Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Cool Science Thing

You’ve no doubt heard of Pavlov, the Russian scientist who did the experiments with dogs. In the popular telling of Pavlov’s work, he supposedly conditioned dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, but that never actually happened. Instead, Pavlov observed that dogs drooled at the sight of the white-coated lab assistants who fed them because they knew food was on the way. From this observation Pavlov spent his entire career studying the differences between conditioned responses – like dogs drooling at the sight of the people they know feed them – and unconditioned responses, such as dogs drooling when they see the actual food. (The Curmudgeon understands the latter very well: put some chocolate in front of him and you’ll see some serious drooling.)

dogsPavlov actually used dog drool to fund much of his research. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dog saliva was thought to be a treatment for indigestion, so while Pavlov didn’t always work with dogs, he operated what was literally a dog drool factory, keeping an assembly line of dogs busy drooling, capturing the drool, and selling it to pay for his research. (Sorry if you just lost your appetite.)

But that’s not what we’re writing about today; The Curmudgeon just finds it interesting.

the-periodic-table-wallpaperRecently The Curmudgeon read a review of a new biography of Pavlov – nearly 900 pages about drooling dogs and other such things, a book The Curmudgeon, if he were on a deserted island, would probably eat before he tried to read it (and congratulations to those of you who know the source of this description). The review did mention one thing that absolutely tickled The Curmudgeon: it reported that when Pavlov enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg in 1869, his inorganic chemistry professor was Dmitri Mendeleev. If the name Mendeleev doesn’t ring a bell, first of all, shame on your junior high school science and high school chemistry teachers, and second of all, see the photo that alongside this paragraph: Mendeleev is the creator of the periodic table of elements. (Still don’t recognize it? Watch The Big Bang Theory: it’s on Sheldon’s and Leonard’s shower curtain.)

And that’s what really grabs The Curmudgeon: a single classroom in which both teacher and student went on to become such towering figures in the world of science. Mendeleev unveiled his table the very year Pavlov enrolled at the university.

Exciting? Maybe not to you, but it certainly is to The Curmudgeon, for whom the only obstacle to being a serious science geek has always been that he has virtually no talent for the study of science.

(By the way, if science tickles your fancy, check out this Facebook page, called ­– The Curmudgeon’s apologies ­– “I Fucking Love Science,” which in less than three years has done more to bring science to the masses than anything since Carl Sagan’s overly serious intonations about “billions and billions” of stars.   Even more than Sheldon and Leonard.)

January News Quiz

  1. Boko Haram is: a) the band that sang “Whiter Shade of Pale”; b) an Islamic terrorist group; c) a rap group; or d) an anglicization of “beaucoup harem,” a tabloid term that refers to the many former lovers of Leonardo DiCaprio?
  2. Nintendo announced that it will no longer sell its products in Brazil because: a) the import taxes the country levies on its products are too high; b) the country demanded that Nintendo manufacture some of its products in Brazil; c) it faced millions of dollars in fines because the instructions for the games it sells in Brazil are in Spanish instead of Portuguese; or d) Nintendo faced repercussions after it rejected the suggestion of the country’s trade minister that it develop a new “Nintendo Brazilian Wax” game?
  3. E Entertainment chose Kathy Griffin to take over for Joan Rivers on its Fashion Police program because: a) it wanted to replace someone who knows nothing about fashion with someone who knows nothing about fashion; b) it wanted to replace someone who’s not funny with someone who’s not funny; c) it wanted to replace someone who was a monument to bad taste with someone who is a monument to bad taste; or d) it wanted to replace someone whose idea of humor is being mean to other people with someone whose idea of humor is being mean to other people?
  4. SkyMall, the mail order catalogue for air travelers, filed for bankruptcy, citing as the cause of its financial problems: a) people on airplanes are now reading from their telephones, tablets, and e-readers instead of browsing through the catalogue; b) competition from online vendors like Amazon; c) not enough leg room on airplanes anymore for people to be able to remove the magazine from the seat pocket in front of them; or d) the bad economy of recent years permanently killed the market for $800 lawn ornaments?
  5. Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts recently revealed that he prefers not to employ the latest technology to manage the court’s information, papers, and data because: a) the court’s caseload isn’t great enough to require advanced technology; b) Scalia is computer-illiterate and would never be able to figure out how to use it; c) Clarence Thomas has threatened to throw down with anyone who tries to separate him from his L.C. Smith manual typewriter; or d) since Roberts wants his court’s decisions to push America back into the 1950s he figures it should be using 1950s technology, too?
  6. When Sarah Palin says she’s “seriously interested” in the possibility of running for president in 2016 what she really means is: a) she’s seriously interested in talking about running for president in 2016; b) she’s seriously interested in being talked about as a possible candidate for president in 2016, c) she’s seriously interested in the idea that there are still people out there who take her seriously as a possible candidate for president in 2016; or d) she’s seriously interested in how talk about her running for president in 2016 may create opportunities for her to make money?
  7. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is considering running for president because: a) all those photo ops sampling the local cuisine; b) forty-nine more states filled with people he’s never had a chance to try to bully; c) better seats at professional sports events; or d) the opportunity to win Bruce Springsteen’s respect by naming The Boss chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts?
  8. Mike Huckabee is considering running for president because: a) someone has to stop Beyonce from corrupting the minds and values of American children and he’s just the man for the job; b) it’s been too long since the U.S. had a president from Arkansas; c) god is telling him to run; or d) if having a national leader who makes all of his decisions based on his religious beliefs is good enough for Iran shouldn’t it be good enough for the U.S. as well?
  9. Jeb Bush is considering running for president because: a) he knows America is just clamoring for another Bush in the White House; b) he figures that after two Bushes failed as president, the law of averages is on his side; c) at the age of sixty-one he’s still seeking his daddy’s approval; or d) he can’t let himself be out-achieved by that nitwit brother of his?
  10. Mitt Romney is considering running for president again because: a) he believes in “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again;” b) he wants to prove that not caring about poor people shouldn’t be an obstacle to getting elected president; c) he wants to take a shot at William Jennings Bryan’s record of three unsuccessful runs for the presidency on a major party ticket; or d) there’s still the 53 percent of the public he hasn’t managed to piss off yet?

What to Make of Rand Paul

A fall 2014 article in The American Prospect magazine about Rand Paul begins with the following statement:

No one in the political establishment seems to know quite what to make of Rand Paul, the United States senator from Kentucky and son of Ron, the three-time quixotic presidential candidate with a libertarian bent.

paulWell, The Curmudgeon knows exactly what to make of Rand Paul: he’s a smarter, better-looking, more articulate, more polished, more ambitious version of his cranky father, a guy whose views are just as extreme but who dresses them up to make them look prettier and is willing to compromise some of his beliefs on occasion to advance, secondarily, his broader agenda, and primarily, his own personal agenda of winning the presidency.

And if the people in the “political establishment” and the people who write about them don’t understand that, then they’re even dumber than most Americans already think they are.

They Are Women, Hear Them Roar

Some congressional Republicans decided to celebrate their return to domination of Congress by resuming their war on women: specifically, by proposing a new, more restrictive-than-ever law limiting abortions. The title of the proposed law: “The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Seriously: The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

(Not only are they foolish legislators but they’re also foolish when it comes to proper punctuation: a hyphen is clearly needed between “pain” and capable.” Without it, the name of the bill is just gibberish – well, a different kind of gibberish than it already was.)

Yes, the economy’s still a mess, the country’s involved in numerous military endeavors overseas, millions are still uninsured and hungry, and public education is still a disaster, but these “leaders” – a term that should be used guardedly – decided to turn their attention directly to abortion.

But then they ran into a problem: the larger-than-ever female contingent within the Republican House delegation was having none of it.

Put off by a combination of how oppressive and wrong-headed the proposed law was, even though most of them oppose abortion, and unhappy about how the bill signaled a return to the war against women, which they knew was bad politics in more ways than they have fingers to count on, a group of female Republican House members told their party leadership that if they brought the bill to the floor of the House for a vote they were going to suffer a humiliating defeat less than three weeks into the new session of Congress.

And their leaders had no choice but to back off. Oh, they still passed an anti-abortion law, but a watered-down bill that was not even remotely as draconian as what was originally proposed.

The Curmudgeon doesn’t know what to make of this – of either the insurrection or the success of this rogue band of Republican women in Congress in persuading enough of their male colleagues into joining them to make their threat legitimate – but he can’t help but think this is a good thing.

But whether it’s a sign of more good things to come only time will tell.


Darwinism: It’s Not Just a Theory

“I have a theory about really big baseball players,” The Curmudgeon has been heard to say. “When they lose it, they lose it faster than smaller players.” This “theory” is based on casual observation and not on research; it’s not like The Curmudgeon has gone into the history books, identified 50 or 100 or 500 physically large players, developed criteria for what constitutes “losing it,” and then applied those criteria to the players he selected to see if their professional decline is somehow more precipitous than their smaller colleagues.

darwinPeople have “theories” all the time: Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, the National Basketball Association fixes the draft lottery to favor big-market teams, Obama is a Muslim, Paul McCartney died in the 1960s, things like that.

Most of these theories have one thing in common: no one has really tested them, tried to demonstrate whether or not they’re true. So in our minds, that’s just what these theories are: something that’s in someone’s mind that may or may not be true.

And that’s why people who are skeptical about evolution and the idea that man evolved from apes often say of the entire concept something like “Well, they call it Darwin’s theory, right? That’s because it’s just a theory. It hasn’t been proven.”

But it has.

The problem here is that when ordinary people and scientists use the word “theory” they’re talking about two entirely different concepts. In fact, they might as well be speaking two different languages.

An article in a 2013 edition of Scientific American explains it this way:

Part of the problem is that the word “theory” means something very different in lay language than it does in science: A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.

Course material online from the University of Oregon goes into greater detail:

The term “theory” means a very different thing when used in everyday conversation and in science. In our day to day speech, we often use “theory” to mean a guess or unsubstantiated idea about how something works (as in “I have a theory that gremlins are hiding my car keys”).

In science, we would call such a guess a hypothesis, not a theory. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for an observation. In this case, I am proposing that the explanation for why I can’t find my car keys is that gremlins are hiding them.

The distinction between the words “Theory” and “Hypothesis” is very important because in science “Theory” does not mean “guess”. I repeat, “Theory” does not mean “guess”.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, “some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena”.

People who don’t understand this distinction sometimes dismiss ideas saying “it’s just a theory” (this is very commonly used to suggest that evolution is just speculation, for example). But, when scientists speak of the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution, they don’t mean that these are random untested ideas that someone came up with after too many beers.

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), the world’s largest scientific society, has this explanation of what scientists mean when they use the word “theory”:
” A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world.”

Because of this crucial difference in meaning, I will ask students to use the word “hypothesis” whenever they are referring to a speculation or guess about how something works.

apes to manIt’s worth noting that based on this explanation, a scientist would reject The Curmudgeon’s theory on big baseball players, not because he thinks it’s untrue but because from his perspective, it’s a hypothesis, not a theory.

And The Curmudgeon has no problem with someone raining on his “big baseball players lose it faster” theory/hypothesis.

None of this, though, means that people need to accept theories like evolution or global warming – they should, because both are real and rejecting them means rejecting real, proven science – but people are entitled to make up their own minds. But when they decide they don’t believe in these theories, they should know first, that those theories are facts, not figments of someone’s imagination, and second, that writing them off because they’re “only” theories is as valid as stating that two plus three equals a bushel of potatoes.

Class dismissed.

Jessie’s Butt

Sometime rocker, sometime soap star (General Hospital, on and off for – are you ready to feel old? – more than thirty years), and one-time teen heart-throb Rick Springfield (“Jessie’s Girl”) won a victory in court last week when a jury found him “not negligent” in a case in which he was being sued for…

Are you ready for this…

Knocking a woman unconscious with…

Are you ready for this…

His butt.

Yes, his butt. He was accused of knocking a woman unconscious with his tuchas.

rick springfieldAccording to the plaintiff, Springfield fell into her during a 2004 concert in Syracuse, knocking her unconscious with his apparent buns of steel and causing “serious, painful, and disabling injuries.”

Springfield, for his part, said he never fell into anyone in Syracuse, never butted anyone into a state of unconsciousness, and his lawyer helpfully pointed out to the jury that there were no witnesses, no photographs, and no video to confirm any falling, any butting, or any unconsciousness. That was enough for the jury, which quickly found on Springfield’s behalf in a trial in which…

Well, you knew this was coming…

Springfield had become the butt of a great deal of humor over his legal predicament.

But doesn’t it seem as if it was only yesterday that young women everywhere would have paid good money for any contact of any type with Mr. Springfield’s butt?

Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves

Last year The Curmudgeon wrote about Mehmet Oz, the television doctor whose thirst for fame seems to win many battles over science and reasoned medical judgment. The proof offered included a New Yorker article and smack-down by a U.S. senator for his inclination to endorse products there’s no reason to believe will do the things Oz claims they will do.

dr ozNow we have more evidence of Oz’s duplicity: not from a magazine journalist or a U.S. senator but from a scientific publication.

The British Medical Journal has published an article stating that researchers went through forty episodes of Dr. Oz’s show and identified 479 of his medical recommendations. The researchers evaluated those recommendations one by one and found less than half – forty-six percent – to be credible. They also found evidence disproving fifteen percent of Oz’s claims and concluded that there was no evidence either to support or contradict the remaining thirty-nine percent of Oz’s recommendations.

It’s hard not to conclude that Dr. Oz is a bad guy who says things simply for the sake of saying them and that his advice is no better than that of your neighbor, your mailman, your plumber, or your mother in-law.

Or a snake-oil salesman.

It calls to mind the old Cher song “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” and this verse:

cherI was born in the wagon of a travellin’ show
My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw
Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good

Looks like Dr. Oz is Papa, selling his bottles of Doctor Good.

Bad People as Older People

Growing up, we all knew some people we considered bad guys; some of us may even have been one of those people ourselves. (Rest assured, The Curmudgeon was not. If anything, he was more buttoned-down as a youth than he is now.)

You know who The Curmudgeon is talking about: the kids who smoked in the high school bathrooms between periods and were in gangs, the guys who hung out at the shopping centers and playgrounds and gave passersby a hard time, the kids who tore down stop signs and used or even sold drugs or were bullies or vandals or thugs or were always starting fights.

But now we’re older and we see some of them occasionally.

Not long ago The Curmudgeon spent a few weeks in a closed Facebook group for his high school class and saw one of them. He was a smallish guy who ran with a very tough bunch, at least some of whom The Curmudgeon assumes died a violent death long ago or have spent some serious times as guests of the state penal system. This particular guy’s thing was that he pretended he didn’t know The Curmudgeon’s name, and every time the two crossed paths he’d mutter “dirty Jew” or “fucking Jew,” as if he didn’t realize the word “Jew” didn’t require a modifier. The Curmudgeon recognized him immediately in a photo in the Facebook group and was pleased to see that the passing years looked like they had been particularly hard on him. Mean though it might seem, The Curmudgeon thought that was only fair, and his very presence in the group, and the manner in which he seemed to be treated as just another one of the classmates and not the sad excuse for a human being he had always been, was one of the reasons The Curmudgeon chose to drop out of the group.

Sometimes you see one of these bad guys in a restaurant, as The Curmudgeon does on occasion because he lives in the same general region in which he grew up. You’re at your table, looking around after you’ve ordered but before you food has arrived, you see what looks like a familiar face, you’re not sure, so you try to take a closer but still-discreet look, and yes, sure enough, it’s the guy who made fun of anyone who raised his hand in high school health class or the girl who thought it was a riot that a nerd like you asked out her girlfriend.

And then, in that restaurant, the waiter hands this bad guy a menu and the next time you turn around for another look, the bad guy is still studying the menu – through bifocals.

And you realize that the bad guy has become the kind of person he or she used to belittle, used to think was a joke. The bad guy is now an adult, and besides being hopelessly far-sighted and having a receding hairline and a roll of excess flesh around his middle, he may be taking medicine for high blood pressure or erectile dysfunction or attending AA meetings twice a week or carrying an inhaler with him at all times because all that marijuana took a toll on his lungs.

And one thing’s for certain: there’s no way to look bad-ass when you’re peering down through half-glasses.

No way at all.

College Sports Gets it Wrong Once Again

The Curmudgeon has used this space in the past to question the value and integrity of college sports (here, here, and here), but he doesn’t spend his idle hours looking around for opportunities to do so again.

But sometimes those opportunities just jump off the page or screen and smack him in the face.

That happened again a few weeks ago when the National Football Foundation announced the newest batch of people to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Among the sixteen people who will become members of the hall’s latest class are former Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel and former University of Oklahoma star player Brian Bosworth.

While Tressel was head coach at Ohio State, the NCAA, which governs college sports (but not very well), found him guilty of failing to report his knowledge of impermissible benefits that his players received. Some of Tressel’s players were trading football equipment and memorabilia for their own financial benefit, and when someone informed on them to Tressel via email, he did nothing with the information. When the news leaked out, Ohio State’s president insisted that Tressel would not lose his job over the violation. The NCAA had other ideas, stripping the team of all of its 2010 wins and putting it on probation for three years, meaning it could not play in any highly, highly lucrative post-season bowl games. It also imposed what’s known as a “show-cause” penalty on Tressel, meaning that any school that is a member of the NCAA that tries to hire Tressel as its football coach for the next five years would have to “show cause” for why it should not be sanctioned by the NCAA for doing so. That didn’t slow down Tressel: after holding a few other short-term jobs, he found employment at Youngstown State University, where he got his start as a college football coach.

But Youngstown State found a way around the “show cause” problem: it hired Tressel to be its president, not its football coach.

Way to show those NCAA sissies, Youngstown State.

Bosworth’s college football career ended prematurely when he was suspended after he failed a test for taking performance-enhancing drugs. He couldn’t join his teammates on the field at that year’s Orange Bowl, but he made his presence known that day by standing on the sidelines during the game wearing a t-shirt that said “National Communists Against Athletes” (the same initials as the NCAA, the organization that suspended him for failing the drug test). The coach kicked him off the team, but Bosworth got his revenge a year later when he wrote a book in which he said that that the school’s football program was marked by drug use, gun play in the athletes’ dorm (an aside: why would athletes have their own dorm?), and other wild behavior. The NCAA investigated and agreed, leading the coach to resign.

And now, these men of fine character are being honored for their achievements through induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Apparently, they are viewed as representing the very best of college football.

And you know what? That may very well be true.

Parenting Observed

While sitting in the dentist’s waiting room last week The Curmudgeon observed a family that arrived shortly after he did: a mother, a little boy who appeared to be about five or six years old, and an older brother and sister. While the two brothers played a video game, the younger brother rather quietly used “the f word” as an adjective while expressing his frustration over his inability to defeat his brother.

His mother heard him and asked him to repeat what he had said; the boy did as he was told without hesitation or objection. She clearly was not at all willing to accept this in silence, telling her older son to look after his sister for a minute and then leading the little boy by the hand into the rest room that was just off the waiting area.

The Curmudgeon listened closely in anticipation of crying and maybe even hitting but heard nothing. About two minutes later mother and child emerged, the child in tears that looked, at least to The Curmudgeon, to be the tears of a child who had been sternly admonished but not one who had been struck.

The Curmudgeon wondered: he has no children, and while that doesn’t make him utterly clueless about such things, it does make him utterly lacking in any kind of real-life experience or knowledge, as opposed to less-relevant observation. On one hand, it looked like good parenting to him: at the moment of the utterance the mother looked mortified in a way that did not appear to be for the benefit of any witnesses, as if she had never heard the boy use the word before and was genuinely surprised that he had, and The Curmudgeon liked that she sought to address it both immediately and not within earshot of others. It seemed like good parenting to him.

But then he wondered: if, on the other hand, her parenting was good, why did her son say such a thing in the first place?

And then, on the other hand – okay, that’s three hands, and hands normally only come two to a customer – how can parents possibly insulate their children from all outside influences? A child hears a word in school or while playing with friends, doesn’t know there’s anything wrong with it, and uses it as he heard it used by someone else. (The Curmudgeon painfully recalls his own use once in public, as a child, of an inappropriate word that he had no idea was inappropriate until his mother reacted to its use.)

The Curmudgeon suspects that in the end, she was a mom doing the best she could, and he’s not sure it’s reasonable to ask for anything more. The boy looked duly chastened and contrite, but whether a parent’s admonition is enough, whether it’s ever enough in a world in which there are so very many other influences and distractions, is pretty hard to predict. The Curmudgeon has never envied a parent’s job and imagines that in some respects it’s more difficult today than it’s ever been.