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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The ignorati rise

Chapman University recently published the results of a depressing, but hardly surprising, survey that shows American believe in codswallop continue to rise. Not political codswallop – this is the supernatural, paranormal, wingnut type.  And the numbers are huge. Or yuge as the ignorati-in-chief would say.

The article notes, “nearly three-fourths of Americans do believe in something paranormal.” While we expect that sort of muddle-headed, superstitious thinking to be widespread in the 13th century, that’s truly sad in the 21st century. And we don’t expect it in the country that put a man on the moon, invented the iPad and the PC. You can’t do that when you believe in ghosts, goblins and magic.

WIngnut beliefs

These are truly, deeply unsettling scary figures. Almost 20% of those surveyed believe “psychics” and “fortune tellers” can “…can foresee the future.” These so-called psychics are constantly being debunked and revealed in the media as con artists,  swindlers and charlatans. Yet millions of Americans believe they have some ability to see the future. Depressing. But it gets worse. According to the results,

  • 55.0% believe that ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis, once existed;
  • 52.3% believe that places can be haunted by spirits;
  • 35.0% believe aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past;
  • 26.2% believe aliens have come to Earth in modern times;
  • 25.0% believe some people can move objects with their minds;
  • 19.4% believe fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future;
  • 16.2% believe Bigfoot is a real creature.

The rise of Donald Trump and the rapidly growing culture of anti-intellectualism, anti-science, faux Christianity and the alt-facts version of reality promulgated by the theocratic right parallel this growing belief in superstitious and religious claptrap. It’s a deliberate, planned attack on Americans to make them stupid. And it appears to be working.
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The dogshit dilemma

No more dogshitWe have a problem with dogshit. Well, all municipalities do, of course, but ours is increasingly evident: it’s everywhere. And with the growing popularity of pets and our growing population, it’s becoming worse.* How do we deal with it?

We pick it up, of course, as we dispose of it in our own garbage bins or in those provide by the municipality downtown or in our parks. That’s not merely what the bylaw says we have to do: it’s what responsible, mature pet owners do. Sadly, we seem to be in the minority.

Way too many folk leave it for others to pick up, or step in. And get sick from it. Dog owners know all this. You really have to be a sociopath not to pick up after your own pet and let it shit wherever, with no regard for the rest of us.

Worse, it’s a deliberate affront to the community, even more so than the smokers who stub their butts out on the street and sidewalk. Leaving your dog’s shit behind is like spitting in the face of everyone else here.

But there’s another type of dog owner we find here: those who pick up, then throw the bag of dogshit on the boulevard, onto lawns, over fences into yards or into streams, parks or gardens for others to have to pick up. Sometimes they just drop it in the middle of the sidewalk. That takes a real anti-social asshole with a special form of arrogance. They know that the baggies are far more visible than the shit itself, that it won’t decay or get washed away in the rain. They know some of their bags will get caught in our stormwater system and become a problem for our water workers to contend with. They know the bylaw says that dogshit has to be picked up and properly disposed of in a suitable container. But they do it anyway.

Thiers is an even nastier assault on common decency and community than those who simply refuse to pick up because this involves intent to harm, to vandalize and to insult. It’s deliberate and malicious.
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Forty years of geekitude

TRS-80 Model 1It was forty years ago this fall, in 1977, that I bought my first computer. I had little experience with computers prior to that – a few weeks working after hours on an APL system at the U of T, mostly to play games against the machine, reading a few magazine articles on the coming ‘personal’ computer wave. Nothing seriously hands-on, experience-wise, and no programming skills either. But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it. And so I bought one.

Since then, I have not been a day without one, and generally had more than just one in my home. As many as six or seven at one time, back in the early 1980s, all different brands. But that was when I was writing about them, editing computer books and writing computer manuals.

My first computer was a TRS 80, Model 1. TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack. It was a 16KB computer (yes: that’s 16,384 bytes of memory) In comparison, my current laptop has 8GB, or 8,388,608 kilobytes: 512 times the Model 1’s amount of RAM!

It was powered by a Zilog Z-80 eight-bit processor. My current machines all run 64-bit, multi-core processors. It had no USB ports, didn’t use a mouse, and had no audio card. Smartphones today are more versatile and more powerful. But not as much fun.

Before I bought it, I debated for a week or two whether to get the TRS or the competing Commodore PET, powered by the 6502 processor. It had similar limitations in memory and input devices, but came with a green and black screen integrated with the keyboard in one unit. But the TRS was sold at a nearby Radio Shack store within walking distance, and they also offered nighttime classes to teach the basics. The PET was only sold at stores downtown, so I bought the closer one.

I had to boot it and load programs from a cassette tape player. A year or so later, I upgraded to a 64KB RAM system and dual floppy (5.25″) drives. Each floppy could hold about 160KB of programs or data. It had a standalone B & W monitor that didn’t have any graphic capability, although canny programmers used the blocks in the ASCII character set to create pseudo-graphics (a bit like today’s Dwarf Fortress game displays, but only in B&W).
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The 10 Worst?

Tin foil hat
Skeptoid just published its top-ten worst anti-science websites and I’m sure you won’t be surprised at the awardees, especially not the regulars like Mercola, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Food Babe (aka the Worst Assault on Science on the Internet). Predatory quacks, crackpots and fakirs you will easily recognize. Surprisingly, the uber-wingnut David Wolfe was absent this year.

Some of these sites sugar-coat their nonsense with pseudo-spirituality, usually some mashup of New Age codswallop and ancient mumbo-jumbo. Many ascribe their claptrap to traditional – non-medical, unproven and anti-science – practices like ayurveda or Chinese folk medicine, both of which can not only be harmful but often are damaging to other species and lifeforms. Others use rhetorical bafflegab to confuse people (Wolfe is a master at this tactic).

Having a top ten for pseudoscience and conspiracy claptrap is fun, but it’s identifying the point-oh-oh-one percent of that junk. There’s so much of it that no list – the top 100, the top 1,000 – could even scratch its infected surface. It’s hard to pick which of these hysterical charlatans and con artists should be rated among the top, they are all so despicable, foolish and greedy. Yes, greedy: they are all about the money: they have never been about your wellbeing, health or safety. Everyone of them is selling some snake oil.

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