Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Monday, July 05, 2021

Levels of Alien Belief

A list of alien beliefs, in rough order of increasing implausibility.

And remember: "Never go full History Channel."

  1. Alien craft/effects occasionally get observed, esp. by pilots/military.
  2. Government conceals definitive evidence of alien activity on Earth.
  3. Aliens mutilate farm animals and/or create crop circles.
  4. Alien tech is hypersonic / transmedium, defying our understanding of fluid dynamics.
  5. Alien tech is hyper-G / anti-gravity, defying our understanding of gravity/momentum.
  6. Aliens have abducted humans.
  7. Government possesses alien artifacts/bodies.
  8. Government possesses working alien technology.
  9. Government has communicated with aliens on Earth.
  10. Government cooperates with aliens on Earth.
  11. Governments/media are controlled by secret global group(s) with alien awareness/tech.
  12. Aliens have significantly influenced human history.
  13. Aliens have significantly influenced human evolution.
  14. Aliens have been in conflict with each other over Earth.
  15. Aliens have created alien-human hybrids.
  16. Aliens have installed hybrids as past or present important humans.
  17. Aliens have telepathy.
  18. Aliens have shape-shifting.
  19. Aliens have teleportation or faster-than-light travel.
  20. Aliens have time travel.


Thursday, June 17, 2021

Why Did We Fumble COVID-19 Therapeutics?

A variety of reasons, in roughly descending order of guestimated importance:

  • The early focus was on "flattening the curve" to preserve hospital and ventilator capacity, and so insufficient attention was paid to early-stage therapeutics.
  • Hydroxychloroquine was unsuccessfully tried as a late-stage therapeutic, and this politicized episode made the healthcare establishment afraid of an embarrassing replay.
  • Therapeutics don't appreciably reduce R0 compared to a vaccine. Treatment is super important, but curtailing exponential spread is super-duper-important.
  • Risk-averse government bureaucrats didn't think to waive the rule that Emergency Use Authorization for vaccines is only allowed if no therapeutics are available.
  • Risk-averse medical bureaucrats are indoctrinated to oppose any therapy that hasn't been proven effective, particularly in randomized control trials.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has no profit incentive to re-purpose off-patent drugs for new indications.
  • The Orange Man was promoting therapeutics, and we can't give him a win.
  • It was harder to recruit early-stage trial subjects because 1) they're not in hospital beds and 2) the pandemic ebbed in summer.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

COVID-19 Heterogeneity

A list of possible factors for why COVID-19 has affected different regions differently, in decreasing order of my guestimated importance. 

Beware the political agenda of anybody selling a monocausal theory.

  • geographic/travel connectivity, incl. travel bans
  • vaccination curve
  • efficacy of vaccine(s) used
  • population age structure
  • lockdown policies
  • population density
  • hemisphere (summer vs. winter)
  • co-morbidities: obesity, heart disease, hypertension, smoking, asthma, diabetes/kidney, sickle cell, cancer
  • mask polices
  • vaccine demographic targeting
  • elderly clustering e.g. nursing homes vs. multi-generational domiciles
  • super-spreader opportunities
  • under-/over-reporting of COVID-19 deaths
  • domicile ventilation
  • air conditioning
  • temperature
  • humidity
  • ultraviolet incidence
  • prior culture of mask use
  • advanced contact tracing
  • cultural acceptance of lockdowns
  • compliance culture (e.g. Italians racing to trains against lockdown deadlines)
  • use of mass transit
  • prior experience with SARS/MERS
  • greeting culture: kiss, handshake, bow
  • nursing home return policy
  • South Asian Neanderthal haplotype (Zeberg, Paabo 2020) makes hospitalization 2X likely
  • chromosome 12 Neanderthal haplotype (vs RNA viruses, 2021) makes hospitalization 22% less likely
  • blood type?
  • vitamin D use?
  • anti-parasite Ivermectin use?
  • anti-malaria hydroxychloroquine use?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Covid Vaccine Safety and Efficacy In Israel

The anti-vax group America's Frontline Doctors are promoting an article by HervĂ© Seligmann claiming that "the Pfizer vaccines, for the elderly, killed during the 5-week vaccination period about 40 times more people than the disease itself would have killed". The article makes a basic mistake that invalidates its main claim.

First, Seligmann makes an apples-to-oranges mistake by comparing Israeli vaccinations from Dec 19 to Feb 11 with a baseline of "death rates per day for unvaccinated are estimated for the 303 days from March 1 to December 20". (Ignore his mistake of saying "death rates per day", he meant "per-day death rates".) A big problem with that baseline is that the vaccinations were just getting started as Israel suffered a third wave of deaths that dwarfed the deaths from March 1 to Dec 20. That's like saying that aiming firehoses at a burning building must be the reason why more people trapped in the burning skyscraper died after the fire trucks arrived versus before.


The first drop of water from a firehose doesn't immediately extinguish a fire, and it's well-known that it takes several weeks for COVID-19 vaccines to reach full efficacy. During that time, it's expected that just-vaccinated people will be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than when the 2nd dose has been given its two weeks to fully kick in. 

Also, note that the earliest vaccines in Israel were given to the most vulnerable populations -- just as the third wave was heading for its peak. Seligmann's data conveniently ends at Feb 11, just as COVID-19 deaths per million in Israel were about to plummet. Israel reached 50% fully-vaccinated on Mar 16, and the data since Feb 11 indicate the exact opposite of the increased COVID-19 death risk that Seligmann claimed.

Indeed, thanks to Israel's data-intensive healthcare system, we now have detailed data on how COVID-19 differentially impacts unvaccinated people there. Studies published in Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine confirm the success of the Pfizer vaccine in Israel.

P.S. Table 1 in Seligmann's article strangely labels the first column as "community". Maybe this is a language/translation problem, but nowhere does he explicitly say that this column counts COVID-19 cases among people who have received vaccine injections but are not fully vaccinated. So for his denominator, he chose

  • a vaccine-recipient population that is known to be skewed toward the most vulnerable, and
  • systematically excluded its members once their vaccine reached effectiveness, and
  • ended his data window just as Israel's death rate was about to plummet.
The meaning of his "community" column was only clarified after I finally found this detailed debunking of Seligmann written in German. (The Google translation is amazing, and actually reads more like native English than Seligmann's own paper.)
Update 12pm: Who debunks the debunkers? The German article makes a false claim here:

But ratios obviously matter more here than absolute numbers. The death rate among vaccinated COVID-19 victims was 709/54588 = 1.3%, while the rate among unvaccinated during the same period was 1566/368826 = 0.425%. However, note that the Pfizer vaccine efficacy in the 21 days between doses 1 and 2 is 52%. So to make the comparison fair, the denominator for the vaccinated case should include all the cases that the vaccine averted. This doubles the denominator, making the relevant 1-dose COVID-19 death rate be 0.65%.   That's only 50% higher than the unvaccinated COVID-19 death rate. That could potentially be explained by the fact that in Israel the vaccine was targeted early to the most vulnerable populations.
Israel's COVID-19 death graph above, with 2.5 months more data than the table above, shows that vaccines do not lead to more deaths from COVID-19. Some anti-vaxers have made a different claim: that vaccines will cause a spike in non-COVID-19 deaths. However, that claim is so far similarly contradicted by the excess-death data from the three countries that are making the most use of the most efficacious vaccines:


In the U.S., U.K., and Israel as of April 11, 156M distinct people had received a vaccine so far, while the population-weighted excess deaths among them had already become negative (as Israel's population is only 9M). As of yesterday, a total of 207M distinct people in those 3 countries have received a vaccination. When will all those "death jabs" ever cause the de-population that some anti-vaxers say the vaccine is engineered to do?
My prediction: in 2021-2023 there will be hysteresis pressure toward negative excess deaths in the U.S. because many of the pandemic deaths were among Americans likely to die in the coming years. Any spikes in excess deaths will be traceable to new variants that might develop, especially in the virus playground consisting of the world's unvaccinated people. But such spikes should be manageable, as emerging data suggests that the existing vaccines have some efficacy against variants. And since our most effective vaccines are based on the new nimble mRNA technology, it will be straightforward to create booster vaccines for problematic variants.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Have Your UFO Aliens Been Doing?

Assume for the purposes of this post that we believe (as I don't) that at least some UFOs involve alien technology. If so, when did this alien technology reach our solar system, and what can we infer it would do during its tenure here?

By "alien technology" I am indifferent about whether the technology is "manned". I assume that aliens are at least millions of years more advanced than humans. So I assume that aliens have long since traded biological substrates for technological ones, at least for expeditions like a mission to Sol. I also assume that they can imbue their expeditionary technology with alien intelligence and values.

We infer that the aliens aren't grabby, because 1) they haven't grabbed Sol's energy or material resources, and 2) they haven't grabbed the energy resources of our galaxy. Reasoning from the Fermi Paradox, we specifically assume that the aliens

  • were the first technological intelligence to start expanding in our galaxy;
  • are applying a Zoo Policy to not only our solar system but to nearly all of the exploitable resources of the galaxy;
  • are somehow able to coordinate and enforce their Zoo Policy across thousands or tens of thousands of light-years.
Note that this model applies even if the aliens are a federation of civilizations with independent origins, though of course Zoo Policy enforcement then becomes more problematic. (If the first civilization are adamant Zookeepers, they have to ruthlessly enforce their policy on any new civilizations they allow to federate with them.)
How long ago did they have reach Sol? We assume no exotic physics allowing FTL travel or communication. Expanding from some random point in the galaxy at 1/10 to 1/1000 of c, we estimate they arrived here between 500Kya and 50Mya.
We infer that if they forego the exploitation of our solar system's resources, it is because they value any local biosphere's evolutionary investments and achievements. So it's plausible that they would want to protect local biospheres from extinction events. Do we see evidence of this?
Venus and Mars became suddenly unfriendly to life roughly one and four billion years ago, respectfully. Neither was due to impacts, and both happened long before the aliens are estimated to have arrived. Too late to help.
It would be trivial for aliens to protect Earth from the impacts that have regularly confronted Earth with mass extinctions. (We ourselves are at most a century away from being able to do so.) So what recent catastrophic impacts should they have stopped if they were on duty at the time?
  • 66Mya in the K-Pga extinction an object a few tens of km diameter took out the dinosaurs and all tetrapods >25kg. 
  • 35Mya the E-Og extinction was perhaps caused by the Popigai impactor.
  • 800Kya the enormous Australasian strewnfield was created by an impact whose crater has not yet been found. It's unclear why this event is not associated with any mass extinction or climate catastrophe.
It's easily plausible that the aliens arrived after E-Og and so couldn't stop it. But it's only barely plausible that the aliens arrived so recently that they could not stop the Australasian strewnfield event. (And no, the strewnfield is not because the aliens blasted the object to pieces. You prevent impacts but nudging the impactors, not by turning them into shotgun blasts.) If we count the strewnfield as alien Zookeepers not being here yet, that makes it suspiciously coincidental that the aliens have arrived so recently. 
(Many UFO believers speculate that aliens arrived due to our atomic testing. These speculations are some combination of fantastical and scientifically illiterate. The physics just doesn't work. If aliens are here, they've surely been here for millions of years.)
Aside from protecting local biospheres from catastrophic impacts, what else would the aliens be up to? 
Monitor the Zoo inhabitants? When you set up permanent zookeeping in a solar system, do your monitoring missions use large easily-observed craft with spaceship-like acceleration capabilities? Or do you instead use small, stealthy, camouflaged devices, to allow close-up and loitering observation? If I were hunting alien observation tech, I wouldn't look in the skies for spaceships. I'd instead look in the trees, for birds and insects that are suspiciously hard to catch. Again, we humans are less than a century away from creating a never-ending plague of privacy-invading disguised surveillance drones. No human in 100 years will be using a flying saucer to spy on anybody. So why would aliens use them? (cf. "teasing", below.)
Abduct the Zoo inhabitants? That of course depends on Zookeeper ethics. Zoo Policy doesn't tell us whether aliens value individuals like they value biospheres. If an alien values secrecy but is willing to kidnap and probe an individual human, that alien seems more likely to euthanize the test subject than to return it to spill the beans. So no flying saucers, and no returned abductees. 
Tease the Zoo inhabitants? Some say the aliens tease us with UFOs to test our reactions and prepare us for "Disclosure". But these are aliens with a monastic devotion to leaving the galaxy undisturbed in the eyes of anyone with optical and radio telescopes. So why would they reveal themselves only a few decades after we first noticed their millions of years of self-denial?
Protect Zoo inhabitants from each other? If Mars has remnants of independent life, the aliens would know it and might very well want to protect it from Earth. There have been a lot of failed Mars missions, but Elon Musk hasn't gotten the memo. Shouldn't we expect the aliens to protect Mars? If not now, when? (In Arthur Clarke's 2010, the Monolith aliens told humanity to leave Europa alone.)
Protect Zoo inhabitants from themselves? If you think nuclear weapons give humanity the ability to extinct itself, you might expect the aliens to disarm us. Note that through most of the 1960s, a large fraction of U.S. Polaris missile warheads were inoperable. And there are claims that UFOs have deactivated nukes. So yes, if you believe in alien flying saucers, you probably believe that aliens have the ability to deactivate most nukes if launched. (But aliens surely know that nuclear war could not extinct H. sapiens, and in fact would set us back a century at most. As horrible as that prospect would be to us, the Zookeepers might consider nuclear war to be growing pains -- a minor incident in one of the zoo cages.)
Cooperate with the Zoo inhabitants? Most UFO believers say aliens are secretly cooperating with human governments. Such behavior would be strongly at odds with the Zoo Hypothesis. Recall that ZH says the galaxy looks uninhabited only because the Zookeepers are maniacally committed to not letting knowledge of their presence interfere with the advanced development of other biospheres. So again: why bother keeping the galaxy looking uninhabited if you're going to start working with the local primates around the same time that a Fermi notices you're absent? Oh sure, they're cooperating "secretly", but millions of UFO believers claim it's easy to see through the "secret". If these advanced aliens can't fool the History Channel, they're not very advanced.
Bottom line: most alien-UFO claims and theories are nearly impossible to square with what we can infer from 1) how long aliens would have to have been here, and 2) what they would and would not do once here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Fertility, Clotting, and Immune Escape

Dr. Janci Chunn Lindsay warned recently that all the Covid-19 vaccines must be halted immediately due to three safety concerns:

  • fertility risk;
  • blood clotting;
  • immune escape.
Each of these concerns can be addressed.

Fertility Risk

This concern here is that there is a segment of five amino acids that is common between 1) the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein targeted by vaccines, and 2) the synctyn-1 and -2 proteins of the placenta. This concern has been thoroughly addressed since it was raised by Michael Yeadon on December 2, 2020. The universal theme of the responses is that such segments are far too short to trigger cross-reactivity. My favorite articles about it:
  • Health Feedback on Dec 10 gave a dry and straightforward overview of the initial claim and of the various public analyses demonstrating why a sequence of merely 5 amino acids shared between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the synctyn protein is not enough to trigger cross-reactivity. If you read only one response to the synctyn fertility concern, this is the one.
  • Edward Nirenberg posted on Dec 3 a prompt and fascinating response explaining
    • the evolution and purpose of the mammalian placenta
    • studies of women with Covid-19 during the first trimester show similar pregnancy outcomes as uninfected women
    • the biomolecular details of whether an amino acid sequence homology is significant
    • synctin and spike proteins are examples of convergent evolution.
  • David Gorski on Dec 14 posted a detailed response explaining
    • the history of infertility conspiracy theories in the anti-vaccine movement
    • inefficient old-fashioned Sanger sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 samples is unnecessary (aside from calibration) given modern sequencing techniques
    • if ADE were a problem we’d expect to have seen it by now
    • immunologist Andrew Croxford also showed it's trivial to find many other human proteins with such short homologies with the spike protein
    • Yeadon denies that the Covid-19 pandemic is real, and claims it is an artifact of mis-calibrated PCR testing
    • Yeadon argues that natural Covid-19 transmission is not to be feared, not realizing that anti-spike T and B cell responses should have the same fertility harms as anti-spike vaccine responses.
It's strange and suspicious that Dr. Lindsay echoes Yeadon's concerns four months after they've been debunked so thoroughly.
Lindsay also gestures towards 100 pregnancy losses reported in VAERS, and multiple reports of menses irregularities. She is right that these must be investigated, but investigation must include comparing with the expected background risk of such incidents. When you ignore comparative incidence, you open yourself to charges of fear-mongering, as lay readers often don't have the habit of comparing anecdotes against baseline expectations. Jen Gunter reviews the science about possible interaction between vaccination and menstruation in this excellent article from April.  (Hat tip to Vaxopedia, a guide to skepticism about vaccine skepticism.)

Blood Clotting

This concern is not really a complaint about the vaccines at all. She says "The natural infection is known to cause coagulopathy due to the spike protein. All gene therapy vaccines direct the body to make the spike protein." She then cites a paper that is all about how natural Covid-19 can cause clotting.
Again, Lindsay offers no discussion of comparative incidence among populations, but just cites 795 clotting disorders in VAERS -- without mentioning that over 100M people had received vaccine injections. More importantly: if Covid spike proteins can cause (rare) clotting problems, then it becomes even more imperative to vaccinate. Vaccine recipients will surely have lower peak loads of spike proteins than would be caused by the many severe Covid cases that the vaccines are clinically proven to diminish.

Immune Escape

Linday claims "We have enough evidence now to see a clear correlation with increased Covid deaths and the vaccine campaigns." On the contrary, Covid deaths have been plummeting in the three most-vaccinated countries: Israel, U.K., and U.S.

Regarding immune escape, McGill university posted in March a detailed explanation of why mass vaccination would give SARS-CoV-2 less room to evolve variants -- as opposed to the alternative of letting the virus evolve freely while burning through the population. It points out that immune escape would still remain a concern, and that vaccines may need updating if variants evolve far enough.
The McGill posting links to an article by Edward Nirenberg who systematically rebuts Geert Vanden Bossche, a leading proponent of immune-escape fears. Nirenberg explains
  • the clinical evidence for vaccine effectiveness against variants
  • current understanding of mechanisms for asymptomatic infection
  • an allegedly basic mistake by Bossche on the role of NK cells in vaccine mechanism
  • the ever-growing clinical evidence that Covid vaccines aren't "leaky" (i.e. they reduce transmission)
  • the resounding success of a leaky vaccine in managing Marek's Disease in chickens.
Nirenberg concludes: "Vaccines clearly reduce viral load, prevent severe disease, and disrupt transmission, and they can thankfully be readily modified to address problematic variants as is done every season for influenza with great effect."


Why Covid Vaccines For Young Adults?

Covid deaths in 2020 age 18-29: 1465
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm

Fully vaccinated 18-29 as of May 4: 9.857M (18.39% i.e. of 56.6M total population 18-29)
https://usafacts.org/visualizations/covid-vaccine-tracker-states/

Covid deaths all ages among fully vaccinated as of Apr 26: 132
Total fully vaccinated as of Apr 26: 95M
https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/health-departments/breakthrough-cases.html

U.S. Covid deaths 18-29 all time are 2000 out of 557K, i.e. 0.35%. So assume the same ratio applies to the 132 breakthrough Covid deaths: 0.35% * 132 = 0.46, so round up to 1 breakthrough death among 18-29yo.

In 9 pandemic months of 2020, deaths of 18-29 per million per month were
1465 deaths / 56.6 18-29yo population / 9 months
= 2.8 deaths per million per month of unvaccinated 18-29yo in 2020.

Assume the 9.587M 18-29yo have been vaccinated linearly for the first 4 months of 2021.
9.587M * 4 months / 2 = 19.7M vaccinated person-months. That's 1 death / 19.7M
= 0.05 deaths per million per month of vaccinated 18-29yo in 2021.

This fits with the clinical trial data. 95% efficacy means that a vaccinated group suffers 1/20 the symptomatic Covid cases of an unvaccinated group. The above estimate suggests vaccinated 18-29yo are 1/50 as likely to die of Covid as unvaccinated 18-29yo.

We estimated above that 1 of the 132 breakthrough Covid deaths were 18-29yo (i.e. double the 0.46 deaths you would expect in that cohort if breakthrough Covid deaths have an age distribution similar to regular Covid deaths). Note that 55 vaccinated 18-29yo would have had to die of Covid in Jan-Apr 2021 to match the 2020 per-million-per-month Covid death rate of unvaccinated 18-29yo.

There are no data suggesting vaccinated 18-29yo are suffering excess non-Covid deaths compared to unvaccinated 18-29yo. If there were real data saying this, then vaccinations for this cohort would be stopped immediately. (The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused after 6.8M vaccinations because 6 women aged 18 to 48 developed blood clots, and one of them died.)

Of course, even 2.8 deaths per million per month is trivial. The primary rationale for vaccinating young adults is now de-emphasizing herd immunity, and emphasizing the suppression of variants (like the one now ravaging India):
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00728-2

FAQ on Covid vaccines for people younger than 18:
https://www.webmd.com/vaccines/covid-19-vaccine/news/20210329/faq-what-to-know-about-covid-19-vaccines-for-kids


Saturday, April 17, 2021

My Dead Man's Switch

If my wife and I both die at the same time, we need our estate's trustees to be able to take over our financial and electronic accounts. (Our trustees are a select few chosen from among our siblings, friends, and adult children.) But as trusted as our trustees are, we don't trust them to have access to all our accounts while we're both still alive. We don't want to store our account credentials in on-site storage that could be taken by an intruder or destroyed by a disaster.  And we don't want to store our account credentials in an off-site service that is inconvenient to update and that itself has to be trusted not to use our stored credentials. What to do?

Our solution is to encrypt our account credentials with a special password known to our trustees, and then arrange that our trustees only get the encrypted credentials if we're incapacitated. For this we use Dead Man's Switch. It allows us to schedule an email to our trustees, that will only be sent if I fail to visit that web site for N consecutive days. The free default is 2, but I bought a $50 life membership that lets me set it to any value. I chose 10. That's long enough to let me be distracted by a vacation or health problem, but short enough to get our trustees going quickly if we actually die.

My dead man's email says:

Subject: Is Brian incapacitated?

This email is automatically sent if Brian goes 10 days without visiting deadmansswitch.net. The encrypted information below gives you access to Brian's financial and online accounts. When decrypted it is a list of Brian's passwords. Decrypt it using the following steps. ....

The email then includes instructions how to use infoencrypt.com. An InfoEncrypt ciphertext is encrypted using standard AES-128, and if InfoEncrypt ceases to exist then the ciphertext can still be decrypted on other web sites.

So my passwords are never stored anywhere, except in encrypted form. And the trustee password is never written down anywhere. It's a special password I've told only to my trustees. (I occasionally check that they still remember it. So far, so good.)

An extra level of security would be to divide the password among multiple trustees, so that no single one of them could immediately take our accounts if the Dead Man's email somehow was sent prematurely. But even if that happened, we'd still want to change our most sensitive passwords, in case our trustees colluded. (I had to do this once, because I turned on the gmail feature of inbox "categories", and didn't see my Dead Man reminder emails in the gmail Updates folder. My trustees were shocked to get the scary email announcing my possible incapacitation!)

Dead Man's Switch is a nifty service. It should be combined with an encryption service like InfoEncrypt to make the above setup simpler and more secure. Even so, the existence of this setup means that certain movie script scenarios are now off the table for characters who can be expected to understand this straightforward technology. It's kind of like how so many old movie plots would no longer make sense in a world of cell phones and GPS and mobile internet and satellite emergency location beacons.

P.S. My backup to all this is Google Inactive Account Manager. If I don't access my Google account for 3 months, then my trustees get control of it -- including the file they need to decrypt to see my other passwords. Unfortunately, 3 months is the minimum timeout Google allows.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Taiwan Independence Is Not Worth A Cupertino

During the Cold War, it was fine for Taiwan to free-ride on America's anti-communist containment strategy, and to shelter under America's dominant nuclear umbrella. But the situation changed around the time the Cold War ended in 1989.

While communism as an ideology lost the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party studiously avoided the Soviets' fate. The CCP adopted just enough market freedoms to generate the easy catch-up prosperity needed to bribe its recently-starving citizenry into continued servility. But the CCP's legitimacy also leans heavily on the idea that the evil capitalists and oppressors who took refuge in Taiwan must never gain independence. The CCP's propaganda has convinced its 1.4 billion citizens that Taiwan independence is an intolerable affront to Chinese national identity. Of course, the real problem is that Taiwan is more than 3 times more prosperous than China, and enjoys vastly more political freedom. Together, these two undeniable facts are an existential threat to the ideological legitimacy of the CCP.  For at least thirty years, the CCP leadership has known that they are only one Beijing Spring away from spending the rest of their lives in jail (or worse).

So the CCP leadership is playing for keeps in aspiring to finally complete the conquest of Taiwan. The American guarantee of Taiwan's defense was arguably a good idea back when it had almost no marginal cost. But now, a credible defense of Taiwan would cost America more than Americans (or the people of Taiwan!) are willing to pay. Even worse, it runs a constant and growing background risk of a catastrophic war that would stretch from the Taiwan Strait to at least Guam, inland China, Japan, Wall Street, near-Earth orbit, and cyberspace.

And it could easily lead to nuclear war. If China set up a sea and air blockade of Taiwan, the U.S. would have to either back down, or challenge this act of war by eventually shooting its way through the blockade. Win or lose, the resulting conventional war would be a catastrophe for America's economy. But worse, the war would be an existential threat to the CCP leadership. Military defeat would not be acceptable when they have a nuclear arsenal just sitting there. So they likely would nuke some mainland American target, or at least threaten to.

Which one? It would be a target with high strategic or economic value relative to civilian casualties. So forget Washington D.C. or Manhattan or any major metropolitan downtown. A lower-yield nuke into Pearl Harbor would mostly spare Honolulu, but the Pacific Fleet's carriers would once again not be present, and the historical precedent is not a good one. Hollywood would be an interesting economic/cultural target, but the population density is high, and the headline would be "L.A. Nuked". A better target would be anywhere along the 13-mile line from Sand Hill Road to Santa Clara Stadium. That line is the backbone of Silicon Valley: venture capital, Stanford University, the Page Mill Rd. Stanford business park, the Google campus, and the remainders of the Valley's aerospace and semiconductor industry. That's where South Korea might aim a trans-Pacific nuke if it could. But China would instead be tempted to aim five miles south, and take out the Apple campus in Cupertino -- especially if they thought it would help them dominate the smartphone industry.

Whatever target they chose, America would be much more averse to this escalation than would the CCP. And so America should game this out, and cut its losses. There is no strategic hope for the 24M people of Taiwan to remain independent from those whose control of 1.4B Chinese depends on a commitment to ending that independence.

Taiwan has been a losing hand since the Berlin Wall fell and China's market economy rose. It's just an accident of geography that the CCP victory in 1949 was not total. When the freedom of Taiwan was relatively cheap to guarantee, it was worth guaranteeing. But it's not worth sacrificing a Cupertino.

This is not yet understood -- neither in official Washington nor in Taiwan itself. More than half of the people of Taiwan expect America to fight for their independence, but the people of Taiwan are unwilling to mount a credible deterrent.  So some U.S. president should say publicly what Trump said privately: "Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are 8,000 miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a f***ing thing we can do about it."


Monday, March 22, 2021

Oversupply Of Woke Journalism Considered Harmful For Woke Journalists

Freddie deBoer is a self-proclaimed Marxist with "a PhD in English from Purdue University, where [he] studied writing assessment" -- but he spells en masse as "in mass". Still, he understands enough economics to diagnose why an over-supply of woke journalism leads to sharply declining compensation for woke journalists:

A really important lesson to learn, in life, is this: your enemies are more honest about you than your friends ever will be. I’ve been telling the blue checks for over a decade that their industry was existentially fucked, that the all-advertising model was broken, that Google and Facebook would inevitably hoover up all the profit, that there are too many affluent kids fresh out of college just looking for a foothold in New York who’ll work for next to nothing and in doing so driving down the wages of everyone else. Trump is gone and the news business is cratering. 

Why have half a million people signed up as paying subscribers of various Substack newsletters, if the establishment media is providing the diversity of viewpoints that is an absolute market requirement in a country with a vast diversity of opinions?

Establishment media’s takeover by this strange brand of academic identity politics might grow even more powerful, if that’s even possible, but dissenters will find a place to sell alternative opinion; there’s a market. What there might not be much of a market for anymore is, well, you - college educated, urban, upwardly striving if not economically improving, woke, ironic, and selling that wokeness and that irony as your only product. Because you flooded the market. Everyone in your entire industry is selling the exact same thing, tired sarcastic jokes and bleating righteousness about injustices they don’t suffer under themselves, and it’s not good in basic economic terms if you’re selling the same thing as everyone else. You add that on to structural problems within your business model and your utter subservience to a Silicon Valley that increasingly hates you, well…. I get why you’re mad. 

In the span of a decade or so, essentially all professional media not explicitly branded as conservative has been taken over by a school of politics that emerged from humanities departments at elite universities and began colonizing the college educated through social media. Those politics are obscure, they are confusing, they are socially and culturally extreme, they are expressed in a bizarre vocabulary, they are deeply alienating to many, and they are very unpopular by any definition. The vast majority of the country is not woke, including the vast majority of women and people of color. How could it possibly be healthy for the entire media industry to be captured by any single niche political movement, let alone one that nobody likes? Why does no one in media seem willing to have an honest, uncomfortable conversation about the near-total takeover of their industry by a fringe ideology?

And the bizarre assumption of almost everyone in media seems to have been that they could adopt this brand of extreme niche politics, in mass [sic], as an industry, and treat those politics as a crusade that trumps every other journalistic value, with no professional or economic consequences. They seem to have thought that Americans were just going to swallow it; they seem to have thought they could paint most of the country as vicious bigots and that their audiences would just come along for the ride. They haven’t. In fact Republicans are making great hay of the collapse of the media into pure unapologetic advocacy journalism. Some people are turning to alternative media to find options that are neither reactionary ideologues or self-righteous woke yelling. Can you blame them? Substack didn’t create this dynamic, and neither did I. The exact same media people who are so angry about Substack did, when they abandoned any pretense to serving the entire country and decided that their only job was to advance a political cause that most ordinary people, of any gender or race, find alienating and wrong.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Gary Kremen For Tax Assessor

Gary Kremen has a background in private-sector innovation, and a track record in public office for challenging entrenched interests. One of California's entrenched interests is its over-reliance on income taxes, as opposed to land taxes -- which economics textbooks recognize as the least bad form of tax.

This scientific insight about optimal tax structure has no better living advocate than Santa Clara County's own Fred Foldvary, the economist who coined the term geolibertarian and who advocates so eloquently for a Green Tax Shift.

If California is ever to going to shift its tax structure to be more economically and environmentally sustainable, then we will need someone like Gary in place to make sure that the Tax Assessor's office can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century. That's why I support Gary Kremen for Santa Clara County Tax Assessor.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

RH Negativity Is Not Alien

There is an idea circulating on the internet that RH negativity is evidence of humans having been hybridized with aliens, either through breeding or genetic engineering. This idea misunderstands the science of RH negativity.

A good introduction is Why Rh Negative is not Blood of Gods or of Alien Origin. It says:

While the ABO classification is based on the two antigens A and B, the Rh group has 50 antigens! However, the main Rh classification is based on one single antigen of special importance, called the D antigen. So, if your blood has the Rh D antigen, then your blood group is Rh+, else it is Rh-. The reason for the importance of this antigen is that a mismatch in the D antigen can prove fatal during blood transfusion [...]

If the mother’s immune system has prior [exposure to the] Rh D antigen, either due to some previous blood transfusion of Rh+ blood, or if this is not the first pregnancy and the earlier pregnancies carried a Rh+ child, then the mother’s immune system is already aware of Rh D antigen and has antibodies against it ready, which can be of an immediate concern for the fetus health. [...]

Rh- indicates the absence of the Rh D antigen which otherwise is quite abundant in most (85%) humans. So what could be the contribution of alien blood here? Obviously, there is nothing alien here, because there is no alien genes present here, it's actually the “absence” of our own genes which produce the Rh D antigen in most humans.

The last sentence is wrong. Absence of an antigen can of course come from breeding, because that is how RH- people acquire it. RH negativity is recessive, so to be RH- you have to get from each of your parents a version of the RH blood group that omits the RH D gene. But the article goes on to correctly point out that a maternal immune reaction to the child does not suggest alien breeding:

We have seen newborns die because of this attack even in horses, cats and dogs! Read about Neonatal isoerythrolysis. [This happens] in all those species where the mother has a negative antigen blood group, and the fetus has a positive antigen blood group, and mother’s blood comes in contact with fetal blood. 

For that matter, [in humans] it is not only restricted to Rh D antigen either. It is also very much possible that mother whose blood group is O, gives birth to a child whose blood group is B, and if the mother’s blood comes in contact with fetal blood, then there will be antibodies against B produced by the mother’s blood! It's only that in this case it is not life threatening, while in the case of Rh D it can be life threatening to the baby.

The article then asks: why does the mother's immune system react so violently to RH D? It answers:

Some recent studies have indicated that Rh- people are resistant to some parasites like Toxoplasma. So it might have served an advantage [in European populations] NOT to have the Rh D antigen. 

One can find many such instances across human evolution. For example, humans who come from an ancestry which started domesticating cattle and consuming dairy products have digestive systems which generate an enzyme called lactase which helps in digesting [the lactose in] milk. However, a significant population of humans are lactose-intolerant, which means they cannot digest milk products. Does this mean lactose-intolerant population are from an alien ancestry? 

Some evolutionary gene modifications might prove fatal when expressed, but are nevertheless are useful while [recessed]. For instance, Sickle Cell anemia is a fatal disease where red blood cells [deform to sickle shape] causing life threatening complications. However, those humans who are only carriers of the [recessive] gene causing Sickle Cell Anemia are resistant to Malaria.

A 1997 article in Human Molecular Genetics traces the genetic family tree of the RH blood group: Evolution of the Human RH (Rhesus) Blood Group Genes: A 50 Year Old Prediction (Partially) Fulfilled. Using blood from different people possessing various haplotypes of the RH blood group, the authors sequenced the exact parts of chromosome 1 that control these antigens. 

The high degree of homology between the coding regions of the RHCE and RHD genes is consistent with an ancestral gene duplication. The ∼4% divergence over the coding region would suggest, assuming an average nucleotide substitution rate of 4 × 10−9 per nucleotide per year, that duplication occurred some 10 million years BP. This timing is consistent with the finding that the gorilla and chimpanzee are unique among the anthropoid apes in expressing homologues of both the human D and c antigens [...]

So any alien hybridization or genetic engineering had to happen 10 million years ago, and was performed on a common ancestor to humans, apes, and chimps. Those were very patient aliens!

Another article summarizes what is known about the origin of RH D:

The Rh blood group system consists of two genes RHD and RHCE on chromosome 1, positioned in opposite directions and separated by 31.8 kb, in which the TMEM50A gene (previously SMP1) is located. The RHD gene arose as a duplication of the RHCE gene in the common ancestors of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas [37]. Both genes have 10 exons and share an overall 93.8% gene sequence identity and 96.4% exon sequence identity [38,39]. The RHD gene is flanked by two 9 kb regions of 98.6% homology, the so-called Rh boxes. [...]

At present (December 2017), 54 antigens, 378 RHD alleles, and 116 RHCE alleles have been recognized in the Rh blood group system. The main mechanism responsible for the generation of hybrid RH genes is thought to be gene conversion, explained by the opposite orientation of the highly homologous RHD and RHCE genes. Multiple exons can be converted, but often microconversion events lead to single amino acid changes. 

So not only do we know that RH D arose 10M years ago, but we also know what kind of mutation caused it. And we know that it is just one of many mutations that have happened in the RHCE and RHD genes, yielding a myriad of human haplotypes besides the A/B/O/Rh-D combinations that we so often hear about. (See here for lists of the many blood group variants in gorillas, chimps, pygmy chimps, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, and a dozen monkey species.)

If the omission of RH D is alien handiwork, then it was disguised to look very much like all the other random small antigen mutations in these genes across all these primates. It just so happens that one of these 54 human antigens can sometimes have devastating maternal-fetal interactions, but has not been evolved out of our genome. Evolution is not perfect, but it's always trying to make us better -- and that means it sometimes makes us worse.

Summary: If something walks, swims, and quacks like a random 10Myr-old mutation, it's probably just that, and not alien breeding.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Aliens Are Implausibly Hominid

According to the theories most widely believed by UFOlogists, the aliens who have been visiting Earth are anatomically hominids. And that's a problem.

Consider what other taxa could have been Earth's first technological species if we primates hadn't won the race. We'll let the UFOlogists set aside the intelligent aquatic taxa like cetaceans and cephalopods, on the argument that you can't become technological without combustion or electricity. (Neither work very well underwater!) But the other runners-up are still a diverse lot:

  • Corvids (e.g. crows) are currently using their fingers for flying, but birds can do intricate work with their beaks.
  • Proboscids already have trunks that are arguably better than hands. If elephants had won, they would probably dismiss the idea of trunk-less primates ever developing technology using just their front feet.
  • Raccoons have evolutionary potential that is obvious to anyone who's tried to foil these backyard bandits.
  • Meerkats are another carnivore that are easy to image replacing humans if we go extinct.
  • Many rodent taxa like squirrels and rats have the dexterity and cleverness to be contenders.
  • Marsupials have demonstrated convergent evolution into many niches occupied by carnivores and rodents, making them potential contenders too.
But the marsupial case also raises the only* question that could rescue the Greys from being just an obvious and unimaginative creation of our hominid minds. That question is: could the Greys be an example of convergent evolution with our body plan -- the only body plan that we know has created technology?
Some of the Grey body plan seems non-negotiable. You want binocular vision for depth perception (but it might be nice to have extra eyes for rear-view coverage).  Binaural hearing is another minimal requirement. (Note that having only two ears means you can locate a sound source only on the surface of a cone until you turn our head. Ideally you'd have at least one more ear to get instant triangulation, but that's a hard ask with bilateral symmetry.) You want at least one olfactory orifice, but again having more than one would let you detect gradients.
You'll want all these sensors on a movable platform, that can be aimed without repositioning your body. And you'll probably want your brain inside that platform, to minimize sensor lag due to signal speeds that are chemical instead of electromagnetic. So your eyes and ears and nostril(s) will be on a neck-mounted head.
You'll want at least two legs for locomotion, but four is a lot better. (Again, three is a hard ask.) You'll need at least one strong joint per leg. (Having a second joint as weak as the human calf/ankle is pretty sad. We've given up a lot of our leg capabilities just to make it easier to balance on our two hind legs. Standing would be trivial if we were hexapods instead of tetrapods.) Whether that primary joint ("knee") bends forward or backward is arbitrary, as long as it bends opposite of any secondary joint ("ankle"). The legs can attach in various ways.
You'll need at least one grasping appendage, but two are better. You'll need at least two opposable grasping digits, but four would be better. Note that five digits is more than necessary. Our pinky fingers and toes are an embarrassing vestige from our original tetrapod ancestor. Many animals have stopped using at least one of their five digits. And any software engineer can tell you how much better it would be for humans to use base-8 instead of base-10.
There's no hard requirement for the mouth and jaws to be located on the precious head. Jaws can do double-duty as graspers, but any octopus or elephant or crab would tell you you're crazy to use your face to grab your food. Even if you do put your mouth on your head, there's no requirement to mount it on the bottom of a flat snout-less face.
You'll want a skeleton in order to operate outside of water, and your choices are internal or external. Exoskeletons have been very successful on Earth, and are great for defense and harsh environments. However, they don't scale well to large sizes, they limit your respiratory capacity, and they are expensive to upgrade as you grow into adulthood. Endoskeletons seem better (to us!), but it's not a slam dunk.
The alien species most widely attested by UFOlogy theories is the Greys.  Let's list all the similarities between Greys and hominids that are hard to explain as convergent evolution:
  • Pentadactyly. It's very unlikely that Grey evolution would repeat our mistake of having too many digits, and never deprecate at least one of them (as done by so many of Earth's tetrapods).
  • Hominid-style hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, and wrists. The hominid joint plan is not required for intelligence, and other joint plans would work equally well.
  • Bipedality. This is natural for us tetrapods, but having four limbs seems inferior to having six or eight. Primitive chordates were segmented, and having exactly four limbs was not the only option.
  • Mouth placement. The Greys' flat snout-less face is not just suspiciously primate or hominid. It's downright human. Across the scores of primate species, face flatness does not correlate well with intelligence, so it's hard to argue that Greys lack a snout for the same reasons that Homo lost theirs.
These unjustifiable similarities make one suspect that Greys' anatomy (sorry) is not due to evolution but rather is a just-so story. You start with the current H. sapiens body plan.  You finish losing the hair. You finish losing the hominid snout. You keep growing the brain, because aliens are nerds. And you shrink and de-muscle the body, again because nerds. Instead of worrying about alien skulls birthing through alien hips, you de-sex the aliens. (Nerds!) OK, UFOlogists presumably claim that Grey reproduction involves eggs or labs, but you see how the Grey design is pretty on-the-nose for H. sapiens version one jillion.

*There is one other question that could justify Grey similarity to hominids: are they time-traveling future humans? That would explain the amateurish choices of whoever designed Greys. And it would even kinda sorta explain the sillier theories about breeding with current humans. But it raises even thornier questions: Why have future humans changed so much from our current design? It presumably would take many thousands (millions?) of years for humans to find the Grey form preferable. Does it really take us that long to master time travel? Would we really end up looking like that, as opposed to some kind of upload/android/cyborg scenario? And if Greys are time travelers, why are they so haphazard, hesitant, and incompetent in how they interact with us? Why do they think they need to intervene in human history at all? Are they Marty McFly, trying to keep their mom's picture from fading? Just how silly can this story get?

Are there any other options on the table besides convergent evolution and time travel? You could argue for artificial convergence: the aliens have been visiting Earth for at least a million years, directing primate evolution toward our current state. But it's not plausible that the aliens would do it so slowly, in a way that looks exactly like natural selection.

As always, the problems with alien theories are: they are full of unwieldy epicycles that create more problems then they solve; they seem amateurishly fabricated; and they fall apart under scientifically-informed scrutiny.

Update 2021-03-17: When a skeptic considered this question for "Scientific" American in 2009, he completely ignored convergent evolution.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Spot The Aliens

 Quick, spot all the species below that did NOT evolve on Earth:

     
  
 



Can our UFOlogists please try to put a little more imagination into their alien designs?

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Hellyer Reports On The Galactic Federation

I'm researching the alleged and expected impact of aliens on human science and technology. New York Magazine cited Paul Hellyer as an author claiming there has been such impact. Hellyer was Canada's Minister of Defense in the mid-1960s, but apparently that did not get him read into the secrets about alien contact with Earth. He did not learn about it until 2005, when he read The Day After Roswell -- as he says 14m into this YouTube interview. There he also says:

  • 20m An unnamed general told him there have been face-to-face meetings between government officials and aliens.
  • 22m The most convincing book on UFOs is "Undisclosed" (he means Unacknowledged) by Steven Greer. [Film version debunked.]
  • 24m The most convincing UFO sighting is 1980 Rendlesham Forest. [Debunked.]
  • 28m A military witness saw an alien who had been shot for landing on a base without authority.
  • 31m Bilderbergers control the mainstream English media, and "pay big-time" to suppress UFOs.
  • 33m After a 1963 UFO "armada" over Europe, a 3-year NATO study that concluded that 4 alien species have been visiting Earth for thousands of years. [NATO response.]
  • 34m The Bush administration had weeks of foreknowledge of 9/11. [My 9/11 posts.]
  • 41m The Cabal controls media coverage of UFOs.
  • 44m Aliens have for thousands of years been interested in Earth resources e.g. gold.
  • 45m Aliens are concerned about Earth nuclear weapons because "the wavelengths that are set off by an atomic weapon just keep going right out into the cosmos and consequently are of real and direct interest to other sentient beings all over the cosmos".
  • 47m Post-WW2 Nazi scientists worked on "missiles, atomic weapons, and anti-gravity machines like flying saucers, and became a very import part of the Cabal" and are responsible for the government policy of perpetual war.
  • 59m The Cabal is ready for a false flag allowing them to finish world conquest: "a fleet of airships capable of going around the world and attacking cities just as if they were coming from outside the Earth, with the end of the taking over the world".
  • 60m The U.S. signed agreements with 2 alien species allowing abductions in exchanges for alien technology, but the aliens didn't hand over abductee lists as agreed.
  • 61m The U.S. created alien clones to conduct false-flag abductions by the government's fake aliens.
  • 62m Aliens could have taken over Earth at any time.
  • 64m Humans were created to love each other and take care of each other. Our species is an experiment.
  • 65m Eisenhower turned down an alien offer of peace and prosperity.
  • 68m The alien "galactic federation" is worried about Earth, but won't interfere.
  • 68m Hellyer has a close friend who receives mental communications from an alien species called "Positas" [spelling from YouTube auto subtitles].
  • 69m Aliens say: Earth is one of the best planets in the universe.
  • 70m Aliens say: stop using clear-cutting, fracking, and fossil fuels. Use zero-point energy instead.
  • 75m Upon hearing that someone named Joe Rogan criticized him, Hellyer said this Rogan must be part of the Cabal's disinformation plan, and perhaps is paid for it.
Lots of juicy stuff here, but alas, no interesting claims about alien influence on science and technology. The search for such influence continues.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Paranormality Flees Our Sensors

The brilliant XKCD called it in 2013. But this percentage graph underplays the story. Try this:
Note that the red scale on the right is 10X the scale on the left.  So really that graph looks like this:
And even that vastly underestimates the deployed imaging capacity, because smartphone pixel counts increased 10X in just the ten years after the iPhone launched:
And all the above is only about smartphones. It doesn't even consider security cams, traffic cams, weather cams, doorbell cams, dash cams, helmet cams, and trail cams. (Only the latter 3 cam types apply to Sasquatch, but all except trail cams apply to UFOs.) Such cams have also exploded in the last twenty years. And unlike smartphones, they patiently record without human intervention. I couldn't find data for deployment of such cams, but we can safely assume it's up at least 100X since 2000. 
Nor do I have data about the vast increase in military imaging capacity, which gave us the three (quite debunkable) Navy UFO videos. We'll ignore this category, since believers would claim that the military suppresses such imagery anyway.
[2021-06-13: A commenter points out: "The amount of SAR radars, satellite imagery, IR satellites observing earth and atmosphere has exploded. Sonic booms can be detected using seismic devices. L-band SAR can detect ionospheric fluctuation in resolutions of hundreds of meters to a couple of kilometers. All-sky imaging of meteor trails can be made using long wavelength arrays on earth detecting almost 10,000 trails per hour. Even grain of sand sized meteor leaves a shockwave."]
The above analysis yields a 20-year increase in deployed imaging capacity of at least 10,000X. So if UFOs are real, we should have expected to see a 10,000X improvement in the combined quantity and quality of UFO imagery. 
So where is it?

When Iran shot down its own airliner, it was caught on both security cam and dash cam. When Sully landed in the Hudson, two security cams caught it. "Caught on camera" is a genre you could watch 24/7 now, but it didn't really exist 20 years ago. If you search YouTube for "top meteor videos", they are amazing -- and mostly from the last decade, and mostly from dashcams and security cams. 
But search for "top UFO videos", and you will be very disappointed. I find no data on counts of UFO imagery, so a good proxy should be UFO witness reports. They increased a meager 3X since 2000 while deployed camera count increased by 100X in smartphones alone.

I also lack data for Sasquatch image counts, but squatchers have an extra problem: drone-mounted FLIR rigs are now quite affordable, and they can easily pick out warm-blooded megafauna in a forest at night. Sasquatch should now be as easy to find as these two deer:

Is it really a coincidence that paranormal phenomena retreat exactly to the blurry edge of humanity's sensor grid, even as that grid suddenly expands its capacity by a factor of thousands in just a couple decades? Either UFOs and Sasquatches are somehow clever and motivated enough to dynamically fine-tune how much ankle they show us, or maybe they are just part of the noise that is inevitable at the periphery of our sensor capacity.
Or maybe Mitch Hedberg is right: Bigfoot and UFOs are blurry in real life, and all the "blurry" pictures of them are as clear as such pictures could possibly be. So we will never ever see a picture like this:

Or, we could get such a picture tomorrow, and I will switch teams. Is there anything that could happen tomorrow to make a UFO or Sasquatch believer switch teams?

2021-06-13: Mick West wrote about this subject in 2019: the "Low Information Zone".

Paranormal Claims Need Quality Not Quantity

There is an endless quantity of eyewitness reports for UFOs, alien abductions, Sasquatch, Loch Ness monster, Lake Champlain monster, chupacabra, ghosts, faith healings, miracles, blessed virgin sightings, ESP, demonic possession, exorcism, stigmata, precognition, clairvoyance, chakras, Tarot, homeopathy, haunted houses, auras, karma, dowsing, palm reading, witchcraft, afterlife previews, reincarnation, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, faeries, energy healing, remote viewing, magic, voodoo, etc. 

For none of these phenomena will I be tipped from skepticism to belief just by adding to the existing pile of normal-quality eyewitness reports.

Take UFOs. We all agree that alien craft are not the only thing that can generate eyewitness reports of alien craft. We all agree they can sometimes be generated by: aircraft, rockets, satellites, drones, balloons, kites, flares, birds, insects, planets, moonlight, meteors, clouds, fog, ice crystals, fallstreak holes, sun dogs, crown flashes, contrails, lights, lighthouses, fires, smoke, reflections, inversions, mirages, St. Elmo's fire, auroras, autokinesis, eye spots, dreams, hallucinations, delusions, hysteria, and hoaxes. So adding more average-quality eyewitness UFO reports to the pile does not significantly increase the likelihood that some of the reports are really alien craft. 

What matters is the quality of the best, not the quantity of the rest. 

And so far, the best are not very compelling.

There are surely more reports of divine intervention -- miracles, answered prayers, healings, blessings, etc. -- than of UFOs. But if reports of everyday divine intervention spike, I don't think that the likelihood of gods has increased. Indeed at some point, the quantity becomes evidence against the quality. If the quantity of normal reports of UFOs doubles, but the quality of the best reports (e.g. with imagery) doesn't increase at all, then that strongly suggests that the extra reports are from the many known spurious channels listed above.

If you evaluate paranormal phenomena using the quality of reports instead of the quantity, then each day you face a massive risk of your disbelief being disproven. Each day, a report could arrive with 100 credible witnesses who all video-recorded the same paranormal phenomenon in broad daylight up close on their megapixel smartphones. As a skeptic, you're high up on a tightrope with no net.

But if you instead set your beliefs by the quantity of reports, and assume that some small irreducible fraction is likely to be true, then you're at no risk of ever having to change your mind. What morning headline could possibly do it? It would have to be something like: 

Project Blue Book Revealed As Massive Hoax
Prankster Group Releases Cache Of 12,618 Affidavits
Every UFO Report Was Part Of Multi-Decade Prank

When a belief is based on quantity over quality, it is pretty much unfalsifiable. There is nothing that can significantly shrink the pile of half-baked evidence after the pile's size has convinced the believer. Their belief is debunk-proof because it is evidence-proof -- i.e. safe from contradiction by any possible new evidence.

This is because the quantity method seems to work in only one direction. It doesn't matter how big is the associated pile of debunked reports. It doesn't even matter if a random sample of the primary reports are 100% debunkable. All that matters is that the haystack of reports is assumed to contain undebunkable needles, no matter that those needles are never found.

Note also that every paranormal phenomenon listed above is in principle verifiable through a repeatable lab or field experiment. But there is always some excuse why the phenomenon has never held still long enough for such experiments. So these theories wear the emperor's new clothes of someday-maybe verifiability, because we can all imagine an experiment that would verify them. But the emperor is naked, because there is always an excuse why the experiments don't work, and there is no schedule for when the theory could ever be falsified.

(Some scientific theories are not yet testable because the experiment can't be run yet. Examples are Einstein's General Relativity before the 1919 eclipse, or the Higgs particle before the Large Hadron Collider had generated enough data. But what is the schedule for testing UFO theories? On what date will we be able to say that the UFO hypothesis has failed?)

Nobody is immune from confirmation bias. Every truth-seeker is personally invested in their current worldview. Complaining about another truth-seeker's motives or practices may feel good and may even be valid, but it's pointless if they can reverse the complaint back at the complainer.

However, the complaint of unfalsifiability is not reversible. We skeptics of the two dozen paranormal phenomena listed above could be proved wrong on any of them tomorrow morning. Like this:

Flying Saucer Filmed Hovering Low Over Central Park
Dozens Of Daytime 4K Videos Confirm Beyond-Human Technology
Silent Craft Disappears Through Apparent Wormhole

What headline could announce that UFO believers have been proved wrong? That's about as imaginable as a headline saying that some gods had been proven not to exist. So how is UFO belief different from a religion?

Bob Lazar's 2011 Nobel Prize

UFO whistleblower Bob Lazar's claims about science make some basic mistakes. They were spotted by physicist David Morgan as early as 1996, showing that Lazar doesn't seem to understand:

  • the omni-directionality and mass-energy requirements of wormholes.
  • the fundamental differences between gravity and the strong nuclear force.
  • that gravity is a field and will have to be quantized, using something like the graviton.
  • that a spin-2 boson like the graviton can only be attractive, not repulsive.
  • that the abundance of heavy elements beyond Polonium (element 84) depends on past supernovae in the galactic neighborhood, and not on the nature of subsequent star systems.
  • the basics of charge and energy conservation in the creation of antimatter.
That is, Lazar seems to lack a basic grasp of how his claims contradict the vast majority of modern cosmology and especially quantum theory. The latter is famously one of the best-confirmed theories in all of science. 
Now, it could be that the vast majority of modern cosmology and quantum theory is fundamentally wrong, but that's not how paradigm shifts have been working over the last century or more. When Special Relativity and General Relativity and quantum mechanics replaced earlier theories, they still agreed with the previous theories in normal domains, and the differential predictions only happened in domains of the very small/brief or large/eternal. 
Lazar is talking about divergence in a domain scale of a basketball-sized device that he could turn on and off as it sat on his laboratory bench. That is not the scale at which to expect a paradigm shift. In over 30 years, Lazar still hasn't done his homework in demonstrating a grasp of the scientific theories he claims that he saw invalidated on a lab bench. It's the most important development in the history of science and technology, and Lazar just wants to be left alone to run his mail-order chemistry-set supply business. Yes, he claims that he shuns publicity and doesn't care if anyone believes him, but that's also a great way to avoid serious cross-examination.
In one sense I feel bad for Lazar, because when he came out in 1989 he was only one lucky guess away from looking like a genius. Here's how. It was well-known then that Einstein called his Cosmological Constant the biggest mistake of his career. Einstein's constant represented a hypothesized repulsive force, that Einstein abandoned after the 1929 discovery of the Big Bang expansion of the universe. Lazar in 1989 could have just said that UFOs use a mysterious form of anti-gravity similar to that implied by Einstein's Cosmological Constant. Lazar could then claim to have anticipated the greatest scientific breakthrough of our lifetime: the 1998 discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.
But instead, poor Bob built his UFO propulsion idea on regular old-fashioned antimatter and black holes, and his energy budgets don't add up at all. 1998-style dark energy is still poorly understood. Its ideas of negative pressure probably apply only to the universe as a whole, and not to tiny items like spaceships. But if Bob had just mumbled about the Cosmological Constant instead of mumbling about antimatter and element 115 and wormholes, he'd arguably deserve at least a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, which was awarded to the team that made the 1998 discovery.
More red flags show up in Lazar's 2019 interview with Joe Rogan. Not only does nobody on the show know enough science to raise any of physicist Morgan's 25-year-old objections above. In addition:

  • Lazar just sits by and lets Rogan and his hagiographer Corbell act as though the 2016 detection of gravity waves was some big confirmation of a daring Lazar prediction. Lazar surely knows that gravity waves have been predicted as far back as Einstein.
  • Ditto for the first synthesis in 2003 of element 115, which Lazar sits by as Rogan googles it. Tom Mahood explainsI have a 1969 article from Scientific American with a cool 3D graph showing an “island of stability” around 114. This was also repeated in my undergrad physics textbook. But maybe most interesting is an article (“Creating Superheavy Elements” by Armbruster and Munzenberg) published in Scientific American again talking about a potential island of stability around 114. The article’s date? May 1989, the same month Lazar began his interviews with KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
  • Lazar at 1h51m subscribes to the idea of Project Looking Glass. In UFOlogy, this is an alien device that uses time-travel technology to allow its government operators to look forward into alternate futures. Mentioning Looking Glass further undercuts Lazar's credibility, as it exponentially expands the amount of apparent government failure to leverage its alien technology. (And it would be weak soup to make the Panglossian claim that our current timeline is the least bad option available to the wielders of Looking Glass.)
Lazar is not a dumb guy. He doesn't need Looking Glass to know what kind of forums and audiences he should avoid in order to face only friendly and scientifically-illiterate questioning. There are lots of skeptical critiques about Lazar's missing educational records, criminal conviction, etc. Those are weak soup too. 
A case like Lazar's is only really interesting insofar as it can be tested in two important ways. First, it should yield predictive claims about when or whether science will catch up with Lazar's theories. Second, it should yield claims about how the government's possession of alien science and technology should have influenced the last half-century.
This article argues that Lazar's story is weak regarding (1). I'm writing a longer analysis regarding (2) that lists the many ways that alien science and tech could have influenced the last half-century, but hasn't.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Subconscious Mammalian Thermal Footprint Memory

When I return to a spot that I had recently occupied (on a chair, bed, etc.) I don't particularly notice that it's still warm. But if I settle onto a spot that is warm from some other mammal recently recently being there, it's keenly apparent. (The most palpable version of this is when you sit on recently-occupied toilet seat.)

I bet that humans have a subconscious memory of where they have recently left thermal footprints. So we subconsciously discount our own warm spots as uninteresting, but it bubbles up to our consciousness when our backside detects a potential interloper.

A redditor opines that it's because when you're sitting in your own spot you're in thermal equilibrium. But that doesn't explain the differential between self vs. other, because the feeling is quite different if the person who left the seat two minutes earlier was you vs. not you.

I noticed it again this morning when my dog and I both got up from bed at the same time. He'd been laying near my feet on top of my thick comforter. When I returned to bed after a few minutes, the spot recently warmed directly by a 230lb mammal felt unremarkable. But the spot recently warmed through a comforter by a 35lb mammal felt very warm.

Do other people notice this, or am I a mutant? My family thinks I'm crazy for "smelling" food after I remove it from the microwave, but I explain to them that my snout is a very sensitive heat detector, allowing me to check my food without burning a finger. And when raising three daughters I found that I could measure forehead temperature with my hand to ±1°F. 

My other superpower is recognizing voices, especially celebrity voiceovers. I'm constantly amazed that people watching a show with me don't immediately recognize many of the voices like I do. Alas, none of these superpowers are very good for crime-fighting...

Friday, March 05, 2021

Fairly Dividing Cake or Chores

There are entire books on the topic of fair cake-cutting.  "Fair cake-cutting is the subject of intense research in mathematics, computer science, economics and political science." As a parent of three self-interested daughters, I'm very interested in this topic!

But I'm not interested in procedures that re-divide shares. A cake should have N contiguous shares, period. Don't ruin the cake.

And I'm not interested in procedures with a moving knife. Nice theory, but players will argue about where and when the knife stopped. (And a moving knife doesn't work on chores, which are somewhat discrete rather than continuous.)

And I'm not interested in envy-free. Players gonna envy. I just want no complaints of favoritism or collusion or election-rigging.

And I don't want a referee. If we can appeal to a fair authority, there is no need for a procedure!

And I want to minimize randomness. Players have their own utility functions, and that's what creates gains from trade.

I've come up with a procedure that I think is better by the above criteria than anything I could find during a hasty scan of the existing scientific literature. The best procedure I could find is this one by Dan Hulme in 2014. But his technique leads to unfairness complaints, as your position in the circle can totally exclude you from the best shares.

The 2nd-best procedure I found is Who Shall Have This. It's inferior to mine because shares are assigned randomly, leaving no room to exploit heterogenous preferences about the shares.