America’s Paranormal Inactivity

Richard Wiseman, a British psychology professor and former magician, just put out a cool-seeming book that takes a scientific and skeptical look at all things paranormal. (Here’s Original Skepchick Rebecca Watson’s review of the book.) According to Wiseman’s blog, while the book has been a best seller in the UK, it won’t be getting a hard-copy release in the U.S.

Here’s Wiseman explaining why….

The book has done well in the UK and has been bought by publishers in lots of other countries.  However, the major American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book, with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed!

Might be easy to look at this as proof of how silly and superstitious Americans are, but personally I think it’s evidence that publishers are pricks who think their audience is a pack of morons. Stories like this remind me why I’m not particularly concerned that e-books and online piracy are destroying the publishing industry.

Anyway, Wiseman responded by self-publishing the book in America. A Kindle edition is available on Amazon and his UK publisher shipped a “boatload” of physical books across the Atlantic.

However, according to Pharyngula, as of this morning all those ink-and-paper books have sold out. Took about three days. Over a long weekend, no less.

So much for the American public not being able to handle a scientific approach to the paranormal.

Six In The Morning: It’s Morning Somewhere Edition

DIANA THE REVENANT. Newsweek decided to spice up their cover by Photoshopping a digitally aged version of Diana Spencer next to Kate Middleton. Tina Brown defended the decision by explaining, “I am a ghoul from the planet Zoig who still has yet to learn your ways, O Earth We wanted to bring the memory of Diana alive in a vivid image that transcends time and reflects my piece.” Somehow they made her look more like a mummy than a woman in her fifties. My advice: put a cool damp cloth next to your bedside tonight. You’ll need it when the nightmares jolt you awake.

cover of newsweek with kate middleton and a photoshopped diana spencer

THE MENSTRUATING RACISTS. A recent study indicates that women’s racial biases may be influenced by their menstrual cycle. I have nothing witty to say about this, but the study confirms my belief that WOMEN ARE RACISTS.

CANADA POST EMPLOYEES ARE MAKING THEIR ROUNDS. Did you see them? I went for a walk this morning and personally witnessed two (2) mail deliverers. I said hello to both of them and may have even said “Yay, mail delivery!” I’m thinking of putting a cupcake in my mailbox for the postal guy. And maybe a small note to alert him to the presence of baked goods. Of course, the employees’ union is contesting the back-to-work legislation, but we’ll still be getting mail in the meantime. So be nice to your postal people. By the way, Tangerine is celebrating its first (1st) birthday (brthdy) today! Go on down and get a free cupcake.

GOOGLE GIVES GOODS ON GOVERNMENT. Google’s semi-annual transparency report has been released. The report charts data queries and takedown requests from governments around the world. Between July and December of 2010, Google received 38 queries for user data from the government of Canada and seven takedown requests of “defamatory” material. There’s not much data on the individual requests, but you can visit their site for a bit of detail and analysis.

VAMPIRE WEEKEND WAS RIGHT. Even the Oxford Writing and Style Guide has given up on the Oxford comma. It’s over, folks. Send your grammarians home and crack open the good liquor. They’ve plagued us long enough.

WE’VE GOT A JAMBOREE COMING, SO LET’S GET THIS PLACE CLEANED UP. Saskatchewan’s government, that collection of used car salesmen and backwoods evangelists, has put up $1.5 million in flood relief to help ensure that the Craven Country Jamboree can go as planned this summer. People have expressed their disappointment over the appearance that the government seems more willing to prop up a tourist attraction than help out homeowners and local businesses, but Brad Wall appeared to them in their dreams and explained that they weren’t Sugarland.

On A Cheerful, Entertaining Note: Who Wants To Meet Aliens?

We’re gonna find ’em. Twenty years, tops, say the Russians:

“The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms … Life exists on other planets and we will find it within 20 years,” said Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute, according to the Interfax news agency. Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 per cent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth. If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different colour skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Sounds delightful! Er, unless something goes horribly wrong, of course.

Too Many Testicles

If your ears have been in the same room as my mouth in the last week you’ve probably heard me complain about my fellow man. The culprits in a new report on the  five worst countries countries to be female in? Fucking Men. Stabbings in Regina’s bar strip? Fucking men. Riots in Vancouver? Fucking Men. Climate change deniers? Fucking Men. The accused killer in an especially awful Seattle rape and murder case I’ve been reading about lately? A Fucking Man. Stephen Harper supporters? More likely to be Fucking Men.

Most of the violence, murder and crime you read about in newspapers? Fucking fuck men, men men, men, men.

My fellow penismen often seem like an out-of-control ethnic group bent on murder and mayhem. (Rwanda? Men. Yugoslavia? Men.)

Well, here’s another one article about male failure (malure?) from yesterday — a 4000-word piece about the idea that men caused the 2008 financial crash, titled “Testosterone And High Finance Do Not Mix: So Bring On The Women.  Here’s a small sample:

A more recent study of 2.7 million personal investors found that during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, men were much more likely than women to sell any shares they owned at stock market lows. Male investors, as a group, appeared to be overconfident, the author of this study suggested. “There’s been a lot of academic research suggesting that men think they know what they’re doing, even when they really don’t know what they’re doing.” A fact that will come as a surprise to few of us. Men, it seemed, typically believed they could make sense of every piece of short-term financial news. Women, never embarrassed to ask directions, were on the whole far more likely to acknowledge when they didn’t know something. As a consequence, women shifted their positions far less frequently, and made significantly more money as a result.

The article goes on at length about neuroscience, testosterone, learned helplessness and all sorts of interesting reasons that men are fucking stupid. Definitely worth your time.

As for this man, I’m a man in a crabby mood and see no reason to say anything other than the basic truth: men are prone to be reckless and insane and shouldn’t be allowed near money, or weapons, or alcohol, or hockey games or other people.

Men ought to be rounded up and locked in man-sized hamster cages. Fucking men.

Pick of the Day: Sex

Not literally, of course. At least, at the time this post was published, there were no romantic interludes looming on my personal horizon. As the day wears on, that may change. But for now, I’m just going to concentrate on a touring exhibition that’s currently on at the Saskatchewan Science Centre. It was organized by the Montreal Science Centre, and this is it’s first display outside La Belle Province.

The show is subtitled: A Tell-All Exhibition. I’ve yet to see it, so I’m not sure how explicit the various exhibits are. But it is recommended that children under the age of 12 not attend. 

Like Our Body: The Universe Within last summer, Sex has a separate admission charge.  It runs at the Science Centre until Sept. 5.

Volcano Vs. Climate Change; So You Think You Have Construction Problems; Me Hates Me Some ‘Burbs; Profanity Warning

So Steve emails me some spam he got about how the Iceland volcano is reversing global warming caused by humans and says, “Hey, wanna do a fast debunk of this on the blog?” To which I reply,

Who has fucking time to debunk shit?? Do you have any idea how much time I spent stuck in traffic today? Half of it! The day I mean. In traffic, chugging slowly through construction zones. Cars suck assholes. Next time we come here we do everything by public transit. If it isn’t on a bus route or the LRT line we don’t fucking see it. I don’t care how closely related by blood the person is. And don’t say how I should write this rant up as a blog post. I have to choke down some pasta then get back into the car and drive to my sister’s house. When I finally get back to my dad’s basement I’m turning on the television and watching reality shows until I’m unconscious.

See, I’m back in Stabmonton. And today we stupidly tried to travel from my folks’ place in the nearby suburb of St Albert to the south side of Edmo using the spiff new Anthony Henday Drive. Problem being the construction zone on the Henday ran from just outside St Albert all the way to the north shore of the North Saskatchewan River. All told, that’s a whopping 17 km of construction zone, with all the attendant reduced speed warnings and bottlenecks.

And as Google Maps informs me, that’s five km longer than the entire length of Albert Street (in Regina, of course). And, on the way back to my folks’, we discovered that there is also massive construction on Calgary Trail North and the Whitemud. In other words, pretty much every route through or around Edmonton is clotted by huge construction projects. So when I get home I don’t want to hear any whinging about how the summer construction season is snarling up Regina’s traffic.

17 km! One construction zone! That’s Traffic Perdition I just escaped. A one-block detour around the City Square project is looking pretty fucking insignificant by comparison.

As for that spam email from Whitworth, it was some balderdash about how material spewed from the volcano in Iceland wipes out four years worth of human-spewed CO2, or some such bullshit. The Guardian helpfully put paid to that idea over a year ago, pointing out that the biggest impact on the climate from that eruption comes as a result of all the European aircraft that were grounded (air travel being notoriously bad for the environment, so much so that one cross-country roundtrip by plane produces as much carbon as your average year’s worth of car-driving).

That Steve’s spammer invokes Ian Plimer in the headline should have been indication enough that the email was to be ignored. I’m not entirely sure why it got his knickers in a twist. (He said it was sent by a “journalist.” And now I’m curious who exactly.) But just so there’s no confusion: Plimer (who made our Dastardly Denier list) is not a trusted name in the world of climate science. Here are, for instance, a list of rebuttals to his anti-climate-science tome, Heaven + Earth. Or you can watch as George Monbiot takes him to task on Australian TV.

Regina Cocktail Scribe Magnetic, Science Baffled

Paul Deschesne, writer for free Regina newspaper, the prairie dog magazine, appears to exhibit uncanny magnetic powers. In a blurry photograph released today, he can be seen dangling a cocktail spoon and what appears to be a Hawthorne strainer from his face.

“Absolutely, I have uncanny magnetic powers,” says Deschesne. “In no way is this a publicity stunt or sticky tape.”

So far, science has been unable to explain Deschesne’s uncanny magnetic powers.

“Frankly, I’m stunned,” said one scientist when asked for comment. “I had no idea Regina had a free, alternative newspaper.”

Seriously, L-P? Magnet Boy?

A story about a boy in Croatia who seems to be magnetic is one of the four featured stories on the front page of L-P website right now.

Look, I know this isn’t “real” content. It’s watercooler conversation fodder picked up from Reuters meant to drive up website traffic. But really, sticky kids is scraping the bottom of the barrel even for this kind of mid-afternoon pap.

First of all… the kid is not magnetic. He’s sweaty. And there’s a simple way to test my hypothesis. Dust him with talcum powder then see what happens to those spoons.

Even simpler, see if the magnetism carries through any of the things stuck to him. If he can dangle a paper clip off a spoon that’s stuck to his arm, then, hey, maybe I’ll reconsider and declare the kid a mutant (X-men style, of course).

Simpler still, get him to bend over lean forward.

These magnetic people stories seem to crop up every now and then. I’m stunned the media continues to fall for them. Which gives me an idea….

Update: Editor Stephen points out that the likely origin of the magnetic Croatian boy story is none other than the Weekly World News.  (Yep, they’re still around.) Looks like Reuters was hosed. Meanwhile, the story seems to have drifted quietly off the L-P’s front page.

Major Milestone

This is worth a longer post, but I can’t muster the energy at the moment. But 50 years ago today, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to rocket into space and orbit Earth. Here’s a link to a Globe & Mail report.

During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet achievement was another coup in the much-vaunted Space Race following its triumphant launch of Sputnik in 1957. The Americans eventually won the race to the Moon, of course. But it was a volatile time.

From a broader perspective, Gagarin’s flight was a triumph for humanity. Seeing Earth from space, I think, puts things in a different perspective and helps us realize how insignificant and precarious our place in the universe is and how we all need to work together to improve our odds of surviving.

Mars beckons. A return to the Moon. The future. Hopefully, anyways. Or are we just going to keep on arguing and fighting  over the same tiny patches of land here on Earth like we’ve done for millenia?

Pick of the Day: Maze-A-Palooza

If you’ve got kids, this is a show they’ll probably enjoy seeing. That’s because it’s got all sorts of neat interactive displays on mazes, puzzles and other illusions.

Just look at all the fun the kids are having in the above photo. Now imagine your kids at the Saskatchewan Science Centre doing the exact same thing. Imagine also all the knowledge they’ll be able to accumulate. You might even inspire them to pursue a career in a noble (and lucrative) discipline like engineering, science or medicine.

For more info on this travelling exhibit and other Science Centre programming call 522-4629.

Also on tonight, there’s a fundraiser for Class Act Performing Arts Studio which suffered a devastating fire at its Warehouse District facility on Feb. 23. It kicks off with a reception at Regina Performing Arts Centre (1077 Angus St.) at 6:15 p.m., and includes performances by the True Jive Pluckers, Saskatchewan Express, Youth Ballet Company of Saskatchewan, Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre and several other acts. The fundraiser is being hosted by Amy Matysio, and will also feature a silent auction. Tickets are $40 for Adults and $20 for Students.  For more info contact the box office at 779-2277.

Copyrighting Pi

It’s March 14 — 03/14 — and that means it’s Pi Day 2011. The day of the year where we celebrate everyone’s favourite irrational transcendental, 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679, etc..

In trying to find an appropriate video to go with this post — hopefully one as good as last year — I stumbled upon a video of the Michael John Blake tune, “What Pi Sounds Like.” It goes like this: First he assigned numbers to notes — middle C is 1, D is 2, E is 3 and so on — so, seeing as you all know Pi starts 3.14, the first three notes of his piece are E C F (3 1 4), then his song went on from there to include the first 31 digits of Pi.

Next, using the circle of fifths, he assigned numbers to chords. He brought everything together into a composition for piano, accordion and autoharp — played at 157 beats per minute (which is 314 divided by two).

It’s a pretty simple idea, really, and you’d think it would come out sounding like random noise. But it doesn’t. It was actually a pretty swell little folky instrumental.

But when I went to embed that video into this post I got a notice that his tune had been taken down by Youtube due to a copyright claim.

What the hell? How do you copyright Pi?

Well, turns out, no big surprise, Michael John Blake wasn’t the first person to come up with this idea. Back in the nineties, a cranky old man named Lars Ericksson did the same thing with a full on orchestra and called it the “Pi Symphony.”

So here you have a situation where two songs composed independently are based on the exact same concept and as a consequence have identical core melodies. And I guess the question is, can the first person to do this claim the second is violating his copyright?

I say no. Not when the kernel for both songs is cribbed from a fucking mathematical constant.

And yet it happened. And Blake’s song is no longer available. As for Ericksson, based on what I’ve seen of him online, he’s one of those typical, pompous classical music twats who probably thinks his idea is the product of a solo moment of inspired, artistic genius. And he’s of a particular generation as well. Only a baby boomer would be sufficiently self-absorbed to think an idea like this sprang first in history from his own brain pan.

If the Library of Alexandria had survived, I’m willing to bet that you’d find some ancient Grecian troubadour had written something very like this but for lyre and nose flute.

Of course, I think there might be something else at work here. Professional jealousy. I was lucky enough to listen to both Blake and Ericksson’s pi songs, and Blake’s is fun and whimsical. It’s a little ditty, competently assembled, but lacking in arrogance. It has hand claps and tapping blocks of wood. And accordion for crying out loud.

Ericksson’s, on the other hand, is your garden variety concept piece for strings and horns.

Snore.

No wonder Blake was going to be interviewed about his “What Pi Sounds Like” on NPR today (until he was bumped because of coverage of the earthquake in Japan). And Ericksson? Well, he wasn’t.

Hopefully, this all gets sorted out because I doubt very much it’s possible that Ericksson’s copyright claim has a leg to stand on.

Meanwhile, I’m going to churn out some crap tunes based on the digits of e, i, Feigenbaum’s constants and the Golden Ratio. Because then, if Ericksson gets away with his claim, those numbers will be mine!

Update! Seems everything is sorted out. There is justice in Youtube land. Blake’s song is back up. And here, without further ado, is his video….

Another update: In other news…. Phi (aka The Golden Ratio) defeated Pi in the University of Regina’s annual Pi Day Debate. This is the second year in a row that Pi’s champion was vanquished.

Blow Your Mind

I was holding off on posting this because it sort of looks like a giant sea monster and, in light of the ongoing grimness on the Pacific rim, and some inappropriate jokes I heard this past week concerning Godzilla, I worried (probably unnecessarily) that it might offend.  Anyway, now that you know why I held it back, here it is.

* Note to Stephen and Shane:  You’re welcome.

Life Here Began Out There? Yeah…. Maybe Not

Here’s another example of the mainstream media covering a science story and getting it completely wrong.

Seriously, we trusted these people to write about science before there were bloggers? What were we thinking?

The Leader Post cut-and-pasted a story today from the National Post (which was in turn picked up from Fox News….. so you know it’s totally legit, right?) about how scientist Richard B Hoover claims to have discovered fossilized microbes on meteorite samples.

Hoover’s conclusion: life on Earth was seeded by meteors.

So what does a biologist like, say, PZ Myers of Pharyngula have to say on the subject?

No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.

He goes on….

The extraterrestrial ‘bacteria’ all look like random mineral squiggles and bumps on a field full of random squiggles and bumps, and apparently, the authors thought some particular squiggle looked sort of like some photo of a bug. This isn’t science, it’s pareidolia. They might as well be analyzing Martian satellite photos for pictures that sorta kinda look like artifacts.

And in case you’re thinking Myers is just being all knee-jerk skeptical like notorious Scooby Doo killjoy Velma, he’s not alone. David Dobbs over at Wired and Rosie Redfield at RRResearch are similarly dismissive.

Apparently, the Journal of Cosmology which published this paper hews closer to the Omni magazine style of science journalism than to say the model of Science or Nature. The editor-in-chief, Rudy Schild, is a bit of character who likes to spout off on Paranormal TV about the possibility of meeting aliens. Check him out at right driving around in a truly brilliant automobile. Doesn’t that package just scream screwball?

UPDATE: Myers is reporting that NASA is diplomatically trying to distance itself from Hoover’s paper, noting that he had submitted it to the Journal of Astrobiology in 2007 but “the peer review process was not completed.” (Read: the paper is bunk.) Myers also talks about all the angry phone calls he’s been getting for stomping all over claims that extraterrestrial life has been found in space. A good read.

Spectacular Light Show Expected

The Sun is apparently entering a period of increased solar activity. In the last few days, several large flares have been observed. When the energized particles reach Earth, they’ll interact with the magnetic field to produce more spectacular than normal aurorae. So if you live fairly far north (or south) of the equator, and happen to be out after dark in the next few days, keep an eye out.

Speaking Of PZ Myers…

I just threw a quote by a real biologist into the pro-choice verses no-choice morass I created a few days ago, after U.S. Republican fucks (and a few rogue Demofucks) voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Check out comment 43.

This might surprise people but I am actually more uneasy writing over-the-top frothing blog posts and editorials than readers might think. I actually prefer to be friendly and cuddly. But Myers makes me feel better about my rants.

From Myer’s excellent blog Pharyngula, here’s a little bit  from a guest post by Iris Vander Pluym:

If anything, what we need is far more mockery, relentlessly and consistently deployed in the general direction of anyone who says that the separation of church and state is unconstitutional, or that global warming is a hoax, or that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that eliminating Social Security is a grand idea. We should always attack stupid ideas, regardless of how nice a suit the proponent is wearing at a press conference.

Mock. Point. Laugh. State facts. Satirize. Call a lie, a lie. Mock again. Laugh again. Point to facts again. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat yet again, until everyone thinks twice before ever uttering anything so destructive, ignorant and idiotic in public.

How more people skewering right-wing falsehoods would not lead to a better world escapes me.

I’ll just add that you can’t reason with psychopaths but you can talk to the people they’re talking to and try to warn the crowd that the often reasonable-sounding person they’re listening to is one step removed from calling for witch burnings. It’s important to remember this. Witch burnings are very bad, and the road to them starts with magical ideas like “a fetus is a baby”.

Besides, I think there’s hope for lots of too-religious people. I can think of some overly-religious regular Dog Blog commentators  who seem eminently salvageable.

Bill Nye On Science Education

Here’s a short, must-read Q and A interview with TV science educator Bill Nye about problems in United States classrooms. Excerpt:

Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster. We talk about the Internet. That comes from science. Weather forecasting. That comes from science. The main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong.

We have this issue in Saskatchewan, though not nearly to the same degree. The basic problem is religious tampering with schools. Teachers in the United States are jittery about teaching evolution because some willfully ignorant, arrogant — let’s just call it like it is and say cowardly — fundamentalist Christians (which, to include the apparently mandatory on this blog disclaimer, does not include most Christians) stick their fat, stupid, know-nothing noses into education and make everything worse, dumber and more dangerous for everyone. (They also fuck up art and culture, but that’s less critically important if not less annoying).

You know, if I were the editor of a magazine I would totally run a science column.