Friday, November 30, 2007
This video is a wonderful reminder that we don't always see what we think we're seeing, and that our mind can play wonderful tricks on us. It would behoove us to clutch this wisdom close to our bosom, especially in an age where charlatans and hucksters run free in the wilderness.
Speaking of hucksters, I remember speaking with a friend about homeopathy. He was a devout believer, and was not at all happy when I pointed out that there is no evidence to support the validity of its claims. So what did he do? He hopped on the anecdotal evidence train. His friend knows a farmer in Wisconsin who swears that homeopathy helped cure his cow of some disease, and his veterinarian can't explain how it worked, etc. He still didn't have any scientific evidence to point to, but he convinced himself that homeopathy worked because of a story that somebody told him.
In another example, somebody I knew was breathlessly reliving an encounter he had with a clairvoyant. He was having dinner at a restaurant with a coworker, who brought his "psychic" roommate along. My friend recounted how creepy it was that this mystical seer knew all about his past, and knew -- shudder -- that he was in a recovery program for alcoholism, a fact my friend insists he never revealed to the mystic.
I told him about the ancient art of cold reading, the method by which total strangers may glean information about you and your life, without you ever being the wiser. It's possible, I reminded him, that the "psychic" he encountered could very well have overheard him use a trigger phrase like "sobriety," "medallion," "higher power," or "12 steps," before the reading began, and simply made a note to herself. Then later, during the actual reading, the psychic could have pretended to "pick up" a vibration about my friend's participation in AA, et voilà! A miracle!
These examples are no different than what happens to us when we voluntarily sign up to be tricked by a magician. Our senses and perceptions are being played with, often to our delight. But there is a dark side to this trickery. Aside from relieving the gullible of their cash, many lives are lost and families destroyed by frauds who employ the same practice of deception to make a buck. The only difference between a fraud and a magician is that a magician will always tell you that he or she is deceiving you.
If you need more evidence that we humans are easily fooled, check this out: A new study shows that our memory is far more fragile than we initially suspected. Memories, it turns out, can warp with time to an alarming degree. Every time we recall an event, a situation, or even a photo, we add details that weren't initially present. Then the next time we recall the same event, we remember the added details as though they were there all along. (Remember this the next time somebody tells you that they swear they saw a ghost or a UFO... or a ghost flying a UFO.)
If human perception and memory is so fallible, what are we to do? What can we rely on to accurately perceive and evaluate the universe around us? Why science, of course! Though never perfectly accurate, science and skepticism can help us find our way out of the maze of our senses.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
It turns out the dark mastermind behind this little gem is no other than Liam Lynch, musician and director of film and music videos. He's worked with artists like Sarah Silverman, the Foo Fighters, and Tenacious D., and he now has one more disciple in his army of evil silliness.
He has a fantastic video podcast, with what seems to be hours and hours of stream-of-consciousness-style skits and videos. There are more "fake Marilyn Manson" videos, other various impersonations, and countless imaginary cameos. He also has a CD that should be forever be coupled with The Violent Femmes' self-titled classic in the hearts and minds of the young and young-at-heart.
How much do I adore Mr. Lynch? If my boyfriend and I ever decide to tie the knot, he will perform at the wedding. Anyone who can rhyme "all-you-can-eat lobster" with "destroy the helicopter" immediately earns my undying adoration and devotion.
Go get yourself some funny.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Up until 45 seconds ago, when I read this article about his latest comment on Iraq, I was actually playing with the idea of backing Rudy Giuliani should he make it to the final, inevitable round with Hillary.
I know it sounds treacherous, but I can't help myself. As I blogged about earlier, Mr. Giuliani is the only presidential candidate to refuse to allow himself to be subject to a de-facto religious litmus test for public office.
Maybe not a step forward for science, but at least it was a cold slap in the face of the hard right. It's hard to fuck with somebody who not only saw New York City through the tragedy of 9/11, but also feels comfortable enough in his masculinity to appear in full drag before a camera.
So how on earth did I miss his policy on the Iraq invasion? I mean, sure he's gonna be tough on terrorists. (Who isn't?) But for some reason it didn't occur to me to think that he not only supported Bush's 2003 invasion, but he continues to support the Bush vision of today. For some reason I thought he would at least pretend to distance himself from the least popular president in US history.
Here's another tidbit I didn't know. According to an article in the NY Sun, Giuliani was part of the Iraq Study Group in 2006. Really? Gosh, how did I miss that? He apparently resigned from the group when it became clear that he couldn't run as a republican presidential candidate and acknowledge reality at the same time.
I suppose I need to start picking my battles. The last thing I want is to see four more years of the Clintons, but I guess it beats four more years of unilateral adventurism in the Middle East.
Go on then, Barack. Charm me with your wares.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
I've been a fan (until just now) of Arianna's since I stumbled upon KCRW's Left Right & Center, the podcast I most look forward to every week. It's a refreshing splash of cold water in the face of partisan screeching we are forced to endure in our 24-hour news cycle. Like her counterparts on the show, Arianna never fails to impress me with her insight, her clarity, and her wit.
So imagine my surprise when I read the following passage on her blog:
The physical and the rational [are] in a supposedly eternal and inexorable battle against the unseen and the spiritual. In fact, the barriers between these two dimensions -- built by the narrow rationalism of the Enlightenment -- are now being dismantled by modern science and a growing chorus of personal experiences.Are you kidding me over here? Did she really just suggest that the barrier between the spiritual and the physical -- artificially erected during the Enlightenment, mind you -- is being torn down by modern science?! Somebody get me a tab of acid.
I have no problem with people expressing their religious or spiritual views. In fact, I believe that freedom of religious expression and association is one of the many things that makes this country so great. What gets my hackles up is when people "borrow" science to lend legitimacy to spiritual or mystical beliefs, which are -- wait for it -- outside the realm of science and thus completely immune to falsification. I'm disappointed in Ms. Huffington for falling into the same intellectually dishonest trap as creationists. Creationists!
No Arianna, you may not borrow science to lend credence to your mysticism. Please give it back, thank you. (You may keep your growing chorus of personal experiences. In fact, have the chorus over for munchies and pop in What the #$*! Do We Know!?. I think you'll find the same small-minded, self-absorbed approach to "modern science" that you seem to have.)
What a shame to lose another voice of reason and clarity to this superstitious nonsense. Goodbye, Arianna. I hardly knew you.
Friday, November 23, 2007
It's no surprise that Clinton is trying to out-Christ Obama while Huckabee aims to out-God Romney. What surprised me the most was the extent to which this madness has reached. It's at a fever-pitch, with each contender trying steal the chorus of angels from the other.
I remember seeing an amusing take on this issue a few months ago at the "God-O-Meter" website, a Wheel Of Fortune style game that lets you see just how secular - and sectarian - each candidate ranks. The people behind this quasi-joke were definitely ahead of the curve. Not only do we now effectively have a religious litmus test for public office, but it's threatening to crowd out debate on serious issues like health care, social security, and foreign policy.
And let us not forget how the mighty have fallen. From Jim Bakker to Ted Haggard, from Mark Foley to Larry Craig, we've seen example after example of public figures who are glad to speak down from the mountaintop on issues of morality and values... as long as their dirty little secrets are kept safely hidden in the garage. It seems that the louder one speaks of one's purity, the more likely one is to have a mean impure streak in one's private life.
So how are we to gauge the playing field? Who can we trust? Does the logic work both ways? If a candidate refuses to drink the Holy Kool-Aid, can we assume that he or she is less likely to come apart in scandal down the road?
Now I'm not a huge fan of Rudi Giuliani, especially after he insulted the intelligence of prostate cancer survivors and research scientists by fudging numbers for a campaign ad. And this is only one of many Giuliani-related scandals to unfold in recent months. But he is the only - and I mean the only - 2008 presidential candidate to speak out against this litmus test ridiculousness. He urges the public to focus less on his record as a church-goer, and to more on his record as a politician. That's right, a republican is telling us to ignore his religious beliefs.
I never thought I'd hear the voice of reason coming from a republican, but then again, this is no ordinary presidential race. I'm trying to keep my eye on the ball, switching allegiances more often than a character in a Scorsesian tragedy. Candidate A is anti-science while candidate B is pro-God. Candidate C is for "socialized medicine," while candidate D is seeing UFOs.
Faith doesn't necessarily lead to morality. The men who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were clearly men of faith. What's more, a recent study suggests that there is an evolutionary advantage to being altruistic. Yet we continue to delude ourselves that morality can only stem from faith, and that only people of faith are to be trusted. This is wrong, wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong, and unless this delusion is lifted, it will probably be our undoing.
I'm not a single issue voter, and I sincerely hope not to become one. But science and progress is more important to me than sanctity and piety. I sincerely hope that in the future we'll see far less of this foolishness on the campaign trail. Let's come down from on high. We have plenty of work to do here on Earth.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Now they are offering oodles of content from universities across the country at iTunes U. You can watch videos of lectures on every topic imaginable, from every school imaginable, for free. You can download them and watch them on your iPod just like video podcasts.
Last night I watched a lecture from MIT on differential equations and Euler's method. I didn't understand half of it, but GIRL! I felt just like I was a rich kid from New England.
Read more about it here. Go getcher geek on.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
It turns out that all the President's men, and the President himself, probably encouraged Scott McClellan to lie about the Valerie Plame leak to the press, according to Mr. McLellan's forthcoming autobiography.
Is it possible to be shocked and not surprised at the same time?
Light is finally being shed on an Administration that plays with truth and scientific integrity like Monopoly money. I mean, we all pretty much knew that Joseph C. Wilson and his family were being put through the grinder essentially because he brought back evidence that didn't fit the Bush paradigm. Cooked evidence? Fuck you! We look like we're in a bad episode of the Sopranos? Who cares! Take his wife out. Let's have a war, shall we?
In this global war on terror, we've been led to believe that the only thing more dangerous than a dictatorship with nuclear weapons is a dictatorship with nuclear weapons and no clear separation of powers. Heck, even Saddam Hussein was probably lied to about his own nascent nuclear program, out of nothing but fear. Don't tell a dictator what actually is. Tell a dictator only what he wants to hear, and truth be damned in the process. It is all the more chilling to find out that something eerily similar is probably happening here at home.
For all those who care about truth and intellectual honesty, this is possibly one of the biggest vindications to come about in the last decade. I sincerely hope that Mr. McLellan's whistle-blowing, and the furor that is sure to ensue, serves as a warning sign to elected officials who might be tempted to lie to their constituents in the future, and to American citizens who might be tempted to believe them. (Or is this too optimistic of me?)
I hope that it is a truly unhappy and painfully awkward day in the West Wing today. Happy Thanksgiving, assholes.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
A friend recently sent me a link to a speech by Sam Harris in Washington last month on the subject of atheism and public perception. The gist of the speech, given at this year's Atheist Alliance conference, is whether or not non-believers should call themselves atheists... or secularists… or naturalists… or anything, apparently. He argues that wearing the atheist label is a trap set by religious conservatives, and that we atheists (may I still use the term?) have fallen for it.
My friend's timing was good; I have been mulling over the same topic for some time. In fact, I've been mulling it over since I first refused God.
Without going into too much detail, the whole thing began with a casual affair. It started out innocently enough in the summer of 2005 – a podcast here, a book there. But one flirty coffee date led to another, and I suddenly found myself caught up in a stormy affair with naturalism, casting off beliefs like bags of sand from a rising hot air balloon. The afterlife? Gone. Fate? Off it goes. Superstition and coincidence? Bye-bye, now.
Then it was come-to-Jesus time. Suddenly two decades of belief in God were on the chopping block, and I wasn't sure I was ready. But it almost didn't matter; despite reams of anecdotes and centuries of testimony, it suddenly became plain to me that the evidence for God's existence was, shall we say, not in. I simply hadn't allowed myself to be fearlessly honest on the question, to look coolly and without prejudice at what was in front of me. Why, I was suddenly obliged to wonder, must we as a species insist on invoking the mystical to explain and cope with the emotional and psychological landscapes we are forced to negotiate? Must we rely on imaginary kingdoms and made-up characters to approach the sticky issues of time, mortality, ethics, meaning, and strife?
Anyway, I took the plunge. I unceremoniously rejected the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit one afternoon in between loads of laundry. But almost immediately after doing so, the question of what to call myself came knocking like a nosy neighbor at the garden gate. Am I an atheist… an agnostic… a secular humanist? (That last one's a mouthful.) If cornered at a cocktail party, I'd probably break down and call myself an atheist – as if it was printed on a "hello my name is" sticker on my chest. But ever since I secured for myself a one-way ticket to everlasting damnation, I haven't been able to find a word that correctly – and comfortably – sums up my feelings about the Almighty… and I know I'm not alone.
But it hasn't been a straight path. In the two years since making this decision, I've taken an unexpected turn or two. At first I was a timid and somewhat fearful disbeliever in God, then an outright, "piss-and-vinegar" atheist, and finally just a student of science. In the middle phase I attended an atheism conference in New York, casually enjoined myself to Minnesota Atheists here at home, and helped get an atheist/agnostic AA meeting off the ground in godless Uptown.
I still get e-mails from these organizations, but my interest in them has started to wane. One day I woke up and realized that it seems less important to make my life about what I don't believe in, and more important to make my life about what I do believe in. Now I just try to be the best student of science I can, refusing to surrender an inch of incredulity in any direction. I figure the more I study, praise, and practice science, the better chance I have to affect the world in a positive way. (Assuming, of course, I pass my calculus class.)
In fact, striking this simple balance takes care of the label problem altogether. If asked at a cocktail party (I've really never been to one), I might just give a different answer. Instead of owning the label of atheism, I might be tempted instead to remind my conversational companion that I am a student of science, a fan of philosophy, and a passionate lover of nature.
Do I believe in God? I don't think it even matters. One can believe in flying unicorns, if one is so inclined. But an even more pressing question is whether or not what one believes in is actually true. I think this matters as much as, if not more than, the belief itself. And how can we discover the truthiness of our beliefs? Ah, that's the tricky part. In order to find out, you have to be willing to be flexible in your worldview, if the evidence leads you in a new and unexpected direction.
And indeed, we've landed one of the biggest snags in the whole theism debate, the refusal to acknowledge the importance of proof. Somehow faith is supposed to render proof irrelevant, but this clearly misses the point. If your house was burgled, or if a relative was convicted to death row for murder, proof suddenly becomes the raison d’être. Why the inconsistency? Either proof is paramount to the approach of truth of a matter, or it is not.
And the truth of the matter is what I'm getting at. Wouldn't you rather actually know? I would. I think the universe is far cooler and weirder than we puny humans can imagine. Any price I have to pay in disbelief is more than made up for in wonder. The philosophically satisfying realization that one is comprehending something that is actually true is second to none.
And you don't have to call yourself an atheist to do it.
Monday, November 19, 2007
I'm bitching of course about the latest tactic of religious nutjobs that are hell-bent on getting the Bible taught in public school science classrooms. I'm upset, but I shouldn't be. After all, it was only a matter of time.
Let's do backstory. In the 1920's, it was the old-time religion of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial that first dropped the issue with a thud on the American dinner table. In the 1980's it was the Supreme Court's Edwards v. Aguillard decision that made Bibles in science class an official no-no. The 1980's also brought us the birth of modern creation science, which morphed - evolved, if you will - rather quickly into the theory of intelligent design. And that gets us up to speed, at least through the era of The O'Reilly Factor.
The ID theory got a huge bitch slap in 2005 from - and I just never get tired of pointing this out - a Bush-appointed, conservative republican judge in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. It was the last stop on the denial train for those who had hoped that ID could boldly go where no Bible had gone before (betwixt publicly owned beakers and kilogram weights). Though elated, there were no illusions among the scientific community about the resolve of the other side. We had won only a battle - not the larger war itself. (Go to Nova's website to see a fantastic special on the Dover school board drama and the ensuing court battle.)
Many of us policy geeks and science nerds have been watching patiently from the sidelines since the 2005 Kitzmiller decision, wondering what the next move could be. The IDers had been wounded - mortally wounded. Even a shout-out from President Bush couldn't offer the steam they needed to make it through the end of Britney Spears' career. But creationism, ironically, believes in reincarnation. And since intelligent design was merely creationist science in an fancy suit, it only had to duck into a think tank and do a quick remix. Voila. Creationism 3.0 will be dropping soon at a Fox News throwdown near you.
They may still be swirling up a new look, but a recent New York Times article is giving us an idea of where they might be shopping for sound bites. To bring it all back home in a surprisingly cheap blitz of tinsel-thin irony, they are invoking... wait for it... the suppression of free speech in the public university.
As Lewis Black would say, "I had to remind myself to breathe."
I'm having all kinds of trouble bringing myself to believe that the latest tactic of this wounded beast is to whine that it is being kept out of the very place from which it has been hiding since the Enlightenment. This truly is a beast in danger of swallowing its own tail. An ID proponent would get from a public university science department about as much respect and compassion as a Holocaust denier would get from the history department. And, excuse me, they want this? Oh, wait - Holocaust deniers get lots of free press. Now I think I'm starting to get it.
OK, so I grudgingly admit that the ID gang has a great PR machine. Before they got smacked down by Judge Jones in 2005, they were beating the drums of fairness in the press. They insisted that we "teach the controversy" in the public school science classrooms, and let the children decide. In a world where OJ Simpson gets equal time, this probably sounds reasonable to the average media consumer. (I see a bright future for Karl Rove.)
But the ID clan is going to run into the same problem with their "stop silencing us in the university" tactic as they did with the equal time argument; science isn't a democracy, nor is it a Sunday morning talk show. Demanding attention isn't worth the fishwrap it's written on unless there is credible data to back it up. Merely shooting holes in your opponent's theory doesn't count.
(By the way, Bill O'Reilly and Ben Stein recently went head-to-head - to use the term lightly - on the subject of intelligent design, and it's delightfully painful to watch. Read about it here.)
And just because teachers are being denied tenure doesn't mean they're being suppressed. Or rather, it does. Let me illustrate with an example: how many tenured professors do you know that insist their pet theories of ancient astronauts carry weight with anyone except their hapless undergrad students? This is not suppression of ideas - it is discretion of employment.
Even though I was ready for the next ride on the merry-go-round to start eventually, I didn't expect to see the ID guys taking policy ideas out for a walk so soon. The good news is that if they do get themselves a bigger loudspeaker on the university campus, we will have them right where we want them. "OK, fine," the profs will say. "You have our attention. We won't suppress your ideas in this open and honest arena of intellectual pursuit. We will give you the fair shot you demand. Now show us your data." (Cut to an empty podium with papers flying and doors swinging.)
I understand the appeal of science, I really do. I can see why some religious folk eye it jealously and allow themselves to imagine what it would be like to prove a god's existence. In a way this is a tacit admission that science offers something that religion and superstition cannot; it is the world's only working bullshit detector. It whittles away at the false and lurches towards the truth, caring nothing of the social or moral implications it imparts. It is completely dogma-free. Although cold, it is this impartiality that is science's greatest asset.
But the implications of this cold reality are so big, most religious fanatics miss it entirely. It flies right over their heads. Science is unable to prove or disprove that which is, by definition, outside the realm of science - be it witches or fairies or gods. If a thing is to be supernatural, then it is to be supernatural. If a thing is to be natural, then it is to be natural. This distinction can't be made and unmade at the whim of social conservatives.
Alas Creationism 3.0 will barge full speed ahead, uncaring of the truth, trying to have it both ways. More press releases will follow more local controversies. More books will be published and more blogs will be forwarded. There will undoubtedly be another lawsuit, and there might even be a symposium at the local university. But I sincerely doubt (though I secretly hope) that the stewards of education and open inquiry will put up with yet another wolf in sheep's clothing, even if this time it winds up squarely in the midst of the farmer's shears.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
"The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is unquestionably the most important theorem in calculus and, indeed, it ranks as one of the great accomplishments of the human mind." – James Stewart
So what used to take months of intense labor by a genius can now be done in five minutes by a layman. I'm sorry, but that totally blows my fucking mind. It's because of this revolution that we were able to escape Earth's orbit, land on the moon, and fly robots to other planets.
I feel like I'm unlocking the secrets of the Universe... and I don't even have to score a tab of acid to do it. I love math.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I'm going to go drink some rubbing alcohol now.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
OK, so I haven't been completely honest. I said I'd never watch another horror movie again after watching that reporter dude have himself water-boarded, but I lied. Actually, I only lasted 24 hours.
For creeping through my mailbox the next day came one of the most highly boss horror movies I've seen in the last ten years. Session 9 is like an unholy, three-way marriage between The Ring, The Shining, and Primer… on acid.
How did I miss this one when it was in the theaters? Well, 2001 wasn't exactly the best year to catch movies. I didn't even hear about Donnie Darko until 2004. So every few months I learn about yet another astonishing film from this terrible year that completely escaped my attention. Session 9 is one of those films. So forgive me for gushing about a movie that came out so long ago. Believe me, it's worth revisiting.
Just when I think I've seen the darkest corners of human imagination, more talent emerges. In all of human existence, there are probably only one or two things more frightening than a huge, abandoned mental hospital - and I have no idea what they are. (The basement of the Soap Factory comes very fucking close.) So I send all manner of praise and thanks to director Brad Anderson for bringing us this good, old-fashioned slice of crazy. Also, mad props to Climax Golden Twins for supplying the sick, sick soundtrack.
(All hyperbole aside, the opening twenty-second intro alone is one of the most frightening and iconic moments in film history – and next to nothing happens. Its evil genius is in its utter simplicity. Maybe that's why it succeeds where standard summer popcorn fare fails. There are no explosions, spatters, or swirling CGI. Something makes the evil truly come alive when it's quieter… and close up. Even the last words spoken ring for hours afterward, like the title of a lost Edgar Allan Poe novella.)
For a while, truly good horror only came around once every three years or so. The Blair Witch Project proclaimed in 1999 that horror was not dead, but there was a long dry spell after 2002's The Ring. Finally we started to see sleepers like Shaun Of The Dead, Creep, The Descent, Feast, and Slither follow in rapid succession. Things have really been looking up for fans of fear lately. We've seen Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon and Severance in the last year alone. It seems like indie projects are picking up where Hollywood left off, and thank goodness for that. So if you are a fan of truly chilling flicks that aren't afraid of good acting, intelligent writing, and devastating cinematography, check these titles out. And for heaven's sake, go rent Session 9. Watch it alone, and watch it in the dark. You won't sleep right for a week.