Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mobilizing to Storm Area 51: A Few Reasons Why It's One of the Most Asinine Ideas Ever

It would seem that a large number of people are talking about storming Area 51 in Nevada.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 60 years, you know that Area 51 is a government test facility. Some people believe that there are aliens (possibly alive, probably dead), alien technology and so on.

These people think that if their numbers are sufficient, they should be able to capture this area. Their motto is "They Can't Shoot Us All."

I'm going to address these two ideas separately.

First, aliens.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. The spacecraft that carried the three astronauts to and from the moon, the command module, could fit in a two car garage. It had roughly the same space and weight at a modern minivan (with surprisingly less technological advancement but that's another blog post).

In order to hurl a spacecraft of that size to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in a time span of 25 years, it would require the same amount of energy that the entire United States consumed in 2009.

Consider what it takes to generate that kind of energy.

Proxima Centauri has no planets that seem to meet the criteria needed for intelligent life to develop. Any alien life would have to travel a much greater distance which would require even more energy.

For the sake of argument, let's say that aliens did manage to get to Earth.

They've traveled more than 25 trillion miles across unimaginable spans of space and managed to keep their crew alive for the decades (if not centuries) it took to cross that void. Their technical prowess is far beyond what we can even imagine.

Then they crash outside Roswell, New Mexico?

Really?

Pun intended, the odds against aliens in Area 51 are astronomical.

Now, the intended raid.

Like it or not, the United States has enemies in the world. That means we need a military and that military needs weapons. In this modern, technological age, that means advanced weapons. When we develop weapons to give us a strategic advantage, we don't want our enemies to know about them.

Sometimes, we have to keep secrets.

Facilities like Area 51 exist to protect those secrets.

Anyone trespassing on the Groom Lake Testing Facility (the actual name of this facility) is subject to arrest, imprisonment and fine. Anyone resisting arrest could be subject to much worse.

To those who say, "They can't shoot us all," I offer a challenge:

They might not have to shoot everyone.

Just a few. Maybe just one.

Do you think it's worth your life to enter this base? And for what?

Have you ever seen an Air Force A-10 in action?

I have. The weaponry on the A-10 can take out a tank. I don't even want to consider what a single strafing run would do in a crowd of a thousand people.

Then multiply that by a few strafing runs in a crowd of tens of thousands.

Think they can't shoot you all?

Guess again.

Why not mobilize this kind of energy towards a worthwhile goal like letting the Senate know they aren't doing their jobs? Feeding the hungry? Building homeless shelters?

That's worth getting a bunch of people together for.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Case of (and for) Coulrophobia

NB: This is from a Facebook post I made in 2013. I'm reposting it here so a friend who couldn't see it on Facebook can see it here.

Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns.

Let's face it. Clowns are goddamned creepy as hell. The white face, the big gaping red smiles, the weird hair and clothing... what's to love about that?

I get a bit creeped out by clowns but I have a damned good reason beyond their general creepiness.

When I was a kid, my grandmother dragged my sister and me to funerals. She was a funeral junkie and we had to go with her. I was about 5 when I saw my first corpse in a box. Sometimes, the relationship with the dearly departed might be tenuous at best. One time, I got dragged to the funeral of the uncle of my Cub Scout denmother because my grandmother thought I should attend.

When I was about seven or so, her brother-in-law died so she schlepped us to his funeral. At the gathering afterwards, my sister and I sat bored. We knew most of the people but they were there to talk grown up talk. Nobody really noticed two bored kids.

Then we spotted her. We didn't know who she was.

She wore what looked like a square dance dress but it was black with white polka dots. This was accented with white petticoats, white gloves with lace at the wrists, patent red leather pumps with a matching purse, black fishnet stockings and a black pillbox hat with a small veil. Her face was made-up with thick, white pancake makeup. The stubble of her shaved eyebrows showed through this. With an eyebrow pencil, she had drawn in high, arching eyebrows that made her eyes look like a McDonald's sign. Her eyeshadow faded from pale green to purple. She had a perfect circle of red rouge on each cheek. Her lipstick had been applied outside her lip line to form a cupid's bow. Her hair stuck out from under the hat in what looked like a bright orange Brillo pad. When she smiled, she revealed crooked teeth stained yellow from years of smoking.

Based on her appearance, the question my sister asked her seemed natural.

"Are you the kind of clown who does funny tricks or magic tricks?"

The woman screamed at us, "Get away from me, you little bastards!"

This was Nell, who was married to my grandmother's brother, Ashley.

About six months later, we'd hear of Nell again. What follows is from the police report I read in 1981.

One evening, Ashley fell asleep in his recliner watching the 10:00 news. Nell came up behind him and pulverized his head with a two pound blacksmith's hammer. The report I read said that she was probably aware of what she was doing when she delivered the first blow but the next 50 or so, she was just swinging.

She then doused his body with cooking oil, set him on fire and left the house.

Neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke pouring from one of the windows of Nell and Ashley's house. The first fireman in the door vomited on the floor. The fire had pretty much burned out to reveal what was left of Ashley Gilson in the metal frame of his recliner. A streak of blood, skull and brain matter ran across the ceiling and wall behind his chair. His head was gone. His fingerprints had been burned away. The closest anyone ever got to making a positive ID on his body was when my great-grandmother identified his wedding ring.

Nell was found at a local bar, drinking beer and acting like there wasn't a problem in the world. An officer approached her and told her that her husband was dead.

Without putting her beer down, she replied, "Must have been suicide."

The officer said, "Mrs. Gilson, what really happened?"

After this "intense" questioning, she related the whole story then lead the police to the place she had hidden the hammer, a copse in a tombstone at a nearby cemetery.

She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital near Salem, Oregon. From time to time, they'd call my grandmother to tell her that Nell had made another attempt at suicide.

After about 8 years, Nell was released and nobody ever knew what became of her. I'm sure she's dead by now. If not, she'd be 105 or so.

Until I reached my teen years, I'd see her in my dreams. She'd be in her funeral get-up and carrying a bloody hammer.

I think my fear of clowns is reasonable.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

I Ain't 'Fraid of...

In a Facebook post on a friend's page, folks were talking about ghosts.

You might want to grab a snack because this might be a long one.

Just this very morning, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. It seemed to dash quickly across the doorway to the kitchen. For the briefest moment, I thought it was our cat.

Our cat died 6 months ago.

At some point in your life, you might have had a strange feeling, seen something you couldn't explain or had some kind of odd sensory experience.

It wasn't a ghost.

It wasn't a flying saucer, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, a chupacabra, a vampire or any of the other myriad denizens of cheap novels, tabloid headlines or "history" channel programs.

What was it?

I don't know. But neither do you.

The human mind is a pretty amazing thing but we all have to admit that it's not infallible. It can be tricked. It can even trick itself.

When you think you see something, your mind wants to fill in the gaps and will often try to make sense of that sensation.  So it will attribute that sensation to something it knows, sometimes from experience and sometimes due to exposure to your culture and media. It will attach the meaning to what it most closely resembles.

This morning, my brain was convinced it saw the ghost of our cat.

But what did I actually see?

I don't know.

Believe it or not, that's an entirely satisfactory answer. It's satisfactory because it's true. I really don't know what I thought I saw.

I'll entertain some possibilities of what it might have been based on actual experience and more likely explanations.

It might have been the shadow of  bird flying past the kitchen window. Given the angle of the sun this morning, it's not the best explanation but it's possible.

It might have been an afterimage of my tablet screen. I'd been talking with my wife while holding my iPad in my lap. The screen was bright and at the periphery of my vision so when I looked back at the tablet, that afterimage could have looked like it was moving across the entry to the kitchen.

This latter explanation is plausible.

But the truth of the matter is that I don't know and will probably never know. And I'm OK with that.

At times like this, I often apply what is called the law of parsimony (often mistakenly called Occam's Razor which is almost but not quite this): the answer that requires the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one.

Which is more likely?

  1. In defiance of the laws of physics, some vestige of my cat has remained in the house she occupied for nearly 11 years and appeared briefly in my peripheral vision only to completely disappear when I looked directly in that area.
  2. A transient visual phenomenon (possibly an afterimage) was at the periphery of my vision and my fallible human mind interpreted it as seeing my departed cat.

Logic dictates it was the latter.

But even if I never know exactly what I saw, it's erroneous thinking to attribute it to something supernatural. There is probably a perfectly mundane (if unsatisfying) explanation.

And this applies to things other than my experience this morning.

I leave you with these things to consider:

Unknown doesn't mean unknowable.

Unexplained doesn't mean inexplicable.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Thirty eight years and going...

On the afternoon of February 13, 1981, I was visiting the campus of Boise State University to visit some friends. I'd dropped out because I thought I had no money (not realizing that I still had thousands of dollars in unclaimed financial aid). I'd given blood and it was cold and snowy. I had just missed a bus and it would be half an hour before another would come along so I decided to duck into the nearest public building to stay warm. 

It was the science building, not a building I'd visited before. 

I'd completely read the campus newspaper that I had with me and hoped to find something else to read. 

There was a piece of paper on a bench. Both sides were covered with handwriting. 

These weren't lecture notes and there was no name. 

Someone intended for this paper to be found. 

The page's creator had written numerous quotes from famous people, most of whom were familiar to me.
Religion is all bunk! (Thomas Edison)
I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose. (Clarence Darrow)
But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Thomas Jefferson)
Both sides of the page were covered with similar quotations from Thomas Paine, Mark Twain and others. In the top, right-hand corner of one side, there was a word I'd never seen before.

ATHEIST

I knew enough of Greek from my Bible studies to know that the root word of this was theos meaning "god." A theist was a person who believe in a god or gods. 

I also knew enough to know that the prefix "a" in this word meant "no" or "not" so atheist must mean a person who didn't believe in gods. 

A few years earlier, I'd given up on the idea of the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the same god... just differences in doctrine). But I didn't know there was a word for what I was. 

Suddenly, the bus didn't seem that important. I rushed across Capital Boulevard to the Boise Public Library to see if I could find out more. 

Remember that this was 1981. Christopher Hitchens hadn't published any books yet. Richard Dawkins had only one published book that was about biology (a topic that was of no interest to me at the time). David Silverman was 14. 

Pickings were slim. 

However, one of the quotes on the paper (which I kept for years) was from Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth." The library had a copy of that which I checked out and kept until it was so much overdue that I got a call. It pained me to return it but I did. 

Fortunately, a friend who owned a small bookstore found a copy later in the spring and I still have that copy.

That silly little piece of paper might have been found by anyone. Maybe it would have just been thrown away. But I found it and it planted a seed that has grown and still lives in me today.

Today, I no longer prevaricate when someone asks me which church I go to. 

I just smile and say, "Me? I don't go to any church. I'm an atheist."

And, thanks to folks like the aforementioned Hitchens, Dawkins and Silverman, I've got the tools to explain that position.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!!

I've been involved in a conversation about an old song that some radio stations are refusing to play because it offends some members of the "#metoo" movement. There are folks on both sides of this argument.

I'm not going to discuss that. It's neither here nor there.

What I'm going to discuss is censorship especially what it is and isn't.

First, some questions:

  1. Is this song readily available if you wish to purchase it or otherwise acquire it?
  2. Has the government issued an official ban on this song?
  3. Are you in danger of arrest or other legal action if you are found with this song in your possession?

If your answers to these questions are yes, no, and no, congratulations! This song isn't being censored.

Now people may choose to engage in a form of self censorship by refusing to listen to any radio station that chooses to play it. That's their right.

A radio station may see that playing this song has cost them a segment of their listening audience and they may decide that this segment is significant enough for them to stop playing the song. Again, that's their right.

Neither of these actions has removed the song from your playlist if you want to keep it there.

Here's the surprising thing: you can say, write, play or perform any work you want (within reason*) However, nobody anywhere is obligated to give you a platform for distribution of that work. That's not censorship. That's an editorial or marketing decision.

You can still go somewhere else to get it.


*Within reason means that you can't publish child pornography or similar exploitative works. Nor can you publish works that incite people to violence although with the advent of certain "news" organizations, that's becoming questionable.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Implies what?

The above image came across through a friend's news feed on Facebook. I like the original message but it was the reply from one of his friends that caught my eye (misspellings notwithstanding).

There is so much in that reply that needs correction that it reminds me of what one of my professors said when one of my classmates answered a question incorrectly.

"No. That's not right. It's not even right enough to be wrong."

The first problem with this is that of infinite regression. If we assume something that exists had to have a creator, it implies that this creator, in turn, had a creator. And that creator had a creator ad infinitum.

If there is ultimately a creator that needed no further creator of its own, can't we just cut out all these creators and just decide that the universe came into being on its own with some outside agent acting deliberately?


And every creator has to be more complex than its creation. Is there a complexity limit? 

Next, the only thing the existence of the universe implies is that it exists. Nothing more. We cannot imply anything beyond that.

Moving on, just because we don't know the origin of the universe doesn't mean that the idea of a creator is justified. That creator simply becomes a convenient placeholder for human ignorance.

Not that long ago, people didn't know where lightning came from so there was a god that created lightning (Zeus in Greece, Thor in Norse mythology, etc.). But since the work of early electrical pioneers such as Benjamin Franklin, we have a perfectly understandable and rational explanation of the origin of lightning.

So the creator becomes smaller and smaller with every new discovery we make.

These discoveries also reveal as much about human beings as they do about the universe: what we don't know today, we might know tomorrow. Unexplained doesn't mean inexplicable. It simply means we don't know yet.

The moment you introduce a creator into the mix, the need to understand more deeply vanishes. The human drive for knowledge ceases. We stagnate and find ourselves once again plunged into the Dark Ages.

So let's keep exploring. Let's be willing to accept "I don't know" as a perfectly acceptable answer as long as we follow it with "Let's find out!"



Friday, February 16, 2018

Mad as Hell? No...

In the 1976 film "Network," the character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) tells us to go to our windows, fling them open and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

With the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine's Day, I'm beyond mad as hell. There aren't even words for how angry I am.

Enough is enough.

If I had my way, guns would be gone. All guns. Everything from BB guns to ICBMs would disappear. Then the problem goes away.

But I don't have the capability to do that. Nobody does. That genie is out of the bottle.

We have a problem and that problem is the ease with which anyone can get a high capacity firearm in this country.

Before you post a comment about how this isn't about guns, look at the rest of the world. Australia had a mass shooting in 1996 (it's called the Port Arthur massacre). As a response, the Australian government enacted some of the strictest gun control legislation ever. More than 640,000 weapons were turned over to the authorities. There hasn't been a mass killing in Australia since 1996 and other gun related crimes dropped drastically.

The United States is the only major industrialized country that has this problem. People in other countries have mental health issues, too, but only in the US do those problems manifest themselves in this way because we have easy access to weapons that can allow us to act on our worst impulses.

"But what about the second amendment?" I hear you cry.

The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1787 when the highest capacity weapon fired two shots per minute if you were well trained and in a hurry.

It also contains a section about "well-regulated" militia which is further spelled out in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. If you read that part, you'll realize that the second amendment was never about private gun ownership.

And the Constitution has been amended to repeal earlier amendments. We have the ability. What we lack is the will.

"But if someone wants to kill, they'll find another way to do it." Ah, there's that hoary old chestnut again.

It's possible. In fact, the greatest mass murder at a school was carried out by someone using explosives and a homemade timing device.

In 1927.1

Since then, explosives have been more highly regulated. And we don't see this kind of mass killing occur every other day.

The Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh resulted in regulations involving the purchase of fertilizer.

The simple fact is, in order to kill someone by another means usually involves a more personal and up-close commitment on the part of the killer. Stabbing, beating and even bombing means you have to get close to your intended victims.

The Las Vegas massacre killer was able to murder 58 people from a distance of 1200 feet in less than 10 minutes.

Yes, I'd like to see this sort of thing made impossible. If giving up guns means that another high school girl gets to plan for her graduation rather than her parents planning for her funeral, I say give them up. If giving up guns means that another 6 year old gets to fret over his lost tooth rather than his parents lamenting over his lost life, I say give them up.

Children screaming at a school should be with delight because they're having fun on the playground. It should never be in fear because someone with a grudge has had easy access to the weapon that will kill them.

It's time to give up the guns. You've played with them long enough.2


1The Bath School disaster carried out by Andrew Kehoe.
2When you mourn the loss of your guns, I'll send you my thoughts and prayers.