largely expressed puzzlement about what was going on in the clip, and why.  Most of the second group believed the guys were soldiers in war time, commando-crawling across a field to keep from getting killed.  The third group thought the guys were playing a game -- manhunt, perhaps -- just "fooling around."  Intriguingly, there were members of the second group who thought the clip was slowed down -- and the third group thought it was sped up!  To me, however, the most interesting thing was the bafflement of the first group, who watched the clip without music, and couldn't figure out what was going on.   It's as if the background music doesn't just set a mood, it actually conveys information about what we're experiencing.

All of which is just meant as a setup for telling you about the Tufts study.  The lead researcher, Meagan Curtis, has found something intriguing -- that music's ability to communicate meaning applies not only to actual music, but to spoken language, as well.

Curtis' group used sound recordings of two-syllable words or phrases like "all right," "okay," and "let's go," and determined the pitch interval between the two syllables.  They then played the recordings for test subjects, and asked the subjects to evaluate the utterances for emotional content.  (You can listen to some of the recordings here.)

Curtis found that descending minor thirds and minor seconds were associated with sadness; ascending minor seconds and either ascending or descending diminished fifths with anger; and either ascending or descending major seconds, perfect fourths, and perfect fifths as conveying positive emotions such as happiness or pleasure.

What I find most astonishing about this is how consistent these findings are.  The ethnic origin of the test subject didn't seem to matter; nor did age, gender, or any other obvious demographic.  There is something about musical intervals that conveys meaning, and it works across just about every group -- leading me to wonder if it might not be hard-wired into the brain.  But how?  And why?  It's certain that picking up social cues in language is pretty critical, and having it encoded this way -- through musical intervals rather than actual phonetic content -- is a much less language-specific, and thus more potentially universal, way to do it.  But how on earth could such a thing be wired into the human brain?

I wonder how this perception affects the use of tonality in tonal languages, such as Mandarin and Thai, in which pitch changes within a word communicate meaning.  Do they use minor-key tonal intervals for negative words, and major-key intervals for positive words?  I know almost nothing about Asian languages, so it really is just an idle speculation -- but it would be an interesting thing to look into.

Of course, it then brings up a deeper question, of the chicken-and-egg variety; which came first, our perception of minor key music as sad, or our perception of a minor interval in spoken language as conveying negative emotions?  Given Curtis' study, I would strongly suspect the latter.  We know for certain that music is a very, very old phenomenon, confirmed by the recent discovery of a flute made out of bone that dates from the time of the Neanderthals.  It appears that the capacity for using music to evoke emotion is something that is so fundamental that it not only has driven every known culture to make music -- it directs how we communicate emotion even in our spoken language.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Being a fanatical birder, I belong to several birding listservs.  One of them is the Cayuga Basin bird listserv, which posts regional sightings for the benefit of other birders in the area.  A couple of days ago, the following message appeared:

"Heard/saw EAPH today -- my FOY -- is this FIB?"

Most people, upon reading this, might be excused if they responded, "Heard/saw what you WROTE today -- my WORD -- is this ENGLISH?"

In fact, of course, it is English.  The individual who posted this was using abbreviations.  Translated, it says, "Heard/saw an Eastern Phoebe today -- it was my first of the year -- is this the first in the (Cayuga) Basin?"

Although I understood what the person wrote, it did cross my mind to wonder why he felt the need to write it that way.  Did he think he was being charged by the letter, or something?  The four-letter bird codes, such as EAPH for Eastern Phoebe, were designed primarily to give a standard shorthand for cataloguing things such as bird song recordings.  As such, they act a little like SKU codes for produce -- they are handy for keeping track of inventory, but they were never meant for common conversation.  If you said over breakfast, "Wow, this 4011 is a little overripe," your family might look at you a little oddly.

Which brings up the topic of jargon.  I define jargon as meaning "specialist vocabulary that is meant to deliberately conceal meaning from outsiders."  To me, the four-letter bird codes that people throw around in posts on listservs are clearly jargon.  They add nothing to the clarity of the post; they make it harder for beginners to understand and participate in discussions; and they give an air of being in the know without actually providing anything additional in the way of information.

It's often hard, however, to see when scientific language crosses the line into jargon.  Scientists do use specialized vocabulary, and when it is used well, it clarifies the situation rather than muddying the waters further.  To give a fairly simple example, when I tell my biology classes that botanists use the word "fruit" differently than cooks do, to mean "whatever develops from the ovary of the flower, and contains the seed(s)," it points up something fundamental and (hopefully) interesting about nature.  The word "fruit," then, becomes a word whose scientific meaning is more clear and precise than its common meaning.  (Although it can be counterintuitive; a zucchini and a cucumber are both fruits, although they're not sweet, and rhubarb is not a fruit, although it's delicious in pies.)

On the other hand, consider the following example, which I found by randomly pulling a copy of the magazine Nature from my bookshelf.  It's the conclusion sentence in an article on neurology.

"Whether applied in basic science or clinical application, the spectral separation between the NpHR and ChR2 activation maxima permits both sufficiency and necessity testing in elucidation of the roles of specific cell types in high-speed intact circuit function; indeed, integration of GFP-based probes and fura-2 with the NpHR/ChR2 neural control system delivers a powerful and complementary triad of technologies to identify, observe, and control intact living neural circuitry with light."

Now, to point out a couple of things here:  first, I'm a biology teacher, and teach (amongst other things) an introductory neurology course, and I haven't the vaguest idea what that sentence means.  Second, I didn't select this sentence for its lack of clarity.  I scanned the article, and if anything, the rest of it is worse -- as the conclusion of the article, the authors seemed to be trying to sum up the punch line of their research as concisely and cogently as possible.

The fault, of course, is not entirely with the authors.  I'm a generalist, not a specialist, both by nature and by training.  Reading stuff like this makes me even more convinced that I'd never have had the brains, or the focus, to survive in the rarified air of academic research.

But you do have to wonder how much of it is a deliberate attempt to conceal, to keep scientific knowledge in the realm of the initiates.  During my brief stint as a graduate student in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Washington, I was horrified by the disdain that the professors and most of the graduate students had for popularizers -- for people like Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, who bring science to the masses.  One of the professors, I recall, made the statement, "I have made a practice of never accepting a graduate student who mentions Jacques Cousteau in his interview."  Well, whoop-de-doo, doesn't that make you a cut above?  I wonder how many people have been inspired to study the oceans because of reading your scientific journal articles?

Myself, I think you never lose by making an understanding of the natural world as accessible as possible, and you lose little of its wonder and complexity in so doing.  I could make my students memorize all of the steps of the Krebs Cycle, but I firmly maintain that they understand it far more deeply when I compare it to a merry-go-round where at every turn, two kids get on and two kids get off.  Le Chatelier's Principle is like the chemistry version of a teeter-totter.  Photorespiration in plants in dry climates is like living in a state with high property taxes; you can solve the resulting cash flow problem two ways, CAM (getting a better job) or C4 (moving to a state with lower taxes).  And so on.

Of course, to any scientists amongst my readership, I've now probably painted myself as hopelessly shallow-minded.  To which I respond:  oh, well.  Guilty as charged.  But at least I don't look through my binoculars, and say, "Wow!  Look at that EAPH!  It's my FOY!"

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Hello, pot...?"

Today, we have two cases of mystics pointing fingers at other mystics for being mystics.

From the Balkans, we have a story of an Orthodox monk, known only as Brother Visarion.  Visarion lives in the Greek community of Mount Athos, but was born and raised in Bulgaria; and it is in his homeland that he has raised a storm of controversy in his new book, Peter Danov and Vanga: Prophets and Precursors of the Antichrist.

Peter Danov was the founder of the White Brotherhood, which preached the unity of man and nature, and was revered by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Jiddu Krishnamurti.  Vanga, on the other hand, was a blind psychic whose healing powers were apparently legendary across Bulgaria.  Both, Visarion claims, are occult figures, "tortured by dark forces," and are to be reviled, not revered.

A priest from Vanga's home town of Petrich, whose name was not mentioned in my source, has responded to Visarion's statement with outrage.  "Vanga was a holy woman," he said.  "Her gift was from God.  She should be canonized."

Undaunted, Visarion shot back, "Instead of explaining to people what fortune-tellers, magicians and psychics are and that these incidents are renounced by God, he (the priest) is trying to set evil as an example."

Then we have the story of the current campaign by the Raelians to undermine Christianity.  

The International Raelian Movement has apparently purchased a huge billboard near a freeway in Las Vegas, and put up the words, "GOD IS A MYTH," to the general outrage of the Las Vegas Christian community.

Some of you may be questioning why I'm commenting upon this in a post on mysticism, and wondering why, in fact, I'm not cheering them on.  If so, you must not know who the Raelians are.

The Raelians, it turns out, are themselves a church, although some more orthodox believers would probably object to my using that word to describe them.  The whole things was dreamed up in 1973 by an auto-racing journalist named Claude Vorilhon.  The basic tenet of the Raelians is that life on earth was created by an advanced race of extraterrestrials called "The Elohim" (you might recognize that word as one of the Hebrew words for god; that, say the Raelians, is no coincidence).  From this, they deduce that (1) there are other universes inside atoms, (2) world governments should be handed over to people with genius-level IQs, (3) the resurrection of Jesus will be accomplished by cloning, (4) you should have sex as often as possible and with as many people as possible, and (5) both men and women should go shirtless whenever the weather is warm.

Notwithstanding that most guys would be supportive of (5), I think the majority of people would read this list, and say, "These people are a bunch of wingnuts."  Me, I'm thinking, "they criticize the Christians for having wacky beliefs?  Seriously?"

So basically, what we have here is two cases of people who, with no apparent sense of irony, are objecting to the mystical beliefs of others, not because mysticism itself is (by definition) a bunch of claims for which no evidence exists, but because they think the others' weird mystical beliefs aren't as good as their own weird mystical beliefs. 

*ring ring *  "Hello, pot?  This is the kettle.  You're black."  *click*

In my shoes, of course, the whole thing seems crazy.  After reading these stories, I chuckled a little about how bizarre some folks' thought processes can be.  Then I thought about the whole concept of "crusade" and "religious war," and my smile faded a little.  I thought, "it's a good thing that people like this aren't in power."  But then I remembered the fanatics who are heads of state in some countries in the Middle East, and some of the legislators here in the United States who want to use the bible to direct national policy, and I thought, "Maybe some of them already are."  And then I really didn't feel like laughing any more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Writers' marketing

In the last week or so I've been looking for a venue for my other writing, namely, my fiction.

I've written fiction ever since I can remember, starting with some truly dreadful stories when I was in middle school, fortunately none of which have survived, a fact which will probably frustrate my future biographer but for which the rest of us should be extremely grateful.  I have written fairly steadily thereafter, and probably passed the mark of "marginally adequate" when I was about 25, thus proving that if you keep doing something long enough, eventually you get better at it.

I have, at last count, three full-length novels, seven novellas, and six short stories that I consider reasonably good.  I have tried repeatedly to get something published through the traditional route of querying an agent, submitting manuscripts for perusal, waiting 18 months for them to return it with a note that says, in toto, "No thanks," and then going on to the next agent.  At some point I realized that at this rate, I would be 450 years old before I would have even odds of having something published, and I sort of gave it up as a bad job.  As a result, all of my writing is now slowly mildewing in the Black Hole of Calcutta, a.k.a. my bottom desk drawer.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine passed along an article about the new "e-publishing" route, in which authors can upload their work onto a server, and readers can download them for a small fee (think iTunes for writing, and you've got the idea).  My first thought was that it was cheating -- that it was a little like vanity publishing.  My pride rebelled.  Then, realizing that I could keep my pride at the cost of keeping my status as an "unpublished author," I decided to look into it. 

I was surprised at what I found.  Through sites such as Smashwords, Lulu, and PubIt!, authors can submit their work, along with cover art, and actually get their work out there more quickly and effectively than traditional publication.  The author retains all rights, and gets a cut of the proceeds.  Because of the low overhead, the cost to the reader is much less than a printed book (downloads generally run between $0.99 and 5.99).  Some new, previously-unpublished writers have gone viral, and had tens of thousands of downloads.  So that part, naturally, sounds pretty intriguing.

The downside is that the author is also completely responsible for publicity -- I would guess that the great majority of works uploaded to these sites only are downloaded a handful of times, mostly by the author's friends.  And I know about myself that self-promotion is not something I'm very good at, notwithstanding the fact that this entire post is basically self-promotion, which I felt that I should point out before someone else did.

On the other hand, some readings are better than no readings, which is more-or-less where my writing has been for the past fifteen years.  So I've decided to give it a try.  To quote Hilaire Belloc, "When I am dead, I hope it is said, 'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'"  For no particular reason I decided to use Barnes & Noble's service, PubIt!, and this weekend started messing about with cover art for three of my pieces (two of the novellas and the short stories, which I intend to submit as a collection).  This entailed that I learn a little bit about Photoshop, further bumping up the angle of the learning curve on all of this.

The long-and-short of it is that I have three pieces of cover art I'm actually fairly proud of, and am ready to go to the next step, which is to register, write up blurbs for each of the pieces, write an Author's Bio (I'm thinking that it probably needs to say something more than, "Gordon used to really suck as a writer, back when he was in middle school.  Now he doesn't suck quite so much.  We hope you'll agree."). 

After all this, in my opinion, comes the hard part.  How do I sell my work?  I have a couple of ideas, mostly revolving around sending a broadside email to all of my friends saying, "Please please pleeeeeease buy my stories," but I'm suspecting that there's more to marketing than that or otherwise people wouldn't go to college and major in it.  My problem is that of all of the jobs in the world that I'd really hate, "salesperson" would fall somewhere near the top of the list, probably immediately after "cat groomer" and "arctic explorer."  So I'm going to have to give this some thought.

Or maybe just write a blog post ending with "Please please pleeeeeease buy my stories."  $2.99 each, available through PubIt!.  Release date to be announced presently.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A bone to pick

From the news today comes two stories that are interesting mainly in their juxtaposition.

First, the skull of Mary Magdalene is touring California.  I didn't know that skulls went on tours, did you?  I thought only rock bands did that.  Although I have to admit that looking at Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler these days, there may be some overlap.  Be that as it may, the "holy relics" of Mary Magdalene, who was according to the bible the first person to find that Jesus' tomb was empty, are making the rounds, including visiting a penitentiary at Atwater. 

What happened to Mary Magdalene after the biblical account is a matter of some conjecture, but Catholic traditionalists believe that she was imprisoned for a time, and after her release went to France, where she became an itinerant preacher.  She then went to live in a cave at Sainte-Baume, where she lived for thirty more years.

After her death, the story goes, her bones were in the care of monks near Sainte-Baume, and during the Saracen invasion they were hidden so as to protect them from the hands of the heathens.  They were then rediscovered in 1279, were mentioned in a pontifical bull from Pope Boniface VIII, and have been venerated as authentic relics in a monastery ever since. 

Me, I wonder.  It puts me in mind of the whole thing about the "relics of the true cross," about which John Calvin famously quipped that if you put all of the relics of the true cross together, you'd have enough wood to fill a battleship.  A pious 19th century clergyman, Rohault de Fleury, needled by Calvin's claim, set about to estimate the volume of the chips of wood claimed as pieces of the cross, and came up with only four million cubic millimeters, which sounds like a lot, but is actually a cube six inches on a side.  De Fleury's conclusion was, "Ha, Calvin!  Take it!  We showed you!  They are real!"  (I paraphrase slightly.)  However, it must be pointed out that de Fleury included only the ones that he thought were genuine, which is a small fraction of the relics that have been claimed to be pieces of the cross.  In fact, back during the Crusades, there were a couple of chunks in a church in Constantinople that were "as thick as a man's leg and a fathom in length."  So I think I'm to be pardoned if I have some degree of skepticism about the authenticity of the relics of the true cross, the relics of Mary Magdalene, and relics in general.

Now, on to our second story.

In Clearfield, Utah, a man named Robert Casillas-Corrales was booked into Davis County jail after police raided his home and found, in a shed, human skulls and the bones and carcasses of animals. 

No one is alleging that Casillas-Corrales killed the people whose skulls were found on his property; he claims he brought them with him from Cuba, and indeed, they seem to be long dead.  He told police he is a practitioner of Santería, a religion of African origin commonly practiced in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, which holds that the bones of powerful men and women retain their power after death and can be used in rituals.  He claims that he was only using them for good purposes, and that they were part of his religious practice.

Nevertheless, he remains in jail on the charge of desecration of human remains.

Is it just me, or is there some similarity between these two stories?

Okay, now hold on just a second.  Maybe I'm being too hasty, here.  Let's examine the differences.

In the first case, we have a wealthy, powerful group of religious people who are taking human bones around and are using them for religious worship and rituals.  In the second case, we have a poor, relatively powerless group of religious people who are taking human bones around and are using them for religious worship and rituals.

Ah, I get it, I understand now why no one is throwing the Catholics into jail!  Makes perfect sense.

Allow me to go on record as saying that I'm not somehow pro-Santería and anti-Catholic; in fact, I think both beliefs are a little on the sketchy side, and I'd give thanks for my being an atheist except for the fact that I have no idea who to thank.  What struck me is more that the difference has nothing to do with belief -- it has to do with power structure.  The fact that one is perceived as legitimate, even holy, behavior, and the other is perceived as creepy and weird (and worthy of being sent to jail) is not because there is a substantial distinction between the two actions, but because the first one has the backing of one of the most powerful agencies in the world, and the second one does not.

To put it more succinctly:  a religion is a cult with more members.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's a gas!

Two scientists have announced that they have solved the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.

The Bermuda Triangle, for the benefit of the three people in the civilized world who haven't heard of this phenomenon, is the geographical region bounded by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico, in which (according to one website) "an astonishing number of mysterious disappearances have occurred, of both ships and aircraft."

Myself, I thought it had been solved years ago, the solution being that the Bermuda Triangle doesn't exist.  Well, the place exists, but if you look at the actual documented cases of craft disappearances, there is the same loss rate as any other equally traveled, equal-sized blob of ocean.

The problem is, because of the claims by woo-woos of its being a great big mystery, you have the problem of exaggeration or actual faking of the anecdotal evidence.  In fact, the whole preposterous idea was brought to the public's attention by a fellow named Charles Berlitz, who wrote a bestselling book on the subject in 1974.  Berlitz's book, upon examination, is full of sensationalized hype, reports taken out of context, omitted information, and outright lies.  Larry Kusche, whose painstaking collection of data finally proved once and for all that there were proportionally no more ships and planes going down there than anywhere else in the world, said about Berlitz, "If Berlitz were to report that a ship was red, the chances of it being some other color is almost a certainty."

So, I thought that the explanation of the Mystery as being Not Really All That Mysterious was pretty satisfying, and had closed the book on the Bermuda Triangle.  I hardly gave it a second thought as we flew right through the middle of it on our trip to Trinidad last month.

Apparently, however, the Legend Lives On, and Dr. Joseph Monaghan of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his graduate student David May, have written a paper on the subject, and it got accepted to (of all places) The American Journal of Physics.  And their explanation is:

Oceanic flatulence.

Now far be it from me to discount the potentially devastating consequences of toxic flatulence.  I own a dog, Grendel, whose output could solve the world's natural gas shortage.  He has been known to clear a room at one go, all the while wearing an expression of feigned innocence that seems to say, "What?  What's wrong with you guys?  You think that was me?"

Monaghan and May claim that what happens in the Bermuda Triangle is much worse than the canine variety, hard though that may be for anyone who knows Grendel to comprehend.  They claim that what happens there is that the ocean floor is covered with a material called "frozen methane hydrate," which under certain conditions can generate huge methane gas bubbles.  As the bubbles rise, and the pressure of the surrounding seawater becomes less, they expand, displacing more and more water as they go, and when they finally reach the surface, you basically have the Colossal Sea Fart of Doom.  Any ship caught in this situation would clearly capsize and sink; a plane flying through it might have engine failure.

I have three problems, of increasing difficulty, with this theory.

First -- any event like this, where you have a gigantic displacement of water, should generate a tsunami.  If Monaghan and May's ideas are right, every time there has been a disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle, the east coast of Florida should have been hit with a gigantic wave shortly thereafter.  There is no evidence of any such thing.  Even given a bubble that is just big enough to engulf a ship, you would expect some sort of shock wave to propagate outward from the site, and to register with observers on the shore, if not wash them away entirely.

Second, Monaghan and May are acting like frozen methane hydrates are only found in the Bermuda Triangle region, when in fact, it's kind of everywhere on the deep ocean floor.  The lion's share of it is made by anaerobic bacteria called methanogens, which by some estimates are the most numerous organisms on earth.  So if Monaghan and May's theory solves the Bermuda Triangle Mystery, it opens up a bigger question, namely the Entire Ocean Mystery.  If frozen methane hydrate explosions account for the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, why don't we see them happening everywhere?

Third, we must keep coming back to the question of whether there really is a statistically higher disappearance/plane crash/shipwreck rate there than there is anywhere else.  And Kusche and others have concluded that the answer is: no.  So it very much remains to be seen whether there is anything there to explain.

There you have it.  As much as it would appeal to the 7th graders of the world to have a reason to discuss oceanic farts in science class, my feeling is that this one is a non-starter.  So if you were planning on that trip to the Caribbean, there's no particular reason to worry, or to stock up on gas masks or extra-large bottles of Beano.  But perhaps now that Monaghan and May are looking around for new research topics, they can come over and see if they can figure out what Grendel's problem is.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dead ducks, depression, and "Danny Boy"

For the third year in a row, Foley's Irish Pub in New York City has declared a general ban on the singing of "O Danny Boy" on St. Patrick's Day.

Myself, I'm completely in favor of this ban.  "O Danny Boy" has got to be one of the sappiest, smarmiest, most overplayed songs in the world.  With its leaps of a sixth, soaring high notes, and maudlin words, there's nothing like it for catering to the tipsy, misty-eyed Missin' the Auld Sod crowd.

Never mind that it wasn't written by an Irishman.  It was written by an English lawyer, Frederick Edward Weatherly, who not only wasn't Irish but allegedly never even set foot in Ireland.  Apparently many Irish (and Irish wannabees) don't know this or don't care, because it's become de rigueur on St. Patrick's Day.

Not, however, in Foley's Pub.  Owner Sean Clancy (which sounds a wee bit more Irish than "Frederick Edward Weatherly," doesn't it now?), a native of County Cavan, is so heartily sick of "O Danny Boy" that he'll give a free pint of Guinness to anyone who sings an Irish song for the patrons of his pub on St. Patrick's Day -- with the exception of "O Danny Boy."

According to Clancy, "It's overplayed, it's been ranked amongst the 25 most depressing songs of all time, and it's more appropriate for a funeral than for a St. Patrick's Day celebration."

To which I say, "Hear, hear."  Well, except for the fact that most Irish songs are kinda depressing.  Lessee, what will we sing instead?  How about "Four Green Fields:"

"There was war and death, plundering and pillage,
My children starved, by mountain, valley, and sea,
And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens,
My four green fields ran red with their blood, said she."

Yeah, that'd be uplifting.  How 'bout "Nell Flaherty's Drake?"

"May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig,
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail;
May his turkey not hatch, may the rats eat his meal
May every old fairy from Cork to Dunleary
Dip him, smug and airy, in river and lake,
That the eel and the trout, they may dine on the snout
Of the monster who murdered Nell Flaherty's drake."

Lovely.  Dead ducks and fish nibbling on drowning victims.  Happy St. Paddy's!  Here, have a pint!

Okay, how about "Two Sisters?"  That at least has a nice, swingy little reel as its melody:

"The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, sing-I-down, sing-I-day,
The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, the boys are bound for me,
The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, the eldest sister was boiled in lead,
I'll be true unto my love, if he'll be true to me."

Makes me homesick for the Auld Country, it does.  Especially when you know that what had preceded this verse is that the eldest sister was jealous of the youngest, who had attracted the attentions of a man (predictably named "Johnny"), so the eldest sister had pushed the youngest into the mill stream.  The miller ran afoul of the law when he pulled the youngest sister out of the water, "stole her gay gold ring," and then pushed her in again.

Ah, the charms of Celtic music.

It seems that the Irish are just completely unable to write a song that's not depressing.  Even "Cockles and Mussels," the bouncy and perky unofficial theme song of Dublin, is about a beautiful fishmonger who gets a fever and dies.  I guess, given their rather horrid history, it's understandable; if your country had been oppressed and starved for six hundred years by a foreign power, your leaders shot, hanged, or exiled, your religion, language, and culture the subject of a campaign of eradication, you'd be a little bitter, too.

Still, you have to wonder why these songs remain so popular.  The tunes are nice, catchy, and easy to remember, that's got to be part of it.  But I think it's more than that.  Maybe it's the consolation that comes from knowing that however miserable your life is, there are people who have it worse.  Consider "On We Go," set to a beautiful minor-key reel, whose lyrics are about an old woman and an old man.  The gist of it is that the old woman gets her husband drunk and drowns him in the pond.  Perhaps the line of reasoning is, "Well, you know, maybe we Irish have been oppressed for centuries, but at least my wife hasn't drowned me yet."

So today, when you raise a pint in honor of Ireland, and sing, "... the summer's gone, and all the leaves are dying, 'tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide... So come ye back, when summer's in the meadow, or when the valley's hushed and white with snow; and I'll be there, in sunshine or in shadow, O Danny Boy, O Danny Boy, I love you so," you can remember that (1) it's spring and the flowers haven't even started yet, and (2) anyone who went by the nickname "Danny Boy" had to be kind of a git anyway.  Oh, yes, and (3) you have made it through another day without being boiled in lead, your significant other drowning you, the fields running red with your blood, or an eel eating your nose.

So drink up, and Happy St. Paddy's.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reality check

fiction (n.) /fik-shin/ Something invented by the imagination; something feigned; esp. an invented story.

That, courtesy of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, because it is becoming increasingly apparent that more than a few people need a refresher course in the distinction.

A recent survey, conducted in Britain (and I hasten to add that I strongly suspect that the Brits are far from unique in this regard), shows that we're having some difficulty, as a species, in remembering that movies aren't real.  Some of the results:
  • 20% of the people surveyed thought that light sabers exist.
  • 1 in 4 believe in human teleportation.
  • Almost 50% believe that there is currently technology that can selectively erase memory.
  • 40% think that hoverboards exist.
All of which come from obvious sources in movies, and none of which explain one additional one, which is just bizarre:
  • 1/5 of the respondents believe that they can see gravity.
It's a constant source of trouble, to me personally as a science teacher, that as movies (and specifically CGI effects) become more and more skilfully done, people become more and more convinced that what they're seeing is real.  People seem to vanish, fly, levitate, shoot electricity from their hands, walk through walls, and so on.  It all looks pretty convincing -- and in a really good movie, you should buy into the world you're in while you're sitting there.  One of my most common criticisms of movies is that I wasn't able to make that suspension of disbelief, that I couldn't get my mind to stay put in the movie's world -- that I kept saying, "Oh, come on.  That couldn't happen."

Of course, what's supposed to occur when the lights come up is you stand up, shake the popcorn crumbs off your clothing, and say, "Back to the real world."  Which can be jarring, sometimes.  I still remember one of my smartest and best students sitting down in my class and declaring, "Whenever I watch Harry Potter movies, I can barely stand to come to this place."  I get that -- it's hard for me to compete with rotating staircases, talking paintings, and teachers who can do magic.  But as hard as it is, you have to come back eventually.

Evidently, though, some people never do.  It's hard for me to fathom, but then I think about all of the fictions that people believe wholeheartedly, and it becomes more apparent that it's the truth, if not substantially more comprehensible.  Young-earth creationism, for example, is as much a fictional account of the universe as the one in Star Wars -- sorry to put it that bluntly, but the science is incontrovertible -- and yet people hang on to that one with a vehemence that astonishes me.  I've gotten death threats for teaching evolution, and after the immediate fear-reaction diminishes, I sit back and think, "Really?  You're threatening me because I don't take a mythological creation story and pretend that it's science?"

Why do people believe weird things?  One of my heroes, the prominent skeptic Michael Shermer, has written a book about it, called, appropriately enough, Why People Believe Weird Things.  It should be required reading in every science curriculum, world-wide.  It analyzes the origins of pseudoscientific thought, and then takes a look at a number of specific examples (and yes, young-earth creationism is one of them).  If you haven't read this book, you should.  Everyone should.

Now, what to do about it?  Well, one solution to believing that what happens in movies, novels, and plays is real is to go see the current musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, in which you will have no problem disbelieving everything that goes on, because none of the technology works right, resulting in Spidey using his superhuman powers to fly straight into walls, miss his landings, fall off stage sets, and, in one real case, hang upside down from the rigging wires for fifteen minutes while the tech crew tried to figure out how to get him down.

Failing that, the only answer is education.  We have to be taught to discern real from unreal; it certainly isn't something we're born to.  Without the skills of critical thinking, we not only get hoodwinked by plausible fictions, we fall prey to every charlatan and flim-flam artist out there.  If we don't start putting more emphasis on thinking, in every discipline, every classroom, and every school, we've no one but ourselves to blame if kids grow up thinking that hoverboards are real and that gravity is visible - and believing in other bizarre, non-scientific views of the universe.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Neither here nor there

Yesterday, one of Skeptophilia's chief investigative reporters, whom I will refer to only by her code name of Cria Havoc so as not to compromise her activities in the field, brought to my attention a breaking news story about a University of Hartford archaeologist who is claiming to have discovered Atlantis.

Atlantis, you will recall, is the fabled island mentioned in two dialogues by Plato.  Plato states that the island was the land that was bequeathed to Poseidon, and lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, thus pointing out its location using not just one, but two, fictional deities.  It's a little as if I gave directions to my house by saying, "Take a left at Thor's castle - we're the white Cape Cod just past the cave where Cerberus guards the Gates of Hell."

Of course, this hasn't stopped people from arguing incessantly about its location.  I suppose if you need a hobby, debating the exact GPS coordinates of a place that (1) no one has seen, (2) no one has any evidence for, and (3) probably doesn't exist, is as entertaining as any.  Prior to these recent discoveries, the two leading hypotheses were that Atlantis was somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of present-day Ireland, or near the Greek island of Thera, which was destroyed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in around 1500 BCE.

This sounds a little spurious right from the get-go.  I mean, Thera and Ireland aren't exactly next-door neighbors.   If I came to you and said, "I know exactly where Blackbeard's treasure is!  It's either in Pensacola, Florida or Penobscot, Maine!  Or possibly Nebraska!" you would be right to feel a degree of skepticism.  So I think we're to be excused if we're doubtful about Atlantis' existence, given that even the diehard believers have no idea where it supposedly is.  Or was.  Or whatever.

On the other hand, there have been times when a story that was thought to be myth has proven to be factually accurate.  Okay, there was that one time, at least.  I'm thinking, of course, of Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy using the clues from Homer's Iliad.  There's a difference, though, between Homer, who described epic battles involving cities that are known to have existed, and a couple of mentions of a mythical island paradise in Plato's dialogues.  Right?

Enter Richard Freund.  My informant Ms. Havoc sent me a link to a story (here) describing how Freund and his team, using satellite images, have located what they think is the ruins of an ancient city, submerged in the wetlands that are now Doñana National Park in southern Spain.  The alleged ruins do lie reasonably close to Gibraltar, which most people think are the Pillars of Hercules that Plato mentioned, so the theory has at least that much going for it.  Some of the ruins seem to be offshore, and Atlantis, of course, met its doom when one of the gods smote it and it "sank beneath the waves in a single day."

It's the downfall of Atlantis that captures the imagination, and even I have to admit that it's a pretty dramatic story.  If you've read any Greek mythology, however, you will discover that this sort of thing was quite commonplace.  The ancient Greeks were constantly having the crap smitten out of them by some god or another, which is probably why you see so few ancient Greeks around any more.

In any case, I have no serious doubt that Freund has found some cool ruins of an ancient city.  Even so, this doesn't vindicate the whole Atlantis legend, because Plato didn't say that Atlantis was a city along the coast of Spain -- he said that it was an island, "larger than Libya and Asia together," with mountains that "soared to the sky," which is hardly the same thing.  That the city Freund discovered might have given rise to the legend, I can perhaps believe; that it proves the whole legend to be true is a bit of an overstatement.  And given that Freund is now being featured in a new National Geographic documentary called Finding Atlantis, the whole thing has the hallmarks of a publicity stunt.

So, the bottom line is, Atlantis as described by Plato probably didn't exist.  In fact, his mention of the alleged continent would likely have escaped the notice of all but a few philosophy majors, had it not been for two people.  One was Ignatius Donnelly, a huckster and politician of the late 19th century, who wrote Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, the single volume that has become the bible for Atlanteans worldwide.  The second, much as I hate to admit it, was J. R. R. Tolkien, whose tales of the land of Númenor have been considered widely (by people who don't understand the definition of the word "fiction") to be an account of the real history of the Lost Island.

So, all of this leads us right back to where we started.  Ruins of the ancient world are pretty common.  So are myths.  Sometimes myths have a grain of truth to them, and sometimes they don't, which is a good thing, because although Homer got the location of Troy basically right, he completely missed the mark in claiming that there is a horrible six-headed monster guarding the Straits of Messina, which if it had been true would have been a serious inconvenience for cruise ships.  So I'm still casting a jaundiced eye at the whole "we've discovered Atlantis!" thing.  It'll be interesting to see what turns up when they start poking around at Doñana, but I'm doubting that they'll find anything that I would consider hard evidence.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The-Puppy-Is-Cuter Syndrome

Our friends Alex and Nancy just got a new puppy.  This puppy, whose name is Georgia Rose, is a labradoodle, a breed that simply oozes cuteness.  This is a puppy whose cuteness level is such that, had Joseph Stalin seen her, he would have taken a break from enslaving Eastern Europe to sit on the kitchen floor and tickle her under the chin, saying "Awwww... widdums widdums widdums."

All of this has had the effect of making me look a little askance at my own two dogs.  Our border collie, Doolin, is far too smart for her own good, or anyone else's, and thinks she is in charge of the entire household.  She worries constantly, can't sit still, and is generally a walking encyclopedia of doggy neuroses.  Our other dog, Grendel, looks like a genetics experiment gone horribly wrong.  He has the muzzle of a boxer, the eyes of a pug, the build of a pitbull, the coloration of a German shepherd, and the tail of a husky.  If Mary Shelley had written about dogs, she would have come up with something like Grendel.

So, to summarize:  Alex and Nancy have a dog who looks like the main character in a children's story called "Precious the Puppy Finds a New Home;" we have Dr. Caninestein and Her Monster.

I know this is unfair, and I must state for the record that I don't love our dogs any less because of it.  And I can reassure myself in the knowledge that I am hardly the only person who has felt this way when looking at the lives other people lead.  It's so common that psychologists have a name for it.  They call it the "Grass-Is-Greener Syndrome" -- and it applies to way more than just dogs.

A couple of psychologists, David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman, studied this phenomenon, and found out just how universal this perception is.  They asked students at colleges in the Midwest to assess their own happiness, and the imagined happiness of students at colleges in California.  Across the board, the Midwestern students thought the Californian students would be happier -- the greater natural beauty, better climate, and greater (perceived) cultural opportunities were all cited as reasons.  In fact, in actual assessments of satisfaction, the students in the Midwest and in California averaged the same scores.

Other studies have confirmed this -- one by Gilbert et al. showed that college faculty members, when asked to predict their happiness levels if they got tenure, were strikingly inaccurate at doing so -- the ones who were happy pre-tenure were, relatively speaking, still pretty happy folks whether or not they received tenure, and the unhappy ones stayed unhappy even if they received full professorships.

In my own case, I go through this kind of thing every winter.  Being a southerner, borne of ancestry from the temperate climes of the Mediterranean, I begin to dread the oncoming upstate New York cold starting some time in mid-August.  I whine to my poor, long-suffering wife incessantly, usually ending with, "... if we only lived somewhere warm.  *heavy sigh*"  What the aforementioned studies show is that basically, I would still be a grouchy curmudgeon even if I lived in the Florida Keys, which I suppose will trigger a different kind of Grass-Is-Greener Syndrome in my wife.

Honestly, I know that switching things up isn't the answer.  A woman I have known for years seems to think that's the answer -- and as a result, has moved more times than I can keep track of, and has had about twelve different jobs.  Each time, the next place, the next job, is going to be "the right one."  And I don't believe she's a bit happier now than she was twenty years ago.  While I do my share of complaining, her answer to the problem is not one I'd want to copy.

Truthfully, I'm pretty satisfied with my life.  I have a wonderful (and tolerant) spouse, a great job, opportunities to play music with some amazing musicians, a nice house in a beautiful part of the country.  If it's colder than I like, well, nowhere is perfect, and the other aspects of being here are pretty cool.  Even if my dogs are more suited to a science fiction novel than they would be to a children's picture book.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquakes and supermoons

Like many people, during the last 24 hours I have been glued to the images and videos coming out of Japan.  The devastation wreaked by the 8.9-magnitude earthquake is surreal -- burning buildings being swept along by the tsunami, roads split right down the center line, a barge spinning in a whirlpool.  My heart goes out to the people of Japan who are now facing the overwhelming work of picking up the pieces, healing the injured, rebuilding the homes, burying the dead.

At times like this, people look for answers.  Why did the earthquake occur there?  Why was it so strong?  Was there something scientists could have done to predict it, to warn people?  Unfortunately, our knowledge of tectonic geology is just not refined enough to predict accurately where a fault zone will slip.  Japan is a highly active place, seismically -- it is an island arc raised by the movement of the Pacific Plate underneath the Eurasian Plate, and this movement causes not only earthquakes, but volcanism.  Japan is prone to both, for the same reason that Indonesia, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Caribbean are.

But that's not enough for some people.  There are people who don't just need reasons, they need Reasons.  They need, somehow, to connect tragedies like this one to Great Doings in the Cosmos, to give the impression that it's all part of some meaningful pattern.

Enter Richard Nolle, an astrologer, who has publicized the claim that the earthquake was due to an "extreme supermoon."

A "supermoon" occurs because the moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, and so it is sometimes closer to the Earth, and sometimes further away.  The point at which it reaches its nearest approach (the lunar perigee) is independent of the phases of the moon, which have to do with the angle made by the sun/earth/moon system.

Occasionally, of course, the moon will be full when it's at its perigee.  This happens regularly, if infrequently.  This is a "supermoon."  And Richard Nolle says that it's bad news -- he predicted a few weeks ago that when the next supermoon occurs, on March 19, we'll have earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and storms, your washing machine will go off balance, your mortgage check will bounce, and your cat will puke up a hairball on the rug.

Okay, I made the last part up.  But what Nolle proposes is about as ridiculous.  There is no connection between the lunar perigee and geologic events -- the increase in the moon's gravitational pull at perigee is negligible.  A connection between earthquakes and the lunar phases has been proposed -- since most fault systems are under water, a tenuous connection might be made between fault slippage and tides, but research has shown that any increase in geological activity because of the movement of the oceans during the tides is 1% or less.

What bothers me is that Nolle is now pointing to the Japanese earthquake as vindication of his claim.  Never mind that it occurred on March 11, and the moon is still nine days away from full, and about a quarter of a revolution away from perigee.  If you believe in pseudoscience, you have no need to let paltry trivia such as the facts get in the way.

All of this, however, is a small matter as compared with the actual reality of what the Japanese people are going through.  It is tempting, at times like this, to try and see a deeper meaning in it all, to try to connect what happened with the universe as a whole, to try to make it make sense.  The scary truth is that it doesn't make sense -- things like this happen, and it remains for us not to waste time trying to explain them, but to open our hearts and help the survivors put their lives back together.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Another modest proposal

Yesterday, I posted about my reaction to the passage of the Wisconsin bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights, and I explained why I thought this would have devastating results, especially on schools.

Well.  You'd have thought I'd proposed solving the world's overpopulation and famine problems simultaneously by having poor people eat their children.  Admittedly, I had a good many positive responses, but also some violently negative ones, including one which said, and I quote, "Teachers' unions and the tenure system are destroying public education in America.  It's creating a workforce of teachers who don't give a damn about quality teaching, and are just putting in their time until early retirement with full benefits."

I won't even address the factual inaccuracies of that statement, which are, I hope, abundantly clear.  However, this has spurred me to answer the anti-union crowd's rhetoric with a modest proposal of my own, to wit:

If you want to hold me accountable for the academic success of my students, and tie my job retention or my salary, or both, to student test scores, then allow me to fire underperforming students.

That's the "business model" that so many of these folks tout, isn't it?  Chock full of personal responsibility and the Get-Ahead Motive That Made America Great?  If an employee can't be bothered to get up off his lazy ass and do his job, fire him -- there are plenty other qualified candidates who'd love to have his job.  Same should be true of quality education, right?

Note that I am not talking about students with legitimate academic difficulties, nor even about the earnest but hapless types who honestly want to be in class, and are interested in the subjects being taught, but sometimes can't get out of their own way long enough to turn in assignments.  Heaven knows my own children fell into both of those groups at times.  No, I'm talking about the small minority of students -- in my experience, under ten percent -- who don't give a damn about school, do the bare minimum (if that), and cause as much trouble for teachers and other students along the way as they can manage to do.

A few examples.  Names have obviously been withheld, and details occasionally modified, to obscure the identities of these individuals.

1)  The young man who had a 14% in my class, and whose father said he wasn't successful because I wasn't "challenging him enough."

2)  The girl who, as far as I could tell, copied every single assignment she turned in, and in fact copied the answers on the first quiz from her neighbor, not realizing that I create two versions of every quiz, with scrambled answers.  She got a zero on the quiz, and then had the temerity to demand to know why she'd gotten a zero and her neighbor had gotten an 85% "when our answers are exactly the same."

3)  The young lady who is so savvy about our school's attendance policy, which will only drop you for non-attendance if you miss twenty consecutive days of school, that she has been known to skip nineteen days in a row and show up on the twentieth so she won't be expelled.  She is the current record-holder for the lowest overall grade in a class in my 24 year career -- a 3%.

4)  The boy who showed up stoned to class every single day, and whose mother said, at a parent conference, "Well, I know my son is having academic difficulties, but at least I'm happy to say that he's never used drugs."  This statement was met with stunned silence, followed by the counselor saying to the parents, "We need to talk privately."  Mom, when confronted with the facts, wouldn't hear of it, and refused to have her son drug-tested.  Three weeks later he was caught with marijuana on a school-sponsored field trip.

And so on.

Again, it must be said that this kind of kid constitutes a very small minority, but it's that small minority that causes the vast majority of the discipline problems schools deal with.  They also skew the standardized test scores, dropout rates, and every other metric applied to schools.  How is it fair that I'm somehow responsible for the 3% average of the student who can't be bothered to show up?

You want to tie my wages and job security to success rate -- allow me to tell the kids who don't give a damn to go out and get a dose of reality, maybe come back when they've discovered that you can't get anywhere in life if you're an uneducated dolt.  Let me change the attitude of students and parents to what it is in many other parts of the world -- that education is a privilege, not a right, that it is something to be cherished, not hurled back into the faces of the people who are working tirelessly to make learning exciting and relevant.

And until such time as that happens, don't come to me with nonsense about how the public education system in America is failing to educate students, and blather on about how "teaching is the only profession where you get paid the same thing regardless of whether you succeed or fail at your job."  Don't make the absurd claim that school funding should be based on student success on a single standardized test.

And dammit, don't try to strip me of my right to have a say in my own working conditions.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Schools, unions, and Scott Walker

The bill, proposed by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to strip government employees of their collective bargaining rights is now on a smooth road to passage.  Similar, but less well-publicized, bills are on the table in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, and other states.

The whole thing has been spun as a blow in favor of fiscal responsibility, to break the power of corrupt labor union bosses, and to allow administrators to fire inept workers without having to consider seniority.  I'd like to cast the whole thing in a different light -- that these laws are bringing about a dangerous shift in the balance of power, and the results, especially for public schools, will be devastating.

First of all, let me state one thing up front; I have no lack of awareness of the fiscal situation.  Between the recession, and years of poor management, many states are in dire situations.  There's no doubt that some level of economic austerity is a necessity.

Stripping workers of their rights, however, isn't the way to accomplish this.

In my own school district, we've seen state revenue decline every year I've been here.  We've had layoffs four years in a row, and are facing more this year.  In New York State we are required to use a LIFO system -- last in, first out -- it can even come down to where your name fell on the school board agenda the day your hiring was approved.  Fine, qualified teachers have lost their jobs because of this; but what other system would be fair?

"Merit, of course," is the usual response; but there the waters get deeper.  Merit by whose standards?  How do you quantify good teaching?  Does the fact that currently in one of my elective classes, 30% of the students are failing, mean I'm a bad teacher?  Does the fact that in the class immediately following that one, 100% of the students have a grade above 85%, mean that in the three-minute passing time between the two classes, I suddenly figured out how to teach well?

Standardized test scores clearly aren't the answer; any political correctness aside, you just can't expect equal scores, or even equal improvement in scores, in a poor, overcrowded, inner city school and a well-funded suburban school whose students come from wealthy, well-educated families.  To put it bluntly: if you want to run schools like a factory, and would like a guarantee of equal quality in the product, you have to have equal quality in the raw materials. 

So, the situation is as follows:  1) States are strapped for money, and property taxes are about as high as they can reasonably go.  2) Collective bargaining rights, and LIFO as a standard system for fair layoffs, are out the window, drastically shifting the balance of power away from teachers and into the hands of administrators.  3) Merit is difficult to establish, much less quantify, given the inherent inequities built into the system.

What happens now?  I'd like to make a few predictions.  I'm not, as a rule, given to prognosticating, but I think I can make a few guesses.

1)  Schools, trapped between declining revenues and unfunded state mandates, will cut the budget in the only possible way; they'll cut staff.  Without LIFO, they'll start laying off the most senior, and therefore most expensive, teachers first.  This will benefit the budget in two ways -- it will give states the immediate result of a reduction in the money needed to pay salaries, and the lasting result of a reduction in the money those teachers are eligible for in retirement.

2)  Class sizes will rise, and any non-"core" subjects -- music, the arts, and electives -- will be eliminated.

3)  There will be a drastic reduction in the number of talented college students who choose to go into education.

Some people are predicting a backlash -- that the rise in pro-union sentiment because of Walker and his ilk will assure that they are one-term politicians.  I don't know that that's necessarily true -- the anti-union rhetoric I'm hearing seems equally strong.  But one thing I'm fairly certain of is that even if the pendulum eventually begins to swing the other way, it will be too late to prevent devastating consequences for public schools.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The valley of the shadow of uncanniness

Today in the news is a story about the creation of a robot named "Kaspar" at the University of Hertfordshire, whose purpose is to help autistic children relate to people better.

Kaspar is programmed not only to respond to speech, but to react when hugged or hurt.  He is capable of demonstrating a number of facial expressions, helping autistic individuals learn to connect expressions with emotions in others.  The program has tremendous potential, says Dr. Abigael San, a London clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the British Psychological Society.  "Autistic children like things that are made up of different parts, like a robot," she said, "so they may process what the robot does more easily than a real person."

I think this is awesome -- autism is a tremendously difficult disorder to deal with, much less to treat, and conventional therapies can take years and result in highly varied outcomes.  Anything that is developed to help streamline the treatment process is all to the good.

I am equally intrigued, however, by my reaction to photographs of Kaspar.  (You can see a photograph here.) 

On looking at the picture, I had to suppress a shudder.  Kaspar, to me, looks creepy, and I don't think it's just associations with dolls like Chucky that made me react that way.  To me, Kaspar lies squarely in the Uncanny Valley.

The concept of the Uncanny Valley was first formalized by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and it has to do with our reaction to non-human faces.  A toy, doll, or robot with a very inhuman face is considered somewhere in the middle on the creepiness scale (think of the Transformers, the Iron Giant, or Sonny in I, Robot).  As its features become more human, it generally becomes less creepy looking -- think of a stuffed toy, or a well-made doll.  Then, at some point, there's a spike on the creepiness axis -- it's just too close to being like a human for comfort, but not close enough to be actually human -- and we tend to rank those faces as scarier than the purely non-human ones.  This is the "Uncanny Valley."

This concept has been used to explain why a lot of people had visceral negative reactions to the protagonists in the movies The Polar Express and Beowulf.  There was something a little too still, a little too unnatural, a little too much like something nonhuman pretending to be human, about the CGI faces of the characters.  The character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, seems to be on the uphill side of the Uncanny Valley; since he was played by a human actor, he had enough human-like characteristics that his android features were intriguing rather than disturbing.

It is an open question as to why the Uncanny Valley exists.  It's been explained through mechanisms of mate selection (we are programmed to find attractive faces that respond in a thoroughly normal, human way, and to be repelled by human-like faces which do not, because normal responses are a sign of genetic soundness), fear of death or disease (the face of a corpse resides somewhere in the Uncanny Valley, as do the faces of individuals with some mental and physical disorders), or a simple violation of what it means to be human.  A robot that is too close but not close enough to mimicking human behavior gets caught both ways -- it seems not to be a machine trying to appear human, but a human with abnormal appearance and reactions.

Don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled that Kaspar has been created.  And given that a hallmark of autism is the inability to make judgments about body and facial language, I doubt an Uncanny Valley exists for autistic kids (or, perhaps, it is configured differently -- I don't think the question has been researched).  But in most people, facial recognition is a very fundamental thing.  It's hard-wired into our brains, at a very young age -- one of the first things a newborn baby does is fix onto its mother's face.  We're extraordinarily good at recognizing faces, and face-like patterns (thus the phenomenon of pareidolia, or the detection of faces in wood grain, clouds, and grilled cheese sandwiches, about which I have blogged before).

It's just that the faces need to be either very much like human faces, or sufficiently far away, or they result in a strong aversive reaction.  All of which makes me wonder who first came up with the concept of "clown."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Weekend wrap-up

It was a busy weekend here for your investigative reporters at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  So much so that we checked last night to see if it was a full moon, which it wasn't -- in our clear post-blizzard sky hung the faintest thin crescent.  It's just as well, because here at WWW we don't believe in the whole phases-of-the-moon-causing-nutty-behavior thing, anyway.

But whatever the cause, it seems like in the last couple of days the loons have been migrating.  A few examples follow.

1)  A couple in Malaysia are claiming that a tree in their yard in Penang is giving forth showers of holy water.

Odd-job worker Abdul Ghani Mohammed Hussein, 41, who owns the tree, reports that he first felt the showers one afternoon when he was heading out to feed the chickens.

"My wife, Norhayati Abdul Karim, also felt the showers," Hussein states.  "But there was no rain at that time."

Hussein goes on to say, "The clear water sprinkles are heavier at night and we collected about a pail of water over the past week."

Norhayati, 38, a housewife, said that she had no problem with people coming to collect the "holy water," and stated that many considered it a blessing to wipe their faces with it.  However, if people didn't want to wait, she'd be happy to sell them some for RM5 (about $1.65) per cup.

Dr. Zaidi Mat Isa, an entomologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has other ideas, however.

"It's cicada urine," Dr. Isa said.  Apparently the cicadas, which are present in large numbers, drink the tree's sap in large enough quantities that some of it gets forced out of their nether regions, to fall as a gentle rain upon the upturned faces of the devout.

Alarmed by the fact that some of the enthusiasts were observant Muslims, the Malaysian State Islamic Religious Department has put up a sign warning Muslims against worshiping the tree.  The sign threatens a fine of RM3000 (about $1000) and up to two years in jail.

Myself, I think that finding out that I'd just rubbed bug pee all over my face would be penalty enough, don't you?

2)  Moving from being pissed on to being pissed off, from Salem, Massachusetts comes the story of a warlock who is angry at Charlie Sheen.

Salem, as I am sure you already know, was the site of the famed 17th century witch trials that resulted in the deaths of nineteen innocent men and women.  The children who were responsible for the accusations recanted their testimony one and all within ten years of the executions, essentially stating that they'd made the whole thing up.  Having thus demonstrated that witchcraft is nonsense, Salem of course became a mecca for people who claim to be witches and warlocks.

And now this weekend, a Salem warlock who is ironically named Christian Day has said that he is going to cast a spell on Charlie Sheen.

Apparently, the people in Day's coven are pissed because Sheen made a comment in an interview last week that he was a "Vatican assassin warlock."  Evidently being the only people in the world who are taking anything Charlie Sheen says seriously, the coven declared Sheen's use of the word "warlock" offensive, and Day now says that his group is going to cast a "binding spell" on Sheen to prevent him from using the word in such a fashion again.

I'm doubtful that the whole operation will be effective, but hey, why not?  If there's even a chance that it'll get Charlie Sheen to shut up, I'm all for it.

Day, however, is open to other solutions, and suggests that Sheen come to the coven for a "cleansing" of "him, his home, and his career."

Myself, I think that Sheen needs a little more in the way of detox than a magical cleansing, but I suppose it's a start.

3)  In a recent post I commented upon the British Ministry of Defence(MoD)'s recent release of thousands of documents relating to UFO sightings in the UK, and I referred to the case of the bright lights seen over Bromley (Kent) in 2003 as one of the more interesting, and unexplained, cases.

Now Stephany Cohen, a "spiritual healer" in Bromley, has said that she knows why the aliens were there: they were coming to Earth to have sex with her.

The aliens, whom Cohen says are called "the Grays" and are from a planet called "Cirus D," appear only to those who believe.  "They are very loving and intelligent, and will only present themselves to those who accept them," she told a reporter for the Kent News-Shopper this weekend.  "They are a good race who only likes to help others."

She then goes on to tell how they helped her, in particular.

"Sometimes you get raptures like strong orgasms," she said, "and you don't know where it comes from.  It is energies being passed down to their children on Earth."

The whole thing kind of puts a new spin on the phrase "the aliens are coming," doesn't it?

Roy Lake, chairperson of the group London UFO Studies, expressed interest in the Bromley case, but delicately declined to comment on whether it was good for him, too.  "I believe they are already here," he said, at least agreeing with Cohen on that point.  "All I can say is, keep a vigil, and keep looking up."

So, that's about it for now here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Like I said, a busy weekend, but we're willing to put in the extra time and effort to keep you informed.  "Ever vigilant," that's our motto.  That, and "Keeping the world safe from bug pee, Charlie Sheen, and horny aliens."  But it's hard to fit all that on a logo, so we'll stick with "Ever vigilant."