Randi in Maryland

Last weekend the infamous James Randi was in town (for a sufficiently loose definition of “town”) to receive an award, and I went to go see him.

If you weren’t there, to be honest, you didn’t miss a whole lot. Randi talked for a little while, the main take-home message being that we should get angry and fight all the “crapiola” out there, and did a simple magic trick, along with showing how it was done. The bulk of the time after that was a series of video clips featuring Randi in full debunking force, drawn from a TV series in Korea and some relatively recent media appearances in the U.S. (particularly regarding the most recent Sylvia Browne debacle), many of which can be found on YouTube, with Randi and one of the afternoon’s hosts providing commentary.

Since the Korean clips don’t seem to be online, you might be wondering what they were about. One featured a couple people claiming to have some sort of “human magnetism” where objects could stick to them. Randi demonstrated that their “power” vanished when their skin was sprinkled with talcum powder. As Randi explained, the “magnetism” was caused by sticky sweat, and applying that sweat to, say, a piece of wood would confer the same adhesive properties to it.

Another clip dealt with a “healer” who would use an egg to remove the bad juju from a person, rubbing the egg on their body and then cracking it open to reveal red goop inside of it. Video Randi demonstrated how this little trick is done: make a little hole in the end of the egg and squirt in some red food coloring, then tape over it and keep your thumb over the tape the whole time so nobody can see what you did. The “healer” also demonstrated the power to deliver electric shocks to people. A little stealthy camerawork revealed how this was done: the “healer” would stand on a rubber mat and with his foot operate a high-voltage, low-amperage generator concealed in one sandal; when activated, current would arc from his hand to the patient to the ground.

After that, the National Capital Area Skeptics presented Randi with an award, and that was pretty much it.

In conclusion, James Randi is surprisingly short in person.

Things I learned from watching Torchwood

  • Darker and edgier” is rarely synonymous with “better”.
  • Everybody is bisexual, or at the very least bicurious, if not outright pansexual. Everybody.
  • Putting video screens in the headrests of your special ops van is not necessarily a bad idea. Putting the screens on the front side of them — you know, the part where one rests one’s head — is.
  • If you’re going to have a super-secret paragovernmental base, the obvious place to put it is underneath a local landmark. You know, the kind that has a lot of pedestrian traffic going past.
  • If you’re finding it hard to have a character overact emote without losing your dark edginess, try using lots and lots of quick cuts during the scene. You don’t even have to maintain much continuity from one cut to another!
  • Welsh is inscrutable.
  • Every square inch centimeter centimetre of Britain is covered by at least one CCTV camera.
  • The needs of the plot dictate how you turn a machine on. In one scene, you just need to fiddle around with its inexplicably mechanical, fully exposed innards to activate it. Later on, in the same episode, you can only operate it through the attached computer terminal, which demands retinal scans of the entire team (including the guy you just shot) and makes you click through several “Are you sure? This’ll probably destroy the base and kill everyone” confirmation dialogs first.
  • Also, the villain capable of warping instantaneously through time and space at will who wants to activate the machine won’t just warp himself next to the machine and turn it on; instead, he’ll come up with a convoluted plot to trick the heroes into doing it for him. And yes, the villain is perfectly capable of warping himself into the base.
  • This satanic monster looks intimidating: he’s huge and surrounded by flames in a massive pit in a cave deep underground a planet on the verge of falling into a black hole. This one does not: he’s merely large and strolls aimlessly around Cardiff. He doesn’t even look like he’s trying to kill anyone. Sure, his shadow kills anyone it touches, but that’s an awfully passive attack. And wouldn’t he be powerless at night? He seems pretty wimpy for a season-finale monster.
  • Furthermore, having the immortal hero fight said monster’s shadow by writhing in pain at the shadow’s edge while the shadow wriggles around a bit not only looks as dumb as it sounds, but it doesn’t even make sense. Why can’t the shadow just engulf the hero? Is the shadow physically pushing back against the monster or something?
  • The fact that the hero’s gunshot wounds from earlier in the episode make it look like his nipples are bleeding during the “battle” doesn’t help matters much either.

Happy Pi Day

Yes, I know. I grasp calendars so rarely state it’s today.

Everyone worldwide, rejoice posthaste, for pi day returned!

Each circle we sketch must use not integers, but an amazing geometric ratio!

[Editor's note: as I can't think of any words with zero letters in them, that's about as far as I can go with this.]

Modest Proposal Saving Time

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’re probably aware that that Daylight Saving Time (note the lack of a terminal “s” anywhere) has been bumped up to this weekend instead of the first Sunday in April, and that people are predicting all sorts of doom and gloom as computers that are smart enough to self-adjust for DST but not smart enough to be aware of the rule change will not only not adjust themselves not, but will adjust themselves on the wrong day from now until heat death or the repeal of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, whichever comes first.

For some reason, people have ridiculously strong feelings about DST. Or at least, people in Indiana do, where believe it or not it’s a significant political issue, with the state having recently joined all the ones around it in observing it. Of course, this is a state where people voluntarily call themselves hoosiers, so, you know, there’s that.

As for myself, I could go either way on the issue. What’s important is that there’s some consistency. If everyone uses DST, fine. If nobody does, that’s also OK. When some people do and some people don’t, that’s where you have a problem, as there’s a period of at least several weeks where you have no idea what time it is where those other people are — are they still an hour behind, or are they the same as us now? What about next week?

If you ever try traveling from one part of the state that doesn’t observe DST to one that does, at a point near the boundary of DST observance, over the course of a weekend where DST goes into effect, well, you will have no idea whatsoever what time it is. I can speak from experience on this. And don’t think your cell phone’s clock will bail you out, either; its clock will depend on which tower happens to be closest at any given moment.

At times like these (or possibly at times like an hour ago, depending on whether you remembered to change your clock yet or not), you might wonder why we bother with DST to begin with. Ostensibly, the main reason is energy conservation. Aligning human activity cycles with daylight in principle results in lower energy use, as you don’t have to turn as many lights on to see. Since people are far too stubborn and set in their ways to voluntarily adjust their schedules as the times the sun rises and sets change along with the seasons (stupid axial tilt), the government tricks us into doing so by shifting our entire temporal reference frame by an hour twice a year.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the matter. Our reckoning of time is pretty much arbitrary anyway. Sure, the notion of a “day” is largely determined by our planet’s orbital and rotational parameters, and seems pretty cut-and-dried (until you start worrying about solar days versus sidereal days, at least). But once you start subdividing that, things get pretty arbitrary. Why divide the day into 24 hours? Tradition, and the fact that 24 is divisible by almost anything you can throw at it, which makes the math work more easily. How do we decide when one hour ends and the next begins?

Traditionally, we’ve used solar noon, the time the sun is at its highest, as the reference point. Of course, the time of solar noon varies with longitude, which becomes confusing once you start interacting with people outside your own town, where the difference in your local noons starts being measurable. One of the factors leading to defining standard time zones, after all, was the confusion in trying to figure out what those times in train schedules actually meant. But with time zones, 12:00 pm only corresponds roughly with local noon, and not even very well if you’re a country like China that insists it’s a single time zone despite being wide enough for five.

But if some of us are willing to go that far for consistency, then why shouldn’t we be willing to drop the fiction that 12:00 pm means anything anyway, aside from some arbitrary reference point to start ticking off the hours from? Why don’t we drop time zones altogether and all use the same time reference?

In other words, why not have one worldwide time zone?

It certainly makes managing clocks a lot easier — they’re all set to the same time. Most computers do this internally anyway; “local time” is just an adjustment the computer applies before displaying it to you, which is why it’s able to adjust for DST automatically without getting hopelessly confused even if it runs continuously through a certain weekend in fall. And with the time our clocks display divorced from any local astronomical phenomena, DST is pointless.

Plus, you get the benefit of always knowing what time it is, anywhere on the planet — just look at the closest clock.

Sure, it might sound weird for your day shift to be from, say, 1:00 pm to 9:30 pm, but that’s just because we used to call it 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. The only reason you associate 8:00 am with morning currently is because that’s when 8:00 am happens to be. If you were raised under a unified time reference, the first system would seem just as nutty.

And there’s no more confusion with the solar time-of-day under a unified clock than we have with time zones now. Someone being two hours behind is just as valid — their morning is still two hours after yours. It’s just a matter of their morning being at 3:00 pm instead of 1:00 pm like yours is. There’s no fundamental difference in they way you think of the solar time difference, but now you have the advantage of a stated time being interpreted unambiguously worldwide.

So, this weekend, take a stand for restoring sanity and reason to our temporal reference. Don’t set your clocks ahead an hour. Set them to Coordinated Universal Time and take comfort in the fact that you’ll never have to set your clock forward or back ever again, regardless of where you go or what time of year it is.

And while we’re at it, can we please drop this whole am/pm nonsense and go with 24-hour time too?

Fool Lore

For those of you who haven’t been to the SoF-pedia in a while, I recently added a few classic stories:

WordPress 2.1

I just upgraded the site to the latest version of WordPress. Let me know if anything has mysteriously broken.

East Coast Survival Tip

Never get between a Marylander and his crab cakes.

In the end, neither Jeffrey Rites nor Keith Anthony Rantin Jr. got any of G&M Restaurant and Lounge’s famous crab cakes for lunch.

[...]

What was at stake was who would eat first. So coveted are G&M’s crab cakes that not only do lines of hungry devotees stretch out the door, but the delicacies can be ordered online and shipped overnight anywhere in the country. Baltimore magazine named them the best in the region in 2004 and 2005, according to the restaurant’s Web site.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Dunty maintains that Rites, 39, of Violetville, responded before Rantin, 31, a Reisterstown barber and home rehabber, when the “who’s next?” call went out at lunchtime March 28.

Asserting that Rites was not next, Rantin began arguing, and the confrontation went from words to shoving to the stabbing, the prosecutor said.

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