Curious Reasoning of True Believers

If you believe in magic, come along with me
We’ll dance until morning till there’s just you and me
And maybe, if the music is right
I’ll meet you tomorrow, sort of late at night
And we’ll go dancing, baby, then you’ll see
How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me

The Lovin’ Spoonful

The illustrious blogger Fandango has posed the question today: Do you believe in magic? Quite a can of worms, isn’t it? This is partly a question of definition and categorization, taxonomy as much as philosophy. What’s just as interesting is the blurred lines between religion, magic, expertise, intuition, evidence, and conclusions without evidence, and how they lead people to take actions that are self-contradictory.

The question was instigated by a recent incident in a Tennessee Catholic school where the pastor removed the Harry Potter series from the elementary/middle school library because: “These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

Well, as Hermione might say, Revelio!

The most knowledgeable wizard from Harry Potter. Photo from Warner Bros.

Is it a Natural Law If I Don’t Know it Exists Yet?

But first, definitions are required if we’re going to talk about magic and belief. Belief refers to a personal conviction which can either be backed up by facts or not. Belief can be based on unseen evidence. I believe that antibodies and quarks exist because scientific studies have identified them and described how they work. I don’t have to see them. Belief can also occur without evidence. I believe that people have experienced things not yet explained by science, such as dreaming about things that occur in reality but outside the dreamer’s knowledge.

Magic, according to Merriam-Webster, is the art of producing a result …through human control of supernatural agencies or of the force of nature. Hmmm. So what is supernatural? Beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law. (I’m excluding stage magicians here, who perform amazing tricks through explainable but complicated processes such as hidden doorways or misdirection.) What this definition points out is that magic, in essence, is something that occurs which is unexplainable. Let’s also add: CURRENTLY unexplainable.

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The Grand Larceny of Accu-Weather

We’ve seen plenty of bold and brazen corporate thievery in recent years. “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli upped the price of life-saving medicine 5000% because he could; he’s now serving years in the pen for securities fraud. There was the Enron bunch, led by Jeff Skilling, who created blackouts in San Francisco and the west coast in the early 2000s by manipulating the temporarily de-regulated California electric market. The traders were caught on tape laughing about stealing money from the “poor grandmothers.” Such a grand level of avarice is hard to stomach, but one that tops them all must be Barry Myers. Because Myers has been trying to steal the weather.

There’s a backstory, of course. A grain of legitimacy, a swirl of political intrigue, a schadenfreude twist of fate, and a who-knows-what-happens-next part to this tale. The most important question to me is exactly which circle of hell Myers will end up in, the one where his shade is bitten by snakes or the one where he is thrown into the lake of boiling pitch?

Thieves in Dante's Hell
Gustave Dore depiction of the section of Dante’s Malbolge circle of Hell specifically for Thieves
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Yes, You Can Drink Cold Water

My yoga teacher told us a few weeks back that we should refrain from drinking cold water, either with meals or at any other time. This led to a pointed rebuke from another long-time student who had an extensive nutritional background, and the merry debate went on until the instructor ended with, “Well, this was what they told me in a physiology class that I’m taking.”

I remembered this exchange reading last week in the NY Times about a study which showed people often cling to ideas which conflict with scientific consensus and common sense. Further, that those who often feel strongest are often the least knowledgeable. Although this seems counterintuitive , almost surreal, we have seen this in action. In fact, this conundrum seems to be one of the most pressing problems of our time, one which, despite the ready availability of good information, persistently leads to the opposite. Case in point: reactions to the Mueller report. Case in point: the recent outbreak of measles, which ought to have been eradicated in the U.S. Case in point: see my post about eating cheese.

Why do easily validatable yet unsubstantiated ideas get so easily disseminated and supported? Perhaps it is a function of our response to the Information Superhighway which gives us 1) too much information 2) sometimes delivered by the unscrupulous which leaves us to be 3) overly reliant on people we (think we) can trust. Because 4) you can drink cold water.

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Trigonometry: Secant-ing out New Life in Ancient Civilizations

Plimpton 322 from sci-news.com

It’s irresistible. The siren song of Wikipedia calls to me. All I was trying to do was find out which Greek invented trigonometry. Was it Pythagoras and his bean-renouncing cult or someone else? And I come across this enticing little tidbit, a curious little reference which, to a history buff is like the smell of fresh cookies…

Based on one interpretation of the Plimpton 322 cuneiform tablet (c. 1900 BC), some have even asserted that the ancient Babylonians had a table of secants.[8] There is, however, much debate as to whether it is a table of Pythagorean triples, a solution of quadratic equations, or a trigonometric table.

Wikipedia: History of Trigonometry

Much debate? Some have asserted? This sounds like historical mystery to me. I was instantly overjoyed at the thought of poking around to see if anyone denounced anyone else in the public square or started fistfights or wrote long letters to the editor of scientific journals about how their enemies were cretins who didn’t know a hypotenuse from a hippopotamus. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Don’t Be Afeared, it’s Just Math

First, a few definitions. Even if you’ve never taken trigonometry or if the very word causes you to put a blanket over your head, don’t worry. Imagine that it’s a warm sunny day in Greece (or Babylonia or Sumeria or Egypt) and you notice that the pillar of the nearby temple, next to where you are sunning yourself, throws a shadow. Since you like to measure things, you get out your handy measuring stick and you measure the length of the shadow. You know the length of the pillar. You start doing calculations.

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R.U.R.F.R. Are You Ready for Robots?

Creepy? Silly? Big Brother? Futuristic? The Beginning of the End? The Signal for the Singularity from which the Terminator emerges?

Malibu Security Mart Robot, photo from Roland Woerner

Mobile security robots are popping up with increasing frequency at gas stations, malls, and casinos. It caught my attention when this morning’s news had a snippet that Huntingon Park is installing a “robocop” to patrol city streets. Another story from CBS Los Angeles back in February asked, “Is 2019 the Year Robot Security Guards Go Mainstream?” Whether we label them robots, bots, nanos, androids, automation, or Big Brother, the permeation of programmed surveillance throughout our culture is something that requires continuous vigilance and assessment.

Robocop from 1987, photo from filmschoolrejects.com

Imaginary Cautionary Tales

Like many, I find the increasing examples of robo-guards disturbing, in part because there are so many stories about robots gone haywire. Reference to the word “robocop” immediately conjures up Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 dystopian tale of a privatized military and a militarized police force. Will Robinson’s companion robot from Lost in Space, the show I grew up watching, was originally programmed to sabotage the ship and murder the humans. Even when the robots are cute, like in Wall-E, there are often mastermind machines behind the scenes determined to tame or neuter humans. See also Oblivion. See also Forbidden Planet. See Iron Giant, Westworld, well, just see this handy list from BuzzFeed.

The word “robot” comes from a 1920’s Czech play by Karel Capek called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Capek coined the word roboti as a deliberate reference to the Old Slavic word rabu or slave. In the play, humans are producing robots (androids we might say, since they have human features and characteristics) originally to take on menial work. But the humans start to die out, the robots rebel, and they are left to restart the world in their image.

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