A Pyramid Hoax Reappears on Facebook

Ain't Photoshop wonderful?This Facebook headline caught my skeptic’s eye right away: “Energy beam coming from the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.” After I finished guffawing at the gullibility of some folks, I decided to spend a little time researching how widespread this silliness had become.

As expected, and sad to relate, it was all over the Net. Seems every psychic-New-Age-crystal-therapy-astrology-aura-UFO-conspiracy-theory-Atlantis-Elvis-is-alive obsessed wingnut site has repeated the claims, usually copying and pasting them directly from the original source without even bothering to investigate the claims:

A team of physicists detected an energy beam coming through the top of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. The radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz. The beam is continuous and its strength grows as it moves up and away from the pyramid. This phenomenon contradicts the known laws of physic and technology. This is the first proof of non-herzian technology on the Planet. It seems that the pyramid-builders created a perpetual motion machine a long time ago and this “energy machine” is still working.

In the underground labyrinth, in 2010, we discovered three chambers and a small blue lake. Energy screening shows that the ionization level is 43 times higher than the average concentration outside which makes the underground chambers into “healing rooms”.

Even a grade school education will see through this. First of all: perpetual motion. Doesn’t, can’t, won’t ever exist. period. Entropy is a basic law of physics. Then “non-herzian technology”? I assume the writer means non-Hertzian. That claim makes little sense unless you know what the author means by Hertzian. I assume he means that the power of the wave diminishes with the distance transmitted.

Nikola Tesla was experimenting with non-Herztian waves in the late 19th century:

Nikola Tesla advanced the electromagnetism theory into new dimensions, further than Hertz and other scientists of his time could conceive. He described his “wireless” waves being far superior to Hertzian waves, which diminish with distance. Tesla foretold of a brilliant new future for humankind, using his non-Hertian “wireless system,” including the ability to generate power and transmit it to various parts of the globe.

However, the author does not mention the power of the alleged beam, merely its frequency: 28kHz, or 28,000 cycles per second. That’s above the average human’s top end for high pitches (20kHz), but well within the hearing of dogs and many other mammals. This sound would be like a constant, annoying, high-pitched whine to them. Like a shrill dental drill to us. It would effectively drive most animals away from the site.

Healing rooms? Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen. Negative ions can be a mood enhancer, and reduce air pollution, but I’ve never read any credible research that proves they heal anything. even so, calling a rough pit of sand and gravel a “healing room” is a bit of a stretch. And who are these “physicists” he claims investigated the site? None are named, no labs or universities noted, no test results posted to back up these claims.

Alleged This block of stone is one of the alleged “ceramic sculptures” found under one of the hills. It has been dubbed “K-2” and weighs approx 18,000 lbs. For an advanced society capable of building perpetual motion machines, they seem to have had a remarkably primitive sense of aesthetics. Their “sculpture” looks remarkably like a glacier-polished rock, or perhaps a big limestone accretion. I can easily understand why, if it is man-made, it is buried underground instead of being on the surface for all to see: it’s pretty ugly. These “sculptures” play an important parapsychological role, Semir writes: “Ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows and the negative energy is transformed into positive. All of these experiments point to the underground labyrinth as one of the most secure underground constructions in the world and this makes it an ideal place for the body’s rejuvenation and regeneration.”

All the right phrases to convince the New Age crowd that this is real magic, not that hokey-baloney fake magic called science. Woo-hoo for positive energy.

The author of this nonsense is Semir Osmanagi, a metalworker and contractor with a degree in sociology (not archeology). Before he started promoting these rocks as “pyramids,” he wrote a book called Alternative History in which he claimed that Hitler and other leading Nazis escaped to an underground base in Antarctica. In his book, The World of the Maya, he claims the Maya had a “mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation.” he also claims Mayans descended from the mythical Atlantis.

Osmanagi writes on his site:

The pyramids are covered by soil which is, according to the State Institute for Agro-pedology, approx. 12,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating from the paved terrace on Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon, performed by Institute of Physics of Silesian Institute of Technology from Gliwice (Poland) confirmed that terrace was built 10.350 years ago (+/- 50 years). These finding confirm that the Bosnian pyramids are also the oldest known pyramids on the planet.

Archeology, a respected magazine, takes exception to that claim of age:

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

The Smithsonian reported:

…Osmanagich… points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation’s workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children’s names…

On another site about these alleged pyramids Osmanagi says:

Almost everything they teach us about the ancient history is wrong: origin of men, civilizations and pyramids. Homo sapiens sapiens is not a result of the evolution and biologists will never find a “missing link”, because the intelligent man is product of genetic engineering. Sumerians are not the beginning of the civilized men, but rather beginning of another cycle of humanity. And finally, original pyramids, most superior and oldest, were made by advanced builders who knew energy, astronomy and construction better than we do.

So what are these structures? Simply natural formations called “flatirons”, possibly used at some point by Romans or others as hilltop encampments, but otherwise not unusual. The European Association of Archeologists has called for an end to the digging because it is ruining real archeological finds, and wrote, “This scheme is a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public and has no place in the world of genuine science.”

Meanwhile, Osmanagi continues to dig, because, as he says, he needs to “break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the centre of the galaxy.” It’s entertaining stuff, but it isn’t science.

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Dogs and dog owners need places to socialize

Dog picHow many dogs live here in Collingwood? No one knows for sure, but we can make some good estimates, based on numerous surveys and national statistics. It’s a lot. Dog owners are a very large special interest group, perhaps larger than any other demographic group in town.

I’ve done some research and read many studies on pet populations done since 1996 (like this one from 2001 and this one from 2007). All of the major census figures of the older surveys are consistent with the most recent surveys.

Nationally, we have between 35 and 39 percent of homes with one or more dogs. On average there are 1.7 dogs per household.

I wrote about our pet populations last year when council was debating the cat tag bylaw. Back then, I noted,

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

We actually have more than the original 10,695 households here (based on stats from the last census, used in a report prepared by the planning dept. in Feb., 2012), so the pet ownership figures need to be updated. If we are consistent with national averages, using the lower 35% ownership, we should have roughly 3,750 households with dogs. That means, based on an average of 1.7 dogs per household, more than 6,300 dogs in town.

If we assume that 80% of the households with dogs are full time residents (that’s the percentage of households here used by full time residents as estimated by Stats Canada), we get about 5,100 dogs live here year-round.

Figure on adding another 200 new homes to the mix in 2012, and we get another 120 dogs (95 full time). If Collingwood’s pet ownership figures are higher than the lower end of the national average – and there are reasons to believe that: we have more seniors plus we’re semi-rural, both of which push the averages up – we may have closer to 6,000 dogs living here year-round. And that’s not counting any new arrivals between the census and 2012.

Put it another way: based on an average of 2.3 people per household (StatsCan figures), there are more than 6,900 people living year-round in Collingwood in a home with one or more dogs, and more than 8,600 if we include all of our part-time households in the mix. And that’s the low end of the estimate.

In comparison, 1,276 Collingwood kids were enrolled in ball and ice-related teams in 2011. Another 220 Collingwood adults were listed in ‘pick-up’ hockey (source: PRC Dept., May 2012). But even if the number of kids playing hockey was five times that number, it’s still fewer than the total number of people in Collingwood homes with dogs as part of their family.

It’s not about us-versus-them, however. It’s about accommodating all the user groups in the community, not just some of them. Dog owners are a substantial group of residents. Just because dog owners are not organized like hockey or soccer associations doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

We have made it illegal to walk your dog without it being on a leash, which forces owners to find a place where they can legally let their dogs run free. Allowing dogs to have exercise and socialize is as important to their behaviour and psychology as it is to children’s.

Happy dogKeeping a dog on a leash or penned in a back yard all the time will create a dog with the same sort of personality that it would if you treated a child that way: anti-social, aggressive, bored, destructive and overweight. Dogs, like people, are social animals: they need exercise, activity, companions and interaction with humans and other dogs.

To accommodate all of our dog owners, have one full-time off-leash dog park in an isolated area located at the most southerly edge of town, an area without neighbours.

It can only be reached by driving (even if a bus went there, dogs are not allowed on our buses). Anyone without a car can’t use it unless they walk a very long way to get to it: the location is very inconvenient, even inaccessible for many people who want to walk their dog to an off-leash area. This violates some of our basic beliefs in walkability, in active transportation, in creating community spaces and in creating neighbourhoods.

It’s a dark place with no lighting, and there are no nearby homes, so it is not considered safe by all dog owners.

“Pawplar” Park, as it was named, is beside an unfenced storm water management pond, too. Council has received complaints recently about dogs swimming in the pond and having to be treated for skin and eye ailments. The park currently has parking for only four cars, so drivers are parking on the grass wherever they can find space, and wet ground discourages parking there.

There is no source of safe, fresh, treated water for the dogs. Only the pond (which could be toxic) and the nearby river (which could mean any number of parasites) have water. Upgrades to make the park better and safer would be modestly expensive.

Dogs at playTwo baseball diamonds (at Central Park and Heritage Park) are designated as off-leash areas in the off-season (winter to early spring). These close to dog owners in mid-April. Once they close, where can dog owners go? If owners take their dogs to the water to swim, they still have to obey the leash law. Where can dog owners throw a stick or a ball for their pet without violating the bylaw?

Council is talking about expanding our ice surfaces to accommodate the demands from skating and hockey teams ($35 million for a total of 685 young players, according to those PRC figures). Yet a suggestion to spend a mere $5,000 on fencing to create a temporary off-leash park at High and Second – a well lit, safe, walkable part of town – was criticized by some at the table, last Monday. That is an odd alignment of priorities, as I see them.

We apply curiously different standards of service and facility to dog owners than we do to users of the arena, the curling club, the tennis courts, the skateboard park, the lawn bowling club, the pool. I don’t think we should. Dog owners deserve, I believe, more choices than one, out-of-the-way spot accessible only by car.

Dog owners, too, appreciate the neighbourhood off-leash parks because they can socialize with other owners; talk with neighbours, share stories, exchange ideas about pets and help strengthen community bonds. Off-leash parks are also safer areas for kids because they are protected from traffic.

Last night, six of nine members of council* voted to approve the recommendation to create a temporary off-leash area in an unused part of Heritage Park. It’s a small step towards a long-term, permanent solution. I would like council to also consider identifying some trails as off-leash, as well, if for no other reason than to recognize their use as such by contemporary dog owners.

* Voting for the motion: Mayor Cooper, Dep. Mayor Lloyd, Councillors Cunningham, Lloyd, West and myself.

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Digital Connections is in print

My new bookMunicipal World has released my newest book: Digital Connections. It came out this week.

This book is about the benefits and challenges of using social media for municipalities and municipal politicians. The target audience is politicians, staff, boards and committees, but a lot of what I wrote can apply to anyone in business or industry.

The sell sheet says:

Social media: everyone’s using it today. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, blogs, and photo/video sharing sites. These and other services have literally hundreds of millions of users. But what does it mean for your municipality? Or for you as a municipal politician?
Is it a potentially huge audience for marketing, business attraction, staff recruitment and even votes? Or is it all hype?
What services should you use? What are the rewards and what are the risks? How do you measure success and failure in social media? How do you measure activity and response rates? Who owns and controls usernames and passwords? How do staff update and monitor your municipal pages in social media?
Social media is both a boon and a minefield for municipalities. For newcomers, this book is a practical guide about where to start. For municipalities already using social media, it offers thought-provoking issues: liability, staff access, compensation, security and crafting social media policies.

I am currently working on my next book for Municipal World, about e-government and the impact of technology on municipal governance and politics, due out in December.

My other book, The Municipal Machiavelli, has been finished, but has not got a publisher yet. Personally, I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

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What happened to the video business?

Rogers Video storeIn the early to mid 1990s, Collingwood had three independent video outlets. Then it had two and one franchise (Rogers). Several variety stores also had a small video rental business. Then the independents closed and another franchise (Blockbuster) moved in. Now the two corporations are gone and there is no place in town to rent videos. I am deeply disappointed.

What happened to the video rental business? Was it so unprofitable?

Or is it just a plan by Rogers to increase revenue through it’s “on demand” service? Or to drive customers to Netflix and get more revenue from their overuse of their parsimonious Internet bandwidth cap?

In my limited experience with the service, Rogers’ “on demand” is slow, clumsy and prone to interruption and stuttering. I was not impressed – I used it once, tried to use it twice more without success (it timed out both attempts), and never returned.

I haven’t tried Netflix, yet, but it seems it’s the only way we’re going to be able to watch current films. However, I’ve had mixed reviews from people I know who have the service – the list of films available is slim compared to what the video stores offered. We like to watch foreign films and independent films. I’ve been told Netflix doesn’t offer many (if any) of those, just the rather predictable Hollywood stuff.

We watch more movies than TV shows, mostly because most commercial TV is dreck. And that’s being kind.

With the exceptions of some BBC UK, HBO and AMC dramas, and a few odds and ends on CBC, PBS and TVO, the usual run of TV swamp people, ice road truckers, home hunters, so-called survivors, dancers, drivers, psychic frauds, junk store scavengers, restaurant remakes and pseudo-ghost hunters is simply junk food for the hard of thinking. Even the BBC Canada channel on Canadian TV is an unflattering, watered-down version of the excellent BBC America – which has dramas and mysteries and other series. BBC Canada is mostly a cultural wasteland: an embarrassing melange of tedious and repetitive kitchen and home “reality” shows.

Having no video rental outlet really limits our options for movie watching. I won’t pay for the cable movie channel because I already pay a lot more for cable than it’s worth. I would dump it back to basic cable except that we like to watch TCM. Rogers doesn’t offer any reasonable solutions for our quandary, just increasingly expensive packages. I could happily subscribe to about a dozen channels max, without any of the extra crap we never watch. But that sort of customer-friendly service isn’t available.

It irks me to pay for crappy and customer-hostile channels that repeat the same show over and over (like AMC showing the same tired movie twice in an evening and then again several times during the week). Or the number of channels showing the same thing, just with different channel numbers. Or the number of sports and music channels we will never, ever watch. Or the number that repeat shows from the 80s and 90s usually putting several of them back to back. We’re paying for hundreds of channels and we watch no more than six or seven most weeks.

I didn’t mind so much when we could rent movies, but when that’s no longer an option and we have to watch what’s on the box at any time, we get to see how really dismal, how intellectually arid, and how culturally shallow most TV is.

We can always buy videos, of course, but the two major outlets left that sell videos are probably about the lowest on the ladder for range of choices: Wal Mart and Zellers. Besides, who wants to pay $25-$30 for a B flick? After you’ve watched it, what do you do with it?

More and more, I feel we are being driven to dump cable TV altogether, and start using the Net for our entertainment.

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Goodbye, Carlos Fuentes: 1928-2012

Carlos FuenteI was in a bookstore in Israel in 1980 or thereabouts, looking for a book in English to read during my visit. I found Terra Nostra, a 900-page novel by Carlos Fuentes, in a Penguin paperback edition. I had read another Fuentes’ book, A Change of Skin, a few years earlier, so I picked it up.

I’ve carried Terra Nostra with me ever since that day in Israel. It’s still on my bookshelf. I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I remembered that book this morning when I read that the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes, had died last night, at age 83.

I’ve read three of his 15 novels. Years after I had bought Terra Nostra, I read his book, The Old Gringo, an enjoyable tale which was turned into a good film in the late 1980s. Buried on my shelf this morning I also found Christopher Unborn, which I read some years ago. I’ve also got the novel that first brought him to international attention, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I can’t recall if I ever read it, but believe I did. It came into my collection around the time we moved up here, and like a lot of books I brought with me and stacked two-three deep on my shelves, I may have simply forgotten it. I tend to read mostly non-fiction these days, and not as much fiction as I once read.

Another novel, The Years with Laura Diaz, is up there, too, but unread and waiting. Not sure why I got it then forgot it. I now feel compelled to re-read his novels.

These might might be among my stash of “retirement novels” – books I meant to read when I retired because I never found the time to devote to them when I was working. I have several shelves of them, many now mixed with books I’ve read. Maybe it’s time to start reading them.

I recall Fuentes as a complex writer, with shifting tales woven into each novel, with transient perspectives, often with historical material that underlaid the novel’s time line.

Fuentes had the distinction of being what he himself called, “a pre-modern writer.” He used only pens, ink and paper to write. According to Wikipedia, he asked, “Do words need anything else?”

I can appreciate that sentiment, because I started out with pen and paper, although the geek within me really like this computer for composing, today. Still, there’s powerful magic in writing that is not found in word processing.

Fuentes said that he detested those authors who from the beginning claim to have a recipe for success. In a speech on his writing process he related that when he began the writing process he began by asking, “Who am I writing for?”

Looking through Terra Nostra today, it seems dense and meandering, like Joyce or Tolstoy. I found a bent corner at page 476. I wonder if that’s as far as I got, 40-plus years ago. I started to read from that page this morning and got sucked in for several pages. I think it’s a sign I should start reading Fuentes again from this book, rather than the newer Laura Diaz.

I was introduced to Fuentes back in the mid-late 1970s. I was reading Latin American authors – writers like Marquez, LLosa and Asturias, and many others. There was a paperback publishing wave headed by Bard/Avon to translate these authors for a North American market. Penguin followed and published others. I read dozens of them in that period – I still have many of those books on my shelves now. I enjoyed reading them; the authors had very different perspectives on life, on society, on government. It opened a new world to me and lead to my first trip to Mexico, more than 35 years ago.

Among my favourite books in that publication boom period was El Presidente by the Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. I liked it so much I bought it in Spanish to try to read it in the original. I didn’t do very well, but I still have the Spanish version upstairs, along with a Spanish version of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez, and a more recent book by Paul Coelho, El Alquimiste. Someday I may try again, reading a line in Spanish, trying to translate it, then reading it in an English edition to see how well I did.

The BBC story on Fuentes’ death notes,

He was associated with the Latin American Boom – a literary movement made up of mainly young authors whose politically critical works broke with established traditions… His narrative, like that of his contemporaries of the Latin American Boom, was rarely linear, instead relying on flashbacks and changing perspectives.

The world lost a great author yesterday.More than that: he was a social commentator and champion of the people. But he lives on through his work and will continue to inspire writers for many more decades.

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Having a purpose strengthens your brain

Cartoon StockA story in Science Daily caught my eye recently. It was titled, “Greater Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated With Alzheimer’s Disease.” That suggested a different approach to brain ailments than what I’ve usually read. Most are medical or surgical. This one is philosophical.

I’m not one for either self-help or New Age palaver. Most of it strikes me as unmitigated pap that borders on the religious. It’s like the gazillions of diet books and websites. I’m not sure which would rake in the millions faster: to form a new religion or a new diet plan.So when I see something about a “purpose-driven life” I tend to shy away in case it involves angels, spirit guides, auras, ghosts or ten people you’ll meet in heaven. Or hell.

But when someone in the science community comments that purpose has more use than filling one’s days or creating fodder for self-help gurus, that it may have medical and biological implications, then I perk up and listen.

“Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains,” said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.
“These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.”

In other words, as I read it: purpose makes you think better. Well, council watchers may want to debate that issue.

I know people today, including many people younger than I am, who don’t read to exercise their brains, don’t play interactive games (like chess, go, bridge), don’t do anything creative as a hobby (like write, play music, garden, take photographs). They work, they watch TV, they sleep. TV – a passive device programmed by media giants who want to control your life and consumer habits – is their main source of information, entertainment, opinion and education. What sort of purpose in life does watching TV fulfill?

By the terms of this study, they’re dementia patients in the making. Anyone who wastes hours of their life watching such dreck as “Survivor” or “American pickers” probably won’t notice the onslaught of dementia…

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project who did not have dementia and who subsequently died and underwent brain autopsy. Participants received an annual clinical evaluation for up to approximately 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.
Participants also answered questions about purpose in life, the degree to which one derives meaning from life’s experiences and is focused and intentional. Brain plaques and tangles were quantified after death. The authors then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older persons accumulated plaques and tangles.

What the study suggests is that doing something creative or goal-oriented that requires some effort to start, develop and complete a project helps stave off some of the physiological problems that are seen in Alzheimer’s and other senility-related ailments. Obviously TV watching isn’t goal-oriented.

The study didn’t look at or correlate other studies that have shown how reading stimulates brain activity and also helps ward off dementia and senility. Which is unfortunate, because I believe the two have an obvious relationship. Reading is probably the most powerful activity you can do to keep your brain active and engaged.

The start, I suggest, to developing goals and purpose, is to turn off the TV. The next step is to find something creative to do. Build a deck. Plan a garden. Paint a room. Write a blog. Take photographs. Learn a new word or a new language. Play a game of chess or backgammon. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play a musical instrument (or learn one). Train your dog to do a trick. Better yet, train your cat.

Do something active, something with a goal, a focus. It doesn’t have to be very big, or exciting or momentous. As long as you get off the couch and away from the TV.

At the very least, read a book. Books will give you ideas, goals, will inspire you, tease your imagination and make you smarter, wiser, more cultured and better looking (okay, maybe not the last one). Books will serve you much better than TV ever will. You don’t have to give up TV for good; just share your time with things that make you smarter, better, wiser, more educated, more intelligent and less prone to dementia than TV.

Just lay off the self-help books. Once you wean yourself from the TV you’ll probably find that tour life has a lot of purpose and meaning and you won’t need the self-help gurus.

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Flatulent dinosaurs warmed ancient earth

Dino fartAn amusing story on Science Daily says researchers have determined that the giant, herbivorous sauropods of the Mesozoic might have been responsible for the era’s warm climate. Well, not the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the methane-producing bacteria in their guts:

“A simple mathematical model suggests that the microbes living in sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough methane to have an important effect on the Mesozoic climate,” said Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University. “Indeed, our calculations suggest that these dinosaurs could have produced more methane than all modern sources — both natural and man-made — put together.”

So basically, dinosaur farts created global warming. That would be one stinky environment.

Wilkinson, Ruxton, and Nisbet therefore calculate global methane emissions from sauropods to have been 520 million tons (520 Tg) per year, comparable to total modern methane emissions. Before industry took off on modern Earth about 150 years ago, methane emissions were roughly 200 Tg per year. By comparison, modern ruminant animals, including cows, goats, giraffes, and others, produce methane emission of 50 to 100 Tg per year.

Out-gassing animals have been blamed before as the cause of our recent climate changes. According to this site,

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

The site’s conclusion is to “Eat less meat and dairy products.” Now if dinosaurs did better in the hotter climate of the Mesozoic, then curiously the same advice would have been suitable for carnosaurs, because eating the sauropods could have reduced the global climate. Fewer herbivores equals fewer farts equals less methane in the atmosphere equals cooler temperatures. Somehow I can’t see a T. Rex nibbling on the Cretaceous equivalent of broccoli in order to keep a warmer neighbourhood.

Just another example of the wonderful delights we find in the world of science.

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So-called psychic healers don’t see auras: they’re just ill

So-called psychicA story on Science Daily News this weekend reports that seeing so-called auras may in fact be the result of a neurological disorder, not simply another pseudoscience scam.

Self-described psychics who have bilked the gullible based on reading these alleged auras will have some ‘splaining to do. So-called psychic healers – aka charlatans – are likely to be in line for some big lawsuits once this story gets out!

The disorder is called “synesthesia.” People who are afflicted by it have regions in their brains cross connected so that they see sounds, taste colors, smell textures and so on. Their brains confuse sensory input and they mix up sensations.

This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

If self-described psychic healers merely suffer from synesthesia, then what they’ve professed to see is not some paranormal effect, but rather the result of normal sensory input intruding on the input of another sense. They are not gifted with some sort of supernatural ability, just confused. Those auras were just sensory hallucinations.

We can forgive those among them for believing they actually saw auras, although one still has to wonder why they insisted in their belief after decades of scientific research showed no empirical evidence for their imagined auras.

Of course that only satisfies the explanation for those “psychics” who actually do believe they could see “auras” as the result of this disorder. What about those who are simply charlatans and scam artists? I would suggest that reflects the majority of self-described “psychics.” They don’t see or feel anything out of the ordinary; no auras, no vibrations, no spiritual resonance. They simply tell their marks that they do, and collect the money from them.

Once the sincere, but neurologically challenged among them realize their ailment, I would hope we will see a flurry of apologies and retractions. Those who are honest enough to recognize the problem (and their illness) will want to make amends and return the money they have accepted over the years. Once they admit that their “psychic” abilities are pure bunk, they will probably be forgiven by their victims, too.

It will be easy to recognize the charlatans and hucksters: they will be among those who do not recant or return the money they have bilked from their gullible clients. That will make it much easier to identify them for lawsuits.

Thanks to this research, “psychic healing” will soon join the Nigerian email scam and the Russian bride scam as one of those well-recognized frauds the majority steers clear of in the future. Well, we hope it does…

Another blow struck for science against the ignorance of superstition. One fraud down, a million left to go…

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54,232 words… and it’s done

The Municipal MachiavelliI passed 54,000 words yesterday in my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. A little tweaking today, and an additional selection from The Discourses pushed it to 54,232 words. It prints out at 163 letter-sized pages.

Even though that count includes chapter titles and subheads, as well as the opening notes and quotes, dedication, bibliography, and back page copy, it’s still about 20,000 more than my original target. I just don’t seem to be able to stop working on it. I’m still reading books about him and his writing – bios and denser, academic tomes by scholars like Mansfield and Benner mostly. I find material to add daily.

I still have a dozen books in transit from various Abebooks sellers, too. There may be more lurking within their pages. I have amassed a large box of books by and about Machiavelli already. But I’ve stopped buying more, at least.

The size concerns me. Will it deter a potential publisher? I hope not.

The average typed, letter-size page has about 500 words in 12-point text (mine is mostly in 11pt Calibri). A typical paperback novel page has about half that, usually 10 pt. type. So based on paperback size, the book would exceed 200 pages. Not quite Tom Clancy or Stephen King, but still substantial.

A trade paperback around 6×9″ has roughly 340 words per page, so at that size it would be about 160 pages. But due to the formatting style I’ve used (including numerous quotations from Machiavelli’s works and others offset with whitespace for clarity), it is probably 25-40% larger in size than a book with simple, linear text. That would make it 200-225 pages.

A paperback novel-sized book with similar formatting would come in at over 250-280 pages.

As a comparison, most paperback copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince – my basic source – are around 100-125 pages, sometimes fleshed out to 150 with selections from others of his works, glossary, intro and so on. I guess I’ve gone a bit overboard.

But the content is basically finished, just some tweaking, editing and a little tightening to do. I really have to stop adding to it, despite my obsession to make it as rich, as clear and as full as I can. But I must stop because I have to return to my third book for Municipal World, and get it completed for publication in December.

I think it’s my best book to date, and I’m proud enough of it to consider self-publishing if I can’t find a print publisher willing to take it on. But that’s an other hurdle to tackle a bit later…

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What is your dog thinking?

Dog thoughtsA story on Science Daily News says scientists are using an MRI scanner to look into the thought processes of dogs. As the article notes, “The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?”

I don’t need an MRI scanner to figure this out: food. More food. When do we eat? Can I have some of that? What’s for dinner? Are you going to eat it ALL? Are those scraps for me? What else is for breakfast? Is that food I smell? Don’t mind my drool, I’m just starving. Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll eat it! Can you open the fridge again so I can sniff it? Say, is that bacon? Sure I’ll eat banana if you’ll just give me some. Hey, I’m hungry. Would it hurt you to give me a little? Just let me lick the plate after you’re done. I know there’s ice cream in your bowl. Can I have some? When do we eat? Is there any spare food around? When’s dinner?

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

There’s a good article with more detail about this research on Wired.com.

Dogs have terrific senses. They have the uncanny ability to hear the sound of a banana being peeled from 100 feet away. They know when a fridge door is opened, and can differentiate between the sound of the drawers which hold the flatware and which hold the can opener. They can smell toast a block away and bacon miles way.

Okay, yo be fair, my dog also has other thoughts: can we go out now? Why am I inside? Is it time for a walk? I’m bored. Let me out. I have squirrels to chase. I need to go sniff something. Get off your ass and talk me for a walk. Are you going out yet? Can I come? When are we leaving? Why are you just sitting there? Let’s get going. Walkies! Out! Go out and take me along.

But while doing a little research into dog intelligence and behaviour this morning, I came across this story on Science News titled, “Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains, Scientists Find.” This is a very bizarre but intriguing line of study:

For the first time, scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain.
“As a dog’s head or skull shape becomes flatter — more pug-like — the brain rotates forward and the smell centre of the brain drifts further down to the lowest position in the skull,” Dr Valenzuela said.
No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome.
“Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It’s amazing that a dog’s brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes — it’s something that hasn’t been documented in other species,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Co-author Associate Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney noted: “We think of dogs living in a world of smell — but this finding strongly suggests that one dog’s world of smell may be very different from another’s.”

Digging deeper into the effects of breeding on canine behaviour, this story noted,

“Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions,” Dr Bennett said.

Smart dogActually I’ve known about the inheritability of traits for decades, since I first started reading about canine breeds and behaviours. But anyone who has ever worked closely with dogs knows that breeds have general characteristics.

This is why I have serious reservations around dogs bred for violence – the pit bull and its ilk, cane corso, dogo de Argentina and others. Even intense socializing may not eliminate inherited behaviour. Perhaps if we started a program of breeding these dogs with less aggressive breeds, it might make a better, more sociable dog.

But maybe not – Sophie was attacked this winter by a very aggressive dog allegedly a cross between a cane corso and a Lab (but looked 100% pit pull). So interbreeding (if that was actually true) didn’t make it a calmer, less aggressive dog. Maybe aggression is a dominant gene and cannot be easily sublimated.

In this story, titled, “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says”, scientists found dogs can count, as well as understand words (any dog owner knows that). But they can also appear Machiavellian:

They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”

Fascinating stuff. I want to spend an evening or two reading more about dogs and how they learn and apply their intelligence, but I think it would be better spent playing with my own dog.

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Gone to the Dark Side

iPadYes, I have been recruited to the Dark Side: I have an Apple iPad now. Well, it’s a loaner, but they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers if they want it back. Unless they offer me a 64GB model in exchange…

And, yes, I have been reduced to the fatuous abuse of capitalization in its name: iPad, rather than a more proper Ipad. You know, you can’t even type Ipad on the device because the auto-correct feature will change it into iPad every time. Sigh. Auto-correct is the reason there are still exorcists in business these days.

Some of the features of the iPad are cool and definitely a “wow” factor. Some are remarkably opaque or clumsy. Ever try to copy files to an iPad from a PC? No simple click and drag there. You need to follow some Byzantine process through third-party transfer programs or through iTunes (which requires numerous settings changes on your PC and iPad) or via a cloud service. I can easily copy files to and from every other USB deviceI own except the iPad. It won’t accept files. It’s got to be the least useful USB device on the planet.

And how the hell do I turn off auto-correct? Doesn’t come with a manual: I need to download it online. I haven’t figured out how to store the PDF manual on the iPad, either, and from what I can tell, that’s impossible. That means it’s only available when I’m connected to the Net.

Even the manual doesn’t tell me how to save itself on my iPad for offline reading. I’ve had to put everything on Skydrive for the moment until I figure out how to save files. But Skydrive only works when you’re connected, so it’s useless without the Net.

iPad cartoonFor a 25-year veteran of PC use, this is awkward, having to unlearn so much. However, I did have an original Mac in the late 80s, and played heavily with an Apple ][ in the mid-80s, so I’m not entirely a virgin to Apple products.

Unlike the Mac, the iPad comes with a scarcity of apps or programs, and you need to spend several hours hunting for files on the App Store if you want to add some zing to the device. It has a handful of basic apps installed, and it’s usable out of the box for music playing, or video watching, and with some setup you can browse the Web and read/send email (assuming you can recall all your user names and passwords for your services and wireless access).

You will really need more to turn the iPad from a high tech toy into something seriously useful. First thing I recommend (aside from the free CBC Radio and Tunedin Radio apps…) is the trilogy of Apple iWorks programs: Pages, Numbers and Presentations. These are reasonably serious productivity tools that allow your iPad to do real work. Price is modest at $10 each. Compare that to the MS Office suite for Windows at $200 or more! (I’m told there is an MS Office suite for the iPad but I’ve never seen it in the app store, so I went with the Apple package instead.)

And you need a real keyboard because as easy as the virtual keyboard is, it’s nowhere near as efficient as a real one when you want to type something longer than your username.

No, the iPad is hard pressed to be a serious business/productivity tool out of the box, but it is a good in-between tool when your laptop or desktop isn’t available.

The iTunes store browser is so stupid it makes Windows 3.1 seem like the work of geniuses. It reverts to the same display every time, even when you just go back a screen: iPad and iPhone apps are displayed no matter how many times I specify iPad only, and any categories like rating or price are wiped out, and need to be reset with every tap of the back arrow. When you select an app to install, it closes the store and loads the app. You have to re-open the store to look for more apps. Sigh. What genius designed this mess?

And don’t get me started on the ugly store screen display… designed for children or illiterates. Why isn’t there a straight text listing? I’m okay with the simple tap & swipe interface, but there really needs to be more options for power users. This November marks my 35th year as a micro-computer owner-user-hacker (Thanks for asking…), so it’s hard for me to really appreciate dumbed-down devices.

ipad cartoonWhile many of the apps are brilliantly executed and beautifully presented, there’s no way to identify which free apps are stripped down versions of for-pay programs, full of ads, clumsy and butt ugly. I don’t mind paying for something but to me advertising something as “free” simply to trick people into buying other services or features is vile. Warn users up front if it’s feature-limited and we need to shell out money to make it work or to get the extras.

The information screens on many store items are woefully inadequate this way. It’s easy to get lured into installing something that’s just a hook to get you to buy more. You have to install an app, then test it, to discover its worth or usefulness. I’ve deleted almost as many free apps as I’ve installed so far. It really discourages me from paying for apps if the quality is to be measured by what the app store tells you.

An iPad is nonetheless a nifty little device, but compared to a full-blown PC it’s pretty limited. So why then, does a techie like me have one? Because I’m the tester, the guinea pig, for council use. And despite my qualms about the store, I’m giving it thumbs up because it’s the perfect device for councillors.

This year the council laptops turn five years old; ancient as far as technology goes. They’re scheduled for replacement. We’ve already upgraded the OS from Windows XP to 7. Some have required new parts. Their screens are small and old, compared to today’s machines.

The cost of new laptops is in the range of $1,200-$1,500 each. Each one requires a licensed operating system (Windows 7 soon to be 8), plus licensed versions of MS Office, all renewed annually. Installation and setup time for each machine means considerable staff time and effort. Plus councillors also need cases, a mouse, cords, cables and so on. Batteries wear out, mice break – things need to be replaced fairly often.

Life cycle cost of a laptop over a term of council, including licence renewals, is probably over $2,500 (not including taxes). It’s a lot more if staff tech support and maintenance time is added in. Town computers were originally on a three-year replacement cycle. That grew to four (to save taxpayers money), but right now the council laptops are running about 4.5 years and some are creaking along. So the iPads make sense from a financial point of view.

Given that most councillors use their laptops for simply checking email, browsing the Web and reading Word or PDF documents, it’s like giving Ferraris to old ladies to go shopping once a week. Why do councillors need PowerPoint when they only view presentations, not create them? Why Excel when no one (except me) will create spreadsheets? Why have USB ports, DVD drives and so on when most council members don’t need them?

This is why I use my own laptop rather than a town-owned one: it’s crammed full of my own programs, data and work.

Voila the iPad. It does email, browsing, displays documents without needing a single additional app. Add a case and keyboard, some basic apps, and the life cycle cost for a council term is still under $1,000, taxes included.

Not to mention the iPad is more portable, easy to carry to conventions and events, and is so simple even a municipal councillor can operate it. Tech support time is considerably lower.

Well, it may take a training session to explain some of the nuances… it isn’t THAT simple. The single button and tap-for-functions system is actually somewhat of a disadvantage when you’re coming from a feature-rich computer-and-mouse environment. But for the majority, it’s a great little device that solves our technology needs at a lower price than a PC laptop.

I figure I’ll need the 64GB version if I’m going to load it with all the apps I need…

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The End of the World is Nigh… Again

666 TattooSigh. And you thought election time was silly season. The last year has certainly been silly season for apocalyptic predictions. From the so-called Mayan end of days to the failed “rapture” of Howard Camping, it’s been a great time for conspiracy theory and cult watchers.

The latest prediction for the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) is from Jose De Jesus Miranda, a US-based fundamentalist religious preacher (of course).

According to Miranda, the world will end on June 30, 58 days from today (as I write this). A story in the HuffPost noted that Miranda predicts a massive earthquake and other catastrophes will make a lot of the continents disappear, except for a place for the “elect.”

But Miranda is bringing his own unique twist to the Apocalypse-faithful. While promising the “complete destruction of the bad seed,” the minister promises that he will emerge as a sort of superhero — with the power to fly and even walk through walls

Miranda is quite a guy. He’s apparently the messiah, having passed through being an apostle along the way:

What we do know of Miranda is that he was, in fact, born mortal — in Puerto Rico in 1946. By his own account, Miranda was visited by Jesus in 1973 — apparently the Messiah walked up to him and entered his body.
Hence, De Jesus.
From there, his pronouncements have only gotten more interesting.
In 1988, Miranda disclosed that he was actually the Apostle Paul. Not long after that, Miranda took it to the next level, calling himself both Jesus Christ and the Anti-Christ — a one-stop shop for all your Reckoning needs.

On his website, linked above, in a video he says that he “governs the earth” with technology.

He seems to have attracted quite a following – the story goes on to say how his followers are tattooing the number “666” on their skin to mark the doomsday event, just like bikers and criminals. but, Miranda tells them, it’s really a positive symbol. from this Doomsday blog:

He even goes far enough to say that the numerical value of 666, most notable referred to as the sign of the devil is actual the symbol for the anti-Christ; meaning the second coming of Christ or new Christ. In the interview with a CNN correspondent, José Luis De Jesús Miranda says, “666, the Antichrist, do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth… put it in Jesus Christ after the cross”. Mr. Luis De Jesús Miranda Miranda then goes on to say, “thats him, [the anti-Christ].”

If everyone who has a 666 tattoo is going to heaven, Miranda is sure going to have a hard time explaining what those Hell’s Angels are doing in paradise…

Even among the more rabid fundamentalist Christians, Miranda is too far gone in his nutiness to be taken seriously: “According to 1st John 2:22, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda is a LIAR and an ANTICHRIST. To no surprise, he uses reverse psychology, openly admitting to being an “Antichrist,” which confuses his victims. But one thing Mr. Miranda won’t admit to is being a BIG LIAR. Anyone who perverts the Gospel message, or denies the Lord Jesus Christ is a LIAR! 1st John 2:22 calls Mr. Miranda a “LIAR.””

Strong words for a Christian, I suppose. I have others I’d use that are less polite. What’s a polite synonym for scam artist?

Despite the evident silliness of his claims, Miranda seems to have a strong, passionate and equally loony following. In a 2007 story from CNN,

De Jesus says he learned he was Jesus reincarnate when he was visited in a dream by angels.
“The prophets, they spoke about me. It took me time to learn that, but I am what they were expecting, what they have been expecting for 2,000 years,” de Jesus says.
Followers have protested Christian churches in Miami and Latin America, disrupting services and smashing crosses and statues of Jesus. De Jesus preaches there is no devil and no sin. His followers, he says, literally can do no wrong in God’s eyes.The church calls itself the “Government of God on Earth” and uses a seal similar to the United States.
If Creciendo en Gracia is an atypical religious group, de Jesus also does not fit the mold of the average church leader. De Jesus flouts traditional vows of poverty.

Well, so does every fundamentalist US preacher I’ve ever read about, but Miranda is pretty showy even compared to the typical tvangelist. Ostentatious display of the money he’s bilked from gullible followers is not what makes Miranda special, however. Nor is it his slick self-promotion, his advertising, self-aggrandizing cable TV show, or his claims of divinity. It’s rather than he claims there is no sin, so you’re basically free to be a hedonist, a la Aleister Crowley. I wonder if there’s a Hedonism beach resort reserved for Miranda’s followers.

As the Houston Post reported:

His message is simple (you know, once you get over the whole “I am Jesus” thing). All sin died with Christ on the cross. Anytime a priest or a preacher calls you a sinner, he’s a liar who’s trying to steal your money. In fact, other churches should be picketed, which is something his followers have done in Miami and Latin America.

I wonder how his culties will feel on July 1, when the rest of America is waking up on that Sunday morning, thinking nothing has changed. Probably like ol’ Howard Camping’s followers who sold all their belongings and quit their jobs for the ‘rapture” that never came. I’d like to own a tattoo removal franchise in Miranda’s home town next July.

I guess I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who follow – and fund – wingnuts like Miranda.

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