Archives For humor

end of the world

Well ladies and germs, it’s now Saturday, December 22nd and we’re all still here just as science told us we would be. This means three things. First, New Age devotees cannot follow the Mayan calendar since they would’ve known that this winter solstice was supposed to be a big New Year type event, not a bringer world-ending cataclysm. Second, it means that Weird Things and all of its readers have now successfully lived through their second projected apocalypse. And third, it means I’m now married. Yes, you read that right, there’s now a Mrs. Fish. Let’s just get married when the world ends she said, you’ll be married for like what, 15 hours? We can figure out what to do if the world is still there the next day when that happens, she said. That’s how they get you guys. They cozy up to you about the end of the world.

But in all seriousness, I’ll be taking some time off from posting on the semi-regular basis I just so happened to sink into and will return closer to the end of the year. And just in case you started wondering, we’re both skeptics but we sure had fun playing with the doomsday theme, watching enough Doomsday Preppers episodes to start wondering if we should prep to escape from the preppers should a real disaster strike, and jotting down a myriad of ideas for decor and subtle touches referring to the end of the world as we know it. And zombies. Hey, you can’t have a real apocalypse without some zombies nowadays, now can you? So I’ll catch you all towards the end of next week. Have fun and stay safe this holiday season. Should be easy without a doomsday looming over your heads, right?

[ illustration by Damien Malinvaud ]

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Long time readers might remember the first (and so far only) megalomaniacal mad genius to appear on this blog, Dr. Steel. Oh sure, there’s been a fair share of megalomaniacs in the comments here and there, but few of those could qualify for the genius part of the title so I’m omitting them from the count. But I digress. You see, part of Dr. Steel’s propaganda strategy involved public service announcements both to regular folks and to his minions, including this little gem predicting the imminent arrival of the Technological Singularity in which he’s doing his best impression of Ray Kurzweil if Ray were had ambitions for global conquest. And frankly, I think it might be worth recruiting him as a spokesman for the Singularity Institute. The man’s basically Kurzweil 3.0.

Oh sure, there will be some glitches to overcome, like the whole notion of mind uploading being biologically unfounded and technically implausible, the inability of the human body to survive past 125 years no matter how many vitamins you take due to the way its built, the promising but nascent state of life extension, very probable cognitive dissonances between real and virtual worlds which would make post-Singularity life in a computer very messy, the fact that the bold predictions being made about the future of technology are so often wrong, and of course, the very likely slew of problems we tend to fail to consider for new inventions, problems that will ensure that the groundbreaking technology we’re talking about never quite lives up to most of our grand ideas for it. But hey, it’s catchy and convincing, right? And it’s what helped Ray build a business out of the entire concept of one day maybe achieving immortality through the vaporware he exalts…

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A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender pours him one and the neutron asks how much he owes. The bartender replies, “for you, no charge.” Yes, you’ve just been hit with a nerd joke, and no, they’re not just confined to labs and grad schools. As it so turns out, there’s actually such a profession as a science comedian and it’s this geek’s task to come up with scientifically based puns and punch lines to entertain the typical audience of scientists and well informed laypeople. One such science comedian is Brian Malow, and he actually manages to weave jokes that can generally survive peer review into a full, working routine. Here’s his effort with nerdy blank-walks-into-a-bar jokes involving biology and physics at Bay Area’s Wonderfest…

I don’t know about you, but even though some of these jokes were a little too literal for my taste, I’d prefer this routine over the typical comic you’ll see on TV, complaining about how much of a loser he or she is for being a comedian, cracking jokes about a supposedly dysfunctional family to visit every holiday season, and trying as hard as possible to make politics funny. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly need variety in our humor and a full on science lecture at every comedy club would get really old, really fast, but wouldn’t it be nice if our typical bits of entertainment required at least a little scientific knowledge rather than being really good with old movies or music, as well as our seeming obligation to laugh at stereotypical relationship jokes?

[ thanks to Maria M. for the post idea ]

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A couple of days ago, I was venting some pent-up frustration with arXiv and the TR blog which hypes highly speculative and often unsupported papers into the realm of the new scientific holy writ. Well in the comments, a few knowledgeable readers decided to weigh in and posted a link to an arXiv abstract generator a lot like the generators designed to mimic verbose, inflated post-modernist tracts in the wake of the Sokal affair. And having seen my fair share of the stuff that gets submitted to this open repository of physics and math papers, it’s disturbingly similar to the real thing with the only real difference being a slightly exaggerated densities of obscure theoretical buzzwords per abstract. Here’s an example of what the snarXiv composes…

A boundary-dual of a model of dark energy offers the possibility of bounding orientifold black holes at the GUT scale. We use Heterotic strings near noncommutative brane structures, together with fragmentation functions in several holomorphic brane models for instanton liquids to consider the longitudinal XXZ Model. Next, we make contact between the scalar field analytic continuation of the Landau-Ginzburg Model and Z back-reactions to construct instantons on the surface of the sun. Before evaluating unitarity on moduli spaces of RS1 backgrounds of Sp(n) holonomy fibered over m-folds with nonzero spin-structure, we deduce that equivariant S-duality is the final component in solving anomaly matching. We leave the rest for future study.

So let’s evaluate. Introduction mentioning manifolds, black holes, and dark energy? Check. Confusing, wordy, buzzword-laden explanation? Check. Promises of complex and wicked numerology in the actual paper, using barely related concepts as a justification to make a theoretical model of something incredibly vague, obscure, and extremely narrowly focused? Check. Finally, an acknowledgement that no real experimentation has been done and any questions or issues with the paper will be settled by new papers citing this one and made as a least publishable unit to bolster publication count? Check, check, and check. All in all, the typical paper you’re bound to see while cruising arXiv for something interesting or built on solid mathematical foundations. Now, how about a Technology Review post generator? It should begin by rehashing a long-standing physics issue or a discrepancy in astronomical data, explain how a random paper in the archive might have the answer that will settle the issue once and for all, explain how if we only make some unjustified assumption, things would quickly clear up, then end by glossing over the myriad of easily identifiable problems with the work…

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Apparently, not even random sci-fi web comics can contain themselves from at least trying to do a joke about the eruptions of formerly secret files from WikiLeaks. Here’s one courtesy of Scenes From A Multiverse, which satirizes the leaks as primarily highly classified information about the personal hygiene and waistlines of the galaxy’s imperial officials and their friends, filled with diet tips and gossip. And come to think of it, that’s pretty close to what the actual leaked cables contain: blunt opinion and gossip sorted by date and title. But while the media of the Multiverse freaks out about someone publishing the dirty details of things those who try to follow the news already knew full well, an alien conspiracy theorist is fishing for shocking stuff in the infosquirts…

It would be interesting to see if the Multiverse also does a comic about the anonymous internet masses who demand that governments be held accountable by allowing anyone to display their dirty laundry for the public and always demand a fresh wave of public outrage whenever those governments dare to get ticked off that a whole lot of patient effort to accomplish some complex feat of diplomacy might now be in shambles because someone who like to fancy himself a great conspiracy-revealer had the fortune of a huge leak simply falling into his lap exactly when he needed it most, and decided to milk it for all it’s worth. I tend to imagine a big crowd wearing featureless masks and cloaked in black capes marching down the streets, chanting slogans and quotes about the need for transparency and open, honest discourse about global affairs…

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Over the last two years, I’ve never posted something that happened to me just to tell an odd or funny story. I’m trying to run a science blog here, not a personal diary. But a very bizarre and awkward moment that happened during the daily ritual of almost every IT cubicle dweller, the morning coffee run, just begs for a mention and a post that’ll let you practice your witty comebacks in the comments. Imagine a perfectly normal coffee shop that you visit day in, day out with little more than a friendly chat with the baristas. Then, one day, as you’re putting a little sugar in your coffee, you innocently sneeze and mutter an “excuse me” as proper social decorum asks of you, even if you’re not really talking to anyone. And in reply, an anonymous voice from nearby barks “God bless you! And America!” Thinking you’ve been included in some inside joke, you turn around expecting to find some giggling political science students, or something to that extent, and instead, you’re met with a steely gaze of a small woman in hear early to mid-60s. The kind of look that says she wasn’t trying to be funny.

Now, it takes me a little while to get warmed up in the morning so the best I could muster was a “um… yeah…, sure, let’s go with that.” Really, when confronted with such a display of overzealous religious nationalism in a world outside of foaming-at-the-mouth temper tantrums of the media and political blogs, it takes a second for you to fire up a proper witty retort. As a lifelong night owl who’s barely functional before 9:00 am, I clearly was not up to the task. But maybe you are, so take your best shot at a comeback in the comments. Oh and when I say comeback, I’m talking about a short, sarcastic, one sentence retort. Keep in mind that for the purposes of this exercise, you don’t have time to launch into a long-winded debate about history and policy…

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Once upon a time I took on homeopaths’ claims that diluting something hundreds of thousands of times is an idea that Big Pharma finds so dangerous, it must be suppressed at all costs. But if potentization was such an immensely powerful method, I asked, why wouldn’t businesses embrace it to save tens of billions a year in production costs? Just a few batches of medicine or vitamins would ever have to be made, so companies can save mountains of cash they could use to hire new employees to handle the increased volume of sales, pay a massive dividend to shareholders, and give their existing employees new perks. Well, Jonathan Rosenberg’s strip in Scenes From A Multiverse took that idea and ran with it, applying potentization to a not-so-local diner.

In the same vein, the always terrific xkcd made a handy chart for how woo of all stripes could be used by the business world and scientists to save and make trillions of dollars, if it was, you know, real. I know that the alt med crowd really, really loves its conspiracy theories, but when the woo you’re pitching could make people a fortune if it yielded consistent, reliable, and measurable results in experiments, and those very people ready and willing to take big chances on making a buck aren’t doing it, or toy with the idea and abandon it, only those in complete denial and with no grasp of logic would resort to a conspiracy about protecting one’s profits with a campaign against their favorite pseudoscience. How pray tell would anyone save money if she has to keep on spending cash to make real world products, especially if there’s nothing expressly forbidding her to adapt the very same techniques that supposedly allow quacks to circumvent the basic laws of chemistry and physics?

Unless of course we borrow from Mike Adams’ paranoid logic and conclude that pharmaceutical companies are secretly using potentization themselves in the secret factories built under their existing plants, supplying a steady stream of nearly infinitely diluted medicine, lashing out at homeopaths so others won’t learn their dark secret. But that really wouldn’t explain why it costs an average of $800 million to bring new medications to the local pharmacy, but I’m sure that part of it has something to do with actually having to meet safety and efficacy standards rather than just use a legal loophole to sell tens of billions of dollars worth of placebos

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On the last episode of Skeptically Speaking, George Dvorsky and I tried to recall some web comics featuring the topic of the Technological Singularity. One of these is Dresden Codak, which also features neat snippets of humor about philosophy and science fiction. In those snippets are two recurring characters named Rupert and Hubert, a pair of Victorian pseudo-intellectuals who live on the Moon and exorcised Laplace’s Demon on one fateful occasion. This time, our duo is back to prepare us for the torments of Hell with handy advice about coping with everything from boredom, to having one’s head put backwards on his body, to swimming through boiling blood, making one’s trip into the realm of fire and torment much more comfortable and pleasant.

So how did this advice work out for Hubert? Check out the rest of the comic and see for yourself. And if you’d like to check and see if the Victorian pseudoscientists got their Hellish punishments correctly, why not take a look at the complete Divine Comedy online when you have a chance? After all, our modern conception of the nature of Hell and its mythical ruler come to us via Dante Alighieri and John Milton instead of the Bible, which devotes just a few sentences to what we have interpreted as a place of eternal torment for all those thought to be wicked and sinful, rather than a punishment for all those who refuse to obey God at Judgment Day, as the last book of the Bible explicitly says. Nothing like good, fiery literature crafted by writers who wanted to make a very dramatic point to substitute for a book that is supposed to be the inerrant word of God, I suppose…

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H.P. Lovecraft is known for his grandiose expressions and vague allusions to horrible, horrible things in dark forests and caves, playing off the traditional scary stories told by Puritans in New England to concoct bizarre, nefarious alien creatures which cared nothing for humans, regardless of whether those humans worshipped them or not. Though what he was writing was considered pulp fiction at the time, you can see real effort in his storytelling. And this is why he probably wouldn’t be too happy with what Grim and Grimy did to his best known nightmarish tale, The Call of Cthulhu, which helped flesh out the mythology of future Lovecraftian works…

Funny how a short story that was supposed to make you think about horrible things laying in wait in the ocean depths can be boiled down to about two minutes and lose most of its impact when told by a character from a spin-off of Clueless, or maybe a teenage new convert to New Age esoterica. It could be just me, but I’d rather have the Lovecraftian Chick Tract or the satirical tale of a board member asking his school to devote more time in their instruction of eldritch madness when it comes to homages to Lovecraft’s stories any day of the week. And to Grim and Grimy, shame on you for giving classic pulp horror the Valley Girl treatment.

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Thanks to PZ’s love of all things cephalopod, I got a very interesting lesson in Kraken anatomy which took all those curious into the bowels of a creature big enough to swallow ships whole and decapitate eight men with just one of its monstrous suckers. In other words, it was a complete work of fiction spoofing pseudoscientific naturalists of the nineteenth century who couldn’t even tell the difference between squid and octopi trying their best to pass off tall tales as the results of years of painstaking research, in an ad for Kraken Brand rum…

Sure, the video is funny and should be enjoyed for what it is, but it does strike a note if we were to look back at what it was spoofing. Back in the nineteenth century, before peer review was as widely used as it is today, the scientists and historians of the time would often make plenty of unsubstantiated claims published in journals which were read by those who were considered wealthy intellectuals, and these claims often stuck for many a decade. Egyptologists are still correcting fictional histories and conspiracy theories about everything from the history of the Sphinx, to the real cause of King Tut’s death. Modern neo-pagan movements were founded on a blend of historical fact and pseudo-historical fiction about witch cults and the real motivation behind the huge and terrifying movements which fueled Inquisitions. And do we even need to talk about the history of eugenics and how it was so erroneously and self-servingly tacked on to the theory of evolution by Galton and racists and snobs who saw themselves as being biologically superior to the poor and their fellow humans?

So whenever you see cranks who failed to get published in scientific journals talking about taking their ideas straight to the people and sneering at peer review, think back to the days when science worked the way they propose it should and consider all the subsequent mistakes and wild claims which the public often wouldn’t see refuted with real evidence since scientific criticisms took place in private letters and publications which a private citizen wouldn’t even know how to obtain. Even though peer review isn’t perfect and needs to become even more transparent, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to circumvent it just so they could write a book exploring a controversy or dilemma that doesn’t exist solely for the sake of selling copies while pretending to be groundbreaking experts in a field in which they have few, if any, qualifications.

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