Friday, September 23, 2011

My thoughts on irreducible complexity -or- What good is half an eye?


Sometimes I go to church with my dad. Not because I love church, but because I love my dad, and we don't have a lot of things in common. He's very religious, and it means a lot for him to have me there. I'm fine with it.

A few nights ago, he invited me to a seminar that the people of his church were attending. I had joined him for something like that last year, and my night was free, so I accepted.

On the way in, I was required to get a barcode card that I would use to check in. I would later learn that if you attend for so many nights, you'd get a free family Bible. The signup for the card asked my address and other contact information, which I gave slightly altered versions of, pretty sure that the host would ever need to contact me at my home. We got seated, and I watched a woman play organ music on a keyboard, wondering about the business plan of the speaker, and if he would end up selling the contact info he was gathering. I realized how much more cynical I had become over the years.

Before the speaker came out, an image of Charles Darwin popped up on the twin projector screens, and I tensed. I could listen to a man preach about sin, or hell, or the ways to please God, but evolution is a subject that I'm fascinated by. It excites me to think about it. I did not want to hear a man talk about how evolution was wrong for an hour.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I'm here for the free heroin

I'm not one to make public apologies for my lapses, but I would like to take this time to not make an apology again.

I have not been posting much, to the point that you may wonder if I've died, converted to Mormonism, or maybe sold my computer. I have done few to none of these things. I've just been doing other things. Most notably, I've been absent-mindedly avoiding my blog.

Whether this is wise or not... well it's not. Whenever I have a period of time where I'm updating this blog regularly, my readership increases steadily, at a respectable pace. I blush a little to think that so many people regularly return to the site, to read what I write. Perhaps someday they would even begin clicking on ads. (don't tell Google I said that. I'm supposed to act like they're not there.)

I enjoy this, though. The medium-sized rectangular text field, with an orange button and two blue buttons beneath it, is comforting to me. For some time, I sat here and did a blog every morning, without fail. The moment I decided to do it twice a week, instead of seven times, though, my brain said, "Oh, zero times a week? Sounds good." I'm glad for that initial burst, though, because it left me a thick history of posts that new readers can peruse.

I'm just typing this to let my readers know that, no, I'm neither dead nor Mormon, and that, even though I have actually decided to quit this blog maybe three or four times, it never sticks. Just like heroin, it's hard to stay away for long. And unlike heroin, it's free!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Seat of the Soul, first two pages review

Today's post is a cheap one. I'm going to point out an easy target, and pick it apart like it's an important thing to do. I guess you could call this post a book review, but I'm only reviewing the first two pages. Let's get on with it.

Gary Zukav is a popular new-age author. I became familiar with the name a couple of years ago, when a friend of mine reccommended to me the book Dancing Wu Li Masters. She said it was amazing. You may know, by the title of this blog, that a book called "Dancing Wu Li Masters" is not really my cup of tea, unless maybe, it was in the fiction section. But probably still no. I was at the used bookstore one day, a place I really appreciate, and I glanced through the five-foot-wide New Age section, and I saw Seat of the Soul. It was "The New, Innovative and Thought-Provoking work by the Author of Dancing Wu Li Masters." I gave it a try.

I'm going to admit something. I did not read this whole book. I actually got as far as the top of the second page, I think. How can I tell anything from a book after one and a half pages? "Not much," I would have told you before starting this book. Afterwards? "Enough."

I'm not a mystical guy, but I truly don't belive that my discarding of this book had much to do with me not being a mystical guy. If I read a skeptical book that said something very ridiculous, I would send it right back to the bookstore. Likewise, if I read a mystical-themed book where the author seemed to have a grasp on simple scientific ideas, I might read the whole thing.

Excerpt from page 1:A fish is more complex, and, therefore, more evolved than a sponge; a horse is more complex, and, therefore, more evolved than a snake; a monkey is more complex, and, therefore, more evolved than a horse.

My immediate thoughts: This was right out of the gate, the fifth line down on the first page. Mr. Zukav sets up evolution like a linear journey. To read this, you might expect that one main species has been evolving throughout the millenia, from a sponge, to a fish, to a snake, to a horse, to a monkey, leaving behind species, frozen in progress, every step of the way. Of course, this doesn't happen.

Is a monkey really more evolved than a horse? It's more intelligent, but it's a common mistake that, over time, species are developing to become more intelligent, and more human-like. What if you valued speed and size, instead? The horse would be more evolved. What if you valued poison, and the ability to eat no more than once a month? The snake is now our most evolved animal, leaving even humans in their dust. Humans have big brains, but we're largely feeble in every other way.

In reality, none of these creatures is more evolved than the others. Evolution doesn't just stop for a species, whether it's a sponge, or a snake, or a monkey. And if we're all descended from a common ancestor, then we've all had the same amount of time to evolve. Some of us evolved into sponges, some into snakes, some into people. Snakes aren't waiting for the cosmic force of evolution to turn it into a monkey. Being a snake works great for snakes. That's why they're snakes. And they're perfectly as complex as horses.

Page 2, near the top: This definition is an expression of the idea that the organism that is best able to control both its environment and all of the other organisms in its environment is the most evolved.

Wow. This paragraph following the other one was like a one-two punch. The kind of thing that can make me choke on my own spit. The kind of thing that can make me exclaim out loud in the library.

The more a species controls (not effects, controls) its environment, the more evolved it is. That makes things simple. Humans are most evolved. Beavers are second most evolved. Everything else comes in third.

In general, animals don't go out of their way to control their environment. Woodpeckers peck holes, which are surprisingly big inside, but I'd hardly call that trying to control their environment. Horses poop all over the place, which... is... pretty irrelevant.

Nonsense. A trend of nonsense.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. This is how I can, must, for better or worse, discard a book after two pages.

I don't want to be a dick to Gary Zuckov. He's a successful author. But I can't honestly not call his explanation of evolution garbage (ooh! A double-negative). A garbage understanding of evolution is, of course, only to be expected in today's environment of garbage-science in films and television, and our population who go to work and go to sleep and make the kids dinner and do just fine without any deeper understanding of the world. But it should not make it into a non-fiction book, and, it should not make it through the editorial process, the fact checking process, and past all of the people that a book has to pass before it ends up in print.

If I read a paper, or a book, by, say, Dean Radin, I might not agree with his conclusions, I might take issue with his experimental setup, but at least I know that he's very intelligent, and he does know what he's talking about. When I pick up a book like Seat of the Soul, though, and I feel like the author is counting on me to be ignorant in order to make his point, I get sad that this is landing in front of thousands (millions?) of people, some of whom haven't given the subject of evolution enough thought to notice the incongruancies in the writing.

If you don't understand the science, don't write it as if you do. And if you do, don't make it fake in order to screw a few people out of a few dollars.

I should read the rest of that book sometime.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A little fun

Pass this around, if you're so inclined.

My response to "Scientists cure cancer, but no one takes notice"

I stole this
According to my friends on Facebook, we've cured cancer. Not only that, but nobody took notice. Except for everyone that's on Facebook.

I've barely read the article, and am naturally skeptical about it, but I want to give it a closer look. I figured I would write this blog post while I gave it this look.

(I open the link)

The first thing I notice is the nice HubPages banner across the top. This is not a step in the right direction. Hubpages is one of the many websites where anyone can write anything, and the layout of the site makes it look legit. Some of the articles are legit, of course. You can't forget, though, that I could get on right now, and write an article called, "Guinea Pigs Beat Humans to Mars!" and have it up within an hour. What the Hubpages banner tells me is that one man (cqull8m) is responsible for this article, and he's not backed up by editors, fact-checkers, or anyone else that makes you more confident about the information you read. Like me, I guess.

So far not good. I'll now read the article.

There are two links close to the top. The one that's supposed to link to a "little ripple in the news" takes me to "studentprintz.com." It takes me to the homepage, rather than an article. I typed "cancer" into the search bar, and it's currently trying to load my request.

I now realize that the original article that was linked to is now a 404. Let's keep moving.

"Canadian scientists tested this dichloroacetate (DCA) on human’s cells... It was tested on Rats...The drug is widely available and the technique is easy to use"

Two things come to mind. Firstly, this is like saying, "This has never been tested on humans," except it's worse than saying that. It's avoiding saying that. It's hiding information between the lines. I also wonder if people who take this drug for metabolic disorders (as noted in paragraph 2) are cancer-proof. Let's see if any of this is answered in the rest of the article.

"In human bodies there is a natural cancer fighting human cell, the mitochondria, but they need to be triggered to be effective."

Red alert! Red alert! He called the mitochondria a cell! That's like calling a kidney a human. The mitochondria is a part of the cell. I remember this stuff from middle-school science. I don't know much about mitochondria, but I know at least that much. I will tread carefully through the rest of this article.

"Scientists used to think that these mitochondria cells were damaged and thus ineffective against cancer."

Random image of cells
Scientists thought that mitochondria were damaged? All of them? What in the world is this supposed to mean?

"You can access the original research for this cancer here."

Thank goodness! I suddenly like this guy a lot more. I will do just as he suggests, and look at the original research. Let's finish this article first, though.

"This article wants to raise awareness for this study"

Mission accomplished. This article has overtaken my newsfeed like malignant cells.

"hope some independent companies and small startup will pick up this idea and produce these drugs"

I thought this was an existing drug that is already used for metabolic disorders.

So, most of my gripes in this article are with low-quality writing, and a misunderstanding of the facts. I can't hate on this author though. Like he said, I believe he's just trying to spread the news, and if someone isn't a good writer/researcher, and doesn't have the money to hire a freelance writer, at least he tried. And succeeded.

So let's get to the meat of this. The research. (I click the link)

I was hoping this would link to a horribly dry scientific paper. The kind of scientific paper that can make an anti-gravity device sound as exciting as a new type of foam-rubber. That's not quite what I found. This format is a little more like a blog post.

Condensed:

"DCA is an odourless, colourless, inexpensive, relatively non-toxic, small molecule... causes regression in several cancers... [used] to treat children with inborn errors of metabolism due to mitochondrial diseases... [mitochondria] have been connected with cancer since the 1930s... [DCA] as a way to "revive" cancer-affected mitochondria... mitochondrial function resulted in a significant decrease in tumor growth... [DCA] did not have any effects on normal, non-cancerous tissues... However, as DCA is not patented, Michelakis is concerned that it may be difficult to find funding from private investors to test DCA in clinical trials... launch clinical trials on humans in the spring of 2007 pending government approval."

This is very, very interesting. Basically, this existing drug revives the cells' mitochondria, and the mitochondria of the cancer cells kills them.

One of the main themes of the Hubpages article is that nobody took notice of this discovery. I'll test this by Googling "DCA" with "Cancer."

2007, ABC NEWS, "DCA: Cancer Breakthrough or Urban Legend"
2007, Toronto Star, "Molecule Holds Cancer Hope"
2007, CTV News, "Health Canada approves first human trials for DCA"
2007, Newsweek, "A New Way to Fight Cancer?"

I could keep going, but it's painfully boring. Let's just say that the media did take notice. More research needs to be done, but it seems to be in the same pipeline that any drug goes through on the way to becoming something that the pharmacists push at us.

Whether DCA is a wonder drug, I don't know. Let's give it some time, and let results come in. I think a more important question is, since it is an existing pharmaceutical, should cancer patients buy the stuff online and self-treat? There are anecdotes online from people who claim to have done just this.

The easy answer is no. Taking drugs without your doctor's approval is like playing Russian Roulette. Hell, taking drugs with your doctor's approval can be like Russian Roulette. DCA does have side-effects, which sometimes include nerve-damage. Self-prescribing and self-treating illnesses is a reckless move, and one that many people have regretted over the years.

But let's cut the bullshit.

It's fine to be afraid of nerve damage if you've got a sty, or acid reflux disease. That's when you need to sweat over the side-effects. When you have a tumor in your brain, though, or in your lungs, and it's growing like a snowball rolling down a hill, and you're not supposed to be alive by your next birthday, caution can be fatal. It's easy for the authorities to tell you to wait for the clinical trials, because they don't know you, and, in their eyes, people die of cancer every day. But you only get to die once, and then you're out of chances. No more pizzas, no more smiles from attractive strangers, no more petting kittens. No more peeing or breathing or sleeping in.

I have an uninsured friend with brain cancer, and if he started popping these pills, or snorting them, or shooting them up, I wouldn't even say a word that rhymes with caution anywhere near him. At some point, what was reckless becomes reasonable. At some point, you've got to jump out of the burning building, even if you might break your leg.

I would do it. I would do it and I would blog about it.

Further reading

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dream Precognition Test

I'm participating in a dream precognition study. If this is interesting to you, email mvalasek@staffmail.ed.ac.uk and see if they have any more slots open.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My reaction to the Geek Zodiac

A couple of Facebook friends posted the Geek Zodiac. Being that I'm 1/4 geek by birth, I checked it out. What was my reaction?

"Astronaut! I knew it!"

Looking at my own reaction, only a few seconds after the fact, I couldn't help but be amused. Putting stock in a "normal" zodiac, the one that's primarily used today, in the United States, is one thing. It's been around for a while, and there are whole books and websites out there that preach the word, wholeheartedly. Believing in that is generally viewed as a normal thing to do.

But to look at something that a couple of guys made over a weekend, and to say, "It makes so much sense now!"... Well, that's just absurd. And that's what I did, for the better part of a second.

Even if you love, say, horoscopes, yourself, you should be able to admit that, even if horoscopes were actually just motivational messages that applied, not to people born on a specific date, but to human beings in general, they would still be popular. People would still follow them. Look at mine for today:

"You might be surprised by how clever and creative you are today, Capricorn. Just for fun, you may decide to pick up a paintbrush and try watercolor painting or perhaps writing some poetry. Whatever you attempt, you can be fairly sure that it will work out favorably. Your creative muse is there on your shoulder and waiting for you to make use of her!"

I'm not a painter, at all, but if I was into horoscopes I might take this advice, and it might be fun, and I might approach it with more confidence than I would without the stars backing me up. Nothing wrong with watercolors. But it would be the same outcome whether I was Capricorn, Aquarius, or Cancer! When I was a more avid blogger I used to put a daily all-signs horoscope in the sidebar.

I don't feel like making a real point with today's post, so let's just watch a video:

I just spent about twenty minutes looking for a certain video, and instead got sidetracked and ended up learning new magic tricks for the kiddos. Oh, well. We can go without closure for one post.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why are UFOs stupid?

People see lights in the sky. Lights that aren't stars, or airplanes, or meteors. Little bright points that wander around in a totally un-aircraftlike way. While they remain unidentified, they will be called unidentified flying objects.

At some point, people started associating these lights with space aliens. I guess once people started thinking of travel through the sky as a thing that happens, they maybe started to figure that they're seeing individuals traveling through the sky. Maybe traveling to see us, from some other planet.

I don't believe that these lights are all weather balloons, or misidentified planets, and I really don't think they're spaceships. I'm not sure what they are, but nature is complex enough, and still holds enough mysteries, that I don't think it's quite time to start narrowing it down.

To someone who does believe wholeheartedly that those lights occasionally seen in the sky are spaceships, I have some questions, or at least things to consider.

1. What's with the light? Why would a flying saucer, or some flying ship, that's presumably made out of metal, give off light? Especially light that's visible from the ground?

2. Why is it moving like that? If you were in a ship, up in the sky, would it make sense to drift in every direction, like a firefly in a field? If you're traveling, it makes sense to go in a straight line. If you're waiting, or watching, it makes sense to sit still. I can't think of why anyone in an aircraft would behave that way.

3. If there is someone in there, observing us, why don't they go up a bit higher? We have satellites that can see the ground in fancy resolution from orbit, and I'm sure some of our space telescopes can do better than that. What's keeping our UFOs in the clouds?

I don't have all of the answers, but I do have a wealth of the questions, and, with a lot of these subjects, they're questions that don't seem to have a simple answer.

If anyone asked my opinion (I'll assume that by reading this bog, you are doing just that) I'd say that the little balls of light in the sky are some kind of electromagnetic thing. Something that we may not know about, or have thought of, yet. Something that is centralized, gives off light, and wanders around in the sky, sometimes shooting off at speeds and angles that would be improbable for something with mass.

It's not that I disbelieve in alien life. I wouldn't be surprised at all if we found out that there is complex life elsewhere. I just don't think it's come to earth just to hang around our clouds and act like an idiot.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why I have to quit this blog

It's been about a half of a month since my last post, and I thought that, rather than dropping off of the internet altogether, I'll give you guys a heads-up, and a little background on my decision to quit this blog, rather than leaving you hanging, clicking refresh over and over again on the homepage. You do that, right?

In Randi speak, I seem to have become something of a "woo-woo," because I'm not marginally as sure of my beliefs as I was a half of a month ago.

On Friday the 18th, the day after I wrote my most recent blog post, two things happened that have been worrying me since. I can't say they're related, but I also can't say for sure that, with their temporal proximity (har har big words) to one-another, that they aren't.

The first thing: I was sitting on the back porch with my fiance. We're one of those rare couples where only one member smokes, but I sometimes accompany her when she does. I brought my phone to watch the time, because I was going to watch America's Funniest Home Videos at 8:00 (Have you ever tried watching it on mute?). It was about 7:55 when we went outside.

I was looking at the portion of the sky visible under our porch's roof, and I saw a little light in the sky. It was moving around the way that a fly or a mosquito might, and I realized that I was having what people would call a UFO sighting. We went into the yard and determined that it was a larger object, farther away, and not a lightning bug by the fence or something. Long story short, after a few minutes it went behind some trees, and we didn't see it again. I thought it was definitely interesting, and the two of us sat on the stump out back and tried to figure out what it could have been. We ended up talking about belief, and skepticism, and one thing led to another, and <tmi>we ended up doing what a man and woman do when they love each other very much, there in the fenced-in back yard. Thumbs up, by the way.</tmi> At this point, I'd sort of given up on America's Funniest Home Videos. We talked a little more and, eventually went inside to go to bed early. I figured it was probably about 10:00.

I'll skip the major confusion that happened when we went inside, and just tell you that it wasn't 10:00. It was 7:58. The Funniest Home Videos episode I'd been watching before we went outside was just ending. Three minutes had passed.

(pause to joke about the brevity of my performance in the back yard, and then we'll move on)

I guess I can't impress that it was a big deal to me. Three minutes had passed. 7:58 is some text on a screen to you, but I was very very upset. I was actually a little angry, if you can believe it. I still sort of am, actually, just angry that something happened that is just nonsensical. I ended up snapping at one of the kids about their shoes being on the floor, and ended up feeling bad about it.

Both of us were still tired, though, and we ended up having to stay up long enough to put the kids to bed. When we got up in the morning, the other strange thing happened.

In short: The five of us had dreams that were, in every way I could think to measure, identical, but from five different perspectives. When I first realized this, I had my fiance and I split up and write down our dreams in detail, so we'd have a relatively unpolluted memory of them at hand.  The points of similarity were sort of outrageous.

Between the five of us, in the children's first telling of the dream (which I had them do separately. I was being a little obsessive) the following points appeared in three to five of our stories (my fiance's and my writing, and the children's individual telling):


  • Going to the park to swim in a swimming pool. (this park doesn't have a swimming pool in real life.)
  • I was very very tall.
  • The oldest child was a mermaid.
  • A man with a mustache and a baseball cap giving the kids swimming tips.
  • Change at the bottom of the pool, like in a wishing well.
I hate to say this, but this is beyond coincidental. This goes into the realm of personal proof (as opposed to scientific proof). You don't have to believe that something extraordinary happened, but I'm afraid that I do.

Now, let me tell you, specifically, why I am quitting this blog.  I can't come to any solid conclusions about the cause of anything that happened above. But I can say, about the seemingly shared dream, that it seems like it must have involved some kind of information transfer that the five of us shared, from three different rooms across the house. I can't say where the information originated, or the path it took between its origin point and the sensory centers of our 5 dreaming minds, but I can say that if there is some mechanism that allows information to travel into and out of a mind, bypassing our 5 senses, then the implications to that are outrageous, and very possibly match what we see today in the world of the harder-to-explain-away "psychics" and whatnot. 

What I'm saying is, if this happened, what else could happen, using similar mechanisms?

And that is why I can't be The Polite Skeptic any more. I may have to become The Skeptical Believer, which doesn't make for a good blog headline. 

So, I'd like to thank my humble readership for their visits and their support, but this is one project I have to put away for the time being.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Proof of a new method of search engine optimization

Here it is: Write the word "proof" in the title of your blog post.

In September, last year, I wrote a post called, "Proof that 2012 will happen!" I wasn't trying to be sensationalist, just silly. The joke ended up being that of course 2012 will happen. Whether or not the end of the world will happen during 2012 is a different story.

Well, you can see that, on my "top posts" widget to the right, that post is ranking at number 1. But that ranking doesn't tell the whole story. Not at all.

If you give the number of visits that the #5 item in that list (Gerson Therapy) has gotten in the last month a value of 1, as a baseline, the bottom three items all have a value of about 1. They've gotten about the same number of visits as each other. Then, the #2 item (Proof of Time Travel) has a value of about 2. It has about double the visits of any of the lower three items.

The number 1 item, though, Proof that 2012 will happen!, has a value of 12. That means it has approximately twelve times the visits of any of the bottom three, and it even has six times as many visits as the second one. It's a wide gap.

Note: PornOH, I now know, is a
pornography website. In a search
for that keyword, a link to my blog
is on the second page.
I noticed this trend in early February, and it bothers me a bit, because I realized that the people who are actually looking for proof of the end-of-the-world scenario are not going to find it at my blog. The bad part is, I didn't even present evidence against it in that post. Just a perspective of what I think of it. So, those people are getting no value out of that search.

This didn't stop my from my next experiment, though, which you can see above. I wrote a post about a time-travel related video I'd seen, and stuck the word Proof in there, not so innocently this time. Very very quickly, Proof of time travel! -or- Giving your hoax a makeover, climbed up the charts, and now, as I said, has double the hits of the three lower results. Neither of these posts are particularly interesting, in the scheme of things, but that silly word, proof, makes them popular.

The Google searches for proof do have a skeptical basis, though. It's a plea to cut through the BS, get away from all of the conjecture, and just please prove it to me. Unfortunately, there is no proof to be found online. You can find videos that can be faked, stories that can be made up, peer-reviewed scientific papers that are, nevertheless, ever-debated. You can find theories and hypotheses and absurd certainties. But no proof.

Sorry.

The Singularity -or- Why I'm not afraid of the coming robot holocaust

A little creepy
Artificial intelligence! It's an exciting subject for me, being that I like to write a bit of quirky sci-fi on the side. More than artificial intelligence, I want to talk about our (some say inevitable) future robot holocaust. With how we rest on technology, if the technology became sentient, isn't it reasonable to think that it would take the very short step from surrounding us to ruling us, destroying us, or turning us into human batteries?

In my mind, the fear of doomsday-through-artificial-intelligence is fed through a misconception about the nature of intelligence. Human beings are different than the rest of the animals on the planet in two major ways. Firstly, we are, in some very special ways, the most intelligent animals around. Secondly, we rule the world. We lord over this place like a king ape, with our big scepter and crown, making the plants and animals bend to our needs. So, it's only natural that we would get nervous when something that's potentially more intelligent than us comes onto the scene. It's not hard to imagine that, if we start creating slaves that are stronger and smarter than us, we could end up being the next endangered species.

But keep in mind that intelligence is not the same as a wish to rule the world, or even a wish to be free from bondage.

Let's think about Data, the humanoid robot from Star Trek. Data was intelligent, but without emotions. At least, he was supposed to be. Watching that show as an adult, though (Which I did one time. Really.) I realize that Data did have emotions. Because, if someone, or something, is truly without emotion, then they will never move from one spot. If I lost all of my emotion right now, I wouldn't be driven by my desire to spread my ideas, so I would stop typing this blog. I wouldn't have any reason to hold my bladder, because I wouldn't fear the consequences of peeing my pants while sitting here. I wouldn't get up and eat, because I wouldn't feel discomfort at the sensation of hunger, nor displeasure at the feeling of wasting away. Every move we make is, at its root, driven by an emotion. We feel the emotion, and then use our intelligence to decide how to accommodate it. This is always running in the background. If Data didn't have any emotions, he would never have gotten out of the crate he was shipped in.

Google's fancy self-driving car
So, how intelligent could you make a machine before it hit you in the face and took your wallet? We could make it as intelligent as we wanted. In fact, according to Steven Levy, author of a Wired Magazine article that I enjoyed, we've already got artificial intelligence. There are computers that can think faster, and better, in very specialized ways, than humans. Jeopardy champion Watson comes to mind.

Well, where does this put my philosophy on emotion? Why aren't these emotionless machines sitting and rotting, as opposed to vacuuming our floors and driving our future cars? Well, it seems to me that these machines do have emotions. Their emotions are very few, and very simple, but they are there. A Roomba is driven to vaccuum all the time, and it uses its intelligence to figure out how to do it. Watson is driven to answer Jeopardy questions, and it uses its intelligence to figure out how to do it. We are driven to avoid spoiled food, and to have sex with sexy people, and to eat pizza, pizza, pizza all day long, and we use our own intelligence in these pursuits. Simple emotions for simple machines, and uber-complex emotions for uber-complex machines like ourselves.

My point is that, if computers wanted to rule the world, someone would have to program that desire into them. If they wanted to enslave humanity, some geek would have to spend many sleepless nights figuring out the easiest, most bug-proof way to enslave himself and his species-peers. It's not something that would happen automatically. It's far from a foregone conclusion.

Just like the idea of alien life, we humans tend to think of intelligent machines in human terms, as if humanity is something you'll reach if you just keep adding virtual neurons. But we're not the product of virtual neurons. We're the product of millions of years of selective pressure in certain environmental/social conditions. Nobody thinks that a virtual brain will automatically generate the personality of a crow, or a lemur, but there are loads of people assuming that a human's drives will spontaneously arise in a complex-enough computer.

No.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japan Earthquake Relief

Doing my small part to help people that need help. All I can hope is that it actually helps.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gerson Therapy: Where is the research?

(Time to get that horrid optical illusion off of the top of my blog.)

According to Charlotte Gerson, we have a cure for cancer, and we've had it for more than sixty years. And it's not chemotherapy.

The Gerson Therapy, invented by Max Gerson, is, in short, a very extreme, very strict, dietary regimen, that involves a lot (really a lot) of juicing, zero salt, all-organic, a bunch of supplements, nothing processed. And don't forget about the organic coffee enemas. But we're all adults here, so we're not going to overreact about people putting a tube in their asshole to cure cancer, are we? Cancer is a big deal, while a tube in the ass is really not.

But does it work? In the documentaries about it (1, 2) there are nice, convincing stories from real people about how wonderful it is. But any documentary about a thing is going to have nice convincing stories. The documentary about hitting yourself in the face with a hammer has some of the most convincing testimonials I've heard.

In fact, there are two things, regarding Gerson Therapy, that are as easy to find as they are unhelpful.

1). Testimonials from people who say that the therapy has cured a number of different maladies, including cancer. Any or all of these could be people who are paid to make blog comments and reviews and things like that. Think I'm being cynical? I've been to Elance. I've seen the listings.
2). Skeptical people who take a glance at the therapy and decide that it shouldn't work, because of A B and C, and that Max Gerson once maybe cheated on his wife, and there was once some other BS therapy that was debunked, so this is obviously wrong. Basically, the blah, blah, blah of someone who uses big words in their guessing.

What I wanted was studies. The scientific controlled experiments that I can pick apart at my leisure. After all, if you've got lots and lots of stories that this thing is vanishing tumors, I would think that the medical community would be eager to either verify the claims, or to show it as a sham. Whichever one may be true.

But, according to cancer.org:
"There have been no well-controlled studies published in the available medical literature that show the Gerson therapy is effective in treating cancer.

In a recent review of the medical literature, researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center identified 7 human studies of Gerson therapy that have been published or presented at medical conferences. None of them were randomized controlled studies."

Well, that frankly pisses me right off. I know I'm just being a cranky non-scientist. Someone that doesn't begin to understand the struggle of scientific research, and funding, and so on. But, this is a pretty big deal. Cancer is something that a third of us are looking forward to as we quickly age, and many of us are going to be doing the Gerson therapy, whether the scientific community has researched it or not. Because, reading testimonials, it seems to work, and because we've all heard horror stories about chemotherapy.

Just to make myself clear, I'm not saying that we (we the people) ought to do the Gerson Therapy. I'm saying that it will happen. If it were proven to be more effective than medical treatments, it would be revolutionary. If it were proven to be false, then there would at least be data present to help the cancer victim make their choice.

Would I do it? Well, if I found that I had cancer, and I had more than a year projected to live, I would probably juice some vegetables and periodically stick a tube in my butt for a month, sure. See what happens. Because, in my heart of hearts, as much as cancer might scare me, chemotherapy scares me a little bit more.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When my girlfriend learned to teleport -or- The Five Liars

Don't trust your eyes
I had mild insomnia last night. For the first couple of hours, I kept falling into a light, fragile sleep, and then waking up what felt like minutes later. There were no dreams, no moments of REM, just blinking on and off like a digital clock after a power-outage.

I was lying next to my girlfriend, who was sleeping soundly, when I heard the bedroom door open. The kids are not allowed to open our bedroom door without knocking first, and I was going to mention it, but it wasn't one of the kids. It was an adult woman, and, for a moment, I didn't know how to react.

Of course, it was my girlfriend. She had gotten up during one of my brief moments of sleep, and then had come back while I was awake. Somehow, I wanted to argue about this. "I didn't hear you get up."

"You were sleeping, silly. It's three a.m."

I wanted to tell her that I had been semi-alert all night, that even in my sleeping moments I'd been half awake, that it was unlikely that she could have gotten out of bed and opened the door without me noticing. But how absurd would that be?  What point, exactly, would I have been arguing? That she had actually teleported out of the room? That I had lost time, like in a UFO abduction? That my real girlfriend had dissolved, and a pod person had walked in from the hallway? I was put off by how obvious it was that she had come in without leaving, even though it didn't make a bit (much less a byte) of sense.

I know that I slept through my girlfriend's exit from the room, and I think that almost everyone would have eventually come to the same conclusion, even after that brief moment of argumentativeness. But, what if it had happened a little differently? What if I had been awake when one of the children had walked in, but had kept my eyes closed? What if the kid had crawled into bed, and I had, in my sleep-deprived state, simply fallen asleep, and remained asleep when the kid remembered that she'd left her favorite blanket behind and made a stealthy exit?

When I wake up, and realize that during my obviously (to me) unbroken span of attention, something had come into my room, climbed into bed, and then vanished, I would suddenly have a creepy ghost story that I could tell everyone for the rest of my life.

It's easy, when you hear a report of something strange happening, from a person who seems to be perfectly honest, to dismiss them either as a liar or someone who makes stupid mistakes. But let's not be so hasty.

These are our senses, people. These are our only, few, connections to the world around us. Our thoughts and senses are literally the only experiences we have. We all trust our senses. We don't doubt that bacon is on sale for two dollars at the grocery store, or that the driveway is flooded, or that the grape juice stain from last week is still in the carpet, even though it's only our horribly unreliable senses telling us these things.

Are you sure that if you saw a ball of light meandering in the sky, or felt a hand grab your ankle in bed, or watched a stinky, seven-foot-tall sasquatch cross the hiking trail in front of you, that you wouldn't believe these things were exactly as they seemed? It's easy to be a skeptic when you're sitting at your laptop, after all.

But it's good to doubt yourself, regardless of your belief system, if you can manage it. If you start trusting everything you see, you may end up believing that, on one sleepless night, your girlfriend had to pee so bad that she teleported to the bathroom.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A brief and decade-late discussion about "9/11 truth"

In language, we often end up giving things names that aren't very descriptive. Names that, if you don't already know what they mean, then you won't from the name. Most examples of this are euphemisms. Nothing about the term, "adult undergarments" tells you that they are diapers. Without the cultural knowledge, the label applies better to a bra, or a pair of boxer shorts. "Differently abled," before it meant handicapped, didn't mean anything at all. Everyone is differently abled from everyone else.

And some things end up with these non-descriptive labels just because they stick. PC means, specifically, a computer that runs a Microsoft operating system, even though a Mac is a personal computer, too. And we've all heard the joke about shipments in trucks, and cargo in ships.

Well, a little over two thousand years into the current calendar, the utterly undescriptive label, that could have been stuck to any of a million things, truther, is now being used. For better or worse, it's taken.

There are a few different schools of thought about the specifics, but the basic message that most truthers have in common is that 9/11, instead of being orchestrated by a terrorist group lead by Osama bin Ladin, was actually staged by the United States government, in order to provide a catalyst for military invasion of oil-rich Iraq.

Naturally, there's been a lot of fighting over this idea. No, I didn't say friendly debate. I think that if people could shoot each other through the internet, they would probably do it over this issue. More than three thousand people died, and those on both sides of the argument are still very fired up because of this, a decade later.

For however many versions of the events there are, only one of them, of course, happened. Things occurred in a certain way, and even seven billion people, feeling the deepest rage in their hearts, could not change the truth. Some people are more inclined to distrust the government, and some people are the opposite, but none of that matters, at all. It never will. It's the evidence, put forward by both sides of the argument, that, when inspected individually, and then taken together, can show us the truth. And the truth is what matters.

I'm not going to discuss any of that evidence right now. This post is almost a warning that I am, in the future, going to discuss it. Whether or not that is necessary... shrug.

One thing I will say, though, is that, if I wanted to make up a tragedy, in order to invade Iraq, I would have framed an Iraqi, or even Saddam Hussein, for the tragedy. While the fury about 9/11 was, by some, channeled into the Iraq war, it's public knowledge that the government of Iraq wasn't involved. In other words, if I wanted to frame my uncle for a murder, I wouldn't leave my neighbor's hair at the scene.

I won't say I'm on the fence about "9/11 truth," but I am open-minded. And when I say that I am open-minded (something everyone loves to say) I think it's actually true. So be ready for the occasional post looking at the truthers' best pieces of evidence, and trying to decide if they hold any water.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Killing my dog with homeopathy

We woke up early, and found the big puppy munching on rat poison. It was shocking, but pretty much exactly how you would expect this D-student dog to spend his time.

Before we called the vet, we (naturally) looked at Google. The internet told us to make him puke with peroxide (boy, did he ever) and then get him some activated charcoal. I was off to the drugstore.

The clerk pointed me in the right direction, and I found the supplement. Reaching for it, though, I froze. Homeopathic, it said on the front of the bottle. Standing there, with my hand hanging in front of the shelf, my heart rate was up, and I actually had some adrenaline running through my veins. I felt as if I had almost touched a hot pan, or peed on an electric fence. I was a little angry for a moment, and then I took a deep breath, and grabbed the bottle to the right of that one.

What is homeopathy? Briefly, a homeopath will take a substance that is supposed to produce a certain symptom, dilute it greatly, and then use the dilution to treat the condition that it, in greater concentrations, would cause. So, (and this is my own assumption) if you grabbed some ipecac, and diluted it down into a homeopathic solution, following the correct steps, you could treat nausea with it.

Now what do I mean by a homeopathic solution? Well, with homeopathy, the thinner, the better. As in, if you mix a homeopathic solution with water, so it's 10% solution, and 90% water, what you end up with is supposed to be more potent than the original solution. An 8X homeopathic solution, for instance, would be the result of diluting a substance to this extent eight times. The amount of the original substance in the water shrinks exponentially with every new "potentization."

So, if you look at a solution of 30X potency (very potent, and very thin), one dose, which is about a sip, which equals maybe an ounce, has about this many water molecules in it:

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
And the amount of original substance in the 30X solution is 1 over:
1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

The visible length difference between these numbers tells us something. You're not going to get a particle of original substance in every dose of your medicine. In fact, to come across that elusive particle, in a 30X solution, you'll have to take about 100,000 doses, or drink something like 781 gallons of water, which could fill an Olympics swimming pool to a little more than one foot deep with virtually pure water. And in that whole giant wading pool, there would be maybe one particle of the thing that isn't water, maybe floating at the far end, hopefully not caught in the filter.

The flowers make the pills look natural
These kinds of criticisms are not new to homeopathy. But, it is said, this practice is not about actually consuming the substance. It's about the water. The water, believers say, has a memory. (For more on this way of thinking, take a look at The Hidden Messages in Water, by Masaru Emoto.) If you "succuss," or shake in a particular way, the water container correctly, it is said, you will instill the properties of the substance in the water. When you get to higher potencies like 30X, it won't matter if the substance is present, only the water. Look at this post on making your own homeopathic remedy for more info.

And, having said all this, I can't think, for the life of me, how one would make homeopathic activated charcoal.

Well, to be honest, the dog probably would have been fine without the charcoal. We'd gotten him to puke (a lot, I'm telling you), pretty early on in the process of him poisoning himself. I was angry, though, that I almost treated a canine medical emergency with a medicine that seems, at very best, iffy. Not only that, but the word "Homeopathic," instead of being in a starburst on the package, was in a thin, black, sans_serif font, almost like it was embarrassed. If things had gone a little different, (discover the poison later, grab the homeopathic charcoal) I fear they would have gone very badly, indeed.

But who am I to criticize this thing that I've never tried? And to listen to scientific studies that could, very well, be biased? I know how to make a homeopathic remedy now, so I'm going to do it. I'll get something that causes weight gain (sugar is a simple choice) and make a weight-loss syrum. I'll make it 30X, so that the results will be very obvious, if they are there, and then I'll take daily measurements of my "total inches" (something I read about in a Tim Ferriss book.) It sounds like a lot of work, of course (succussing 40 times 30 times adds up to beating my hand 1,200 times, hoping I don't lose count) but I'll try (m)anything(s) once. And since I don't expect it to work, I don't have to worry too much about the placebo effect, an effect I'm not too offended by, in the first place.

And how conclusive is a (not too) scientific study with a sample size of 1? Well, it's not. But I'm going to do it anyway, and likely prove nothing that the reader didn't already believe. So wish me luck.

The dog's doing fine, by the way.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Proof of Time Travel! -or- Giving your hoax a makeover

Let's talk about time travel today.

First, watch the video.



The story in short: This guy is repairing a sink, he climbs deeper and deeper into cabinet under the sink, and then... comes out the other side. On the other side, there is his future self, about seventy years old. He has the presence of mind to take a cell-phone video of him and his older self, which is shown in the above television clip.

He doesn't mention coming back. Unless the future he went to was now (which would put his origin time in the pre cellphone-camera era) we have to assume that he... I don't know. Woke up back in his kitchen?

The television production value of this clip, which is pretty interesting at first glance, makes it a little more emotionally compelling than the homemade stuff you see on YouTube. Of course, if you watch Fox News, (or any news at all, to a lesser extent), you know that the people who give you your television don't think much of your intelligence. Even if nobody involved in a program like this believes in the report, it will still make its way to our screens, because we, as a viewing audience, love it. Honesty only rarely gets in the way of cashflow.

To be honest, I'm almost embarrassed to cover this video. In my mind, it's a very weak hoax. But, keeping in mind that the rest of the world doesn't necessarily see things through my eyeballs, I'll spell out my thoughs.

First, his story of climbing under a sink strikes me as sci-fi. And I'm not talking about fantastic, Contact-by-Carl-Sagan sci-fi, but more like silly Johnny Test sci-fi. He doesn't describe if the undersink had become a tunnel, or if the tunnel's floor, ceiling and walls had the texture and character of the walls under the sink. If maybe he was mesmerized, and didn't notice that the back wall of the cabinet, that was inches from his face, had disappeared. He didn't mention if there was more plumbing, or another can of Comet, five feet back from the doors. He only says that he climbs under, doesn't describe the compulsion to keep crawling (usually, working on a sink, your butt or knees are on the kitchen floor), doesn't mention how he gets past the p-trap and all that. It's the kind of thing that makes me put down a bad novel, and mark the author's name on my mental blacklist.

Tattoos don't stay sharp
Image by Deanna Wardin
And then the video, there to redeem the inadequate story, instead seems to add a nail to its coffin. For one thing, as many many YouTube commenters have pointed out, the thirty-year-old arm-tattoo seen in the video is crisp, sharp and dark. Skin is not actually archival. While tattoos never go away on their own, they sure do get crummy after a decade or so.

Secondly, and more important to me, the two men in the video only slightly resemble each other. And by slightly, I mean maybe a family member. Something that movies have made us forget is that people's looks don't change that much over time. Two different actors have to play normal Will Smith and kid Will Smith. In real life it's all played by the same actor. We all have a basic face, sometimes seen through a fat filter, or an age filter, a drug-addict filter, but always the same basic image (barring some surgery, of course). I have gained height, weight and a beard since middle school, but I still run into people from that long-ago time who stop and say, "Oh, wow! It's you!" If I knew this guy, and then ran into that older guy a few years later, I can't imagine there would be any recognition. They look more like son and dad than self and self.

Assuming that this is a hoax (I am, of course, assuming that) let's fix it. Let's make it more believable.

Step 1: Fix the older tattoo. Draw the thing on with your marker, and then rub at it for ten minutes. If you're going to age yourself, age every part of yourself.

Step 2: Fix the older guy. Find an older guy with a weaker jaw, nose and brow than you have, and then spend a few bucks on some good Hollywood prosthetics. I'm not talking about Klingons, or anything, but if you match these three features up on a guy that's your color, and your height, you just might drop a couple of jaws.

Weta Workshop could hoax the pants off of me.
Step 3: Attention to detail: Make your little cellphone video with your house in the background, but change things around a bit, get rid of that tarp, maybe build a temporary facade of an additional room. Experts will "discover" these things, and back you up, revealing your made-up evidence to the world.

Step 4: Give your story a remake. You could go on Elance.com and find professional writers who could come up with something good. A nicely filled-out story might cost you less than $100, and much less if you hire from a firm in India (Please look at reviews. Reckless clients will find that a language barrier is the least of their problems).

The story that I would have come up with: I was reading out by the pond, and I kept looking up, because it looked like a person was moving around, but I was only seeing it in the corner of my eye, right at the edge of the water. When I looked directly there was nothing there. I thought I was seeing a ghost or something, so I started trying to just keep watching it out of the corner of my eye. 

But then I saw it get up, and was walking toward me, and I was scared, because I thought that if I looked at it, it would go invisible, but it would still coming toward me. I eventually gave in, though, and I looked up, and it was still there. I thought he was just an old guy, and I was freaked out at this point, so I was going to just leave, but then I noticed... well, that he looked just like me. 

The area looked different, the walnut tree was about ten feet taller. We were both confused, and we eventually figured out that I had somehow, as crazy as it sounded, traveled forward in time. It was 2038, and I was talking to my future self. We talked for hours, and he said he remembered this happening when he was younger, and he told me that he had taken a cell-phone video, because the older him had told him to, so I did it.

I don't remember coming back to my time. I just remember kind of shaking my head, and realizing that I had been standing by the pond for a while, like in a daze. If it wasn't for the video, I wouldn't have told anybody. I wouldn't believe it myself.

I was just happy that I never had to climb under a sink.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Coping with the wrongness of others

Raising kids, sometimes I get asked tough questions. No, I'm not talking about sex questions. Sex questions I at least know the answers to. The questions I have to be careful with are things like:

Four is better
Are there really aliens?

Are there really ghosts?

Did God make libraries?

To many, many people, the answer to these kinds of questions are as straightforward as to the sex questions, maybe moreso. We humans tend to be very certain about our beliefs, and very willing to shove these certainties down the throats of others, especially our children. My answers always involve the phrases, "Some people believe," and, "Other people believe." Sometimes it's more specific. "Lot's of people believe," and, "A few people believe."

My trio of mini-humans have been to church maybe twice. I'm not a Christian at all (I'm also not one of those people that say, "I'm not religious, but I believe in God." I really don't) and the significant other is some form of dormant Catholic. We don't go to church, but when they visit their gramma during the summer, she brings them along, and the eight-year-old has really taken a liking to Christianity. I was dragged to church about once a week growing up, and the obligation drove me away from the practice of religion. I sometimes wonder if the opposite is happening with my little one.

I don't believe in God, but I don't see why she shouldn't. If she asks me why I don't, I'll tell her, but I won't push her. And it's not only because of the (increasingly clear) fact that, when you push children, they tend to push back.

Beliefs really gets to some people. In fact, the idea that others could believe the wrong thing, something that is not true, is a thorn in the side of many. People preach to strangers, call others woo-woos, and all-around lose sleep because untruth is so offensive to them. This is because some of us put a lot of value on the truth.

Of course, giving value to truth sounds like a good thing. It sounds like something the good guy lawyer would talk about in the climax of a legal drama. What's wrong with the truth, after all? Well, it depends on the truth.

Knowing the truth about your poisoned food, an incoming hurricane, or the risks of Russian Roulette, all have immediate practical value.

Knowing the truth about high fructose corn syrup (just corn, my ass), and smoking, and living in the midst of high levels of radiation, have long-term practical value.

Knowing the truth about the age of the universe, though, and natural selection, and how light takes so-and-so years to reach earth from any given star, have, for most of us, zero practical value. These distant and long-term ideas are simply matters of interest. They're things that work our brains, and our worldviews, and excite some of us, but none of them will change the fact that there's grilled-cheese for lunch, with tomato soup.

Image by robinsan (flickr link)
And ideas such as that there is a God watching over you during all of your struggles, and that your loved ones are now living a better life because they're dead, and that your good thoughts are bringing good things into your life, do have value. They change how we cope with circumstances, how cruel our world seems to be, whether to move forward boldly, or with fear. They have emotional value, and being that our emotions drive virtually everything we do, they have practical value. For all of the bad things that have stemmed from religion, most of what we're surrounded by would not be there if it weren't from the inspiration people got from their beliefs.

So, as they said in The 40 Year Old Virgin, don't put the truth on a pedestal. I think that's what they said. For those of you who, like myself, have a passion for the truth, then search for it, study it, roll around in it like a dog in compost, if it do ya fine. And if someone else's belief is different than yours, stop for a minute and consider that their truth probably suits them better, and that they don't need your beliefs any more than they need your shoes.

But if you notice that your friend's food is poisoned, go ahead and preach the truth to him or her, with the assumption that this knowledge will help them out. And if the food isn't poisoned, tell them anyway, and you just may get four corndogs instead of just two.

And four corndogs is better.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 7, 2011

1,200 exoplanets. Any neighbors?

Image by NASA
Take a walk with me, to the scientific fringe. Let's talk briefly about aliens.

I don't mean alien abductions, or alien autopsies, or gray men with bulbous skulls, and eyes that seem far too big to fit two inside of a head (have you ever noticed that?). I'm talking about something more exciting. Aliens that look nothing like humans. Aliens that haven't evolved under our gravity, or our sun. Real aliens.

Before 1992, many believed that our solar system contained the only nine planets in the universe (there were nine back then!). It wasn't a matter of whether this was the only solar system that contained life, but whether it was the only solar system at all. If it were the only solar system, the chance of our existence would be astronomically more astronomically unlikely than it seems now. This specialness would mesh well with the worldview (universeview) of those that wrote the Bible.

But, in 1992, the first exoplanet (planet outside of our solar system) was discovered and confirmed, and we've been looking for more ever since. There are a few different methods that scientists use to detect the planets, because we can't see them the way we see a car down the street, even with powerful telescopes. Astronomers look at the bahavior of stars to determine if there is anything orbiting it, and then determine that thing's properties. That's as far as I'll go here, but feel free to Google it if you're interested.

After the first exoplanet was confirmed, it became a question of whether there existed habitable exoplanets. After all, what good is a molten world, or a gas giant? They're also looking for the possibility of liquid water.

There are plenty of scientists that believe life can't exist without conditions similar to what we have here on Earth, but I personally think that's sort of ridiculous. You can't draw conclusions about life-hosting planets when your sample size is one, after all. How thirsty do you have to be before you start assuming that all life in the universe wants a glass of water? All we can safely assume, I think, is that life requires energy. As has been proven on Earth, though, life-giving energy can be radiated from the center of the planet as well as from outside.

A wet Mars.
Image by Michael Carroll.
That aside, in the summer of 2008, we found out that there is frozen water on Mars, right next door. Enough that, at some point in the past, Mars just might (also might not) have been covered in oceans. The artists' depictions of the red planet with blue seas are exciting to look at.

When some scientists talk about life on other planets, they make sure to mention they're talking about microbial life. I have to say, right now, that this makes no sense to me. I think they say this to sound reasonable, and restrained, (unlike the news, or the lay population). In this gritty, dusty place we call reality, though, it seems unlikely that microbial life would sit around and stay microbial for a million years, just because a few scientists are trying to sound reasonable back on this little blue marble.

In 2009, the Kepler telescope was launched specifically to look for earth-like planets orbiting distant stars.  Well, on February 2, 2011, scientists gave us an analysis of data gathered during five months in '09, and it was big news. 1,200 new planets! About five of them are potentially Earthlike, and at least 54 of them in "habitable orbits." Some of these might be false alarms, but not 1,200 of them.

So, planets aren't as rare as we thought, water isn't as rare as we thought, Earthlike planets aren't as rare as we thought. In my mind, these progressive discoveries are like a road. One that leads to a destination. I can't say for sure what the destination is, but I'll bet all of you twenty dollars that it's life outside of our solar system. My unscientific reasoning says that we just seem to be moving in that direction so fast. And if life as we (don't) know it is out there, even in one place, then it's not a coincidence. Life is too complex to be a coincidence twice. So if there's one more, there's a million more.
True aliens would not look attractive to humans

If you've read, or watched, science fiction, you might have some funny ideas about alien life.  Of course, this is necessary.  The organisms and technologies found on alien worlds in sci-fi are based, almost entirely, on organisms and technologies really found on Earth. I don't think you can (or should) write a story that absolutely nobody can relate to.

Consider these three (of many) assumptions we make in our science fiction, and how they effect our expectations of reality:
  • That a dominant species will be humanoid:  We even make our cartoon animals humanoid. There is no reason for this to be true, as far as I know. This is one of the (several) reasons I question the existence of the "greys" or the "reptilians." The most inhuman aliens we make tend to look like insects. Our imagination will never beat that of natural selection.
  • That other worlds will have a dominant species, at all: The dominant species may very well be an anomaly specific to Earth. One primate got a bigger brain, and started bending the rest of the planet to its will. I don't see this as inevitable. Think about it this way: If humans had never come about, what would the dominant species on Earth be? Sharks? Bears? Orangutans? Of course not. (As a side note, I always hear that dinosaurs once ruled the earth.  Of course they didn't. They just lived here.)
  • A division between plants and animals: Our most basic distinction between organisms is that between the plant and the animal (and the fungus, of course). This only seems so natural to us because it's what we were built (so to speak) around. What are some alternatives? I have no idea. That's the point.

And we can't ignore the very real possibility that my metaphorical road may end with no life on other planets. Our own little Earth may be the specialest planet ever, like we've been saying since we started speaking. It's not good for our sense of wonder, but it's great for our ego. And it would also mean that, when we eventually invent the Starship Enterprise, and start settling these distant worlds, we won't have a repeat of manifest destiny, treating the natives in ways that me may, someday, regret.

Thanks for reading.

Relevant:
I read The Crowded Universe, by Alan Boss, last year. It's a detailed history of the scientific search for Earthlike planets, and the struggles along the way, written in a way that's accessible to the lay person. It also includes an interesting account of the Pluto story, how it was discovered, and then, after much conflict, eventually castrated of its planethood.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Druids, aliens and Stonehenge

I've said before that, just because something seems impossible by human means, even primitive humans, it doesn't mean we need to resort to alien visitation, the modern scapegoat for a number of hard-to-explain phenomena.

I found this video today.  While it's not Stonehenge, it's impressive, and with more experience, and more folks, it just might be Stonehenge.

Stop underestimating your clever, clever species.



Druids and aliens don't mix, anyway.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Men who stare at -porn-? OH! I get it!

So, let's summarize the study first. Daryl Bem would have his test subjects look at a screen, where a pornographic image would appear in a moment, either on the left or on the right. More than half the time, people guessed correctly on which side it would appear. Since people would guess before the computer made the random decision, this was a test of precognition. So, evidence for precognition. Champagne time.

Of course there's controversy. There's a quote in the linked article of, “[Bem’s results] indicate that experimental psychologists need to change the way they conduct their experiments and analyze their data.” This gem of backward thinking (the evidence of your bad experimentation is your results) was attributed to Eric-Jan Wagenmakers.

So what are these amazing results? Well, Daryl Bem found that people guessed correctly an average 53.1% of the time.

Oh.

No, no. You don't have to tell me, it's statistically significant. That's great. But where's that kapow? Where are the big numbers that would get me all titillated? 70%, 85%, 120%. Not fifty-three. Especially when fifty is the average. It's a wonder that there's been no scientific revolution with these kinds of numbers.

Maybe because I'm not a scientist, but I'm not impressed (impressed being an emotion) by most statistically significant numbers. Scientists throw around one percents and one-point-five percents so much that I wonder what kind of returns they expect out of their stock portfolios.

Statistically significant is not the same as emotionally significant.

Let me speak assuming the psi is real, which is a pretty rare assumption for me. I think a scientist needs to do one of these studies, maybe ten trials of 100 people each, with 100 guesses per person, keeping it simple. And then, ignore the average. Forget about it, whatever it was, and, instead, scour your database for the 100 best performers in that group of 1,000. Put these mini Uri Gellers together in the same study, and get some results that really shine. Put together the first and the second round as a part of the required protocol, so that it's still repeatable, let your results sweep the world. This goes for the ganzfield folk, and the pornographic precog folk and everyone else that's trying to impress us with their one-digit percentages. So that I don't need a statistician to tell me it's significant. I can just see the significance with my eyeballs, and feel it in my gut.

And, if you put together your star pupils, and your results still aren't that impressive, then don't make excuses, and don't say shoulda/woulda/coulda. Set aside a moment for some soul-searching, making very very sure that you're not barking up the wrong tree with all of this psi research, and act accordingly. Be a scientist.

Thanks for reading.

PS: This is a public service announcement, regarding the book, that was adapted to a movie, the name of which was used in the article I linked to, the name of which I used in my blog post, here.

You may have seen the movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Whatever you think of that movie (I didn't care for it, myself) please check out the book that it was adapted from (of course, the current edition has the movie cover). The author, Jon Ronson, investigates the government's experiment with creating psychic soldiers by talking to the people involved. Painfully entertaining and interesting, the book is a documentary, which makes me wonder where someone got the idea of making a feature film out of it (as opposed to a film documentary.) It's very very interesting, and the film, in my mind, doesn't do it justice at all.