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:

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

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 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.

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.