Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Fantabulous Flying Muppet

Our good friends Kate and Will have a cute little Bichon-Frise named “Chance” Now I am not much of a “dog person” myself, canines really have to go out of their way to endear themselves to me. But I must admit, Chance is pretty cute; he looks a bit like a Muppet and I can’t help but crack a grin when I see his funny furry face and his uber-enthusiasm about everything and nothing in particular.

Our friends have a lovely yard which they thoroughly enjoy planting and pruning and arranging. And when the work is done they enjoy gazing at their yard in the evenings from the warmth and luxury of their spa (hot tub).

And whenever they work in their yard, Chance joins in, running around the big tree the then he makes bee-line for the spa, launching into the air and plopping down on its closed lid where he can watch his owners puttering in the yard.

Only on one particular day, a bit of spa maintenance was being included along with the general yard work, so the lid of the spa was left open. As usual, upon releasing Chance out, he commenced his routine of racing around the yard at full tilt. And, at the expected moment, Chance headed straight for his favorite viewing spot on top of the spa lid… launching himself airborne … except… Ker-plunk! Into the spa went the flying Muppet.

As Kate and Will tell it, they swear that the little guy’s face turned toward them in panic as he hovered ever-so-briefly at that brief point of trajectory where gravity again returns. The look on the face of a little dog about to give himself an impromptu bath – priceless!

Chance still likes to jump up on the spa lid and supervise his owner’s yard maintenance. However, Will tells me he now first gets up on his hind legs and checks if the lid is closed. Good dog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Too Stupid for Democracy

Okay it is now official, Americans are actually getting dumber. My heart sank when I encountered the following article recently:
A substantial and growing number of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Muslim, while the proportion saying he is a Christian has declined.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009.
To these fellow citizens I say: you are too f_ing stupid to be allowed to vote.

It is usually the Conservatives who are quick to invoke the Founding Fathers in their bid to take the country back to its supposed roots. Not surprisingly, more Conservatives than Liberals believe our president is a follower of Islam.

Of course, the Founding Fathers would likely turn over in their graves if they knew how the franchise was being practiced today. Never in their wildest dreams did those guys back in 1776 expect anyone other than their fellow wealthy, educated, white land owners to be in charge of the newly emerging republic - certainly not ale-swilling, sweaty every-day laboring rabble, women or imported human farm equipment.

I would be a strong proponent of requiring a “literacy test” as a condition for apply for voter registration. After all, we administer tests to people applying for driver’s licenses. Although I admit there are compelling practical implications of testing someone’s intellect prior to allowing them to hurl two tons of metal down public highways. Which of these two activities produces the most death and destruction?

Anosognosia is defined as a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability. It has more recently been used as well to describe people who are too stupid to recognize how stupid they are (1 Dunning-Kruger Effect). The malady appears to be spreading in epidemic proportions in this country.
1 The Dunning–Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Adapt, Improvise, Overcome

My body feels like it has been thrown off a cliff – a cliff with sharp pointy rocks at the bottom. I have been popping Ibuprophan pills like they were M&Ms.

As with most home remodeling and other projects I choose to take on, my visualization of how relatively easy a project is going to be, versus how arduous the project actually turns out, are woefully out of sync. Add to this list the ease at which I thought our move to our new house would go down. I confess that, strictly for survival purposes, getting my spa moved and operational was of the highest priority.

I notice now that moving to a new home involves a remarkable amount of bending over. I didn’t recognize that this would be as much of an issue as the last time I moved… which was 19 years ago. Back then my 40 year old body was clearly up for the challenge.

However moving 19 years of accumulated crap seems to be the least of my problems – it’s FINDING the damn needed items after moving that is causing us the most grief. Nancy had the great idea of marking the outside of the boxes with their contents. All well and good except that she would empty, then re-use, each of the boxes on successive trips. As a result, the boxes rarely contain what is written on the outside. We have created a perpetual state of confusion. We can’t find our stuff!

The other day, after emerging from the shower, my hair brush was no place to be found. I ended up attempting to comb my hair with a back-scratcher. My coiffure didn’t look too hot, though I must admit it did seem to provide some relief for my scalp itch. “Adapt, improvise, overcome” as they say in the Army. Nancy has suffered equally; after her vain attempt to locate the iron, I suggested she place the clothing items needing pressing between two pieces of cardboard then run over it with the car. Apparently my solutions are much “too creative” for her sensibilities.

Nancy did come up with a winning strategy though: maintain garbage service at both our old and new houses while we execute our move. This has been remarkably effective in streamlining our operation. Stuff which we have held on to for a couple of decades because we “might” have a use for it has not survived the gauntlet of TWO garbage cans. I call that progress. Although Nancy has retained veto power over the trash; she frequently retrieves stuff out of the can which I, clearly errantly, have discarded.

Still, it seems as though items spontaneously regenerate in the closets and from under the bed each time we remove and box them. The situation is much like those trick birthday candles, perpetually relighting each time they are blown out. No matter how much stuff we move, there seems to be another box full somewhere in the house.

We finally contacted a professional mover; they were totally delighted when they came to assess all they would be moving: a sofa, queen size bed, and a few odd chairs. This is the remaining stuff that is either too bulky or too heavy for a couple of 61 year olds to attempt to wrangle. The art work, on the other hand, will be carefully ported in individual car trips by Nancy. With these special items she trusts NO ONE!

Our idea in this move was that this would be yet another “transitional” move until we find our true “dream house”, a Mid-Century Mondern. But as groupings of skeletomuscular parts of my anatomy I didn’t even know I had torture me from my sleep at night, I find I could easily justify this house being my final “dream home”; resolving comfortably to be ported, feet-first, to my next and final place of repose.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dichotomy of Certainty

In my previous post I shared my thoughts regarding how we acquire knowledge about the natural world. My position leans heavily toward science as the best method toward that end. But like many things, even science is sometimes not always entirely adequate.

My father-in-law, Melvin is a retired professor of Agriculture at Oregon State University. He literally “wrote the book” on Pears as well as being the “go-to guy” for encyclopedia editors regarding that subject. Highly published, his research work involved collaborating with entomologists, biochemists, plant physiologists and climatologists, to name a few.

Back in the mid 1970’s Melvin attended a lecture about global climate change; so impressed was he with the speaker that Mel bought his book which Mel then ensconced in his library with his other reference materials. The author was not a scientist but a science writer (unfortunately I cannot recall the title).

This book on world climate explained that data taken from ice core samples in the Polar Regions showed distinct cycles of global heating and cooling over the millennia. The graphs and charts showed the cycle up to the current time (mid 1970’s) and projected the trend into the future. It showed that the earth would enter a period of increasing warming followed by another ice age. Based on this book, Melvin, the acclaimed scientist, is convinced that we are perched on the brink of global COOLING! The coming ice age is overdue.

Mel has talked to me about this coming trend for the last 25 years. I never really formulated an opinion until the global climate change (global warming) issue came to the forefront of public attention in recent years. Always up for discussing things of a scientific nature with him, I found myself, in my support of the indication of Anthropomorphic Climate change, placed in total opposition to his views. I set about to try and bring Mel “up to speed” on the latest science.

Mel had been retired from the university years prior to my meeting him, but he has continued to do his own research. Several times a year he walks through the neighborhood near his home and inspects specific species of plants, recording their “bloom date”. His data shows that bloom dates are occurring later every year – an indication of a progressively cooling climate.

When Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth", was released, I took Mel to the theater. After seeing the film demonstrating that we were entering a period of increasing global mean temperature rise due to the influence of greenhouse emissions, I thought it might convince Mel to alter his hypothesis. However Mel’s only comment after the film was that a quotation incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain should have been attributed to Will Rogers.

I dearly love my father-in-law but on this issue we have had some heated discussions. With the wealth of information available on the Internet, I researched dozens of opinions regarding Global Climate Change and printed selected papers for Mel to read.

Mel has read (or maybe just looked at) them all; yet he then returns to the position of his 1970’s book asserting that the earth is instead overdue in entering its next ice age.

He points to his bloom date data to substantiate his view. I point out that Corvallis Oregon is smaller than a pin point on the scale of the entire globe. He points to the 11-year sun spot cycle; I point to contrary data I researched from current climate sources. He remains unconvinced.

I find this situation extremely frustrating. Melvin is (was) a highly regarded scientist, yet it seems as though the science he practiced and learned in 1974 is “stuck” in his brain. That the overwhelming consensus of scientists supports the hypothesis of Anthropogenic Climate Change, cuts no influence with him – Mel is having none of it. At one point in a moment of exasperation I asked him "if he thought that science stopped advancing after 1974"?

Recently on the car radio I heard a biographer talking about Charles Darwin and how much grief his publication of “On the Origin of Species” caused him; not merely from the predictable religious sources but also from his professional contemporaries. Many scientists at the time were completely unconvinced and adamantly opposed to Darwin’s now well proven theory. So then how did Evolution become finally universally accepted among scientists: what caused the opposition to die out? The opposition died when his opponents died!

My son-in-law recently shared with me this quotation by Max Planck:
"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." - Or in short: "Truth never triumphs – its opponents just die out."
That new ideas are challenged and held up to scrutiny is one of the core strengths of the scientific method. But we should recognize also that it's practitioners are human and therefore prone to the same bias and prejudices as are we all. Science is a way of thinking - but thinking almost always involves an emotional component as well... it's impossible to separate the two whether we recognize it or not.

Mel and I still talk about a myriad of subjects. But one thing we no longer discuss is the weather.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How do we know what we know.

How do we know what we know? Or more importantly, how do we know what we believe is true?

I know, for example, that the sun is 93 million miles away and it’s light, in for form of photons traveling at 186,000 miles per second, take about 8 ½ minutes to shine down upon me. Yet I personally do not have the tools nor the means to measure the distance of the sun to me. Neither do I have the skill to independently confirm the velocity of photons which themselves are infinitely much too small for me to see.

Now add to my body of knowledge the theory of biological evolution, plate tectonics, atmospheric pressure effect driving the weather and neurobiology in controlling brain-mind function. Few of these facts have I had the opportunity to personally test and evaluate. With one exception: The Law of Gravity – THAT, I have personally validated as a sport skydiver.

These are all principles that have been made known through the only real means we have of understanding our natural world – Science. But still, occasionally people bring into question; how do we know that the things scientists are telling us are true? After all, there are people in science who would have us accept that aliens from other planets are abducting our sleeping citizens and subjecting them to horrid experiments, that strange ape-like creatures live in our forests, and that we can communicate between each other with only our minds. We witness people who apparently communicate to the deceased or are informed that inoculations against common diseases cause autism. How do we sort out which knowledge about our world to accept or reject?

One method is to ask if the explanation makes sense – is it plausible? Initially the conclusions regarding biological evolution were based strongly in the morphology of living things. Over time better technology further confirmed the lineage of species through examination of their DNA. Many non-scientists have noted, when looking at a globe, that the continental shapes appear to “fit” like puzzle pieces. Later undersea mapping clearly showed that at one time they actually did.

When presented with this sort of data, it is reasonable to accept this information as the most likely fact. Our casual observations match the suppositions; they pass the reasonableness test.

Then there is the acceptance of consensus – confirmation of reported facts which are checked and rechecked independently Experiments are conducted and refuting arguments tested. Most importantly, no fact is sacred nor above being questioned or tested. This allows our knowledge to adjust and improve in the light of newer and better information.

Some religious positions accuse science of being just another form of “belief”. But scientists don’t “believe” in evolution, gravity, continental drift, neurophysiology and all the rest – the scientist TRUSTS these things are true and correct because they have been independently demonstrated time and time again.

is differentiated from belief in that trust is “earned” – trust is built upon experience over time. We know that an object dropped from a height will fall downward just as we are confident in the fidelity of our spouse because of our history together over time. Experience, repetition, validity, dependability are forces involved in the building of trust. These experiences applied to the natural world cause us to illuminate the darkness and lead us to understand how it works. Science is not a body of knowledge; science is a way of thinking.

Conversely, belief requires only blind faith. Belief does not need substantiation, verification or a basis in any form of reality. Belief comes from the desire to accept that which we wish it to be. Belief needs nothing than itself. As Carl Sagan said: “You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe.”

It requires more work, more effort to know something than to believe something. There are many barriers and pitfalls on the road to knowledge. Our perceptions can deceive us, our internal biases can lead us astray, we can make mistakes and we can sometimes intentionally fudge. It is a fact that we are imperfect beings, which is all the more reason to question, experiment, prove and verify.

I fear this country is potentially wavering on the brink of a new Dark Ages. In an era of now unparalleled scientific and technological advance greater than man has ever known in all history, the most powerful nation on earth is yielding to dangerous mindsets of superstition and belief. Our standing as a beacon of innovation and discovery in the world is slipping; America is now among lowest of the civilized nations in acceptance of biological evolution and in teaching our populace science and math. It is not possible to retain our standing on the globe and insist on remaining ignorant.

The belief that ours is still the greatest nation on earth may be one of the most widely held myths we hold today.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Slapped by the "Invisible Hand"

Traveling in Skeptic circles as I have now for some years I have taken note of the number of my skeptical compatriots who openly admit to being Libertarians. This connection between Skeptics and Libertarianism became particularly evident during James Randi’s TAM-5 conference in Las Vegas I attended a few years back. (TAM stands for “The Amazing Meeting”). One of the conference speakers was Dr. Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, the Libertarian magazine. Many of the other presenters, such as Michael Shermer and Penn and Teller, made clear their Libertarian stance. A copy of Reason magazine was even included in the welcome packet to the conference.

Some days after the conference a bit of “blow-back” appeared on Randi’s skeptic web site forum – some heavy controversy regarding the connection between Skeptics and Libertarians. The views were hotly debated at the time.

Yet I confess to having periodically visited the Libertarian web site myself and taken their “test” – each time, though, my test results peg me as a “Liberal”.

Some of the positions of the Libertarian party do resonate strongly with me; their stance on personal freedoms and against any form of censorship, for example. I recall once Michael Shermer being asked a question during a debate where an audience member expressed their religious opposition to gay marriage. “Why do you care? Why don’t you mind your own business!” was Shermer’s response. I agree.

On a cursory level, Libertarianism seems pretty rational; free markets, lower taxes, less government. But like with so many things, the Devil is in the details. Free markets for whom? Just what would you have government NOT do; no regulations perhaps? Less taxes; which ones – like sales, income or capital gain and just who ends up paying even more taxes? I believe that often the US the tax code has been used to ingratiate some while shifting the burden to others.

Why, for example, are businesses allowed to deduct the cost of operating a vehicle from their gross income but a wage earner cannot deduct similar costs of using a vehicle to get to work? Well a business is “different” you might say – yet the law routinely considers businesses as “individuals”, at least for the purposes of exercising rights of free expression.

Still, we Americans do love our “you can be anything you want to be” potential. Indeed, we seem to have an almost unlimited opportunity to be successful in this country – but conversely one also has the more likely opportunity to fail and go bankrupt.

But this is where the “I got mine, you go get yours” philosophy of the Libertarian party bothers me – It smacks of Meritocracy. It reserves bounty for those who have the resources, the education and the connections to play at the Market table. But for those who can’t – it’s though shit! What about the segment of the population, with neither the skills nor the resources, for whom participation in The Market is completely out of their reach? What of them?

Here are just a couple of issues from the Libertarian web site:
Replace government welfare with private charity.
Having spent a good deal of my career working as a Welfare Caseworker, this position naively underestimates the volume of demand for assistance that government provides. Private charities do sometimes fill the void where government does not provide, but only a tiny fraction of the need can be met by these organizations. Under-funded and potentially mismanaged, they often lack the ability to effectively assess needs. Most food banks, for example, have no test for “need”; anybody can obtain free food simply by showing up. In our community, the very first house built by Habitat for Humanity was awarded to a woman who had earlier been convicted of the largest welfare fraud in the county. Amateurs and volunteers running charitable organizations can be easily manipulated by system-savvy clients into extending benefits to those who would not be otherwise eligible.

As a Welfare worker, it was my job to ensure that people were able to document and prove their need. Benefits were awarded only after meeting the strict guidelines for eligibility. There were conditional requirements as well to receiving assistance, such as work search activities and/or participation in training or drug assessment programs. Private charities generally have neither the resources nor expertise to provide effective and consistent (emphasis) LONG-TERM need management. Worse still, the indigent are more likely to be proselytized by religiously-based charities as a condition for receiving help.
Let people control their own retirement; privatize Social Security.
This position is jaw to dropping – have the Libertarians been picnicking on Mars over the last four years? Company pension plans have been raided by other companies or gone broke; private investment firms have crashed and burned. Where did the only stable form of financial relief come from? Government!

I recall hearing many so called “free market” advocates complain that AIG, for example, should have been allowed to fail rather than be bailed out by the government. I am sure they were picturing fat cat investors having to sell their yachts and Manhattan townhouses. But consider that AIG happened to be one of the largest managers of municipal, government, and private company retirement pension plans. Had AIG not been propped up by the government it would instead have been grandma no longer able to pay her rent or grandpa unable to buy groceries.

It is significant that well over half the aged population rely on the dependability of Social Security to maintain survival. Imagine what the effect on The Market would have been had suddenly MILLIONS of people lost their pension income? I believe we would have seen another Great Depression with untold suffering by individuals and businesses alike.
Replace Medicare and Medicaid with private insurers.
I’m wondering if the Libertarians ran this idea by any of their corporate buddies in the health insurance industry? How many private insurance companies do you think would be lining up to stake their profit margin on the most health risky and COSTLY customer demographic: older and disabled adults?

The Cato Institute is the Libertarian’s “think tank” located in Washington DC. But if this is the best their party can come up with, they need to do a lot more “thinking” and a lot less “tanking”. Until the Libertarian party can come up with a platform, at least regarding social issues, that is less purely theoretical and more pragmatic, I will likely remain a moderate Liberal AND a Skeptic.
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.Yogi Berra

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Forgetfulness is a sign of... uh...

Forgetfulness can supposedly become a problem with advancing age. I rationalize that this is not a failing I am prone to, rather I have decades of memories stored in my cranium and it is simply getting full. Still, being a Skeptic, I recognize that the brain is quite fallible so I try not to commit unnecessary information to memory; particularly things that don't require a long term memory commitment such as the shopping list or my wife's cell phone number.

So I jot down the list of things I need at the grocery store as they come to mind or notice we have run out of that item. One might assume that this is a fairly efficient strategy; and it would be except that I continually arrive at the grocery store absent the list which I have inconveniently left at home.

On this one one occasion I jotted a couple of needed items on a post-it note and stuck it onto the kitchen cabinet. A bit later I another item came to mind which I thus added that to the list.

Later that day I was out running other errands and found myself in the vicinity of the store, so I thought I would just pop in and obtain the three needed items. Of course my short grocery list was still at home stuck to the kitchen cabinet. But no matter, I recalled there were only three items on the list; I should have no problem procuring the needed goods.

I quickly recalled two of the items: "coffee filters" and "coffee" which I grabbed from the shelves. But my memory of the third item was slightly fuzzy. Ah, my cell phone - I tried to call Nancy at home to ask her glance at the list and identify the third item for me... instead: voicemail.

Okay, I thought, I'll just cruise up and down the grocery aisles which will hopefully prompt my memory regarding the missing third item. I wander up one aisle and down the other - No such luck. The third item on the list is now totally alluding me. All attempts to logic out the missing item are to no avail. By now I am getting very frustrated and somewhat angry.

Resigning myself to failure, I pay for my TWO items and drive directly home - I now have no other mission in life - I HAVE to see what third item on the list is so damn obscure that I can't remember what hell it is!!!

I barge into the house, storm into the kitchen, ripping the post-it note from the cabinet. The three items on the list read: