Friday, August 31, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Blue Moons, and Common Fallacies of Logic and Rhetoric

Billie Holiday "Blue Moon"

"Yf they saye the mone is belewe,
We must beleve that it is true." -William Barlow, 1528

      If you saw the Moon in the sky (like, where else would it be?) last night you were looking at a Blue Moon... sort of (you were actually looking at the precursor to a Blue Moon).
   "What!" you exclaim, "it'd didn't look blue to me. Is this some kind of sick, nefarious trick Joyce?!"
   Not at all. Let me explain.
   References to the moon being blue are quite old comparatively, as the above quote from Mr. Barlow demonstrates. Still only after several centuries did the phrase "once in a blue moon" come to mean something that didn't happen very often. The earliest example of it this is in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821:
   "How’s Harry and Ben? - haven’t seen you this blue moon." (thanks to Gary Martin of Phrase Finder for the info)
   Sometimes it really does appear blue, like after a particularly nasty volcanic eruption which shoots a lot of dirt into the atmosphere, and we look at the Moon through all of that dirt, which absorbs  or scatters other wavelengths or colors except blue (sometimes green, which may be the origen of belief that the Moon is composed of cheese... which is true, it is composed of cheese... Sage Derby cheese to be precise. But don't take my word for it... check for yourself).
   The year is divided into four equal seasons, each 91 or 92 days long. Because there are 29.5 days between full moons, four full moons occasionally get squooshed into a single season.  
   In 1946, "Sky and Telescope" magazine traced the term "Blue Moon" to the "Maine Farmer's Almanac," where it referred to the third full moon in a season that contains four full moons instead of the usual three.
   But whoever wrote that article made a slight technical error and referred to a Blue Moon as the second full moon in a month with two full moons.
   In 1980 a radio program used the incorrect definition, then, in 1981, the designers of the board game Trivial Pursuit came across the 1946 magazine article. They put the definition into the game, and suddenly this incorrect explanation of an unscientific term became "general knowledge."
   Such is the overwhelming power of board games.
   As we have learned, the modern phrase "once in a blue moon..." is supposed to refer to an event that occurs very rarely, however on the average, Blue Moons come along once every 2.7 years. The next one will be in July of 2015. I can't wait!
   In Los Angeles the moon rose at 7:13PM yesterday, about five hours ago. As I post this, the Moon's still up there, but I won't go out and look at it until around 5:30 or so, when I walk over the 6th Street Bridge. The moon will set at 6:34AM. But at 6:58AM, 24 minutes after I won't be able to see it here in L.A., the Moon will reach it's maximum fullness, making it the second full Moon in this month of August (the first being on August 1st), which of course makes it a Blue Moon.
   Isn't it wonderful!
   Accordingly, the private funeral service for Neil Armstrong is being held today, the first man to walk on that Moon, blue, green, or otherwise. Mr. Armstrong died last Saturday in Ohio at age 82.
   Again, goodbye Neil.

   Now back to the business at hand.
   Dr. Sagan made the following list of common fallacies of logic and rhetoric as a companion to the Baloney Detection Kit. Let's take a look:
   1. Argumentum ad hominem (which is Latin for attacking the arguer and not the argument).
   This happens to me all of time when I point out specific facts regarding the differences between the Democratic and Republican history and agenda, with various friends and distant relatives of a conservative bent on Facebook. Rather than take the time to research any particular point I make and actually present a coherent argument themselves they tend to attack me, at which point I respond: "Attacking me does not further your argument." That really pisses them off.
   2. Argument from "authority."
   Mitt (Mitt) Romney, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, tells us that we should vote for him because he has spent many years as a successful business person who will be able to effectively deal with the country's economic problems, much better than President Obama has.
   Mitt is using his position of authority (nominee for President and successful business person) to persuade citizens to vote for him. His argument may or may not be true. Running a country is not the same as running a business. And other considerations should always be taken into account, for instance he has not laid out any specific plans as to how he will actually govern for fear of being attacked by the Obama campaign, in essence saying we just have to trust him that he will be able to do what he says he will do, and considering his estranged relationship with the truth in the past, quite frankly his word doesn't mean a great deal.
   3. Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavorable" decision).
   During the general election of 2004 Vice President Dick (Dick) Cheney argued that if the voters did not reelect President Bush the country would be attacked again like it was on 9/11. Well, how could he possibly know that unless he had plans to attack the country himself? This is also a fortune telling argument. Dick must have had the ability to see the future in order to make such a statement.
   This argument was also used to justify going to war with Iraq, and is currently being used to further the argument that the United States must attack Iran, because if Iran gets nuclear weapon capabilities something horrible will happen, which again, may or may not be true. North Korea has had nuclear weapon capabilities for years without dire consequences so far. Using this argument, wouldn't it make more sense to attack North Korea (I'm not promoting that idea. I don't believe we should be attacking anyone at all)?
   4. Argumentum ad ignorantiam or Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
   There is no evidence that God exists which does not prove that God does not exist. There is no evidence for UFO's (in this instance, UFO's meaning extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting the Earth) which does not prove they don't exist. As of yet there is no evidence that life exists on planets other than the Earth, yet this does not prove that extraterrestrial life does not exist.
   There is no evidence for Leprechauns, yet I happen to know the cagy little buggers do exist!
   But you shouldn't take my word for it.
   5. Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
   How could God allow us to kill each other in wars if he indeed loves each and every one of us? This question infers that God does not exist, the most frequent rebuttal being: Well, we just don't understand how God does things, or his will for us. Or how could God allow such extreme poverty and disease for the majority of the worlds population... same response, we just don't understand God, and what's more we never will. God's will is beyond our capability to comprehend.
     6.  Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
      We must continue to use standardized tests in our schools to make them more efficient. Is this indeed true? Evidence suggests otherwise, and the statement says nothing to the quality of education a student receives. Dr Sagan uses the example of the death penalty, that if we did not utilize it, more capital crimes would transpire.
   There is no evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders.
   7. Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
      Mitt Romney proclaims how successful he was running Bain Capital and the number of jobs he created there. What he often omits is the number of workers who lost their jobs after their companies had been acquired by Bain, and that the jobs created by Bain that Romney boasts of were largely in other countries.
   Just saying.
   8. Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
   Current polls of registered voters indicate that Mitt Romney and President Obama are about tied as to who would be elected president if the election were held today. Considering many other polls have indicated over a long period of time that the President is ahead of Romney with young voters, blacks, Hispanics, women, Eskimos, and seniors who don't watch Fox so-called News, one has to wonder at who these pollsters are polling, and in what numbers... 15 disgruntled ex-confederate soldiers?
   Also, if you happen to live in a rather homogenized community as far as political persuasion is concerned, like the south, or California, not knowing many people who would vote for a Republican or Democrat does not translate to there being little support for that candidate nationally.
   9. Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!).
   The word here to emphasize is "average." As a statistic 50% will average on  one side and 50% on the other.
   10.  Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
   Or as Dr. Sagan points out: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States to the failures of capitalism (the United States has the highest rate of infant mortality of any industrial nation).
   11. Confusion of correlation and causation. Sometimes known as Fallacy of False Cause. Essentially, it's any argument that asserts that one thing is definitely the cause of another, simply because the two things in question are close in either space or time.
   Our lovely friend Ms. Jenny McCarthy has been guilty of using this type of argument (third picture above) and claims that vaccines cause autism. I'm sure all of us sympathize with any illness her son suffers from, however these claims are not supported by any medical evidence. Yet all of us here at Joyce's Take (me and my invisible cat, Herkimer) love her anyway.
   Really love her.
   I wish she were here right now as a matter of ...
   Stop it Joyce.

We shall conclude in the next installment

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Okay, they've had their fun.

Now it's our turn.

The Baloney Detection Kit: Pancakes and Hurricanes

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson Blame the ACLU and Gays for 9/11

Stephen Colbert Blames Hurricane Isaac on Gays

"Here's how it works. Hurricanes form from rising moisture created by hot, steamy man-action aboard a gay Caribbean cruise. Now when that sin gets high enough it makes the angels cry, and those tears fall to the earth in the form of massive precipitation because homosexuals are a vital part of the water cycle -- that's why the gay symbol is a rainbow." -- Stephen Colbert

The seventh tool in the Baloney Detection Kit is:

7. If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work, including the premise.

   Alright, suppose you ate too many pancakes for breakfast, and they don't turn out to be as nutritious as you would have liked, soon you feel sick, you regurgitate, and then still feel so nauseous you need to call in sick at work, at which time your boss fires you, reminding you that during your last annual work review you had been warned that if you missed one more day you would be terminated. Upon reflection you feel you shouldn't have eaten so many pancakes.
   Freaking pancakes!
   Let's make a chain argument from the above example, shall we:
   If you eat too many pancakes, Then you will get sick. If you get sick, Then you will miss work. If you miss work, Then you will get fired. You ate too many pancakes, Therefore you got fired.
   One premise of this argument (there can be more than one) is if you eat too many pancakes.
    Freaking pancakes!
   The conclusion of that premise is you'll get sick, and so on, until the final premise and conclusion is reached: You ate too many pancakes, Therefore you got fired.
   There are four links in this chain: (1) you ate too many pancakes; (2) you got sick; (3) You miss work; (4) you get fired.
   All of these links must work if your conclusion is correct. You cannot leave out a link, or change it in any substantial way.
   I have to admit I am not an expert in technical logical reasoning. If my above example is wanting in some way, feel free, dear readers, to comment.
   Freaking pancakes!

8. "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

   We've discussed the concept of Occam's razor just a few day ago ( )
   Where we learned : "Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor, Latin lex parsimoniae) is the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness. It is a principle urging one to select from among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions."  -Wikipedia
   In other words given the facts the simplest answer to a problem is usually the one that is correct.
   There are innumerable examples of how this concept can and is applied in everyday life. Our story of finding the image of the Virgin Mary on the top of our pancake for instance.
   Let's say there are only two explanations we wish to consider on how this image got there. We won't even bring up the fact that no one knows what the Virgin Mary actually looked like. Won't bring it up at all, except that the only descriptive phrases regarding her generally state that she was a beautiful woman, and considering the region she lived in she probably had dark hair. With this information we can conclude that the Virgin Mary looked much like Jennifer Connelly. Well, maybe.
   In any case, one explanation is of a divine nature, that God wants to remind us that he/she/it is  still around and is a Christian, and caused the image to form on top of that pancake by some unknown process.
   Another explanation is that as the pancake batter poured onto the hot griddle different ares of it's surface cooked and cooled at different times and densities allowing the browning to randomly form a pattern that might look like the image of a female human being.
   Which of these two hypothesizes is the simpler? That some unknowable extraterrestrial being used some unknown process to form that image to promote themselves, or that the pancake cooked in such a way that it randomly formed a pattern on one side that may or may not have resembled a woman? Without further evidence to the contrary I'll go with the latter.
   One can always ask a few questions to determine the validity of each hypothesis, like:
   If God really wanted to promote himself (we'll use the masculine term only for brevity) why would he choose a pancake as the medium to present his message? After all, it could have easily been overlooked and eaten.
   If God really wanted to promote himself and do so using the form of Mother Mary, why didn't he do it on the side of Mt. Everest, or the Half Dome in Yosemite, or put her face next to Lincoln's on Mt Rushmore? Now that would have been a very dramatic and rather unambiguous display of divine interaction in our modern world, one that would have been hard put to be explained away.
   Or why doesn't he just show up himself? Is he shy? Does he have a bad case of acne or something? What the hell?
   On and on and on...
    On the other hand one can reasonably ask what are the odds of an image of the Virgin Mary forming on a pancake?
   Admittedly the odds would seem to be pretty low. But you have to consider such factors as; how many pancakes are made at any given time in the world (an argument can be made that if there are a enough pancakes continuously being made at some point you'll find one that looks like it has the Gettysburg Address burnt onto one of its sides), and how powerful is the tendency for our brains to form patterns from the optical input it receives, which may have evolved as a survival mechanism to distinguish possible predators, or other dangers from the physical environment in our distant past.
   Even after considering these factors it would still seem the cooking hypothesis is the simplest explanation (with a little chaos theory thrown in for good measure), and is more than likely the correct answer.
   In another example:
   On the September 12, 2005 broadcast of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club," host Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a former Republican presidential candidate, linked Hurricane Katrina to John Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court and legalized abortion.
   The assumption being that apparently God sent Katrina to destroy New Orleans, and by extension punish the United States, because Democratic senators were questioning Roberts about the Roe vs Wade decision making the use of abortion services constitutional.
   Let's disregard for the moment that Robertson provides absolutely no proof whatsoever for his hypothesis other than his being a so-called "authority," on what God is up to at any given moment (and where is Pat's insight when we need it regarding Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the Gulf at the time of the Republican National Convention? What is God trying to say here Pat? Or is it true that God takes exception to the Republican War on Women because she is one, as David Letterman has posited)
   If we look at the second picture above which quotes the lead character of HBO's "The Newsroom," an alternate theory is presented, that hurricanes are generally initiated due to local meteorological conditions and ocean temperatures during favorable seasons. This theory has the advantage of being measurable and available for review by a variety of scientists who work in the climate sciences.
   Which hypothesis seems the simplest to you dear readers, and which is the easiest to attempt to prove?

   And lastly:  
   9. Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
   Could someone deliberately make a pancake that has an image of a woman on it?
   Why yes, they could.
   "Gentlemen, we can build it. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first Virgin Mary pancake." -Oscar Goldman.
   Why would someone wish to do this?
   To get on Jerry Springer of course! And to possibly sell it on eBay. In other words for personal gain, or to gather notoriety.
   Also, arguments, hypothesizes, or propositions that are unprovable, or untestesable, and not amenable to experimentation arn't worth very much.
   You say hurricanes are caused by God's displeasure with the actions of humans. Prove it. You're making the assertion so the burden of proof lies with you.
   You assert that God exists. Prove it. It's not enough for you to tell me that the majority of American citizens believe that God exists. The majority of citizens are often wrong. Take the 2004 general election for instance when George W. Bush won the popular vote, 62,028,285 to John Kerry's 59,028,109. When Congress voted to go to war with Iraq 77% of the American people thought  that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. A larger percentage don't believe in Leprechauns, etc.
   You say UFOs exist. Prove it. It's not enough that you saw something moving in the sky that didn't look like an airplane (actually UFO's do exist. UFO means Unidentified Flying Objects, and there are hundreds of thousands of flying objects that remain unidentified, but that doesn't mean they are extraterrestrial spacecraft). It could have been an unladen European Swallow flying at maximum velocity for all you know.
   On and on.
   This ninth tool in our Baloney Detection Kit is directly related to the second and third tenets of the scientific method itself. Is the hypothesis amenable to experimentation, and if it is, will this experiment be able to be repeated by others.

   Dr. Sagan also included these two more suggestions when attempting to distinguish truth from baloney, which are to conduct control experiments when possible, especially "double blind" experiments where some of the people involved are prevented from knowing certain information that might lead to conscious or subconscious bias on their part, thus invalidating the results.
   And to check for confounding factors, or separate the variables. If you have a headache and you take two aspirin while sitting within an aluminum tube pyramid structure ("built with the sacred geometry ratios of the Great Pryamids at Giza!") and your headache goes away, which helped the most, the aspirin or the pyramid? The only way you'll find out is to wait until you have another headache and try one or the other pain reducing methods to see which is more effective.
   During the next two days we'll continue with Dr. Sagan's list of things we need to look out for when evaluating what is baloney and what isn't, Dr Michael Shermer's 10 questions, and an argument about what makes women happy (which I'm interested in finding out myself).

To be continued

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Skid Row Diary 5

July 17th   Thursday  Day 5

  "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday." -John Wayne

   I woke to the delightful visage of ship's counselor Deanna Troi, on loan from the Enterprise Galaxy Class Cruiser, to help the father of holistic doctors learn humility.
   My god, it was good to see her!
   Of course I'm speaking of the beautiful and talented British actress, Marina Sirtis, who was making a rare guest appearance on "Star Trek Voyager."
   Gosh! What memories she stirs.
   But how in the hell did she get all the way to the Delta Quadrant where the Voyager starship was trying to make it back to the Federation in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants? Answer me that people!
   I listened to Gustave Holst while writing and following through my normal morning routine. Frank Sontag, Mark and Brian's engineer, and early Monday morning host of his own program, had gone to see the independent hit film, "Whale Rider," and Kelly Gates, Mark and Brian's lovely news lady, will be off to Vegas again this weekend.
   I may accompany John Manzano to Camarillo Friday to visit his mom, eat a lot of good food, and watch cable television. However, John seems less enthusiastic about going the closer the weekend approaches. We shall see.
   Don McLean's almost perfect song, "American Pie," keeps going through my head, as well as Black Oak Arkansas' ""Hot and Nasty." I don't know why.
   Giselle was back to pants today, unfortunately. Corduroys it seemed.
   "But she looks real good in those pants," John Manzano declared, as we waited to go to breakfast.
   "That's not the point!" I burst out.
   But she did look good in pants. Giselle Blondet, like most beautiful women, would look good to most human men wearing almost anything! A dirty burlap bag would not be without a certain appeal. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind seeing her dressed in a dir... never mind. I'm trying to get better.
   Scrambled eggs and sausage for breakfast. Orange juice instead of milk.
   John departed to... well, I don't know where he went. I walked past the Flower Market on Maple, between 7th and 8th, to the One Stop at 9th and Hill. I got there just as it opened, and was careful to sit at a computer whose screen faced the young resource center attendant, allowing him to fully see what I was up to with just a casual glance, further undermining his impression of the previous day.
   I was good today, of course. No pictures, although I still need a few of Aimee Mann and Phoebe Augustine, and Jackie Joseph... and others. Just a few. I made some revisions to my resume and checked my Email.
   I found another Weingart veteran, a young black kid named Oliver there. He was currently living in the dorm I had bunked in upon my arrival at the center. He told me Gary Porch had not returned to the center last weekend after starting another drunken bender, and was presumed to be incarcerated, although for what change he did not know.
   For being drunk probably.
   Gary was a young white guy in his mid-thirties, an ex-fighter, he had told me. He lived in the dorm that Oliver was living in now, and that I had lived in before I got my own room.
   Gary spent his days working at temp labor jobs all around Los Angeles and its surrounding communities. He saved all the money he made during the week, then spent it all boozing it up during the weekend until he was broke, and when Monday morning came he would start the process all over again.
   I recently tried to take him to the movies at Citywalk above Universal Studios in North Hollywood. Before the show started we sat in the bowling ally they have there, and Gary had a drink. We went to the show, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," and he disappeared. I didn't see him again until the following week.
   Apparently that first drink set him off, and he had to have some more.
   At least he had his priorities in order.
   Next I was on my way to Pasadena via a hop on the 71 at 8th and Spring to City Hall, where I caught the 485, which deposited me unceremoniously at Lake and Colorado, just east of Old Town. The trip was without incident, taking approximately 45 minutes, winding north on Oak Knoll Blvd., and passing some of the most beautiful houses in California this side of Beverly Hills.
   "Are you content?" I asked the people who lived in those houses as we passed. "Are you aware of your lives?"
   I walked from Lake to Hill and the campus of Pasadena City College, and with surprising ease discovered the Admissions and Records Office, where I ordered the official transcripts of the English 101 class I has taken in 1993. They would mail it to me. It cost me 3 bucks. I was outraged. It's free in L.A. County I cried to no avail.
   I wasted no time in Pasadena today. The memory of having lived there had been tainted by too many unfortunate events. The town does not hold any appeal to me any longer. I caught another 401 and was back downtown within 30 minutes.
   I was let off at 5th and Grand, right next to the Central Library. I walked inside and used the restroom. I also looked for a reference book in the Art/Recreation Department, but had no luck finding it. I briefly visited the new photographic exhibit, "100 Years of Hollywood," the Watson Family archives. I liked the picture of Marilyn Monroe taken at some sporting event. She was very pretty... for a girl. A talented comedic actress as well.
   No mail today. I visited Pershing Square just as the afternoon music show began. The group El Chicano was playing to a large crowd trying to find spots of shade from the hot solar activity.
   It was too hot for me too. I had mainly came to look for McCree, but I didn't see him, and left to have lunch back at the Weingart.
   Roast beef.
   I checked in at the Housing Authority office before heading back to Voc Rehab for my 2:00 appointment with Stacy Tran.
   "You can call me Miss Tran," Stacy told me. A petite little thing, Irish I believe. We basically went over the paperwork I had completed last night. I wore a blank expression and didn't act up, or tell any jokes, in accordance with my claim of suffering from chronic depression. It must have worked as she mentioned at one point, "I'd like to see you smile more."
   "I'll try," I replied wistfully. "I'll try."
   She went over everything. Work history, drug history, life history, medical history. My unsuccessful criminal career. My suicide attempt in 2001. My arrest for petty theft last year. How embarrassing!
   She was very nice though, and seemed to be truly interested in helping me after getting a taste of what I was about. I signed a release for information from the Downtown Mental Health office, and the VA Clinic. She photocopied my ID and Social Security card, and told me to wait for an evaluation test appointment date to be mailed to me.
   And that was that.
     I took the bus back downtown and to the Weingart, thankful to get out of the heat. The bus passed over a bridge as a liquid container train passed underneath, and a little girl sitting next to her mother exclaimed, "Cho cho!"
   In my room I turned my fan on and did a little yoga and some push ups before microwaving me up some jalapeno cheese bread.
   John Manzano came to my room at 4:15 to bother me.
   "Why aren't you watching the news?" he asked me. He believes I should watch the programs he likes to watch because he is currently without his own television. He is wrong.
   "Broadcast news sucks," I told him. I pointed to a copy of yesterday's paper and told him. "There's the news. Read that."
   "It's a day old," he said.
   "It's two days old," I pointed out. "But the world still turns even though we are not current."
   He won't watch the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. "It's boring," he tells me.
   We went to dinner. Odd meatloaf. I didn't know if it was burned or marinated in yuck.
   I took a little nap during Part 2 of the Kelly and Al Spring break episode of "Married with Children." A direct result of waking at 3:00AM. A short rest is all I need to clear my head. I was up by 6:00. I found a letter addressed to me at John Manzano's address in Camarillo on the floor. John had slid it under my door while I was napping. I'd been waiting for this and was happy that it had arrived. I read the paper while watching television... a unique talent I possess which used to drive my girlfriend Jan crazy. At 8:00 I turned to a documentary on the life and career of John Wayne. Very interesting. I've always felt kindly toward Mr. Wayne, and have defended him on numerous occasions from American Indian advocates.
   "He's not really killing them," I would say.
   I don't know why I like him. He liked Hispanic women. An alcoholic, depressive. Sailed on a minesweeper. Ruggedly handsome. We hardly had anything in common.
   Insecure and ashamed for not serving in the military during World War II, then portraying soldiers in that conflict, he overcompensated by becoming a right wing stooge and propaganda instrument for the government.
   But everybody who came into contact with him, no matter of what political bent, liked him. A classy guy who allowed himself to be lampooned at Harvard during his final years. He lies now, a victim of intestinal cancer (some sources say lung. He did smoke 5 packs of cigarettes a day), in an unmarked grave for many years contrary to his wishes, but now has a headstone with the above quote, his quote, engraved upon it.
   A program about Earth-killer asteroids next, hosted by Jerry Orbach of all people. Unfortunately I learned we're all gonna die in the year 2071 when Asteroid 2000SG344 collides with our planet. That's a shame.
   I don't expect to be alive when it happens, which is too bad for me as I'd really like to see it. 
   I fell asleep while watching a documentary on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Many people think he was the first to stand up to the all powerful Catholic Church. He might have been the first to survive the effort, but it had been done previously, like 100 years before Luther in Czechoslovakia. But that guy got burned at the stake. The Catholic Church was very intolerant in those days and thought it was alright to ignore the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."
   Why do you think that is?
   No really, I want to know. Please tell me.
   I went to sleep and I dreamt I was Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest standing around minding my own business, when the main cast of "Star Trek, the Next Generation," beamed down. Captain Picard introduced himself and his crew.
   I said, "Oh jolly good. I'm Hood... Robin Hood."
   "Yes, we know who you are and it's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Hood."
   "Would you care for something to eat," I asked.
   "Why that would be fine," Picard replied.
   We dined mightily while my minstrel played softly in the background: [singing] "Bravely bold Sir Robin rode forth from Camelot. He was not afraid to die, oh brave Sir Robin. He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways, brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin. He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken. To have his kneecaps split, and his body burned away, and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin. His head smashed in and heart cut out, and his liver removed, and his bowels unplugged, and his nostrils raped and his bottom burned off and his penis...
   I interrupted, "That's, uh, that's enough music for now."
   It was like something out of a Monty Python movie.
   The beautiful half-Betazoid, ship's counselor Deanna Troi came up to me. She was wearing the uniform she wore in the show's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," which you can see in the above picture, and which was a mini-skirt, like the uniforms for women in the first "Star Trek," program with Kirk and Spock. I thought this was very odd at first due to the fact that Counselor Troi never wore that uniform again on any other episode.
   I did not complain though.
   "Oh Robin... I hear you're ever so good with a bow and arrow. Will you show me?"
   "Of course my dear." I fired off three quick shots at a squirrel, an unladened swallow, the Sheriff of Nottingham who'd been sneaking about.
   "Will you teach me how to shoot?" she asked pleadingly, clear unadulterated admiration filled her lovely brown Betazoid eyes.
   "Of course my dear."
   I slipped behind her and showed her how to hold the bow and arrow, and how to aim and fire. She fired off one shot, hitting her target of a giant oak with my help, filled with excited delight.
   "Go ahead," I said. "Try it by yourself."
   I stood to one side as she pulled back the bow, arrow aimed and ready... then she let lose.
   I looked down at the shaft sticking out of my chest. My eyes filled with a deepening darknesss.
   "Oh I'm so sorr..." I heard her saying as I entered the void.

18  July  Friday   Day 6

   The Asteroid Marooned Klingon Girl episode of Voyager this morning. Very exciting. I roused myself enough to do a little yoga and light exercise while watching her being rescued. I immediately showered afterward having worked up a tremendous quantity of sweat from my efforts.
   I wrote and listened to classical music after my refreshing wash. Specifically I wrote about yesterday while listening to a clarinet concerto composed by Arron Copeland, commissioned by Benny Goodman. A peaceful, unobtrusive piece.
   I'd like to take this opportunity to point out the fact that on this date in 64 AD Rome had it's greatest fire.
   Thank you.
   I meditated before switching my radio dial over to Mark and Brian. I needed to get that out of the way before those two knuckleheads got me all agitated.
   Mark continues his roll by misidentifying the lead actor in the film "Operation Petticoat," the pink submarine comedy staring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. Mark thought it was Clark Gable. Well they do look alike. They both have two arms, two legs, and a face, and both talk kind of funny. Gable was in his very own submarine movie, "Run Silent, Run Deep," with Burt Lancaster. Both are fine films.
   One of my favorite character actors, Arthur O'Connell (Brittany's grandfather) appeared in the petticoat film. He used a bra to fix the engine.
   Giselle Blondet wore pants for the second day in a row. What's more, she hid behind a table for the first half hour of Desperita, making me wait until 7:30 to see her. All of her.
   I left the building taking my black backpack with me and walked north to 5th, east to Town, then north again to 4th, avoiding camped out homeless, streams of urine on the sidewalk (one of the larger points of contention between the Coalition of the Homeless (the homeless union) and the city is the number of available chemical toilets in the Skid Row area. Considering the financial condition of the city and state (and the Federal government for that matter) the homeless will more than likely be forced to get tough before any concessions are made), and people asking me for spare change, or if I wanted to purchase drugs.
   "I'm straight," I tell the drug sellers (translation: "I'm okay at the moment, but might be back later when my current supply of illegal psychoactive substances diminishes.").
   "I don't have any change" (translation: "Are you insane!? I'm as homeless as you are. You give me some money!"), I tell the beggars.
   I had to walk around quite a bit before finding the HOP office (Homeless Outreach Program). I hadn't been there since last year and had forgotten their exact location. As it happened ("As it's supposed to happen," Bokonon sings to us), the office is just a stones throw away from the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple on 3rd Street.
   I entered the HOP office and asked for a referral  to see a dentist at the Buddhist Dental Clinic in Alhambra.
   I have no service connected disability from my years in the navy and am therefore not entitled to dental service at the Veteran's Administration. My teeth can rot as far as my government is concerned. Fortunately, Buddhists are more compassionate than my government which I served so faithfully and at great peril for four long years out of my inevitably short life span.
   The receptionist told me I would have to wait until 10:30 to make the appointment as that was when the clinic began taking calls. It was then just 8:00, so I told her I would be back later, and took off for the Red Line station at Pershing Square.
   The quickest way to get there was to catch an 18 or 53 bus at 5th and Central, right next to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center. As I approached I saw that Harbor Light was in the midst of a fire drill, and all of the "clients," and staff were lining up on the sidewalk next to the "Catch 21," seafood restaurant next to the center. I recognized many of the staff members, but kept my distance not wanting to be recognized. Leo Collins, the veteran's rep walked close by at one point. I remembered  our last conversation just two days before I left the facility when he demanded I start paying rent, $19 a day to be exact. Plus two months back rent, all coming to over a thousand dollars. A thousand bucks to continue to live within a program environment which closely monitored my every move, curfew at 10:00, bed checks at night, no smoking in the building, etc, etc, etc. I had reminded Leo that the center was still receiving payments from the V.A. and the Department of Social Services on my behalf and that he was essentially asking for a double payment. He vehemently denied that Harbor Light was receiving anything since I had began working two months previously. Our conversation ended there. There had been no point in arguing. I immediately left the center without paying them a nickel, and promptly relapsed within the dark mysterious confines of the Cecil Hotel. But my point to Leo had been correct as I was currently paying the DPSS back for those two months, which of course means the Harbor Light had been being paid.
   And life goes on.
   The 18 collected me, which took me to the Red Line, which I took all the way to the last stop in North Hollywood. From there the 156 to Van Nuys Blvd. and Vanowen in the city of Van Nuys, very close to the very center of the densely populated San Fernando Valley. At that intersection is a 99 Cent store that I frequent. There I picked up 2 boxes of Irish Breakfast Tea, 1 can of meatballs in tomato sauce, 1 can of whole kernel corn, a can of beef stew, and a can of cheese ravioli.
   I also got some coffee, a blank VCR tape, a package of smoked sausage links, 2 packages of Luis Frank Turkey Cotto salami, 3 bags of microwave popcorn, 2 blank audio cassette tapes, 5 packs of spicy chicken Top Ramen, and one container of Arm & Hammer toothpaste with baking soda.
   I put all of this stuff into my backpack before catching the 165 west to Tampa and the front door of the Trimar Blood and Plasma Center, a division of Trimar Hollywood, itself a division of the RAMJAC Corporation.
   I've come to Trimar and it's prior incarnations for over 20 years, since I got out of the navy in 1982. I have a crater in the middle of my left arm to prove it. Donating blood plasma is my major source of income when between jobs. And it's tax free!
   I walked inside the block like white building, and signed my name to the donor's list, then sat in the waiting room and waited. The Farrelly Brother's "Shallow Hal," was playing on the wall mounted television. This film starred the lovely and talented Gwenth Paltrow. I'd seen it many times, so I took out the new book I had started reading on the train, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther."
   It made me sleepy.
   I was expecting to be called up to the desk shortly, and was.
   "Did you bring your proof of address today, Mr. Joyce?" the young intake specialist, a plump, Hispanic girl asked me.
   I handed her the letter I had mailed to myself addressed to John Manzano's mother's house in Camarillo.
   "This is my new address," I told her.
   She looked at it for a moment noticing the postage stamp and the Veteran's Administration's return address which I had written in, and said, "Okay," and walked off to have it photocopied.
   For some reason unknown to me, upon my annual exam and screening a few weeks ago, The Weingart's address was deemed unacceptable to Trimar. "It's not a permanent address," I was told. I countered with, no address is really permanent... and that I had been living there since January, and would continue for several more months, at which time when I moved I would update my personal info. My argument fell on deaf ears. I was told I would no longer be able to donate until I provided proof of an address that was acceptable to them. I could have taken my case to one of the co-owners of the center, Anna. After all, 20 years does give me some leeway, but I didn't feel like getting her involved in a matter that so easily taken care of by buying a stamp and mailing a letter.
   Due to their own rigid policies they were getting less of what those policies required, namely a permanent address, as a matter of fact they were getting an address where I didn't live at all.
   There's a lesson to be learned here. Do not be rigid in your efforts to seek truth.
   She came back with my envelope and everything appeared hunky dory. I was subsequently finger pricked to verify that I indeed had some blood, and the iron, protein, and fat levels within that blood were satisfactory. A little later my vital signs were measured (192 pounds: could stand to lose a few; BP: 110/70 good; pulse: still had one, good; temp: 97 cold) and asked if I had severe acute respiratory syndrome, or had recently been fooling around with HIV carriers. No on both counts. I asked my interviewer to count the number of times I had donated since coming to Trimar. It being a relatively slow day, she said she would.
   She only counted the last 100 times, but not my entire history with the company. The 100 donations were good enough to get me an extra $10 today though for a grand total of $30 I would receive after donating.
   I waited a while longer and was soon directed to a donation couch. "The Matrix," starring the enigmatic Carrie Anne Moss, was on the television.
   My beautiful Romanian friend, Aurica, a brunette in her mid thirties,  came over and stuck a big needle in my left arm. My whole blood spewed out of me through a tube into a centrifuge machine which separated the plasma from my red blood cells, then pumped those cells back into me. This process automatically repeated until it had collected the required amount of plasma determined by my body weight. The whole process takes between 30 to 45 minutes depending mainly on how hydrated I was at the time.
   When I was finished Aurica unstuck me.
   "You know, they find new use for plasma products to help people with emphysema?" she asked in her cute little Romanian accent.
   "No, I didn't know that. Really?"
   "Yes, yes. It's true."
   "My mother could have used that," I told her. My poor mother had passed away eight years ago from cardio pulmonary disease more than likely brought on after 40 years plus of smoking cigarettes.
   "Your mother... she has emphysema?" she asked.
   "She may have had it," I told her. My mom used oxygen the last few years of her life. She died in a hospital with my sister, Cheryl, close by.
   It is one of, if not the greatest regret of my life that I had caused her so much pain because of my drinking. She hadn't deserved that.
   The last time I saw her I was drunk.
   "Did she smoke?" Aurica asked.
   "Yes... yes, she did," I told my pretty friend.
   "Oh, that is too bad. I never, never smoke. You don't smoke do you?"
   "Not today," I told her.
   She bandaged me up, and I thanked her and left after collecting my $30 and a can of delicious mango juice.
   I waited 45 minutes across the street for the bus on Vanowen to take me back to Van Nuys Bl. where I went back to the 99 Cent Store to buy two packages of frozen pizza rolls which would be my dinner.
   I retraced the steps it took to get me back downtown and found myself at 42nd and Grand in New York City with no friendly neighborhood Spiderman to help me. Before leaving the 7th Street Red Line Station I purchased a gold dollar coin from the gold and silver dollar coin machine they have there. This would be destined for a small plastic container in my room that was molded to resemble a certain farm animal. That was my bank.
   I got back to the Weingart by 3:00, and rested, napping a little.
   John Manzano had ditched me and was nowhere to be found. He had probably received his unemployment check at the same time he received my envelope from his mom's house, and was currently overcome with financial freedoms and had taken off to perform nefarious solitary activities. "Fun activities," my lovely case manager would say.
   The dinning hall was not serving dinner tonight. They didn't tell me why. So at 5:00 I ate those pizza rolls. They were good. I wish I had some right now.
   I watched the Jefferson lotto episode on "Married with Children," while reading last Sunday's book review section from the Times. Charlie Rose was interviewing some historian which I found dreadfully uninteresting, so I switched to the radio, KFI, an AM talk station, and the Phil Hendry Show, which aired from 7:00 to 10:00.
   Phil has a unique program I have to hand it to him. He's a voice artist who each night interviews himself in various different character modes in comedy skits.
   Tonight he was interviewing himself acting as a Korean War veteran who thought it appropriate to tailgate a woman driving slow in the left hand lane causing the cars to collide when she applied her brakes, thus "teaching her a lesson she would not soon forget!"
   This sketch was in response to the tragic mishap in Santa Monica when an elderly gentleman lost control of his vehicle, sending it directly through a crowded flea market causing 10 deaths and 40 injuries.
   An actual policeman called into the show to contradict Hendry's guest, The Korean war vet, not catching on that Phil had been interviewing himself.
   The same thing happened to me when I first heard Phil's program while driving around Bullhead City AZ, where I was living at the time. Hendry had been interviewing a Palestinian who had been complaining that he and his friends had run out of rocks to throw at Israelis who would not give them their rocks back.
   I fell asleep early, being very tired because I do so much important stuff and fun activities, and dreamt I was at Giselle Blondet's house, who for some reason was wearing a slinky burlap sack.
   It looked itchy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: The Kit

Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye the Science Guy on Evolution Denial

   "Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
   We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.." -Texas GOP Platform, 2012

   "Who needs science? That might be "challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority" which is otherwise known as "Stupid shit my dad says."
   Apparently, stupid shit my dad says because he heard it on Fox gets to debate facts from reality which is known to have a liberal bias in Texas education. I would joke about comparing sending your kid to school in Texas as a form of child abuse but the idiot Texas GOP one upped me and support some child abuse in their platform!" -MinistryOfTruth, Daily Kos, July 27, 2012

Stephen Colbert on Texas GOP Platform

   The second tool we find in Dr. Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit is:

   2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

   In other words discuss whatever given problem is being considered with others who may have had experience with that particular problem, no matter what position the others may have. Whether it be buying a car (talk to others familiar with the make, or mechanics, or others selling similar vehicles), or choosing a mate (talk to others who may know the prospective mate, or the prospective mates relatives, or prospective mates colleagues, etc.). This is a fairly easy to understand step that most probably carry out in real life situations without thinking too much about it. In science, let's say debating the merits of teaching intelligent design in the classroom, debate should be vigorous, with emphasis as to whether the subject does constitute a science rather than a philosophy that proponents wish to disguise as science, placing the burden of proof on the proponents.
   Do the Ghost Hunters encourage substantial debate on the subject of life after death, or hauntings in general? No.
   In politics "substantial debate," has all too often been whittled away by the media or the candidates themselves, for fear of making mistakes or "gaffes," the result being that tough, substantial questions may or may not be asked, but said candidates are allowed to stray from the subject matter of the question and speak through to their own policy talking points (as was very neatly illustrated in the August 19th episode of HBO's "The Newsroom," "The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate.")

   3. Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

      At one time the highest authorities insisted the Earth was flat. At another time the Catholic Church, arguably the highest authority in existence then,  taught that the Earth was at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and stars revolving around it. People who disguise themselves in the robes of authority appear constantly on television advocating for one position of an issue, or another. We have petroleum industry backed so-called authorities, or so-called scientists advocating climate change denial. They are almost certainly wrong. Nothing should be taken solely on the word of authorities, even those you may agree with. As Dr Sagan pointed out, "Authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future." 
   And then there is the Argument From False Authority, or the Some Say Argument. Our Fox so-called News friend, Sean Hannity uses this tactic ubiquitously. "Some say..." he starts off with giving some sense of authority to whatever position he's advocating for at the time, while providing little or no evidence that his position is relevant, should be genuinely considered, or if it is even true. Well who are these mysterious people who are saying it, and why should we care?
   He never tells us, thus this type of argument has little merit. 

   4. Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

   Let's say you get up one morning, go to your kitchen and make some nice tasty, oh so nutritious  pancakes. You make yourself three of four, sit down to your dining table, and are about to pour some syrup all over them when you notice that the top pancake has griddle markings on it that closely resemble the Virgin Mary. "Wow," you exclaim. "The Virgin Mary! It must be a miracle! I could become famous for this pancake. I could sell it on eBay!"
   Well first, congratulations on being able to recognize the Virgin Mary, as there are few existing photographs of her.
   Next, before you trudge off to "The Jerry Springer Show," or "The 700 Club," you may want to take a few minutes attempting to come up with another explanation as to how a resemblance to the Virgin Mary manifested itself on top of your pancake.
   Does the topography of your pancake really resemble that of a woman? We know that the mind actively strives to find patterns in the world, sometimes when none exist. Sometimes our brains  interpret optical input in ways that might fool us into thinking something is there when it is not. These instances are called optical illusions (take a look at the third photo above. Is it the profile of a young woman or an old hag? (I see a Peruvian kangaroo, which is very strange as there are no kangaroos in Peru)). Often we see what we would like to see.
   Also, and more to the point of our forth tool, is there any other simpler explanation that would fully explain how something that looked like a person appeared on your pancake other than a miracle? Random shifts in the cooking processes of pancake batter comes to mind. This is an example of coming up with another hypothesis which explains the observed phenomenon. There may be other theorys to take under consideration also. If however you decide to stick with the miracle hypothesis it is up to you to prove that such things as miracles actually exist, and how they work in nature, probably a daunting task considering the long history of reported miracles that your eventual hypothesis must explain as well (which must then lend itself to experimentation and peer review).
   Another argument stemming from this episode could be a debate as to whether pancakes are indeed nutritious.
   5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.

   Okay, you wake up in the morning, go to the kitchen and make yourself some possibly nutritious pancakes, have a nice glass of 2% milk, and suddenly an idea pops into your head which describes a model in particle physics in which at high energies the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, are merged into one single interaction characterized by one larger gauge symmetry and thus one unified coupling constant.
   "Wow," you say to yourself, "the Grand Unified Theory, at last! Maybe I'll be able to get on Jerry Springer!"
   Not bad for an accountant.
   You take the day off and write your theory down on a piece of paper and check your calculations. Everything seems to work out. Your theory appears to unify electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, which has never been done before. You begin to contemplate how your theory can be tested in an experiment. You get very excited
   At lunch time, however, your neighbor comes over and says they've discovered a whole different Grand Unified Theory, that discounts the one you came up with that morning. Not only that, their hypothesis also incorporates the full theory of gravitation as described by general relativity, and predicts the accelerating expansion of the universe (as possibly described by dark energy), and on top of that accounts for neutrino oscillation.
   WTF! You exclaim to yourself. How can this be? This guy's a freaking garbage collector!
   You're still sure yours is the better idea but you agree to look over your neighbor's data. You soon are forced to agree that your neighbor's theory is valid and works within the frame work of known physics.
   What you have done is what is supposed to happen in science... you have gone where the evidence takes you (or in this case, possibly a better hypothesis), not where you would like the evidence to go.      

   6. Quantify, wherever possible. After you finish quantifying... quantify some more.
   Quantify means: Express as a number, or measure, or quantity. That's what you did when you came up with your Grand Unified Theory when you wrote it down as a mathematical expression. Why would you want to do that for this or any other problem? Because mathematics is the language of science. Remember that scene in the film "Contact" (based on Carl Sagan's only novel) where Jodie Foster is explaining the discovery of the alien signal from outer space to some clueless politician? The signal was based in prime numbers, numbers greater than 1 that can only be divided by 1 and itself, like 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, and so forth.
   "Why didn't they just talk to us in English?" the politician asks, to which Jodie replies, a little exacerbated, "Maybe because three quarters of the world doesn't speak English," or something close to that. "Mathematics is the only true universal language," or something like that.
   And math is the least uncertain language in existence. You really can't argue with 2 + 2 = 4 (unless you're a Tea Partier or quantum physicist).
   So when your making an argument that is amenable toward the use of mathematics, use math as much as possible to further said argument.

To be continued

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Baloney, Pseudoscience, and Ghost Hunters

Dr. Michael Shermer's 10 Skeptical Questions


The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affectations; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affectations color and infect the understanding. -Francis Bacon, Novum Organon, 1620

"We tell children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we think are emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths before they are grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as adults depends on them knowing the world as it really is. We worry, and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus." -Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996

"I don't believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth fairy. Of course not!
But Leprechauns, those Irish bastards... that's whole different story!" -Richard Joyce, This Post, 2012  

   Wikipedia tells us: "Bologna sausage (English pronunciation: /bəˈloʊnjə/ or /bəˈloʊni/), also known as boloney, baloney or polony, is an American sausage derived from and somewhat similar to the Italian mortadella (a finely hashed/ground pork sausage containing cubes of lard that originated in the Italian city of Bologna, IPA: [boˈloɲɲa]. U.S. government regulations require American bologna to be finely ground, and without visible pieces of lard. Bologna can alternatively be made out of chicken, turkey, beef, pork, venison or soy protein.
   Bologna bowl: Occasionally bologna is heated up so it takes the shape of a bowl, which may be filled with cheese or other fillings." But only occasionally.
   Pork sausage containing cubes of lard.
   Interesting. I imagine that if manufacturers used my invention of non-fat lard in the production of bologna the result would be much healthier for consumers.
   I have to admit I love bologna and always have. In fact I'm told that it was one of only three things I would eat as a small child (the other two being peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Estonian sauerkraut stew with blood and barley sausage, served with Baltic sprats laced with bacon in sour cream sauce).
   I eat everything now... except bugs.
   I had no idea it was made with chunks of lard until yesterday. I also have to admit that sounds really disgusting, but it is a sausage, and the idea of sausage and what it's made of, in and of it self, is somewhat disgusting.
   I don't care, I love it anyway. I just had a slice not more than thirty minutes ago (as I write this), with some eggs, and cheese, and an English muffin (and a green pepper I picked from our garden).
   It was good. I could easily make myself another breakfast sandwich right now, but I shall restrain myself because I must stick to my diet.
   However interesting pork sausage and lard is it is not the kind of boloney Dr. Carl Sagan was looking for when he wrote the chapter, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection," in his seminal work, "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark."
   No, I'm almost positive (almost) he had this alternate definition in mind, also from Wikipedia: "In American English, baloney is also a colloquial expression for "nonsense," or "bullshit." Daniel Cassidy [American writer, filmmaker and academic] suggested that it may have derived from the Irish-Gaelic bollaireacht, pronounced bullairaċt, a noun that describes the act of bragging, prating, babbling, blustering."
   Alright now that we've gotten that cleared up let's get to it shall we?
   "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." was a syntheses of Dr. Sagan's ideas on critical thinking, which can help us to navigate our way through various somewhat popular ideas that have little validity, scientific or otherwise, such as statements made by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, or upon examination of the pseudosciences, such as: astrology, 2012 millenarianism, Moon landing conspiracy theories, ancient astronauts, the face on Mars, The Bermuda Triangle, the Flat Earth Society (yes, it still exists), climate change denial, theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, mediumship, cryptozoology (the search for Bigfoot, and Nessie of Loch Ness, etc.), electronic voice phenomena, extrasensory perception, ghost hunting, conservatism, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, ufology, conversion therapy (to change a person's sexual orientation), hypnosis, phrenology, subliminal advertising, alternative medicine, biorhythm, chiropractic theories, colon cleansing, crystal healing, faith healing, magnetic therapy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, urine therapy, scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts such as the Bible and Koran, creation science and intelligent design, dianetics, feng shui, perpetual motion, cold fusion, anti-aging creams, alchemy, and a few others.
   Notice there is no mention of Leprechauns.
   A lot of people spend a lot of time participating and advocating for the above activities for various reasons. None of them have proven to be scientifically valid pursuits, and therefore a waste of valuable time, energy, and resource.
   So why do they do this?
   Climate change deniers tend to be motivated by greed, backed by large business interests that maintain a vested interest in keeping alive the hoax that there is widespread disagreement within the scientific community as to the validity of meteorology and climate science. There is not. However, when much of the media reports on this subject (just as with intelligent design, and certain political arguments), it tends to give both sides of the debate equal measure, which helps to perpetuate the myth that climate change deniers have a valid argument.
   The majority of pseudosciences provide a form of solace to those who believe in them. Who wouldn't like some insight to their future simply by reading the astrological colum in the daily newspaper or on an Internet site? I sure would if I thought it were true. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out, and I quite agree, the only verifiable influence the stars and planets could possibly have on any of us is that of their gravitational influence. How the planets are aligned at the time of our birth, such as the closest planet to us, Venus,  may have some measurable affect upon us. Venus is a very massive object. Yet an obstetrician, who is much smaller and less massive than Venus, is much closer to us when we are being born, and more than likely will exert a greater degree of influence upon us than Venus, which is much, much further away.
   Some of the pseudosciences (as well as many religions) feed off of our fear of death and the unknown, such as mediumship, and ghost hunting. It is comforting to think there may be a life after this one, after all death is inevitable (for the time being). I can certainly understand that. I indeed wish it were true. But there is no evidence for that hypothesis, none that either religion, or mediumship and seances, or ghost investigations supply at least. And there is no logical explanation as to why there should be a life after death. For what purpose? Why must we go through a life, only to go through the painful horrible barrier of death, and only then  can we be reborn in another life that may or may not be eternal. Sounds like some kind of sick joke to me.    No one so far has come back from the dead (even the resurrection of Jesus myth is strange upon examination. The various manifestations of Jesus after the crucification display a markedly different Jesus Christ than before he was put to death, as reports of those who say they saw him clearly indicate he acted in a more ethereal manner than human) in any verifiable manner, to tell us what's it like on the other side, so how can we know? 
   It's not my intention to waver into theological arguments at this time, but to demonstrate how the Baloney Detection Kit can be utilized for more practical applications.
   Now please remember that the tools we find in the Baloney Detection Kit are strictly mired within the framework of the three part scientific method we have discussed on many occasions. 1. Propose an idea, theory, or hypothesis; 2. test that idea, theory, or hypothesis vigorously by experiment; 3. Have the results of that experiment verified by peers.
   So let's choose a subject, any subject. Which do you want? That God is a woman (as David Letterman purports) and obviously hates the GOP and it's policies, the proof being she has sent  Tropical Storm Isaac to Tampa just before the start of the Republican National Convention?
   Well, I have no way of disproving that, so let's move on. 
   Ghost hunting you say? Fine with me. I have to make another confession. I've wanted to tackle this subject for some time now.
   Wikipedia tells us: "Ghost Hunters is an American paranormal reality television series that premiered on October 6, 2004, on Syfy (previously the Sci Fi Channel). The program features paranormal investigators Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson who investigate places that are reported to be haunted. The two originally worked as plumbers for Roto-Rooter as a day job while investigating locations at night. Since the show's success, the series now takes precedence in their lives, but they are still honorary employees with the company and continue to do jobs for them if time permits."
   "Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name, and away those troubles down the drain. Rotor Rooter."
   I love that jingle.
   Why are plumbers particularly suited to ghost hunting? The rational is that plumbers are more familiar than most of the structures of buildings, and local phenomena, such as noises and vibrations, that those building or structures manifest.
   Okay, that sounds reasonable. I'll buy that.
   Anyway, "Ghost Hunters," (which has garnered some of the highest ratings of any Syfy reality programming) and it's various spin offs have been on the air for a little less than 8 years now, and as far as I know they've yet to catch one freaking ghost! Now if you hunting something for 8 years you would expect to catch something! But no, not one ghost to bring back so others can observe, measure, and fondle it.
   I've watched the show a couple of times through out it's run, and every episode is pretty much like every other. These two guys go to a different location each week, check out the place and learn its ghostly history, then come back at night, turn off all of the lights (why? Why must it always be dark? I've seen "Ghostbusters." Those ghosts weren't at all shy), using night vision technology to see and record the proceedings, then bump into each other, exaggerate every little creak and moan a building may have, and basically scare each other silly. They later analyze all of their "data," and produce a final judgment of whether what they experienced was an actual ghost or not. Or else they fudge by stating some kind of paranormal activity was present, but they don't know what it was exactly.
   Why they're not even trying to catch a ghost!
   Well, a lot of people would like to believe that there is an afterlife, and a real, bonafide ghost would go a long way in supporting that belief.
   But they as of yet have not provided a real ghost, or really any of what would be called scientific evidence to support the theory that ghosts exist (although they employ measuring instruments that should help them if indeed they come across one).
   Maybe they'll find one someday, but it's my contention that up until now, they have not.
   So let's bring out the first tool of Dr. Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit (finally), the only one that directly equates with Dr. Michael Shermer's (famous skeptic and sex symbol) 10 skeptical questions. Both versions of the kit are closely related due to being intimately tied to the scientific method.

1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

   That's pretty straight forward, and directly related to the third tenet of the scientific method, which again is: Have the results of that experiment verified by peers .
   Have the ghost hunters done this?
   Nope, which may be a factor as to why there's been a concerted effort by various individuals to debunk the claims the show has made.
   Wikipedia tells us: "Ghost Hunters has attracted various critics and skeptics, such as Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer author Lynne Kelly, James Randi, and Benjamin Radford. The Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society (SAPS) was founded with the intent to recreate and debunk segments of the show."
   Having not seen SAPS findings, an investigation into the ghost hunters in itself does not provide evidence that the ghost hunters have not found ghosts. However the show makes no effort to have another, separate, and independent team of unbiased investigators come into the same locations that the ghost hunters have claimed paranormal activity exists ("paranormal" is a bizarre term that implies experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation." Since science is designed to study natural phenomenon anything that is out of "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation," must be invalid).
   The first tool of the Baloney Detection Kit can be applied to almost any situation in the real world in a practical manner.
   For example, has there been an independent confirmation to the claim made by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan that President Obama has stolen $716 billion dollars from the medicare fund?
   No, there has not. All non-partisan fact check organizations have stated this is a falsehood continually perpetrated by Romney and his campaign, and that the $716 billion are estimated savings under the Act from limiting administrative costs to health care providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers, information easily verifiable on the Internet Machine.
   It is unlikely, but not impossible, that if a search were made of the White House, a stash of $716 billion dollars would be found.
   It would seem Mr. Romney is not meeting our vigorous standards of proof, and might be, just might be I tell you, being somewhat less than truthful.
   We shall see.

To be continued

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Dr. Sagan and the Death of Neil Armstrong

Carl Sagan: Who Speaks for Earth?

Landing on the Moon, July 20, 1969

Photograph Legend:

1. Annie's Carl
2. Carl's Annie
3. The surface of Venus
4. Nuclear Winter
5. Voyager's Golden Record
6. The Planetary Society logo
7. Neil Armstrong, photo taken in the Lunar Landing Module while on the Moon, July 1969
8. Neil suited up
9. Armstrong on the Moon
10. Dr. Sagan
11. A Pale Blue Dot

   Wikipedia tells us: "Dr. Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co author or editor of more than 20 books. He advocated scientifically skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
   Sagan is known for his popular science books and for the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which he narrated and co-wrote. The book Cosmos was published to accompany the series. Sagan wrote the novel Contact, the basis for a 1997 film of the same name."
   As Wikipedia indicates Dr Sagan did a lot of things, a few of them being:
   His work greatly contributed to the discovery and explanation of the high surface temperatures of Venus (approximately 860 degrees Fahrenheit, twice as hot as any kitchen oven) due to a runaway greenhouse effect, a dire warning to us here on Earth of the consequences of the over abundance of carbon dioxide accumulation in our atmosphere.
   In 1983 Dr. Sagan helped bring to the public's attention the concept of "Nuclear Winter," which concludes that the aftermath of even a limited nuclear weapons exchange between the then Soviet Union and the United States, would have disastrous effects upon the entire planet, postulating that the smoke, dust, particulates, and other contaminants propelled into the atmosphere after such an exchange would tend to cool the planet for several years at least, to the point that agriculture would fail. It would also deplete the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere which shields us from deadly ultra violet radiation from the Sun. This concept actually helped to change the then current policies regarding the use of nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and renewed interest in nuclear arms reduction.
   We don't hear much about it anymore, but the threat of nuclear winter is still very much with us. As of October 2009: Russia retains approximately 13,000 deliverable nuclear weapons, the United States 9,400, France 300, China 240, United Kingdom 185, Israel 80, Pakistan 70-90, India 60-80, North Korea less than 10... Estimated Total:  23,375. -Federation of American Scientists.
   "A minor nuclear war with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet. The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than previously thought." -"Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War." by Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, and Richard P. Turco. Physics Today, December 2008.
   Carl chaired the committee responsible for the golden phonograph records (the records are constructed of gold-plated copper) that were included  on board both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977 (and are now celebrating their 35th birthday as operational craft. Yes, they are still working, sending back signals from the fringes of our solar system. As a matter of fact I'll be attending a birthday celebration for Voyager next month in Pasadena). They contain various sounds, images and music selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. In effect, they are our calling cards to the universe.
   Dr. Sagan wrote that "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
   If we here back on Earth somehow destroy ourselves by such mechanisms as nuclear exchanges, or runaway climate change, or whatever, or even after the Earth is swallowed by the Sun 5 billion years from now, the records of Voyager (and the plaques on the two Pioneer spacecraft also headed for the stars) are all that will be left that recognizes our existence... that we once were, and that we took the first tentative steps to reach for the stars.
   Carl wrote the story of the development of these artifacts in "Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record," 1975.
   The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years. I can't wait!
   Along with Bruce Murray of Caltech, and astronautics engineer Louis Friedman, Carl founded the Planetary Society in 1980. The society has grown to be the largest publicly funded space advocacy group in the world. It is a  non-government and non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of Mars, the Solar System, the search for Near Earth Objects, and the search for extraterrestrial life.
   I've been a member of The Planetary Society since before "Salvation Diary" days (1990), and due to my membership my name was etched onto a microdot, along with every other member at the time, and placed on board the Mars Pathfinder Mission, which landed on the surface of Mars on the fourth of July, 1997, a little less than seven months after Carl died. The base platform which launched the first rover to successfully land on the planet, Sojourner, has been renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station.
   At the time of his death Carl was married to the lovely Ann Druyan, with whom he co-authored two books, the PBS television series "Cosmos," and sections of "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," the 1995 book where the Dragon in the Garage first appeared, and The Baloney Detection Kit, which we are about to examine. I highly recommend this work to anyone who wishes to apply critical thinking as a survival tool in this day and age, to protect us from invalid ideas and those who might wish to fool us into believing something that possibly is not true (such as presidential candidates, for instance).
   I never met Dr. Sagan, although his work has been a tremendous influence in my life and the way I write. I did have the pleasure of meeting Ms. Druyan once, unfortunately under exceptionally sad circumstances, a memorial service for her husband in Pasadena, shortly after his untimely death (Carl died of a rare form of leukemia at the young age of 62).
    There is not a day that goes by that I do not apply in someway lessons learned from having read this very influential book.

   "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small." -Neil Armstrong
   In a rather amazing and sad coincidence, while writing about one pioneer of our country's space program, I sadly learned of the death of another.
   While I was working on this piece yesterday afternoon, shortly before 2:00PM I read an Internet news story of the passing of Neil Armstrong, American NASA astronaut, test pilot, aerospace engineer, university professor and United States Naval Aviator. Oh yes, he was also the first human to set foot upon a world other than our own, the Earth's natural satellite, the Moon.
   He was 82 years old, and apparently died due to complications resulting from heart surgery.
   I was only 13 when the lunar lander Eagle touched down at Tranquility Base, a name invented by Mr. Armstrong, probably due to the fact they had landed on a large, dark, basaltic plain known as Mare Tranquillitatis, or Sea of Tranquility for the few of you who don't speak or read Latin.
    I was allowed to stay up real late to watch the landing on television (about 1:18AM PST). It was  Sunday morning I believe, so there was no school that day. I probably went to sleep for awhile, until six hours later when Neil first went outside for the first step, which I watched, as well as the rest of the world.
   That was probably only the second time in history when the people of the Earth stopped everything, momentarily forgetting all of their petty grievances with each other to focus on the two men walking around on a desert-like, airless surface, a quarter of a million miles away.
   The first being on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, when the treaty was signed between  the Western Allies and Germany, ending World War I, a time as author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. put it, when "millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another," and the guns fell silent allowing the "voice of God" to be heard around the world.
   Below is a tribute to Mr. Armstrong, written by one of our members of The Planetary Society:
   "Armstrong as a Heroic Ideal," by Casey Dreier
   I wasn't born yet when Armstrong first set foot on the Moon.
   My parents remember the night, even though they themselves were young and far-removed from the world of space travel and science. But even though I wasn't there, Armstrong was always a presence. From a young age you know his name, even if most of us (sadly) don't know the others that went after him. The culture itself provides such a powerful representation of Armstrong that even though I wasn't there to see the moonwalk itself, I feel his death in my bones.
   There was something strangely comforting about the idea that this historical figure was quietly living his life on a farm in Ohio. It's very...Washingtonian (or Adamsian?) of him, I guess. The idea that after great service and fame that the man had no further pursuits beyond doing his duty. That he just wanted to go on with his life without basking in glory. It's a type of person that we all read about and convince ourselves don't exist in this day and age.
   Except they do, occasionally. We just have to look.

   In 1990, at the request of Carl Sagan, after the Voyager I spacecraft had completed it's primary mission with it's encounters at Jupiter and Saturn, NASA directed it to turn it's camera around and to take a photograph of the Earth across a great expanse of space (about 3.7 billion miles). What appears is a pale blue dot set against the black empty vastness of outer space.
   With the exception of space exploration and science fiction, as Dr. Sagan himself observed, "That is us... that is home." Everything you have ever heard of, every person that ever lived, every event that ever occurred, took place on that oh so fragile, lonely, and magnificent pale blue dot, on "a mote of dust... suspended in a sunbeam."
   Including the lives of two extraordinary modern day heros.
   Goodbye again Carl...
   And goodbye Neil.

To be continued