Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Yesterday I found something so amazingly ridiculous that at first I thought it was a joke.

Sadly, it is not.

I told some friends about it, and said, "This is so idiotic that I considered writing about it on Skeptophilia, but I honestly can't think of anything to say about it except 'What the fuck?'"

My friends did not concur.  If this didn't make the cut for the topic of a post, they said, there was something wrong with my selection criteria.

So I bowed to the pressure  And to my pals I say: I hope you're all satisfied with what you've done.

*heavy sigh*

And that is why I am here today to tell you about:

Psychic Vampire Repellent.

Yes, I'm serious.  Worse still, this stuff is sold by Gwyneth Paltrow's undeservedly famous company "Goop," which peddles alt-med nonsense of all sorts, such as "Aromatic Irritability Treatment."  But even so... vampire repellent?

Let's hear what the website has to say about it:
A spray-able elixir we can all get behind, this protective mist uses a combination of gem healing and deeply aromatic therapeutic oils, reported to banish bad vibes (and shield you from the people who may be causing them). Fans spray generously around their heads to safeguard their auras.
Yes!  Spray it on your head to safeguard your aura!  Then you can squirt CheezWhiz up your nose to keep yourself from inhaling evil spirits!

The bottle tells you even more:
A unique and complex blend of sonically tuned gem elixirs, including black tourmaline, ruby, lapis lazuli, onyx, and garnet; oils of rosemary, juniper, and lavender; and reiki-charged crystals.
One of the many questions I have about this is: how the hell do you "sonically tune" a gem?  Do you carve little bits off it until it plays an A above middle C when you hit it with a hammer?  Then there's the issue of "gem elixirs," which you apparently make by soaking rocks in water in the hopes that their essential quantum frequency vibrations will be transferred to the water or something.

Of course, as one of my friends pointed out, there's no doubt that if you use it, you won't be troubled by vampires.  "I bet if I buy some and use it faithfully, no psychic vampires will come near me.  I BET," she said.  "I've been using my anti-alien candles and there've been no extraterrestrials keepin' me up at night, no sir."

And I can't argue with that.

Me, I think there's a whole untapped market out there.  If Gwyneth can become rich selling people spray to keep away beings that don't exist, there's no reason why I can't jump on the bandwagon.  I bet anti-Bengal-tiger spray would be a big seller here in upstate New York.  I can guarantee that it'd be 100% effective.  Unfortunately, we've already been beaten to the punch on the Bigfoot angle; just a couple of weeks ago a woman in North Carolina announced she was selling a spray called "Bigfoot Juice," although apparently the point here was not to keep Bigfoots away, it was to lure them in.  "Will attract any Sasquatch within a mile and a half radius!", the sales pitch states.

Why you would want to attract Sasquatches, I have no idea.

But even so, that still leaves a lot of possibilities.  My friend already has her anti-alien candles, so that one's out.  How about NoGhost Strips, for people who are sick of living in haunted houses?  Or CurseAway, if you think you're the victim of evil voodoo?  The possibilities are endless.

I don't see that Gwyneth has trademarked any of these, so I think we're good.  On the other hand, she already has "Moon Juice Sex Dust," which is "designed to ignite and excite sexual energy in and out of the bedroom," "Turn Back Time" age-reversal tonic, and "Chill Child Kid Calming Mist," which contains "cleansing sea salt."

Actually, I wouldn't mind having a bottle of the last one.  There are three girls in my study hall this year who talk and giggle constantly, and I would love to run up to them and spray all three of them directly in the face with Magic Salt Water, yelling, "Chill, Child!  Chill!" and laughing maniacally.

Nah, better not.  Not only would it most likely not work, I'm guessing their parents would object, as would my principal.  He'd probably make me double my dose of "Aromatic Irritability Treatment" for the rest of the school year.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The return of Nibiru

The world is going to end again.

This is what, two dozen times that the world has ended?  I've lost count, honestly.  But a success rate of 0.00% isn't the least bit discouraging to the Apocalyptoids.  If anything, it encourages them.  Their history of failed predictions means that the next one has to be correct.  This time, they think, this time Lucy won't pull the football away when we try to kick it.

The latest prediction from the End-of-the-World cadre was described over at the site Mysterious Universe, which has that name because Bullshit Universe doesn't have quite the same gravitas.  I'm pleased that from his tone, the author of the page at least seemed to realize that he was telling us nonsense, although it bears mention that other recent Mysterious Universe articles have been "My Very Own Hyperdimensional Resonator" and "Green UFOs Appear in South Africa and Spain."

So right off the bat, we're talking about a source that may not be all that reliable.  But being that this is what we do, here at Skeptophilia, I forged ahead.

The end of the world this time is going to be because the Yellowstone Supervolcano is going to erupt.  But what you probably don't know is that (1) it's going to erupt because of the infamous planet Nibiru, and (2) all of this serious shit is coming down on September 23, 2017.  Yes, as in this coming Saturday.  So we don't have long to prepare, not that there's much we could do about it anyhow.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The main proponent of this idea is one David Meade, who has said that Nibiru is not in orbit around the Sun.  No, that would be ridiculous.  Nibiru is actually in orbit around the Sun's invisible binary twin, and therefore is zooming toward us at incredible speed -- a speed, Meade says, that will "'take it from not visible in any telescope' to 'holy crap, there it is' in only a few days."

Which, of course, brings up the question of how Meade knows about it, if it's not yet visible in any telescope.

Oh, that's because of the masking effects of the Earth's atmosphere, Meade says.  If we only had a telescope that was above the Earth's atmosphere, we'd see Nibiru approaching.

Which, of course, we do. The Hubble.  But we haven't let little things like factual accuracy bug us before, so why start now?

Anyhow, when Nibiru gets close enough, the Yellowstone Supervolcano will go "boom."  Which will, according to Meade, "split the United States in half."  There will be tsunamis (yes, I know, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is nowhere near the ocean.  Stop asking questions), earthquakes, and high winds, and worst of all, the entire electrical grid will go down.

"This will allow our enemies to take advantage of us," Meade says.  Which honestly seems like it would be the least of our concerns at that point.

Of course, there's no theory crazy enough that someone can't add to it in such a way as to make it way crazier.  In this case, the someone is William Tapley, who has been something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia, most recently because of claiming that Donald and Melania Trump are members of the Illuminati, and that a Budweiser commercial aired during the Superbowl that featured a cute puppy was a coded Satanic message that the world was going to end.

Which of course, it didn't.  As usual.

Anyhow, Tapley, who calls himself the "Third Eagle of the Apocalypse" (what happened to Eagles #1 and #2, I have no idea), is really excited about this whole September 23 thing, although he's not really too keen on Nibiru.  Tapley says that the End Is Nigh because on the 23rd, both the Moon and the Sun will be in the constellation Virgo, which clearly is a reference to Revelation chapter 12, in which we hear about "a woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon under her feet and a crown of seven stars on her head."

So the only possible answer is that the Tribulation, Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ, and so on are about to happen.

But even Tapley isn't all.  There's Antonio Mattatelli, "one of the most famous exorcists in Italy," who says that recent floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are a sign of the start of the End Times, because apparently that stuff has never happened before.

Anyhow, there you have it.  A consensus of three experts that once again, the world is ending.  I don't know about you, but I am sick unto death of having these predictions of apocalypse, and then nothing happens.  If this time we get to September 24, and there have been no Apocalyptic Horsepersons, no Scarlet Whore of Babylon, no Antichrist, no Beast With Seven Heads, and (most of all) no Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers, I'm gonna be pissed.

So go ahead.  Come at me, bro.  Let's see what you got.

I dare you.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ground state

Are you bothered by your psychic abilities?  Do you find yourself unable to tune out others' thoughts?   Is the color of your aura clashing with your favorite shirt?

Maybe you need to do some psychic grounding.

Honestly, I can imagine that it might be inconvenient to be psychic, if such things actually existed. Especially if you were telepathic.  Consider what it would be like if you really could read the minds of the people around you.  I don't know about you, but my mind is a continuous jumble of random thoughts, most of them inane, weird, and/or irrelevant.  There is frequently musical accompaniment, usually consisting of whatever song I heard on the radio on the way to work.  And like most people, I also often have thoughts that I hope fervently never leave my skull, because of the sheer embarrassment potential.  If my thoughts really could be recorded, sequentially, they'd probably sound something like the following:

"I'm hungry...  What did I do with my pencil?...  Do I have a faculty meeting tomorrow?...  Slip slidin' away, slip slidin' away...  Wow, she's really hot!...  Is 'occurred' spelled with one 'r' or two?...  I'm cold...  Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go...  Did I remember to remind Carol to pick up dog food today?...  Geez, that guy is wearing a dorky-looking hat..."

And so on.  I would think that being telepathic would be at best highly distracting, and at worst the mental equivalent of being trapped 24/7 in a noisy bar.  (A feature I worked into one of my characters -- the telepathic detective Callista Lee, in Poison the Well, due for release next month.)  I know that there are people I have to interact with on a daily basis that I already want to scream "dear god, will you please just shut up!" at, and that's just from hearing what they say out loud.  If I could hear their thoughts, too... well, let me just say that this could well be at the heart of some seemingly unpremeditated homicides.

Be that as it may, if this is you... help is on the way, in the form of the aforementioned article, which was written by someone who signs his name only as "Nathaniel." 

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The gist of shutting down your psychic abilities lies, apparently, in "grounding" yourself.  Nathaniel says that you can do this in the following ways:
  1. Stop noticing weird stuff. Nathaniel refers to this as the "11:11 effect" -- how you notice when a digital clock reads some time that is peculiar, and once you've noticed it, it jumps out at you every time it happens.  He seems to seriously consider this a psychic ability, and in fact says that training yourself to notice such things more is a way to amplify your abilities if you want them to increase. 
  2. Tell yourself you're not going to be psychic any more, until you say otherwise.  It's important to include the last part, because if you don't you could risk losing your abilities permanently.
  3. Don't give psychic readings for yourself or others, and don't mess with "power objects" like crystals or Tarot cards.
  4. Create a "psychic shield" for yourself to stop negative people from throwing destructive stuff at you.  There's a site that tells you all about how to do this, but I must admit that I still don't see how this could work, as it seems like all it amounts to is visualizing yourself as surrounded by a shield.  Whether this could help with negative aura energies, or whatever, I don't know, but I suspect it might be less than successful if what the negative person had thrown was, for example, a brick.
So anyway, all of this seems to me like a lot of hooey -- if it really was this easy to gain and lose psychic abilities, all of us would be doing it all the time, constantly picking up each other's thoughts, and I would really have to watch myself when I see Really Hot Girl or Dorky Hat Guy.  Just as with last week's post on weird coincidences, most of what Nathaniel is describing is just wishful thinking, combined with dart-thrower's bias -- the tendency all of us have to notice seemingly odd stuff (such as when the clock reads 11:11) and ignore irrelevant background noise (such as when it says 5:48).  Our attention to such things doesn't make us psychic -- all it reflects is that evolutionarily, it's better to give attention to something that turns out to be unimportant than to ignore something that turns out to be critical to our survival.

So, honestly, I found Nathaniel's advice to be a bit of a disappointment.  I'd hoped for more concrete advice -- something along the lines of, "To avoid picking up the thoughts of those around you, fashion yourself a tinfoil hat.  Make sure that you use at least three layers for best effect, especially if you are using the cheap generic shit and not genuine Reynolds Wrap."  But maybe it's better that way. If I had to go around all day with a tinfoil hat, I'd be the one people were thinking "dorky" about -- even if, at the time, my "psychic shield" was keeping me from hearing about it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Funny you should say that...

Do coincidences mean anything?

This was the subject of a fantastic, and sadly little-known, movie -- I 'Heart' Huckabee's.  The main character (played by Jason Schwartzman) has the bizarre coincidence of seeing, in a big city, the same very tall African man several times in different places.  Freaked out by this, he hires two "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to figure out if it really was a coincidence, or if it has some kind of significance beyond that.

In other words, if there is a coincidence, maybe even what seems to be a wildly improbable, weird, eye-opening one, does it have any meaning in the Cosmic Sense?  Or is it, to quote one of my favorite songs -- Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw" -- "a twist of fate, a shot in the dark, a roll of the die, the big wheel, the big ride?"

One of my students has been paying more attention to the little coincidences lately, and his claim is that they happen way more than is attributable to chance.  The whole thing came up yesterday because in my AP Biology class we were talking about the low caloric content of celery -- giving rise to the claim that you use more calories chewing celery than you get from eating it.  He then told me that only two periods earlier, the same topic came up in a different class... and then went on to tell me, excitedly, how "that sort of thing is always happening to me!"

Of course, if he thought that I was going to be willing to attribute coincidences to some sort of Larger Purpose At Work, perhaps due to the influence of a deity who liked celery, he was barking up the wrong tree.   My opinion is such things are simply the dart-thrower's bias -- we tend to notice the hits (in this case, the times when the same topic comes up twice) and ignore misses (all of the millions of things that don't get mentioned twice).  As a result, we tend to overestimate wildly how common such coincidences are.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That's not to say that there aren't some peculiar ones.  I have had the experience myself of thinking about a song, turning on the radio, and the song is playing.  Take that minor mystery, and turn up the gain, and you get people whose dreams have come true, who have had premonitions of disaster and not taken the plane (or train or boat or whatever), and whose lives have been saved.  Is this true ESP, or the hand of god, or something more prosaic?

I'd opt for the latter, and I suspect that you knew I'd say that. In my opinion, for there really to be something "going on" here, there'd have to be some cause for it, some discernible mechanism at work.  I'm willing to entertain the idea -- momentarily, anyway -- that some supreme being who honestly cares about us might wish to intervene on our part, and save us from calamity via a vision, premonition, or dream.  But that opens up the troubling question about why said deity didn't bother to let the 235 other people who died in the plane crash know, so that they, too, could escape death.  That a deity exists who selectively warns some folks about impending doom while allowing others to perish is a pretty scary idea, and such a deity would have to be capricious to the point of evil.

How about the more benign explanation, that some of us are simply more "in touch" with the sixth sense than others, and therefore all those folks who died simply weren't wired to be aware of the coming catastrophe?  Again, there's that pesky lack of a mechanism.  Not one experiment designed to detect ESP of various sorts has succeeded, which is (to say the least) a bit troublesome to those who believe in such things.  Some of those true believers respond that lab conditions, run by skeptical scientists, are not conducive to the psychic energy field, and it's the lack of belief by the researchers that is interfering with the outcome.  I respond; that's mighty convenient.  Sounds like special pleading to me.

To quote Carl Sagan, from his masterful book The Demon-Haunted World (which should be required reading in every public school science program in America):
Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best.  If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish. They’re shy, we’re told, and some of us believe it.  In twentieth-century parapsychology laboratories, there is the ‘observer effect’: those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi.  What they need is darkness and gullibility.
So, we're left with the conclusion that coincidences happen just because -- they happen.  Given that we dream every night, and daydream every day, and listen to radios and read newspapers and such pretty much constantly, coincidences are bound to happen, just by the statistics of large numbers.  It doesn't make them feel any less weird when they do occur; but sooner or later, you're going to dream something, and a few days or weeks later, it will more or less "come true."  There are only so many things we dream about, and only so many kinds of things that happen in our lives, and given a large enough time axis, eventually those two will coincide.

I hope -- honestly, I do -- that I haven't just taken the magic out of your perception of the world's weirdness.  My own view is that I'd much rather know the truth than to believe a pretty falsehood.  And really, the idea of a god who selectively dabbles in the affairs of humans isn't even that pretty, when you think about it.  So if I've made the world seem a little more prosaic and dull, I sincerely apologize.  And if I get into my car in a half-hour or so, and turn on the radio, and hear Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw," it will serve me right.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Keeping your eye on the Baal

Illustrating the general principle that loopy ideas are not restricted to one religion, race, or ethnicity, today we have: a rabbi who claims that Donald Trump's presidency was predicted in the Old Testament.

The gentleman's name is Jonathan Cahn, and this isn't his first foray into the lunatic fringe.  Cahn made a name for himself by claiming that 9/11 was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah, and warned that rebuilding on the site of the attack directly contravened god's will, and would lead to us all being the target of the divine "smite" function.  Another time, he went around saying that because America was still doing all sorts of naughty stuff, we were going to get smote again (this seems to be a common theme with him), only this time he picked an actual day, September 13, 2015, on which the aforementioned smiting was supposed to take place.

When September 14, 2015 rolled around, and lo we were all still wandering around unsmot (yes, I know that's not the correct term, but it should be), neither Cahn nor his followers seemed unduly upset by his failure.  In fact, shortly after the non-apocalypse occurred, Cahn appeared on Pat Robertson's television show The 700 Club, and in a moment of unprecedented lucidity, Robertson asked Cahn why the predicted catastrophe didn't happen.

"You can’t put God in a box or He’ll get out of it," Cahn said. "God doesn’t work in exact dates."

Except that Cahn claimed god had given him an exact date.  A little awkward, that.

It didn't slow Cahn down, however.  In an interview last week on the television program It's Supernatural, Cahn described how Bill Clinton's presidency, Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and Trump's eventual win was simply repeating a pattern from the history of the Israelites:
We are replaying an ancient mystery, where we are right now, and it is amazing and it’s true and it’s real.  In the Bible, there is a king who rises up and he is the first one who pioneers, who is pushing, Baal worship.  And the name is Ahab …  He is the first one to actually champion from the throne Baal worship, which is the offering up of children.  Now, could there be parallel?  Well, there is.  There is a man who rises as president, he is Bill Clinton, he is going to follow the template of Ahab.
Righty-o.  After all, Ahab was defeated in battle by an Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, reigned for twenty-two years despite that, and eventually was mortally wounded by an Aramean arrow, so I think we can all agree that the parallels to Bill Clinton are obvious.

The Death of Ahab (Gustave DorĂ©, 1865) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Such logic apparently doesn't occur to Cahn, who said that this casts Hillary Clinton in the obvious role:
Just as Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a champion of Baal worship, so too is Hillary Clinton an advocate of female power and advocate of abortion.
What about Trump, though?  Well, Cahn has that all figured out:
Donald Trump is a modern day version of Jehu, who was raised up by God to become king and to slay Jezebel.  He’s a warrior, he’s a fighter, he fights with everybody.  His name is Jehu…  He’s used by God, but he’s the most unlikely person.
Well, I can't argue with the last bit, anyhow.

So Cahn said that Trump's win was inevitable, because the same pattern was playing out as with Jehu, who in 2 Kings 9:33 tramples Jezebel's mangled body underfoot, as befits a righteous man of god:
When the warrior meets the former queen, the warrior will defeat the former queen and there will be a downfall and that’s exactly what happened.  He wins and Jehu heads to the capital city.  Why does he head to the capital city?  To drain the swamp!  Absolutely.  And Jehu, specifically, is ending Baal worship, which is the offering up of children.  So even Trump puts as his agenda, we want to dismantle this, which leads to the next thing and that is when he goes there, he actually destroys the Temple of Baal in the capital city.  Now the Temple of Baal was built by Ahab, so he starts dismantling the system of killing children.  Well, one of the first things Trump did was sign the the executive orders to try to dismantle it.
And instead of laughing directly into Cahn's face, which is what I would have done, the host of It's Supernatural, Michael Brown, just nodded sagely as if what Cahn had said made perfect sense.

I know people have tried to explain it to me on more than one occasion, but I still can't quite fathom how the Religious Right ended up supporting Trump with such fervor.  I remember the days of Jerry Falwell, Sr., and the founding of the "Moral Majority," which decried the loose morals and general cupidity of secular society.  Here, forty-some-odd years later, we have the same cadre of evangelicals embracing a man who has built his entire life on loose morals and cupidity as if he were the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.

But even by those standards, Rabbi Cahn seems to be taking things a bit far, not to mention twisting reality around like a pretzel in trying to shoehorn modern events into the mold of history.  The problem is, this sort of thing only works when you selectively ignore certain facts and focus on others, are willing to interpret things metaphorically when it suits your purpose, and in general stretch the truth to fit your prior assumptions.

And it must be said that when essayist George Santayana uttered his famous statement that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," I really don't think that's what he had in mind.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Anxiety leakage

Following hard on the heels of a prominent athlete claiming that depression was basically self-inflicted and/or voluntary, we have a paper in Scientific Reports that unequivocally demonstrates the biological basis of anxiety.

The paper, entitled "Neural Circuitry Governing Anxious Individuals’ Mis-allocation of Working Memory to Threat," details research by Daniel M. Stout (of the University of California-San Diego), Alexander J. Shackman (of the University of Maryland), and Walker S. Pedersen, Tara A. Miskovich, and Christine L. Larson (of the University of Wisconsin).  The authors write:
Heightened levels of dispositional anxiety confer increased risk for the development of internalizing disorders, including anxiety and co-morbid depression.  These debilitating psychiatric disorders are common and existing treatments are inconsistently effective, underscoring the need to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms governing individual differences in risk... 
Building on prior behavioral and electrophysiological work, functional MRI (fMRI) was used in the present study to quantify neural activity while subjects performed a well-established emotional [working memory] task... The results of our mediation analyses suggest that the amygdala promotes the mis-allocation of [working memory] resources to threat-related distracters.  The amygdala is sensitive to a broad spectrum of emotionally salient stimuli, including threat-related facial expressions.  In addition, there is clear evidence that anxious individuals show amplified or prolonged amygdala responses to threat-related faces, even when they are task-irrelevant, consistent with our results.  Anatomically, the amygdala is well positioned to prioritize the short-term retention of threat-related cues...  
[I]t has become clear that information can enter [working memory] via either perceptual encoding or retrieval from long-term memory.  From this perspective, [working memory] reflects the temporary allocation of selective attention to recently perceived items or the temporary re-activation of representations stored in [long-term memory]...  This suggests that intrusive memories may reflect the mis-allocation of [working memory] resources to distressing material held in [long-term memory].
Put more simply, in anxious people, threat-related long-term memories "leak across" into the working memory, the short-term memory system we use to keep track of everyday occurrences.  This is mediated through increased activity in the amygdala, a part of the limbic system of the brain long known to have a connection to anxiety, stress, and obsessive behavior.  In an interview with PsyPost, study lead author Daniel M. Stout explained this in more detail:
Anxiety and depressive disorders are very common, challenging to treat, and pose an enormous burden on public health. Having an anxious personality is associated with developing future psychological disorders. 
We were interested in this topic because we do not fully understand why individuals with an anxious disposition, like those with an anxiety or depressive disorder, experience high levels of emotional distress in the absence of immediate threat, and spend an excessive amount of time thinking about potential dangers in objectively safe situations. 
These types of symptoms are particularly pernicious because they inflict their damage when we need to be focusing on the task-at-hand or at times when we don’t want them to (e.g., during a meeting at work, talking to loved ones, when trying to fall asleep at night).  If we can understand what underlies these symptoms, and the brain mechanisms involved, we may be better able to reduce the suffering that many people with high levels of anxiety report. 
Earlier work by our group using EEG technology suggested that this might reflect problems with how anxious individuals process threat-related information in working memory.  Working memory is a short-term memory system that guides on-going thoughts and behaviors.  It is the memory system involved in helping us remember things while we do a task, like remembering a phone number while dialing it. 
If threat-related information gains access to or ‘contaminates’ working memory, it can exert a negative influence on our thoughts and actions.  For instance, viewing an e-mail informing you that a bill is due can result in increased anxiety and intrusive thoughts about financial troubles; triggering a chain-reaction of uncontrolled worry that spans the entire day. 
One other important aspect of working memory is that its capacity is limited, so we can only hold a finite amount of information online in working memory at any given time.  So, if your working memory is ‘working’ on the worry-related thoughts, then less working memory capacity is available to attend to tasks important for your job or activities you are trying to complete.
Which certainly squares with my experience.  I have a good deal of social anxiety, and it doesn't seem to matter that I objectively, rationally know that I'm safe, that none of the people in the room are judging me or dislike me (or, honestly, are probably thinking about me at all).  The sensation is of having two brains; the rational one, that says, "These are your friends, there's no reason to freak out," and the emotional reptile brain that says, "I AM FREAKING OUT."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The fact of Stout et al. showing the neurological underpinning of anxiety is a real step toward developing ways to manage it.  I'm lucky in that my anxiety is fairly mild, and hasn't impacted my day-to-day all that much (unless you count the fact that I basically have no social life).  For some people, anxiety is crippling, resulting in an inability to hold down a job, attend school, interact with anyone, and (in some cases) even get out of bed in the morning.

This fMRI study shows how such a disorder can occur, and what is happening in the brain during an anxiety attack -- allowing a much more targeted approach to treating it.  It's to be hoped that other researchers will take this study and run with it.  Because there's no other way to put it: anxiety sucks.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Things going "boom"

One thing that seems to be a characteristic of Americans, especially American men, is their love of loud noises and blowing stuff up.

I share this odd fascination myself, although in the interest of honesty I must admit that it isn't to the extent of a lot of guys.  I like fireworks, and I can remember as a kid spending many hours messing with firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and so on.  (For the record, yes, I still have all of my digits attached and in their original locations.)  I don't know if you heard about the mishap in San Diego back on the Fourth of July in 2012, where eighteen minutes worth of expensive fireworks all went off in about twenty seconds because of a computer screw-up.  It was caught on video (of course), and I think I've watched it maybe a dozen times.

Explosions never get old.  And for some people, they seem to be the answer to everything.

So I guess it's only natural that when hurricanes threaten, somebody comes up with the solution of shooting something at them.  The first crew of rocket scientists who thought this would be a swell idea just thought of firing away at the hurricane with ordinary guns, neglecting two very important facts:
  1. Hurricanes, by definition, have extremely strong winds.
  2. If you fling something into an extremely strong wind, it can get flung back at you.
This prompted news agencies to diagram what could happen if you fire a gun into a hurricane:

So this brings "pissing into the wind" to an entirely new level.

Not to be outdone, another bunch of nimrods came up with an even better (i.e. more violent, with bigger explosions) solution; when a hurricane heads toward the U.S., you nuke the fucker.

I'm not making this up.  Apparently enough people were suggesting, seriously, that the way to deal with Hurricane Irma was to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of it, that NOAA felt obliged to issue an official statement about why this would be a bad idea.

The person chosen to respond, probably by drawing the short straw, was staff meteorologist Chris Landsea.  Which brings up an important point; isn't "Landsea" the perfect name for a meteorologist?  I mean, with a surname like that, it's hard to think of what other field he could have gone into.  It reminds me of a dentist in my hometown when I was a kid, whose name was "Dr. Pulliam."  You have to wonder how many people end up in professions that match their names.  Like this guy:

And this candidate for District Attorney:

But I digress.

Anyhow, Chris Landsea was pretty unequivocal about using nukes to take out hurricanes.  "[A nuclear explosion] doesn't raise the barometric pressure after the shock has passed because barometric pressure in the atmosphere reflects the weight of the air above the ground," Landsea said.  "To change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane, you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion tons for a twenty-kilometer-radius eye.  It's difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around."

And that's not the only problem.  An even bigger deal is that hurricanes are way more powerful than nuclear weapons, if you consider the energy expenditure.  "The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required," Landsea said.  "A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20 x 10^13 watts and converts less than ten per cent of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every twenty minutes."

So yeah, you can shout "'Murika!" all you want, but Hurricane Irma could kick our ass.  It may not be a bad thing; a reality check about our actual place in the hierarchy of nature could remind us that we are,  honestly, way less powerful than nature.  An object lesson that the folks who think we can tinker around with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels with impunity might want to keep in mind.

Apparently Landsea's statement generated another flurry of suggestions of nuking hurricanes as they develop, before they get superpowerful.  The general upshot is that when Landsea rained on their parade, these people shuffled their feet and said, "Awww, c'mon!  Can't we nuke anything?"  But NOAA was unequivocal on that point, too.  Nuking tropical depressions as they form wouldn't work not merely because only a small number of depressions become dangerous hurricanes, but because you're still dealing with an unpredictable natural force that isn't going to settle down just because you decided to bomb the shit out of it.

So there you are.  The latest suggestion for controlling the weather, from people who failed ninth grade Earth Science.  As for me, I've got to get going.  My classes are starting the chapter on basic chemistry today, and I need to get to school to see if I can swing a way to do a demonstration for my class called the "Barking Dog Reaction."  That's the ticket.  Things going boom.  I like it.