October 31, 2014

Why Earth's animal life forms took so long to appear

It's a question that bugged scientists for a very long time: why did it take so long for animal life to appear on Earth? Was life so fragile? Did it necessarily take several billions of years to come into existence? And what, finally, did it take for animals to emerge via evolutionary processes?

Well, the answer is in: there wasn't enough oxygen on Earth prior to the time when animals first appeared (about 600-700 million years ago). They literally could not have existed prior to the moment when they first appeared in the fossil record.

Scientists have long believed that the oxygen level in the billion years that preceded the appearance of animal life on Earth was approximately 40% of the level we see today. You'd think some animals would pop up, given this relative abundance of oxygen. But a new experimental result shows that in the billion years that preceded animal life on Earth, there was only 0.01% of the oxygen we see today. That's the reason animal life held off for so long.

Six hundred to seven hundred million years ago, when there was finally enough oxygen for animals to exist and thrive, they appeared everywhere -- and some eventually evolved into us. Mystery solved. Pretty cool, huh?

World to get cold and dark this weekend

It cometh, at least in the northeast. It will be cold this weekend and there will be a brutal, cutting wind. And at the very same time, as if to mock our mortal concerns, the clocks will be set back an hour. And then it will be dark forever.

Happy Halloween!

Now go read Xmas Carol, a story that begins on Halloween and like a shambling (and hugely entertaining) creature, wends its evil way toward Xmas.

You really really don't want to face the coming Xmas season without reading Xmas Carol. Get your copy today.

What can you say?

We live in a heartless universe where no one is looking out for us except ourselves. And irony abounds. Never doubt this facet of human existence.

I mean, two people (or three, reports differ) were killed while using a flight simulator inside a flight safety building when a real plane crashed through the roof and hit them.

Never doubt irony. It's always looking for you.

October 28, 2014

Nordic nations outrank U.S. in sexual equality

It's funny, isn't it? American religious leaders never say boo about gender equality. It just doesn't come up. In my whole life, I don't think I've ever heard a priest say that men and women are equal, which makes sense when you consider the patriarchal, misogynistic nature of religion. Let's face it: religion is a boys' club and America is religious.

And we're not only religious in America, we're downright exceptional. We're the mostest special people who ever lived. And we're quite sure of this because we hear it all the time. If the people on TV are saying it every single day, it must be true.

Well, maybe not so much.
Nordic nations led the world in promoting equality of the sexes, as they have for many years, with Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark occupying the top five spots.

The United States climbed three places to 20th, thanks to a narrowing wage gap and more women occupying political offices.
Well, golly gee. It seems those atheist countries are the ones that treat women fairly. Jeebus! Every one of the top five countries falls into this category. I wonder why?

You don't think rationality could have anything to do with it, do you? Jeepers, if that's true we're only going to fall further behind as the decades pile up. 

But we'll always be exceptional in our own heads. Hooray for us! USA! USA! USA!

October 27, 2014

Obama gets a letter

Twelve winners of the Nobel Peace Prize wrote a letter to Obama, urging him to release a full report on America's use of torture. These folks won their Peace Prizes by actually, you know, doing something peaceful. Here's a paragraph from that letter:
"In recent decades, by accepting the flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism, American leaders have eroded the very freedoms and rights that generations of their young gave their lives to defend," they said. "They have again set an example that will be followed by others; only now, it is one that will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world, including against American soldiers in foreign lands. In losing their way, they have made us all vulnerable."
It's quite clear that Obama will ignore this letter in one last attempt to brush American torture under the rug. What a brave fellow he is.

October 25, 2014

To blog or not to blog

Some days I don't blog. At times, this is because I'm writing fiction and don't have the time or energy to blog. But most often, it's because I'm beaten down by the idiocy I see in the news. As Brendan said at Daily KOS yesterday:
"If you want to know why I don't blog, it's because the stupid bested me. I simply couldn't take the stupid." 
That explains the occasional scarcity of posts here, too. The stupid is overwhelming. And the greed. Humanity is dying because of stupidity and greed. That's it in one sentence.

October 24, 2014

Can't let this go by without notice

You've probably seen this but on the off chance that you missed it, here's an extremely powerful image. It was created to honor Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the guard who was on duty at Canada's WWI memorial to fallen soldiers. While standing guard over the statue, he was shot dead by a terrorist. This is the image that appeared in Canadian papers the following day:

One of the best uses of art I've ever seen. Kudos to Bruce MacKinnon, the artist. Amazing!

Eek! Ebola!

So let's see...we're nearly hysterical over Ebola after four infected people were seen in the United States. Um, okay.

But we don't give a hoot about the nearly 10,000 children that are killed or injured by gun violence every year in the United States, although that's something we could fix if we wanted to.

Ebola: eek! Gun violence: meh.

What's wrong with this picture?

NYT disses baseball but misses the main issue

Joe "Ugh!" Buck
Today's NY Times has an article that says baseball is no longer the nation's pastime. Apparently no one cares about the game and most everyone watches football instead of the World Series. Fine, that's true. But in the entire article they never mention the gorilla in the room: the World Series is on Fox and features Joe Buck. That's why no one wants to watch it.

I've asked friends who are baseball fans if they're watching the World Series this year. Everyone says no because they can't stand Joe Buck. With Buck, it's unwatchable. I feel the same way. Yes, I'm watching the World Series but I do it without sound. I play music instead. Anything is preferable to hearing Joe Buck say uninteresting things in a loud voice.

Fox has a contract to show the games through 2021. So much for baseball. It would've been nice if the Times bothered to mention Buck, the man who single-handedly killed baseball.

PS: Go Royals!

October 20, 2014

It's the same illogical argument

I've been reading articles about the aftermath of the Catholic bishops giving gays the finger last week. I mean, really. Raising gay Catholics' hopes and then stomping them into the ground is not, I'm quite sure, what Jesus would have done. But then, there never was a Jesus. So there's that.

Today I noticed that the hateful bishops who put the kibosh on the welcoming language used in the first synod draft document last week are relying on the exact same argument that nitwits use against gay marriage.

For instance, consider this article:
After an initial draft of the synod's final document was released on Monday, conservative bishops vowed to row back on the upbeat tone adopted regarding gays, cohabitation and re-marriage, saying it would create confusion among the faithful and threatened to undermine the traditional family.
There it is: the Great Anti-Gay Non Sequitur. How, precisely, does a church's welcoming language to gays undermine the traditional family? The two are utterly unrelated. If the church welcomes gays, traditional families will break up like ice floes in a warm ocean? That makes no sense.

And it's the same idiotic argument that homophobes make against gay marriage: it threatens traditional families. How, exactly? Can they offer even one example of this happening in the real world? Gay marriage has been around for quite some time. So where are the traditional families that were threatened and broken apart by the mere existence of gay marriage? They don't exist.

There is no argument against gay people that is anything but idiotic and hateful. But see, we're here, we've always been here and we're never going away -- so you'd better get used to us. And our existence and our relationships have precisely nothing to do with what goes on in "traditional families". (And btw, it's those traditional families that give birth to gays. I'm just saying. We didn't come from Mars.)

Hate is hate. And that's exactly what the Catholic bishops showed when they jumped on the synod's welcoming language and killed it. It's what Catholic bishops do, especially American Catholic bishops: they attack gay people. And you really, really have to ask yourself why. What is wrong with these bishops? Could it be their unnatural way of life, eschewing sex? Ya think?

October 19, 2014

CDC head Tom Frieden

Tom Frieden Mr. Rogers
The dolt who heads the CDC, Tom Frieden, used to be NYC's health commissioner. Basically, he's Mr. Rogers in a lab coat. Frieden enacted every single item on Bloomburg's nanny-state list -- and did so with enthusiasm. He is a complete nitwit so I'm not surprised that he screwed up the early Ebola response. He's that kind of a fella.

Just to give you an idea of what his NYC "health" policies were like, let's talk cigarettes for a moment. At the time, I smoked four packs a day and was quite happy doing so.

Frieden, in a half-assed effort to stop fires caused by unwatched, lit cigarettes, removed the chemical that makes cigarettes burn in a steady fashion. In its place, he added a new thickness to the paper. So how did this play out on the ground (i.e., in smokers' lungs)? The cigarettes were much stronger after the change. They really whomped your lungs, in a way that cigarettes never did before. As a militant smoker, I was thrilled.

And then he arranged for the price of cigarettes to soar. This had a predictable effect: we now smoked our cigarettes down to the barest nub, which...uh, causes cancer. We had to because we couldn't afford to smoke casually anymore; it was too expensive. So we smoked with a new sense of determination, instilled in us by dear Dr. Frieden. In fact, many of us, myself included for a time, switched to non-filter cigarettes so we could smoke more of the cigarette. We didn't want those damned filters to get in the way. You should have seen us, smoking our unfiltered cigarettes until they were hardly there anymore. At times the tiny lit stub actually flew into my lungs as I tried to snatch that last puff.

That's what Tom Frieden did for cigarette smokers. So just imagine what he'll do for people with Ebola.

Don't get your hamshtring in an uproar

Shtrickly speaking, we'll have to reshtrain our emotions until we can shtrand those shtruggling with Ebola in the Ashtrodome. This is no shtraw man. This is shtrickly on the up and up.

Chrishtians may be eckshtra helpful in dealing with this dishtressing problem. When people are too ill to shtride in by themselves, perhaps a willing Chrishtian will roll them into the Ashtrodome in a shtroller, using a long piece of shtring to avoid contact. Once inside, the Ebola-shtricken masses will essentially have to shtraddle two worlds. Will it be shtressful for them? Absolutely. Some victims might even have a shtroke -- but it's better than being out on the shtreet.

In the meantime, don't get your hamshtring in an uproar. Watch our shtreaming video to learn more about these shtrange times. We recommend you shtrap on your big-boy shoes, maybe eat a bit of shtrudel or some pashtrami at a reshtrant, listen to a little Shtrauss -- you know: de-shtress. Just forget about Ebola. (And forget about shtray bullets too, for that matter.)

But whatever you do, make sure you put eckshtra letters in your words.

(I swear I hear this pronunciation tchwelve times a day. Oy.)

October 18, 2014

U.S. behind the times

So how come we don't have a giant Xmas butt-plug in a public plaza in the United States? I mean, Paris has one. Why don't we?

The United States used to lead the world. "Not no more", as my local friends like to say. Jeez, I really want us to get one, like for Rockefeller Center or something. Real trees are so tired.

(And have you noticed that it's already Xmas? I've seen several Xmas commercials on TV lately. Santa's almost here! Speaking of which, have you read "Xmas Carol". Gasp! You haven't?! You poor thing, you!)

Catholic church to remain hateful toward gays

Don't worry, conservatives. The hate is back!
Catholic bishops scrapped their landmark welcome to gays Saturday, showing deep divisions at the end of a two-week meeting sought by Pope Francis to chart a more merciful approach to ministering to Catholic families.

The bishops failed to approve even a watered-down section on ministering to homosexuals that stripped away the welcoming tone of acceptance contained in a draft document earlier in the week.
I hope Catholics learned a lesson from all this. If you don't hate gays with proper venom, you won't get into heaven. That's the rule and it's really that simple. 

Oh, and the Christian god, as understood by Roman Catholic conservatives, is a pig. That's also included in the lesson. I love stories with morals, don't you?

Siri and autistic kids

There was a great op-ed in the NYT yesterday. It's by Judith Newman and it's about how much Siri has helped her autistic son. Seriously, Siri is this kid's best friend and Newman writes about their relationship (the kid and Siri) in a touching and very funny way. You must read "To Siri with Love". Ah haz spoken.

I don't want to excerpt sections that reveal the child's interaction with Siri. If you want to check that out, you'll have to click on the link above to read Newman's words. But here's a bit from another part of the op-ed:
But the companionability of Siri is not limited to those who have trouble communicating. We’ve all found ourselves like the writer Emily Listfield, having little conversations with her/him at one time or another. “I was in the middle of a breakup, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Ms. Listfield said. “It was midnight and I was noodling around on my iPhone, and I asked Siri, ‘Should I call Richard?’ Like this app is a Magic 8 Ball. Guess what: not a Magic 8 Ball. The next thing I hear is, ‘Calling Richard!’ and dialing.” Ms. Listfield has forgiven Siri, and has recently considered changing her into a male voice. “But I’m worried he won’t answer when I ask a question,” she said. “He’ll just pretend he doesn’t hear.”
See? Newman is a smart, funny writer. G'wan, go read it!

Misplaced modifier of the day

The fun thing about this is that it's on-topic. Here's a terrible sentence AP used as the lede for a story today:
ROME — The gay marriage debate arrived within walking distance of the Vatican on Saturday as Rome's mayor registered 16 gay marriages celebrated abroad in open defiance of Italy's government.
So...the marriages were celebrated abroad in open defiance of Italy's government? No. It's just a badly constructed sentence. You've got to watch your modifying clauses, people. I keep tellin' ya that. Here's how it should have been written:
The gay marriage debate arrived within walking distance of the Vatican on Saturday as Rome's mayor, in open defiance of Italy's government, registered 16 gay marriages celebrated abroad.
Note that I simply moved "in open defiance of Italy's government" closer to the word that it modifies (mayor). Yes, it requires you to set it off with commas, and I know this trick may be difficult for those of you who are punctuationally challenged. But it's really not that hard. (Of course, the whole sentence should simply be rewritten. It still stinks. But what can you do? It's AP.)

Luckily for us, the story is on-topic. Here's a bit more about this terrific Italian mayor.
Marino said Saturday was an important day in the fight for equal rights for all and that "the most important right is to say to your companion 'I love you' and to have that be recognized.
Sounds like a smart guy with a good heart. And of course, the biggest bonus is that this happened within shouting distance of the Vatican. Yay!

October 17, 2014

English-speaking bishops muck up translation of Vatican synod document

It's time for the latest chapter of "Backtracking for Jesus". Earlier in the week, we were all shocked when conciliatory language about gay inclusion was used in a Vatican synod report. Well, it seems the inclusive language persists in the original Italian document, but the English-speaking bishops have been having a field day editing the document to appease their vicious inner selves.
But the Vatican reversed course at a press conference on Thursday, when officials announced the release of an edited English version of the report that alters passages that affirm gay people. For example, the new version changes the translation of the Italian phrase “Accogliere le persone omosessuali,” which was initially rendered in the English version as “to welcome homosexual persons,” a literal interpretation of the text. Although the original Italian document remains unchanged, Thursday’s revision edited the English version to read, “providing for homosexual persons,” a shift that Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter said was “clearly … not an accurate translation.”

The new document includes other subtle alterations as well, although virtually all of the edits deal with the Catholic church’s position on homosexuality. Thursday’s version of the report, for instance, changed a phrase that previously referred to same-sex unions as “precious support in the life of the partners” to “valuable support in the life of these persons.”

The revisions appear to be an attempt by the Vatican — or at least English-speaking bishops — to control the media narrative surrounding the release of the original document.
So the English-speaking bishops still hate gay people. What else is new? Will the Vatican ever put these homophobes in their proper place? (The trash, in other words.) Stay tuned. But the fight will be intense. Here's a last bit from the Think Progress article:
English bishops are now calling for even broader changes to the document, insisting that the Synod offer a “fuller presentation of the church’s theology of marriage, more encouragement for those who are faithful to church teaching, and the elimination of … confusing passages in the report.”
Confusing indeed. But they're the ones who are confused. We're gay, we're here and we're never going away. These bishops had better wake up. They're living in the distant, ugly past and they really, really don't want to let go. It's quite sad.

October 16, 2014

Vatican kindness to gays was typo

Ah, well. It was fun to think that the Roman Catholic church might welcome gays. But we all knew in our hearts that it was too good to be true. Turns out, the whole thing was just a typo.
The original text contained an entire section "Welcoming homosexuals," that asked the church to provide gays a "fraternal space" and said their unions constitute a "precious support" for the partners. The new English version is entitled "Providing for homosexual persons," speaks only of "fellowship" and "valuable support."
I was toying with an alternate headline for this post: "Church tightens sphincter, expels gays". But I figured I'd stay classy. Either way, it's the same news. The Catholic church hates gay people, again.

October 14, 2014

Auroral corona over Norway

Isn't this photo incredible? Apparently, this happens when the aurora begins right over where you are. Click on the photo to see the huge version.

So when is the United States going to get auroras? I swear, we're always behind the cool countries.

You can see images like this every day at the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, operated by NASA.

Uh...no, she didn't

I was aghast while watching Dr. Nancy Snyderman's notpology on the NBC evening news last night. I used to admire this woman. Let's be clear about what happened. Dr. Snyderman was the one who violated the Ebola quarantine rules. But you'd never know this from her notpology.
The website Planet Princeton reported that Snyderman went to a restaurant to pick up a takeout order. Shortly after, the New Jersey Department of Health mandated the crew remain quarantined.
So Dr. Nancy Snyderman was the actual culprit who endangered the public. But when NBC offered her "apology", it never mentioned the fact that she was the one who violated the quarantine rules. Here's the written "apology" delivered last night:
"While under voluntary quarantine guidelines, which called for our team to avoid public contact for 21 days, members of our group violated those guidelines and understand that our quarantine is now mandatory until 21 days have passed. We remain healthy and our temperatures are normal.

"As a health professional I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public, but I am deeply sorry for the concerns this episode caused."
Not a peep about the fact that, if the report from Planet Princeton is true -- and since NBC didn't hammer this report into the ground, I assume it was -- she was the perp. I guess it was more important to NBC to bolster dear Dr. Nancy's credibility than to reveal the truth. After all, how could they continue to use her to illustrate the Ebola story after everyone found out she's a craven loser who doesn't care about anyone but herself?

The whole thing is disgusting. Welcome to the U.S. media, where citizens are told only what the media and its corporate overlords want them to know.

October 13, 2014

Funny physics story

You don't have to be a drooling fan of physics (like me) to enjoy this story. I promise it's funny. Go read it.

FBI less than thrilled by Apple's encryption

I posted recently about the fact that Apple's latest iOS uses a data encryption scheme that it will not share with US surveillance agencies. Thank you, Apple!

However, FBI director James Comey is less than thrilled by this move. Gee, I wonder why.
Comey's stance is that by making iOS and Android as secure as possible, Apple and Google are actually allowing criminals a safe haven. He even goes so far as to compare unbreakable data encryption to "an apartment that could never be entered, even by law enforcement."
Now that sounds great: an apartment that law enforcement can't enter. I want one of those, don't you? That kind of place would surely have helped the people who were killed or disfigured by SWAT raids in recent weeks. (Special bonus: even when these police goons disfigure a toddler, they don't face charges. SWAT raids are a win/win for them, guaranteed.) Seriously, I want one of those apartments and you should, too.

Oh, and Comey, good example. You'll really get people on your side with that line.

Tut, tut. Ebola is totally controlled in this country. Uh-huh.

Ebola is loose and it will spread to every place on the planet. I don't see how it could be otherwise. They (WHO, the US, everyone concerned) didn't nip it in the bud and now it's undoubtedly flowering in all sorts of unlikely places. Let us review the evidence.

First, there was the uncontrolled travel of infected Africans to other African countries and, most likely, to countries outside Africa. In the original communities where the outbreak first occurred, people were terrified and they didn't trust the medical staff. So they bolted for a secure place where they could hide. This is what sick humans do when you have nothing to offer them. There is no real treatment for Ebola. So why exactly would someone go to a hospital to die under bright lights when they could die at home, or at a helpful relative's house? Without a cure, you've got nothing to dangle in front of people to entice them into a hospital.

Here in the US, our fearless authorities tell us that Ebola could never get a toehold. We're just too good for that, you see. We know all the tricks, so Ebola literally has no chance.

Uh-huh. That's why the first Ebola patient in Texas, after practically telling the hospital that he had Ebola, was sent home with antibiotics -- because we're so damn good at this. But have no fear, people. We know how to wield those protective garments and track down all the infected person's contacts so we can isolate them. So you see, Ebola could never establish itself in our country.

Uh-huh. One of the nurses who treated the very first U.S. patient while wearing full protective gear, was infected. You know why? Because we're so damn good at this. We're special, and exceptional too!

But still, there is absolutely nothing to fear. For instance, look at the sophisticated manner in which we isolated all the contacts of the NBC camera man who caught Ebola in Nigeria. Wow, were we good! And that's why we learned today that Dr. Nancy Snyderman, of all people, who is one of the NBC folks placed under voluntary quarantine, just hadda go outside to see her favorite Soup Nazi. What are you gonna do? She hadda craving, so it was totally responsible for her to do this. After all, she's a model of medical prudence who's on the national news almost every day. Dr. Nancy mindlessly spreading Ebola?! Impossible!

And beginning today, we're starting to check the temperatures of incoming passengers at a few airports. Wow! Surely no one got through before we began this entry process. Surely. And no doubt this process will catch every single person whistling past with Ebola.

What could go wrong?

PS: Srsly, NBC needs to toss dear Dr. Nancy off the show immediately. What is wrong with that woman's brain?

Echoes from the Vatican bishops meeting

So, what are the bishops saying in the closed proceedings going on at the Vatican? In case you haven't been following these priestly doings, this is a gathering designed to reexamine the church's positions on prickly things like gay marriage and contraception. It seems there are some good vibrations emanating from the group, possibly because of this move by good ol' Francis:
Significantly, Francis decided at the end of last week to add six perceived progressives to the synod leadership to help prepare the final document after some conservatives were elected to leadership positions.
Looks like the pope wants to load the dice, and since he's loading them to lean toward my people, that's fine with me. Here are some echoes AP posted this morning:
The bishops said gays had "gifts and qualities" to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony."

For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered," even posing the question is significant.
I assume by "gifts and qualities", they mean the gays could be helpful in church redecoration, as well as with organ-playing. Seriously, what else could priests mean by this?

But it's not all flowers and confetti. The evil conservatives hate all this. Here's something from their side of the table:
Conservative groups rejected the report as a "betrayal" and even heresy.

"What will Catholics parents now have to tell their children about contraception, cohabiting with partners or living homosexual lifestyles?" asked Maria Madise, coordinator of the Voice of the Family, which counts pro-life and conservative groups as members.

"Will those parents now have to tell their children that the Vatican teaches that there are positive and constructive aspects to these mortal sins? This approach destroys grace in souls."
Aw, the poor conservatives. Who will these party-poopers hate if Francis has his way? Tch, tch, tch. My heart bleeds for them, doesn't yours? (Snork.)

But who knows what changes this event will produce, if any. I'm not holding my breath. On the other hand, it does seem somewhat hopeful, hearing these things. I didn't know bishops could say nice things. You learn something new every day.

October 12, 2014

Consciousness is a cartoonish illusion

We love to see ourselves as conscious creatures -- and I use the word "love" advisedly. If you tell someone that consciousness is merely an illusion, there's a good chance you'll terrify the person. "Abandon the idea that there is a me inside my body!? Perish the thought!" In a sense, fear is a natural reaction to this news because the concepts of consciousness and self are neatly woven together. It seems you can't have one without the other. So if consciousness isn't what we think it is, does the notion of "self" also implode?

Evidence points to a new understanding of the experience of consciousness than the one presented to us by our all too fallible brains. In a NYT article titled "Are We Really Conscious?", Michael Graziano questions whether we're way, way off in our estimation of what consciousness is. And that leads naturally to a second question: what is this thing that I call "me"?

We believe that we're conscious. "Why, it's self-evident!" we cry. "After all, we have perceptions that only a conscious being could entertain. We're special, doncha know." Well, here's the short version: hahaha. It just ain't true. We are not what we think we are. Having read a few books by Daniel Dennett (whose books are mentioned in the article), I'm ready to accept this concept and its implications. But what is the real explanation of the phenomenon we call consciousness? Graziano provides a few hints.

Here he is, referring to the fact that the color white isn't really white, for every color exists within what we call "white". It's why light can be fractured into bands of color with a prism. Here's Graziano:
Take again the case of color and wavelength. Wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.
I know the first time you encounter this idea, it's like someone pulled the rug out from under you. See, I love when that happens. So I adore this idea. Ever since reading about consciousness in Dan Dennett's books, I've been watching my brain to see what it does and how it does it -- and I've caught it engaging in some shady activities. I truly believe that consciousness is an illusion, an approximation of something going on in the brain. It's a nice illusion, mind you. And on the level where we live, there is no reason to change anything. Our lives are still our lives. Nothing has changed except possibly our understanding of ourselves. And progress in that area is always good news.

Read the whole article for an expanded version of this idea (and then start reading Dennett's books). And then, my friends, you can toss your former understanding of consciousness in the trash. Fun, huh? Just something to think about on your Sunday morning. Here's hoping you didn't go to mass. Enjoy your day!

October 11, 2014

Revisiting "Portrait of Jennie"

I watched "Portrait of Jennie" on TCM two nights ago. I've probably seen it at least 10 times. It's a 1948 b/w movie starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten -- and if you've never seen it, you missed out.

The idea of the movie is mushy but appealing. Cotton, a painter without a muse, encounters Jennifer Jones in Central Park. She's a child of perhaps 15 (but of course she's an adult named Jennifer Jones, and it shows). Her beauty and her "timelessness" intrigue him. She seems like a girl floating through a foggy reality. Special bonus: she even sings a haunted tune. We don't know what her story really is, but Cotton paints a beautiful image of her and finally manages to sell a painting.

He then meets her at odd, widely spaced moments, always in the park. And each time, she's older. She tells him to wait for her so they can be together, adding that she's "hurrying" -- i.e., trying to grow up quickly for him.

So yeah, it's another Hollywood romantic story with a vague supernatural element. Whatever. I'm an easy mark. I fall for movies like this every single time.

This is just background material for what I want to say. There are two things about the movie that I never noticed before. First, the intro is spoken by a disembodied voice that babbles on about space and time and the mysteries thereof. I guess you have to take the date into account. In 1948, when "Portrait of Jennie" was filmed, people were still trying to assimilate the new physics championed by Einstein: time and space are relative, and time flows at different rates under different conditions. It was mind-boggling (and still is, let's face it) -- and it was great fodder for Hollywood's movie makers.

Mind you, the movie doesn't try to engage with this idea at all. It just babbles about it, the way today's woo-meisters toss "quantum" into their sentences, thinking it makes their product sound modern. (Yoohoo, Deepak! Hi, hon.) Still, this aspect of the film is a reflection of its era. First time I saw that.

Also, and more dearly to me, I discovered that whenever the actual portrait of Jennie is onscreen, viewers hear Debussy's "Girl with the Flaxen Hair". That's so cool. It's one of my favorite pieces of music and the mad murderer in Xmas Carol, my Christmas-themed horror novel, plays this melody as he murders an innocent victim. Fun!

Anyway, great movie. I'll always love it. And as for the song, here it is. This pianist, Tal-Haim Samnon, plays the song just as I envisioned it when I wrote the scene. Beautiful.

October 10, 2014

The hermit life

There really are hermits in the United States. This photo shows the encampment of a guy named Erno. He was a real-life hermit who lived on the horse farm that I used as the setting for my novel, Xmas Carol. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Erno died a year or so ago, but I saw him once when he was alive. He was walking through the woods that border the horse farm. A farm worker pointed him out to me. He said, "that's Erno, he's a hermit." He told me Erno just walked and walked. It was what he did. All day long and into the night, he walked through the woods.

After Erno died, my nephew searched for his camp and took this photo with his iPhone. Looks like a rough life. I'm told he had solar panels that provided a little electricity. But the sun doesn't shine at night, so I guess he relied on fire to push away the darkness.

I sometimes refer to myself as a hermit but I'm not at all like Erno. What I really am is anti-social. I've got a house and I stay warm and pampered. I even have occasional visitors, though not many. So maybe I'm a wanna-be hermit, or somewhere on the road to full hermit-hood. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up in the woods one day, too. But you'd better believe I'll have internet access, somehow, some way.

Hail Erno. We hardly knew ye.

October 8, 2014

New moderation rule for the blog

In light of the Ebola epidemic, I'm afraid I'm going to have to take the temperature of all commenters before allowing them to post anything. I'm sorry but I must protect my own health and that of visitors to this blog.

So beginning immediately, another layer of moderation has been added. Here's how it will play out. Once you've successfully identified the usual Captcha characters, a thermometer will thrust itself from your computer screen. Simply place your mouth around the thermometer and slip it snugly under your tongue. Be patient! The computer will provide an alert to let you know when you're done.

If you hear a pleasant chime, this means you do not have a temperature and thus do not have Ebola. Click "Lucky" and your comment will be posted.

If, on the other hand, you hear the clang of a mournful church bell, get thee to a nunnery or a hospital, your choice. (Pssst: the hospital will probably work out better, you know, in the long run.)

That is all. You may now return to your normal lives.

Thinking may not be their strong suit

News to make you shake your head:
An Austrian primary school has dropped yoga classes for children after a mother argued that yoga goes against Christian teachings.

Yoga teacher Ingrid Karner says she was told to stop classes at the school in the southeastern village of Dechantskirchen after a complaint "that it's not allowed, according to the Bible."

School principal Maria Hofer told the Die Kleine Zeitung newspaper that no parents complained when courses started this year. But she says they were stopped after the unidentified mother said even the word "yoga ... had negative effects."

School inspector Helga Thomann says schools should not offer anything linked to "esoteric" practices.
You know what else the bible doesn't allow? Logic.

October 7, 2014

Church does good-witch voodoo to counter the evil spirits

I mean, really. No one on this planet is truly a Satanist. It's like the "followers" of the noodly-appendaged Spaghetti Monster. There really aren't any. It's a joke, in other words. But not to god-fearin' church folk. To them, it's an ISIS-level threat (or maybe probably definitely even worse). Horrors! The Satanists are coming!!!
Oklahoma City's Roman Catholic archdiocese said on Thursday that its archbishop and a priest performed "prayers of exorcism" to help rid the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall of dangerous spirits after a satanic "black mass" was held there.
And this:
"From the beginning, we have taken seriously the dark and dangerous spirits being invited into our community," Archbishop Paul Coakley said Thursday in a written statement. "To address those concerns, we visited the venue the next morning to pray prayers of exorcism over the place and to pray the prayers for cleansing."
Oh, the voodoo that you do. I mean, seriously. This tells us that the exorcist group actually believes the Black Mass nonsense. It's like falling for a Colbert routine and thinking he's serious. Puh-leeze. There ain't no Satan and there ain't no god.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Diane Clay said the ancient exorcism ritual was performed the following day at the public's request. She said the archdiocese received dozens of emails and calls from people concerned about entering the building or attending events there.
Well, you gotta massage the rubes, so I totally understand. Time to call in the priests! You know, it's truly silly to refer to believers as "god fearing" folks. They fear everything. 

It must be terrifying to be a Christian. Dumb, too. Really, really dumb.

October 5, 2014

Bruni on the Catholic church's homophobia

I always say the same thing about Bruni's columns: that he nailed it. But he always does. Today he once again tackled the Catholic church's hypocritical attitude about same-sex marriage. Here's a link to the column and here's an excerpt:
It’s crucial to remember that in many cases in which the church has punished same-sex couples, their homosexuality and even their same-sex partnerships were widely known and tacitly condoned for some time beforehand. What changed was their interest in a civil marriage, suddenly made possible by laws that are evolving more humanely than the church is. The couples in question stepped up and made loving commitments of a kind that the church celebrates in other circumstances. For this they were spurned. It’s shameful.
Go read it all. It makes so much sense that I expect the church to drop to its knees this afternoon and beg forgiveness for their hateful actions. There is no rational excuse for the church's pogrom against gays. It's simply evil.

October 3, 2014

Offensive names

Okay, so we're going to force the Redskins to ditch their name because it's offensive to Native Americans. I totally agree that this is the way to go.

But I'm also disgusted by Atlanta Braves fans who do their insipid "chop" movement while intoning a Hollywood version of an "Indian chant". I mean, really. I get ill when I watch a Braves game. These people need to drop their offensive routine and learn how to clap like everyone else.

And here's one no one ever mentions. What about "Tomahawk missiles"? Isn't that just a tad creepy? What does this name imply about the original Native Americans? That they were bloodthirsty savages? Ya think? I say we toss this misuse of Native American terminology. Tomahawk indeed. It's nauseating and these missiles kill a ton of innocent people. It's a double-whammy.

Seriously, the military geniuses seem to have the mental attitudes of 12-year-old boys. Who else thinks Tomahawk is a cool name for a missile? White boys who never grew up, that's who.

This reminds me. I've been thinking about something lately. Yes, this is an era of confusion, wars, death, hate-filled religiosity and general stupidity in the US. But I also think the "teens" (the decade from 2010 through 2020) will be remembered as a decade of equality. With each passing day we come closer to the moment when it will no longer be okay for white police officers to beat and kill males of color. We're focusing a  laser on the un-American militarization of police forces across America. We're giving gays the right to marry and beginning to pass laws to protect transgender people. And income inequality is firmly on the agenda. (Sadly, women's issues are going the other way.)

The decade of equality. That sounds nice. But of course the current decade is also one of bombs, governmental lies, attacks on whistleblowers, hiding the crimes of torturers and stealing money from poor people to pad the wallets of sinfully rich monsters. The decade has two faces, which is pretty weird.

But then, we've always been a weird country.

October 1, 2014

I'm writing again. Hooray!

I thought returning to writing fiction would be difficult, that I'd have to resort to beating myself with Opus Dei whips or something. Didn't turn out that way.

It was quite simple to get back in the swing of things. I just sat down and picked up where I left off. It felt like I'd never stopped. This book is called "The Worlds". It's a sci-fi novel that breaks all the rules. I love to break rules. It helps me to enjoy the process of writing because I can exclaim "Take that, literary scolds!" as I lay down a new scene. Seriously, breaking rules is my favorite pastime.

So the next book is (once again) on the way, kids. Stay tuned. In the meantime, read the first one I wrote. It's October, or as I like to say, "Octogre". This means Halloween is on the way and I'll be plugging the book all month. It's the perfect time of year to start reading Xmas Carol. Go get it -- and tell me what you think of the book. I love to get feedback. It's how we writers get better at our craft, you know. Without an echo from readers, we're writing in the dark.

And to anyone out there who is procrastinating about a task that's hanging over their head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, I suggest my golden rule: "Do something every day to continue your task." It doesn't matter how small the effort is. Due to the miracle of mathematics, it all adds up and one day you'll realize you're done. It ain't hard. Just takes a little work.

PS: NPR insists the way I just used the phrase "Sword of Damocles" is incorrect. Stuffy critics! This is the way it's used currently in the US -- and that is what makes this use appropriate. I love to irritate arcane scolds. It's good, old-fashioned fun. Read my books and see. How dare they establish rules for writers? Writing is anarchy: you can do it any way you like.

Bruni on the Secret Service

In a column called "Serving Without Protecting", Frank Bruni manages to be quite serious while sneaking in some delicious lines. I urge you to read the whole thing. Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite.
At the hearing, there were acute questions and ludicrous ones, genuine concern and disingenuous grandstanding, florid preening and runaway egos, which is to say that many politicians were crowded into one room.

There was verbiage so oblique it barely qualified as English, which is to say that government officials testified.
And the result was a wondrous column, which is to say that Frank Bruni once again channeled his brilliance through a keyboard.