Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Astrology: Worse than Bullshit

Astrology is wrong. Ok, that needs no qualification at all. Any number of sources can handily debunk the theory itself. But it's not just wrong. I'm making the point that astrology is, essentially, racism.

From the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Astrology Defense Kit:

6. Shouldn't we condemn astrology as a form of bigotry?

In a civilized society we deplore all systems that judge individuals by sex, skin color, religion, national origin, or other accidents of birth. Yet astrologers boast that they can evaluate people based on another accident of birth - the positions of celestial objects. Isn't refusing to date a Leo or hire a Virgo as bad as refusing to date a Catholic or hire a black person?

There was a birthday today at my office. Cake, flowers, singing - a joyous occasion to be sure. The boss - the frigging top brass - brought up the fact that it is May, and therefore the birthday celebratee is, whatever, a Gemini or something, thus she has this and that quality and is good at X and bad at Y. My eyes had glazed over red at this point and there was too much steam coming out of my ears to pick up any specifics.

We've played this game before: let's imagine that, instead of finding out her birthday, the boss had just learned that this employee was born to Jewish parents and reacted thusly.

Oh, you're a Jew? That's weird, you aren't particularly funny. You must be great with numbers though, huh? Everyone keep a hand on your wallets! Hahaha, just kidding. Seriously though, have you had a nose job? I can hardly tell you're Jewish!
Everyone present would be absolutely agape at that kind of bigoted inappropriateness. Yet when it's in regards to the birthday rather than sex, race, or religion, a good laugh is shared by all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Errol Morris Appreciation

I have talked about Errol Morris before, but I can't recommend him enough. Read his blog (more like collection of articles and essays) and watch his movies. He tends to focus on the theme of truth in visual media, and how that relates to perception, deception, and delusion.

The problem is that perception is endlessly colored by fantasy and belief – perception of the present as well as the past. If there is a story that we wish to believe, our perceptual apparatus will usually modify or reinterpret what we see rather than the other way around. We see things that do not exist and fail to see things that are right in front of our eyes. We often remember things incorrectly and our memories change over time.

The brain is not a Reality-Recorder. There is no perfect replica of reality inside our brains. The brain elides, confabulates, conflates, denies, suppresses, evades, confuses and distorts. It has its own agenda and can even work at cross-purposes with our conscious selves. Consciously, we may think that we see all and know all, but our brains may be “blind” to much of what is going on around us.

I think a lot of what he says gets right to the very core of the scientific method, and the importance of critical thinking to discern reality from fantasy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pirate Wednesday - Sunken Treasure

The fourth installment of Indiana Jones is coming out very soon, and I couldn't be more excited. The popularity of this series is a testament to the romantic image of hunting for lost treasure - facing danger to acquire valuable artifacts - the essence of piracy.

While Indy scours the land for golden idols, it is Davy Jones who holds the treasure of the seas. Treasure that may well have once belonged to true pirates, and today this treasure is being found.

This is no mere fantasy, three reports of sunken treasure being discovered and recovered have crossed my desk in the past few weeks, and it makes me giddy as a schoolchild to know the profession of Treasure Hunter is alive and well.


Steve Libert, an underwater explorer from Virginia, believes he has found the remains of:

The Griffon, which was built near Niagara Falls in 1679 and became the first sailing ship on the Great Lakes, was lost in a storm on its maiden voyage and now ranks among North America's most sought-after wrecks.
Libert is in a legal battle with the state of Michigan for rights to explore the wreck. The value of the Griffon is mostly historical (it is described as "one of the Holy Grails of Canadian marine history"), but surely there must be a number of shiny baubles aboard. When it sunk, it was carrying "thousands of furs and other cargo obtained from native traders."


The next one is particularly exciting, due to its age, value, and mystery:

On the other hand, why did the captain have so many coins? Shouldn't they have been traded for the ivory and copper?

"Either he did a very, very good deal. Or he was a pirate," Noli said. "I'm convinced we'll find out what the ship was and who the captain was."

This 500 year old wreck was found off the coast of Africa by the De Beers diamond corporation. It's a little more romantic when these things are discovered by intrepid individuals, but incorporation seems to be the way to go these days. As for the monetary value of this find...

The ship was laden with tons of copper ingots, elephant tusks, gold coins - and cannons to fend off pirates. "You don't turn a skipper loose with a cargo of that value and have no record of it," Noli said.


Finally, a more recent - certainly post-pirate - wreck, but what she lacks in age and intrigue she more than makes up for in sheer wealth.

She was the British government's secret treasure ship, packed with 43 tons of gold and intended for Halifax to pay Canadian and American munitions suppliers at the height of the First World War.

But that was the mission that doomed the SS Laurentic - along with 354 of her British and Canadian crew - when the ocean liner dressed in cannons for the occasion struck a German mine off the Irish coast, slipping to the North Atlantic's depths with her cargo of 3,211 ingots.
Yes, a good year for Canadian maritime history, and for lost riches. As I stated above, there are companies devoted solely to the exploration and recovery of sunken treasure. Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered an absolutely amazing cache of treasure not long ago. Check out their site, they've got some cool stuff. Perhaps I'll do a future PW post about them. Or maybe I'll submit a resume and become rich off pirate booty.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Stupidity of Dignity

(hat tip AF and RD)

Steve Pinker embarrasses the Presidents Council on Bioethics with a critique of their idiotic Christ-infused report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics.

Dignity is skin-deep: it's the sizzle, not the steak; the cover, not the book. What ultimately matters is respect for the person, not the perceptual signals that typically trigger it.

The Invisible Hook or ARRconomics

Normally I'd wait for a PW, but this is a short one, plus I've got plans for Wednesday (hopefully I find the time).

The Boston Globe published an article yesterday about an upcoming book by Peter Leeson about pirate politics and economics, arguing that "some of the world's earliest democracies flourished aboard pirate ships."

Yes, those stereotypically lawless rum-chuggers turned out to be ardent democrats. The pirates who roamed the seas in the late 17th and early 18th centuries developed a floating civilization that, in terms of political philosophy, was well ahead of its time. The notion of checks and balances, in which each branch of government limits the other's power, emerged in England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But by the 1670s, and likely before, pirates were developing democratic charters, establishing balance of power on their ships, and developing a nascent form of worker's compensation: A lost limb entitled one to payment from the booty, more or less depending on whether it was a right arm, a left arm, or a leg.
It's actually related to my very first Pirate Wednesday post, in which I discussed an example of a pirate code of laws. I think I'll have to get that book when it comes out.


It's not even shocking anymore.

Two weeks after The Observer revealed the shocking story of Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, murdered because of her infatuation with a British solider in Basra, southern Iraq, her father is defiant. Sitting in the front garden of his well-kept home in the city's Al-Fursi district, he remains a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death.
What shocks me is the overwhelming public opinion that Islam is, for the most part, at its core, to the majority, a religion of peace. Peace is a weird fringe aberration in Islam.

On a related note, I recently read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I very strongly recommend it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Disappointed in Snopes

For those who don't know, Snopes is an urban legend investigation website. Like an internet MythBusters. They're usually really good, but they dropped the ball with this one:

Claim: Drinking bleach will kill the AIDS virus.

Status: False.
Now, the specifics of their explanation are true. Drinking a cup of bleach will not cure one of AIDS, washing one's naughty bits in bleach will not prevent AIDS, etc.

But drink enough bleach, and the AIDS virus will certainly die. It's really a matter of dosage.