Anil Seth’s TED Talk on what is consciousness.

What is consciousness? This is one of those questions that seems to be unanswerable, but according to Anil Seth consciousness is a form of controlled hallucination that we’re all having all the time. When we agree on our hallucinations we call that “reality.” He explains the idea behind this in a short TED Talk filmed this past April:

I find the concepts being explored in this fascinating and I wish it went into more depth. I’ll have to see if I can track down more on Anil’s work in this area.

One topic he touches on lightly that I found very interesting was his conclusion that sentient Artificial Intelligence is probably not going to be a problem because consciousness requires more than high intelligence to arise. I feel like there’s a good basis for a science fiction story in that idea, but I’ll be damned if I can nail it down.

Anyway, I thought this was both interesting and informative so I figured I’d share it.

News Flash: Americans are lazy which makes us fat.

A new study from Stanford University’s Department of No Shit, Sherlock shows that Americans are among the laziest when it comes to walking anywhere other than to the fridge for more chocolate pie. Researchers used the step counters in the smartphones of 700,000 people in 46 different countries to figure this out:

The U.S. is one of the world’s laziest countries — and it’s making us fat — USA Today

Scott Delp, a professor of bioengineering who co-led the research, told the BBC the “study is 1,000 times larger than any previous study on human movement.”

The least lazy, according to the study published in the journal Nature, are the Chinese, particularly those in Hong Kong, where people averaged 6,880 a steps a day.

The worst nation was nearby Indonesia, where people walked nearly half as much, averaging 3,513 steps a day. The worldwide average is 4,961 steps, with Americans averaging 4,774.

Now this study might seem pointless, but it turns out it does reveal an interesting fact. Indonesia has the lowest average steps per day for its population so you’d think they’d be much more likely to be obese similar to people in the United States, but it turns out that’s not the case because there is much less variation in the population between who walks a lot and who doesn’t. The researchers refer to this as “activity inequality” and it turns out the bigger that inequality is the more likely a nation is to be obese:

In countries with less obesity, the Stanford researchers say, people typically walked a similar amount every day. In nations with higher rates of obesity, there were larger gaps between those who walked a lot and those who walked very little.

Among those latter countries is the United States, where “activity inequality” ranks Americans fourth from the bottom overall.

“If you think about some people in a country as ‘activity rich’ and others as ‘activity poor,’ the size of the gap between them is a strong indicator of obesity levels in that society,” Delp told the Stanford news site.

Tim Althoff, who worked on the study, pointed to Sweden, with an average of 5,863 steps, as having one of the smallest activity inequality gaps. “It also had one of the lowest rates of obesity,” he said.

Additionally, whether you lived in dense urban or less dense suburban areas also plays a factor:

Jennifer Hicks, another researcher in the study, told the Stanford news site that they examined three California cities located close to one another – San Francisco, San Jose and Fremont. They found San Francisco held both the highest walkability score and the lowest level of activity inequality.

“In cities that are more walkable, everyone tends to take more daily steps, whether male or female, young or old, healthy weight or obese,” Hicks said.

I can’t speak for any other Americans, but I am a fundamentally lazy person who hates to exercise even though I know I really should.  My previous attempts at establishing a walking routine have been documented on this very blog, all of which I gave up on. I just can’t seem to get into the walking habit.

That said, the move to our new home does put me within a reasonable walking distance to a few stores, though it’s still longer than I’d like to attempt in my current shape. We’ve managed to land in a decent neighborhood where it’s not uncommon to see folks out walking for exercise during the day.

I doubt I’ll try getting into walking again simply because I already know I won’t stick with it. However, part of the my motivation for buying a house was so I’d have someplace to store a bicycle and now that I have one I’ve started looking for a decent bike that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg that I could start peddling around the block a few times. The reason I want one that isn’t expensive is just in case I fail at establishing that as a routine too. No point in spending $700 on a bike I don’t use. Did that once with the elliptical exercise machine I bought back when we lived in Ann Arbor. Not making that mistake again.

There’s a local bike shop not too far from my house that I would like to stop by this weekend and take a look around. I don’t need anything with a million gears on it, just something that will stand up to my weight. I used to love riding my bike as a kid well up through my teenaged years and I’m hoping I’ll still enjoy it today. Granted, it won’t do me much good during the winter months, but some exercise would be better than none.

As for the rest of the country, I’ve no solutions to offer up to get us all to exercise a bit more. If I have a hard time motivating myself to do it there’s no way I can think of some way to get everyone else to do it.

The Paulding Light shows how some folks just want to believe.

If you’re ever in the region of Paulding Michigan during the evening hours you can catch a glimpse at a supposedly supernatural local phenomenon known as the Paulding Light. At the end of the abandoned segment of US Highway 45 in a tiny speck of a town near the border with Wisconsin in the Upper Peninsula is where the mystery takes place.

The official legend says it’s the ghost of a railroad brakeman who is forever waving his lantern in an attempt to stave off the train accident that killed him, but other folks think it’s the ghost of a grandparent looking for a lost grandchild with a lantern that keeps going out. Still others think it’s UFOs. Swamp gas or maybe something to do with the northern lights.

Oddly enough the first reports of the light are from 1966 when local teenagers told the sheriff about it. Which is right around the time they finished rerouting U.S. Highway 45 in that area. You don’t suppose it could be the headlights of cars travelling along the highway, do you?

In 2010 electrical engineering grad student Jeremy Bos decided to find out. He got some of his buddies from the Society of Photo Optical Instrumentation Engineers club and made the trek up there with some equipment to put it to the test:

“When you tell them about how it’s a spooky ghost story, it got people really wanting to get involved,” said the 39-year-old, now an engineering professor at the school.

They brought a spectrograph and a telescope to the dead-end road, sent each other driving down the new highway while blinking their lights in a prearranged pattern, and recorded the results.

Every time the light appeared, one look through the telescope showed what sure looked like the headlights of oncoming cars, which could be seen clearly through the lens, sometimes with the distinct outline of the car coming down the road, which is about 8 miles away. The group even shot a video through the telescope so others could see, and posted it online. The flickering, they said, was caused when cars went over a hill.

Mystery solved, they announced.

via Mysterious light draws thrill seekers to a U.P. forest.

Science wins again, right? Here’s where it gets interesting. You see, one of the odd things about human beings is we like our mysteries and we want desperately to believe in the supernatural. There are a lot of folks up there who just don’t accept the findings of Jeremy Bos and his colleagues.

Bos still gets flak from people who refuse to give up their belief in the supernatural origin of the light. Some people say the light they’ve seen in the woods is too bright to be headlights. Some say it moves in ways no car can. And some, he’s found, don’t have a particular objection — they just want to keep believing.

“It’s the same with anything,” he said. “There is scientific evidence to disprove all sorts of things, and people still choose to believe the more fantastical, maybe because they view science as taking away the mystery of things and they want to hold onto some of that mystery.”

The human eye can see the light of a single candle up to 30 miles away if the observer is high enough to overcome the curvature of the horizon, but just because you can see the light doesn’t mean you have the ability to determine its source. Headlights 8 miles away are certainly bright enough to be seen, but it’d be difficult to judge their movement or the fact that they’re headlights at that distance.

Here’s a daytime pic of the spot you stand in to see the light:


You can clearly see how this used to be part of the highway system and is now used as a run for powerlines. The light appears way down at the end of this line-of-sight. You know, where the U.S. Highway 45 currently runs by. So what does it look like? Here’s a YouTube video uploaded by Robert Wiegert in 2006:

If you watch it’ll look pretty impressive at first with a bright flare and then it changes colors and breaks into multiple lights and then you realize it’s cars. At least one person can be heard pointing out that it’s cars in the distance, but that does little to dampen the oohs and ahs of the folks who think it’s something spooky.

Here’s the video of the investigation by Jeremy Bos’ team:

It’s pretty clear those are lights from cars on the highway and that shouldn’t be a big surprise because just about any place in the country where you have a similar situation you’ll find a legend about a mystery light. A Google search for “ghost light” will turn up dozens of examples.

That won’t stop the True Believers™:

Even before the experiment was done, people from the area heard what the students were aiming to do. Some locals came by and angrily told the group this was a waste of government money — though, in reality, it was self-funded by the optics club. One woman kept bringing her photo albums featuring pictures she’d taken of the light over the years to show them her proof that it’s real. Others acknowledged that, yes, those were headlights in the lens of the telescope, but insisted that it wasn’t the actual Paulding Light.

{…} “People want to debunk this mystery and say it’s headlights,” Schulz said. “You might be able to see them from a distance. But when the real mystery light shows up, it’s a light of its own.”

There are a lot of people in this world who want to believe in fantasy rather than reality. Maybe reality is just too tough for them to deal with so imagining supernatural explanations for mundane things is a way to admit they have no real control over things. Maybe they just like the idea of the supernatural.

Regardless, there’s no arguing with folks who insist on clinging to their beliefs regardless of what the evidence shows. This is part of why religion is so tenacious. If you can’t convince folks about something everyone can actually see then convincing them about something no one has ever seen is not gonna happen.

As an aside, the Detroit Free Press — from which I took some of these quotes — made a trip up to see the light for themselves. Here’s what they captured on video:

I think my favorite part of this video is the two old guys talking about how there’s no way it could be headlights because it has a red color to it. Yeah, that’d be the taillights dumbass.

Science History: Celsius didn’t invent the scale that bears his name.

Here’s a video from Veritasium that was quite a surprise to me. It turns out that what we know as the Celsius temperature scale we use today wasn’t invented by the man whose name it bears. At least, not entirely:

Despite having lived through the big push to learn the Metric system in the 70’s, like most Americans, I never really got my head wrapped around it. Thanks to Reagan the United States Metric Board (USMB) was disbanded in 1982 bringing an end to any official attempt to make the Metric system the U.S. standard. Outside of the popularity of the 2-liter pop bottle and the 9-millimeter bullet, the vast majority of measurements in the United States is still done using the United States customary system (USCS or USC) which is a mish-mash of different systems none of which are as elegant as the Metric system. There’s been a couple of half-hearted attempts to get adoption going again over the years, but they’ve been mostly voluntary efforts that no one wants to volunteer for. Sure, you’ll find it in use in various science-y professions, but the average American is largely clueless on whether they would need to wear a coat when it’s 32°C outside*.

*Hint: No, most definitely not.

A couple of videos on the subject of “You.”

We think of ourselves as a single entity, but the reality is we’re a combination of trillions of individual organisms some of which are a part of us, but not human (e.g. the bacteria in our guts). So at what point do you stop being “you”?

The YouTube channel In A Nutshell has a new video out that’ll ask you to ponder: What are you?

If that’s not enough to get your head spinning, there’s a companion video by CGP Grey that talks about how you are really two “yous” in one body. Specifically, how experiments done on folks who have had the connection between their left and right hemispheres severed has revealed that you are literally of two minds that don’t always agree with each other.

Just some food for thought.

Rush Limbaugh doesn’t understand how evolution works.

If you’ve been reading SEB for any amount of time then it probably doesn’t need to be said that my politics don’t line up with Rush Limbaugh’s politics. It’s also probably obvious that I think that Rush has said some amazingly stupid things over the years, but I’ve never thought the man was particularly uneducated. That’s probably as much due to the fact that I try to limit my exposure to his rantings as much as possible than it is him actually being educated.

On Tuesday during a segment about the kid falling into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, Rush demonstrated his scientific ignorance of the Theory of Evolution. The folks at Media Matters captured his idiocy in all its glory:

“A lot of people think that all of us used to be apes. Don’t doubt me on this. A lot of people think that all of us used to be gorillas.”

headdeskOK, let’s stop right here. There’s more, but this is all you really need to realize that Rush has no clue what he’s talking about. Humans did not evolve from apes, or chimps, or gorillas. We are a kind of ape ourselves. We share a common primate ancestor (Homo-Pan) and have travelled different evolutionary paths starting around 6 to 7 million years ago. Either Rush is ignorant of what the theory of evolution says or he’s intentionally setting up a strawman. Based on what he says next I’d wager it’s the former.

“And they’re looking for the missing link out there. The evolution crowd. They think we were originally apes.”

The problem with the “missing link” is that there is no missing link. Evolution isn’t a matter of sharp delineations. It’s a matter of gradual differences. There is not, nor will there ever be, a fossil find that we can point to and definitely say that is the exact moment we stopped being Homo heidelbergensis and started being Homo sapiens. Reality is messy and doesn’t give a shit about fitting things into obvious categories. People like Rush don’t like that fact so they try to ignore it.

Here is his pièce de résistance. The statement that clearly shows his complete lack of understanding of evolutionary theory:

“I’ve always — if we were the original apes, then how come Harambe is still an ape, and how come he didn’t become one of us?”

First, we’re not the “original apes.” As I said before, we share a common ancestor. Secondly, had Harambe spontaneously evolved into a human it would invalidate evolutionary theory as well as a number of laws of physics.

To be fair, it’s not clear if Rush is suggesting that if evolution was real that Harambe would’ve evolved into a human in the time he was in the zoo or if he’s using the old argument of “If we evolved from apes why are there still apes?” Not that it matters, both would reveal his ignorance of what the theory of evolution actually says.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s really not that hard to understand the theory of evolution if you take the time to actually read up on it. There are a number of books that lay it out in layman’s terms and provide quite a bit of the evidence that back the theory up. A good one is The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins. It’s one I think Rush Limbaugh should probably read. He won’t, but he should.

You can hear Limbaugh’s words for yourself below:

A new meta-study shows Homeopathy is still bullshit.

It boggles the mind that in 2015 there are still people out there who buy into the idea of Homeopathy.

Homeopathy demotavational poster.

That’ll be $150, kthxbai!

As a refresher, it’s an “alternative medicine” predicated on the belief that “like cures like” and “water has a memory.” In short, if you take something that causes the same or similar symptoms in an ailing patient and dilute it in water and then feed it to them it’ll cure whatever their ailment happens to be. Here’s the best part though: The more diluted the solution is the more powerful it becomes.

I shit you not. Here’s an explanation of the dilution process from the Homeopathic “Educational” Services website:

Each substance is diluted, most commonly, 1 part of the original medicinal agent to 9 or 99 parts double-distilled water. The mixture is then vigorously stirred or shaken. The solution is then diluted again 1:9 or 1:99 and vigorously shaken. This process of consecutive diluting and shaking or stirring is repeated 3, 6, 12, 30, 200, 1,000, or even 1,000,000 times. Simply “diluting” the medicines without vigorously shaking them doesn’t activate the medicinal effects.

It is inaccurate to say that homeopathic medicines are extremely diluted; they are extremely “potentized.” “Potentization” refers to the specific process of sequential dilution with vigorous shaking. Each consecutive dilution infiltrates the new double-distilled water and imprints upon it the fractal form of the original substance used (fractal refers to the specific consecutively smaller pattern or form within a larger pattern). Ultimately, some type of fractal or hologram of the original substance may be imprinted in the water.

If you have half a brain you should already be questioning the intelligence of the people who dreamed this bullshit up just based on this little snippet of nonsense from this one website.

What all of this gobbledegook boils down to is this: Homeopathy is a way to sell you expensive water that isn’t going to do shit to heal whatever you problem is. If you get better after using Homeopathic medicines then you would’ve gotten better regardless of whether you had used them. This has shown to be true in study after study, yet these cranks are still out there peddling their bullshit and trying to weasel their way into being covered by insurance plans and health organizations.

Now Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council along with an independent company (to ensure there was no bias) has done a meta-study that involved analyzing over 1,800 scientific papers and more than 225 medical studies that determined (emphasis added):

There was no reliable evidence from research in humans that homeopathy was effective for treating the range of health conditions considered: no good-quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

For some health conditions, studies reported that homeopathy was not more effective than placebo. For other health conditions, there were poor-quality studies that reported homeopathy was more effective than placebo, or as effective as another treatment. However, based on their limitations, those studies were not reliable for making conclusions about whether homeopathy was effective. For the remaining health conditions it was not possible to make any conclusion about whether homeopathy was effective or not, because there was not enough evidence.

And their conclusion was:

Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.

In short, the shit don’t work. When you sit down and read what promoters provide as the explanation for how it supposedly works this shouldn’t come as a surprise. For starters, they love their buzzwords: Fractals, holograms, nanopharmacology, the Principle of Resonance, the list goes on and on. The idea seems to be that if you toss enough buzzwords at people they’ll assume you’ll know what you’re talking about simply because the have no idea what you’re talking about.

Alas, that works and you can find all manner of Homeopathic products at your local drug store as proof. Why do the stores carry them if they don’t work? Because they make decent money off of people who don’t know any better. Capitalism at its finest!

For those of you interested in reading the study for yourself you can find it here. *PDF File


A small video primer on why vaccines work.

Joe Hanson over at the It’s OK To Be Smart YouTube channel has a great video on vaccines and why it’s important to get them for yourself and your kids:

The rise of the anti-vaxers has resulted in the resurgence of diseases we had all but eradicated and a lot of people are going to suffer needlessly and die because of it if the trend continues.

Right now it’s measles and whooping cough which are bad enough, but there’s a very real danger that polio could make a return. We had it on the ropes world-wide until last year when it appeared to be on the rise in several countries. With today’s ease of travel that could make an American outbreak just a plane ride away.

This just in: American’s knowledge of science still sucks.

introspective-catYou don’t have to look very hard to see that science literacy in America is pretty dismal, but it’s still disheartening when a new survey is released showing that it’s even worse than you thought.

Quarter of Americans Convinced Sun Revolves Around Earth, Survey Finds – ABC News.

A survey of 2,200 people that was released Friday revealed some alarming truths about the state of science education across the country, with many failing to an answer even the most basic astronomy and science questions, according to a release about the survey.

Out of nine questions in the survey, participants scored an average 6.5.

Only 39 percent answered correctly with “true” when asked if “The universe began with a huge explosion,” while only 48 percent knew that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” according to the statement.

It’s hard to estimate how much of this ignorance is willful because it conflicts with religious belief. It boggles the mind that in 2015 less than half of Americans understand and/or accept the theory of evolution.

Worse, most folks don’t think science is worthy of increased government spending:

Asked whether there needed to be more government funding for science, 30 percent said there should be.

These weren’t difficult questions. Anyone who made it through high school should be able to answer them without difficulty. A good part of the reason America has risen to the position its in is because of our mastery of science and the benefits that come with it.

I suppose we could chalk this up to the topics not being something that most folks deal with day to day, but they seem like the sort of thing you’d know just by paying a little attention to what’s going on around you.

Apparently some folks aren’t familiar with sublimation.

DerpThis past Saturday after watching a movie on Amazon Prime I switched over to my PS3’s YouTube app to go through some of the channels I subscribe to because it’s fun watching them on my big screen TV. In addition to all of the channels you’ve subscribed to there are a few predefined channels such as Entertainment and Sports that will highly popular videos from folks you aren’t necessarily subscribed to. There’s also a Trending channel which highlights videos that are on the upswing in terms of viewings. I was browsing through the Trending videos when I came across this amazing video about “FAKE SNOW IN GEORGIA!”

In short, lady goes outside and makes a snowball then brings it back inside and attempts to melt it with a butane lighter. Instead of turning into a a puddle of water on her floor it doesn’t appear to be doing much at all other than blackening and giving off some sort of odor. Conclusion: She doesn’t know what it is, but it’s not snow. Then she mentions what we’re all thinking already: CHEMTRAILS!

And here’s another person replicating the demonstration:


I was mildly amused until I noticed there’s a shitload of these videos out there. It appears the Chemtrail Conspiracists have been having a field day replicating this experiment and making all sorts of outlandish claims about what the fake snow really is. It’s nanoparticles delivered by jetstream manipulation and artificial aerosol ice nucleation! No, it’s really frozen poison organisms that are “alive!” It’s all part of a secret geo-engineering conspiracy to keep us passive and compliant!

Or, it could just be simple physics. Specifically what they’re seeing is called Sublimation which is when a solid goes directly to a gas without passing through the liquid phase first. Dry ice, which is frozen CO2, does it and nobody bats an eyelash at it. So what’s the black stuff and the plastic smell? Soot from the butane lighters they’re using. Butane lighters are pretty piss-poor at combustion, but they’re good enough to light a cigarette with. Not so great at melting compressed snow without leaving soot behind. You’ll note in the second video I included above that the blowtorch doesn’t turn the snow black at all, it just evaporates it.

Fortunately, not everyone out there lacks an understanding of the processes at work:

This one is probably my favorite of the debunking videos out there and is titled: Georgia fake Snow OR You’re just stupid!?!

It’s never been clear to me what, exactly, the government is supposed to be accomplishing with chemtrails that they couldn’t accomplish through more direct methods. Depending on which chemtrail conspiracy nut you ask it could be anything from population control to global warming mitigation to some sort of electromagnetic superweapon. For as dangerous as this fake snow is purported to be that doesn’t seem to be stopping folks from scooping it up and trying to burn it with their lighters, which seems like kind of a stupid thing to do if you really think it’s dangerous.

Fortunately for them it really is just frozen water. If there’s anything “alive” in it it’s nothing more than usual array of viruses and bacteria you’d find in any other untreated water in nature.