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There's been a bit of a flutter through the internet recently about the possibility of crow "funerals." Hm, funerals, huh? But what, exactly, is meant by "funeral." It has been observed, and is not disputed, that members of the corvid family, which includes crows, jays, magpies and ravens, seem to gather around a dead bird of their own species and vocalize. Several explanations for this behavior are possible: 1) to warn other birds of possible danger, 2) bringing attention to fellow birds of a change in hierarchy, 3) exploring the possible causes of death, or, possibly, 4) an individual or group expression of grief. It is very easy to compare these behaviors to human equivalents, such as grieving, but, then again, it is also difficult to definitively rule out such comparisons. Since humans evolved as certainly as other animals, why is it unreasonable to suppose that some critters haven't evolved the same emotions? The fancy term used to ascribe human form or characteristics on anything besides humans, such as gods or animals, is anthropomorphism. Actually, I'm rather fond of this myself, as evidenced by the number talking animals in my plays. It's no mystery why fundamentalist religious folks often portray God as a bearded father-figure. On the topic of crow funerals, I invite you to check out this funding drive initiated by a University of Washington lab to explore what areas of the brain are stimulated during this funeral-like ritual. This might lead to clues about what the birds are actually thinking. If you are interested, you might also want to check out other possibly worthy scientific projects seeking funding, using a model similar to kick starter, at this link.       
    There might, in fact, be a number of emotions that humans share with other animals. This article from Yes Magazine, seems very sympathetic to this idea "Many animals also display wide-ranging emotions, including joy, happiness, empathy, compassion, grief, and even resentment and embarrassment." But, there is still the danger of over-interpretation. For example, there is evidence showing that the evident "guilt" shown by dogs for their misbehavior might simply be a response to scolding.
    A similar problem to anthropomorphizing emotions is to try to superimpose human standards of intelligence on animals. This article examines the challenges of studying crow intelligence. Are humans less intelligent than birds because we might be challenged to build a nest? It has been shown that some dogs can be trained to identify traces of cancer in human urine. I can't track down the quote (I think it was E.O. Wilson), but to paraphrase, "When it comes to the sense of smell, compared to dogs human beings are idiots."
    Another anthropomorphic "trap" is to try to apply human morals to animals. Here is a list of 11 animals that, like many humans, tend toward monogamy. But, I think, it is important to note that monogamy or polygamy are probably just different survival strategies, not extensions of morality.
    Given the complications of evaluating animals on the basis of emotions, intelligence, or morality, how does one prudently examine animal behavior? I think the best approach is to fall on fundamental evolutionary principles and objective laboratory instrumentation.  Do these, often ritualized, animal habits or learned behaviors confer some reproductive or survival benefit? How can this be understood? How could this be measured? What I like about the UW crow project is that it utilizes scans (I believe they are Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans.) to try to identify which areas are activated, although I have some qualms about whether a laboratory study is truly representative about what might happen in the field.
    A few years ago I was surprised to observe a leucistic crow in my neighborhood of West Seattle. Leucism, which is a rare mutation in a variety of different animals, results in "paleness," that is, diminished pigment, in contrast to albinism, another mutation resulting in the complete absence of pigment, i.e. white animals with pink eyes. The local leucistic crow, dubbed "Leucy" by the local media, died in a heatwave a few years ago.
    I have some personal history regarding a bird behavior study from my undergraduate years. At Southern Illinois University there was a fairly eccentric professor who developed this hypothesis that owls engage in what he described as "prey-thawing." His belief was that owls use their body heat to thaw out frozen road kill, and thus were distracted by this task enough to often become road kill themselves. The Professor proposed this to me as a potential grad school thesis project. Unlike the UW project, he seemed uninterested in trying this in a laboratory setting. My response: "Lessee, you want me to kill a rabbit, freeze it, and put it on the side of the road, wait for an owl to happen by, who 'might' sit on the dead rabbit, and then I should wait for a passing truck, who 'might' kill the owl, and you want me to do a statistical evaluation of this phenom? His response: "Yep." My response: "Well, Professor, if I find anyone interested in this kind of project, I'll be sure to send them your way." As soon as I left his office I couldn't contain my laughter. I could just imagine myself, sitting in my car at the side of the road in freezing cold...staring at a dead bunny for hours at end ...waiting ...waiting...waiting--I don't think so. Maybe in my next blog entry I'll consider why owls are considered wise, or why swans are considered symbols of enduring love. But for now, let me leave you with the promotional video from the UW project and a couple of vids reputing to show magpie and raven funerals.


 
 
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Previously, I posted a video of my short play "Missing the Boat," a play about two unicorns trying to hitch a ride to get to Noah's Ark. Last fall I had another of my short plays performed in a community theater production as part of a showcase of shorts called the "Winter Winds of WARP," produced by Writers and Actors Reading and Performing (WARP). The below video was shot by Stacy Kwinn and edited by Jeff Weedman. The play was directed by Carl Nelson with Wendy Cohen as the Chicken and Wanda Moats as the Duck. Thanks to all involved.

And, just to give you a heads-up I will have another short, unpublished, play called "Waiting For Boa" performed in the upcoming WARP Spring showcase--but more about that later.
   Below is the text of "the Other Side," although there are some differences between the text and the video above. This play has not been published yet, but if you would like to check out my published collection "Do Ya Think? Science, Science Fiction, and Skepticism" it is available for Amazon as either a Kindle E-Book or a paperback at this link.

THE OTHER SIDE

(c) 2013 by Scot Bastian

[A duck is standing in the middle of the road. She is approached by a chicken.]

DUCK
Aren't you embarrassed?

CHICKEN
By what? Get out of the way. I'm trying to--

DUCK
—cross the road. I know. Everybody knows that.

CHICKEN
I said, get out of the way!

DUCK
I will not move! It is my moral obligation to prevent you from making a joke of yourself. So, you just turn around and go back.

CHICKEN
Listen, it may be your “moral obligation,” as you call it, to get in my way. But it is my moral imperative to “get to the other side.” Now let me pass dammit!

DUCK
Nope. Ain't gonna happen.

CHICKEN
What difference does it make to you?

DUCK
I cannot stand idly by and allow someone, even a chicken, to harm herself. I wouldn't be able to sleep. It's like giving someone a gun so that he can kill herself. Like passive euthanasia! To allow such a travesty would be a monstrous breach of ethics. You will not pass!

CHICKEN
You're one pretentious windbag of a duck. I can fight fire with fire.  I must fulfill my existential destiny! I need to get to the other side!

DUCK
Oh gawd, and I'm pretentious? And thus you become the butt of jokes—bad jokes—for the rest of eternity.

CHICKEN
I'm not a joke. I'm a philosophical paradigm. Now let me go!

DUCK
You are not a paradigm. You are a chicken. And why is it that when they do survey after survey that the outcome is always the same: us ducks are always ranked as the funniest animals, but you guys always get all the philosophical constructs. Which came first the chicken or the egg? Nobody ever says the duck or the egg? Do they? Well, do they?

CHICKEN
No, they don't.  So which would you rather be, funny or profound?

DUCK
Well you’re both, aren’t you?

CHICKEN
Yes I am.  And I’m trying to complete a joke right now, but you won’t let me.

DUCK
Oh no, you don’t. It’s not just a joke, it’s a philosophical construct.  It’s a raison d’etre, a reason “to be.”  And you can’t hog up both the jokes and the profound allegories.

CHICKEN
What?  It’s a fucking joke, not a philosophy. 

DUCK
Yeah, and the Myth of Sisyphus is just some guy pushing a rock, right? Here’s another, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” 

CHICKEN
What about it?

DUCK
Drives me nuts! We lay eggs too, you know. You think we don’t hatch? It’s a metaphor for patience. What do we get?  A duck walks into a bar—yadda, yadda—Fill in the blanks.  We’re just a joke, you they take seriously.  What gives? If jokes are going to be my balliwick, then I get the jokes. You can’t be funny and profound. That’s when I decided to take a stand. You’re crossing this road over my dead body.

CHICKEN
(Tapping her foot and thinking.)  Maybe, just maybe, I can expand this into an important philosophical precept. You want a piece of it?

DUCK
How?

CHICKEN
You mentioned Sisyphus. What does that myth illustrate?

DUCK
Simple. The Gods condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration, pushing a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll down again, asking the question, how, when faced with the brutalities of a seemingly meaningless existence, can one find meaning?

CHICKEN
Right! Dead on! You got it!

DUCK
What the hell does this have to do with chickens and ducks?

CHICKEN
Let’s think about it.  Right now I’m trying to get to the other side, right?

DUCK
And I will not let you pass.

CHICKEN
A profound philosophical model for what happens when an unstoppable force encounters an immovable barrier. What do you think happens?

DUCK
An explosion?

CHICKEN
Is it? Or is it stasis? Or, does each action result in an equal and opposite reaction?

DUCK
Holy shit! We’re demonstrating Newton’s Laws?

CHICKEN
Inertia! Mass! Energy! The whole nine yards! DUCK
An unstoppable chicken meets an impenetrable duck.  Gosh, I feel so, I feel so profound.

CHICKEN
There you go.  Congratulations.

DUCK
Sounds more like physics than philosophy.

CHICKEN
It’s both!

DUCK
I’m not a joke anymore.  I feel lighter than feathers.  I feel like I could fly.

CHICKEN
You can fly.  Nothing transcendent there.  Not that I can do it, but I get the concept.  Now, sorry about this, but I got to get to the other side now.

DUCK
But what about our paradigm?

CHICKEN
Not buying it, huh?  Okay.  Scratch that philosophical construct.  Let’s try another on for size.  Here we are, in the middle of the road, at the crossroad of existence.  In purgatory!  And you, you are Charon, the ferryman--

DUCK
But I’m a duck!

CHICKEN
Okay, have it your way.  You’re Quackon, the ferryduck, here to collect the fee to escort me across the river Styx to the other side.

DUCK
I am?

CHICKEN
yes.

DUCK
I thought it was a road.

CHICKEN
Work with me here.  Doesn’t it make more sense for a duck to be in a river anyhow?

DUCK
I guess so. 

CHICKEN
But chickens don’t swim.

DUCK
True.

CHICKEN
Right!  You’re in purgatory.  So, I need you to get to the other side,  And you must exact payment.  I must pay the ferryduck for the transition to the netherworld, for nothing, nothing! is free.  For every rite of passage, a price must be paid.  Even death extracts a price.

DUCK
No wonder you guys get all the aphorisms and philosophy.  You’re so fucking melodramatic all the time.  Everything you say reminds me of an ancient Greek tragedy.

CHICKEN
And so Quackon escorts the proud hen from the world of the living to the dark, unknown province of the hereafter. 

DUCK
Aren’t you supposed to pay me first?

CHICKEN
I have paid you.  I have enriched your being by making you a part of yet another philosophy.  You have, yet again, been immortalized.

DUCK
Okay, I’ll take it.  I’ll get you to the other side.

[The duck poles the imaginary boat with the chicken passenger to the other side of the stage.]

CHICKEN
Take me, proud ferryduck to the undiscovered country of the soul.

[The chicken leaves the boat for the shore.]

Thank you, my friend, and congratulations!  You will now be memorialized in the philosophical hall of fame.  Ever will you be the immovable duck in the road and the symbolic ferryduck, transferring the souls to the great beyond.

DUCK
Well, thanks.  But, well, I still have a nit to pick.

CHICKEN
A nit?

DUCK
Yeah, why do I have to be your co-star?  I mean, yeah, I’m the unmovable duck, but you’re the unstoppable chicken.  And, yeah, I’m the ferryduck, but you’re the one getting the ride.  Can’t I have my own philosophical model?  What I’m saying is I’m tired of being your bitch!  I want a solo act.  I want top billing for a change.  I still feel like just a joke!  I want my own paradigm, dammit!  How about it?

CHICKEN
(Taps her feet, thinking.)  As you wish.  There stands the proud duck, alone, in the middle of the road of life.

DUCK
Now that’s more like it.

CHICKEN
Facing the imponderables.  Confused.  Isolated.  Lonely.  The duck lives his life, facing the existential void, facing it courage, pride, and humor.

DUCK
Humor?  Don’t you be turning this into a joke now.

CHICKEN
And yet, there is a deep-seated sense of humility and awe, at the singularity of being, admixed with the totality of reality.  Stranded on the highway of eternity.

DUCK
We’re back on the road?

CHICKEN
Hovering like a fly on the freeway… DUCK
I’m a duck, not a fly!

CHICKEN
…and as she turns to look down the tunnel of time, what does she see? Fate! The headlights of ultimate reality shining at her.

[A light turns on]

DUCK
The what?

[Truck noises]

CHICKEN
Bearing down upon her, she stands to face the oncoming, brutal, force of unstoppable reality. Like a fly, waiting for the windshield of unstoppable destiny.

[Louder truck noises]

DUCK
That truck doesn’t look like it’s slowing down.  Get me out of this road!

CHICKEN
Whether  ‘tis nobler in the mind to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

DUCK
I’ll take the slings and arrows, just stop that truck!

CHICKEN
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them!

DUCK
Can’t we do a different--

CHICKEN
—To dream no more. To sleep.

DUCK
To be or not to be!

[The truck runs over the duck.]

CHICKEN
Congratulations. You now have a lead role in your own idiomatic expression. You, my friend, are a “dead duck.”

DUCK
You bastard.

[The duck dies]

CHICKEN
What a joke.

[The chicken smirks, shrugs, and leaves the stage.]

END PLAY

 
 
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Last week I was interviewed by Morgan Dusatko about skepticism and skeptical issues--a pretty broad topic. Here is a link if you want to check it out. I'm featured mostly in the first and third segments. Here is a link to several entertaining podcasts from Morgan's Martini Hour.
   The although the conversation drifted, we circled around a few times to the topic of vaccination. This is much-traveled ground for skeptics, and I assume that most readers of this blog know that a lot of naive people were (and still are) confused by the onset of autism which correlates with the regimen of vaccinations administered to children. The beginning of this panic is traceable to the fraudulent publications by a British physician Andrew Wakefield. The long, sad, story of Wakefield is beautifully illustrated in cartoon form by Darryl Cunningham. Everyone loves cartoons--so go check it out.  I'll wait. Unfortunately, a few celebrities, notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey were convinced that vaccines are dangerous, and their anti-vaccine views are  now running rampant. The issue has devolved from a public health issue to, supposedly, a civil rights issue, with many people now exercising their rights to refuse vaccination resulting in a reduction in our immunity and a resurgence in some serious diseases. Let's not pull any punches, people have DIED because the anti-vax movement. For more info about the vaccine controversy I suggest the wikipedia entry on vaccine controversies--which I think is a pretty good general summary.  
   On the podcast, I told the co-host, Shannon, that I would try and explain the basis of vaccination. I think the host, Morgan, as he explained it, didn't want to get "too deep into the weeds" regarding the topic, which is understandable. After all, it's an entertainment show, not a science show. 
   The story of vaccines started with Edward Jenner, who in the 18th century, long before the discovery of germ theory with it's champions Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. At the time smallpox was a devastating disease, but it was noted that if you survived smallpox, you never developed it again. Although they didn't understand the details then, our immune system, once it recognized the "bug" would prevent us from developing the disease. This led to attempts in Jenner's day at treatment in a process called "variolation" to actually infect patients with a mild case of smallpox to prevent onset of the full-blown disease. It didn't work very well. Dosing was a problem. Sometimes the variolation was inadequate, other times it led to smallpox. But, the observant Dr Jenner, noted that milkmaids often were immune to smallpox. In fact, many were employed as nurses for smallpox victims. It turned out, to make a long and fascinating story short, that the milkmaids were often infected with certain forms of cowpox that they caught from milking cows. So, Jenner treated an 8 year old, James Phipps, with cowpox (called "vaccinia") and then inoculated him six weeks later with smallpox. (This experiment is of dubious ethics and certainly would not be approved in this way today.) The boy survived and Jenner is said to "have saved more lives than any other human." Smallpox has now been eradicated from the planet in 1977. And there are ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.

   So, how does it work? In simple terms, the cowpox virus has a region similar in shape on the surface of the smallpox virus. Once our immune system recognized cowpox it could repel smallpox.  More recent vaccines use harmless chunks of the pathogen to stimulate the immune system, thus using our own bodies' immune systems to prevent us from getting sick. The reason it is harder to develop vaccines for the common cold and AIDS is because these viruses tend to change. It's really that simple. 
   One problem that is feeding the antivax movement is that we're forgetting how effective vaccines are. Here's a list provided by the Center For Disease Control of vaccine-preventable diseases. It's quite a list. My advice to anyone under 50 years old, who perhaps has never seen it, is to ask an older person just how devastating a disease that polio can be. It was a disease that not only paralyzed its victims, but paralyzed society with infectious fear. So, if you bring your child to the doctor, instead of complaining about the number of vaccines that your child is subject to, I recommend that you feel grateful for the number of deadly diseases they prevent.
    In summary, let me reiterate what I told Shannon at the recording session, I'm really glad you and your husband made the decision to have your child vaccinated. Now I'm going to gross you out a little. Below are three pictures showing, left to right, the devastating effects of smallpox, polio and  whooping cough (Pertussis). 

   I hope Shannon, for the sake of society, and the sake of our children, that more parents make the same decision that you did. Thank you.

 
 
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Some time ago I argued that life on other planets is not only possible, but, I think, likely. This conclusion is based on two facts 1) Life is incredibly diverse and adaptable. The existence of extremophiles, organisms that can survive under extreme conditions, and the amazing hardiness of critters like water bears, indicates that life might survive  seemingly inhospitable environments found on other planets; and 2) The expansion of the number of exoplanets that have been discovered in the last few years, which is one of the most breath-taking scientific advances in my lifetime, provides ample possibilities for the emergence of life.
    But, of course, until life on other worlds is confirmed, this remains speculative.
    So, what's new? Recently, NASA has announced the confirmation of 715 new planets, orbiting 305 stars bringing the total planetary count to nearly 1700. There are also several thousand candidate planets awaiting confirmation. Yowza, that's a lot of new ground. Interestingly, as the below chart indicates, most of the newly-confirmed planets are not too distant in size to Earth.

    Also intriguing, is that most of planets seem to be part of planetary systems; i.e. multiple-planet star systems like our own Solar System.
    Even more exciting is the discovery of several new planets that occupy the "habitable zone," which is defined as planets that have the right temperature to have liquid water on the surface. Below is an artists depiction of habitable zone worlds, from the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, which was recently featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. It is also possible, since several of these worlds orbit the same star, that star systems with multiple habitable planets are common.
    So, whither goest the Kepler telescope project? They've had some challenges lately. Two of the four reaction wheels that control the direction that the telescope points have become inoperative. They could still operate with only three, but with only two viable controllers, the project seemed dead-in-the-water. But, the clever folks at NASA have devised a solution. Using solar pressure in conjunction with the two functioning wheels they will be able to continue the search in what they describe as the K2 phase of the project. If, like me, you're a Keplerholic and want to see even more check out the Kepler image gallery.
    But, the Kepler data is not the only news. NASA announced a "concept under study" to re-visit Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth's Moon, is considered to be one of the more likely candidates to harbor extraterrestrial life within the Solar System. Although most of the moon's surface is frozen, a few months ago the Hubble Space telescope detected plumes of water vapor on Europa's  surface, and it is believed that there is liquid water beneath the icy crust. The concept of the Europa Clipper is to put a vessel in orbit around the moon to perform detailed instrument analyses. Among the questions is how thick is the ice crust on the surface? Could the giant moon harbor creatures in the oceans of water beneath its surface? I say, let's go fishin'--who knows what will bite?  Below is a picture of Europa taken by the Galileo Probe in 1996.
    This reminds me of the fabulous sci-fi film from a few months ago "Europa Report" which is a fictional documentary of a manned exploration of Europa. I highly recommend this film, which I think was largely overlooked because it was overshadowed by the very popular film "Gravity" which I blogged about previously.  Below-left is the trailer for "Europa Report" and below-right is a short NASA video about Europa.  
So, will we find extraterrestrial life? Well, I believe it is there, but will we find it? I have no idea, but I hope so--and we have so much more to explore! To get a feel of how large (and how small) our universe is, I invite you to explore this mind-blowing interactive infographic.
    In closing, I would like to leave you with this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. 
 
 
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I guess food is near and dear to all of us. A few weeks ago I blogged about breatharianism, featuring the very interesting "experiment" performed by Naveena Shine. Today I'd like to blog about the interesting relationship between the world of vegetables and woo.
    Maybe, I should have added this to the list of interesting words that I blogged about previously, but here's a great one: "Tasseography" (AKA tasseomancy) which is a fortune-telling technique that uses tea leaf or coffee ground residue, or wine sediments as a means of separating gullible people from their money. Part of a long tradition of shysters that include palm readers, tarot card readers, crystal ball readers etc. who are expert at "cold reading;" that is, using clues, often aided by leading questions, conveyed by their victims to answer questions about their relationships, money problems and their futures. The video on the below left features a woman who describes herself as an "energist" and a clairvoyant. She has "a gift." Add a few great feel good-buzzwords like, "transformation," "resonated," "comfort and peace" "empowered" some lit candles, and gruvy new agey music and what-do-ya got? a nice newsvertisement video. I really hate the way that psychics twist words and concepts like "energy" or "intuition." Exactly what sort of energy is radiated by tea leaves? The only intuitive powers that psychics have are their ability to cold read their hapless victims. The middle video is another example of a tasseographer. This woman is apparently both an "Inner Faith Priestess" AND an "interfaith Priestess" and a shamanist. Why not? More new agey background music. The tea leaves are a "gift from the cosmos." Blah, blah, blah.  But, why limit yourself to tasseomancy, when there are so many other plants? Below right is a different kind of quackmeister, she foretells the future using asparagus. That's right, she's "the world's only asparamancer." Will wonders never cease?


For my last entry into the vegetable woo hall of fame allow me to introduce Grandpa John and his electric pickle demonstration. Somehow Grandpa John twists glowing pickles as analogous to the energy that god puts into Christians. Confused? Oh, just watch the video, Gramps makes it all crystal clear. Not only is the glowing pickle cool, but you gotta love his sweater.
So, what to make of all this? I don't need to be an asparamancer to predict a cold, rainy day in Seattle. I predict my future holds a nice, tasty, bowl of homemade soup which will warm my innards this evening. Yummy.
 
 
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A few weeks ago I blogged about some words that have caught my attention. One of them was "raccoonitude," which I define as "the attitude of trying to get away with something, and when caught, being so charming that you feel like you should be entitled to your peccadillo, and thus, you might just get away with it."  Below is a video of a perfect example.

    This reminds me of a raccoon encounter that I had a few years ago. It involved myself, my cat, Alex, and what Dangblog described as a "hideous yowling destructo-animal." I didn't have a blog back then, but Dang pretty much got the facts right. Here is the quote from his blog entry:
"After watching a horror movie at a theater, Scot came home and entered his house. His cat is there, looking very anxious. From inside the house comes a ghastly shrieking howl; part-animal, part-banshee. This is followed by a loud crash of breaking glass as the sliding glass door in the back of his house shatters. Alex, the cat, freaks out and runs full bore into an unbroken part of the glass door and bounces off. He disappears into the shadows.

What the hell happened? It’s elementary, my dear Watson. When Scot is out, he leaves a window open a cat’s width for Alex to come into the house. The window is several feet off the ground. While at the movies, a raccoon entered through the window, scarfed cat food, and maybe was casing out the rest of the house when Scot walked in. The coon, scared by the sudden appearance of Scot, bolted for what looked like the outdoors but he was unfamiliar with the concept of glass. His thick skull smashed through the glass door and he escaped. No blood was found. Maybe the animal went to a local emergency room with a concussion. Alex, terrified by both raccoon and window crash, did exactly the same thing as the raccoon, only he was too small to break a window. He was found the next day; uninjured, but a little reluctant to come home. No raccoon was actually ever spotted in this incident, but a previous raccoon invasion made one these bandits the most likely suspect. "

As Dang recounted, I never did confirm with certainty, that it was a raccoon, but other than a chupacabra, I really don't know what else it could have been. The previous raccoon invasion was evidenced by what were apparent raccoon paw prints on the window. Let's examine the myth of the chupacabra, one of my favorite cryptozoids. El chupacabra (not to be confused with the Seattle restaurant) translates as "goat sucker," for it's reported habit of sucking the blood of goats.
    An interesting aside is there is a family of birds, the nightjars, or caprimulgidae, who are (falsely) reputed to suck the milk of goats. Their name comes from the bird's habit of flying over herds of goats with their mouths open to feed on stirred-up insects. But I digress.
    The existence or a "real" chupacabra has never been verified. They usually prove to be hideous-looking canids who, because of disease (often mange) or genetics, are lacking hair.
    They remind me of nude mice, which are often used in medical research, because, in addition to being hairless, nude mice lack a thymus, a feature important in the study of cancer and the immune system. I propose that nude mice be renamed as "chupamousra." But I digress (again).
    So, how can I be certain that the intruder was a raccoon and not a chupacabra? I never actually saw the animal and there was no blood to test, and although the incriminating paw prints strongly suggest it was actually a raccoon, it is possible, that it was BOTH. There are a few instances (see video below) of a reported chups that later on were proven to be hairless raccoons. I suppose, although I strongly doubt it, that it could have even been a small coyote, or even a "chupacoyote," (Yes, I made up that word too.) since there have been numerous documented cases of wild coyotes right here in West Seattle.

    One further digression I'd like to make--my last, I promise--is that I often see fears expressed and propagated by the local news that getting bit by a raccoon in Washington state could lead to a series of painful rabies vaccinations. It is my hope that the local medical establishment realizes that rabies, according to the Washington State Department of Health, for reasons I don't understand, is not endemic to the local raccoon population, although it has been found in bats.
    Anyhow, one of the puzzling aspects of the "hideous yowling destructo-animal incident" is the paradoxical behavior of my cat. What was Alex thinking when he tried to bash his brains out on the adjacent window pane? I can think of several possibilities: 1) Ego. That is, "This stupid raccoon thinks he can breakout at will, well I can too." Alex apparently was unaware of Newton's Laws of Motion, i.e., F=MA. He might have had the acceleration, but probably not the mass of the putative raccoon, thus not enough force to break the window; 2) Anger. Maybe, he thought, particularly since this bastard ate all his food, that with this human backing him up, he could kick the raccoon's ass; 3) My favored interpretation, confusion and stupidity. Although Alex was a very intelligent cat, he was just a cat--and cats can definitely be stupid. He seemed to recover fully from the ordeal--and so did I--although it cosy me about $400 to repair the window. Alas, ten years after adopting me, Alex disappeared, I'm almost certain that he's in cat heaven now. Unfortunately, supposedly cats don't go to heaven--but that's hard to prove.
Below are a couple of pictures of Alex, chupacabra ass-kicker. Come to think of it, he was a pretty big cat!
Below is a selection of chupacabra videos for your enjoyment.
 
 
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It is becoming more and more evident that global climate change is real. NASA now has a site that provides ample information for those who want to catch up on the latest. It is also apparent that climate is caused by human beings, not just natural vacillations in weather. But, here is the problem: I don't feel it yet. Most of us, in our comfortable westernized lives, go about our blissful existence living in denial of the the inexorable, seeming inevitable, planet-wide changes in climate patterns that are already having widespread consequence. But, the real questions are: Can we do anything about it? If it is inevitable, how can we deal with it? How consequential will it be? Part of the problem is that for my whole life I have been exposed to a string of doomsday predictions: ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, acid rain, assorted viral pandemics (AIDS, bird flu, swine flu.) nuclear armageddon...the list seems endless, none of the crises have proved as consequential as some of the more-extreme doomsayers predicted--at least, not yet. So, what of global climate change? Is the sky really falling? Well, I don't know, but except for a few heretics, the vast majority of climate scientists and scientific analyses lead to the inevitable conclusion that, yes, it is real. But as stated above, I still don't feel it. I feel an emotional disconnect between the reality and action.
    Which leads me to my selection of James Balog as my rational hero this week. He embodies the true spirit of this bloggers philosophy, that human beings need to be persuaded, not only on the logical, scientific, level, but the emotional level also. Passion is not driven by logic, but by feelings. Logic and feelings intertwined and synergized can lead to amazing progress and meaningful change. James Balog uses his medium, nature photography and film making, to breathe life into the dull ramble of statistics and charts. His film "Chasing Ice" uses time lapse photography to document the rapid (unbelievably rapid, really) retreat of glaciers in northern climes. This film, now available on DVD, had a strong, almost visceral, effect on me. I highly recommend it. I watched a DVD, but recommend seeing it on the big-screen if possible. Glaciers, wow!
    Below, are two videos that will introduce you to his work. The left, is the trailer for the film, the right is the TED talk by Balog that I highly recommend, especially, if you think it unlikely that you have time to watch the film. I love Balog's introduction to his TED talk, quoted below, which artfully expresses my own philosophy.  

"Most of the time, art and science stare at each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension. There is great confusion when the two look at each other. Art, of course, looks at the world through the psyche, the emotions -- the unconscious at times -- and of course the aesthetic. Science tends to look at the world through the rational, the quantitative -- things that can be measured and described -- but it gives art a terrific context of understanding."
Congratulations to James Balog for his selection as the Do Ya Think? Blog's Rational Hero of the Week. In addition, I thank Balog for helping me to feel, as well as think.
 
 
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This is the third and final blog post on this topic about words that are either new or new to me. Previous entries can be accessed here and here



   
Diffability
or handicapable are new to me. Diffability is defined by Word-Spy as, "A disability, especially one that causes or encourages the person to develop different or special abilities." The earliest citation for diffability that Word-Spy could identify is from Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, in 1997. Diffability is a great example of how words can indicate a changing society. Almost no one that I know uses the terms crippled or retarded, which have morphed into handicapped, and have now evolved into disabled or challenged. Now, it seems, that the correct appellation is "diffabled." Okay by me. I have witnessed this evolution with many words. Here's a handy chart:


When I was in elementary school in suburban Chicago (in the 60s) it was somewhat acceptable to use the "N-word" but one almost never used the "F-word." Now the frequency of use is reversed. I recall that us kids would all jump into a frenzied "nigger-pile." I also recall a counting rhyme:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Later on the word "nigger" was replaced with tiger. I recall my grandmother telling me that there was an audible gasp in the theaters when Rhett Butler delivered the now famous quote from the 1929 film Gone With the Wind, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!" Shocking!--for the time a swear word in the movies. The point is, that language is ever-evolving. This is not necessarily bad, but it is always interesting, and the words diffabled and handicapable are two fascinating examples of language in motion.
    A quenelle salute (or gesture) is recognized when one arm is directed downwards diagonally with the other hand touching its opposite shoulder. (See pic below). It is often considered an anti-establishment, scatalogical, or an anti-semitic inverted Nazi salute. The term quenelle comes from a disgusting-looking creamed fish or meat dish. There are lots of interesting salutes in the world. Below are pictures of a few. 

My personal favorite is the Vulcan salute (upper left hand corner.). The quenelle is demonstrated in the upper right. Time will tell if the quenelle salute lasts, or whether it is just a fad. My guess is that if enough people are offended by it, it may last awhile. If people are wise enough to ignore it, it will die.
    Newsvertising is a word that I made up. Who knows if it will catch on. I define it as a news release which is really just a clever advertisement. Examples of newsvertising? Here are several:1)Contests by the Mars Candy Company to either name a replacement color or name a new color of M&Ms candy. 2)What seems like an annual release of the McDonald's McRib sandwich. 3) Amazon announcing on the news show "60 Minutes" the planned development of delivery drones, conveniently announced just prior to the height of the Christmas shopping season. 4) A very recent favorite, Kraft Foods announcing a "supposed" shortage of Velveeta "alleged" cheese. I write "supposed" because I wonder if this shortage isn't entirely contrived, and "alleged" because I think Velveeta is to cheese what cardboard is to a tree. All of these are examples of what I dub newsvertising. I really can't blame these companies, this is an absolute gold mine of free advertising, but I really wish the media would display at least a modicum of integrity (not likely, I know) and just let these obvious manipulative machinations just die before they become memes.
    Raccoonitude. I overheard this word at a local Burning Man event CriticaLand (see below). I can't remember the exact definition bestowed by its utterer, so I'll just make one up. Raccoons are really cute, but very devious. Raccoonitude is the attitude of trying to get away with something, and when caught, being so charming that you feel like you should be entitled to your peccadillo, and thus, you might just get away with it. Below is a video by the "Undisputed Truth."  The song is called Smiling Faces Sometimes," a perfect description of raccoonitude.


    Janky. I first heard this word in relation to a Burning Man regional gathering in the Seattle area put together by Critical Northwest. The CriticaLand theme for this year was "The Jankiest Place on Earth." What the heck? Here is a quote from an article I wrote entitled  "Welcome to Camp Janky" (Full article available here)
"The Urban Dictionary comes to the rescue,'… inferior quality; held in low social regard; old and dilapidated; …used to describe a person, place or thing which is questionable, fucked up, wrong, strange, broken down, undesirable, and/or just something you can’t think of another word for… a conjunction of ‘junky’ and‘skanky’.' Well, okay then, I think I get it now. Sounds like an Appalachian Paradise. But here is my fave definition: “Poorly constructed or put together, and does not seem like it should function at all, although it may perform beyond expectations.”
I think that about covers it, and CriticaLand was indeed totally janky in a wonderful way.
    Evangedouche is a great word that I first saw in a Jezebel Blog posting by Lindy West. The entry is entitled "Worst Guy Ever Alert: Beware of Horrible Hipster Pastor Mark Driscoll" who is described as a "preening alpha evangedouche." Ah, music to my ears. I have a particular interest in this evangedouche (I just love typing that word.) because this guy is the head of the Mars Hill Megachurch, which has a satellite right in my neighborhood of West Seattle. Readers of this blog know that I have some respect for the power of religion as a positive force, but there are some religious celebrities (e.g. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, John Hagee) that are so extreme, so obviously idiotic, that I am reduced to name-calling, and evangedouche is as good an insult as any, and better than most. So, what is it that makes Driscoll a premier evangedouche? (I'm going to type that word as many times as context allows.) A couple examples: Driscoll believes that yoga is "demonic," and the wonderful film "Avatar" "the most Demonic, Satanic. film I've ever seen," Gimme a break. I could go on for many paragraphs about what a jerk that Driscoll is, but I recommend you read Jezebel's blog entry instead. If you want further reading about this evangedouche, I recommend this link about his views on "Avatar." How anyone, particularly women, can become part of his "flock" is a mystery to me. Below is a couple videos, the first is Driscoll the other is another notorious evangedouche John Hagee. Enjoy.
Psychonaut or psychonautics. Fascinating words introduced to me by a friend. It refers to the journey that one can take in one's mind using altered states of consciousness, often induced by hallucinogenic substances. I don't endorse this, nor do I practice it--at least not using drugs--but I do concede that some folks seem to think that psychonautics can launch the psychonaut on a creative, "spiritual" journey, perhaps leading to nirvanic bliss (or something like that.) and possibly a creative epiphany. Personally, I'm a little too concerned about permanently scrambling my brains--I prefer to not perform experiments on myself--and leave this to braver folks. But hey, I like the words, if not the practice.
    So, this completes my semantic journey through the American lexicon. It's been fun for me to collect these words. I can't close without mention of the greatest wordsmith of them all: William Shakespeare. Thanks Bill, you were the greatest. Check out his handy Shakespearean insult generator. I'm sure that Shakespeare would have heartily approved of evangedouche, or I'll be a "paunchy reeling-ripe moldwarp!"
 
 
 
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Sorry I've neglected my blog over the holidays, but I'm back in the saddle now. This is a continuation of my last blog entry that highlighted some interesting vocabulary that I've been seeing floating around the last year or so. Below are a few more of my favorites.
  
     Burqini or Burkini is a pormanteau of burqa and bikini. It is a swimsuit designed by Aheda Zanetti that is intended to preserve Muslim modesty. It covers the entire female body except the face, hands and feet. Thinking about this motivated me to look up the kinds of headwear worn by Muslims. Below is a diagram showing the various types.


    In Seattle I see a fair share of women wearing hijabs and a couple wearing burkas. One young lady I saw in a Starbucks adding sugar and cream to her drink while talking on a cell phone that she had neatly tucked into her hijab. I teased her by saying "Gee, that's a pretty slick solution to the laws in Washington state prohibiting talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device." She smiled and replied, "We call it a 'Muslim Bluetooth.' I like that.  
    In France there has been a recent hullabaloo about a legal ban on wearing a Niqab in public, which is now being subject to a legal challenge. My view: I think this is simply a case of state-sponsored racism. My feelings parallel the views of this article that this is not a security issue, nor an abrogation of the subjugation of women. It is simply a, ahem, "thinly veiled" example of islamophobia. I hope the European court rules to get rid of this stupid law. DYT Blog readers know that this blogger is no fan of religion, but this is just plain wrong. The court ruling on this sometime in the next few months.
    Gish Gallop. Oooh, this is a good one. Named for creationist wacko (Note: This author considers all creationists as wackos) Duane Gish in a term coined by anthropologist Eugenie Scott, who has been a potent force in an attempt to keep creationism out of science classes in public schools. The gallop is essentially a distraction technique of running down a long list of irrelevancies, straw-man arguments and falsehoods to support a position. The idea is to create an unassailable argument that is weighted by numerous "facts." A Gish Gallop, in other words, is piling bullshit onto bullshit and then adding even more bullshit. Unfortunately, for for the gushers of gish, this amounts to only a large pile of...yeah, you guessed it, bullshit. This technique is not only used by creationists, but climate change deniers and other irrational "thinkers." The Rational Wiki entry has links to several examples.
    Ignosticism or Igtheism. These terms have been around for a while, but they're relatively new to me. I like this definition:
    "
Ignosticism is the position that, before we can have a meaningful conversation about "God", we have to adequately define "God". Since most given descriptors of "God" are muddled, self-contradictory, linguistically empty, etc, it's pointless to talk about it at all. Basically the position boils down to saying "I don't know what you're talking about when you talk about 'God". The idea of "God" is cognitively incoherent and so cannot be entertained in thought. It is unthinkable and unverifiable. Ignosticism is often synonymous with Theological Noncognitivism."
Let me define this by example. Often, beliefs in god are divided into three broad categories (With sub-categories in each): theist, atheist, and agnostic; or, believer, non-believer and "doubter," respectively. When confronted with these descriptions many years ago, I was could never fit myself into any of these neat little categories, and often described myself as "confused," or would say something like, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Some, taking pity on my ignorance, would rise to the occasion and and try to cobble together some sort of definition, like a "Supreme Being," (which sounds to me like some kind of divine ice cream concoction), or they would list some description of unprovable extremes, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, incorporeal, etc. or synonyms "God is Love," or some such nonsense. I have to say that this never really clarified anything for me. Nowadays I'm pretty comfortable, in the absence of anything more definable, to remain confused. But now, I have a label for it: I'm an ignostic. Yay, me.
    Schmeat or Shmeat. Another pormanteau of the words "sheet" and "meat." This sounds like an interesting meal. Essentially, test tube meat grown in vitro from cultured bovine muscle cells. At first blush, this sounds terribly unappetizing to me. But, after thinking about it, why not? Some of us eat hot dogs, hamburgers, or chicken nuggets? People who have tried it seem impressed both by its mouthfeel and similarity to "real" meat. Much better than soy bean or tofu preparations (tofurkey anyone?) that are doctored to resemble meat. I wonder if this will catch on with vegetarians? Maybe some. It seems relatively cruelty-free, and may have environmental benefits, but it's not clear yet how schmeat compares in terms of nutritional content with the real thing. Below is a pic:

Looks tasty to me. Some have suggested that this might develop into a solution to the world hunger problem if we can figure out a way to produce it cheaply enough. Personally, I'm a fan of addressing the global shortage of protein by consuming insects. Insects may sound unappealing, at least to American appetites, but, honestly, we generally have no trouble eating shrimp and lobster, which are just other arthropods. Below I have posted a couple videos of taste tests of schmeat. Bon appetit!
Well, shucks, I'm still not all the way through my list of words and this blog-post is getting kind of long. Looks like this is a three-parter. Stay tuned and Happy New Year everyone.
 
 
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I love words. I've always been a word guy. I'm really not tempted to fix a car or a computer for pleasure, but reading, writing, talking and listening,--that's what I do best. Over the last few months I've been keeping an eyes and ears open for new words and phrases that catch my attention. A couple blog posts ago I got a head start on this when I wrote about the "Full Amish." Let me dump a few more of my faves from the last year or so.   
    Selfie
This is a fun word, that is a self-portrait usually taken with a hand held digital camera or phone. I guess other folks have found this word interesting because it has recently been selected as "Word of the Year" by the Oxford English dictionary, beating out a couple of my other favorites, schmeat and twerk. 
   
Twerking feels kind of old hat now, but I don't remember seeing this last year. Twerking is defined as "a type of dancing in which the dancer, usually a woman, shakes her hips in an up-and-down bouncing motion, causing the dancer's buttocks to shake, 'wobble' and 'jiggle'." It's use seems to have exploded in popularity with the pop star Miley Cyrus. But, after doing a little "research" I found out that the term twerking has been around for at least 20 years.  Check out this link if you're really interested.
    Apodment has been springing up on billboards in Seattle lately. Essentially "microhousing" sort of like mini-studio apartments, or a small version of "buffet" apartments as they were often called when I lived in Denver. Apodments are usually about 150 to 300 sq. feet and often have only one kitchen shared between 6 or 8 units. I'm not sure that I would find the lack of privacy appealing, but I can understand the trend. Think of all the items that we used to have that we no longer need the space to accommodate: no more books (replaced by electronic readers), no more bulky stereos (replaced by I-pods, computers.) If you own a TV at all, it might be an ultra-thin set that hangs on the wall. Records? electronic storage. Basically, we live our lives on screens, large and small. Why do we need all that energy-hogging space? Less real stuff, more cyber stuff. Makes sense, especially in the transient life of the techno-elite, who may not wish to be weighed down by many material objects. Have laptop, will travel.
     Freedom Fondle. I saw this phrase in a Facebook entry. It refers to the free grope that Homeland Security is now entitled to at airport security, compliments of post-9/11 paranoia. I still remember going through the airport right after the 9/11 attack and seeing an army dude wearing camouflage in the airport, standing at attention, brandishing a machine gun. My first thought: Why should I bother to bring a gun through security, when I could just tackle this guy? My second thought: I hope he didn't have a fight with his girlfriend this weekend. I don't know, maybe it was all for show, maybe the gun was unloaded and he was being watched from above. 
     Choprawoo. Coined by David Gorski who goes by the nom de blog "Orac" on his respectful Insolence blog it "honors" everybody's favorite quack guru, Deepak Chopra. Dr. Chopra has been spinning is home-spun pseudoprofound garbage for many years now. He's published at least 57 "self-help" books, so, if nothing else, you have to admire his productivity. I love this little site that strings together random fragments of Deepak Chopra's "wisdom," derived from his Twitter feed into pseudoquotes which seem indistinguishable from the real Chopra. Below is a mixture of real quotes and random fictional quotes from the fake quote generator. Can you tell which is which?


"Experiential truth reflects the flow of self-knowledge" 
"Hidden meaning explores self-righteous timelessness"
“You must find the place inside yourself where nothing is impossible.” 
"The universe influences unbridled opportunities"
“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” 
"Every person is a God in embryo. Its only desire is to be born."

Give up? The third and fifth and sixth quotes from above are real, the other three are random, not that it makes any difference. 
     Chopra has been taken to task by several skeptics. Here's a good commentary, and here's a more polite one from Phil Plait. Everywhere it seems the purveyors of pseudoscience are being outed. The organization that produces TED talks has recently released a statement about the dangers of pseudoscience.  As they describe it "The consequence of bad science and health hoaxes are not trivial." and they are right. People have died as a consequence of substituting quack medicine for real medicine.  But, the quackmeisters spouting choprawoo are not taking this lying down, which leads me to my next topic.
     Militant Skepticism. I think Deepak has had his feelings hurt. On his blog and in a series of Huff Post articles he wrote "The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism." Yes, skepticism "has gotten itself into a pickle," it has become a "militant crusade." Maybe the term "militant skepticism" has been around longer than I'm aware, but this is the first I've heard of it. Essentially an impassioned screed against guerrilla skeptics and skeptic celebrities Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Chopra attacks Richard Dawkins (a "militant atheist") for his attack of the "God Hypothesis." Dawkins is taken to task by Chopra because has the temerity to insist on proof, or at least credible evidence, for the existence of god. But, "Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God." Well, no kidding, Dawkins failed to prove or disprove the existence of unicorns either. So what? Chopra goes on to attack Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris over-reliance on the "five senses," and "turning their backs on and scorning subjectivity." Basically, Chopra's argument is a long-winded "god of the gaps" argument, which, to summarize, we don't understand everything in the world, therefore god exists. Somehow skeptic's distrust in "subjective truth" gives Chopra license to peddle his own new-age religion. Intermingle quantum physics with consciousness-what do you get?-insta-wisdom! Buy yours today!
    Ah, I see that this post is getting a bit long and I'm only about halfway through my word list. Let's call this part 1 and I'll try and cover a few more words and phrases in my next post. But before I go lessee if I can use all the words for today in one sentence. Deepak, you and your apodment-sized brain, can use your choprawoo-sputtering, lips to freedom fondle this militant skeptic's twerking behind while taking a selfie.
    Hey, I did it.