Category Archives: Science

If my DNA helps catch a serial killer, I’m totally fine with that

my DNA

My DNA results overview page. I do not “shudder” to share this, with you or the cops.

This morning while working out on the elliptical, I started watching a movie on Netflix called “Anon.” It imagines a near-future in which there is no privacy. Apparently, everyone’s brain is wired to record video of every single second of his or her life — sort of like Google Glass without the glasses. And that data is easily shared wirelessly with other people, and is completely available to the police. The police can even access the last experiences of a dead person, which makes finding murderers ridiculously easy.

Also, you can watch TV or movies without a TV — they just stream in your head — and talk to anyone anywhere without a phone. Which, if an accurate prediction of the future, is really bad news for Best Buy. (First showrooming, now this…)

So since the main character (played by Clive Owen) is a homicide cop, a plot twist is needed to make his job interesting. In this case, the plot twist is that he’s on the trail of a serial killer who has managed to hack people’s digital memories, so that everything in the victim’s last moments is seen from the killer’s POV — so you see the victim being shot, but you don’t see the shooter.

I lost interest in it after 39 minutes, and switched over to “Babylon Berlin” for the rest of my workout. It may have been low-tech, but Germany between the wars was never boring.

But it reminded me of something I meant to blog about a week or so ago.

You’ve probably read about how the Golden State Killer was caught more than 40 years after his crimes when investigators tracked him genetically through a consumer DNA service like Ancestry. Basically, they found links to some of his relatives who had voluntarily shared their DNA info on such databases. Then they found him, and made a positive DNA match to something he’d discarded.

Which I thought was awesome.

But of course, this development immediately led to such headlines as:

The Golden State Killer Is Tracked Through a Thicket of DNA, and Experts Shudder

Data on a genealogy site led police to the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect. Now others worry about a ‘treasure trove of data’

Really? Experts “shudder?” People worry about a “treasure trove of data” that not only can connect you to a 4th cousin, but help cops determine whether he’s a serial killer? Which would be a cool thing to know before you reach out to meet him or trade family information?

Why? That’s utterly absurd.

Sharing DNA info can lead to some pretty painful results for a lot of people. For instance, you can find out that your “Dad” isn’t really your Dad. This can lead to a great deal of family trauma and upend lives.

I’ve been lucky in that regard. My results have been boring. I am related to the people I thought I was related to in precisely the way I thought I was. There could be surprises in results from folks who have not yet been tested, but so far it’s been pretty vanilla. (Extremely vanilla, in terms of ethnicity — so much for those Ancestry ads that tell of all the exciting, exotic backgrounds people have found in their DNA.)

Not that there haven’t been surprises elsewhere on the tree. Some months ago, my daughter was contacted by a guy who was trying to find his birth parents, who thought a cousin of mine might be his father. Sure enough, he shows up on Ancestry as being right behind a couple of my first cousins in terms of his closeness to me. He narrowed it down to one of my cousins. I don’t know whether that cousin knows about it, because I haven’t wanted to pry.

Something like that can be upsetting to those involved, and I’m very sympathetic to that. But that’s just the DNA service working as advertised.

What these “experts” out there are “worrying” and “shuddering” about is the police being able to use these connections to solve crimes.

This does not worry me. If one of my cousins is a serial killer, I’d kind of like the duly constituted authorities to know that, and act upon it.

And I have trouble imagining a scenario in which that is a bad thing — although I’m sure we’ll see a movie soon that shows it to be a frightening thing…

The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

This is just a by-the-way thing, for people who haven’t picked up on it…

The Washington Post yesterday had this story headlined, “Archaeologists discover 81 ancient settlements in the Amazon.” It said in part:

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests; they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”…

Though conservationists often speak of this region as having been a “pristine” landscape, studies by de Souza and others suggest that indigenous people influenced and enriched the rain forest for hundreds of years….

Surprising? Only if you indeed think of the pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who barely touched the land they lived on.

But in fact, researchers have been debunking that view for years.

If you haven’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, you should. That 2005 book, followed six years later by the equally fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, endeavored to bring us laymen up to date on what modern researchers were learning about this hemisphere before Europeans came to stay.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember two main points, new things, that I learned from it:

  • The American population before 1492 was many times as large as previously estimated. But Europeans, the people who wrote the history, never met these people. That’s because, thanks to inter-tribe trade, European diseases wiped out millions — entire villages, entire cultures — before the newcomers even encountered them. (Europeans would land on a coast, coastal Indians would be infected by their diseases and pass them on to inland tribes they traded with. Thus, European diseases raced well ahead of actual Europeans.) That’s one reason the conquistadores were able to conquer. The Incas, for instance, had been ravaged by disease to the point that their empire was on the verge of collapse before Pizarro arrived.
  • The Indians had a dramatic effect on the land before the arrival of whites. They were big users of slash-and-burn land management, including in the hallowed Amazon rain forest. In fact, much of the jungle found by white settlers was only a generation or two old, having grown up after the local land managers died off.

I may be misremembering a detail or two, since it’s been 1491-coverawhile since I read it. But I think I have the broad outline right. One of the most dramatic assertions I remember from the book was that the Little Ice Age the planet experienced from the 16th to the 19th centuries was at least in part caused by this sudden drop in human population in the Amazon basin, which allowed the rainforest to surge, taking in more carbon dioxide and lowering global temperatures.

Of course, this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest, which the nature-loving folk who went before would never have done. (Or, if it doesn’t debunk it, at least adds layers of complication. Apparently, the Indian methods were more sustainable.) At the same time, it reinforces the idea that what humans do and don’t do affect global climate.

All of which reinforces my long-held belief that life is more complicated than most people give it credit for being.

I know I’ve recommended this book before, but the Post story reminded me of it, so I’m recommending it again. It’s fascinating to learn that things you thought you knew were so, are not…

Is it safe to use my prescription specs with my eclipse glasses?

error 2

Stupid Internet! Nobody had this problem the last time we had a total solar eclipse.

We have been drowning in information, much of it useless, about today’s celestial event. We’ve had no end of warnings, all of which should be unnecessary, since anyone who’s spent five minutes on this planet should know not to stare at the sun. But we are a curious species, both in the sense of “strange” and “interested in novelties,” so we need the warnings.

And a lot of those warnings involve not looking at the phenomenon through lenses. You know, “Don’t look at the eclipse through a telescope,” etc.

So… what about my glasses? Can I look through them, with my special eclipse glasses over or under them?

Reasonable inference tells me that it’s safe. After all, there have been SO many warnings about unsafe practices, and anyone with any sense knows that people who need their prescription spectacles to see anything won’t be able to see the eclipse without them. So, you know, telling those millions of people it’s unsafe to do so, if it is, would be one of your very first important safety tips to share.

Still, reasonable surmise doesn’t seem enough where my eyesight is concerned. So I’d like a definite affirmative from an authoritative source: Yes, it’s OK to use your eclipse glasses with your regular glasses.

And surely someone out there has answered that question.

The trouble is, it’s a tricky question to ask clearly on a search engine. You end up repeating “glasses” in a confusing way. I tried being technical and saying, “Is it safe to wear prescription eyeglasses with eclipse glasses?”

But however I search, I only find one web page that seems to answer the question directly. (The second result Google offers in response to that query says, “No, You Can’t Use 3D Movie Glasses As Eclipse Glasses – Here’s Why,” a response so idiotic that it makes me want to slap somebody upside the head.)

But there is that one page, the first result, with the headline “Can I wear eclipse glasses over my regular eyeglasses …

Yes! Just what I need!

But every time I try to call it up, I get the above error message.

So… can anyone help me out her in the couple of hours we have left? Preferably, by giving me a link to an authoritative source?

If so, it will be appreciated…

Advertise on my blog, or I WILL BLOT OUT THE SUN!

Hank Morgan tied to the stake: Illustration of the eclipse scene in Connecticut Yankee.

Hank Morgan tied to the stake: Illustration of the eclipse scene in Connecticut Yankee.

I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the Sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the Earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the Earth shall famish and die, to the last man!

— Hank’s threat to Arthur’s realm, in Connecticut Yankee

I loved it that Cindi Scoppe cited one of my all-time favorite books in her column today.

Even though we worked together all those years, I don’t recall her ever mentioning Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. In fact, I don’t recall her speaking with interest about any works of fiction. Cindi’s too busy for fiction. She spends her evenings reading bills and legal filings, so she can knowledgeably dissect them in the paper.

I, too, have been thinking a lot about Hank Morgan, what with all this talk about the eclipse.

Ah, to have a gullible 6th century population so that I, too, might be able to control them with my knowledge of the coming moments of midday darkness! Morgan not only saved himself from the stake, but seized control of Arthur’s Britain by claiming credit for the eclipse.

What would I do with such superior knowledge? I suppose I could greatly increase my revenues by saying, “Advertise on my blog, or I will blot out the sun!” (Might as well. Nothing else seems to work. That is, my personal strategy of sitting back and waiting for ads hasn’t worked too well. I suppose there are other avenues.)

Of course, they didn’t have blogs in Arthur’s day. But that wouldn’t have stopped Hank Morgan — in no time at all, he had all the knights of the Round Table talking on telephones and playing baseball (in their armor). If Twain had written it a century later, he’d have made Clarence a webmaster.

I’ve got to go back and read that again. Fortunately, I have it on my iPad…

Check out program about Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark! Now!

tiger

Dang! I had meant to tell y’all about this in advance:

But it’s on right now! It’s the first of three episodes.

I’ve told y’all about Joel and his amazing project before. He and I worked together at the Wichita paper back in the ’80s, and he’s been a photographer for National Geographic for the past 25 years.

For the last 11 of those years, he’s been working on his magnum opus, the Photo Ark: He has undertaken to photograph every endangered species on the planet. He figures it will take the rest of his life. May he live far more than long enough to accomplish it…

U.S. goes where only Syria and Nicaragua have gone before

Whole Earth

So what if the United States, guided by the wisdom of our cheerless leader, has pulled out of the Paris Accord signed by more than 190 other nations?

It’s not like we’re going to be alone! We’ll be joining, um, Syria. And Nicaragua! So, yay us, huh? Now we’ll be pace-setters, too!

President Trump declared that the United States would leave the Paris climate agreement, following months of infighting among Trump’s staff that left the world in suspense. He said he hopes to negotiate a similar deal that is more favorable to the U.S.

This move is one of several Obama-era environmental milestones that Trump has dismantled. And all the while, a new study shows global temperatures might be rising faster than expected.

Leaving the agreement displaces the U.S. from a stance of global leadership and places it alongside just two non-participating countries: Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war, and Nicaragua, who refused to join because the Paris Agreement didn’t go far enough. Even countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are among the poorest in the world and were struggling with an Ebola epidemic at the time, have signed on….

And yes, in answer to the question that a Trump supporter asked on the blog earlier today, China and India are taking part in the accord. Not only that, they’re stepping up into the leadership role the United States is forfeiting:

Earlier this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a visit to Berlin, stood alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and said that failing to act on climate change was a “morally criminal act.”

And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the 2015 climate accord in Paris “a hard-won achievement” and urged other signers to stick to their pledges instead of walking away — “as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”

In the past, there was skepticism in both countries about Western calls for emissions reductions, which were seen as hypocritical. The strong public comments now underline how far opinion both countries has moved in recent years, and the rhetorical leadership is extremely welcome, experts say….

Oh, and by the way — it’s not just words. China is not only living up to what it’s promised, it’s ahead of schedule in reducing its carbon footprint.

China is, of course, in this and other areas (such as TPP), only too happy to assume the mantle of global leadership that the United States is so eagerly, and so stupidly, laying aside.

An asteroid didn’t destroy Earth today. So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice…

Some NASA images of the rock that's missing us today...

Some NASA images of the rock that’s missing us today…

I read this today in The Washington Post:

A very large, very peanut-shaped asteroid whizzed past Earth on Wednesday, about 1.1 million miles away. For perspective, that’s about 4.6 times the distance to the moon. That’s razor-edge close compared with the vastness of space, but in our human-relative universe it’s waaaayyy out there….

Since I was sitting there at breakfast reading about it, I sort of knew already that the planet hadn’t been destroyed. But I read on with great satisfaction nevertheless:

Let us, for a moment, consider a scenario in which a 0.8-mile-wide asteroid strikes Earth.

First, the magic number for total apocalypse is 60 miles. That’s how big an asteroid would need to be to wipe out human life.

This asteroid is far from that number, but if it hits, let’s say, Washington, D.C., it’s large enough to destroy everything and everyone from New York City to Raleigh, N.C. (I apologize to the people of Raleigh for dragging you into Washington’s apocalypse.) The thermal radiation radius would be much larger….

I guess that would teach North Carolina not to pass dumb ol’ bathroom bills, huh? I mean, this would be is almost as bad as not getting to host NCAA games.

Now, if you want to see a good guess about what the impact of a 60-miler would look like, check the following video. Then go on and have a nice day…

My DNA is being subjected to a really ‘snazzy test’!

ancestry

Ever since I sent my spit off to Ancestry, I’ve been like a little kid who has sent in his cereal box tops, waiting for my secret decoder ring.

And the time frame involved is reminiscent of the days when I was a little kid — they say it can take 6-8 weeks for delivery!

For their part, Ancestry is making sure I know they haven’t forgotten me, or lost my DNA. I got an email from them today giving me a link to a page letting me track the process. Apparently, they’re working on it now. Surprisingly, this is something that actually takes time. I had figured it would be like when they test my iron level before I give platelets at the Red Cross — zip, and you’re done.

Nope. It’s way more complicated, tracking hundreds of thousands of… what do they call them?… single nucleotide polymorphisms. To put it in technical terms, the lady on this video says my DNA is being subjected to a “pretty complicated and really snazzy test.”

So now I understand.

Anyway, I can hardly wait…

New planet? Whaddya mean, INFERRED? Ain’t it amazing how little scientists KNOW…

planet nine

An artist’s impression of Planet Nine, which could sit at the edge of our solar system. (R. Hurt/California Institute of Technology)

OK, so now the guy who got Pluto demoted, the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, says he’s found a new planet. One much farther out (20 times as far as Neptune) and much, much bigger — like, 5 or 10 times as massive as Earth.

Not that anyone has seen this planet, mind you, although the boffins are all looking for it like fun:

Their paper, published in the Astronomical Journal, describes the planet as about five to 10 times as massive as the Earth. But the authors, astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin, have not observed the planet directly.

Instead, they have inferred its existence from the motion of recently discovered dwarf planets and other small objects in the outer solar system. Those smaller bodies have orbits that appear to be influenced by the gravity of a hidden planet – a “massive perturber.” The astronomers suggest it might have been flung into deep space long ago by the gravitational force of Jupiter or Saturn.

Telescopes on at least two continents are searching for the object, which on average is 20 times farther away than the eighth planet, Neptune. If “Planet Nine” exists, it’s big. Its estimated mass would make it about two to four times the diameter of the Earth, distinguishing it as the fifth-largest planet after Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. But at such extreme distances, it would reflect so little sunlight that it could evade even the most powerful telescopes…

So, astronomers — the class of people who are always telling us about (much smaller) Earth-like planets in other solar systems, gazillions of times farther away than this — have to infer the existence of a gigantic planet still in the grip of Sol’s gravity? I mean, they’re inferring all that stuff about “Goldilocks” planets, too, but if they have to do it in our own system, how reliable is all that stuff about other star systems?

This kind of uncertainty on the part of experts does not inspire confidence on the part of us ignorant laypeople.

Take another news item from this morning: “It’s official: 2015 ‘smashed’ 2014’s global temperature record. It wasn’t even close.

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Now, I realize that one year — or for that matter, two years — does not constitute proof of a trend. But I am reminded that, in the long run, most scientists tell us that we are experiencing climate change, and it’s our fault.

I believe them. But hey, when scientists can’t even tell for sure whether there’s another giant planet in our own solar system, is it surprising that some people don’t? Believe them, I mean.

And yes, I’m doing a classic thing that ignorant people do — I’m combining all scientists, from all disciplines, into one entity. He’s a guy who looks like… well, like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” That guy knew everything about everything

As for me… I’m just a simple caveman blogger. What do I know?

Obviously, it’s blue and BROWN

I was rather puzzled reading this story in The Washington Post this morning, about some huge social media controversy over whether this dress is white and gold, or blue and black.

When, of course, it’s obviously blue and a particularly muddled sort of brown.

Here’s the only explanation the story offered:

The answer involves how light enters the eye and the split-second decisions your brain makes upon discerning that information — without your even noticing. When confronted by an ambiguous situation like this dress, your brain may eliminate one color and focus on another. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information,” University of Washington neuroscientist Jay Neitz told Wired.

And for whatever reason, whether it’s a skewed white balance or the lighting behind the dress, this image hits people in different ways. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black,” Bevil Conway of Wellesley College told Wired….

Pope Francis, the protopunk pontiff

I very much liked this piece in The Washington Post today about Pope Francis:

The pope himself seems unconcerned, continuing his unpredictable riff. He embraces the big bang. He appears in selfies. He criticizes euthanasia. He invites Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, to perform at the Vatican. He cashiers opponents. He calls the kingdom of God “a party” (which is precisely how the founder of the Christian faith referred to it). He is a man, by his own account, with no patience for “sourpusses.”

As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”…

As I’ve said before, this pope hasn’t said anything new, in terms of doctrine. I am bemused when nonCatholics, or extremely inattentive Catholics, express wonder that the pope embraces, say, evolution. I had never before run into any basic conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution.

But the very simple, and yet amazing, thing that he does is make sure that you hear what’s important about the faith. He makes sure you hear the love. You patch up the suffering first — heal the wounds. The rest is secondary.

Who cares that Patti Smith’s “Gloria” doesn’t start “Glory to God in the highest,” but rather, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?” Well, OK, I guess we should care to some extent. But what this pope does is reach out to Patti where she is. He tries to get her to feel the love. And she seems to dig it.

And so it is that we now have our first protopunk pontiff…

So why can’t a hallucination be an actual message?

Unfaithful

 

First, a confession…

Sometimes in Mass, my mind wanders. This is not entirely my fault. I love St. Peter’s and its architecture, but the acoustics have always been terrible. Everything said from the altar or the pulpit bounces around in the dome above it, so that the last thing a speaker said is competing with what he or she is saying after that. This is particularly bad for me with my Meniere’s problem, because it causes me to have particular trouble separating speech clearly from background noise. Add to that the fact that the Mass I attend is in Spanish, and while my pronunciation is good, my understanding isn’t what it was 50 years ago when I lived in Ecuador. Even when I can hear it clearly, I have to work hard to catch enough words to get the drift.

Put all that together, and I have a lot of trouble following what is being said. So my mind wanders. Frequently. And when it wanders, I often think of religious-themed posts for the blog. But then, by the time the Mass is over, and I go home and have lunch and, if I have my druthers, have a nice Sunday afternoon nap, I’ve forgotten about it. So Sunday posts remain rare.

But here’s the one that was going through my head in Mass yesterday…

The night before, I watched on Netflix an episode of “House,” from Season 5, titled “Unfaithful.”

It opens with a weary, dissolute-seeming young priest (Greene’s “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory seems to be a literary antecedent) who has just taken off his collar and is trying to relax in his dingy cell, located in the charity that he runs for the homeless, by knocking back a whiskey or three.

A few moments before, a homeless man had knocked, seeking a warm coat, which the priest gave him. Now, someone is insistently knocking again. Reluctantly, grimly, he drags himself to the door, opens it, and before him is a bloody Christ, with fresh stigmata, scourge wounds all over, and the crown of thorns.

The priest says, “That’s not funny, freak.” The figure before him answers, “No one is laughing, Daniel.” The priest looks down and sees that the figure’s nail-pierced feet are hovering several inches from the ground.

This, to say the least, freaks him out.

The priest immediately turns himself in to the hospital where House works — because, of course, he was hallucinating. He leaps to that conclusion because, after being hounded from parish to parish by a false sexual abuse charge leveled at him by a young man several parishes back, the priest has no faith left.

So to him, as to the atheist House, the only explanation for such an incident is that there is something wrong with his brain. It’s a symptom, not a message from God — a diagnosis with which the writers of the show clearly agree. And we viewers, being moderns, are meant to assume this is the case.

The next day, thinking about this in Mass, it occurred to me that there’s something wrong with the logic underlying the show’s premise. To follow me, I ask my unbelieving readers to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Stipulate — just for the sake of this discussion — that there is a God and that He does try to tell us things from time to time.

So, if we accept that… why would the incident being a hallucination mean that it wasn’t an actual message from God? Mind you, I can’t tell you what the message in this case would be, beyond shocking the priest out of his faith slump.

But what about a hallucination makes it an invalid form of perception, within the context of faith? Think about this: The Bible is filled with instances of people receiving divine messages through dreams, from the original Joseph of the many-colored coat to Joseph of Nazareth. No one says, “It can’t be a real message because it was just a dream.”

And what is a hallucination except a waking dream?

We mortals have a wide variety of methods of communication. We can speak to people face-to-face, or tell them what we’re thinking with sign language. There’s writing, smoke signals, Morse code, email, videochat, texting — some of which are more “virtual” than others, but all seen as genuine communication. And let’s not forget movies with special effects — do such effects mean that they can’t communicate a serious message? (Not that CGI-rich films tend to be heavy on ideas, but they can be, just as any other film can.)

The hallucination, or the sleeping version, seems to be a favorite mode of communication of the Almighty.

And you don’t have to be a believer to find meaning in dreams, to see them as powerful communicators of important ideas. Ask a Freudian. Absent God, it could be your superego is trying to tell you something.

We empirical moderns like to think that something isn’t real if it can’t be independently confirmed — which seems rather narrow and limited of us. If someone else looking out his window at the moment the priest was having his waking dream did not see the crucified figure hovering there, then the priest didn’t, either. Except that he did. And if anyone could make him see something that his neighbor didn’t  — encoding the message for him alone to see, which is not a radical concept — an all-powerful God who knows everything about how every individual is made would be the one. Again, you have to believe in God to follow this, but if you do, why would you think the Deity couldn’t do that?

A photograph taken at the time wouldn’t show the Jesus figure. There would be no drops of blood on the sidewalk. But then, there was no physical evidence of Moses’ burning bush experience, either. The scripture specifically notes that although it was burning, the bush was not consumed.

So while you might not believe, if you do believe, why is this priest’s vision automatically less legit than that of Moses, or the dream in which Joseph was urged to go ahead and marry Mary?

There are some belief systems that are all about hallucination, even about deliberately inducing them — I think of shamans who treat peyote as a sacrament.

Have you ever read any of Carlos Castaneda’s books? They’re all about achieving greater enlightenment by inducing hallucinations, and actually entering into those hallucinations and taking action within them. The Separate Reality is as legitimate, within the context of that system of thought, as one that concrete thinkers see as the only reality.

So, given all that, what’s the justification for seeing a hallucination as just a hallucination, and therefore automatically devoid of meaning? That seems a very shallow, and at the least unimaginative, explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about during Mass when I was supposed to be paying attention…

I don’t see how police body cams will help with this problem

shooter

Normally, I find Nicholas Kristof’s columns to be models of calm reason. They tend to add up nicely.

So I was disappointed with this one from last week, which you may have seen in The State today.

First, I was disappointed because I thought both Kristof and I had written before about this first-person-shooter test, which gauges the extent to which we — regardless of how enlightened we may be on the subject of race — are more likely to shoot first at a black man than at a white one. But I couldn’t find where I wrote about it before. If anyone can point me to it, I’ll be grateful.

Anyway, according to Kristof, here’s what the test continues to find:

Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado at Boulder has used an online shooter video game to try to measure these unconscious attitudes (you can play the game yourself). The player takes on the role of a police officer who is confronted with a series of images of white or black men variously holding guns or innocent objects such as wallets or cellphones. The aim is to shoot anyone with a gun while holstering your weapon in other cases.

Ordinary players (often university undergraduates) routinely shoot more quickly at black men than at white men, and are more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man.

I’m typical. The first time I took the test, years ago, I shot armed blacks in an average of 0.679 seconds while waiting slightly longer — 0.694 seconds — to shoot armed whites. I also holstered more quickly when confronted with unarmed whites than with unarmed blacks.

In effect, we have a more impulsive trigger finger when confronted by black men and are more cautious with whites. This is true of black players as well…

I tried taking the test (again) this morning. I don’t think it was working right. It kept throwing scenarios at me well past the five minutes it was supposed to take, so I just quit after awhile, and therefore didn’t get graded.

I found the interface rather glitchy. Many times I would press either the J key (to shoot) or the F key (to holster) and it wouldn’t register. I’d be told I was dead, or merely out of time. But then, even when it did register, I was very often too late. That’s the crux of the test, you see — not to give you time to think. If I were a cop in a real situation, I would take that second to think. Maybe I’d be dead as a result, but I would take the second.

I did accidentally shoot a “good guy” at least three times — about the same number of times that I holstered when the guy had a gun, meaning I was dead. On a couple of the innocents I shot, I noticed before the image was gone that my victim was black. But that points to another flaw with the test: I tended to see the gun before I saw the guy. Several times, I would shoot, be told I’d made a good shot, and then the picture would be gone before I could look to see if the guy was black or white.

As for that quick-holstering thing — why would a cop holster his gun, when unthreatened, as quickly as he’d fire it if threatened? The natural reaction would be to keep the gun out, keeping options open, for a bit longer — wouldn’t it?

Anyway, the sad thing is that, assuming there is bias in our shooting tendencies (and as I said, I never got my test results), how are we supposed to be reassured by this:

There’s some evidence that training, metrics and policies can suppress biases or curb their impact. In law enforcement, more cameras — police car cams and body cams — create accountability and may improve behavior. When Rialto, Calif., introduced body cams on police officers, there was an 88 percent decline in complaints filed about police by members of the public….

OK, maybe. But how does that help with the shoot-don’t shoot equation? If that is reflexive, and tends to play out even when we know we’re being tested on it, what good does the body cam do? Seems to me there is still a marginally greater chance that black suspects will be shot. The only difference is that with a body cam, there’s more likely to be huge community outrage over it.

Right? Or am I wrong? My point is, either these atavistic impulses are reflexive — in which no amount of supposed “accountability” will stop bad things from happening — or they are not. Which is it?

OK, now THIS is impressive technology

This is very cool, and very impressive:

Your bag of potato chips can hear what you’re saying. Now, researchers from MIT are trying to figure out a way to make that bag of chips tell them everything that you said — and apparently they have a method that works. By pointing a video camera at the bag while audio is playing or someone is speaking, researchers can detect tiny vibrations in it that are caused by the sound. When later playing back that recording, MIT says that it has figured out a way to read those vibrations and translate them back into music, speech, or seemingly any other sound….

Alexei Efros, a University of California at Berkeley researcher, says in a statement…. “This is totally out of some Hollywood thriller. You know that the killer has admitted his guilt because there’s surveillance footage of his potato chip bag vibrating.” The research is being described in a paper that will be published at the computer graphics conference Siggraph.

Although it’s only marginally more amazing than what my iPhone can do — know me by my thumbprint, not by scanning it visually (which my laptop can do), but by touch. The sensor in the Home button is so sensitive that it reads the tiny ridges in my thumb — either thumb, from any angle — and recognizes the pattern. Which just floors me. This is that kind of analysis of the tiny, the subtle, taken to another level…

WashPost: ‘Amazing cloud-repelling islands’

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I like this picture that the WashPost posted yesterday showing a really cool weather phenomenon off the coast of Baja California.

The absence of clouds over the islands is explained thusly:

The clouds form over the ocean because the chilly Pacific water creates a layer of cool air at low altitudes. When the air is heated just above the ocean surface, it cools and condenses into clouds and fog forming the so-called marine layer (which is held in place by a temperature inversion, in which the air – divorced from the cool sea surface – warms with altitude).

But over the islands, the layer of cool air required for these clouds to form is often absent since land masses and the air above them heat up quickly (thanks to the low heat capacity of land versus water).  And so, unless there is wind  to push the marine layer over the islands, they’re bastions of sunshine….

I’m enjoying my new Digital Premium subscription to The Washington Post

NASA’s starship, the IXS Enterprise

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This is the coolest thing I ran into over the weekend. I think the info has been out there awhile, but it was new to me when I saw it at the WashPost site.

First, there’s a guy at NASA, engineer and physicist Harold White, working on how to make a warp-drive spaceship, a true starship, a vehicle that can move at speeds exceeding the speed of light. Which, it is believed, may one day be possible.

Better than that:

And now, to boldly go where no designer has gone before, Mark Rademaker — who is collaborating with White — has created a CGI design concept for the “warp ship.” They’re calling it the IXS Enterprise.

Admittedly, the pictures are less about getting to the other side of the galaxy, and more about getting kids excited about pursuing STEM careers. But they’re a lot of fun anyway. You can see more images at Rademaker’s Flickr account.

White explains in detail how his warp drive would work in the video below. But for those of you who want the quick, oversimplified version, basically it works “by expanding space-time behind the object and contracting space-time front of it.”

A disappointing aspect of that is that it makes for a bit of a clunky design. In the photo above, I saw that structure around the ship and thought it was docked in a construction bay, or making a stop at a space station. No, apparently, that huge ring is part of the ship — an essential element to making the warp drive work. “The rings are most important as they will form the Warp bubble,” says Rademaker.

But maybe they can streamline them some before NASA’s ready to “boldly go.” Which is bound to be awhile, given that NASA currently has no operational spacecraft. We’ll see. Or our descendants will, anyway…

‘Sitting is the New Smoking:’ Recent research makes some of my colleagues stand up and take notice

Take a momentary break from stressing about saturated fat, second-hand smoke, carbohydrates, terrorism, stranger danger and lack of exercise to consider the new source of alarm: Sitting.

Going by the new research — which you can read about here, and here, and here — it really doesn’t matter how much you work out. If you sit too much the rest of the time, it’s killing you.

Consider this warning to the hyperkinetic readers of Runner’s World:

You’ve no doubt heard the news by now: A car-commuting, desk-bound, TV-watching lifestyle can be harmful to your health. All the time we spend parked behind a steering wheel, slumped over a keyboard, or kicked back in front of the tube is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression—to the point where experts have labeled this modern-day health epidemic the “sitting disease.”

But wait, you’re a runner. You needn’t worry about the harms of sedentary living because you’re active, right? Well, not so fast. A growing body of research shows that people who spend many hours of the day glued to a seat die at an earlier age than those who sit less—even if those sitters exercise.

“Up until very recently, if you exercised for 60 minutes or more a day, you were considered physically active, case closed,” says Travis Saunders, a Ph.D. student and certified exercise physiologist at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “Now a consistent body of emerging research suggests it is entirely possible to meet current physical activity guidelines while still being incredibly sedentary, and that sitting increases your risk of death and disease, even if you are getting plenty of physical activity. It’s a bit like smoking. Smoking is bad for you even if you get lots of exercise. So is sitting too much.”

Unfortunately, outside of regularly scheduled exercise sessions, active people sit just as much as their couch-potato peers…

The denizens of ADCO — some of them, at any rate — have taken this to heart (and lung, and brain, and all the other organs allegedly affected by excessive sitting), and have started standing at their desks to work.

Meanwhile, others among us are both sitting and eating potato chips while writing this blog post. Literally.

We’ll report on the results of this internal study, if we’re still around when the data are in…

ADCO's Nancy Atkinson stands at her desk, oblivious to the fact that this blog's format lends itself better to HORIZONTAL images.

ADCO’s Nancy Atkinson stands at her desk, oblivious to the fact that this blog works better with HORIZONTAL images.

‘Mental Palaces’ are cool, but wouldn’t ‘Mnemonic Mansions’ be more memorable?

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose...

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose…

Saw an interesting piece in the NYT about this international Extreme Memory Tournament. I was particularly impressed with the explanation of the method used by the best “mental athletes” — a method that, despite efforts by upstarts to come up with alternative strategies, can’t be beat — to file memories so that they are available during the competition:

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages, scrolling out pi to hundreds of digits, or phenomenally long verses, or word pairs. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers, words or cards with specific images they have already memorized; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century B.C., and it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.

Each competitor has his or her own variation. “When I see the eight of diamonds and the queen of spades, I picture a toilet, and my friend Guy Plowman,” said Ben Pridmore, 37, an accountant in Derby, England, and a former champion. “Then I put those pictures on High Street in Cambridge, which is a street I know very well.”

As these images accumulate during memorization, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie ‘Gladiator,’ which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Mr. Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and something else playing the horse, and so on.”…

One of the traits that makes these competitors so good is, paradoxically, their ability to forget — basically, they clean out their mental palaces between rounds, to make room for new memories.

However, they’re not as good at forgetting as they think they are. They will report that they forget everything, right away. But tests have shown that the following day, even after restocking their palaces with new memories, they can still regurgitate three-fourths of the old material.

I suppose this indicates the existence of a mental attic — a far less-organized place where memories collect dust and cobwebs, and you forget that you have them.

The fascinating thing about this method, I think, is that something so seemingly abstract as memory is so dependent on the concrete — objects and images in identifiable spaces. It’s almost like being dependent on your fingers and toes in order to count.

If I were one of these competitors, I’d call my palaces “mnemonic mansions.” That’s more memorable…

Of course, the interior of my palace or mansion would probably look like this.

Burl, who is an expert, shows us how airplanes fly

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And if you doubt it, well, he’s the curator of the Pacific Aviation Museum in Pearl Harbor. What are your credentials? (He got the info from something called ScienceDump, which sounds credible as all get-out to me.)

I, of course, believed the diagram immediately, as it fit perfectly with my understanding of this phenomenon. Frankly, I have trouble believing they do fly. It may just be mass hypnosis that makes us think they do. If you think about it, that explanation actually taxes credulity less than the theory that those massive things actually do hang up there in the sky.

(Seriously, haven’t you ever looked up at a plane, way up in the sky, and thought, Oh, come on — that’s ridiculous!)

The Cartographers for Social Equality

The other night, continuing to make my way through “The West Wing” (which I never saw when it was on) while working out each evening, I saw the one in which the Cartographers for Social Equality were allowed to make a presentation on Big Block of Cheese Day.

I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when I visited my friend Moss Blachman in his office, and saw his map of the Western Hemisphere with south at the top and north at the bottom. As someone who lived in South America as a kid and who has long thought my fellow gringos give Latin America short shrift, I got a kick out of it. Because, of course, the practice of putting north at the top and south at the bottom is totally arbitrary (an obvious fact that sort of blew C.J. Cregg’s mind).

I enjoy things like that which cause us to look at things in fresh ways.

Of course, the political conclusion that the cartographers draw from the way the Mercator distorts the world is rather silly. I’ve always known Africa is way bigger than Greenland, and that Africa is thousands of times more significant in world affairs. But I also know that Africa doesn’t derive its importance from being bigger; it derives it from the fact that there are multitudes of nations and cultures and geographic and biological diversity in Africa, and it is not mostly a frozen waste. Population of Greenland: 56,840. Population of Africa: 1.033 billion. Duh.

If I were stupid enough to think the significance of nations and continents were a function of size, I’d conclude that England has been of no account whatsoever in world history. Which I don’t. And I can’t think of anyone who does.

But I enjoyed the scene anyway, because it is good for the brain (and pleasurable as well) to flip things around and look at them from unaccustomed angles. And if there are people who did make foolish assumptions about the world based on the usual depiction, and their eyes are opened, then great. But I wouldn’t attach a lot of importance to that.

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