Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Cult of Narcissism & the Death of Anonymity

As a general rule, I don't let people photograph me. Not because I'm phobic, or on the lamb, or just feeling "avant garde, dahling." Nope. It's because I think anonymity will become one of the most valuable social commodities of this century, and I treasure mine.

It's clear that the soft and hard techware required to visually identify, track and psychographically profile people using video or still images will become increasingly powerful and ubiquitous as time passes. As a result, I believe social and cultural traditions and expectations; and eventually by-laws and legislation, will begin to "pivot" to catch up.
Before I go any further, let me be clear, I think Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and even Snapchat are fantastic and effective tools for keeping in touch, or receiving breaking news, promoting business, learning and starting dialogues, or just sharing in friends' and loved one's lives.

But I also think it's difficult to deny that these platforms have enabled a cultural hive of self-absorption, self-aggrandizement, and voyeurism. They provide a new way for individuals to address their primeval, existential angst -- "I exist! Please see and acknowledge me!" Quiet, even intimate, moments that were once private are now shared with complete strangers in near real time, even by those who aren't innately extroverted. People seem locked in a strange competition to appear fun, popular, attractive or sexy. Social media has become the new, glowing AMOLED pool where Narcissus gazes lovingly at himself all through the day and night (having, of course, edited his appearance, applied appropriate filters, and even managed a #semiwittyhashtag). However - and this is the key difference - the rest of the world is gazing along with him, and in particular, the social media companies that store his data.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

We're Not Alone in the Universe. So What?

Seth Shostak predicts that the SETI Institute will likely detect evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life within the next couple of decades.

Read about and vote on the prediction HERE

Considering what we now know about the prevalence of exoplanets as a result of the Kepler Space Telescope Mission, and taking into account that SETI intends to rigorously investigate as many 1 million star systems in the next 20 years, Mr. Shostak's prediction seems entirely reasonable.

My question to you, the reader, is: what are the implications of such a discovery? Would it be no more than a passing curiosity, or a world-shaking paradigm shift?

Here are two impacts that I suspect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life would have on society:

First: An erosion of confidence in religious doctrine: Such a discovery in so short a time frame would imply (in a probabilistic sense) that intelligent life is actually not at all that uncommon. I suspect that such a radical diffusion of our assumptive place at the center of the universe would place additional burdens on the truth claims of many of the world's most popular religions. This might have the welcome side effect of further diminishing the distracting influence some religious doctrines have on our efforts to problem solve using science and technology.

Second: Evidence that technology is survivable: In addition to suggesting that the evolution of intelligent life is probable, such a discovery (assuming it's not a distress call) would imply that when advanced civilizations do arise, they manage to survive their own technology at least long enough to become communicative. This would give good grounds for believing that we too, as an intelligent species, can find a way forward without self-destructing; perhaps redoubling our commitment to solving key issues like climate change.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ebola and ISIS: Two Viruses, One Response

The President of Liberia, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, wrote to US president, Barack Obama:
“I am being honest with you when I say that at this rate, we will never break the transmission chain and the virus will overwhelm us.”
It's possible that no leader in history has ever, in addressing one threat, so eloquently summed up another. Her reference to Ebola, might just as easily summed up the spread of ISIS in the middle east.

ISIS is currently overwhelming large swaths of Syria and Iraq in much the same way that Ebola has overwhelmed western Africa.

Prediction Planet: If the 2014 Ebola outbreak continues into the new year, the virus will mutate and become more easily transmissible between humans by December 31, 2015

Prediction Planet: If air strikes are not decisive, the US and their allies must and will agree to deploy ground troops to battle ISIS by February 1, 2015

The similarities are striking. Both Ebola and ISIS are aided in their spread by irrational and mythologic beliefs. Neither pays any heed to borders. Both cause widespread and arbitrary death. Both can change and evolve. And both, if unaddressed, pose a growing threat to the wider world.

Friday, February 7, 2014


There is an appropriate way to approach the possible problem of a catastrophic pandemic. I think this 2007 article from the University of Minnesota, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) is right on the money:
"The pandemic worst case is:
(a) Truly horrific
(b) Truly unlikely
(c) Truly worth planning for
(d) All of the above

The right answer: (d) All of the above."
-- Uiversity of Minnesota, CIDRAP
I like the even tone of Mr. Sandman's article and think it stems from the fact that it's aimed at business preparedness. I agree with the author, the probability of such an event and its possible severity are two separate and competing mental paradigms that make it difficult for the average person to respond accordingly.

But I also think he's missed a third important factor - the "cry-wolf" effect (granted, as of 2007, it may not have been as clear). I believe the 'sine wave' of media coverage, both of close calls and novel viruses....SARS, H5N1, H7N9, MERS, H10N8...slowly erodes and complicates the public's perspective concerning both sides of the issue - probability and severity.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Artifice of Hope: It's Just a Word - Get Over It

I thought it time to revisit the notion of hope. Some years ago, as the 2008 election was building to crescendo, I challenged the idea that hope was a real thing in and of itself. Now it seems it has become a less central argument in the current democratic presidential campaign (rightly so), and yet it persists - as though anything about the future could be purchased with it. Hope was, and is, and will always be, a fool's game.

From 2008: The Artifice of Hope

There's a lot of hope mongering going on south of the boarder these days. I thought I'd take a closer look.
"We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - Barack Obama
"The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than with their minds." - Will Durant
"The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for." - Allan K. Chalmers
"Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man." - Nietzsche
"If you want to grow a healthy crop of inaction, use hope as manure." - Bratscal
Hope. Such a tiny word for so broad and amorphous a proposition. Hohhh-puh. It's everywhere. In evocations of the trivial: "I hope this movie doesn't suck." Or heaved at the masses to foment change:
Whoever lights the torch of war in Europe can wish for nothing but chaos. We, however, live in the firm conviction our times will see not the decline but the renaissance of the West. It is our proud hope and our unshakable belief Germany can make an imperishable contribution to this great work.” - Adolph Hitler

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Economic Theory Implies There is No Free Will

Does a bird, so wonderfully adapted and accustomed to defying gravity, come to believe that it somehow exists free from that natural force?

In a universe resplendent with measurable, deterministic, natural laws, how is it homo sapiens, ourselves an intrinsic part of the cosmos, come to think we exist unfettered by the rules that govern it? Just as birds have developed wings and feathers to navigate our atmosphere according to rules of physics they do not consciously understand, we have natural adaptations in our brains (like short and long term memory, amygdalae and mirror neurons) that give us the ceaseless experience of making decisions as we navigate a complex, unidirectional space-time according to rules of physics we do not consciously understand. A bird experiences the near effortless feeling of flight just as we effortlessly experience feelings like accomplishment, accountability and regret. We are no more free from causal determinism than the bird is free of gravity.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Air Age: Bratscal vs. The Little Ol' Lady

I board the plane. Take my seat. Pop in my ear buds. Turn on the in-flight entertainment. Put - out - the - vibe: I am a chit-chat-free zone. This is my chair. I am a chair-recluse - please, respect my reclusion. Do not harsh my serenity. No meteorology. No stories. No biographical anecdotes. You're interested in you. I get that. But I'm not. "Excuse me, sir?" OMG, what?? - oops: stewardess. "Please put your seat belt on."

We taxi. Line up. Accelerate. Lift. Climb. Ahhh. The serenity of flight. And then it happens. Poke. Wtf? Poke, poke, poke. No. No, no, no, no. There's somebody behind me. Someone evil. A horned devil. A gremlin. A ne'er-do-well. Poking my seat with their stiff, nasty, outstretched index finger. Clearly attempting to use the in-flight entertainment system. A touch screen. Not a POKE screen.

Don't panic. It can't go on forever. We'll climb. Level off. The trouble-maker will pick a TV show, or a movie, and my sweet, still, poke-free environment will return.

Poke. Poke, poke, poke.

Ohhh, Christ. My foe is strong. My foe is unrelenting. My foe will not go quietly into this good flight. I've got to size them up. Sneak a peek. See what I'm up against.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Guerrilla Skeptics: Incredulous Defenders of the Facts - An Interview with Susan Gerbic

In 2011, Susan Gerbic began the "Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia" project. An avid skeptic, steering member of The Independent Investigations Group (Wikipedia) and co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics, Susan embarked on a mission to help revitalize reason, science and objectivity on the pages of Wikipedia.

Less than two years later the project is now 80 volunteers strong and growing. Their aim? To edit and expand the pages of Wikipedia with facts, accurate citations and new translations. Why guerrillas? Because along with the upkeep, expansion and translation of key critical thinkers' pages, GSoW are taking direct, tactical aim at the unsubstantiated claims of the paranormal.

And they're recruiting.

Bratscal: You strike me as a very busy person?

Susan Gerbic: I'm quite busy, the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project is my main deal, but I'm also the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics (a social group that meets a few times a month). I am also a Steering member of the Independent Investigations Group in Los Angles and San Francisco Bay Area. I've also been involved in other skeptical projects. I've jumped in with both feet and have no idea how deep the water is.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Very Brief Comparison of Science to Opinion

The optimist sees a glass that is half full.

The pessimist sees a glass that is half empty.

The scientist sees a clear container, derived from silica, sodium carbonate and lime, that is capable of holding twice the volume of water it presently contains.

Or, more succinctly: The scientist sees a glass that is twice as big as it needs to be.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Teaching Children About Hell Smells a Bit Like Torture

Recently Professor Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to re-iterate a point he made way back in 2006:

In response, some in the Twitterverse (sometimes it feels more like a Twittertown) rebuked Mr. Dawkins for appearing (in their minds, at least) to have come out in favor of some forms of abuse over others.

Professor Dawkins is far more capable than I of defending himself (read his original thoughts on the matter Here: Richard Dawkins Foundation), but I happen to strongly agree with him and thought I might offer my thoughts and perspective on the matter. So here goes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

You Can't Have Your 6000-yr-old Cake & an iPhone Too

I enjoy trying out new things. New foods, new places, different cultures, even different religions (I don't subscribe to any myself). For example, last weekend I was a member of the Church of the Sub Genius for a day - which was a lot like most Saturdays oddly enough. Today I decided to give Young Earth Creationism a shot. Turns out it's way harder than I thought it would be.

My YEC day started out pretty well. The sun rose (just the way it was made to), I brushed my teeth, used the privy and sauntered into the kitchen for breakfast. That's when things started going sideways.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Everything Happens for a Reason: Code for "God Did It"

The people on board flight 123 have no warning something’s about to go wrong. Not a clue until a few of them are lifted out of their seats and pinned against the cabin ceiling. Some scream, others pray, a scant few attempt to genuflect. The airframe breaks the sound barrier just before disintegrating, along with all of its passengers, on impact with the surface of the ocean. Two-hundred fourteen people – poof – gone...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Total Perspective Vortex: How Douglas Adams Helped Kill Omniscience

A lot has been written about the problem of omniscience. There are, after all, some troubling paradoxes. My objection is simple; I can't conceive of a version of omniscience that permits a “conscious agent.” I don’t see how there could ever be a personal, judgmental, forgiving, prayer answering being that was also totally omniscient. To explain why, I need only invoke Douglas Adams.

In his brilliantly entertaining series, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Mr. Adams describes a torture device on the planet Frogstar called the Total Perspective Vortex. In a small chamber your brain is momentarily exposed to a complete model of the infinite universe, right down to the last, most minute detail. Within that model is an infinitesimal speck and on that speck is an equally infinitesimal speck marked with the legend “you are here.” The result of this brutally humbling experience is to have one’s brain fried. According to Adams, “if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Omniscience, in all its exalted glory, swept aside in a punch line. A knockout punch line. Allow me to elucidate.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Debunked: Alien UFO and Beam of Light


The streak "of light" at the center of the photo is a simple snowflake, slightly out of focus because it's so close to the camera lens, and illuminated by the flash. Its seemingly abrupt stop, near the equipment shed, is a result of either the flash or the exposure ending. Just as all the other snowflakes illuminated in this picture are represented by streaks of reflected light that all stop equally abruptly. It is also worth noticing that the streak of light is in the foreground, as evidenced by the overlapping of the branches of the tree to the right.

The story is of course pure bunk, devised in the space of roughly 20 minutes, to entertain and excite the credulous.

- Bratscal

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Alien UFO and Beam of Light


One of our group noticed it first. She held up a hand to silence us and cocked her head to one side. Then we all heard it. A deep, electrical buzzing that seemed to emanate from the brooding sky. We craned our necks. The clouds drifted past slowly in the darkness. We squinted our eyes and scanned the air above us. Then one of us pointed into the sky and exclaimed, "it's there!" We crowded in around him to try and get line of site from his fingertip. We spoke over each other. "Where?" "What?" "What do you see?" "What's there?" Then another in our group gasped, "oh my god, is that it?" Another finger stabbed into the air. One by one we saw it. Or didn't see it. It was like a round clear pocket of sky. Maybe 15 meters in diameter. It was nestled into the underside of the low clouds, totally transparent, as though nothing was there. What had us all transfixed was the way the clouds parted to flow around it, like smoke in a wind tunnel. Occasionally it seemed to rise up high enough into the cloud to disappear altogether, but once again it's lower surface would drop far enough below the cloud line that we could again see the strange pocket of emptiness and the cloud eddies that swirled in its slipstream.