Yikes! It’s a ghost believer

October 26, 2007

Seems like every day I have to find out something that makes me sad to know. Today I’m sending out a big “thanks for nothing” to Yahoo! News for a story I’d really be happier not knowing about:

That’s the spirit: Belief in ghosts high – Yahoo! News

WASHINGTON – Those things that go bump in the night? About one-third of people believe they could be ghosts.

And nearly one out of four, 23 percent, say they’ve actually seen a ghost or felt its presence, finds a pre-Halloween poll by The Associated Press and Ipsos.

To borrow an old joke from “Cheers,” the scary thing isn’t that so many people believe in ghosts—the scary thing is that those same people are allowed to vote and drive cars.

And I love that phrasing, “actually seen a ghost or felt its presence.” As if the two things were the same. Hell, I’ve felt the presence of ghosts, and I don’t even believe in the damn things.  Here’s how it happens.  You get the compelling “feeling” that somebody’s in the room, which is bound to happen all the time because that’s the way the human brain is wired up.  Then, when you don’t see anybody around, instead of thinking “I guess I was wrong” you think “Yikes, it must have been a ghost, because that’s the only kind of person that can be there without really being there.”

It should go without saying that this is the wrong way to think, because by design it’s totally unhinged from reality.  And the idea that a third of people feel comfortable thinking that way helps to explain the rampant stupidity that pervades our lives.

“Yikes,” by the way, is the only word known to ward off ghosts.  Keep it handy.

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We’d like to have some good sense, but we can’t afford it

October 25, 2007

Mark Evanier has a thought for everybody who’s sort of paying attention and halfway wondering where the hell all the money went:

Testifying before Congress, Paul Wolfowitz famously said that the Iraq War would pay for itself. People have since mocked him for this but, come on. He was only off by 2.4 trillion dollars.

To grasp the magnitude of this bad bit of estimation, consider this. You or I could have gone before Congress in his stead. And when they asked us how much the War in Iraq was going to cost, we could have picked any number between one and about 4.7 trillion at random…and we would have been closer than Paul Wolfowitz. They later made this man president of the World Bank.

2.4 trillion is a lot but don’t sweat it. It’s not like we have anything better to do with the money.

Like always, you can’t have everything. Sure there are millions of US kids without health insurance or a reliable source of health care. But hey, those Iraqi civilians aren’t going to bomb themselves, you know.  We have to keep our eyes on the goal of peace through superior firepower.


Why I can’t watch Oprah

October 24, 2007

Or the more accurate but less compelling headline: Why I can’t stand to watch Oprah.

It isn’t because I’m a guy and it’s a girl show. Or because Oprah is unbelievably rich, privileged and insulated from the concerns of ordinary people. Or that she’s disturbingly credulous, even gullible about the claims of her guests — that horrible episode about “The Secret” for example.

No, it’s just that her show has way too many commercials.

I thought it might be my imagination — I have a terribly low tolerance for commercials, most of them being somewhere between misleading and completely dishonest. So I decided to check for myself, using a videotape of an episode and a spreadsheet to add up the total program time and commercial time.

Here’s the result: Program time 41:52, commercial time 18:08.

Just as a point of comparison, the average Spongebob episode is 11 minutes long, and they show four per hour. By that reckoning Spongebob beats Oprah 44 minutes to 41:52. And Oprah breaks for commercials seven times, which adds to the feeling of constant interruption and insures that none of the program segments will last as long as a Spongebob cartoon.

There isn’t any point in arguing why they show so many ads. No mystery is involved. Since the ads are what makes them money, they will show as many as they can get away with.

Of course, the flip side of that is that, since watching ads is the price I pay for watching commercial TV, I will watch as few ads as I can get away with. I will therefore be watching something besides Oprah.


Surprise of the day

October 18, 2007

The inventor of Fritos was a nutrition enthusiast and vegetarian.

NPR : The Birth of the Frito

When he invented the Frito, C.E. Doolin imagined them as a side dish, a handful to be served with soup and salad to complement a meal. He never imagined anyone would consume an entire king-size bag. He rarely ate them.

And if he brought them home, he would have grabbed them off the conveyor belt before they were salted. The Doolins were vegetarians, and barely touched salt. Kaleta Doolin took figs and yogurt in her lunch to school, not Fritos.

So, what was the idea of inventing Fritos anyway? Those things, and the rest of the Frito-Lay snack food family, were designed to massacre wide swaths of the populace with their irresistible deliciousness. Not only are humans hard-wired for stupidity, they’re also hard-wired to put on weight as a hedge against starvation. Apparently, Doolin’s plan was to make lots of money while eliminating any competition for the available vegetable supply.

Weight loss gurus the world over owe him a debt of gratitude.


Not so fast, there, smarty pants

October 18, 2007

We may as well face it. People are hard-wired for dumbness.

At least, there’s evidence along those lines, according to an article on FactCheck.org: Cognitive Science and FactCheck.org, or Why We (Still) Do What We Do

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Virginia Tech psychologist Kimberlee Weaver shows that the more easily we recall something the more likely we are to think of it as being true. It’s a useful shortcut since, typically, easily recalled information really is true. But combine this rule with the brain’s tendency to better remember bits of information that are repeated frequently, and we can run into trouble: We’re likely to believe anything we hear repeated frequently enough. At FactCheck.org we’ve noted how political spin-masters exploit this tendency ruthlessly, repeating dubious or false claims endlessly until, in the minds of many voters, they become true. Making matters worse, a study by Hebrew University’s Mayo shows that people often forget “denial tags.” Thus many people who hear the phrase “Iraq does not possess WMDs” will remember “Iraq” and “possess WMDs” while forgetting the “does not” part.

So much of what comes out of the White House since — well, this whole century so far, can be explained in this light. It’s the same thing a common criminal does when he’s arrested. He keep repeating “I didn’t do nothing” and hoping it will stick because the facts don’t support his assertion.

Facts are essential if we are to overcome our brain’s tendency to believe everything it hears. As a species, we’re still pretty new to that whole process. Aristotle invented logic just 2,500 years ago – a mere blink of the eye when compared with the 200,000 years we Homo sapiens relied on our brain’s reflex responses to avoid being eaten by lions. We still have a long way to go.

When you pick out something as an example of how smart people can be, you best bet is an example from science and technology. Something that’s a direct result of evidence-based scientific method, which in turn comes from the use of logic and reason.

I’m always nagging myself to keep up the hard work of staying skeptical. I feel like I have to because my natural tendency is toward total gullibility. In particular, I have a hard time picking up the cues that someone is BSing me, even when it’s obvious to everybody else.  I still think I might not bewired up quite the same way most people are, but maybe I’m not as far off the norm as I fear.


Reasons to Feel Old Dept.

October 17, 2007

Am I mistaken, or wasn’t the Honda Accord considered an economy car at some distant point in history?  Okay, maybe not.

If I were an informed automotive enthusiast, I might not have been so surprised by this Newsweek story saying that an Accord now costs more than $30 thousand and gets gas mileage of just 21 MPG. Economical is no longer a part of the formula, evidently.

My old fart moment: I can remember when the Accord was half-jokingly referred to as the Honda Accordion.


Book ‘n’ Movie Roundup

October 15, 2007

I read a book called “Between the Bridge and the River” by Craig
Ferguson.  I’m a big fan of his.  It was hard to
believe that he had actually written a book, a NOVEL — he just doesn’t
have that sort of an image on TV.  But I thought it was wonderful,
funny and literary in a good way.  All the way through I imagined him
reading the audio version in his Scottish accent and it seemed that
much funnier.

I saw some interesting DVDs last weekend.

“Hot Fuzz” — I quite enjoyed this, but Reid thought it got too
serious in the second half and turned into too much of a conventional
crime thriller.  Admittedly it’s risky to make a comedy with a high
body count.

“Death Proof” — It’s disappointing that
“Grindhouse” is being released piecemeal on DVD, when the original
theatrical release included two movies and assorted extra material.  I
never quite know how to take Quentin Tarantino — he’s like the friend
whose conversation is a constant stream of sarcastic commentary so that
you can’t tell when they’re saying something seriously, if ever.  And
his movies are always so stylized and unrealistic that they only work
for me as comedies.  His dialogue is hilarious in a completely
contrived way and there’s only a minimum amount of heartfelt feeling. 
But he’s entertaining and unpredictable, so I give him a pass for being
so shallow.

“Blades of Glory” — A surprisingly funny movie
that’s stupid without pounding you over the head with its stupidity. 
Like Roger Ebert said, you can’t argue about funny — you either
laughed or you didn’t.  I did.