SETI Goes Deaf

The Allen Telescope Array run by SETI—Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence—has been forced into hibernation because of the lack of money (Mercury News story). The electronic ears will remain planted on Mount Shasta, but their juice will be turned off.

From now, and unless somebody rich with stars in their eyes comes to the rescue, we won’t know if ET is calling and we’ll have to rely on our nation’s annual crop of out-of-focus photographs of sightings and hypnosis-recalled memories of abductions to verify that there is sentient life elsewhere in the universe.SETI

Not everybody is sad about SETI’s setback. There have long been complaints from white-shoe science firms, which all have the flavor that “SETI isn’t real science.” The argument is that since SETI listeners haven’t proved that there are aliens to listen to, then there are no evidence that aliens are calling. This is a valid argument, but it is tautological. Of course SETI doesn’t know if there is anybody out there: if they did, then they wouldn’t have to search!

Besides, there is evidence that other life exists: us. We, who are nothing special, evolved over a (rough) five billion-year period in a universe which is about two-and-a-half times that. Further, wherever we look on this rock, even in the most (to us) inhospitable places, life thrives. And since, as Carl Sagan did not say, there are billions and billions of other planets throughout the universe, and since physics appears (somewhat?) invariant in the best and worst neighborhoods, it is likely life evolved elsewhere. So why not look for it?

Trouble is, SETI listeners have the mathematics of communication theory working against them. Hidden in the arcana of that set of equations is a theorem which shows that the more efficient the mode of communication, the more the signal resembles noise. This is easy to get a feel of. Ordinary text and speech are filled with redundancies and extraneous effluvia. Strip that out and and all that is left is the core of an idea which, when transmitted, looks a lot like noise. That makes discriminating between signal and noise difficult or impossible.

If the aliens that are out there are more sophisticated than we, and if they still feel like chatting, then eavesdropping on their conversations is unlikely. Any communications we intercept from advanced aliens would have to be purposefully directed. But if the aliens are superior in smarts, they might not be especially interested in ignorant just-out-of-cave-dwellers like us (have you seen what’s on TV lately?). There are so many unknowns here that we cannot say with any certainty that there are definite signals to be found. That is, even if other, more-advanced life exists, there might not be anything for us to hear (or the search may take thousands of years).

Then again, there might be other life in other places, but none of it may be as advanced as we are. It is at least plausible to suggest that humans are the first sentient species in the universe. So it is possible that other species might hear us. However, our species is not old, especially when considered as a fraction of the age of the universe, and it has just been in the last 100 years or so that we have learned to communicate.

Proof of our existence is available in a sphere surrounding Earth with a radius of about 100 light years, but it is weak, sorely weak in strength. Space is vast, vaster than our federal deficit, so vast that the distances between objects is difficult to imagine. 100 light years is nothing; it is just around the block. Nobody has had time to hear us yet.

Is it worth funding SETI? Sure, for an individual and not a government, but only for the bragging rights. One justification oft heard is that the discovery of other life “Will change the way we view our place in the universe.” This is rot. Finding ET won’t change anything. For one, there are already millions convinced that ET is here and been meddling with human affairs (how do you explain Obama’s missing birth certificate?). The number of UFO reports after SETI verifies will skyrocket.

Everybody else will assimilate the news so fast that the only shock will be on the faces of the atheists who had hoped that proof of extraterrestrial intelligence would force the religious to abandon their beliefs. Once people realize how next-to-impossible it is to travel to or from the signal’s origin, the news of ET’s existence will be pushed off the front page as soon as a celebrity commits some gaffe; which is to say, within a week.

Slaughter Better Than Disease In Controlling Global Warming, Researchers

If you had to guess, which of these would you think would be a better control for global warming: Genghis Khan or the Black Death? Before answering, consider that both were responsible for removing a significant chunk of humanity from the surface of the planet (and interning it underground). The logic is that since it is people who cause global warming, fewer of these pests means less global warming.

Most ordinary citizens pick the Black Death, if only because of the name, which is scarier than the Great Khan’s. And when it was in its youth, the infamous disease wiped out nearly a third of Europe plus a significant chunk of the Asian Subcontinent. Altogether, the Bubonic plague, the official alias of Black Death, killed about 100 million, a toll which rivals even militant socialism (a.k.a. communism). genghis khan battles global warming

But Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology compared the bodies piled up by the Black Death with those massacred by Genghis Khan and found that those who fell by the sword took more carbon with them than those who met their demise by disease. Why?

Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes had an impact on the global carbon cycle as big as today’s annual demand for gasoline. The Black Death, on the other hand, came and went too quickly for it to cause much of a blip in the global carbon budget.

More particularly, “During high-mortality events, such as wars and plagues, large areas of croplands and pastures have been abandoned and forests have re-grown, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” Stated less euphemistically, fewer people means less carbon dioxide injected into the atmosphere, the poisonous gas responsible for climate chaos.

What made the Mongol invasion so great wasn’t just that it killed so many net-carbon increasers, but that it lasted so long, more than time enough to allow trees to take the place of the slaughtered. Khan himself didn’t live forever, of course, but his well-trained hordes pushed on towards Europe for just over a century. A healthy forest can be grown in that time.

The Black Death also lasted about a century, and while it killed twice as many people as did Genghis and his followers, it didn’t kill with the same efficiency as the Mongols. The plague would wander into a populated area and, depending on its mood, would take a out a few here, a few there. It was picky, choosing its victims haphazardly, almost as if it didn’t take itself seriously. The problem was that it left too many alive in any one spot, and those survivors, being only human, decided to celebrate their success of not being killed by engaging in some vigorous breeding by the warm glow of fireplaces. Fireplaces using wood from—you guessed it—nearby forests.

Contrast that with Khanian behavior. The Mongols would ride to town, surround it, encourage its occupants to surrender and be killed in an organized, efficient manner. Or, if the town’s occupants were recalcitrant, the Mongols would lay siege and then kill everybody in a sloppy, disorganized way. It was a take-no-prisoners, kill-everything-in-site attitude either way.

The good thing about this, according to Pongratz, was that when the hordes pushed on towards their next set of victims, they left only silence behind. And barren (freshly fertilized) ground covered in tree seeds—seeds which were able to grow into forests which sucked CO2 from the air, thus cooling the planet.

According to a summary of Pongratz’s work, “Genghis Khan’s bloody conquests scrubbed 700million tons of carbon from the atmosphere as depopulated land returned to forest.” Al Gore was the Nobel Peace Prize for a lot less than that!

The Mongols killed only half as many as the Black Death, but by removing these folks contiguously, “there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon.” In fact, the amount of carbon socked away on the “re-growth on depopulated lands” was “equivalent to the world’s total annual demand for gasoline today.”

The potential uses for Pongratz’s research are obvious. “Based on the knowledge we have gained from the past, we are now in a position to make land-use decisions that will diminish our impact on climate and the carbon cycle.” We now know that we can’t rely on disease to solve our global warming problems. Other solutions must be explored.

Men’s Fashion

Happy Easter! As you don your new bonnets and climb into your finest to celebrate, provided here in one spot are all articles on men’s fashion.


Stunning New Book! Hats For All

How can you tell which kind of head enjoy? If as you walk down the street mothers draw their children closer, young ladies gasp, and men move to cover their wallets, you are a long-oval. Otherwise, you’re probably normal-oval.

The Etiquette Of Hats (For Men)

Beaver fur is preferred over rabbit or some other lesser creature. Beaver is more supple, sheds rain better, and is prettier…Never be cheap in hat or shoes! It always tells.

General Clothing

Top 10 Men’s fashion rules

Rule 1: Dress for the job! All other rules flow from this one. It’s the most obvious, but also the most abused.

Men’s Fashion Advice: Pocket Squares

The younger you are, the less of your pocket square should show. If you’re in your twenties, you haven’t yet earned the right to be cavalier. Conversely, the older you, the freer you can be with showing silk.

Horrible College Fashion: Both Professors And Students

At the beginning of the semester, a veteran professor told me to pay attention to the students’ dress. She said that in the first week, all the females would be primped, painted, and pretty, and that the males would be wearing “their best t-shirts.” But by Thanksgiving, even the females would come class directly from bed, clad in either pajamas concealed by coats or the same sweatsuit.

Top 10 Women’s Fashion Rules

I’ll give one example of such signaling. A female asked me to read over an email that she was going to send to another female. The subject was of political importance. I began to read the email aloud. “Sally…,” I said, for this was the opening, but I was stopped immediately by the writer who said, “Is that too strong?” I didn’t understand: wasn’t Sally the intended recipient? She was. But the writer said to me, “Whenever I am happy with somebody I always start with something like ‘Hi Sally’, but if I am very angry I leave off the ‘Hi’.”

Don’t Blame Me. I Don’t Have Free Will

Try this argument on for size: I am a smart, clever guy with an advanced degree in neurology and tenure. The brain is a biological machine. But I don’t understand how free will works. Therefore, free will doesn’t exist. Quod erat demonstratum!

That bargain-basement syllogism is akin to saying this: I am smart, etc. My automobile is an electronic/mechanical machine. But I don’t understand how my newfangled automobile runs. Therefore, my automobile doesn’t move. It only apparently carries me from place to place, though I remain still.

As asinine as these arguments are, they are convincing to some. For example, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and of the Wall Street Journal article, “Our Social Networks, Ourselves: Does free will even exist? Scientists are finding that we’re much more predictable than we think.”

Lehrer was able to write—but wait a minute; let’s be clear what is who and who is what. The label “Jonah Lehrer” sits above the article, but this label cannot be a person, a thinking entity with free will. It is instead a deterministic meat-machine that had no choice but to put together the string of words that found their way to print. Some of those words were these:

Although we can’t help but believe in our autonomy—free will is a fiction we need—this latest research suggests we’re not nearly as free as we typically assume.

The output “free will is a fiction we need” is evidently is a message to other meat-machines that if they thought they were thinking, they were mistaken. In fact, they cannot be “they”. If there is no free will, there is no “I”, no “we”, “you” is absent, and “they” is a misnomer. There are only objects.

Since this is so, those of us who claim to have free will can only wonder why the meat-machine Jonah Lehrer seeks to convince other meat-machines that their thoughts are not their own, but merely uncontrollable mental impulses. Has this Jonah Lehrer meat-machine somehow become a “he”, an entity with free will, a machine that was able to escape his biological limitations to become something other? A being that can look down on the rest of the machines and try to comfort them?

How did “he” manage this if he did not have free will? But perhaps it is merely a meat-machine after all, and those words have no meaning, they are just strings of letters and words, epistemologically blank. If there is no free will, it had no choice but to pen this string. Just as “I” have no choice to say these words.

But enough. The absurdity is evident. The only questions are why intellectuals like Lehrer come to believe they don’t exist (their meat exists, of course, but not their selves), and why they feel (for clearly there is a “they” to feel) they have to convince others that they don’t exist.

Lehrer cites “research” for why he says there is no free will. For example, work which shows, “Moods are also contagious. When a person is happy, nearby friends are 25% more likely to also be happy, according to research from Harvard Medical School. These viral emotions can even spread via online networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.” Harvard!

And how about this stunner: “According to the data, if a person becomes obese, the likelihood that one of his or her friends will become obese increases by 57%.”

In other words, if you tell a joke, your listener is “25% more likely” to be cheered, and if you hang around people who eat as you do, and those people are fat, you stand a good chance of packing on the pounds, too. Golly.

These and the other trivial facts Lehrer mentions as evidence that free will is a fiction were long known, of course, and known by every living soul. But they had never before been published in a medical journal by neurologists who were able to tie in Rudyard Kipling-like yarns about why what was obvious to all really meant we had no control over our own destinies.

Since your free will is absent, or severely stunted, you have no choice but to mimic the behavior of those nearest you. That is what those statistics purport to show. But left unanswered is the obvious question: who is making those close to you act as they do? Do they have free will? How do new behaviors begin?

Being able to guess your weight within 50 pounds by knowing only your zip code, or forecasting new movies you will like given recommendations by those with similar cinematic tastes are not monumental achievements in predictive science. And they are certainly not indicative that we don’t have free will.

Earth Has Rights! Guest Post by John Henry Briggs

Since I am away out west, I sent intrepid reporter and number two son John Henry Briggs to the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY Graduate Center, where he witnessed the event “Nature Has Rights”, in which a panel asks questions like, “Does a river have a right to flow?” Happy Earth Day!

I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan five minutes early. I found my way to the auditorium where about 200 people were already sitting, idly chatting. In one conversation from the group in front of me, I caught the words “Republican”, “recount” and “election.”

The white-bearded David Harvey, a professor at CUNY, and this evening’s moderator begins introductions. First up, Shannon Biggs, a chipper looking lady with glasses and red-black hair. She works with an NGO called Global Exchange, their motto is “Building people-to-people ties”. Nature Has Rights

Second, a man in a garish shirt named Cormic Cullinan, a South African Environmental lawyer who just published his book “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice” which is available on the table outside for just $5.

Thirdly, Vandana Shiva, a self-described ecofeminist and environmental activist dressed in traditional Indian garb.

Next up, a very nondescript Maude Barlow, who holds the position of Chairperson to the Council of Canadians and is the Senior Advisor to the President of the 63rd UN General Assembly.

Last, but not least is Pablo Solón, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN.

Mr. Harvey puts the first question to his panelists: “What do we mean by rights of Nature? And why is it significant?” Each member ignored this and instead said what they came there to say. Biggs gets the ball started and complains that, “Nature can be owned, nature is property—like a slave.” Not missing a beat, she turns to the BP spill, complaining that only people could sue BP, but Nature could not. If Nature had rights, then Nature herself could get her cut from BP as well.

Continuing along the same vein, Cullinan stresses that, “We’ve become autistic to the natural world.” He insists in three different ways that there is an order to nature we must adhere to.

Shiva is the audience favorite. She is passionate and she ignores all questions. She begins ranting about the agriculture company Monstano and their genetic modification of plants. The audience bursts into applause when she said corporations should be punished for putting “toxic” in their plants. She then goes on to recount proudly the many things she’s protested against and ends saying that to be disconnected from nature is a psychiatric disease.

In contrast, Maude Barlow is dull, and only mentions some scary statistics that predict that demand for water is going to be 40% more than the supply in some-thirty years time. She recommends Al Gore’s idea of a “green economy”, the her idea that nature is worth $72 trillion is met with warm chuckles. She reiterates that she’s not saying bugs will should have the same rights as humans, but we can’t push them to extinction.

Ambassador Solón said that on the 28th of July there will be an event at the UN named, “From the human right to water to the rights of water.” Which we gather will be exactly what it sounds like (i.e., water has “rights”). He said that human growth should be limited “Only to satisfy our basic needs.” He signs off with a bombshell that brings down the house, “To fight for nature we have to fight against capitalism.”

The moderator then began his monologue, in which he mentions how silly the idea is of giving rights to something “fictional” like corporations similar to humans. But giving rights to Nature isn’t. He anticipates critics and said that the idea of giving rights to nature “Isn’t that weird.” He went on to mock his colleagues who consult for corporations, insinuating corporations “Willfully want to destroy the environment.” Somewhere in his rambling speech, he blamed world poverty on corporations and on capitalism.

At this point, Shiva comes to the happy realization, “There’s no debate here, everyone agrees with one another!” All smiled.

Cullinan, agreed and stated that the environmental movement is the, “Largest social movement ever.” He likened to the debate over the environment to the Galileo and Copernicus affair, repeating the myth that before these scientists humanity held the view that the universe revolves around humans. He said that, “If we don’t do something now, sometime in the future we may become extinct.” He claimed that, “Our offspring our less likely to survive” than us.

Shiva came back to the microphone and offered this conclusion: “We’ve been made to believe for humanity to succeed we need to destroy nature.” She also blamed India’s problem on capitalism and especially corporations.

As the panelists reiterated themselves for the dozenth time, they finally ended and then invited questions, which prompted the people with the strongest opinions to jump up to the mics and me to leave.

Stunning New Book! Hats For All

On Foot

I’m traveling this week to the Air Force Research Lab at Kirtland AFB, in the Space Weather Center of Excellence. Not just “Center,” mind, but Center of Excellence. So I’m feeling pretty good about the idea.

Apparently they’re doing some kind of experimenting of the “Effects of high-energy CMEs and epidermal cellular structure.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m to be a test subject! (There was talk of launching me into space.)

Mr Briggs’ Hat

Mr Briggs' HatKate Colquhoun has written a book which will surely be on everybody’s list: Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder. Hats, Briggs, trains, blood, murder—what’s not to love? Daily Mail review. I’ve already pre-ordered.


Speaking of head coverings: If you’re looking for a custom-made Panama hat, I recommend Panama Hats Direct. Even if you’re not buying, their video about the particulars of hat construction is worth a look.

Pay particular attention to the block used. Most people have ordinary, oval-shaped skulls, with a few toppings roughly circular. Most rare of all are those whose heads are shaped like eggs pushed out by severely constipated chickens. These pates are called long-oval, an architecture enjoyed by yours truly.

The problem we folk have is that if we wear an ordinary hat, our eggheads will push out the front and back abnormally, causing the brim to buckle and take on a wavy appearance. This horror can be masked by dark felt, but will stand out like a beacon in white straw.

Long-ovals will also want to have narrower brims because wide ones make your face appear elongated, like a character out of Edwin A. Abbott novel Flatland. Standard brims on felt are 2 – 2.5″, which is fine. But straws run from 2.5 – 4″, sometimes even more, which is far too wide (though ordinary ovals and circle-heads will look good).

Also take care that the crown height is not too high. Felt hats are about 4″, which is fine; less, down to 3.5″, would be better. Hipster hats range from 3 – 4″. More than 4″ makes your face look like a door knocker. Go for a generous taper to the back; anywhere from 3.25 – 3.5″ (starting with a crown height of 4″).

How can you tell which kind of head enjoy? If as you walk down the street mothers draw their children closer, young ladies gasp, and men move to cover their wallets, you are a long-oval. Otherwise, you’re probably normal-oval.

Or you can use the services of a conformiture, a steampunk phrenological mechanism that transfers your head shape to a 3 x 5 card. A picture of a dormant conformiture is shown on Paul’s Hat Works of San Francisco. Don’t be taken in by its quiescent appearance. It comes alive on your skull and even talks to you.

Get well Soon, Willie!

Posted in Fun

Predict The Next Strangest Government Regulation

Perhaps the most fantastical regulation to launch recently from the collective hive-mind of the federal bureaucracy is the one which administrates the very breath of life. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency—stop right there! Our EPA

Just pause and contemplate the name of this ever-growing government group. The Agency (connotations of furtive, fedora-wearing men) to Protect the Environment? And just what is the “environment”? Why, everything. There is nothing that isn’t the environment. The best technical definition is “Earth and its solar neighborhood”, which though seemingly broad fails to mention cosmic rays. Thus, the entire universe is the environment.

The EPA can reason in just this way and argue that literally everything under the sun is in its purview. Laugh not, nor scoff you. The EPA pulled this stunt when it decided to classify your very breath as a pollutant. Why? Because drawing a breath necessitates puffing one back out. Problem is, the output has more carbon dioxide than the input. And that gas is persona non grata in the hallways of Washington: it causes unstoppable catastrophic global warming!


It is your turn to ponder and predict what new, frivolous, freedom-restricting, freakish, flighty fiat will befall us. The rules are detailed below. The winner will receive a presentation-ready certificate (on recycled paper using biodegradable ink) announcing his sagacity.

Now, what the EPA has not yet acknowledged is that other biologically created gases are more insidious than CO2. Methane, for one, the emissions of which were well proved in the campfire scene in that classic Mel Brooks documentary Blazing Saddles.

Thus, my entry for the next strangest government regulation is that the EPA will limit per-capita bean and cruciferous-vegetable consumption, or that it will mandate the manufactures of these food stuffs incorporate Beano into their recipes.

I base this prediction not just on trends in global warming-based rules, but on the many new regulations which tell citizens what they may not put into their bodies. New York bans trans-fat, there are calls to limit salt everywhere, in California (first as ever) there is a proposed law to stop smoking in tobacco shops, schools in Chicago forbid homemade lunches, and on and on and on.

And don’t forget the granddaddy of them all: the prohibition of alcohol, written into the very fabric of our Constitution! Our rule is always this: if it happened before, it will happen again. Incidentally, am I the only one to notice that the introduction of prohibition in this and every other country coincided, within a year or two, of universal suffrage? Most food- and booze-based rules are nothing more than legalistic, mandatory-sweater-wearing mothering.

The internet in its salad days was, as Tom Cruise famously said of Scientology, wild and woolly. People said and did what they wanted. Innovation was rampant. Money was made. No more! The government has finally caught its breath and figured out how to parse an string of HTML. It wants in.

There are calls for “net neutrality”—as is common with regulations, this one means the opposite of what it says. Companies who paid for the cables, machines, and men which bring the internet to your home will be told that they may not charge for the amount people use these cables, machines, and men. The government has been persuaded that charge-for-use is “unfair.”

Were you aware that some websites are not accessible for the deaf and blind? The government is, and it is considering expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act to mandate websites become “accessible” (a term to be defined by lawyers).

It isn’t just the government, the National Federation of the Blind has lodged an official complaint with the Justice Department which charges that “Google Apps for Education amounts to discrimination.” It will not be long before armed agents come to the garages of programmers and say, “Build this in or cease operating.”

Our populace is by now well trained to see any deprivation, no matter how slight or fleeting, as a gross and intolerable injustice, as a wrong to be righted by legislative muscle. On any corner you can hear cries of Racism!, Sexism!, Rights! Therefore, we shall see an ever-increasing series of bizarre and lunatic laws and regulations. The only question is: what comes next?


The regulation you propose must be new, not mentioned by any politician or agency heretofore. It must be verifiable, and you must provide the details that allow its verification. All regulations must be on the books—either in some some federal agency or proposed (but not necessarily passed) in the Senate or House—by 15 April 2012 (tax day).

Somebody also has to remind me to re-publicize this contest from time to time. I am the sole judge and jury.

This contest is null and void if it breaks any rules and regulations set up by our ever beneficent government. The prize has no cash value.