The road is more important than the destination

I love TED. It is one of the more intellectualy stimulating sites I have ever seen and I would love to attend one of their conferences. Anyone has a couple of thousands dollars, sitting somewhere unused and idle...?

Anyway, today I was cleaning my Gmail account, which is an exercise in futility and I remembered wanting to watch this talk. Of course, I am biased due to the fact that I do love watching the Mythbusters and Adam Savage is in this talk.

And the good thing about TED is that anything in there makes you think. Adam's performance reminded me that the road may be more important than the destination. Don't you sometimes feel like "what now" when you finally achieve something? Wasn't it fun just to keep on trying or working to achieve that?

A good lesson for life. If like me you are skeptical of after-life myths, then life is the road and there is really no destination. Poor religious people who waste their lives in their kantian search for duty and virtue, not enjoying everything the world has to offer just because there will be a reward at the end... and at the end they never knew they were wrong and there was nothing...

But... listen to Adam talk. And enjoy his quest! In this case, the quest is definitely funnier and more entertaining than the goal!

It is not easy to fool a skeptic

A few months ago I got an e-mail about this new product: genpets.

Below the usual mass of e-mail addresses for all the people this message had come from and forwarded to (why is it that people don't clean up their spam to protect their friends' privacy?) was this text from the (possible) first person to send the message (freely translated from said message):

"Just when we thought we had seen it all this news come in. One more company playing God and playing with lives at their will. PLEASE!!! DO NOT BUY THEM OR WE WILL BE ENCOURAGING THEIR MASS PRODUCTION... AND TAKING AWAY FROM OUR CHILDREN THE VALUE OF LIFE. Out there there are enough fully natural pets waiting to be adopted and capable of transmiting love and encouraging real emotions."

I don't know what's God got to do with all this or how buying an "artificial pet" takes from children the "value of life" (whatever that means) neither do I understand what is that issue with "real emotions". But the main issue here is that this lady (yes, it was a woman) took the ad and website at face value.

For me, getting this message was like reading in the newspaper that we had landed on Pluto... it does not make sense that we get to Pluto when we haven't even reached Mars, which is closer. Genetic engineering has not reached the point where a new species can be "created". Even though there is a website of the company that allegedly manufactures this pets, the whole thing seemd to me like a hoax; a very elaborate one, at that, but a hoax nonetheless. However, the long chain of forwards and the comments tells me that many people took this joke seriously.

Last week I remembered this incident and I googled "genpets". And it was not really a hoax. Everything relates to an artistic creation. It turns out that genpets are a creation of canadian artist Adam Brandejs. Although Mr. Brandejs indicates in his website that he is certainly concerned about the direction genetic engineering might take, he is also clear to point out that genpets are painted silicon sculptures, with electronic circuitry added that mimic breathing and movement.

This e-mail came in my inbox on December 1st, 2008 and at that time the genpets issue was completely debunked. The New York Times made a mention about them on June 24th, 2006 with a link to the "Museum of Hoaxes".

So... artwork or hoax, the truth is that genpets do not exist as anything else than an anymated sculpture. The reaction they caused reminds me of the mass panic caused by Orson Welles' radio broadcast of "The war of the worlds" in the 30s. Even though several times during the broadcast an announcement was made indicating that the transmission was only a play, many people were really convinced that a martian invasion was in progress. More recently, the famous crop circles have feed the fantasy of many UFO aficionados, in spite of the fact that in several instances, the authors of the circles have come forward and demonstrated the techniques used to fool the town while they were sleeping.

When people wants to believe nonsense and quit thinking and analyzing it is imposible to reason with them. Doubt does not represent anything else than the process of thinking and weighing the evidence that is presented. As Carl Sagan used to say "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". An e-mail message does not qualify as extraordinary evidence.

Nor does a professionaly developed website.

Note: this is a first! This post is being published today in english AND spanish in both my blogs, and Hopefully there will be more simultaneous postings!

Deepak Chopra is full of crap

Deepak Chopra. Picture from Wikipedia Commons

"To say that Nature displays intelligence doesn't make you a Christian fundamentalist. Einstein said as much, and a fascinating theory called the anthropic principle has been seriously considered by Stephen Hawking, among others."
Deepak Chopra.

"The anthropic principle is NOT about nature displaying intelligence. Don't use straw man arguments on me!"
The Chapin Skeptic.

I didn't say it first. In her fantastic 2006 monologue Letting go of God , Julia Sweeney explains her disappointment when she first goes after Chopra's ramblings about conciousness and quantum mechanics and later, after studying quantum mechanics she realizes that Chopra's elucubrations are highly improbable and she yells "Deepak Chopra is full of shit!"

And I have to agree. Reading Chopra's Wikipedia entry, he is an advocate, among other things, of something he calls quantum healing which somehow relates to healing through positive thoughts and quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix for good measure... I sure understand why miss Sweeney was so disappointed...

I tried to listen to an audio version of one of his books. No, scratch that, I listened to the full fracking thing! At that time I was halfway between agnosticism and supersticion so I was interested and even then, it seemed like a lot of nonsense. Basically, he was saying that in order to achieve something you somehow have to wait for it to show up or materialize or something. There wasn't any piece of usable advice I could find. It was all about sitting back, waiting and having faith.

Well, faith just doesn't work for me. Never has, never will. I believe in the results of hard work and knowledge plus training intelligently applied.

So, I concur, Julia. He is indeed full of crap.

Crap makes you money though... I may be missing some important source of revenue. Hmmm...

Listen to Julia. She is fantastic in that monologue!

Blogging is hard work but is not purgatory

Dante's Purgatory, by Dore
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Last week my friend MY challenged me to write a blog post on the abolishment of purgatory by the Catholic Church. The group where we were in was all but convinced that the new catholic doctrine does not include purgatory anymore.
I never believed in purgatory anyway, not even when I still was a practicing catholic but I did think that it was a good opportunity for some fun research and a nice write up on how old square Pope Ratzinger had, incredibly, shown some good sense abolishing a doctrine that is antiquated, to say the least.
Alas, blogging is hard work. For me it usually involves research as I do not believe in just writing from what I heard. And, frack! Purgatory is still on!
There seems to have been a misinterpretation of the news by (no surprises here!) overzealous reporters looking for a catchy headline. In April 2007, the Catholic Church International Theological Comission revealed its findings on "limbo" and Pope Ratzinger gave his blessing on them. As per prevailing catholic doctrine, unbaptized babies who die cannot go to heaven but instead stay in "limbo", which is a "place" where they can enjoy happiness and contentment but without the direct presence of God.
Later Pope Ratzinger indicated that this limbo thing was a "theological hypothesis" (???) and not catholic dogma. Reporters then capitalized on a perceived relationship between "limbo" and "purgatory" and this is where confusion seems to have arisen.
Pope Ratzinger later indicated in many words that I really do not want to reproduce here, that Purgatory is actually the experience of meeting Jesuschrist and being absolved of all sins by this experience. He agrees, then, with Pope John Paul II in that Purgatory is not a metaphysical place but "a condition of existence".
In short MY, no warranty and no money back! Sorry about that!

Susie Neunmalklug explains evolution

One of my Facebook friends posted this wonderful video. I am looking for more videos of this adorable little girl - her name Neunmalklug means nine times smart and she says it's not an exaggeration! I agree! Enjoy!

It is hard to be a skeptic

For 40-something years, I lived in the clutches of religion and supersticion. Some of the members of my family are extremely religious/supersticious and I was under that influence; for instance, I would not walk under a ladder or between a light pole and its tensioning wire because the ladder, wall and floor or the pole, floor and wire form a triangle... and you are not supposed to walk through a triangle, it somehow "distorts" your aura or something. I actually felt my aura "around me" and would feel extremely uneasy if I accidentally walked through any such triangle.

But the worst part of all was THE BOOK: dog-eared, stained, its pages almost loose, we had read it over and over. THE BOOK was "Self-Mastery and Fate With the Cycles of Life", one of the essential books of the rosicrucian's library. This book was written by H. Spencer Lewis, ostensibly the founder of the Rosicrucian order in San Jose, CA, and our family lived by it.

Very succintly, THE BOOK states that there are several time cycles in our lives: daily, yearly and an overarching one that goes in seven year intervals over your whole life. For instance, in the daily cycle there are seven periods in the day, each one aproximately 3 hours and 26 minutes (frack, I forget so many things and not this one!); the first one starts at midnight and lasts until 3:26 am; second one ending at 6:52, etc. These seven periods, each identified with a letter from A to G would alternate during the week, so that, for instance, Monday morning it would be E (6:52 to 10:17 am) and Tuesday, E would be at night (from 8:34 pm to midnight) and so on. (Again, I forget many things but those seem to be etched in my memory). The yearly cycle had 42 days and started on your birthday... I never really got around to the life-cycle, I think it was seven years long. So complicated.

All these timeframes had definite properties and there were things you should not do and things that were bound to be successful if started at the right time.

We lived our lives by this schedule. I got marrried in April (it was difficult to figure out the right month, what with my girlfriend and I having different yearly cycles since we did not share the same birthday) and on a Saturday evening (because it was B, a good time to get married - don't do it on E!). I tried to schedule my customer appointments according to these rules and it was a nightmare.

A good example of confirmation bias. Now that I look back on the whole thing I can remember things that went bad because they were started "at a bad time" as we used to say but so many things we tried to get well done and we did them at "a good time" never came to fruition. Of course, I remember the bad ones and not the good ones that never happened.

I got accepted into the rosicrucian order. I was told it was an accomplishment as I had been "spiritually" examined and found worthy.

I also got into the Self Realization Fellowship. I still have my credential somewhere.

This was part of the baggage that I got rid of when I convinced myself (or rather, gave myself permission) to stop believing in the supernatural. And this is one of the reasons why I say becoming an agnostic has been such a liberating experience. Not only am I guilt free (I am only human after all) but I am also freer with my time... now I have time to do many things at any moment I please.

Anyway, it is hard to be skeptic. It was difficult to convince myself that it was OK to meet people on Friday evening or Sunday afternoon. It was so difficult to stop my "aura" from tangling on those damn light poles! It took me a while and I may still not be "baggage free" as I sometimes catch myself exclaiming the G word or wondering if I should get out of the sidewalk to avoid that triangular configuration ahead.

But... practice makes perfect, they say. And I am happier now than I ever was before. Being a skeptic is hard but is worth it. Try it.

Physics of the impossible

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. "
Sir Arthur Eddington, English astronomer (1882 - 1944)

Dr. Michio Kaku - Image from Wikipedia Commons

I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of Dr. Michio Kaku's fantastic "Physics of the impossible" and I was fascinated by Dr. Kaku's lucid embrace of possibilities. Practically anything we have seen in our beloved science fiction universe may be possible.

Dr. Kaku's book is an excelent reminder that skeptics should not be dogmatic. Although many of the things discussed in the book seem extremely far-fetched (teleportation and time travel come to mind), Dr. Kaku actually shows how, given the right knowledge, technology and access to the right quantity of energy we could achieve these feats.

Dr. Kaku classifies all these current impossible dreams into a three level hierarchy (please note I am paraphrasing the author and I hope I get it right):
  • Class I Impossibilities: Technologies that may become possible in the near future, meaning some decades to a century. We understand the physics involved but further technological development and experimentation are required before these achievements are practical. Examples are invisibility, anti-matter engines (Star Trek anyone?) and even some forms of telepathy or mind reading.
  • Class II Impossibilites: These are technologies that may take some centuries to millenia to achieve. They are perceived by physicists as possible but require additional knowledge/breakthroughs in fundamental physics or vast amounts of energy, the kind we currently do not have access to or really know how to harness. Examples of this category are faster-than-light travel, time travel and entering parallel universes.
  • Class III Impossibilities: These are the "true impossibilities": the things that violate currently known laws of physics. As per Dr. Kaku's thinking, they either are really impossible or we have to fully re-write our textbooks with new discoveries in order to make them possible. Amazingly enough, Dr. Kaku only finds two of these "impossibilities": perpetual motion and precognition.

Michio Kaku is a brilliant and amazing man: he built an atom smasher in his garage as a teenager for a high school science project. I fully respect his opinions and all this discussion convinces me that a dogmatic stance is not proper for a skeptic.

As I mentioned in my other blog (spanish required) being a skeptic does not mean complete disbelief in everything or just being stubborn. Being skeptic means that critical thinking is being applied to the evidence on hand. No evidence, no acceptance. A skeptic does not accept "faith" as evidence, since "faith" only really means someone else told us to believe something. And, not being dogmatic, a skeptic is perfectly willing to change his/her mind if new evidence surfaces which may corroborate, enhance or contradict previous knowledge.

Reading "Physics of the impossible" was a powerful reminder that the universe is a much stranger place than we usually perceive and that there is still much to learn. I highly recommend you read the book and check Dr. Kaku's work, especially the article referenced above.