I find myself feeling a bit frustrated and depressed that I’ve been a poor ambassador for skepticism. I just got back from a visit with a family member, during which we had a long discussion/argument that ranged from whether or not supposedly fact-based channels like the History Channel are too credulous in their presentation of such topics as “Ancient Aliens” (the idea that aliens helped ancient peoples build the pyramids and other structures), to the appropriate explanation of the “meow ghost”, a phenomenon my relative experienced on three separate occasions several months ago.

My first mistake was saying, when presented with a choice of tv shows, that I didn’t think I’d be able to watch the History Channel one because it would make me too upset. While I maintain that I was justified in this presupposition (I know from previous experience as well as plenty of comments in a number of skeptical blogs and podcasts that these shows often present the paranormal explanation with very little skeptical opposition and a lot of selective editing), my relative was quite right to call me on it. I had been expounding for several minutes on how credulous I expected the show to be, when she pointed out that maybe I should watch it first. Now, there are times when it doesn’t make sense to try it first (homeopathy to cure cancer, any number of wonder drugs, etc.) but in this case I would have made my case better if I had started on a more positive note. Continue Reading »

Strange Loops

Today’s XKCD is mildly amusing in my opinion, but the tooltip text had me laughing uproariously:


If you actually do this, what really happens is Douglas Hofstadter appears and talks to you for eight hours about strange loops.

Speaking of Douglas Hofstadter, a thought occurred to me the other day regarding self-reference: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an I.

And yeah, I know, I haven’t posted in a long while. I’ll get back to it, I promise! I’m working on a few long-winded posts at the moment, but in the meantime I’ll make sure to do some shorter ones as well.

Random Quote of the Day

A perfectly legitimate and reasonable series of events led to the following being uttered:

“If this works, we won’t have to keep using the bottle of fish-oil tablets to keep the phone charged.”

Skeptic’s Circle!

Yay, my first entry in a blog carnival! Bing McGhandi of Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes has included my bus post in the latest Skeptic’s Circle. As always, there are a lot of great entries, so go check them out!

Trying to catch a bus

It’s been an interesting few days, after that big ice storm. A lot of people around here have no power, but I’ve been lucky–I live in downtown Albany and haven’t had a problem.

A nice thing happened to me yesterday, though. I decided to go to the local yarn store to pick up some yarn for a project. This place is not easy for me to get to, since I don’t have a car: I have to take the bus partway, but then walk along a road through a wooded area for about a mile. This is a very nice walk in summer and fall, but this time it was especially beautiful, with the trees covered in ice and the sky a perfect clear blue. I made it to the store, made my purchase, stayed around and absorbed the warmth for a little bit, then headed back. By this time the sun was getting low and all the trees glowed with orange light–amazing.

I got back to the main road, at a point that was right in between two bus stops; I looked to my left and saw that the bus was already at the earlier one. I would have to run to have any chance of getting to the next stop before the bus did, but the sidewalk was covered in ice, with only some tire tracks to give me some traction. I knew the next bus wouldn’t come for about half an hour and I had already been out in the cold for a while, so I decided to run as safely as possible. This meant taking short, fast strides and stepping down, not forward, choosing the roughest parts of the ice to step on. I probably wasn’t going much faster than I would by walking, and I risked a glance backward. The bus was still at the previous stop, to my surprise.

I know from experience that these drivers will not stop for a passenger anywhere but at the actual bus stop. I have run for the bus at times, waving my arms madly and getting there just as the bus was pulling away, and they won’t stop. I can understand this–they have a schedule to maintain, and if they have to keep stopping and starting every time they see someone running, they’ll never make it. It’s my responsibility to get to there on time, or accept that I’ve missed it and wait for the next one.

In this situation, I knew there was a very small chance I would make it to the stop before the bus did, and I was resigning myself to the fact that I would have to wait. I was still a good 20 feet away when I heard a roar behind me and looked up to see the bus going past, and I flailed my arms wildly in a last desperate attempt to flag it down, knowing that it wouldn’t stop for me.

But it did.

I made my way over to the bus and got on, panting, fumbling to pay my fare as my glasses fogged over in the heat. I thanked the driver profusely for stopping for me, and he laughed and said, “I saw you running.” And I sat down, caught my breath, and warmed up in the heat of the bus.

Now this seems like a pretty insignificant event. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if the bus hadn’t stopped and I’d had to wait a while as I was expecting to do anyway. But it was something nice the driver had done for me, seeing me running and stopping to let me on when he didn’t have to. It saved me a half-hour in the cold and made all the running on ice worth it. It made my day, and I told the driver so.

And as usual, this whole event got me thinking. Even while I was running for the bus stop, and turned to see the bus still behind me, it occurred to me that, if I were religious, I might be inclined to attribute this to God. The fact that the bus took a little longer than normal at the previous stop was a lucky coincidence for me, as was the fact that the bus was there at all (I hadn’t looked at the schedule and had no idea when the next bus would come). Some people would be inclined to say “Thank God!” for that. The fact that the driver was paying attention, realized I was running for the bus, and decided to wait for me was even more fortunate, and some people would again say “Thank God he stopped!” But I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I don’t think God is the one who should be thanked here.

First of all, the fact that the bus was there when it was is pure chance, nothing else. If I had lingered a minute longer at the yarn store I wouldn’t even have seen it, and if I had left a little more quickly instead of joking with one of the other customers, I would have been at the stop before the bus came. In either case I wouldn’t even been be telling this story–it would have been a nonevent.

Second, the fact that the driver saw me and stopped is due entirely to his paying attention and being a nice guy. He’s the one who gets credit for that, not God or anybody else. I wrote down his driver number and will be contacting the CDTA to give them feedback, because I think a good turn should be rewarded. (By the way, it’s both amusing and a little sad that the CDTA website has a complaint form, but doesn’t seem to have any way to leave positive feedback.)

Lastly, I deserve a little credit here, too! I saw my situation, evaluated my options, and made the best effort I could to make the situation come out in my favor. That meant taking a risk, but a careful one (moving quickly on the ice), and in the end it was a good choice to make, since I wouldn’t have caught the bus at all otherwise.

When we recognize that we are the ones responsible for getting the results we want out of the situations in which we find ourselves, we benefit both ourselves and those around us. I think it’s important to acknowledge with clear thought the people and circumstances responsible for making things happen, both good and bad. Attributing them to a hypothetical invisible being in the sky, as some people do, deprives us of both the ability and the inclination to take responsibility for our choices. Maybe drawing a life lesson out of one little attempt to catch a bus is extrapolating too far, but I think it’s an important point and I don’t mind saying it whatever the inspiration.

A Thanksgiving Puzzle

Inspired by jd2718′s Thanksgiving Puzzles, here’s a Thanksgiving puzzle created by yours truly (though inspired by one I heard a while back):

It’s Thanksgiving Day and you’re hosting dinner for your large extended family of 30 people. In the interest of organization, you’ve created nametags for each person and placed them around the table. But when everybody goes to sit down at the table, there’s a problem: Great Aunt Ermintrude, who is 104, has already sat down. However, being a bit senile, she has forgotten her own name and just picked a seat at random! Not wanting to disturb her, everybody decides to just let her stay there. Each person, as he comes to the table, will sit at his own seat if it is available, but if it is not, he’ll just pick a seat at random from the ones that are left. You, being the host, are the last one to sit down. What is the probability that you’ll sit at your correct place?

[Note that there is a small possibility Great Aunt Ermintrude has sat at her own place after all.]

The holidays are coming…

…so if anybody just happened to be looking for a gift for me, this would be an awesome idea:

Don’t worry, the rant is coming soon.


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