Strangers don't poison kids' Halloween candy
Would have been more topical to post this back in October, but it's still interesting: turns out strangers don't poison kids' Halloween candy. Corroborated by the Wall Street Journal here.
That is, although nobody can prove that it's never happened, neither can anybody point to a single documented case of a person putting poison or drugs or razor blades or whatever inside Halloween candy and giving it out to kids. Not one! There have been two documented cases of kids dying from candy that was poisoned by their own family, however. So keep that in mind - you're in more danger taking candy from your own family than taking it from strangers on Halloween. If you want something realistic to worry about, worry about getting hit by cars.
I guess this myth just persists because, like most urban legends, something about the idea of it is so utterly gripping to the imagination that everybody is willing to convince themselves that they heard it from a friend of a friend or on the news some years ago or something that deadly tainted Halloween candy is totally a real thing that happens.
Bus Ride to the Twilight Zone
The Wednesday before I left for China. My bike had a flat tire (again) so I was taking the bus home.
Getting on the bus, I tripped over the step and fell to my hands and knees. I was fine. I got up and brushed myself off. "I'm fine", I said to the bus driver.
"I still have to file an Incident Report", she said.
"Do You Require Medical Attention?" she asked, formally.
"What? No! I just said I was fine!" I found an open seat at the back of the bus. Next to me was an ancient hippie, with long black hair under a baseball cap, military dog tags, and mirrorshades. His face reminded me of my grandmother.
The bus sat idling while the bus driver made a call to HQ to file her Incident Report. A minute. Five minutes. I laughed nervously. People on the bus were giving me the evil eye. "Sorry, I guess I better be careful next time", I mumbled. "Oh yeah, you're hurt so bad" somebody joked. "Better call your lawyer!". Mirrorshades guy said something about how maybe this was the first step of implementing martial law. I thought he was joking.
The bus driver called me back up to the front of the bus and made me fill out a form with my contact info, stating that I had been offered medical attention and refused it. What the hell, I wondered as I stalked back to my seat, is wrong with this country?
Having now wasted like ten minutes of everybody's day over nothing, the bus finally got moving. I had my laptop out and was trying to work a bit on Collusion. Mirrorshades guy asked what I was working on. I said something about Mozilla and Firefox. He started talking about how the CIA can spy on your computer, and all the software he uses to stop them (most of which I hadn't heard of). He asked me "how Firefox compares to Linux". Ooookay. At this point I thought he was just a weirdo who didn't know much about computers.
I thought of telling him that I was working on stuff to help protect people's privacy, but there was no point. He started going off on a weird rant about how "they" can get into your computer and remote control it using satellites. He knows this because one time he was talking to Microsoft Tech Support in India and they started moving his mouse pointer around! (Note: this is called Remote Desktop). Soon he was talking about FEMA death camps and how flouride is put in the drinking water to make us stupid and I realized he wasn't just your average bus weirdo, he was the real deal: a bona-fide grade A conspiracy theorist.
I have some sympathy for conspiracy nuts, up to a point. I agree that our government does all sorts of secretive and unethical things. The president actually does have a secret "kill list" of people to be targeted by flying robot murder drones. That, and other things which would have sounded like crazy ranting not too long ago, are today unarguable facts that politicians admit, and even defend. If you want to complain about Guantanamo or NSA wiretapping or the police arresting lawful protesters, I'm right there with you, bro.
But with all the real stuff that's wrong in the world, why do conspiracy theorists fixate on theories that are so dumb?
Mirrorshades guy said that the proof of the flouride thing was that on the back of the toothpaste box there's a warning to call poison control if you swallow too much of it. Therefore flouride is poisonous, but it's in our drinking water! Therefore, it's a conspiracy to make us stupid, no other possible explanation. (The concepts of "effective dose vs. overdose" or the differences between different flouride compounds don't seem to exist to these guys.) He asked what I thought and I said I doubted it; he said only because I've been brainwashed and "you better WAKE UP, son!" (No, dude, I doubt it because I've been to countries that don't have flouride, and the people there are not noticably more intelligent than us, they just have nastier teeth.) (I do enjoy the idea that the conspiracy is powerful enough to control all government, business, and media, but they can't take the warning message off the back of a toothpaste box.)
Pretty soon he was on about a supposed suicide spree and how a recent earthquake had tilted the earth's axis by some number of degress and... I'm not sure what his point was, really. He asked me what I thought again and I tried to point out that earthquakes of that magnitude must have happened plenty often throughout earth's history and whatever cumulative axis-tiling effect they've had doesn't seem to have been detrimental to life, but it was impossible to even engage this guy with logic; every time I tried he just spun off to an unrelated conspiracy theory before I could really formulate a response. He was free-associating, loudly, aggressively, and in my face.
I kind of wish now that I had asked the bus guy whether he was a "Jews are in charge of everything" conspiracy theorist or a "Lizard people are in charge of everything" conspiracy theorist. But at the time I really just wanted the conversation to be over. It was hard to get a word in edgewise, anyway, and the mirrorshades made it impossible to read his eyes, which made the conversation even more awkward and unnerving. I was contemplating getting off the bus early and walking the rest of the way, just to escape.
He kept saying "you better WAKE UP, son!" and "They're keeping an eye on me because I know things!" and "You think I'm making this up?"
No, sir, I don't think you're making it up. I've been on the Internet, I've heard all these theories before. They've been around for decades, and it's always the End Times and the UN coup is always imminent, and yet somehow it never happens. The really sad thing about conspiracy theorists is that they pride themselves on being too smart to fall for the official version of events; but far from being skeptical they're some of the world's most credulous people. They'll believe anything they hear as long as it sounds sufficiently scary and contradicts the "official" story. (Like how any hole they can pick in the official 9/11 story is automatically evidence for their alternate theory, no matter how far-fetched; there is never a third possibility.)
Something I'd like to ask a conspiracy theorist: If it's true that there's an all-powerful conspiracy that controls everything, and basically everybody is in on it, what exactly do you want us to do about it? Is there anything we can do? How do you beat them? (Or join them?)
My guess is it's not about taking action -- it's about feeling smarter than everybody else because you have secret knowledge. Secret knowledge that can never be disproven, because any counterargument is just "what THEY want you to think". Secret knowledge that you can lord over the "sheeple". Or rant about to random strangers on a bus.
Happy Mayan Non-Apocalypse
The idea that the world is going to end tomorrow due to Mayan prophecy is so silly that it hopefully needs no debunking.
Even if the Maya did predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012, there's no reason to think that prediction would be any more accurate than any of the other predicted doomsday dates that have come and gone without incident. But the Maya didn't predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012. Nothing of the sort.
Since I enjoy tracing the lineage of crackpot ideas, I looked into where and how this nonsense started.
Tomorrow, in the Mayan Long Count calendar, is the end of the 13th B'ak'tun. Contrary to popular culture, the calendar doesn't "end" tomorrow, it just rolls over to the next B'ak'tun. The date will be 126.96.36.199.0. It's not a prediction of doomsday any more than the Gregorian calendar predicted doomsday by rolling over to a new millenium in 2001. I guess if computers used Mayan dates we might be dealing with a kind of "y188.8.131.52.0" problem right now, but that's about it.
There are plenty of references to dates after 184.108.40.206.0 in ancient Mayan writings like the recently discovered wall carvings in Xultun. So they clearly didn't think the world was going to end. There is only one Mayan text that predicts anything at all happening on 220.127.116.11.0, and it is merely a vague reference to an appearance by the god Bolon Yokte. It seems more likely they thought of the end of the cycle as a date to celebrate than as the end of anything.
Present-day Mayans are certainly not real impressed by the 2012 hysteria.
That's the other weird part of this 2012 doomsday business -- we keep talking like the Mayans are a vanished people. They're not. Despite the genocidal attempts of Europeans, there are about 7 million Mayan people (i.e. descendants of one of the Maya groups and/or speakers of one of the Maya languages) living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras today.
We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.
-- Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemalan of Mayan ancestry, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
As I've written before, pretending that native Americans had some kind of magic powers is perhaps slightly better than pretending they were savages, but it's still a falsehood based on racist stereotypes.
Anyway, where did the prediction of apocalypse on December 21, 2012 come from? Not from the Maya themselves, but from a German scholar, Ernst Förstemann. In the early 1900s he examined a Mayan book of dates and astronomical predictions called the Dresden Codex. At that time, the only part of the Mayan writing system that westerners had translated were the dates; so all Förstemann had to go on was the dates and the pictures. The last page of the Dresden Codex features a illustration of a sky lizard vomiting water. Speculating wildly, Förstemann interpreted it as a prediction of an apocalyptic flood at the end of the B'ak'tun cycle.
Förstemann's interpretation of the Dresden Codex says more about the western Judeo-Christian tradition (obsessed as it is with floods and doomsday prophecies) than it says about Mayan culture.
An American archaeologist named Michael Coe reproduced Förstemann's ideas about the significance of the date in his 1966 book The Maya. It became popular with various 60s new-age hippie gurus, who interpreted 18.104.22.168.0 (conveniently falling on the Winter Solstice, 2012) not as the apocalypse but as a date of spiritual transformation or awakening. But in recent decades American popular culture (the X-files, that horrible disaster movie, pseudoscience specials on the Discovery Channel, etc) got ahold of the idea and turned the hippies' spiritual transformation back into an apocalypse.
So what we're dealing with here is a Hollywood misunderstanding of a new-age misunderstanding of an archaeological misunderstanding of a Mayan tradition that didn't predict anything in particular.
Some 2012 doomsayers even believe they know the precise agent of the apocalypse: There is an urban legend, or conspiracy theory, or something, about a rogue planet called Nibiru which is going to make a close approach to the earth; its gravity, or maybe its magnetic field, is going to wipe out civilization. This idea was started in 1995 by a woman who believed that she was recieving messages from aliens in her brain. She originally predicted Nibiru would destroy civilization in 2003. But since nothing happend in 2003, she moved the date to 2012 to coincide with the Mayan date 22.214.171.124.0.
A hilarious part of the conspiracy thoery is that a missing patch data in Google Sky was intentionally blocked out to hide the existence of Nibiru. (Hint: if Nibiru was really appraoching, blocking out Google Sky wouldn't do anything. Anybody could point a telescope at that part of the sky and see it for themselves.) What's not funny at all is that some people - children even - have been freaking out over the Nibiru rumors, to the point of considering suicide. NASA scientist David Morrison, who answers questions on the site "Ask an Astrobiologist", has has had to become something of an expert in trying to talk people out of their irrational fears.
Doomsday scenarios: Not harmless, no matter how goofy they sound. And yet, debunking them never seems to do any good. When the world doesn't end tomorrow, I'm sure the doomdsay crowd will simply pick a new date to fixate on. Some people need to believe the world is about to end. Who knows why? Maybe it helps their personal problems seem smaller, maybe it gives more historical significance to the time they happened to be born in, maybe it's a way of avoiding having to plan for the future. Maybe people react to the overwhelming change and complexity of modern civilization by imagining a future drastically simplified by cataclysm.
But whatever. Appropriating (and misunderstanding) other cultures' beliefs doesn't make your doomsday predictions any more believable. And Mayan culture should really not be blamed for this kind of crackpottery.
My aunt has recently been into an alternative medicine practice called "earthing". It's apparently based on the idea that you'll be healthier if you keep your body electrically grounded at all times.
She asked me, since I know something about electricity, whether there's any scientific basis for it.
"Earthing" advocates talk about the ground as being a reservoir of free electrons; they say your body needs these electrons to neutralize free radicals, and they say that wearing rubber-soled shoes insulates modern man from the ground, cutting off your electron supply.
There's something psychologically appealing here - the modern world does make us feel cut off from the earth, so along comes a claim saying that being cut off from literal physical contact is literally damaging your health, for reasons that sound vaguely scientific. So I can see why people would fall for it.
Look, I totally believe that people who walk around barefoot outside a lot are healthier. But they're healthier because they're getting exercise and fresh air and sunshine and feeling carefree and feeling connected to nature, not because they're electrically grounded. Grounding yourself isn't going to hurt anything, but it's not going to give you "more electrons" than you would pick up from touching random objects all day.
If you're worried you're not electrically grounded, just touch a metal doorknob and you'll find out pretty fast! Getting the electrons you need to neutralize your charge isn't some gentle field of healing energy - it's literally a shock. That's all being grounded means: you're prevented from building up a static charge. In a circuit that uses A/C power and/or delicate electronics this is an important safety measure. But there's nothing special about the earth in this regard; it's just a large neutrally-charged object. Saying that the earth contains a limitless supply of free electrons is technically true, but that makes it sound like an energy source, which it isn't. (If it was, we'd be getting free electricity by plugging into the ground, not burning fossil fuels.)
And finally, if your body contains free radicals but is neutrally charged overall (which it is!), you're not going to pick up any extra electrons from being grounded. (As if extra electrons in your the skin of your feet could somehow find the free radicals in your body to neutralize them, which is extremely unlikely.)
There's a thorough takedown here which points out that neutralizing free radicals isn't even necessarily good for your health.
Earthing fans claim that it's been scientifically shown to reduce blood viscosity, but the abstract of the research paper shows a sample size of ten and it's not clear they even used a control group.
The people pushing "earthing" appear to be profiting from the sale of sleeping pads that plug into a wall socket so you can be grounded while you sleep. So yeah, this is yet another pseudoscientific fad designed to sell people expensive stuff that does nothing (see also crystals, magnetic bracelets, "orgone energy" emitters, homeopathic medicine, etc.)
The lesson here is that anybody can take any random harmless activity and claim it has health benefits, and as long as the claims are vague enough ("reduce aches and pains, sleep better, have more energy") the placebo effect will be enough to convince some people it's working.
And I'm mad at people who peddle this shit, because they're rip-off artists, taking money from people who don't know enough science to be skeptical.
But you know who else I'm mad at? The United States health care system. For failing so many people so badly that those people feel like they're better off believing in fucking magic than in modern medicine. If our health-care-slash-insurance-company system wasn't such a huge, uncaring, impersonal, bureaucracy, if it treated people as individuals deserving of empathy instead of interchangeable parts on an assembly line, maybe fewer people would be driven into the arms of pseudoscience.
After a week and a half of holding out against the flu epidemic, I finally succumbed on Friday.
Or did I? My symptoms aren't nearly as bad as what Sushu had, or what other people have been describing. I just feel like I have a cold, not the flu-of-doom.
Sushu and my mom both reported that after they got the flu, they got better, but a week later had a relapse.
My theory is that there's a milder cold following around in the flu's wake, taking advantage of people's weakened immune systems, like Turks following the Mongol Horde. And I avoided the flu, but then let my guard down and caught the cold.
On Friday, we had dinner at a not-very-good Indian restaurant (it's called Tava Indian Kitchen and it's like somebody was trying to make the Indian food equivalent of Chipotle).
After that we stopped at Trader Joe's to grab bananas and maple syrup. Cashier asked how I was doing and I said I felt like I was coming down with the flu. Then the conversation got very weird.
He said the flu was really bad this year, but "they're making it worse" by distributing flu vaccine shots, which are really a evil plot to GIVE people the flu, and nobody should get flu shots ever.
Yes, he was one of those anti-vaccine guys.
I was feeling too sick to argue, so I just told him that last year I got the vaccine and did not get sick, and this year I did not get the vaccine and I did get sick, so it works for me.
He backpedaled: "Oh, well, you're probably in the right age range and healthy enough to resist it, but they shouldn't give it to babies and old people"
Then I just paid for our stuff and peaced out. If I had been feeling better I would have argued with that idiot, because anti-vaccine hysteria really pisses me off.
Like hey, you ever notice how our generation was lucky enough to grow up in a world without deadly smallpox epidemics? How, if you live in a first-world country, you probably don't know anybody who died as a kid from whooping cough, or was permanently crippled by childhood polio?
All of those are because vaccines fucking work. They are a miracle of modern science.
And there's a very disturbing trend of people not wanting to vaccinate their kids because they heard it caused autism, and they're not only endangering their own kids, they're making it more dangerous for everybody else too by weakening the herd immunity. So I feel like pushing back against anti-vaccine hysteria is pretty important.