Notes on Rationality and the Loch Ness Monster

Recently, xkcd ran this comic:

The Flake Equation

Steven Novella followed it up with a post on his NeuroLogica Blog, and concludes that:

The take home message for skeptics is that even in a world without ghosts, aliens, and bigfeet we would expect there to be large numbers of anecdotes that sound very impressive, told by people who seem sincere. In a world with these things, we should also expect some objective and verifiable evidence – and that is what is lacking.

The notion of “where there is smoke there is fire” simply does not apply, because human brains and the cultures in which they are embedded are smoke machines. (Link)

Now, I like to consider myself a burgeoning skeptic and overall rational person. I am an atheist and accept that there is nothing about the universe that is supernatural, only operations and systems that we don’t understand yet. There is no Loch Ness monster. I know this. I accept this. But damn it, I really, really wish there was. Same for aliens visiting our world and Bigfoot and ghosts and time travel and any number of cultural fictions that, while powerful, do not have material evidence for their actuality. But most of all, I want to live in a world where the Loch Ness monster exists, even though she doesn’t. (Not sure why she’s a she in my head, but always has been.) I think, probably, because such a world would seem to me somehow richer, more magical, yet tinged with a sense of tragedy–one lonely serpent monster cut off from her kind through eons of time. Whenever I say (and I’ve said this on a number of occasions), “I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster, but I really wish I did,” I am wishing for a particular story to be true, to be tangible.

The desire for a more magical world seems to me one of the principle reasons why some people cling so hard to stories of monsters and aliens and fairies and conspiracies. Such concepts and stories offer excitement and wonder. Perhaps, for some, they offer a glimpse of the sublime: that overwhelming feeling of joy and wonder and fear and smallness annealed into an emotion that takes you out of yourself and returns you a changed, even if only slightly, person. However, I wonder if using fictional beasts and aliens to create such an emotion is simply being lazy. When looking around at the material world that surrounds us, when really looking, we are always already surrounded by beauty and strangeness and seemingly-alien life forms. Is Loch Ness really more impressive than the giant squid or the Blue Whale? Are aliens really more interesting than the biodiversity contained within a single Redwood tree? Can there be anything more exciting and humbling than a crystalline desert sky at night and truly understanding just how small you are in the universe; than letting yourself know that you are not separate from that vastness but part of the warp and woof of a universe that contains secrets and splendors enough to occupy our species for all of our existence?

I may want to believe in the Loch Ness monster, but that is partly because I don’t seek out, nearly as much as I ought to, those secrets and splendors that do exist. Instead of reading about UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle when I was a kid, how much richer my life would be if I had read about archaeology and oceanography; biology and astronomy? I’m not saying that my interest in certain topics was wrong or that I shouldn’t have read Chariots of the Gods when I was twelve. I merely wonder what kind of path I might have taken if I’d spent more time reading about and learning about the strangeness of our actual world. That said, it becomes important for scientists and skeptics and rationalists to provide equally compelling stories about the world as those told by the flakes and the kooks and those who are merely desperate in their desire for a magic world that excites and astounds without all the tedious mucking about in reality. Thus the importance of people like Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan, and Neal deGrasse Tyson. Scientists and story-tellers need to work with and learn from each other so that our science and skepticism can be told about with compelling narrative and our compelling narratives can be told with the richness and wonder of the natural world.

I may never entirely leave behind my wish to live in the same world as the Loch Ness monster. I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as I understand that it is the story of Loch Ness monster that intrigues me, and that her non-existence does not drain that story of meaning or importance.

Because the Loch Ness monster does not exist.

And I’m ok with that.

A Note to Those Considering Domestic Terrorism

Do you really want to fight? Then let’s fight.

But know this: we won’t come at you with guns and hatred in our eyes. We won’t threaten your children and shrug our shoulders and mutter “collateral damage.” We won’t attempt to bully you and wrap ourselves in the flag while demonstrating that democracy and freedom are mere words to be thrown around and not concepts to respect and embrace. We won’t throw temper tantrums and mock people with Parkinson’s disease or make fun of 11 year old boys whose mother died because of a shitty health care system.

No.

We are going to fight you through the laws of this country. We are going to fight you by organizing and getting angry and organizing more and making sure that we show everybody just how toxic and racist and un-democratic you are. We are going to call you by your rightful names: American Taliban, Terrorists, Criminals. You can believe what you want, you can scream and shout your imbecilic beliefs about birth certificates and death squads, you can fantasize about shooting liberals and taking back the government through force for all I care. Go to it.

But you turn that fantasy into action. You martyr another innocent person in the name of your petty, selfish, black-hearted fear that the world doesn’t revolve around you and only you, and we will fight tooth and nail . . . to make sure that you are given your Miranda rights and a fair trial.

Does that seem weak to you? A pansy way to go? A soft, liberal answer? That’s because you are the weak ones. You are the scared ones. You are the ones that don’t understand just how valuable and important the rule of law is to a free nation. You are the ones who don’t have the strength and the guts to stand up for democracy and America. Instead, you hide in your bunkers and beneath your banners of vitriol and scream over and over again that you are the “Real Americans” that you are the Patriots. You are neither. You are a sad, scared group of people who have all the emotional maturity of a two-year-old. You like to pretend you are tough and macho, but inside you know that you are desperate and afraid. That’s why you need your guns and your hatred, because deep down you know that you’ve already lost, that you are pitiful, and that you are terrified of your own obsolescence.

We’ve already won. And you know it. With one hand tied behind our back with due process, we will still win. Because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

So do you really want to fight? Really? When you can grow the fuck up and take responsibility for your actions and this country and agree that we can always disagree about policy and fiscal choices; about who we tax and how; about issues of governance and the intricacies of government involvement in our lives. Let me state this as clearly as I can: we do not have to agree on anything but the fundamental necessity for a democracy to operate through the rule of law and through the operation of its established political system. You don’t like something, then win the fucking election and change it. But don’t you dare, don’t you dare tread down the path of violence and have the effrontery to be shocked when we call you out for being criminals and terrorists.

So what will it be? Do you want to fight or do you want to get back on board with trying to make our country a strong and secure nation for all of its citizens, as well as being a moral leader for the world?

Go ahead, take some time to cool down, catch your breath, and make a choice. But know this, and know it deep in your heart:

We will fight for this country, for freedom, and for justice.

And we will win.

Lifesaving Blood

Sometimes one person can make a huge and positive difference in the lives of millions:

An Australian man who has been donating his extremely rare kind of blood for 56 years has saved the lives of more than two million babies. James Harrison, 74, has an antibody in his plasma that stops babies dying from Rhesus disease, a form of severe anaemia. Link

via Blame It On The Voices

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Air Video Review

If you have an iPhone or are soon to have an iPad, and if you have movies on your computer of nearly any format, then you really ought to check out InMethod’s Air Video App. Perspicacious readers will note the emphasis on “any format” and realize that the iPhone does not play formats such as .avi or .divx and that is one of the coolest things about this program. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Air Video works like this: you install the Air Video server application on your computer, and point it toward a folder or folders (I have mine going to an hard drive partition that is connected, not to my computer, but to my Airport Extreme router). Next, install Air Video’s iPhone app on you phone. You’ll need to get some numbers from the server application so that the iPhone can connect to your computer, but the process is easy and well documented. Then you can stream any video from your computer to your phone.

It’s that simple. And the most impressive thing about it is that if the file is, say a divx or an avi file, the program performs an on-the-fly conversion, letting you watch video that you would otherwise have to take the time to convert before loading onto your phone. I’ve watched programs on the bus ride home and sure, over 3g the quality isn’t the best, but it’s impressively good for the fact that the program is streaming and converting at the same time. On wifi, the quality is very good, and I would be interested to know if it was good enough to hook up to a television and watch it on a larger screen. Still, with the iPad coming out, I can see this program taking off in a big way as the screen size of the iPhone, while ok for the occasional lazy watching of QI from my bed, isn’t something I’d want to watch an entire movie on. However, I could envision curling up on a couch or in bed and watching a movie on the iPad. (Ok, granted I’ve never held one or seen one, so I might not find it that appealing in the end, but still, from the images I’ve seen I think it would be a decent way to watch a movie.)

You can even try Air Video for free, although the limitation is that the program will serve up random files from your video folder instead of letting you see all of your videos. Still, it will give you a good feel for how well the program works. I started with the free version and paid for the full after about 20 minutes of seeing what it could do.

This is one of the more impressive apps I’ve seen for the iPhone in terms of media, and while I don’t use it a lot, I like having the option to pull up and watch nearly any video I might have on my hard drive anytime I want. If you check it out, let me know what you think.

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Chatroulette Log 1

6:05pm – 6:45pm, Sunday March 21

Rules

I will not disconnect from anyone myself. Whenever someone comes on screen, I’ll smile and wave. I will not type first, but wait for the other person(s) to disconnect or begin to communicate.

1 guy. No response. Disconnected. 1 guy. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy (no face). Disconnected before wave. 1 guy. Disconnected before wave. 1 person. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy. Chatted a bit 6:10 – 6:11. He was from Manchester, England. 1 guy. Touching himself. Disconnected too fast. 1 person. Off camera. Disconnected after wave. 1 guy. In shadows. Disconnected after wave. 1 young woman/girl, disconnected before wave. 1 “be right back” sign. 1 guy – no working cam. Chatted a bit:

Connected Partner: cam out Partner: here You: so you can see others they just can’t see you? Partner: grrrrrrmmmmmmbl Partner: not always You: so what do you do on here? this is my first time checking it out. Partner: checking out also but crapcam Partner: think its bad connection You: what kind of computer? Partner: anyway nothing special here Partner: pc acer Partner: lots of kids Partner: feeling real old You: yeah You: i keep wondering when whoever owns this is going to get into deep trouble with kids having access to it Partner: luckily have no more kids here))) You: especially considering the amount of guys who seem to take this as an invitation to . . . er, “show off” Partner: who s getting profit out of this? Partner: yeah why not women? You: I don’t know. maybe we are all being recorded for and they are going to blackmail some of the people based on what they do here You: that would be one way to generate income Partner: great You: where are you from? Partner: earth You: good answer. 🙂 Partner: europe Partner: arent you? You: from earth? You: yes You: but north america. united states. rhode island. providence. east side. Partner: east side well well Partner: i west side Partner: brussels Partner: which is east of rhode island Partner: confusing no You: 🙂 You: well, it could be west if you went the long way around Partner: i prefer the long way overland You: one of my favorite bands is from belgium You: dEUS Partner: aaaaaa Partner: a band Partner: not a brand Partner: of beer Partner: yes dEUS from antwerp Partner: sorry for missing cam. Partner: i tried to make a drawing You: no prob. like i said, just checking it out. and don’t mind chatting a bit. You: a drawing of what? Partner: myself Partner: mm let me see, like yourself, shorter beard more hairy on top no glasses Partner: Partner: and grey(( Partner: no not gandalf! You: well, grey is better than balding. You: 🙂 Partner: one gets used Partner: turning grey Partner: is this thing a hype? Partner: or will this be our future Partner: world as a village Partner: without pubs(((( You: i think it’s hyped up. it’s too boring and people aren’t actually all that friendly. it seems that most people using it are looking for a certain kind of experience to watch You: a world without pubs would be a sad thing indeed! Partner: well we all are kind of voyeurs no? You: true. Partner: and its safer talking to someone here than on undergroundtrain You: maybe. but there’s a hollowness to this. a lack of repercussions that sees to short-circuit actual connection. You: human contact always involved some sense of risk in the real world: of hurt feelings, of misunderstandings, etc You: here, i just press f9 and on to another person Partner: badbreath You: that too Partner: well i m off to bed, night at this side of atlantic You: have a good night. take care Partner: same 2u Partner: where is the exit? You: the pause button You: or f8 Partner: thx))) > Your partner disconnected. Reconnecting…

Disconnected before wave. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy touching himself. Disconnected before wave. 1 guy eating a pickle. Disconnected before wave. 2 women. Chatted:

Connected Partner: she likes you You: she doesn’t even know me. 🙂 Partner: how do you look i mean You: Thanks. You’re both pretty darn cute yourselves Partner: from? Partner: thanks Partner: =))))))))))))) You: Rhode Island. You: you? Partner: guess You: England? You: Is it in Europe? Partner: half Europe/// You: Can’t really see it well, not focusing You: chicken? your from roostervania? Partner: from country of roosters You: so . . . i should be able to get this from your clues right. You: Remember, American public education not so good at the geography and learning about other countries (much to your chagrin) Partner: frozen Partner: freaks You: greenland Partner: your tea is teasty? You: indeed You: both tasty and teasty You: though it may be time to switch to guinness You: cool magnets Partner: with our symbolics You: yeah. i figured. You: holland? Partner: we’re from russia You: ahh. You: sorry. You: dumb americans > Your partner disconnected.

Conclusions

I think Chatroulette is hyped up and will bore people quickly. It reinforces the notion that if you give guys anonymity and a camera, there are a lot of them who don’t realized that seeing their genitals just makes the rest of us laugh and, at least in this day and age, serves as a point of humor rather than shocking or disturbing us. Especially if you go into the situation, like you would logging into Chatroulette, expecting it. From a socialogical point of view, it’s fascinating to see how people interact and what they are trying to get out of something like this.

Have you bothered to check it out? What do you think?

Because Asking a Question is a Federal Offense

Well, this sucks. Peter Watts has been found guilty of a federal crime because he asked question and did not submit to the whim of capricious authority without asking “why?” One would have thought that such a stance, you know, personal liberty and the ability to question authority, would be an American value instead of a prosecutable offense.

One would be wrong.

Watts, a Canadian, could face up to two years of jail time for questioning the actions of the boarder guards. He states on his blog that he doesn’t blame any involved in his case, even the jurists who found him guilty, but rather the statute that he was charged under:

I do not know what the jury said amongst themselves. But a question they sent out to the court yesterday afternoon — “Is failure to comply sufficient for conviction?” — strongly suggests that this was the lynchpin event. (Certainly Defense had demolished every other, and the Prosecution had conceded as much.) If that is the case, I cannot begrudge the jury their verdict. Their job is not to rewrite laws, or ignore stupid ones; their job is to decide whether a given act violates the law as written. And when you strip away all the other bullshit — the verbal jousting, the conflicting testimony, the inconsistent reports — the law doesn’t proscribe noncompliance “unless you’re dazed and confused from being hit in the face”. It simply proscribes noncompliance, period. And we all agree that in those few seconds between Beaudry’s command and the unleashing of his pepper spray, I just stood there asking what the problem was. No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Re-reloaded) » Guilty

Sure, there are instances of injustice occurring every day that don’t get the attention that Watts’ case did since he is a writer of some repute and with a decent fan base. Still, as he is an artist whose work I admire, I can’t help be feel saddened on his part for being found guilty.

Best wishes to you Mr. Watts.

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