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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I now have a large bruise in the center of my forehead from doing repeated facepalms.  I mean, this is not an unusual occurrence, considering the topics I write about, but the article that spawned this post might have the highest facepalm-to-wordcount ratio of anything I've ever read.

So naturally, I want to tell you all about it, so you can share in the experience.

It's entitled, "Why Eating Food During Lunar Eclipse is Harmful," by a guy named Sadhguru.  The whole thing probably came up because of the lunar eclipse we had this morning, but of course that means all of the advice he gives is a little late.  So my apologies if you already came to grievous harm from your cornflakes, or something.

Anyhow, let's take a look at what Sadhguru has to say.  It'll be fun!  Trust me!
During lunar eclipses, what would happen in 28 days over a full lunar cycle is happening in a subtle way over the course of two to three hours of the eclipse.  In terms of energy, the earth’s energy is mistaking this eclipse as a full cycle of the moon. 
So, all of this bad shit goes down because the Earth made a mistake? You'd think the Earth would have figured out about lunar eclipses by now, since they have occurred twice a year for the past 4.5 billion years.  I mean, it's not like at this point it should be a surprise.
Certain things happen in the planet where anything that has moved away from its natural condition will deteriorate very fast.  This is why while there is no change in raw fruits and vegetables, there is a distinct change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse.  What was nourishing food turns into poison.
I hate it when my grilled cheese sandwich turns into poison, don't you?  Ruins my whole day.

Anyhow, Sadhguru goes on to explain what a poison is, in case you didn't already know:
Poison is something that takes away your awareness.  If it takes away to a certain minor level, that means you are dull.  If it takes away your awareness to a certain depth, that means you are asleep.  If something takes away your awareness completely, that means you are dead.  Dullness, sleep, death – this is just a progression.  So, cooked food will go through the phases of its deterioration much more rapidly in a subtle way than it does on a normal day.
So, let's see.  Cooked food will subtly but rapidly deteriorate during an eclipse, because the Earth got surprised again, and if you eat it, you'll either die, fall asleep, or "feel dull."  Got it.

But I'm sure what you're wanting to ask by this point is, "Yes, Sadhguru, but what about raw food?  Can we eat raw carrots or something without poisoning ourselves into dullness?"  Fortunately, he addresses that very point:
If there is food in your body, in two hours’ time your energies will age by approximately twenty-eight days.  Does that mean you can eat a raw food diet on such a day?  No, because the moment food goes into your body, the juices in your stomach attack and kill it.  It becomes like semi-cooked food and will still have the same impact.
Well, I sure as hell hope your stomach acid kills your food, although I do question why you're eating things that are still alive.  I mean, we're not Klingons snarfing down live gagh or something, fer cryin' in the sink.

I mean, I'm not.  No judgment here if that's what you do.

But what do we do about all of this?  I mean, I don't want to have 28-day-old live chickens in my stomach, or anything. not to mention eating poisonous banana pudding, or whatnot.
When the body is in a confused state, the best thing is to keep it as empty as possible, and as conscious as possible.  One of the simplest ways to be conscious is to not eat. Then you will constantly be conscious of at least one thing.
Yes.  Being really hungry.  But do continue.
And the moment your stomach is empty, your ability to be conscious becomes so much better.  Your body becomes more transparent and you are able to notice what is happening with your system much better.
I don't think I want my body to be transparent.  As I recall, this caused problems in the historical documentary Hollow Man, wherein Kevin Bacon turned himself invisible by stages, and it not only looked extremely painful, it was seriously puke-inducing to anyone watching.

In any case, we don't have anything to worry about, given that the lunar eclipse is already over, and we don't have to think about this stuff again until the next one on July 27.  Me, I'm going to throw caution to the wind and go fix myself some nice bacon and eggs for breakfast.  It may be subtly deteriorated lunar poison, but it's really tasty.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The natural way

I'm always hesitant whenever I am considering posting something negative about alternative medicine.

I mean, sometimes it's clear.  I have no problem saying homeopathy is grade-A bullshit.  A meta-analysis of 1,800 studies intended to determine if there are positive effects from homeopathic "remedies" found no results -- as one would expect from a "medicine" that has been diluted past Avogadro's limit and which relies on nonsense like "frequencies" and "energetic imprints" to explain how it could work.

I always feel a little shakier when the target is naturopathy.  A great deal of what you hear from this branch of alternative medicine seems to me to rely on the naturalistic fallacy -- if it's natural, it must be good for you.  (And the converse, if it's artificial, it must be bad.)

That said, there are a great many therapeutically useful medicines that do occur naturally.  Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is found in willow bark, vincristine (used to treat Hodgkin's disease) in the sap of the Madagascar periwinkle, and an extract of the venom from the deadly cone snail shows great promise for treating intractable pain.

But to disabuse yourself of the notion that natural = good for you, look no further than the quack remedy "laetrile" made from apricot pits that supposedly destroyed cancerous tumors -- and which contained dangerous amounts of cyanide.

So I'm definitely of two minds regarding "natural medicine."  Just taking something because it's "natural" could have no effect on whatever's ailing you, or worse, might kill you.  But ignoring a potentially valuable substance because it comes from the annals of naturopathy is no better.

Of course, the good thing is that science has a way of evaluating claims of this type.  It's called a "controlled study" and it's the gold standard for testing this sort of thing.  Many naturopaths, however, claim that the game is rigged -- any substance that could be therapeutically useful that was not developed by the pharmaceuticals industry (or, in their lingo, "Big Pharma"), or which wouldn't make them lots of money, gets summarily ignored.

Myself, I've always thought that objection was a little dubious, given the fact that medical researchers have done 1,800 controlled clinical trials of freakin' homeopathy.  If they're willing to give something ridiculous like that close to two thousand tries to prove itself, it's hard to see why they'd balk at testing some potentially useful plant extract.

What I didn't realize, however, was that the naturopaths themselves have their own problems with dubious practice.  A long-time reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago to an article in Vice about a former naturopath who has completely flipped her perspective -- and become a whistleblower for cases where naturopaths have used unapproved drugs, suggested useless therapies for ailments, and worst of all, conspired to cover up their own failures.

The article, "The Former Naturopath Who Became a Whistleblower on the Industry" by Kaleigh Rogers, is an interesting if disturbing read.  The naturopath in question, Britt Marie Hermes, was trained at Bastyr University, one of the best known naturopathic medicine teaching facilities.  She threw herself into it full-throttle -- until what she was seeing around her pulled her up short.

"It was world-crushing," Hermes said.  "I came to the conclusion that naturopathy is rife with unethical practices and undertrained professionals.  It was really hard to process...  I guess I have become a thorn in the profession's side."

Which highlights what I was saying earlier; we do have the means to test claims, it's just that the naturopaths often don't do that (or, as with homeopathy, don't believe the results even when we do).  It's a shame, because that means that any potential good discoveries -- the next generation of substances like vincristine -- gets lost under tons of confirmation bias and defensiveness.

It's why we need people like Britt Hermes.  It keeps us honest.  It keeps us from trusting our gut instead of peer-reviewed science.

But it does raise hackles.  I get more hate mail when I criticize alternative medicine than I do when I criticize young-earth creationism, and that's saying something.  People feel strongly about this, which is why Hermes herself is facing a defamation lawsuit by a German naturopath who took exception to her slamming dubious and poorly-tested "cures" (such as intravenous baking soda to treat cancer).  The bottom line is that we have a tried-and-true method for determining the efficacy of potential drugs.

It's better known as "science."

Or, as Tim Minchin put it, "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."

Monday, January 29, 2018

It's that time again

It's been a big week for time travelers.

I suppose it makes sense.  If you're gonna come back to 2018 from the future, dropping in en masse means you're not just a lone voice shouting about how Donald Trump really does act a lot like a Morlock.  On the other hand, the four time travelers who surfaced last week didn't really have much in common, so it might have been better to stagger their appearances, all things considered.

First we have "Mona," who says she comes from the year 2100, when she was given the official job of Time Traveler, and chose to come back here.  She says she was born in 2060, and when she was little, she always wanted to get good grades so she'd "get rich when she was an adult."  But that idealistic goal was thwarted when "two men in black suits" left a note on the door that only Mona was allowed to read.

Spoiler alert:  It was not an invitation from Hogwarts.

She was given instructions for where to go, and again admonished not to let anyone (including her parents) know what she was doing.  So she did as she was told, and was welcomed into the Time Traveling Division of the US Government.

[image courtesy of photographer Guilhem Vellut and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, I don't know about you, but I think it would be wicked cool if the government had a Time Traveling Division.  I mean, we do have the Department of Education, which under Betsy DeVos's leadership is attempting to transport us back into the Middle Ages, but that's not really the same thing.

Anyhow, after joining up, she lived in an "underground bunker in the middle of nowhere," where "the only thing [she] had for education-wise (sic) was how to become a time traveler."  She had injections that slowed her aging down by ten percent, which would certainly be nice.  Then she traveled back to "the early 2000s and even back to the 1950s," where she was instructed to "take notes on tragedies."

This was extremely boring, Mona says.

Then she gets to the most important stuff, which is what's going to happen in the future (at least, what will be the future to you and me).  No flying cars, she says, which sucks.  The roads, she said, were "solar powered, which reduced crashes," which doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  I mean, roads kind of just sit there, and I don't see how making them out of solar panels would help out the cars or reduce the number of accidents.

Global warming, she said, happened as per the scientists' predictions.  "The sea level rose," Mona tells us, "and omigod it's hot."  So that sounds like concrete proof, right there.

Second, we have Clara, who went forward to the year 3780, and then came back here to tell us all about it.  She was lucky, she says, because other people had been sent forward and weren't able to come back.


Because, of course, in 3780 there was a catastrophic war between humans and robots.

People, she says, designed robots for the purpose of making them coffee (I'm not making this up), but then the robots understandably decided they were sick of being baristas, and tried to overthrow humanity.  And they succeeded.  Humanity was totally defeated, probably because without coffee, many of us could not defend ourselves effectively, or necessarily even realize there was a robot aiming a laser pistol at us.

Her instructions, she said, were to bring back some 40th-century robotic technology to 2018.  Why is unclear.  Maybe she wanted to get the robot rebellion started early, figuring that given the state our government is in now, not waiting until 3780 to turn it over to our robotic overlords might be an improvement.

Anyhow, she said that the time machine's name was "Isaac" (for the record, I am still not making this up), and it was made of a "collaboration of metallic chairs, human beings, and series in physics of electricity and frequencies of time."  Whatever the fuck that means.

How it works, Clara says, is that the needles "inject electricity" into the time traveler's body, and "the whole thing is control [sic] by formulas."

At that point, I was laughing so hard I couldn't hear what Clara was saying, so I turned the video off.  (The whole thing is 22 minutes long, and I got through five.  Maybe you're made of sterner stuff than I am, and will persevere.  If so, I doff my hat at you, acknowledging your greater bullshit tolerance.)

Third, we have an unnamed guy in a bright blue Columbia jacket who said he jumped from the 1990s to the year 6000.  (So I guess we survived the Great Robot Rebellion of 3780 after all.)  In 6000, he says, there's artificial intelligence that runs the whole world, and humans are "spreading our consciousness throughout the universe."  Which sounds pretty good.

Then he brings forth the pièce de resistance -- a photograph of a city in the year 6000.  (If you understandably want to skip to the good part, he pulls the photograph out at 5:45.)  I'll warn you, though; the photograph is a little... disappointing.  It looks like a blurry view of the Chicago skyline.  The blurriness, he says, is because "time travel causes photographs to get distorted."

So that explains that.

Then he tells us the story of a friend of his who he had to leave behind in 6000.  He has to stifle a sob more than once, even though, he says, the friend "is in a good place... because the future is a utopia."

Last, we have a guy who made it all the way to 9428.  By this time, I was getting a little tired of hearing about how it sounded unbelievable but it was all true, and I kind of stopped listening.  (However, he did say something about the time machine being "a metal chair suspended over a huge swimming pool... filled with blue jelly."  Which if nothing else was an interesting mental image.)

Anyhow.  That's today's news from the world of woo-woo.  Me, I'm just glad we're going to make it to 9428, because at the rate we're going, I figured it was a flip of the coin that we'd survive to the end of 2018.  I doubt I'll still be around, but maybe they'll come up with those anti-aging drugs Mona takes, and I'll have a shot at making it at least to 2100 and seeing how solar-powered roads work.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lending a hand

After seven years in the business of writing six times a week about bizarre beliefs, it's a little astonishing that I can still run across ones that I've never heard of before.

It is less surprising, perhaps, that the source of this claim was the inimitable Nick Redfern, whose inquiries into ghosts, the paranormal, and cryptozoology has made him something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia.  This time, though, he came up with something pretty unique:

That a road in Dartmoor, Devonshire, England is haunted by a pair of gigantic hairy hands.

According to the legend, the road between the villages of Postbridge and Two Bridges is fraught with peril.  People driving along it (or, in an earlier day, riding a horse) were putting themselves at risk of being accosted by a pair of disembodied hands that appear out of nowhere, grab the steering wheel (or reins), and cause the car (or horse) to veer off the road.  The tale is interesting enough that Redfern has actually written about it twice, first back in 2011, and most recently last week.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I will leave you to check out Redfern's accounts of the Hairy Hands causing accidents, some of which go back to 1910, and will just quote one -- an encounter that allegedly happened in 2008:
Michael Anthony worked, at the time, for a supplier of photo-copying machines in Britain, and spent a lot of time traveling the length and breadth of the country meeting clients and promoting – and hopefully selling and/or leasing – his company’s products.  Late on the night of January 16, 2008, Anthony was driving along the B3212 road when he had a terrifying encounter with the unknown... 
According to Anthony, it was around 11.00 p.m., and he had been visiting a customer in Postbridge.  The evening had gone very well, a deal had been struck, contracts had been signed and exchanged, and a pleased and satisfied Anthony was now homeward bound to the city of Bristol... 
Anthony had barely left Postbridge, when his skin began to feel distinctly cold and clammy, and a sense of dread and fear completely enveloped him...  He explained further that perhaps two minutes after the atmosphere in his car became oppressive, fear-filled, and even somewhat malevolent, he felt his hands begin to “go numb.”  He added: “I actually thought I was having a stroke.”  Fortunately, it was no stroke.  In some ways, however, it was far worse. 
Anthony could only look on in both complete horror and disbelief as, just as had been the case so many decades earlier, a very large pair of hair-covered hands, or “paws,” as he intriguingly described them, encased his own hands, and then suddenly attempted to forcibly steer the car towards the edge of the road and skidded onto the cold, moonlit moors.  To his credit, Anthony struggled valiantly with the wheel and, on three occasions, fought off the actions of the spectral, hairy intruder in his midst. 
Interestingly, after the third attempt, said Anthony, the hands simply vanished into thin air, amid a brief flash of light.  The shaken driver floored the accelerator and did not stop until he reached one of the service stations on the M5 motorway.
So there you have it.  I can say with some certainty that, skeptic though I am, if this happened to me, I'd scream like a little girl and wet my pants.  Because although I'm a skeptic about the paranormal, I'm also a great big coward.

Be that as it may, I'm a little disappointed that I only found out about this now, because I was in England two summers ago and took a train right through the middle of Dartmoor.  Had I known about the Hairy Hands legend, I would have definitely made a detour to Postbridge, and dared the Hands to do their worst, even knowing that if the whole thing turned out to be true, I'd have certainly regretted that decision.

But still.  So near and yet so far.

Anyhow, there is is -- a paranormal legend that I'd never run across.  You should definitely check out Redfern's accounts, which are highly entertaining reading.  I wasn't able to find out where the Hands supposedly came from -- whether they're supposedly from a ghost, a werewolf (the hair, right?), or something else.  Whoever they belong to, however, might want to consider driving lessons.  Better safe than sorry.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Life out of balance

As anyone who is a regular reader of Skeptophilia knows, I have a bit of an obsession with alien life.

My students know this, too, not because I bring it up in class, but because I have a poster from the Roswell UFO Museum, the Fox Mulder "I Want to Believe" poster, and a ceramic pot shaped like an alien head in my classroom.

I also have a lot of Bigfoot-related stuff, but we'll save that for another time.

Despite my obsession, I recognize the problem with the claim that extraterrestrial life has been detected, or (even more) that alien intelligence has made it here to Earth.  I've examined a lot of claims for both, and none of them have held up to scientific scrutiny.  It's too bad, really; I think one of the best moments I've ever seen in a science fiction movie was when Zefram Cochrane shakes hands with the Vulcan at the end of Star Trek: First Contact.

I've imagined myself many times in the position of being the first human to welcome a friendly alien intelligence to Earth.  The sad truth is that, without warp drive, the interstellar distances are simply too large.  Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which sets the speed of light as the ultimate universal speed limit, has never been shown to have an exception -- nor that there's some kind of technological workaround.

Dilithium crystals notwithstanding.

So we're kind of stuck here, meaning that if we do detect life on other planets, it'll have to be remotely.  And now three scientists, from the University of Washington and the University of California-Riverside, have shown us how we might do that.

In a paper that came out in Science:Advances this week, titled, "Disequilibrium Biosignatures Over Earth History and Implications for Detecting Exoplanet Life," astronomers Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Stephanie Olson, and David C. Catling have developed a method of figuring out whether an exoplanet hosts life -- by simply analyzing the spectral lines from its atmosphere.

The idea here is that life keeps Earth's atmosphere out of balance -- more specifically, out of chemical equilibrium.  The most obvious example is the presence of diatomic oxygen, which is highly unstable (it is, unsurprisingly, a strong oxidizer).  If all life on Earth were to vanish, the amount of atmospheric oxygen would decline until it was very close to zero, as it interacted with (and was chemically bound up in) rocks and sediments.

As has been so often pointed out in seventh-grade life science classes, without photosynthesis, we'd be monumentally screwed.

So what Krissansen-Totton, Olson, and Catling did is to figure out how far out of chemical equilibrium an atmosphere would have to be to be a significant indicator for the presence of life.  The authors write:
Chemical disequilibrium in planetary atmospheres has been proposed as a generalized method for detecting life on exoplanets through remote spectroscopy.  Among solar system planets with substantial atmospheres, the modern Earth has the largest thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium due to the presence of life.  However, how this disequilibrium changed over time and, in particular, the biogenic disequilibria maintained in the anoxic Archean or less oxic Proterozoic eons are unknown.  We calculate the atmosphere-ocean disequilibrium in the Precambrian using conservative proxy- and model-based estimates of early atmospheric and oceanic compositions.  We omit crustal solids because subsurface composition is not detectable on exoplanets, unlike above-surface volatiles.  We find that (i) disequilibrium increased through time in step with the rise of oxygen; (ii) both the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic may have had remotely detectable biogenic disequilibria due to the coexistence of O2, N2, and liquid water; and (iii) the Archean had a biogenic disequilibrium caused by the coexistence of N2, CH4, CO2, and liquid water, which, for an exoplanet twin, may be remotely detectable.  On the basis of this disequilibrium, we argue that the simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and COin a habitable exoplanet’s atmosphere is a potential biosignature.  Specifically, we show that methane mixing ratios greater than 10−3 are potentially biogenic, whereas those exceeding 10-2 are likely biogenic due to the difficulty in maintaining large abiotic methane fluxes to support high methane levels in anoxic atmospheres.  Biogenicity would be strengthened by the absence of abundant CO, which should not coexist in a biological scenario.
So that's what is known, in scientific circles, as "pretty freakin' cool."  The SETI Project and other programs designed to detect electromagnetic signals from ET are awesome, but the problem is, it tells us nothing about forms of life out there that for one reason or another might not use electromagnetic transmissions.  In fact, some scientists think that the era of using EM carriers for information might be fairly short -- for us here on Earth, it began about 120 years ago, and could well be drawing to a close already because of better technology.

The proposal by Krissansen-Totton et al. might give us a means of detecting life of all sorts -- not just intelligent life.  Which, as a biologist, I find tremendously exciting.  I mean, if a Vulcan ship isn't going to land in my back yard, I'll take what I can get, you know?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Foundations on sand

I try to be polite, but there are times that there really is no reasonable response to a person other than, "I hate to have to point this out, but you're lying."

Surprisingly, I am not talking about either Donald Trump or Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Even more surprisingly, I'm not referring here to any politician.  I'm referring to a story that I ran into yesterday where people are taking seriously the claim by a Lithuanian woman named Stanislava Monstvilene that she not only has lived on, but has cured her own stage-4 brain tumor with, a diet composed solely of wet sand.

I know I say this a lot, but I wish I was making this up.  Sadly, this is true, and what's worse, there are some natural-diet alternative-medicine types who think this is really (1) possible, and (2) a good idea.  But let Monstvilene speak for herself:
I had a late stage brain tumor.  They said I wouldn’t last long.  My hemoglobin level was 60 [some five times over the normal range].  I was passing by and once an idea came to my mind – take the sand and eat it.  For the first time I choked but then I got used to it.  You should not mix it with food or water.  You should not eat anything else, otherwise you will feel sick.  And the water should not be drunk.  I used to eat wet sand so after it I do not want to drink.
Just reading this makes me want to drink, and I'm not talking about water.  But six AM is a little early for a double scotch, so I'll just soldier on.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There is a condition where people feel compelled to eat non-food materials, especially dirt, chalk, stones, hair, and paper.  It's called pica, and is associated with mineral deficiencies, anemia, and mental instability.

And although some of those substances -- particularly dirt and chalk -- are mineral-rich, your body is generally incapable of handling minerals in that form.  Most minerals (such as calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, cobalt, and so on) that are necessary for health are only absorbed easily if they're chelated -- bonded to an organic compound.  (This is why, for example, zinc supplements are usually in the form of zinc gluconate, and you will not achieve the same effect by chewing on a galvanized nail.)

So pica might result in a compulsion to eat weird stuff, but there's no indication that eating the weird stuff does anything for the underlying condition that caused the pica.

But back to the Sand Lady.  Because she's not just saying she's supplementing her diet with wet sand; she's saying that wet sand is all she eats.  Ever.  (Or drinks.)

To which I respond: bullshit.

Sand, and it pains me even to have to state this, has zero calories.  Most sand is finely ground silica and various types of feldspars (the exactly composition, naturally, depends on the kind of rock the sand was eroded from).  But in no case does sand contain enough nutrients to survive on.

So at the risk of appearing as a scoffer, I'm 100% sure that Ms. Monstvilene is chowing down on sand when the reporters are around, and when no one's looking, she's sneaking out for a cheeseburger with extra mayo.

It's a bit like the couple who claimed to be "Breatharians" (living on nothing but air and the "energy of the universe") and the Seattle woman who said she was going to spend a hundred days "living on light" (this didn't work out so well, as her health deteriorated from the combination of starvation and vitamin deficiency so much that she had to discontinue the stunt on day 47, at which time she had lost 20% of her body weight).

You can't subsist on light and/or dirt for the very good reason that you are not a plant.  Now, I know that loony people make loony claims, kind of by definition.  But that doesn't mean you need to believe them, or necessarily even consider them seriously.  There is enough out there that deserves investigation and is actually scientifically verifiable; last thing we need is to spend our time trying to figure out how some woman in Lithuania is living on a sand diet, when in fact, she is not.

(The irony that in writing this point, I am spending my time addressing this situation, is not lost on me.)

So there you are.  There are times when it is perfectly justifiable to respond "You are talking complete horse waste" to a claim.  Now, you'll have to excuse me, because all of this talk of eating is making me hungry.  Not for dirt, fortunately.  I'm thinking more of bacon and eggs.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Children of the sun

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may remember that a few years ago, I did a piece on the "Indigo Children" -- kids who are the "next step in evolution," as evidenced by the fact that they're sensitive, have paranormal abilities, and indigo-colored auras.  But these woo-woo ideas tend to become passé pretty quickly; before you knew it, every other family in your neighborhood claimed that their offspring was an "Indigo Child."

So there was no way the woo-woos were going to have their kids labeled with something so common and pedestrian.  They came up with the next level, which were the "Crystal Children" -- who you could recognize because they had "large eyes and an intense stare" and were able to "function as a group consciousness rather than as individuals."  Which was clearly much more special than those dumb Indigo Children were, even though it makes them sound like the scary kids in Children of the Corn.

But that wasn't enough, either.  So -- I shit you not -- they've leveled up again.  And this one's a doozy.

Meet... the "Sun Children."

Here's a little bit about the "Sun Children:"
It has been scientifically proven that the new children, being born since 2007, have been born with 13-strand DNA, which means that they will have far greater abilities than we have ever had.
So plain old two-stranded DNA's not enough?  I've taught genetics for thirty years, and I never knew about the principle of "the more strands, the better."
These children are volunteer souls, who are now being born, to become the New Leaders, who will be leading the world, from 2050 and onwards. By then the New Golden Age will have been anchored in by the Indigo, Crystal and Rainbow children, who have incarnated after the World War II. 
A lot of the Indigo, Crystal, and Rainbow children were COSMIC souls, from other galaxies and star systems, who were involved with the CREATION of this planet, when it was birthed.
Well, hell.  I missed the "Rainbow Children."  I wonder how many strands their DNA has?  Probably nine or so, I would expect, if you kind of split the difference.

And hey, I was born after World War II myself!  I wonder what kind of child I was?  My parents would probably have answered that question "a pain in the ass," but maybe they didn't know how to see auras.
It is of great IMPORTANCE, for the PARENTS of these new SUN children, to understand, that what worked for them and their parents, will simply not work for these children! 
I'd be satisfied if they had the ability to turn off their caps lock.

But man, that's a lot of abilities, isn't it?  Makes me kind of glad I'm not in the planning-for-a-family stage of things.  My two sons were hard enough to handle as toddlers; I can't imagine how life would have been if they'd been able to teleport, shape-shift, and hurl heavy objects around with their minds. They kind of fought with each other constantly as children, being personality types so different from each other that it's hard to comprehend how they came from the same gene pool, and if they'd been able to fight using telekinesis, I'm seriously in doubt that there'd have been any survivors, and that includes our house.  They did enough damage hitting each other with stuff the ordinary, non-Sun-Children way.

So I'm a little mystified as to how all of those would be good things.

Oh, and about the wide-open stellar gateway (whatever the fuck that means) and the sensitivity to stuff, she has more to say:
THIS MEANS THAT THESE CHILDREN WILL HAVE TO BE KEPT AWAY FROM ELECTRONIC DEVICES WHICH ARE JAMMING THEIR FREQUENCIES: Television sets, computers, mobile phones etc.  They will be fascinated with it, but beware: some of the members of a certain group of people on this planet, KNOW THIS, and are PURPOSEFULLY JAMMING THE FREQUENCY WAVES OF CHILDREN AND ADULTS, VIA SATELLITE COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AND THIS IS DONE AT SUCH A FREQUENCY, THAT WE ARE NOT EVEN AWARE THAT WE ARE BEING HELD HOSTAGE.  This is ESPECIALLY TRUE FOR VIDEO GAMES, PLAYSTATIONS, etc. for all of it is attempting to DE-ACTIVATE these children, so that the planet will not be able to move forward and into the New Age.
Man, it would suck to go through life with jammed frequencies.  I want my frequencies to be all hangy-loosey, you know?  On the other hand, I tend to agree about television, but mostly from the standpoint that 99.8% of television content is blatantly idiotic.  So mostly what it seems to de-activate is people's critical thinking faculty.

Which, if you believe in "Sun Children," must not be that highly developed in the first place.

Anyhow, I'll leave you to check out what else she has to say.  And she does have a lot to say, most of it in all caps.  As for me, I'm wondering what the next incarnation of even more special children will be.  Maybe "Star Children."  Or hell, go big or go home, right?  "GALAXY Children."  Or if we go with the whole frequency thing, "Hypersonic Children."  I know the high-pitched whining ability of many little kids seems to bore a hole directly into my skull, so maybe that's the most accurate one of all.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


As further evidence that there is nothing so innocent and sweet that someone can't interpret it so as to make it appear satanic, today we consider the song "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."

For those of you who don't have young children, this is the song from Cinderella that has the following dark, terrifying lyrics:
Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
Put 'em together, and what have you got?
So I think we can all agree that scare-wise, this ranks right up there with the pea-soup-puke scene from The Exorcist.

No, but really.  I'm not making this up.  I had no idea that this was a thing until I was sent a link by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, which had the following passage:
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (also called the Magic Song) is a novelty song written in 1948 and featured in the 1950 animated Disney film Cinderella, performed by actress Verna Fulton.  It is also a transformation spell, with which the fairy godmother transforms Cinderella into a princess, a pumpkin into a coach and mice into footmen...   [M]agic is REAL; evil Satanic rituals aimed at harnessing and producing energy.  There is fraudulent stage magic, based on tricks and illusion, but even this requires invocations of demons and chanting of spells. 
Magicians work by exercising control over demons who are other-dimensional beings.  They often do this by calling the demons by name, by means of mental discipline and by leveraging symbols that are both concrete and imagined, as drawn in the air itself or expressed through other gestures.  Sometimes implements like bells, candles, incense, salt, knives or artifacts of various kinds are used, which are charged spiritually with demonic presence.
So that's pretty horrifying.  Here I thought that Disney just had old ladies in brightly-colored dresses dancing around singing nonsense to charm the children, when they were actually conjuring up other-dimensional demonic presences.

On the other hand, I always kind of pictured demons as having scary-sounding names like "Beelzebub" and "Mephistopheles."  You know, something with a little gravitas.  I'm don't think I'd be very frightened of a demon who answered to "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."

Anyhow, I started to look into this, and down the Rabbit Hole I went.  Of course there was a mention of this over at the phenomenally wacky David Icke Forum:
Anyone else ever think about this phrase as being actual magik?...  Also interesting that the Dragon Ball Z creator used the three B's as evil magik characters within the series.  Bu had the ability to "absorb" his victims to make himself more powerful.  He would eventually kill both the wizards Bibbidi and his son Bobbidi.
Because the creator of Dragon Ball Z clearly didn't get the idea for the names from Cinderella, or anything.

But that was hardly the only mention.  The site Life, Hope, and Truth did a piece on the song, and others like it:
[T]he Bible is clear—light (God’s way) and darkness (Satan’s way) have no commonalities (2 Corinthians 6:14).  The same power fuels the magic that goes “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” in Cinderella (from a fairy godmother—a “good” witch) and the darkly prophetic “double, double toil and trouble” in Macbeth(from the evil witches). The power behind all witchcraft is Satan the devil. 
It is important to remember that many forms of media, even children’s entertainment, promote the idea of “good” witchcraft.  This is a very sly attempt to deceive the world about the true source of all power apart from God: demonic darkness.
And here I thought both Cinderella and Macbeth were fiction.  Shows you what I know.

It wouldn't be complete, however, unless Focus on the Family got involved, which they did, with an article called, I shit you not, "Is 'Bibbidy-Bobbidi-Boo' Taboo?  Magic in Children’s Entertainment." At least the author comes to the conclusion that Cinderella is probably okay, although it's still better not to mess around with magic at all:
We’d suggest that it is important for parents to pay close attention to the manner in which spiritual power is presented in any story.  It’s crucial to ask questions like, "Who is the source of this power?  How is it portrayed?  What are the results of its use?"  Good spiritual power – for example, the power by which the apostles healed the sick and the lame in Jesus’ name – comes from God.  He gives it to His people to accomplish His purposes, and it is always used for His glory.  Occultic or evil spiritual power, on the other hand, serves the user’s own selfish interests.  It is dangerous, destructive and manipulative in nature.
You have to wonder where turning mice into horses falls on that spectrum.

But to return to my earlier point: fiction, people.  This is all fiction.  I.e., not true.  You can bibbidi and bobbidi all you want, you can even boo occasionally, and you're never going to improve your wardrobe or get a garden vegetable to turn into a transportation device.

I invite you to try, though.  It'd be entertaining for the rest of us.

Anyhow, to the person who sent me the first link, all I can say is: thanks.  The imprint of the keyboard I now have on my forehead will be a source of much amusement for my students.  As far as the people who believe all this horseshit: please, please don't go see Fantasia.  You'd probably piss yourself during the walking-broom scene.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Bigotry division

I find it infuriating the way certain phrases have become dog whistles for people who live for the opportunity to take rights away from others.

For example, "religious freedom."  Of course, that one was appropriated by the narrow-minded centuries ago, when the Puritans came to North America seeking "religious freedom" and proceeded to harass, jail, torture, and execute people who didn't follow their religion.

It'd be nice if we'd outgrown that sort of thing, but we haven't, as evidenced by the announcement last week that there was going to be a new division of the Office of Civil Rights, within Department of Health and Human Services:

The "Conscience and Religious Freedom Division."

Make no mistake about it; this is not about protecting anyone's right to attend the house of worship they choose (or none at all).  That right was never in jeopardy.  This is about protecting the rights of Christians to deny services to people they disapprove of, and call it "exercising religious freedom."  This is giving license to the bakers who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay marriage.  This is about the hospital that refused to perform a hysterectomy for a transgender man.  This is siding with the pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for birth control.

What is most galling about this is that many of the people who are crowing with delight about this are the same ones who were howling that America was on the verge of enacting Sharia law when a Target store in Minneapolis/St. Paul decided to accommodate some Muslim cashiers who refused to ring up pork products.

Folks, it's the same thing.  Whatever "religious freedom" means, it is not "being forced to abide by the rules of Christianity whether you want to or not."

And these people don't seem to realize how quickly this could be turned on its head.  What happens when a gay doctor refuses to provide service to a Christian patient?  Or atheist cashiers refuse to ring up a purchase of Christmas cards?  Or, for that matter, Muslim cashiers state that they won't handle bacon?

You'll have these same folks screaming bloody murder.

Look, it's simple.  If you went into the pharmacy business and didn't know you were going to be expected to sell birth control, you're an idiot.  Besides, the rules of your church don't say your job is to prevent others from using birth control; they just say you're not supposed to use it yourself.

Same for the bakers.  What, you didn't know there were gay weddings?  And hospital directors didn't know they were going to be expected to perform vasectomies, tubal ligations, and gender reassignment surgery?

If any of that is true, then you're more in need of a "Moron Protection Division" than you are a "Religious Freedom Division."

So it's not about freedom.  It never has been.  It's about maintaining the hegemony of the in-power majority (and yes, Christians, you're still in the majority, whatever Fox News's hysterical diatribes about how imperiled Christianity is in the United States have to say about it).  It's about maintaining the right of one group to refuse service to another group based upon simple bigotry.

But right now, the current administration is pushing this agenda full-throttle.  How much of it is deeply-held belief and how much cynical, calculated appeasement of the party base, I have no idea.  What I do know, however, is that this is a profoundly immoral stance.  It is no more moral than the "Whites Only" signs of the Civil Rights Era.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Sad that we have to fight these same battles again, isn't it?

I live in hope that wiser (and more just) heads will prevail here, but at the moment, the bigots are still in the ascendancy.  It's a scary time, and not just for this reason, but I believe that right will prevail.  As Stephen King put it, in his novel The Stand, "The effective half-life of evil is always relatively short."

May we see it end soon.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Bubble physics

I'm going to ask you for a favor, and yes, this applies even to anyone reading this who is a non-science type: before you post and/or comment excitedly upon the latest popular-media article about some scientific research, go to the original research and see if it's really what the popular media are claiming it is.

I mean, at least read the abstract.  That's often enough to convince yourself that no, NASA hasn't developed warp drive yet; no, almost no reputable astronomers think that the mysterious light-intensity wobble from "Tabby's Star" is due to an alien megastructure; and no, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is not going to have a cataclysmic eruption soon (unless you consider "some time in the next 100,000 years" soon).

All, by the way, claims that I've seen posted on social media in the last month.

The latest example of this, however, comes from some research published a couple of months ago by physicists at the University of Rochester, in which they are said to have "created a device that generates 'negative mass.'"

This resulted in a number of near-hysterical articles about antigravity and "unknown forces in nature" and "rewriting everything we know about physics."

To which I respond: just hang on a minute.

Let's go to the original paper itself, which has the remarkably unsexy title, "Anomalous Dispersion of Microcavity Trion-Polaritons," which appeared in Nature: Physics.  Here's the abstract:
The strong coupling of excitons to optical cavities has provided new insights into cavity quantum electrodynamics as well as opportunities to engineer nanoscale light–matter interactions.  Here we study the interaction between out-of-equilibrium cavity photons and both neutral and negatively charged excitons, by embedding a single layer of the atomically thin semiconductor molybdenum diselenide in a monolithic optical cavity based on distributed Bragg reflectors.  The interactions lead to multiple cavity polariton resonances and anomalous band inversion for the lower, trion-derived, polariton branch—the central result of the present work.  Our theoretical analysis reveals that many-body effects in an out-of-equilibrium setting result in an effective level attraction between the exciton-polariton and trion-polariton accounting for the experimentally observed inverted trion-polariton dispersion.  Our results suggest a pathway for studying interesting regimes in quantum many-body physics yielding possible new phases of quantum matter as well as fresh possibilities for polaritonic device architectures.
Got all that?  Frankly no, neither did I, and I have a degree in physics.  But if you go through it carefully, and look up a few terms like "exciton" and "polariton" and "optical cavity," you find out that the researchers didn't invent a new sort of matter with "negative mass," as at least some of the popular-media summaries claimed.

It turns out that an "exciton" is related to a concept I ran into when I was taking a course in electromagnetism as an undergraduate; that you can treat the absence of an electron -- a "hole" -- as an actual particle, map how it moves, interacts, and affects other electrons or holes in the vicinity.  No physicist claims that these holes are actual things; simply that you can model how electrically-charged particles act by treating them as if they were.

In that sense, they're a bit like bubbles rising in water.  You can model the behavior of bubbles as if they are made of some exotic negative-mass object being repelled by gravity, and come up with completely consistent physics about their behavior; that doesn't mean they actually have negative mass.

They simply behave as if they did, so it's convenient to look at them that way.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem, of course, is that this is not nearly as thrilling to the general public as saying that bubbles represent some strange new form of matter that experiences antigravity and will lead to Star Trek-style transporters and faster-than-light travel.  And since clicks and/or subscriptions are what keep popular media in business, you can be certain that they're going to characterize it whatever way it takes to make you click the link.  The vast majority of media outlets honestly don't give a damn what happens after that, up to and including whether you actually end up understanding what you read.

So please, please go to the source.  Look, it's not like I'm perfect in this regard myself all the time.  I get carried away by wishful thinking and confirmation bias, especially with regard to warp drive, which I really really REALLY want to be real.  But try to hold your preconceived notions in abeyance for at least as long as it takes to find the original research and see if what's being claimed is what the scientists actually said.

Then, and only then, decide whether you want to share the link.

My guess is that this would cut the amount of spurious media sharing by about 90%.  Of course, it's not like I've done any research on this myself.  Only a supposition based on no particular empirical evidence.

I.e.  I pulled the 90% figure out of my ass.

So please don't quote me on that.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Climbing Mount Stupid

So the long-awaited "Fake News Awards," intended to highlight the "most DISHONEST and CORRUPT members of the media," were announced yesterday.

Or at least, Donald Trump attempted to announce them.  Under a minute after the announcement was made, the site crashed, and last I checked, hadn't been fixed.  But a screen capture done before the site went down lets us know who the winners were.  They seem to fall into two categories:
  1. Simple factual misreporting, 100% of which were corrected by the news agency at fault after more accurate information was brought forth.
  2. Anyone who dared to criticize Donald Trump.
Unsurprisingly, this included CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.  The tweetstorm from Trump hee-hawing about how he'd really shown the press a thing or two by calling them all mean nasty poopyhead fakers ended with his mantra "THERE IS NO COLLUSION," which is more than ever seeming like "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

So far, this is unremarkable, given that accusing everyone who disagrees with him of lying, while simultaneously claiming that he is always right, has been part of Trump's playbook ever since he jumped into politics.  But just last week a study, authored by S. Mo Jang and Joon K. Kim of the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, brought the whole "fake news" think into sharper focus.  Because their research has shown that people are perfectly accepting that fake, corrupt news media exist...

... but that people of the other political party are the only ones who are falling for it.

The study, which appeared in Computers in Human Behavior, was titled, "Third Person Effects of Fake News: Fake News Regulation and Media Literacy Interventions."  The authors write:
Although the actual effect of fake news online on voters’ decisions is still unknown, concerns over the perceived effect of fake news online have prevailed in the US and other countries.  Based on an analysis of survey responses from national samples (n = 1299) in the US, we found a strong tendency of the third-person perception.  That is, individuals believed that fake news would have greater effects on out-group members than themselves or in-group members.  Additionally, we proposed a theoretical path model, identifying the antecedents and consequences of the third-person perception.  The results showed that partisan identity, social undesirability of content, and external political efficacy were positive predictors of the third-person perception.  Interestingly, our findings revealed that third-person perception led to different ways of combating fake news online.  Those with a greater level of third-person perception were more likely to support the media literacy approach but less likely to support the media regulation approach.
Put more simply, people tended to think they were immune to the effects of fake news themselves -- i.e., they "saw through it."  The other folks, though, were clearly being fooled.

Probably the only reasonable explanation of why everyone doesn't agree with me, right?

Of course right.

It's just the Dunning-Kruger effect again, isn't it?  Everyone thinks they're smarter than average.

All this amounts to is another way we insulate ourselves from even considering the possibility that we might be wrong.  Sure, there are wrong people out there, but it can't be us.

Or as a friend of mine put it, "The first rule of Dunning-Kruger Club is that you don't know you belong to Dunning-Kruger Club."

Jang and Kim focused on American test subjects, but it'd be interesting to see how much this carried over across cultures.  As I've observed before, a lot of the American cultural identity revolves around how much better we are than everyone else.  This attitude of American exceptionalism -- the "'Murika, Fuck Yeah!" approach -- not only stops us from considering other possible answers to the problems we face, but prevents any challenge to the path we are taking.

It'd be nice to think that studies like this would pull people up short and make them reconsider, but I'm guessing it won't.  We have far too much invested in our worldviews to examine them closely because of a couple of ivory-tower scientists.

And anyway, even if they are right, and people are getting suckered by claims of fake news when it fits their preconceived notions to accept them, they can't mean me, right?  I'm too smart to get fooled by that.

I'm significantly above average, in fact.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

It is a good day to die. Or to be a tourist. Your choice.

It is with great pleasure that I announce to you that the world's first Klingon tourist center is opening in Stockholm on February 3.

It's called "Visit Qo'noS," which is a good thing, given that it only contains one word in Klingon.  Otherwise you'd have to feel sorry for the receptionist, who would have to answer the phone, "Good morning," and then make noises sounding like a water buffalo being examined by a proctologist.  Klingon is a true language, invented by linguists hired by the people in charge of the Star Trek franchise; it has a real syntax, phonetic and morphological structure, and so on.  So, even if it's not exactly euphonious to human ears, it deserves recognition as one of the only complete synthetic languages (a distinction it shares with J. R. R. Tolkien's Elvish, John Quijada's Ithkuil, and only a handful of others).

And now, there's a visitor center were you can go to celebrate all things Klingon.

I don't want just to learn to speak Klingon, I want to learn to stare like Gowron.  It would be very useful in my classroom.

Apparently Klingon culture is a big thing in Scandinavia.  There's the Klingonska Akademien, based in Uppsala, which teaches classes in the language, and in fact published the world's first Klingon dictionary.  I have not heard whether they sponsor such events as Bat'leth Tournaments, wherein combatants attempt to sever their opponents' valuable body parts with a double-pointed sword.  In researching that, however, I did find out that you can buy a Bat'leth on Etsy, eBay, and Amazon, and if you don't want the real thing -- and I'm using the word "real" guardedly -- you can buy a Bat'leth letter opener from ThinkGeek.

I have to say that despite my poking fun at this Extraterrestrial Extravaganza, there's a part of me that thinks it is pretty awesome, and it's not because I'm some kind of closet Trekkie (which I'm not; I'm completely out of the closet.  I love Star Trek, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, several episodes of which I can quote virtually in toto from memory).  But even beyond that, my appreciation for this has to do with how awesome it is that the linguists hired by the original show have created a language that is complex and rich enough to spawn a tourist center and a language academy.  C'mon, don't you think that's cool?  You can even take college courses in Klingon. I'm not making this up. The University of Texas/Austin, which has one of the most prestigious Linguistics Departments of any college I know of, has a course in Klingon and other invented languages (or conlangs, as they're called, from "constructed languages").  If you're more serious about your studies, you can attend the Klingon Language Institute, in Flourtown, Pennsylvania (motto: "qo’mey poSmoH Hol," which means "language opens worlds, or else crushes them into dust if they dare to resist").  There, you can achieve fluency, which will no doubt impress your friends, coworkers, and potential lovers ("I know that sounded like I was gargling with yogurt, but it actually means 'You are extremely hot' in Klingon.").

And if you're really into it, you can attend "qep’a’ cha’maH vaghDIch," which is the 25th Annual Klingon Language Convention, being held July 19-21 in Indianapolis.

Okay, I know I'm kind of waxing rhapsodic about this, but it's a particular fascination of mine.  For some years, I have offered an independent study class at my high school in Intro to Linguistics, and the final project for this class is to create the rudiments of a synthetic language.  I assign this project, in part, because it gets students to understand how complex language actually is; I've found that they learn more about English syntax by trying to create a synthetic one than they would from any number of English grammar classes.  They are supposed to submit, as part of the project, a lexicon of at least a hundred words, and a passage from English that has been translated into their language -- my last group translated The Very Hungry Caterpillar, an accomplishment that was far harder than it sounds and of which they were, very rightly, proud.

It's always interesting to see what happens when the reins are loosed on human creativity.  We might laugh about a Klingon Tourist Center (and better to laugh about it than directly at it -- when you laugh at Klingons, they tend to rip your arm off and beat you to death with it).  But it really is pretty cool that such a thing could happen.

I realize I am opening myself up to some serious ridicule here for saying that, but I don't care.  So, to anyone who is going to give me grief about this, I say: "Hab SoSlI' Quch." ("Your mother has a smooth forehead.")

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Templar satellite

It is a never-ending source of amusement to me how easy it is to get the conspiracy theorists' knickers in a twist.

The latest example of this surrounds the launch on January 12 of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying the top secret NROL-47 satellite.  From this you can see that the phrase "top secret" is a bit misapplied, here, given that everyone up to and including the folks over at Mysterious Universe knows the satellite was launched.

On the other hand, nobody much knows what it does, so the sobriquet is appropriate at least in that sense.  "NRO" stands for "National Reconnaissance Office," which is a branch of the Department of Defense that oversees the network of spy satellites, but other than that, not much is known about it.

So far, no problem, given that the United States launches surveillance satellites pretty much every other week.  But what sets this one apart -- and what has the conspiracy theorists experiencing multiple orgasms -- is the logo for the mission:

Well, to a conspiracy theorist, this is considered tantamount to an admission by the NRO that "we are an arm of the Illuminati."  On the other hand, the slogan, "Mali Nunquam Praevalebunt," is Latin for "Evil Shall Never Prevail," which sounds to my ears like a pretty positive message, for Fiendish Agents of the New World Order.

Maybe they're trying to improve their image.  I dunno.

Paul Seaburn, over at Mysterious Universe, weighs in on the topic:
[T]he logo shows a Knight Templar waving his sword as he battles with a dragon...  Why a Knights Templar symbol and what evil is this high-flying knight being sent to battle?...  Why, if it’s a secret spy satellite, would the NRO call attention to it with the sinister slogan and symbol?  “Evil will never prevail” has obvious biblical connotations — here’s a similar passage in Psalms 21:11: “Though they intended evil against You and devised a plot, They will not succeed.”  Then there’s the Knights Templar – warriors of the Crusades , protectors of the finances of the Catholic Church and possible guardians of the Holy Grail.  Who is the NRO sending this kind of message to? 
The dragon is an obvious symbol of China and that country has been launching spy satellites of its own recently, but so have Russia, Japan and India.  What’s on THEIR mission patches?  Could it mean something else?  Are these nations building a satellite wall against some ‘evil’ dragon flying in from somewhere else?  In the galaxy?  Or beyond?  Why are they calling it “evil”? 
And why in Latin?  Have the powers that be already received an alien message in Latin?
Okay, just hang on a moment.

There are a variety of questions I have about this claim, not the least of which is, "Is your skull filled with cobwebs and dead insects?"  Here are a few that I can think of right off the bat:
  1. Are you aware that the fleur-de-lis is not the symbol of the Knights Templar?  The Templars went into battle wearing white with a red cross in the middle.  Some of the members of the Knights Templar who were also French had a fleur-de-lis on their coat-of-arms in addition to the red cross, but the two really weren't interchangeable.  So the knight on the seal doesn't appear to be a Templar.
  2. Second, why is "Evil Shall Never Prevail" a "sinister message?"  Would you prefer, "You're Screwed, Evil's Gonna Win?"
  3. Third, do you seriously think that the NROL-47 satellite was launched in order to fight dragons?
  4. And fourth, that these dragons might be coming from "the galaxy... or beyond?"
  5. Last, why the hell would we expect that aliens would speak Latin?  As Eddie Izzard established, speaking Latin didn't work out so well for the Romans trying to fight Hannibal, so it's kind of a stretch to think that an alien race would spend their time teaching their children "Amo, amas, amat" and the proper uses of the dative case.  I can say from personal experience that it's hard enough to get Earth children to study ancient languages, although it did help when I taught a group of students how to say "you have a nice ass" in Ancient Greek.  (And then I taught them how to say "thank you," because obviously, if you have one, you need the other.)
You know, the insignia of this mission makes me wonder if the Department of Defense knew perfectly well what kind of effect this would have on the Alex Joneses and David Ickes of the world, and decided to do it deliberately.  In other words, they're fucking with us.  If this is the case, all I can do is doff my hat in their direction, and bow down to their superior trolling ability.

But even if that's not the case... you people really need to calm down.  Whatever NROL-47 is about, I can pretty much guarantee that it's not a Templar weapon to combat an evil Latin-speaking Chinese dragon from outer space.  Maybe I'm going out on a limb saying this, but I'm feeling strangely confident about it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Down the hole

By now, everyone has certainly heard that Donald Trump allegedly referred to a variety of Third-World countries, and the entire continent of Africa, as "shithole countries."

I append the word "allegedly" to this statement not because there's any particular doubt that this is how he looks at the world.  I'm just trying to be as even-handed as possible, given that Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said yes, Trump said that, while Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia said no, he didn't.  Trump, of course, denies it categorically, but given that Trump could say something on-air in front of millions of viewers, and five minutes later state with a straight face that he never said it, and his diehard supporters would believe him both times, I'm not inclined to put him either in the "yes" or "no" column.

What I want to address here, though, is a response that I saw posted on social media shortly after the whole incident hit the media.  The initial post I saw showed photographs of slums in Nigeria and Haiti -- two of the particular "shitholes" Trump referred to -- with a text basically saying, "See, he was right."

Of course, the problem here is that if you're selective, you can do that with anywhere.  For example [all images in this post courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons with the exception of the last two, which were taken by me], take a look at the following:

Figure 1: The United States of America 

Or this one:

Figure 2: Also The United States of America 

Or this one:

Figure 3: Yup, This Is The United States Too

And before you get your dander up, I'm not using these to prove that the USA is a horrible place, only that if you cherry pick your data points, you can prove damn near anything.  (If you're curious, the first photo is from Detroit, the second from Camden, New Jersey, and the third from Rand, West Virginia.)

What really torqued me about the social media post, however, was one of the responses to it.  "Far as I've seen, it hasn't been proven that [Trump] actually said that," the comment went.  "But if he did, he's right."

It blows me away how quick people are to use some idiotic internet meme as incontrovertible support of what they already believed.  It's like taking confirmation bias and raising it to an art form.

But really, think about what that person is saying.  That the continent of Africa -- which is the size of the continental United States, China, India, and Europe combined -- can be lumped together under one derogatory epithet and summarily dismissed.  A continent that contains places like this:

Pretoria, South Africa

And this:

Point Lenana, Mount Kenya, Kenya

And this:

The Cape of Good Hope

And this:

Waterfalls in Angola

And has faces like this:

Woman from Gambia

Yes, I know there's terrible poverty and corruption in Africa.  The thing is, there's terrible poverty and corruption everywhere.  By looking at the United States as some kind of pinnacle -- and by claiming that what Trump and his cronies are doing is "making America great again" (merciful heavens, I am sick unto death of that phrase) -- you are ignoring both the beauty in other parts of the world and the problems we have right here in our own back yard.

So for cryin' in the sink, before you throw your opinion in with a guy who is an unashamed racist (yes, I said the word), try breaking out of your own comfortable little bubble of smug certainty and travel to some of these countries that Trump and his supporters have dismissed with a single word.  You see, I have.  I've been in places like Belize and Ecuador and Trinidad and Malaysia.  Yes, I saw poverty, and I saw some people in terrible living conditions.  But I also saw this:

Pacha Quindi, Ecuador

And this:

Fraser's Hill, Malaysia

So my advice: stop falling for comforting overgeneralizations.  Get up off your ass and travel to some of the "shithole countries," talk to the people who live there, and realize that the rest of the world is just as varied -- both in good and bad ways -- as the United States.  Listen to Mark Twain, who said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

After that come back and we'll talk.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pod people

There are some days that I feel like I should just give up and let natural selection take its course.

The most recent occurrences that have resulted in my wanting to step back and let humanity turn into one big Darwin Award revolve around two completely separate situations in which people have decided that it's a smart idea to voluntarily ingest detergent.

In the first, we have the latest idiotic thing that teenagers are daring each other to do, which is to swallow laundry detergent pods.  The so-called "Tide Pod Challenge" -- which was checked out by Snopes, and is actually a real thing -- is further evidence that all you have to do is add the word "challenge" to something, and people will be lining up to do it, often having their friends filming them at the time.

This has led to a number of incredulous public figures stepping forward and saying that no, you shouldn't eat laundry detergent, even if your bro dares you to.

"I can’t even believe I have to say this right now," said Diane Macedo, of Good Morning America.

No, Diane, I can't either.  But evidently we do.

Macedo added, "They are brightly colored and they’re very nicely wrapped, but these Tide pods are not candy or pizza toppings or breakfast cereal—they are not edible."

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski concurs.  "What the heck is going on, people?" Gronkowski said.  "Use Tide Pods for washing.  Not eating.  Do not eat....  I’ve partnered with @Tide to make sure you know, Tide Pods are for doing laundry.  Nothing else!"

[image courtesy of photographer Mike Mozart and the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm always hesitant to jump on the middle-aged curmudgeon "Kids These Days" bandwagon, but seriously; I do not recall during my childhood that anyone had to make a special point to me not to drink Windex or eat my dad's shoe polish.  And although I did many dubiously intelligent things after hearing the magic three words -- "I dare you" -- I can say with some pride that snorting Comet tub and tile cleaner was not amongst them.

On the other hand, an article that a loyal reader of Skeptophilia brought to my attention a couple of days ago indicates that neither laundry supply consumption nor being a complete fucking moron is territory occupied solely by teenagers.  CBC News British Columbia featured a story last week about a Canadian couple who are facing dozens of charges in court surrounding their sale of a "tonic" containing sodium chlorite -- better known as laundry bleach -- to cure everything from AIDS to autism.

Stanley and Sara Nowak are accused of breaching the rules of the Food and Drug Act by selling their cure-all, along with the claim that it can "eliminate pathogens."  Which, strictly speaking, is true.  Sodium chlorite is pretty good at killing germs.  The difficulty, of course, is that it will also kill you, but your corpse will be delightfully germ-free.

It's the usual problem with people claiming that some random compound will destroy viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, or whatever, in vitro.  That doesn't tell you a damn thing about whether it will (1) work in vivo, or (2) be safe to consume.  After all, you can kill cancer cells in vitro by pissing in the petri dish.  But that doesn't mean that it's a good idea to ingest urine.

Oh, wait, there are people who do that, too.

The Nowaks are completely unrepentant about selling gullible sick people laundry bleach.  "It has an effect on you," Nowak said in an interview.  "I can't see how they can stop this from going in the same direction it's been going for the past ten years... it's working."

Well, yeah, if by "working" you mean "stupid people are buying it."  As far as curing anyone of their illness, however, not so much.  And given that "death" certainly is "having an effect," I guess that's not an outright lie, either.

So there you have it.  And in case I haven't made this clear enough: don't eat your damn laundry products.  That is not what the adage "a clean mind in a clean body" means.  Although if you have to wait for your favorite football player to point this out, maybe you're the person Darwin was thinking about when he came up with the idea of "low evolutionary fitness."