Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Overpasses are bad, m'kay?

We are all susceptible to wrong thinking- one could say it’s fundamental to what makes us human- and I’m no exception.  I do pride myself on generally knowing whether an idea is coherent or not (something I’ve worked very hard at), but I make occasional (read: lots of) mistakes.  Last night could have killed me, so I guess it was more than your usual misinformation (whether I believe in Bigfoot is seldom life threatening) or even the more practical knowledge (knowing when a so-called “business deal” is a scam).

The double rainbow I saw.
I suppose I should set the scene.  I live in Altus, a small town in southwestern Oklahoma, and I frequently have medical appointments that the local area can’t field, so I have to drive for about an hour to get to Lawton, a slightly larger small town that manages to pass as a city (no offense, well, not too much offense to my Okie friends).  Yesterday afternoon, there was a warning that there might be hail in the area, and when I looked at the weather radar, there was a heavy storm coming right for us.  I figured if I left immediately, I should be able to stay just ahead of the storm.  On the way, my supervisor called to tell me that a tornado had touched down, just outside of a small town and the highway I was on.  I had literally passed the town 4 or 5 minutes before, but besides the ominously dark clouds behind me, it was clear in front so I pushed on.  I heard one of my favorite songs, Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare, on the radio and saw a perfect 180 degree double rainbow (the second in my life!) and escaped the downpour with only a few miles of rain, which would last most of the day for home- it was a great ride.

I arrived at my destination unhindered at about 3:30 PM, but I still knew I’d dodged a bullet earlier.  I don’t believe the tornado did cross the highway, but it could have.  By the time my appointment was over, the weather had passed over, but was still all along the route back home.  So I decided to hang out in town until things looked better outside.  By the time I left, it was 9 o’clock at night.  I felt 5 hours would be plenty of time for the storm to get out of the way, and never bothered checking my weather app.  For those keeping score, this was my third mistake that day.
I am usually a fan of night driving, but this time, it would prove to be a bad idea.  Daylight Savings Time had just ended, making it much darker than I’d planned, such that I can’t tell what the clouds look like.  There’s no rain and very little lightning visible.  So I start the 50 mile drive.  After 10 miles or so, the lightning has steadily been increasing, but I can’t see any bolts or hear thunder, which means it’s far off, and mostly to the North.  As it’s not too threatening, I press on.  I get about 15 miles in, and the clouds start to drizzle- nothing that I even need to put my wipers for, but the lightning continues increasing in frequency, and the wind picks up, still blowing from the south southwest.  It’s perfectly normal to be driving along in Oklahoma and the wind just decides to blow you off the road, so that wasn’t alarming in the slightest.  Then at what had to be about 20 miles in, a wall of water hits my car from the South.  My wipers are on full bore and I still only get glimpses of clarity before they’re filled in by more water.  I slow down, which I almost never do for rain, but I felt myself hydroplaning, and the water on the road looked deep- we’re prone to flash floods, and this could turn into one, though probably not enough to float my car, enough to push it off the road.
So, driving along at 35 Mph, I make it another 5 miles or so.  It could only have been about 10 minutes before the rain abruptly stopped, but in that time the wind changed direction twice, blowing straight back toward me (East), and then switching to blowing towards the south.  That was when I started getting nervous.   Then, lightning bolts, now clearly visible, were in front of me.  For a split second, I see what could have been a funnel cloud highlighted to the northeast- and I start watching the skies.  At least in the day, you have a clear view of what the clouds are doing, and I just have to wait for an opportune lightning bolt to strike behind it.  It didn’t take long- and sadly, I wasn’t disappointed.  It wasn’t a full funnel yet, but it definitely appeared like a semi-triangular cloud formation, pointing down in a horizon that was otherwise featureless.
Now I’m very nervous.  My instinct says to find shelter, to put something between me and it besides my car.  I know the route (and by route, I mean 50 miles of straight, mostly featureless road), and I know that just a few miles on, near the town the tornado touched down, there’s an overpass where another state highway crosses.  I figure if I can just push toward that, I can ride it out.  This is mistake number 4, maybe 5 if you count not turning around when it started getting worse; 6 if you count trying to come back that night at all.  I’ll go with 6.
So, I make it to the overpass uneventfully, but I keep watching that-spot-in-the-sky-where-I-saw-what-might’ve-been-a-funnel-cloud-forming.
And then I just wait.  The rain had returned, the wind had changed directions a few more times, and it was moving fast enough to blow the rain sideways.
I remember thinking, wouldn’t this bridge make a sort of funnel?  I knew tornados were often very wide- larger than the bridge in every dimension- but I figured, at least with cover, I’d have a better shot.  After all, the vacuum is above you, so you should get pulled up, mostly, right?  I waited, hoping things would get better.  They got worse, but I just kept alternately listening to the radio and listening for the sound a tornado makes.  I’ve been told it sounds like a train blasting by, a high pitched roar.  I figured, if I heard it, I’d get out and hide under the car.  I spent some time in the back seat, belted in as well.  I had no idea what to do, and was mostly trying to occupy myself by thinking I was doing something useful.  The bridge was number 7, the bit about the vacuum, while not entirely wrong, was 8.
After an hour, things weren’t getting better, and I was going to risk it.  I wasn’t going to spend all night in the car.  Press on, like I’ve been trained.  So I did.  I was a little more than halfway home, and made it without further incident.
I found out this morning not only is what I did a bad idea, it may well be the worst.  Well, OK, not worst- standing atop the bridge holding a metal golf club aloft after attaching my entire zipper collection to my metal suit while soaking in a vat of lighter fluid and smoking crystal meth would be worse, but a car is a deathtrap in a tornado, and the overpass only makes it worse.  As far as tornado safety goes though, es no bueno.  The Storm Prediction Center of Oklahoma has posted a detailed and fairly complicated analysis of “Tornado Vs Overpass” behavior here, but I’ll simplify it (it’s about 25 pages long, so what follows really is a simplification).
As I mentioned earlier, the instinctive thought is “tornados suck you up”.  This is true- except that it does not only do that.  The funnel cloud, if one is even present, represents the center of a vortex, a low-pressure area, which is causing wind to swirl around it.  The general direction is up, but there is a huge sideways component that can extend “a considerable distance” (when they talk about half mile wide tornados, for instance) from the visible tornado!  The winds may be at their fastest at the edges, in fact.  Think about swinging a rope around in a circle- the tip is moving much faster than the base where you’re holding it.  This isn’t exactly the same of course, as there is no solid lever involved, but the principle is similar.
Second, the debris from a tornado (one might argue the most dangerous component) is likely to get snagged by the bridge, dumping cars or trees or pieces of buildings or rabid prairie dogs on you.

Most overpasses don’t have anything to hang onto if you are getting pulled by the wind, and the one I was under was no exception.

The best response in my case was to stay away from the tornado, of course- I should have driven at right angles away from the thunderstorm.  In my case, that would have meant turning around, and probably sleeping in my car, or a hotel room, in Lawton that night, but it would have been the safest course of action.  Since I insisted in driving into the storm, the next best course of action would have been, assuming I saw a tornado, to stop the car, get out, and run for a ditch somewhere a good distance from my car, and lie face down protecting my head until the tornado passed.  The reason this (very counter-intuitive) option is safer is because tornados lose wind speed as they get closer to the ground- and at the ground level, the wind speeds are zero.  The further you get from the ground, though, the faster the relative speed rises.  This is the reason to stay out of the car- they’re high enough to guarantee they’ll be hit with very high wind speeds, making you even more likely to suffer injury by getting rolled over (by which I mean tumbled like a child’s toy, possibly being picked completely up and slammed into something), showered by broken glass or trapped inside.   Lying face-down in a ditch is safer because debris is less likely to get dropped on you and you aren’t likely to get blown around, but is still a “last ditch stand” that should be your final, desperate option.
I made it home safe, largely because the storm didn’t generate a tornado at that time (as I said, it had earlier, almost at that very spot), but I did make a couple of decent decisions along the way.  Pushing through the storm slowly, until visibility improved, and increasing my speed to something high but safe (the speed limit) until I’d gotten out from under the storm.
Tornados are one of those instances where your “gut” will lead you wrong, and the only remedy is research- at least enough to understand your risks.  I have now (not too late, luckily), and hopefully this helps you if your ever find yourself in one of these situations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Power of a Story

As humans, it's often said that we are social creatures, or animals, and like many cliches it's quite true, and fundamentally so.  But we are also more.
L. Buck; Borned; 1871; Died; 1934
Consider this picture.  I came across it while placing flags for Veterans' Day.  It's a simple, cement tombstone, with the captioned words written apparently with a stick.  The way the 'd's were carved, it seemed the person was used to holding a brush, and was probably right handed, pulling the letters toward themself, but by Borned, (which took me a bit to decipher), was probably an artist rather than a writer.  The artist theory seemed made more likely by the uniformity, it seems they took great care making sure it looked right, perhaps from deference, perhaps from lack of practice. It took me a  Puzzled, I find myself wondering, "Who was this L. Buck?"  The grave was half-covered by a bush which was being tended, the   Immediately, what comes to mind is the image of a steelworker, working hard for all 63 years of his life.  He was beloved by his family as a father and husband but was never able to scrape more than a few nickels together, and he died in abject poverty.  His one child was struck down early in life to a fever and his wife, uneducated and heartbroken, wrote what she could to commemorate his life.  She got the important parts.
I thought about it a moment, and realized that, this being Oklahoma, he was probably a farmer rather than a steelworker, and his death probably coincided with the Dust Bowl.  He died, penniless and unable to afford the healthcare necessary to survive.
Then I realized, why did he have to be a good guy?  He could have been a cruel taskmaster, driving his workers to their deaths every day they toiled in his fields (still a farmer), and he died, uncelebrated and unmourned.  His grave was marked only because his wife had sought solace in her faith after years in an abusive marriage from which she could not escape, and it was the Christian thing to do.  She lived off of his fortune comfortably, donating much of it to charity upon her death.
OK, there's some projection here, a fear of living a life without importance, and granted, some elements in my story are more convincing than others- that he was a farmer, for instance, and that whoever "inscribed" the tombstone was uneducated, and his death was related to the Dust Bowl, but none of them are demanded.  The idea that he is even a male is hard to justify.  But I dispense with the second story and return to the first, anyway- I can't help it!  It's a tragic tale, with a lifetime of accomplishment, love, work, pain, summed up in a legacy of 3 words, 2 numbers and a letter, a testament to ignominy.
One more story.  A few months ago, I impulsively stopped in at a garage sale here on base.  The family had clearly just had a baby, and seemed to be trying to make room.  They were a young couple, about my age (27 at the time), and had a bunch of kitsch left out for people to buy.  Perusing it, I was fascinated by these hideous porcelain shell decorations (similar to porcelain angels, but with a poorly executed nautical motif), being sold for 75 cents a piece.  Again, I began concocting a story- the couple, young and in love, take a honeymoon trip to the Carribean- yes, to Trinidad; I felt vindicated, as one of the shells was inscribed with the name.  Moved but deeply uninterested in the shells, I tried very hard to find something else I might actually use, but I felt compelled to buy something, even if it was just a token, to wish this couple best of luck.  I settled on a key chain, which they wanted 10 cents for.  I gave them a dollar and left.
Of course, I could be (and probably am, in all three stories) completely wrong.  That's not the point.
The point is, the desire for a satisfying narrative is very powerful.  We look for patterns.  We want to make sense of things, and narratives often do that better than facts, at least at first (especially as capricious as life can be).  I think it's one reason we sometimes find ourselves believing foolish things.  It's also a way salesmen take advantage of us- playing to our observations and assumptions, like wearing a wedding ring when they aren't married.  We just sort of fill in the gaps as necessary, and don't think too hard on them unless we make an effort.  It's easy to get swept along in the momentum.  Maybe I'll catch myself the next time, but maybe I don't want to.  After all, the poignancy of the stories seems to give homage to the hardships of our own lives, which we can't always make sense of, and make it seem just a little bit easier to handle.
So next time you find yourself filling in the blanks on your own, put in that little bit of effort and see how warranted your final version really is- maybe you shouldn't put too much stock in it, but you should certainly enjoy the story.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


For the first time, I'm watching the movie 2012. A friend asked me to and to tell him what I thought. So I thought, I'll tell everyone instead, and then send him the link.
Very quickly, for those who don't know, the gist of 2012 is that neutrinos from the sun heat the core of the Earth which results in extreme tectonic activity. Then the planets line up and electromagnetic fields go crazy and everything explodes. It looks great, but is the science even close to reality? No.
Neutrinos, at least many, do come from the sun. They are weakly interacting, neutrally charged particles. They don't do much, if anything, for us to be concerned about- though they are very interesting to particle physicists for reasons I won't pretend to fully understand. As far as heating up the Earth's core, that's about as laughable as saying that doing push-ups will knock Earth out of its orbit, though at least the push-ups hypothesis is somewhat realistic.
Neutrinos simply don't have the energy necessary to do so, and even if they did, since only about 1 in a 100 million actually collide with some atom in the planet, never mind in the core, it would take a truly astronomical amount to actually heat the planet. Let's explain the terms before we go on, though.
First, lets start with what "weakly interacting" means. There are 4 forces, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces. Gravity affects objects with mass, electromagnetism affects those with a charge, and the strong forces interact with particles such as protons and neutrons. The Weak Force only interacts with leptons, which includes neutrinos (and a handful of others), but it's extremely weak- it's quite a bit stronger than gravity, but with such tiny range it has been described as contact only.
Contact isn't as common as you might think, though- when we touch solid objects, we are really interacting with the electromagnetic force. Solid to us is actually almost entirely empty space. We "feel" solidity because both we and the objects we're touching are electrically charged- either positive or negative. Because neutrinos are neutrally charged, they can't interact with the electromagnetic force, so they pass right through.
Here goes- tedious (but fascinating, if you're into that sort of thing!) math ahead.
If they do interact, they've got a minuscule amount of energy anyway- between 2.2 eV and 15 or so MeV (Electron Volts and Mega Electron Volts, at 1 million each). An eV is an incredibly small amount of energy- 1 eV is equal to about 3.83 × 10^-20 calories. Even 15 MeV is only enough to make 0.0000000000006 calories. So, if the most energetic neutrinos were to hit the core, it would take 1.7 Trillion of them to raise the temperature 1 degree per cubic cm. However, since only 1 in 100000 actually interact with anything (contact only), we would need 17000 Trillion per cubic cm for 1 degree. To put that number in perspective, if it were in dollars, we could pay a half billion dollars to every US citizen (Man, woman and child) and still have money left over- 20000 Trillion dollars (which is still enough to pay for the country to run for the next 5000 years or more!). And that is just to raise 1 milliliter of the Earth 1 degree Celsius.
We must also realize that the Earth is cooling at the rate of 4.42 * 10^13 W, or about 10 Trillion Calories. Per Second. Which means, that, for the neutrinos just to equal our rate of heat loss, we would need 17 Trillion Trillion. Right- enough to pay every person on earth 200 times our entire national budget and run our country for 3 and a half billion millennia!
So, just to break even we need about 10^24 neutrinos coming at us.
Let's look at planetary alignment, supposed to worsen the neutrinos (already dispatched as an even likely form of trouble). The trouble with planetary alignment is gravity- all the planets line up, somehow magnifying their gravitational pull. While in the room with you (well outside your territorial bubble, at about 1 meter) I have about 0.2 % the gravitational pull of the moon on you. Not much, granted, but the moon is very massive. Jupiter, though, only has 5 times as much pull as me (about 1 percent of the moon)! And besides Venus (at 3 times my pull), none of the other planets can match my gravitational effect on you. And my pull is eclipsed by your car or your office! The point here is that gravity is a very weak force- and that distance matters ALOT. So, Earth and the moon are much closer to the sun than any of the other planets (except for Venus and Mercury), and their pull is negligible in comparison. Regardless of that fact, there's no reason for a planetary alignment to do anything more than cause a high tide on earth (it probably wouldn't, but at best that's all it'd do) and do absolutely nothing to the Sun- much less cause a solar flare, because solar flares are electromagnetic emissions- not gravitic ones!
The only thing in the movie even remotely possible was the solar ejections/flares becoming worse. This is problematic. Potentially, electrical grids could collapse as a massive electromagnetic field induces a current in every wire on Earth. We'd live through the initial hit, but without electricity (and without the possibility to restore it for years) we'd be devastated. That's scary- because it could actually happen. But we could recover. However, that would require an enormous solar flare (which has happened before) and a weakened magnetosphere on Earth's part. Possible, but not too likely.
There was one realistic point: Yellowstone is the site of the worlds largest inactive volcano. A very serious problem, and one we can do nothing about. A meteor coming for us, we can shoot down (or more likely, move out of the way). A gamma ray burst, we'll never see and will fry everything on the planet before we can scream. Besides, I'm handy with a handgun and a baseball bat if my kids or I get hungry (ain't nobody taking my food first), if we get to fight back to survive.
Yellowstone. The volcano- that will be an inevitable experience, worsened by being dragged out. We'll know it's coming and can't stop it. If we get a chance to escape, we'll die in the coming winter, or feast on the misfortune of our fellow men. It will be a terrifying and tormented death, which scares the piss out of me. But what can I do? It would obliterate everything from the Dakotas to the Mississippi river and beyond, crush the Rockies to dust and throw them into the Pacific, taking a chunk out of much of Canada and Mexico as well. The ashes would cover the planet, blocking the sun (and mitigating global warming!) and devastating all life. Cows (hell, cockroaches) would be lucky if they made it, and they'd be luckier than us. There's no way of preparing for such destruction on a global level- we're going to die or dramatically reduce global population, and we're talking 1 in 1000 if they're lucky. It's over, if Yellowstone blows. There's no way to prepare. All terrestrial life could end.
2012 was, as far as the science is concerned, a joke at best, and exploiting the conspiratorial among us at worst, taking advantage of the ones who don't understand the science. It reminds me of the Core, a movie from a few years back which boasted some of the most awful science in all of Hollywood history, actually provoking nightmares in yours truly (which I was still able to logic my way out of). Whenever you watch a movie that makes you question the future of the planet, grab a science geek and ask them what they think. We're usually thinking about the death of human society, when we aren't worried about getting laid (or leveling our D&D characters). My favorite (by which I mean "think most likely") is without a doubt the Yellowstone volcano.
Anyway, if only I had a nickel for every neutrino...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Been a While...

It has been quite a while, but I've been absorbed in a lot of other stuff going on, so I apologize. I have to do that a lot. Maybe I should just label this as a semi-annual blog and congratulate myself when I do better? Lowering expectations till they're already met...
Anyway, what brings me here today is the Cleveland Show. Yeah, I probably comprise 20% of its viewership. It irritated me because in it, Junior admits to not believing in God, and within seconds calls atheism a religion. Of course, as many comedians, Seth McFarlane is a professional (and extremely funny, most of the time) troll, so that doesn't get me in and of itself. It's the sentiment, that atheists are somehow dogmatic members of a unified organization, that I'd like to deal with, and while I know that 90% of the internet has either dealt with (in nauseating detail) this belief or just ignored it and continued screaming "Uh huh! It is so a religion!" at the top of their collective lungs, it is for the other 10% that I write this, in the hopes that they may be open to some form of reason. That said, I will be saying a few things that will be disagreeable to all sides of the discussion, but only for illustrative purposes. So.
The view that Atheism (I'll use a capital A to distinguish it throughout this post, though honestly I think it's both as silly and incorrect as capitalizing Astrology, Pickles, or Clitoris) is a religion is a surprisingly virulent thought. It's ridiculous on its face if you look at the definition of atheism (essentially no belief in a god) but this argument is quickly dispatched by, "But it isn't atheism, it's Atheism." Let's look instead to religion for an answer. I've been reading a book called Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, an in depth study of the structure of religion and its origins. He lists a few things that are common to religious beliefs across the world, very basic concepts. I'll paraphrase, but it can be found on pages 48 and 49.
  1. Religion matters to people.
  2. Religion prescribes rituals of some type.
  3. Religions have "specialists".
  4. Religion provides "Truth".
  5. Religions often have institutions such as churches.
  6. Religion triggers strong emotions, sometimes even enough to inspire homicide.
  7. Religion persists despite seemingly more efficient ways of thinking.
This is, by no means an exhaustive list, but it's enough to work with. For this, we'll replace Religion with Atheism in each sentence.
1. Atheism matters to people. Of course, but any deeply held belief matters to people. The obdurateness of Conservatives, the irreverence of Liberals, the superiority of the Packers to the Dolphins and so forth. All these beliefs matter to us, or we wouldn't bother holding them.
2. Atheism prescribes rituals. Nope. Next question.
3. Atheism has specialists. Not particularly. A few individuals spring to mind, PZ Myers is particularly outspoken regarding his Atheism, but also his liberal political views. He is a biologist who teaches biology. Richard Dawkins, another evolutionary biologist, has been labeled the Atheist Pope, but specializes in his field of study, not in religion, and certainly not civil discourse. Atheism doesn't have specialists, it has hobbyists, no matter how passionate. Religions of course have everything from Shamans to Mullahs to Rabbis to Cardinals, all specializing almost entirely in their world view.
4. Atheism provides "Truth". Atheism might be right, but that doesn't mean it prescribes truth. It doesn't claim to be true so much as it claims other worldviews to be wrong. As for the commonly heated debates such as Creationism vs Evolution, Young vs Old Earth, parthenogenesis or silver tongued minx, on each science is on one side, and religion on the other. If you claim that Atheism requires Science (these capitalizations are bugging me), may I point to Bill Maher, for example, as one of many Atheists who does not maintain a strict adherence to Scientific fact as his reason for disbelief- it's just common sense, but he falls on the opposite side of Science in many of his beliefs, such as his views regarding vaccinations causing autism and the efficacy of herbal medicines, chiropractic, or other alternative medicine modalities. Furthermore, Science itself does not prescribe truth- it represents the best guess based upon all available evidence as evaluated by experts. It could be wrong, as it was about the tectonic plates only 50(ish) years ago, and if it is, it self corrects.
5. Atheism has institutions such as churches etc.. Nope. Nothing comes particularly close, even. We have meet-ups, which are sort of similar to Bible Studies, but then, so are tailgate parties. And even if you'd die for the Long Horns, you (hopefully) wouldn't call them your belief system, or claim to draw your morality from the teachings of their quarterback.
6. Atheism triggers strong emotions, sometimes even enough to incite homicide. Let's look at both sections separately. Yes. Atheism triggers strong emotions. So does being Black, if you're in a minority in that culture. Or being a woman. Lots of shared factors, which create some sort of in-group, will contribute to strongly felt emotions, but that comes from our tribal natures, and is common to numerous traits. As for homicide, I've never heard of a murder committed for Atheism. Plenty for Islam and Christianity, but never Atheism. And of course you'll cite Hitler, Mao Z'Dong, and Stalin. Hitler wasn't an Atheist (he was Catholic) but his genocide was inspired by a lust for power and a syphilitic brain. Same for Mao and Stalin, minus the syphilis. Both of the latter established a state religion, setting themselves up to be worshiped. It was an atheistic religion (like Ayn Rand's cult, only national) but it wasn't Atheism.
7. Atheism persists despite more efficient ways of thinking. The religious will probably agree here, but I don't believe this is so. Really, which is more efficient (not more correct) based solely upon the number of things you must believe? That, say, humans arose by chance through evolution (see count below), or that God created us? If you think the latter is more efficient, consider this: How did He do this(1), specifically by which mechanism did He accomplish this(2), why would He care to do this(3) where did He come from(4) what is God (5) (Being generous here, what is God itself requires more concepts to be learned, incorporeal, all knowing, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.,) and when did did He do this (6 (Even just "a long time ago, Billy" needs to be distinct from "a month ago" for proper understanding)? Note that this doesn't deal with all the other possible questions, what order we were made in, etc., because they aren't required or inferred. The concept of God itself has complicated (and tricky to define) underpinnings. All of these are dealt with by religion, and are a prerequisite to accepting the initial worldview. As for the opposite view, all that is required is A. Things that survive(1) get to make babies(2). and C. Babies change subtly over time(3). Each of these leads to other fascinating questions, but none are required to accept the initial statement. And, while I use this particular view, it is not necessarily an Atheistic one, more correctly, it is Scientific. I will admit that Atheism often has a view which coincides with but is still distinct from Science; Atheists are free to believe that Lrrr of Omicron Persei 8, a mortal (though ageless) extraterrestrial created humans through magic to guard his harem's egg hatchery. They might be crazy, but they can still be Atheists without batting an eyelash. In this case, believing in God is probably more efficient, even if some might say just as reasonable.
So at least in the number of concepts we require to learn a particular origin story, Atheism (through the Scientific view) is more efficient. On the other hand, the religious may feel that all the questions they don't need to ask outweighs this, in which case it's somewhat open to interpretation. Where the religious may, for instance (and I'm not saying all of them) that a rainbow is God's promise to never flood the world again, a Atheist (via Science, still distinct) would have to understand, at least basically, the entire study of optics to really get a good handle on it, and some minor meteorology doesn't hurt, leading to many more pesky questions. The caveat there is that while there are Atheist Scientists, there are also Scientists who are Christian (not to be confused with Christian Scientists, a particular religious denomination).
This then puts the first paragraph into perspective, rendering it rather invalid. Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you have to believe that God "magicked" us into existence- He could have leveraged the laws of physics and evolution to bring that about. Likewise, as I pointed out with Lrrr, you could be an Atheist and not adhere to any of the Scientific view. Which means that, once again, Atheism and Science must be divorced for proper comparison. Therefore, assuming common conceptions of evolution, reproduction, and time, or, in other words, eliminating the Scientific factor, Atheism presupposes:(This space intentionally left blank). Religion presupposes: God (1). And again, God is more than just one concept, multiple concepts need to build on one another, and further questions invariably arise for the diligent questioner.
In conclusion, Atheism doesn't give us an origin story. Atheism doesn't give us rules to live by. Atheism doesn't give us ethics. Science does all of that (if you include the meta-physical branches, which I do), but it isn't a prerequisite to Atheism, nor unique to Atheism. There are tens if not hundreds of millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious folk that have a Scientific world view coexisting with a Religious one (say what you like about duplicity, they do exist). Likewise, there are plenty of Atheists that don't adhere to it.
But, most importantly, Atheism does give us an identity, and that brings us together to fight off "invaders" who would take our identity away, or persecute us for it. It is for this that the "Paladins of the Internet", those that must correct all "wrongness" online, are often met with resistance of a zeal and fervor almost always associated with religion. Atheists have been a repressed minority since the first Shaman shook a stick, and after tens of thousands of years, they won't take it. The ironic thing is, if no one cared, there wouldn't be Atheists, just more people, with all their nuance and foibles. Similarly, it wouldn't be necessary to label someone that dislikes Ramen Noodles and A-Ramen-Noodlist, because no one is affected one way of the other. No one cares. But, not caring isn't just tolerance- you tolerate things you dislike- it's total neutrality. If a Presidential Candidate openly announced his/her Atheism, it would result in a precipitous decline in voters. That is what Atheists want- equality, neutrality.
We aren't a Religion, we just don't believe in one thing you're completely assured of. If you're a Muslim, you say that Mohammad was the Prophet. If you're a Christian, you say that Jesus was the Son of God (just a prominent terrestrial prophet). You can't both be right. Atheists just say, "Who cares?"

Simplified take away : Atheism is not Religion.

The following is only tangentially related to the above.
To those Atheists that decided to protest the cross and Ground Zero, good job. You've made us all look light heartless assholes, more interested in expunging religion than letting people get over a tragedy of historical proportion. It's like taking all the Stars of David away from Holocaust memorials. Thank you. This is exactly what it takes for any movement to go forward- to make horrific caricatures of its members in the cultural norms and then move forward from there. Think I'm wrong? Look at the portrayal of gay people on 90's TV. Next time, lay on a bit more nihilism and maybe eat a baby or two.
So, good job guys. I hate everything you stand for, but you might have done me a favor.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Biology 1 homework

Just a real quick one- I wanted to put my writing somewhere where it might be read. Someday. Written in about 20 minutes, if that. Without further ado:

Evolution is the reason life is so wonderfully diverse and complex. From the water-bear to the blue whale, everything is related by a single thread of life. But perhaps the most fascinating thing is the sheer simplicity of evolution. For such complicated products, one would expect a complicated and convoluted process to create them all. But the sheer simplicity of evolution is, I think, one of its greatest marvels. It is nothing more than an algorithm; that random chance is passed through a non-random filter. The random chances, in the case of Darwinian evolution, stem from mutation. The mutations are put through the non-random filter of death by failure to reproduce. Differential reproductive success leads to more successes, which eventually reach a relatively stable point where the organism is almost perfectly well adapted to its environment, which then changes and starts the process over again. This interplay between creature and environment is perhaps the most amazing of all- the persistence --the stubbornness! --of life in an environment that is literally trying to destroy it, to stand it’s ground and, assuming it has lungs and vocal cords, howl at the sky in rebellion, to stand unwavering on the brink of oblivion. It is humbling and liberating to know that we are all cousins, all Africans, all descended from a single self-replicating molecule of protein, and that a phenomenon as simple as evolution is the reason we’re all here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Post Apocalyptic Earth

While I thought it was great that everyone was mocking the fundies for their rapture (and if a lighthearted jab is what you're looking for, you won't find it here), gently eroding the credibility of religion one joke and party at a time, something struck me as distinctly disturbing about the group that put out the message. Clearly it's a cult of some sort, but all people thought about was the message of that cult, not the poor, broken souls within.
Let me explain something briefly. The people in cults are not the mindless zombies that are so popular in Hollywood and most other media. Cultists are very normal individuals who were vulnerable, or lost and looking for a home. That's when the cult leader swoops in, and, like a used car salesman, takes them for everything they've got. Only the cult leader doesn't just get a paycheck, at least in this instance, but dozens if not hundreds of them until the people leave, and that's made difficult by human psychology. Once you've given in to cause, it's very difficult to pull yourself out. Cognitive dissonance, as I mentioned here, comes into play, as well as the sunk cost fallacy.
The sunk cost fallacy keeps you committed to a sinking ship. A usual case goes like this: You're paying into an investment such as a mutual fund that isn't making any money, and now has a dim chance of ever paying off (similar to playing the lottery every week, but not quite). Rather than pulling out, as is the financially sound decision, you continue to pay in, in hopes that it will eventually pay off. As your hopes grow slimmer and slimmer, you continue paying in because you don't want to have paid into it for no reason, for all that money to be wasted. Or to avoid looking like an idiot for investing in the first place. In any case, the normal human reaction is to continue investing. It only seems idiotic when viewed from outside.
That's exactly what cultists do. They commit, more and more every time they donate money, time, effort, or blood to the cult. I know a woman whose daughter died because they insisted on praying for her. The reaction? Stay in the cult. She's already committed a daughter. Let her sacrifice be in vain? Never! That's the problem with cults.
So, my heart goes out to the cultists who weren't taking in the money, who weren't putting up the billboards, who weren't profiting in the endeavor because their very lives are owned by this buffoon who has been taken in by his own schtick so much that he was willing to look like an international idiot. And he's doing it again, later this year- says there was a miscalculation.
Just remember this for next time- the pastor's a joke, but the cult is no laughing matter. Then again, the Seventh Day Adventists got started the same way...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The 10% Myth

It seems like every show I watch has to bring up the ten percent myth. The one where we only use ten percent of our brains, and how we would be so much better if we could only unleash the other 90%. Sorry to tell you folks, we use 100% of our brains. The problem is that we don't always use it very well.
There's any number of proofs of this fact, but this myth keeps coming back, so I'll join the literally hundreds if not thousands of science bloggers who tackle it, in the hopes to nudge it down a scoche.
You can look at the biological basis for our brains. Evolution, in it's infinite cleverness, cobbled together a bigger, calorie devouring brain. Our brain burns more calories than just about any organ, making it a total waste if we only use ten percent of it. Evolution would trim that down, and quickly. Look how coyotes walk compared with domestic dogs- coyotes are the pinnacle of efficiency, walking with their feet perfectly in line, every movement controlled and efficient. Energy wasted means life expectancy decreased, and the easiest way to get selected out is to reduce your longevity, especially early on. Dogs, on the other hand, don't need to worry as much about food, because they have wisely taken on humans as their masters and get fed almost whenever they want. This is an artifact of human interference. Bottom line, our brains are as big as they need to be for what they do.
Well, that's fine, maybe we only use 10 percent at a time. This is closer to true. While FMRIs (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagers) show that we use 100% of our brains, they do only show us using certain parts at any given time, but it's not limited to 10% and for multiple tasks, more areas in the brain light up. This should completely gut the myth, but of course it doesn't. It's appeared in shows like CSI, House, and almost anything on SyFy.
Which brings me to the latter point- that most of us don't use our brains as well as we could. While many of us are thinkers, few of us are good thinkers. It takes discipline and practice to think critically, which is one of my reasons for posting on topics like cognitive dissonance and more to come in the future. Knowing how our brain works can only make us better, clearer thinkers. At least, that's what I like to think.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why did I just do that?

What exactly is cognitive dissonance? It sounds like an esoteric, psychological term that has little or no application to our daily lives. I feel it’s far closer to the everyday life than that. Let me explain.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when we hold two different views in our minds which contradict each other, or when our actions contradict our beliefs. For instance, I spent years smoking, knowing full well that it was shortening my lifespan. The effect of this was that I rationalized my smoking by thinking, “My father is 80 years old and smoked his whole life.” Well, the addiction helped too. I have since quit, but the effect was to draw down the intensity of the belief that it would eventually kill me.

Another example, a bit more personal, is the belief that we don’t have free will; that we live in a deterministic universe. The dissonance comes when I beat myself up for past mistakes. As it did in the above instance, this reduces my intensity of belief in the deterministic universe. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to completely let go of my guilt, but I have reduced it considerably by reminding myself of the deterministic universe in which we all live.

Other common instances of cognitive dissonance are in relationships- if you don’t like a person, but do something nice for them anyway, you may find yourself liking those individuals more than you did prior to the favor. Conversely, if you like someone and they hurt you, the dislike you feel towards them will be disproportionate to the amount of harm they have done.

This can be used to your advantage. If there’s someone who dislikes you, tricking them into doing you a favor (say, by asking them in polite company), they may come around to liking you. Benjamin Franklin famously did exactly this with a rival legislator, though whether he did it deliberately or accidentally is unclear. In any case, they became fast friends until the death of the legislator rather rudely ended their relationship.

Keep this framework in mind when you catch yourself rationalizing, or behaving oddly- you may have a lot more going on in your head than you thought!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Real Down Under

Growing up, I always dismissed Antarctica. It's just a giant block of ice, I thought, and not worthy of any consideration unless that ice melts and floods our worlds. Sure, I knew that some scientists used it for research, primarily NASA, for examining space rocks. Other than that, I didn't think about it much (clearly). It was an uninteresting block of ice floating at the bottom of the planet, impassible and ultimately uninteresting. NOVA showed me to be absolutely wrong in just about everything I had assumed.
For one thing, it's actually a huge continent, a land mass covered in ice, not a free floating ice berg of some sort. Something had to serve as the anchor, after all- a fact obvious on reflection. Did you know it has mountains the size of the Appalachians buried under miles of ice? I didn't. I didn't know the ice was so thick that it compressed the earths surface in some places. In many ways, I just didn't know how big it was. I also didn't know that it was once a teeming forest, with as much life as the Amazon has today, and that it is a source of amazing fossils, containing plant-life literally flash frozen by wayward glaciers.
Did you know that Antarctica has ancient landscapes, unchanged for millions of years, free of ice? Or that NASA uses these very landscapes, so alien to anything on Earth as to be more similar to Mars, as testing grounds for some of their robots? Again, if you didn't, at least you have company in that ignorance. In fact, many of the rocks have sat exactly where they are for millions of years! It's hard not to be humbled by that knowledge, that rocks older than humans themselves exist in relatively unchanged form somewhere, today.
I highly encourage anyone to watch the linked episode of NOVA, it's full of amazing facts. My main takeaway? If global warming continues unabated, and the water levels do rise by the end of the century, at least we'll have land we can transplant the hundreds of millions of disenfranchised people to. At least one of the things I thought I knew was validated.
My only complaint? They refuse to pronounce the first C in Antarctica. But maybe that's just a pet peeve of mine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the Brown Recluse

Given that a friend of mine was just hospitalized from one of these nasty buggers (or arachniders for you pedants) I decided to do a little bit of research and share my findings, so that any of you living in areas where they are common can take precautions. Like I said, my friend was put in the hospital, so they can be quite serious.
The brown recluse is generally non-aggressive; unlike certain nasty creatures, it usually doesn't go for blood. It bites defensively. The fact that they aren't very big, barely the size of a quarter, does little to help with recognition of their presence, however. Avoiding dark and cluttered areas is another good start. The thing to be concerned about is putting on clothes that have been lying around for a while, or disturbing bedding that hasn't been touched. Even then, it's only necessary for some people to be concerned- like poison ivy, many people will have different levels of severity when reacting to the bite. In the worst case scenario, like what happened to my friend, the tissue becomes necrotic (begins to die) in the area of the bite. This can cause all sorts of nasty complications, such as the second picture illustrates. The necrotic tissue can in turn cause more problems independent of the spider's bite, by releasing harmful chemicals into the victim's system. This is usually what leads to the need for hospitalization.
Symptoms of bites can range from anything from harmless to dangerous. Already mentioned is the necrotic tissue. Sudden or slow onset pain in the area of the bite, is the most common symptom. General itchiness, outside of the localized area, fever, chills, nausea and even going into shock can also result, though these are less common. Finally, and least common is the "volcano lesion" which looks like the picture above.
If you are bitten, here are a few things you can do:
  • Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Treat for symptoms such as shock.
  • Put ice on the wound- the longer you can delay the poison, the better.
  • Try to find the spider. It is important for proper treatment and identification.
  • If you already smacked it with your boot, it's mangled corpse can still help.
  • Get to the hospital as quickly as you can- the longer you wait, the more damage is done.
So, remember- brown recluses are far from the scariest things in this world, but they can do a lot of damage if ignored. Protect yourself by following simple cleanliness habits and avoid the chance of danger altogether. So, until next time, enjoy the pictures, and stay safe.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Nightmare

I apologize to both of my readers for being away for so long- I recently deployed and just got back. I didn't have the time to get blogging as I'd like to.
Nightmares have always fascinated me- they've always seemed to me as a symbol of the demented masochism in human nature. The twisted and distorted halls of dreams, filled with beasts of untold horror and hair loss, are a bit of a blessing to me- they're a place where I can feel strong emotions. Fear. Panic. The fear I feel in the dreams is the purest emotion, even if it's not the most pleasant at the time. For me, the dreamscape of a nightmare is a hallowed, if harrowing, place for me to revel in humanity sometimes just out of reach in my waking life.
A quick primer on what a nightmare is. At night, you go through cycles in your sleep. The REM, or rapid eye movement phase, is where most of us dream. And most of our dreams are bad ones, full of fear and anxiety. They aren't nightmares, though- nightmares are the dreams bad enough to make you wake up. Your brain is almost completely active during REM sleep, including the parts controlling your body, sending signals to your arms and legs and so forth. While you sleep, a tiny part of the brain keeps your body frozen, so that you aren't injuring yourself while running away from Cthulhu. While you dream, your primary visual cortex and the neo-cortex are largely quiet. The secondary visual cortex is wide awake and working hard, however, making our dreams largely visual.
Why we dream is a sticky question, and to my knowledge there wasn't, and isn't, a definitive answer by any means. The one I was most familiar with was the notion that it was random cinema being played inside the skull on the sleeping visual cortex- a garble of random thoughts and raw emotion.
However, there's a fairly old story (October, 2007) I just stumbled across that says something quite different. Basically that our dreams may be a way of "scrubbing" our fears, allaying them by ludicrously persistent confrontation. Despite my original hypothesis, I like this new one. And it seems to make sense: older people have progressively less nightmares as they get older, their fears gradually fading. Even the apparent evil of nightmares have some purpose, some value for good. I also find it upsetting that I may be dreaming even less in the future, but knowing that it is because my waking fears are assuaged gives me some measure of hope. And, given that people continue dreaming their whole lives, I can expect more pleasant dreams as I age. Some tips for inducing (or avoiding, if you reverse them) bad dreams:
  • Eat spicy food or any food that will cause indigestion. This makes you sleep more fitfully, and you'll wake up, sometimes in the midst of REM sleep, where you'll be more likely to remember your dreams, negative or otherwise.
  • Drink lots of water. This will have a similar effect to the above suggestion, waking you frequently.
  • Alcohol in moderation, just before sleep.
  • Keep a dream journal. Write down your dreams, and you will train your mind to remember them, at least for a few more minutes each morning.
Remember, what you're dreaming about may have direct implications in your waking life- if you're always dreaming about being late to work, you're probably worried about the consequences. If you confront these directly, you'll likely see the nightmares fade more quickly.
So, dear reader, sleep well, and dream.

Now playing: Avenged Sevenfold - Nightmare (Official Music Video)
via FoxyTunes