The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Raw water: the New Age death wish

Drinking from a stream: stupid ideaWould you willingly expose yourself to cholera? While treatable, this highly infectious disease causes great physical distress and suffering to its victims, and is even fatal to some. Most readers have never experienced it because it’s rather a rarity in developed nations, those that have the benefit of modern water and wastewater treatment systems. That’s thanks to decades of stringent and effective health and safety standards and constantly improving treatment systems.

But for some, it seems, those systems are a terrible burden; a worrisome threat to their natural state. The very notion of clean, hygienic water bereft of bacteria and pollutants threatens their peace of mind. They demand to be fed unfiltered water, bravely willing to accept the threat of travellers’ diarrhea, Giardia, Cryptosporidium (from cattle feces), dysentery, Salmonella, Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (E. coli, found throughout the natural environment), Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Hepatitus A, Hepatitus E, Campylobacter (from bird guano), Norovirus, Shigella and other infections and parasites.

It’s better, these New Age adventurers believe, to risk illness, pain, paralysis and even death than drink water from a municipal tap that might have come into contact with chlorine or fluoride. The taint of civilization, of modernity, or – gasp! – chemicals shall not pass their lips. Seriously: this is truly one of the most bizarre, stupid, and dangerous, wingnut fads to emerge.

“Raw” water – or as The Verge more appropriately called it, “raw diarrhea” – is the latest craze among those obsessed with the internet-driven fads-du-jour.

These are the same people who worship the Queen of Pseudoscience Fads, Vani Hara aka The Food Babe. These are the warriors who spent thousands more to buy free-range chicken, organic avocados, tomatoes, corn, and kale, then crusade against GMOs (oh, the irony, the irony…). These are the folks who refuse to get their children vaccinated because they think having children suffer and possibly die from diseases like rubella, smallpox, polio and whooping cough is more natural than having them artificially healthy through medicine. These are the people who crusaded against the ubiquitous chemical, dihydrogen monoxide in foods (insert laugh track).

I doubt one of them knows how municipal water is treated, how the infrastructure or facilities work, what technologies have evolved or changed, and how many millions of technicians, scientists and engineers work every day to improve our water systems. I doubt one of them actually knows the science or history behind chlorine or fluoride. To New Agers, science is a dark art: scary, mystical, untrustworthy.
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Oumuamua: just a piece of rock

If you can watch the whole bit of this piece of New Age woo hoo without flinching or giving up, you will likely shake your head at the utter, mindless gullibility of humankind. And it’s not even political. But by now you know the Net is crammed full of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, food fads, creationism, homeopathy and other claptrap. And you already have seen how the wingnuts can easily bend and twist everything, taking stuff out of context or simply making it up to suit their wacky beliefs.

That blue circle shows the best magnification from the biggest Earth-based telescopes of the rogue asteroid Oumuamua.

The latest codswallop is that scientists claim a tumbling cigar- shaped (or was that penis-shaped?) chunk of rock that passed through our solar system in October was actually an alien spaceship. Well, no, they didn’t. And they certainly did not CONFIRM anything of the sort no matter what some UFO-addled wingnut claims.

Oumuamua – or more technically, 1I/2017 U1 – zipped by us about 33 million kms away, reaching a speed of 87.71 km/s (196,200 mph) before slowing. The eccentricity of its path made astronomers hypothesize that it came from outside our own solar system and thus was the first recognized interstellar traveller we have encountered. That’s only a hypothesis based on its trajectory, not even a full theory yet, because no one has seen it close up, let alone sent a probe to examine it closely. And never will.

The minimal data available says it’s a chunk of rock, roughly 180 by 30 meters (600 ft × 100 ft) in size. Even if it did come another stellar system, and even if it’s oddly shaped, there’s nothing to indicate it wasn’t natural.
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Why the panic over Julie Payette?

Governor General Julie Payette made comments in a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Conference on Nov. 1 in which she encouraged her audience at a science convention to ignore misinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory, to support facts and science, and to engage in “learned debate.” That has the right furious, and as is their wont, making both fallacious claims about her words while launching ad hominem attacks against her.

It’s particularly galling to the right that not only is Payette a woman, she’s smart and accomplished: a former astronaut and an engineer. That means the right gets wildly incensed when she says anything vaguely interesting, let alone true. And so they’re trying to make this into a wedge issue about religion. The undertext being that Payette, being a Liberal appointee, is touting Liberal anti-religion screed.

Andrew Scheer, the pasty-white leader of the Conservatives who recently hired as his party’s campaign chair a former media director of the vile Rebel media organization, said,

It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion.

Which is bullshit. Scheer, of course, completely ignores the actual truth and substance in Payette’s comments. How dare the GG make any statements that are not the most innocuous, content-removed, pastel puffery? Yet nowhere in her speech did Payette mention any religion or indigenous people, so where does he get this allegation? Probably from his misogynist, racist Rebel media buddies. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to see Scheer’s attack as an anti-feminist one: that’s been Scheer’s way since he took charge.

What colossal arrogance for Scheer to think he can speak for millions – even billions, because he doesn’t specify there are just Canadians he’s speaking for – of people with whom he has no contact, let alone consulted about their reaction to Payette’s comments. And why does he think that any Canadian, not just our Prime Minister, has to have blanket, unquestioning support for every bit of religious myth, pseudo-health or pseudoscience claptrap? That’s simply nuts. And cowardly. We elect people to have opinions, to take stands, to advocate for issues, and to stand up for truth, not simply agree with everyone and everything. A toy bobblehead doll does that. That’s not what Canadians expect from their leaders. Unless, it seems, they are Conservatives.
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It’s about the process, stupid…

Be honestMy negative comments on the impending privatization of our electrical utility (and potentially our water utility once the first deal is sealed) drew some online criticism recently. None of those critics refuted any of the facts I offered, or attempted to debunk any of the numerous documents I quoted and linked to.

Nor could they. After all, they are easily proven, well-documented facts. But still, they called me a liar and attempted to use other cheap ad hominem tactics to discredit me.* However, regardless of their like or dislike of me, the facts remain, the facts speak for themselves. Facts matter; name-calling doesn’t.

It’s not about me. It’s not even about the decision to sell the utility. It’s about the process used to get to that point. And that means it’s also about the people who chose that process over an open and transparent one. Open and transparent is honest. Anything else isn’t. If you can defend such dishonesty, then we can’t have a reasonable discussion about the process.

We elect representatives to make our decisions for us. That’s what a democracy is all about. And for the most part, the public leaves those representatives alone to do their job. But when a major issue arises, such as the sale of a publicly-owned asset, those representatives are bound by both honour and ethics to both inform and consult the public. Neither of which have been done this term.

The process this term has been appallingly secretive and deceptive. We elected people whom we trusted to accomplish their job with consideration of the basic rules or ethics and morality. And they didn’t follow them. They betrayed the public trust and they continue to do so.

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